August 28, 2009
Millions with hope, courage
Author will help launch Federation's annual campaign.
This year's Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver fundraising campaign kicks off with a lecture on the timely topic of Jewish Responses to Challenging Times, by author and educator Rabbi Bradley Artson.
"I think it helps people to know that there's an alternative to despair and that there is a way in which reminding them that they are part of a universal story and that the cosmos itself is in a constant state of becoming of which they can make a contribution is really energizing and reaffirming," Artson told the Independent in a phone interview.
"One of the things that is a benefit of studying history is that it's always been bleak," he explained. "You know, Rebbe Nachman said that the world is a very narrow bridge and that the key is to not fear, so I don't think we are in a bleak period as opposed to the golden age of the past. Nobody liked the prophets either, and what's a miracle – and where I see the hand of God – is that, despite their unpopularity in every age, it's the prophetic voice that shines when you look back."
Artson, who is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice-president of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where the Ziegler school is located, said he witnesses prophetic voices, "all over the place. I see them in the way millions of people are, even in difficult economic times, teaching their children good values and supporting Israel and rallying to Jewish survival and caring for the environment and fighting for justice. I think there are millions of little examples of hope and courage and I think the job of the Jewish community is to be one of its organized voices."
The author of more than 180 published articles and seven books, including Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: A Spiritual Resource for Mentoring and Leadership (2006) and Love Peace and Purse Peace: A Jewish Response to War and Nuclear Annihilation (1988), Artson also edits and contributes to Today's Torah, a weekly online Torah commentary. Yet the rabbi grew up as an atheist.
"My mother and sister are atheists, my step-father was an atheist; he's no longer alive. My father, I don't think was ever an atheist, but the tone of the household was one in which religion was looked down upon," said Artson.
"I met God the same semester that I met my wife," he continued. "Love was in the air. I was in college and I had a Christian roommate who was just a really sweet, noble, wonderful human being – he still is – and he got me thinking about religion. I knew I could never believe the Christian story, so I went to talk to the Hillel rabbi. He told me you can't think about this from a neutral perspective, you have to jump in as a believer and see if that works, so he got me to agree to go to synagogue services every Shabbat for two months and he gave me a book of Franz Rosenzweig, who was a German-Jewish philosopher, who also found his way back to Judaism, and I fell in love. I knew it was love because, as I mentioned, it was the same semester that I met Elana and it was the same feeling."
Everything about Judaism resonated with Artson.
"I loved the tradition's portrayal of God as passionate and caring and into relationship," he explained. "I loved the Jewish tradition's emphasis on ethics and on justice. I loved the music, I loved the poetry, I loved the value of learning and an open mind, I loved the history, I loved that our suffering made us more compassionate, and not less. I loved that we considered it our mission to be a voice for justice in the world, that our Jewish concern leads us to love all people and all creation, everything. I thought it was actually, in an age in which people are splintered, Judaism is a way to unify every aspect of your being."
In his writings, Artson has pointed to consumerism, "radical autonomy" (self-interest to the point of not caring for other people) and "ever-growing indifference" as main threats to the future of Judaism, and the future of society at large.
"There are really only two alternatives," he said. "You either view everything as a consumer transaction in which you ask yourself, 'What's in it for me?' or you see yourself as part of something bigger than you and you ask yourself, 'How can I help?' and there really isn't a middle ground."
He added, "I'm a big fan of human liberty and people making their own choices. I'm also aware of the human capacity for delusion and fear and paranoia and short-sightedness and there has to be a way of providing guidelines and values to help people make good choices and that, to me, is what the Torah is."
Artson himself has a credo by which he lives. It is, basically, that God is loving, compassionate, wise and passionate about justice; and the Torah and rabbinic tradition is the primary way for Jews to articulate a sense of God's will and to make that will tangible in our daily lives. He composed the credo in 1985.
"I was in rabbinical school and I was already feeling that the world and institutions would be pressuring me into blandness and that I needed a code to look at to remind myself of who I'm supposed to be," he explained. "So I just sat down – I was a rabbinical student at the time, I didn't get ordained till '88 – I sat down and I wrote myself, like what's the core? Who are you when you strip everything away and you're just really honest? What moves you in the world? And that's what came out."
He recommends to everyone the creation of a personal credo and advises: "don't plan to share it with anyone when you're writing it because, if you do, you'll automatically tweak it for them. So you have to say, 'I'm never going to show this to anyone, this is just for me, but I want to read it every day,' to remember this is who you're meant to be in the world. And there will be a lot of people who will try to stop you from being who you are, so I do, I've glued it inside my prayer book and every morning when I daven [pray], I read that credo to remember, here's what you need to be in the world."
Identity is a topic with which Artson often deals. Part of his Vancouver lecture will be about anti-Semitism and the Talmud's injunction to "be of the oppressed, not the oppressors." In one of his essays, Artson wrote, "'Be of the oppressed' is a call to identify with the Jewish people, throughout time and around the world, to embrace the good and acknowledge the bad. Such an act of identity – with the oppressed of other peoples, with our own history of anti-Semitism, suffering and resilience – is by no means easy. Nor is it simple. But it is the essential first step in building the solidarity that can confront and contain the hatred."
He expanded on these concepts with the Independent: "I think the Jewish tradition has two poles that it moves between and that threaten it. One is to assume that everyone hates us implacably and, therefore, what we need to do is circle the wagons and not take their concerns seriously. And the other danger is to assume everybody really loves us and the world is a big playground. Neither of which are true. There are bad people out there who mean to do us harm for reasons that I think our tradition would correctly label as evil, and it is also true that people can change and cultures can change. Judaism bids us walk a middle path between those two extremes in which we don't allow ourselves to be victimized, but the ways one can be victimized are to overcompensate and become callous and hard and indifferent or to be weak and be passive – neither of them are good choices."
About how to find this middle ground, Artson said, "I think some people will find it in synagogues and in synagogue-centric communities – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, what have you – and that's great. Our job should be to encourage all of those possibilities. [For] some people, liturgy and prayer are not going to the path through which they first open up and connect and, for them, we need to have to have other ways of expressing Jewish passion and commitment and learning and caring and doing. I don't think my job as a rabbi is to say to everybody, 'Here's the one-size-fits-all path and you need to get on it.' I think my job is to love people enough that I can help them find their Jewish path. And I think that's the role of Federation and I think that's the role of all good rabbis and educators and leaders."
The Federation campaign opening event featuring Rabbi Bradley Artson will be held at Congregation Schara Tzedeck on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 ($10 for students) and can be purchased by visiting jewishvancouver.com or by calling 604-638-7281.