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The Five Legged Table

Avraham InfeldFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

Avraham Infeld's vision for the Jewish People is to find a way to be unified without being uniform. Listen to this talk to hear his suggestion as to how we can achieve this vision by constructing a “five legged table”  which allows each person to choose at least three of the following legs to express their Jewish identity:  memory, family, covenant, Israel and Hebrew.

Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel – the Foundation for Jewish Campus life – has invested a lifetime building Jewish identity and strengthening the State of Israel. Avraham is the founder and director of a succession of innovative educational institutions. He today serves as a consultant on Tikkun Olam to the Reut Institute, is a member of the faculty at the Mandel Institute, and expresses his love for the Limmud enterprise, by serving as a roving ambassador for Limmud International. In May, 2012, Avraham was elected Chairman of the Board of the Hillels of Israel.

A native of South Africa, Avraham immigrated to Israel in 1959. He is married to Ellen Cohen Infeld, originally from Woodbridge, N.J., and they share four children and 15 grandchildren. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Bible and Jewish History, and of Tel Aviv University’s Law School. In 2005, he was awarded the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s prestigious Samuel Rothberg Prize for Jewish Education, the first specialist in informal Jewish Education to be so honored. He was given an honorary doctorate by Muhlenberg College in May 2006, for his contribution to the field of education.

I love E.T. Do any of you remember that film? That little wonderful something from out of space, who comes to earth, and after everything he sees, he phones home and reports. I have been obsessed with the idea, what is it that E.T reports on after meeting Jews? Who are they? What are they? Why are they so different? How can they all be one and yet be so different? I’ve been bothered by that, because in all of these various positions that Shoshana referred to, the lack of uniformity of the Jewish people from day to day becomes more and more evident. The Jews are no longer uniform. We were never uniform about how to Jew, but we were always uniform, until the emancipation, about what it meant to be a Jew. That does not exist today. And I am bothered by the question, is it possible to be unified without being uniform?

I have searched for a way to contend with that question. I would like to share with you what I have developed and has become known as the Theory of the Five-Legged Table. Why a Five-Legged table? Because a table with five legs is very sturdy, it is very strong. If all Jews were to fulfil in their lives all five legs that I’m going to talk about, we would be very very strong. I have seen tables meant for five legs stand on four, I have seen them stand on three. On two, they tipple over, on one they are not even a table. So what am I? I am basically a Jewish carpenter. I travel the world meeting with Jews, trying to talk to Jews about the five legs on which I view being Jewish standing, and I try to encourage people to try to internalise in their lives at least three out of the five legs.

It usually begins with an hour and half lecture… Shoshana, 12 minutes. I want to talk to you about the five legs, but I do have to tell a story. I come from a long line of very very well-known physicists. My uncle was the creator of the sputnik, another one was the Head of Physics at Yale, and the day that I was born my late father knew that I am going to become the world’s greatest physicist – Einstein nothing, compared to my father’s dreams about me. So when I went to study at the Hebrew University I went to study physics. On first day of school I was sitting in the physics lab looking out of the window, and I saw this very gorgeous young lady walking towards the history department, so I graduated in history instead of in physics. She is now about to become the great-grandmother of my great-grandchild.

But I had to let my father know about this, so I write my father a letter and I tell my father, “Abba, I’ve decided not to study physics, I’m going to devote my life to the study of Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.” I get a reply from my father, not by email we didn’t have it then, I get this thing called a telex. I can see from the size of the letter that my father is furious. But he’d forgotten about me becoming a scientist, he was mad about the Hebrew University. He said, “What, the Hebrew University teaches Jewish history, are they out of their minds? There is no such thing as Jewish history. Jews don’t have history, Jews have memory.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Today, let me tell you my father was 100% right. Jews do not have history, that first leg of Jewish life, is a sense of memory.

On Passover night we say, “Hayav kol adam lirot et atsmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’mitzrayim”. Each person must see themself as if they personally came out of Egypt. The verb that appears in our tradition more than any other verb is the verb lizkor, zachor, zecher, zikaron, yizkor: remember, remember, remember. We carry it to a phenomenal extreme – a young couple fall in love, they decide to spend their lives together. They get under the bridle canopy, what do they do? They break a glass, why? in order to remember the destruction of Jerusalem. I have been in this world a long time, my friends, and I have never met a couple who spend their first night of marriage worrying about the destruction of Jerusalem. But you can’t begin anything Jewish, you can’t build anything Jewish, you can’t do anything Jewish without calling on memory, which is why the purpose of Jewish education, and the only purpose of Jewish education, is how you take the individual Jew, open his mind and help that person link their personal memory to the collective memory of the Jewish people. Memory.

Leg number two, whose memory? Who are we? Why am I here? Because Shoshana told me to be here. But really, why am I here? Most of you people I don’t know and I love you, maybe I love you because I don’t know you, I don’t know. But who are we?

I always tell the story of this well-known bank in New York called the Chase Manhattan bank, a successful bank although it’s not a Jewish bank. The Chase Manhattan bank has a slogan that every kid in New York knows: “you have a friend at Chase Manhattan.” Cost you a fortune, but you have a friend at Chase Manhattan. When Bank Discount of Israel opened up its first branch in New York, they looked for a slogan to attract customers, and they came out with an amazing slogan, that you heard every four hours on local television, every hour on local radio, and the slogan said, “you may have a friend at Chase Manhattan, but we are mishpocha!” And they hit the nail on the head, because that is the second leg of being Jewish. That understanding, that feeling, that warmth, that sympathy, that empathy, with an understanding that we are a family. That’s why we were called B’nei Yisrael – not Jews, not Hebrews, but the children of Israel.

Leg number three: if memory is to be important to this family, we have to remember that our earliest memory is not that the Jews left Egypt and suddenly appeared in Israel. They stopped somewhere on the way. They stopped at a place called Mount Sinai. And something happened at Mount Sinai, however you interpret Mount Sinai you can’t ignore Mount Sinai. Because Mount Sinai is the place in which we printed our visiting card, we described to the world who we are, we determined for ourselves how we will be behave, of what’s important to us, what are the values that will guide us, how will we, in our own distinctive manner, apply to this family and its memory a world of values and a relationship with the Almighty.

And leg number four – there’s a 4a and a 4b – the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. They are not the same thing. As you can tell from my accent, I was born in South Africa. South Africa is not only another continent, another country, it’s a different hemisphere. When you have summer, they have winter, when you have spring, they have fall. But the amazing thing is that Jews in South Africa start to pray for rain on the last day of Succot. It’s the middle of October, I don’t know anybody in South Africa who wants rain in October, it’s the wrong time of the year. And I used to, growing up, used to get very nervous, what would happen if God for a change answered a prayer? I didn’t always look like this, I used to be a sportsman, I used to play rugby. I wanted to go and play and my friends are praying for rain. I went to my father I said, “Abba, why are the praying for rain now?” My father looks at me, he says to me, “Avraham, our rain doesn’t fall in South Africa, our rain falls in Eretz Yisrael.” Now you try to grow up normal with an answer like that, there’s no possible way.

But the Land of Israel, all of the Land of Israel, irrespective of who ruled it or who will rule a part of it, all of the Land of Israel is the warehouse of Jewish memory. And 4b, my friends, is the State of Israel. If anybody in this room has a reason not to like the State of Israel it’s me. I live there, I have to live with those drivers, I live with that government. I love the State of Israel. In my own time, in my own childhood, the noun that went along with the adjective more than any other noun was the noun ‘refugee’, Jewish refugee, Jewish refugee. Today there is no such animal in the world as a Jewish refugee, for one reason only, there is a State of Israel and that is why Israel cannot only be of importance to the Israeli, but is a basic leg of being Jewish for all Jews around the world.

And I would like to end with leg number five. I don’t know how many of you have ever been to a place called Omaha, Nebraska. I never knew that there was a state in America called Nebraska. I never knew there was a city named after my grandmother, Omaha. But I get invited to lecture in Omaha, Nebraska. I arrive on a Sunday morning, they say to me that my lecture is in the evening, would I like to visit their Sunday School. I go to the Sunday School, I walk into a classroom, I see a teacher surrounded by a group of 20 or 25 11 year old kids, and she is trying to teach them how to read a language they don’t understand. Do you know what I’m talking about? I looked at the faces of these kids, I saw the suffering of my people! I say to the teacher, “why are you doing this?” She says to me, “I’ve only got a year or two to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah and they have to learn how to pray in Hebrew.” I called over one of the kids, I’ll never forget him because of his beautiful Hebrew name, Timothy. I said, “Timothy, why do you have to pray in Hebrew?” He said to me, “because God does not understand English.” My God, President Bush almost understood English!

We pray in Hebrew because all peoples do important things in the language of their culture, because language conveys cultural concepts that are central to our language. I want to end with one example. All of you must have heard of the phrase ‘to fall in love’. I don’t know where we get the chutzpah to use that language. You do not fall in love, you rise in love. You don’t find this phrase in a Buddhist language or in a Jewish language, only in Christian languages, because it does come from the concept of the cardinal sin of man, the first failing. How do you say ‘to fall in love’ in Hebrew? L’hitahev, it’s a unique grammatical form, it’s in hithpael, its reflexive it’s give and take, it’s a different concept of love. We know that through our language.
Memory, family, Mount Sinai, the Land and the State of Israel, and the Hebrew language. If every Jew would find a way of internalising at least three out of those five legs in their lives, we won’t be uniform but we will always be unified. Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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