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No Jew Left Behind

Seth FarberFilmed at UJIA Sippur 2014

My preferred passion is Jewish peoplehood. Every Jew has a stake in the Jewish future. The story I tell in this lecture is an ancient story with a modern twist.  You’ll learn something about the prophets, and most importantly, about contemporary Jewish life.

Seth Farber is a rabbi and historian living in Israel, best known for his work helping Jews navigate the Israeli religious bureaucracy.
Farber grew up in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, and is a graduate of New York University.
He was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1991, received his Masters in Judaic Studies from Yeshiva University in 1995, and a PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2000.
He is widely known as the founder and director of The Jewish-Life Information Center, an organization that aims to assist Israelis with the legal intricacies of personal status—marriage, divorce, conversion, and burial—which are administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in a manner that often leaves families bewildered, overwhelmed, and resentful. Farber is widely cited in the press on the politically fraught issues of personal status among Jews in Israel.
The New York Times called Farber a “pragmatic idealist” who believes that Orthodox Jews — including the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – and non-Orthodox Jews need to learn to “to trust each other” sufficiently to work together on difficult issues of personal status.

Standing in a moment perceived to be a transformative moment in the history of the Jewish people. A young man in his late 20s, some 2600 years ago, looked down at his community and he said I want to give you the prescription, the recipe for the future of Jewish life as we know it. Kol amar Adonai, ‘thus, says God’, Shimru mishpat, taasu tzedakah, ‘seek charity, justice, and righteousness for my salvation is upon you’. ‘Blessed is the person’ said this young man ‘who does this’, the man, the woman who grasps on to it, the one who observes the Sabbath and at the same time shomer yado mi asot kol ra ‘who protects himself or herself from doing any evil’. The prescription of justice and righteousness is the precise recipe for the future of the Jewish people. Then the prophet looked down at his community and he introduced them to two people, two men who you wouldn’t necessarily see walking down the street together, v’al yomar ben hanilcha ha nilva el Adonai ‘let not the convert, the heathen who walks with God’, say, havdel yadvdileni adonai mi olamo ‘God has separated me out from God’s people, one person the convert’, v’al yomar hasaris. Saris is a man who cannot bring children into the world. ‘Let not he say, behold I am a dry twig’. A strange prophecy by any account. And then this young man in his 20s the prophet Isaiah speaks to each one of these two people, first he speaks to the men who cannot have children, he says,’ hey it’s ok’, you know the words, ‘if you buy into the covenant’ he says, v’natati lahem b’beiti uvechomotai yad vashem, ‘I will give you in my house an everlasting memorial’, tov mi banim u’banot ‘something better than having children’, and to the convert he says ‘don’t worry you also have a place’ v’havioti mi har kodshi simachti b’beit tefillati ‘you too have a place in my temple’. My friends, these two people have something remarkable in common, something that is so critical to the future of the Jewish people. For the prophet looks at the convert and the prophet looks at the person who cannot bring children into the world and he sees two people who have lost hope. They feel disenfranchised, they feel alienated, they feel like they don’t have a place at the centre of the Jewish world and that is why the prophet wants to include them. But I would submit to you that each of these people have something different about them. For what is the main difference between the convert and the man who cannot bring children into the world. We as a community can lose hope for one of two reasons, we can feel disenfranchised or alienated, we can feel we don’t have a place at the centre for one of two reasons. One we share with the convert and one we share with the man who cannot bring children into the world. For a person can lose hope because he/she feels that they do not have a shared past with the community and that of course is the convert. And a person can lose hope because they feel they have no shared future. 2600 years ago the young man looked down at his community and said no, we can’t afford this grand moment in Jewish history, when history is turning we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. Now I close the Book of Prophecy and open the book of today’s world.
‘Dear Itim’ writes this young woman, ‘today I went to the Rabbinate, I am getting married, this is to be a special day for me, I am an official bride I want to get married and live with my beloved and build a family, when I walked into the Rabbinate the clerk just looked and me and said you were born in the former Soviet Union, “you are not Jewish till you can prove it”. Me not Jewish? She writes, there must be some terrible mistake, my entire life I was Jewish, I went to a Jewish school, I came on Aaliyah because I was Jewish, I served in the IDF because I was Jewish and now I am not Jewish until I can prove it. I want to scream out to my entire family who were slaughtered in the forest and burnt in Mauthausen, it was a big mistake, I know you went to your death as Jews, if only then she writes if you could call out, and told them “no don’t shoot for in the Rabbinate in Jerusalem they will raise question about your Judaism”. Perhaps then, she writes, my grandmother and my grandfather and my uncles and my aunts would be here today to tell their story. You went as proud Jews to your deaths, Hitler was less vigilant, he was less meticulous, he was less careful than the State of Israel and the Rabbinate.” This young women ends her note by writing that “the degradation I felt today will never be erased from my heart.” We live in a moment in Jewish history that is no less significant than the moment the prophet lived in 2600 years ago. This is a dramatic moment in the history of our people, to some extent more dramatic than 1948 or 1967, for for the first time, we together as a people are beginning to think critically about forging our future together. There are those within the community who believe they have the only truth, there are those within the community who are happy to leave the disenfranchised and alienated out. They seek to maintain the centre, they seek to raise the walls they seek to keep those who feel they don’t have a shared past or a shared future out. And then there’s another group of Jews. Another group of Jews who are no less prophetic than the prophet Isaiah himself. That group of Jews says, “we appreciate this grand moment in Jewish history, we understand the significance, it’s not only about justice and righteousness. It’s about making sure that the alienated, the disenfranchised, those who have lost hope from being part of the centre, feel no less part of our grand story. We have a great responsibility not just to understand and appreciate this great moment in Jewish history not just to understand and appreciate the gifts that God has given us, we have a great opportunity to do something about it, we cannot afford to leave even one Jew behind. If we want to live up to the words of the prophets and those who have lost hope, those who feel that they don’t live at the centre, those who feel disenfranchised, must be made once again to feel that they too are part of our community.

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