Gather to Do

Late one Friday morning some 25 years ago, a cohort of fellow rabbinical students and I were studying with our teacher Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory…

We were deep into our third year of these Friday morning sessions, an independent study of the great Jewish Torah commentators, Stanley’s particular area of passion and expertise. The three students would huddle together, debate one another, and try to provoke their teacher (whose legendary sense of humor was wickedly dry and funny). As the sages wrote in Pirke Avot, we would “drink up his words with thirst.” His teaching was masterful, these gatherings otherworldly. There was coffee and sweets graciously served by Marianne Dreyfus, Stanley’s generous and brilliant wife, herself a survivor of the Kindertransport and the granddaughter of the great Berlin rabbi Leo Baeck. In the classical midrashic work Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis claimed that in the messianic age, God will slay the Leviathan and we will all study and feast on fish for eternity. Perhaps this explains the lines at Russ and Daughters. Who knows?

We could talk about anything, as long as it related to Torah. He taught through a close reading of the text and had an inimitable way of framing a story and rooting it in the history and moral scaffolding of Jewish thought. And he wasn’t afraid to stir the pot. His knowledge of the Mishnah and Talmud was encyclopedic; and he could quote the Gospels (contemporaneously composed and therefore relevant) by usually referring to it as “the other half of the Good Book.” One Labor Day when we studied together, the West Indian Day Parade was joyously and noisily shaking the windows of the Dreyfus’ apartment above Grand Army Plaza, where revelers celebrated. Attempting to teach a text about Abraham and circumcision over the raucous din, Stanley said, “Well, the uncircumcised sure seem to be having fun today.” On another occasion, studying a difficult passage in Leviticus about childbirth and the ritual defilement of women, a fellow student made the claim that the text was obviously and inherently misogynistic. Rabbi Dreyfus didn’t argue; he agreed. But when the student went on to explain that some modern feminists now make a meal of the placenta or bury it with a newly planted tree, Stanley paused, sighed and remarked, “I have just two words to say: Jesus Christ.” For a Classical Reform Jew of a certain generation, some new rituals were a bridge too far. But man, did we laugh at his response.

Each year at Rosh Hashanah, when we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, I will always teach in Stanley’s name the text from Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser (otherwise known as the Malbim). We students were rebelling vociferously at Abraham’s heartlessness and religious fanaticism for offering up his only son. We were outraged. Stanley calmly walked us through the Malbim’s reading of the verses, where he showed that at every step of the way, Abraham spoke to Isaac with clarity, with sensitivity, with faith and love. “It’s not where you’re going,” he said, “It’s how you get there.” It is a truth I have carried with me, like the wood for the burnt offering, ever since.

So it went, week in and week out, year in and year out, easily one of the greatest gifts I had ever been given, to learn with such a magnificent teacher.

Late one morning, we were deep into a philosophical argument over the reality of God; the leap of faith required by a rational mind to grasp that God had dictated the words of Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai; the crisis of faith necessitated by one’s refusal to believe in an all-powerful God Who chooses to act or not when the innocent are under attack. Why part the Red Sea but remain silent in Concentration Camps? Where is God’s power to save? On we went.

Finally, after an extended hour of our heated exchanges, Rabbi Dreyfus abruptly pounded his fist on the table and exclaimed, “As they used to say in the Beit Midrash, ‘Eh, shut up and pray the afternoon service!’”

We looked at him in amazement. He brought the intellectualism to a halt by reminding us, with precision, that Judaism is a system of doing. That commandments, however we feel about them, however we justify our relationship to commandedness, are meant to be performed. This approach is best summarized by the sage Shammai (who appears in Pirke Avot as the sparring partner of Hillel) and who said, “Say little, do much.”

Yes.

This idea, of doing as the precedent of Jewishness, is found first in Exodus, as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and shares the Word of God with the people. “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hear.’” Notice the order. The doing precedes the hearing. Often exemplified as ancient Israel’s faith in God, agreeing to obey before knowing what the contract was all about, the text speaks to us today, whether we believe or not, as the quintessential notion of the importance of action over words. “Don’t say you love me, show me.” “Prove it.” “Just do it.” You get the point. We effect the world and bring about justice and kindness and peace not by professing to do so, but by the work required of us in bringing this reality to fruition.

So in this week’s Torah portion, Va’yakhel, “Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, ‘These are the words which the Eternal has commanded, that you should do them’” (Exodus 35:1).

The drama of the mountain; the charisma of Moses who met God “face to face”; a covenanted people. No sooner do the words get spoken than the teaching is rooted in its ultimate expression. Less talk, more action.

“People differ in their understanding and appreciation of the different commandments,” Rabbi David of Chortkow taught. “But when it comes to performing the commandments, there is no difference. You have to perform them. Thus we see that in gathering the people, Moses emphasized that we come together as a people in order to do.”

This is such a profound teaching, especially for contemporary Jewish communities that choose quite deliberately and mindfully not to observe all the commandments. Instead, we dedicate ourselves to adhering fully and meaningfully to those commandments we do choose to observe.

In our JCP community, we create multiple points of entry for our fellow community members, Jews and non-Jews alike. We recognize that each have our own approaches to, and engagement with the many voices of tradition and the reality of the Divine. And that what ultimately makes a community, a gathering of people dedicated to leading lives of value and meaning, is what it means to do: to take action, to engage, in order to impact the world with the living and dynamic reality of love, justice, kindness and peace.

So that’s enough words for now. I’ll shut up. Time to go do something.

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