I had an extraordinary experience yesterday at a friend's house to celebrate the baby naming of their new daughter. Being a rabbi in Brooklyn for the last twenty years, there's scarcely an opportunity to experience liberal Judaism in the Heartland, where Jews are a distinct minority and there is even more "translating" of what Judaism is all about than there is, even in a synagogue like ours with a high percentage of those congregants--Jewish and not--who require an explanation of what is going on when we gather to do Jewish ritual.
My friend and his wife and had bought a new house and so were not only celebrating the arrival of their daughter but were dedicating their home as well by publicly hanging a mezuzah. And so with nearly half of those in attendance wearing some kind of Packer gear (the Packers would be kicking off 90 minutes from the start of the service which was all impeccably timed to accommodate this other essential ritual) we first gathered on the family's new front porch and a terrific cantor led us through a series of readings dedicating their homes to the eternal values of the Jewish people. She read, "We affix the mezuzah to the doorpost of this house with the hope that it will always remind us of our holy duties to on another. May God's spirit fill this home with a sense of kindness, consideration and love for all people."
Maybe half the people on the front porch were Jewish but all were nodding in sincere agreement, tears welling up in their eyes at the humbling moment of dedicating a home, welcoming a new child, cognizant of a generation present that was moving, inexorably, toward the closing chapter of their lives. Liberal Judaism in the Heartland must adapt to its setting and here you saw a kind of Jewish version of an all-American moment. That the cold snap of weather revealed everyone's breath, hovering on the porch, in a strange kind of mixture of human essence--the breath, the soul of life--made for an oddly mysterious, almost cinematic moment.
The cantor led everyone into the living room, where, in short order, we heard beautiful, heart-felt speeches about past relatives from both sides of the family who were remembered and honored by their mention in this service to bestow a name and a history on this new life, bundled and beautiful. From Canada and upstate Wisconsin to Italian Catholic Brooklyn, Milwaukee's East Side, Poland--including Auschwitz--the layers of history and particular events of Jewish history were given voice. And the conductor was a female cantor, translating this Jewish ritual of bestowing name and blessing upon a child for everyone present.
There are realities to Jewish existence that the generations who came to these shores never in their lives could have possibly imagined. All too often we mourn what was without stopping in wonder and gratitude at the iterations today of what is. In a world of billions, another Jewish name was added to the list of those staggeringly precious few million who have maintained those names for nearly 4000 years.
In New York, where Jews are a significant and yet sizable minority with a strong influence as, arguably, one of a few dominant cultures, we are blessed with a kind of luxury of ethnic affinity which allows for the cultural expressions of Jewish life to prevail at times over a sense of religious ritual that has a more powerful ability to unify people from all corners of the earth.
Hanging a mezuzah and naming a child, rituals supported by the utterance of blessings in God's name, I felt keenly that moment when God spoke to Abraham, calling him to "be a blessing" and to live a life where the other nations of the earth would in fact be blessed through Abraham. Abraham and Sarah, we might remember, are are understood by the tradition as having "converted souls" to monotheism before they left Haran for the Land of Canaan. The Torah says they left with the "souls they acquired" and the Sages understand that as those they converted to the idea that God is One.
What a miraculous moment yesterday: the breath of lives, hanging in vaporous oneness, bearing witness to unity, tolerance, and understanding. And what a paradox: Vapor dissipates. In order to be able to see it, one needs to keep breathing.