Embracing Our Chutzpah

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Rabbi Yoni Dahlen Special to the Jewish News
Rabbi Yoni Dahlen
Special to the Jewish News

Congregation Shaarey Zedek welcomes Rabbi Ed Feinstein.

What’s your story? I’m not asking in the uncouth way, as if we ran into one another at an airport or hotel bar and wanted to make small talk. I’m asking in the way that goes deeper and begs for honesty and vulnerability, the way that allows for doors to open, the way that makes us shake off our social and emotional armor and expose the bits and pieces of our lives that make us who we are.

And so now, with that important clarification, let me ask again. What’s your story? Because after speaking last week with Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s speaker for the upcoming Rabbi Irwin Groner Memorial Lecture on May 24, I am certain of two things. One, every single one of us has a story. And two, those stories are beautiful, are important and deserve to be told.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Ed Feinstein

It wasn’t hard to convince me. Feinstein, who is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., is a master teacher and storyteller. So, it was not at all surprising that within minutes of picking up the phone, my nerves and embarrassment vanished, and I was fully present and deeply engaged in a conversation about true, personal and meaningful Judaism.

I asked him about the power of chutzpah, a word, according to Feinstein, that has been erroneously identified as Yiddish in origin and synonymous with effrontery or gall. This word, the subject of his latest book, The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters, he argues, is, in fact, much older and charged with a deep and important significance that speaks to the essence of Judaism.

“This word we associate with Yiddish is actually found in the Talmud,” he says. “And there it has a very different meaning. Chutzpah is an irrepressible force, an irrepressible will. The most remarkable contribution of Judaism to human conscience is chutzpah: a call to action, a belief that what we are doing as Jews matters.”

I asked for an example of chutzpah in action.

“Chutzpah is the audacity to look for change, to look for meaning. At the Passover Seder, the wicked child’s question is the question that matters most. What does this mean to you? I want to give an answer. This is more than just tradition, more than antique liturgy and ritual. It’s tradition because it has a deep value and a deep message. It’s valuable because it says something and continues to say something that is vital.”

I press him on this. At a time when non-Orthodox Judaism is going through an existential crisis of survival and identity, what is the message that is so deep and vital? And are we failing in giving that message to those who need it most?

Feinstein takes a deep breath. I can tell already that the question, which he has no doubt been asked dozens, if not hundreds, of times, is one he thinks about often.

“I worry about our response,” he says. “Jewish life today is filled with hopelessness, and I happen to think that’s just wrong. At the heart of the Jewish people is renewal, recreation and empowerment.

“There are things about which I’m concerned. I worry about how people find meaning in their lives. I worry about this planet, this very small planet of ours, that after all this time we still haven’t learned how to get along. We haven’t worked past the basic dynamics of Cain and Abel. You have something, and I want it. But the story of Judaism and the story of ourselves is one of hope, of reinvention and creativity. I think the despair is wrong. We are at a time of potential, and I think it’s time we celebrate that.”

Our story. It’s my favorite phrase that comes up every so often in our conversation. For some reason, it makes me emotional. Maybe it’s the concept of all of us weaving a story together. Or maybe it’s simply the relating of fears and concerns with a rabbi whom I respect so much, the ability to share in something with someone who really hears me. Whatever it is, it’s powerful, and I have to ask him about it.

“Why are stories so powerful?” I ask. “You are known as a great storyteller, and your book, Capturing the Moon, is evidence of your appreciation for stories. What role do they play in Jewish education and in your rabbinate?”

He doesn’t have to think. It’s as if I asked him, “Why do we need oxygen?”

“We are our stories, Yoni,” he tells me. “Stories are important, and we understand them on a deeper emotional and personal level than, say, a discursive sermon. I love telling stories, kids love stories and adults love stories. Narrative reaches a higher level, and the sharing of stories brings us together.

“Those stories,” he continues, “are what make me excited about the future, especially about what Judaism looks like and will look like in the 21st century. I’m so interested in the diversity of Jewish identity and Jewish stories. I have in my shul people of color, people of every background, people who aren’t Jewish but love Torah and love studying. The stories work.”

I find myself nodding enthusiastically like a bobble-head doll just given an aggressive flick, not at all bothered by the fact that he can’t see me on the phone agreeing with him. It’s a beautiful message, and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard such optimism about Conservative Judaism.

I’m reluctant to end our conversation, but I want to respect his time. After all, he’s busy hoping, dreaming and celebrating the opportunity that we as Jews are being presented at this incredible moment in time. I ask one last question.

“What is it you’d like Detroit to take away from your visit?” I ask. “If we can all hold on to one thing, what would it be?”

“Hope,” he says. “I want us to be able to answer the wicked child’s question and to do so with hope. We have something to say to the world. We can be worried, we can be concerned, but everywhere we look, there are heroes. Israel, this microcosm of the whole world, shows us that. It’s a country with enormous problems, and yet wherever you go in Israel you meet heroes — selfless, loving, who are trying to create the Jewish state of their dreams.

“I am honored to be coming to Detroit, to stand in the pulpit of Rabbi Groner, who was one of the greats, and to help remember him. And I am honored to come to celebrate the hope that our stories create. We are at a great moment in Jewish history where we can think of new and exciting ideas of reinvention and reinterpretation. What we had before was great, but now, it’s up to us to think of new ways, and we are being invited to do so. I want to celebrate the invitation. I want to celebrate the hopefulness.”

2018 Rabbi Irwin Groner Lecture

Rabbi Ed Feinstein will be speaking on “The History of Chutzpah and its Inclination for the Grand Vision of Human Possibility” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 24, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. Admission is free and open to the community. For more information, call (248) 357-5544.

Yoni Dahlen is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

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