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ow Rabbi Lau Inpired Me
Reflections on the First Gershon Jacobson Memorial Lecture
By Dovid Poltorak

What will Judaism look like in, say, twenty years? Are we on the right track, wrong track or have we derailed long ago? Is there hope for a nation struggling with the problems with which Judaism is struggling today? These were the questions implied by the vaguely broad topic on the flyer for this year’s Gershon Jacobson Foundation lecture, “The Future of Judaism.”

The title, with its possibilities, excited me. With a full-blown war on terror underway; with a scientific world that recreates itself on an almost daily basis; with a tumultuous and restless youth, anyone’s predictions about tomorrow are, essentially, fantasy. Never mind the isolation of one society – a society that is obviously very much affected by the world around it – for speculation and predictions. What would the lecturer, former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, say about the controversies eating away at the very fabric of Judaism? Would he be honest? Would his assessment be critical? If his mind told him so, would he have the courage to cite statistics and then follow up with grim predictions? And how many political, social, scientific and religious issues would he factor into his predictions?

So, expecting a scientific – or unscientific – survey and estimation, off I went to The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, at New York University, last Tuesday, June 6th.

But a survey and prediction was hardly what we got. After an introduction by Rabbi Simon Jacobson, Rabbi Lau took the podium. But he didn’t use the podium to talk about what will be; he spoke about what can – and should – be. Sure, the world is unpredictable, the statistics are terrifying and current events are tumultuous, but, believe it or not, there are things we can do to secure our position, as Jews, in the future – regardless of the context that the future will provide.

The Rabbi built a very convincing case for Jewish education, based on history, religion, common sense and, yes, even statistics. At first I was disappointed. Education as a solution is a cliché, and to hear it regurgitated again simply didn’t interest me. But clichés are repeated for their truth and “clichéd” because of their repetition. Rabbi Lau managed to cast the topic in a way that actually reinvented the wheel. It wasn’t a stale recital, but an animated discourse, which wasn’t met with sighs and whispers of “here we go again,” but with genuine interest and recommitment to the cause of education (which is, undisputedly, the most important cause to which we can dedicate ourselves).

In an emotional, funny, enlightening and smart speech, Rabbi Lau, a prime candidate for the Israeli presidency, illustrated that the changes (and there were many!) throughout history never once pushed Judaism off its historical course. While empires and kingdoms came and left, Judaism prevailed. Why? Because of the value we place on educating our children and passing on to them what our parents gave us. This chain, he explained, will resist the winds of change.

To illustrate his point, he presented an unforgettable visualization: Socrates gets off a plane in Greece and approaches the first person he sees. “Excuse me sir, where can I find a Greek temple? I need to pray to Zeus, Pan, Aphrodite and Apollo.” The man, dressed in western clothing, squints and looks at the Socrates. “I don’t understand your language,” he replies in Modern Greek to the ancient philosopher. After finding a common dialect, Socrates repeats his question. “Temple?” the man repeats. “We have a Greek Orthodox church, if that’s what you mean.” As the conversation continues, Socrates realizes that nothing remains of ancient Greek culture and he sheds a tear.

Julius Ceasar lands in Rome and, unfortunately, the same routine follows: ”Can you take me to the Coliseum?” – “It is in ruins.”

“How is the Roman Empire?” -- “It is no more. We are a city in Italy.”

But when Moses lands in Ben-Gurion, things are different. He approaches a man and extends his hand. “Shalom Aleichem,” Moses says. [Here Rabbi Lau’s voice broke as he swelled with emotion…] Without missing a beat, the airport worker replies, “Aleichem Hashalom!”

“I did not pray yet today, can I find Tefilin in Israel today,” Moses asks.

“Of course!” the man says. “Use mine.”

While applauding the Rabbi’s speech I realized that some of the most obvious, truthful and interesting solutions have already been expressed; we just need reminders. And Rabbi Lau understood that a reminder, when expressed as such, is hardly efficient. In fact, it may be quite annoying. But when expressed imaginatively, with a renewed passion, a reminder can be very effective.

The evening ended with a moving video presentation on the life and times of prominent journalist Gershon Jacobson. I dare say that, by the end of the program, hearts were moved and minds educated.

Posted on June 8, 2006
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