Jeshurun Grew Fat and Kicked

Rabbi Dr. Gershon Cohen, the fifth chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote an article entitled “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” He took issue with claims that Jews survived by not changing their names, their language or their dress. We know firsthand that Jews took the names of the people where they lived, whether Alexander after Alexander the Great or the grandson of Judah Maccabee being named John Hyrcanus. We also know that Jews spoke and wrote in Aramaic as well as each of the local languages of the communities in which they lived, reserving Hebrew for the synagogue and for holy books. Gerson Cohen asserted that rather than our success being a result of our separateness, “a frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but that in a profound sense, this assimilation and acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source or renewed vitality.”[1]

Ours is not the first time that Jews have lived in a rich Diaspora community. There was the Golden Age of Spain that produced great Jewish poets, philosophers and legalists, from ibn Gabirol and Judah HaLevi to Maimonides and Nahmanides. While each of these greats was influenced by their surrounding non-Jewish world,[2] none of them lost the importance of their personal Jewish identities. They remained observant Jews committed to the Jewish practices of their days, while being influenced by the thought and scholarship of the non-Jewish world. In contrast, too often today many seek what they consider to be the riches of the secular world while losing sight of their Jewish identities.

Parshat Haazinu admonishes Israel for engaging in worldly comforts without being committed to Jewish practices. The Third Aliyah begins ירכיבהו על במותי ארץ, “He set him atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth; He fed him honey from the stone, and oil from the flinty rock; curd of the herd and milk of the flocks with the best of lambs, and rams of Bashan, and goats, with the finest of the wheat, and red of the grapes was your drink. But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked-you grew fat, gross and coarse-He forgot the G-d who made him and spurned the Rock of his support. They incensed Him with alien things, vexed Him with abominations. They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they had never known, new ones, who came but recently, who did not stir your ancestors’ fears. You neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the G-d who brought you forth.”[3] Because of the comforts of the Israelites, they forgot G-d, just like the butler in the Joseph story forgot about Joseph after he was released from prison. It is ironic that the term Yeshurun, or “the straightforward one,” is used here, as Israel is being anything but. They are forsaking THE ROCK, G-d, the source of stability in their lives, for the fickle comforts of the moment.

Rabbi Shimon in the Midrash asserts that this is not just a few Israelites turning wayward, but rather “the noblest and best amongst you.”[4] In other words, Israel had started off Yashar, on the straightforward, correct path, but upon settling down, they forsook G-d and everything they had learned along the way to redemption in the Promised Land. Even the leaders of the time made this mistake, getting caught up in what the other nations around them were doing rather than keeping their mission to serve G-d at the center of their hearts.

We just completed another High Holiday season, and many have started to “return to normalcy.”[5] The masses have departed the Sanctuary, and the few are here learning about Parshat Hazzinu. We must keep in mind the important lesson of never getting to be too comfortable in society, always holding on to the Torah and our traditions as the guideposts through which we live our lives. Chancellor Cohen was correct that there are blessings of assimilation, of integrating into the larger society. Without it, we wouldn’t have college degrees, worldly professions or contribute to the greater community, let alone watch the Yankees or Mets. At the same time, there’s a danger in assimilating so much that we lose sight of our people, our traditions and of G-d. Like most things in Conservative Judaism, we need to find the balance between living authentic, observant Jewish lives while not isolating ourselves from others. We need the balance between celebrating the blessings that America has brought us without being so comfortable as Americans that we lose the value of our Judaism. In 5777, let us strive to not grow complacent and oversaturated but rather continue to grow and develop in our Jewish observances and Jewish learning. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Gerson Cohen, “The Blessings of Assimilation in Jewish History,” in Jewish History and Jewish Destiny (New York: JTS Press, 1997), 151.

[2] Eg. Judah HaLevi was influenced by the Arabic poet Ghazali; Maimonides’ philosophy in Guide to the Perplexed was influenced by Aristotle.

[3] Deuteronomy 32:13-18

[4] Genesis Rabbah 77:1

[5] Warren G. Harding’s campaign slogan in 1920

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