Some four decades ago, Dr Eugene Brorowtiz (z’l) published his class “The Masks Jews Wear”. He attempted to look, in a systematic way, at the great changes then erupting within the contemporary American Jewish world and see them in the light of his existentialist theology. He looked at the
“multiplicity of Jewish self-perception” that he observed. He was looking at the unmasking, in a way, of the self-perception which, in many ways, became self-deception. So much has changed in these forty plus years, but, in some ways, the challenges remain the same and, in a sense, the consequences are greater.
In Jewish communities around the world the coming days will see the arrival of Purim. The “Megillat Esther” will be read, Haman will be booed and Mordecai and Esther cheered and thousands of people will dress up in costume, masks and parade to celebrate the history of ancient Persia. Oh yes, and there is always “hamentaschen”!. In thinking about this holiday and the costumes and the parades and the masks, I was reminded of Dr.Borowitz’s book and the idea of what a mask does in hiding a self. This idea was also sparked by two recent conversations we had on our weekly Jewish Sacred Aging Radio show and podcast. In recent interviews with Rabbis Peter Knobel and Dana Evan Kaplan, we got into the issue of non-orthodox movements sense of legitimacy. The idea, as we talked and they have written, that still, the non-Orthodox movements often seem to be afraid to affirm their sense of authenticity and legitimacy. Yet, in understanding the flow of Jewish life and history, the idea of on-going adaptation and change has been a secret of our survival. These movements, (from Renewal to Conservatism and all stops in between) still try to see themselves in relationship to Orthodoxy. Why?
I think that what one of the messages of Borowitz’s book may be for us today is to stop this, that it is finally time to throw off the mask of fear and claim our own Jewish experience as authentic and, in truth, part of the on-going evolving Jewish historical experience. This need for an affirming, creative and contemporary Jewish experience has never been more important in our American experience. As people drift from institutions, as Boomers seek a sense of meaningful community, we need more than ever a Judaism that affirms our choices, celebrates Jewish history and knowledge, and seeks to apply this sense of creative personal and communal expression to the life experiences of our people; and to do so unafraid of what others may say!
Decades ago Bororitz wrote the following: “Our beliefs tend to be temporary and fleeting. So we give the bits and pieces of our devotion to this and that, for shorter or longer periods. But, because there is little that is basic and lasting in us, our lives periodically reveal their ultimate emptiness, and we must acknowledge that we are neither integrated or whole. Fragmentation and insecurity are our most pervasive personal and social maladies today.” (211).
The world in which we now reside fills many with that sense of fragmentation and insecurity. The truths that so many of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s, and for which we marched and advocated for, so many of those truths have been torn aside and remain threatened. We seek that authentic community of faith in which we can take off the mask of perception and face the world secure in our own self. Judaism’s that still define themselves in terms of
not the other” will eventually self-destruct. We need not to be afraid to take off the masks of self-deception and claim and celebrate the authenticity of our interpretation of Judaism.
Rabbi Richard F. Address