You have probably seen the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on the Internet or television. What started out as a quirky idea is everywhere. An individual pours a bucket of ice water on his or herself and then challenging another to do the same within 24 hours or donate a minimum of $100 to ALS research.[i]
Last year, ALS raised about $32,000 in August. This year they are at over 13 million dollars and August still has days remaining! Who cannot recall the Livestrong yellow bracelets put out by Lance Armstrong to fight cancer? Lance Armstrong aside, Livestrong just donated $50 million to the newest UT medical school.
No doubt the Ice Bucket Challenge will be the father of "copycats." The Challenge and the yellow bracelets caused people to do something by bringing them toward a common goal. Our Torah portion, Parashat Re'eh provides the same kind of framework or force for the betterment of our timeless tradition.
The world has seen much since our forefathers meandered about the desert and only one thing remains the same, our people. Our parsha reiterates the foundation that sets Israel apart from its neighbors then and now. For instance, kashrut has served to provide a boundary between Israel and its neighbors. Our practices of pilgrimage and tithing give prominence to our national center (not a day goes by that we at Agudas do not face east in reverence to our holy city) and our compassionate response to the poor gives us a communal identity.
We are told at 12:29 that we are to enter the land and "dispossess them." What are we to do with all of this religious hostility to the neighbors? The easiest solution is to contextualize it-these laws were specific to the conquest of the land from its Canaanite population, and perhaps more important, to wean ancient Israel from worship of the local gods. From our prophets, we can see how difficult both of these tasks were, and perhaps can understand if not justify the viciousness with which they were "disposed." Yet we are used to applying the Torah's values and norms to our own lives. What do these verses imply about interfaith relations today?
In medieval Europe, rabbis were already beginning to adjust attitudes, seeking to distinguish between the monotheistic faiths of Islam and Christianity (which happened to be the dominant faiths where most Jews resided) and the polytheism of the rest of the world. While not all rabbis were convinced that Christianity should be "inside" the definition of monotheism, it is safe to say that most modern Jews have indeed accepted this view. If so, we can read the Torah's rules to apply to the Torah's time, and not to the people of different faiths whom we encounter today.
Conservative Judaism has fully embraced the more positive approach. We respect for all people of faith, and are committed to adapting our internal rituals to reflect the new positive attitude. Yet we remain committed to maintaining the distinctiveness of our religion and our covenant. Given the great pressure in modern society to homogenize cultures, it is often hard to protect Jewish identity without resorting to bigoted beliefs that reinforce a sense of difference. And yet that is our precise intention-to show love and respect for those whose faith takes different forms, while maintaining our own faith with intelligence, integrity and passion. As we consider the choices offered by the parashah, we should remember to choose to express our identity in positive ways that affirm what is expressly ours while respecting the distinctive faith of our neighbors. This way we can all work toward greater causes like the Ice Bucket Challenge together!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.