After 15-months of virus induced veritable lockdown (preceded by a couple of months of convalescence following my third hip replacement surgery), and the loss of a longtime friend to COVID-19, a cloud of pessimism was beginning to hover over me.
Thankfully, I found solace and comfort in two books. The first, A Life of Meaning, Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, edited by Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan (CCAR Press) features a number of essays by Reform though leaders on what the philosophy and history Reform Judaism can teach us about the search for meaning and how to nurture a sense of optimism as we contemplate the world we will leave to our children and grandchildren.
In the essay “Jews and Race,” Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva traces the history of Reform Judaism’s engagement in the struggle for racial, social, and economic justice in the United States and the need to confront and help disassemble systemic racism. She expresses optimism that, notwithstanding continued resistance by some, even within the Reform Movement, these issues will remain part of our ”intrinsic Jewish concern.” She is also confident that our voice will only grow stronger in seeking to eradicate what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel called an “eye disease,” one that infects the beholders as well as everyone and everything they see.
In the book’s final essay, “The Importance of Reform Judaism,” former URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie calls on us to “reject despair.” He is optimistic that our age-old spiritual traditions, leavened by progress and change, offer the best pathway for the continued and increasing relevance and impact of Reform Judaism in conceiving and building a better future.
Another book I read that lifted my spirits was What Kind of Future Will Our Children Inherit? (Humboldt State University Press, 2020), co-edited by Holocaust survivor, Samuel P. Oliner. For Sam, who has always espoused altruism, kindness, empathy -- notwithstanding the evil and hardship that exists in each generation --the glass is never either half full or half empty. It is both at the same time. The authors and editors of this book (which includes a chapter written by Sam’s grandson, Evan Oliner) are aligned with the writers of A Life of Meaning in their belief that, despite whatever gains have been made in areas of religious, racial, civil, sexual, economic, and environmental justice, healing the world (tikkun olam) remains our sacred duty.
In one essay, Sam and co-writer Jeffrey R. Gunn make the case that “altruistic love may be the most important key to the survival of humanity” and that, as such “we must teach and tell the stories of altruistic heroes because young people should use (them) as moral role models. In another essay, Sam writes that “(r)eduction in suffering is possible by encouraging and empowering the altruistic potential within each individual…By instilling the values of caring and social responsibility in our young people, and rewarding those behaviors that empower and assist, the future of our world can look much brighter.” Sam reminds us to live up to the Jewish teaching that “the world is reparable by loving thy neighbor.” He sees the current mass outcries for racial justice as a sign that the glass is half full.
It will be the task of our children—as it has been ours—to make sure that the glass remains at least half full and no more than half empty when it comes time for them to pass it along to their children.
Whenever my spirits need a lift, what keeps me going is Sam’s belief in the power of altruism. It is also what motivates me to add what I can to the glass so that our children and grandchildren can inherit a world full of hope and promise of a better time.