Blog  NFTY-PAR: How Do You Wrestle With Your Judaism?

NFTY-PAR: How Do You Wrestle With Your Judaism?

By Audrey Fein, NFTY-PAR RCVP

Wrestle. This word probably brings many things to mind for you. It could bring to mind a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, for people who aren’t sport savvy) match. It could bring to mind a recent duel with your younger brother over who gets the last chicken wing. It could bring to mind that time you tried out for the middle school wrestling team. It could even bring up a thumb wrestle. Would parshat Vayishlach come to your mind? Of course it would! This Parsha is about Jacob’s transformation into Israel. It’s includes other incredible stories too, such as Jacob and Esau meeting again for the first time after Jacob steals the birthright blessing from Esau. They are both expecting a fight when they first meet–maybe even a wrestling match of all wrestling matches. However, when they see each other for the first time they embrace and greet each other with kindness. That’s really sweet if you think about it. But there is wrestling elsewhere in this week’s parasha, Vayishlach. Jacob encounters an angel the night before he is supposed to meet Esau again. That night, he sends all of his belongings, wives, and eleven children away. Jacob decides to stay on the other behind, alone, for the night.

PAR Fall Kallah 2013 Services

Audrey Fein (PAR RCVP) leading services with Leah Citrin (center) our visiting HUC rabbinic student.

The next bit of the translation reads “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”. This “man” has been interpreted as the spirit of Esau, Jacob himself, or simply an earthly enemy of Jacob. However, it is most commonly thought that Jacob encounters an angel.  They wrestle all night. As they wrestle, Jacob’s hip is broken. [Side note: one of the rules of Kashrut is that we are not allowed to eat thigh muscle, because of Jacob.] The angel then asks Jacob for his name. Jacob simply responds by saying “Jacob”. The angel replies “your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed”. After a whole long night of fighting, Jacob emerges with a broken hip and a brand new name.  Jacob deserved the new name because he fought with a divine spirit and came out alive.

So what is the significance of all this? As a people, Jews wrestle with opposing forces all the time. We’ve all heard the expression “they tried to kill us, we won, so let’s eat”. Throughout history, Jews have battled with many different groups of people. But what happens when we are wrestling with our own religion? That’s exactly the question Rabbi Abraham Geiger asked himself in the early 17th century.

Reform Judaism was born at the time of the French Revolution, a time when European Jews were recognized for the first time as citizens of the countries in which they lived. Ghettos were being abolished, special badges were no more. People could settle where they pleased, dress as they liked and choose the occupations that they wanted. Many Jews settled outside of Jewish districts, and began to live like their neighbors and speak the language of the land. They went to public schools and universities, began to neglect Jewish studies and to assimilate to society with everyone else. Very observant Jews were upset by this. Why should Jews all of a sudden assimilate to society with everyone else? Judaism was slowly slipping out of the common person’s life. Rabbi Geiger wanted to bring Judaism back to the average person.

Honored Members at PAR Fall Kallah 2013

three aliyah’s honored our event visitors, new members and fall birthdays.

Geiger, a skilled scholar in both Tanakh and German studies, investigated Jewish history. He discovered that Jewish life had continually changed. Every now and then, old practices were changed and new ones introduced, resulting in a Jewish life that was quite different from that lived 4,000 or even 2,000 years before. He noticed these changes often made it easier for Jews to live in accordance with Judaism. Geiger concluded that this process of change needed to continue to make Judaism attractive to all Jews. That is what Reform Judaism is all about. Changing traditions to be relevant to us in the modern day.

Nowadays, we take for granted the fact that we, as Reform Jews, are allowed, and encouraged, to modify Judaism to fit into our own lives. We rejoice in new practices and things that adapt tradition to give way to something new and exciting. It hasn’t always been like this. The idea of Reform Judaism took a long time to fully come about. And it wasn’t without a struggle. Reform Jews weren’t seen as real Jews. Some very observant Jews today still don’t see Reform Jews as “real” Jews. But now, we are able to practice freely, that which makes sense to us.

Today in services, we hoped you learned a little bit about why we do the things we do. As you’ve seen, it’s not always crystal clear. We are allowed to wrestle with God and Jewish practices. It’s part of what defines us as a Movement. We challenge things and make them more pertinent to our lives. And what happens when we wrestle? We become stronger. We learn something. We come to a new understanding of our world. Even though we might get a few injuries along the way, like Jacob did, something NEW is created. Something divine. Something beautiful. Much like Jacob becoming Israel.

I’m sure that all of you wrestle with dilemmas in your own lives on a daily basis. So now, I want to challenge you to wrestle with your Judaism in particular. And I mean really wrestle. WWE style. Think about what it means to have traditions, what it means to be a Jew, and what it means to come out of a fight a stronger person and nation. I know you are each capable of rising above. Shabbat Shalom.