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All Hallow’s Eve, Father Healy z”l, and Applied Jewish Wisdom

Halloween wasn’t really a thing when I was a kid in England; we had Guy Fawkes Night, five days later. So my first Halloween was when I was a Junior Year Abroad student at Georgetown, where it was a big deal, both on campus and in the neighborhood.

We began Halloween by going to Dahlgren Chapel for a Hallow’s Eve Mass, led by Father Healy, z”l, the President of the University. Dahlgren Chapel is small and dark, an atmospheric place, and famous as the location of a key scene in The Exorcist. For Halloween it was packed. Students were dressed up, had already started drinking, and were planning to go out and hit the bars in Georgetown afterwards. It was quite a scene.

It was to this audience, and to considerable laughter, that Father Healy began: “I’m so glad that you are all so committed to the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve…”

He went on: “Hallow’s Eve is about celebrating the holiness in each of us; the holiness in our friends, the holiness in our fellow students, the holiness in our teachers…” And already the atmosphere had shifted, and the congregation was settling into quiet, and one could feel people getting into a different gear.

And he paused very slightly, and then carried on, “… and the holiness in Archbishop Romero and our brothers and sisters in El Salvador.”

And then Father Healy spoke about the church in El Salvador and about the opportunity for Georgetown students to make a difference there. You could have heard a pin drop. I remember getting a little teary. He was a physically imposing figure, an inspiring speaker, and he manifested a very clear sense of the role of religion and of religious leadership in contemporary society – in his case a very humane Catholicism and a deep rootedness in the Jesuit order.

I had largely forgotten that evening, but I was reminded of it this week by a very wonderful two-day gathering, convened by the new Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. Its focus was a question that animated Father Healy on Halloween: if religion matters at all, then it must matter in the world and in the fullness of our lives, not just in the “religious” bits. But if that is so then – in contemporary non-profit language – what is our logic model? What is our theory of change? How does a religious tradition impact who we are; how does it influence our behaviors for good? Which teachings? What ideas? Which texts? Delivered how, to whom, in what ways, when?

These are key questions for the Jewish community in our era. There was “Jewish continuity” and then there was “renewal” or “renaissance” or whatever came after continuity. But I sense a very wonderful and healthy shift underway at the moment. It involves a deeper acknowledgement of the radical implications of living in this extraordinarily open and unbounded world. You do not have to be Jewish. You do not have to be observant. You do not have to do what your rabbis told you to do. You do not have to keep kosher. You do not have to join a synagogue. And – conversely – 5% of the people who identified as Jewish and were counted as Jewish in the 2011 Jewish Community of New York survey had these characteristics: my mother is not Jewish; my father is not Jewish; I have not converted to Judaism; and I am Jewish…

So the radical openness of our society – in both directions – is provoking critical thinking. The heart of them is a move from “how” questions to “why” questions. Why be Jewish? Why keep kosher? Why learn Torah? The how questions are more easily answered – there are teachers, classes, websites – but the why questions are far more important.

Jewish institutions are not used to asking these questions. But it is good and wonderful that they – we – are starting to do so.

And these questions animate everything that Hazon does. I am not much interested in “kiruv,” meaning outreach to encourage people to be more observant for the sake of observance. Yet it is striking that in the time that I have been involved in Hazon I have seen a steady stream of people become more observant, following their involvement in our programs, and the JOFEE study bore this out. I’m of course delighted that this is so; but it is not simply because I think that observance is a good end, in and of itself. Rather, it is because I care about the whole and the parts: I want to live a good life; I want help and encouragement and wisdom to be the best person I can be; I want a framework for family and community that is humane and relevant; and I want to be animated by a tradition that bears the possibility of making the world a better place – not in general terms but in very specific ways. The tradition of keeping kosher – of asking if something is fit for me to eat – is an important question for the world in 2014. Or the nature of rest. I have switched off my phone and my laptop on Shabbat since before laptops existed. I did so and do so not for instrumental reasons but because I am observant and I love Shabbat and I love Jewish tradition. I switch off because I’m Jewish, and it is my understanding of Jewish tradition that I am obligated to switch off. But can anyone doubt that this would be a healthier country if all 315 million Americans switched off their electronica one day in seven? And instead celebrated and davenned and ate with friends and family and went for a walk and had a schluf in the afternoon?

And I note a fascinating paradox at the heart of my relationship to Jewish tradition. On the one hand you could argue that I am implying that Jewish tradition is of instrumental value; that I observe Jewish tradition or join a Jewish community because it will somehow give me something, help me accomplish something. I do believe those things. And yet I am also clear that, at its heart, Jewish tradition itself understands its internal motors to be moved by a different kind of mechanism. It believes in ol malchut shamayim – literally, the yoke of the kingship of heaven – and it expects observance because it is mandated by the tradition, which is in turn rooted in a certain kind of theology. This is the contemporary Jewish zen koan – that I do not necessarily “believe” in certain traditional aspects of Jewish theology, yet I also implicitly accept them in my relationship to tradition. This is what Paul Riceour (rather helpfully) meant when he wrote about a “second naivete.”

So… Shabbat shalom. It is the week of lech lecha – the ur-journey that takes us from all that is safe and familiar, exposes us to challenge and danger, but enables us to fulfill a unique way of being in the world. At Isabella Freedman, Adamahniks are about to rest after a hard week’s work. Tevaniks have been teaching. In Philadelphia we’re preparing for our Jewish Food Festival. In Israel we have one group of participants celebrating Shabbat together in the middle of our Israel Sustainable Food Tour, and more than 170 people are getting ready to fly out for our Israel Ride, which starts on Wednesday. And – yes – in Georgetown and elsewhere people are getting ready to celebrate Halloween. Wherever you are – and whatever your Shabbat – I bless you and me and all of us that we rest, recharge, switch off our machines… and see the holiness in each person around us.