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My Spiritual Journey – From Activism to Study and Back (Part 1)

February 17, 2016
Posted by: Rabbi Doug Kahn, JCRC Executive Director

My spiritual journey is not a subject I’ve generally spoken about before, let alone given as much thought to as I should. But I was asked to address the topic at the most recent San Francisco Interfaith Council breakfast attended by representatives of multiple religious traditions active in San Francisco. So I gave it a go.

I grew up in a classical San Francisco Reform synagogue. It was rabbi-centered and formal, and I didn’t understand how Jewish values came to life there. (Temple Emanu-El has changed greatly from my youth.) Where I saw the values was at the family dinner table where every night we discussed the political and social issues of our day – and I’m talking about from six years old and on.

I was regularly kicked out of my religious school classroom until 9th grade, when I enjoyed learning about religion for the first time. Every week we visited another faith tradition (a Catholic church, a Buddhist Temple, Protestant denominations, etc.) and I became more interested in my own background through my exposure to other traditions.

How little I knew. Somehow I decided to give Jewish summer camp a try – the Reform movement’s Camp Swig in Saratoga. It was there that Judaism came to life for me – the participatory services, the sense of community, and most of all the core social teachings of Judaism. Far from isolated from the world in the hills above Saratoga, Caesar Chavez came to a rally organized at camp on behalf of farm workers – a powerful memory.

In high school I became very involved in youth group, including interfaith activities and civil rights marches. I remember going to Grace Cathedral and standing by a pillar as Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke.

Two things happened kind of simultaneously: I became interested in the Jewish values that informed my passion for social justice (“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” etc.) and I read a book by Arthur Morse, While Six Million Died, the first book that documented how much was known in this country about the unfolding Holocaust that ultimately resulted in the murder of six million Jews and how little was done to stop it. The book, combined with resonant Jewish values, fueled my activism. For me, two core values in the Torah – all human beings are created in the image of God and do not stand idly by the blood of your brother – became entwined as one. I come to understand that our role as human beings is to co-partner with God in striving to perfect the world. Add to that the blessing of growing up at a time of remarkable transformational social moment. I turned 17 in 1967.

1967 – The culminating period of the major chapter in the civil rights movement in America and growing protests against the War in Vietnam. Civil rights and the Vietnam War represented the universal side of the ledger. The Six-Day War in Israel, which resulted in American Jews’ deep engagement with Israel and the start of the movement to free Soviet Jews (an opportunity to learn the lessons from inaction during the Holocaust), represented the particularistic side of the ledger.

Four monumental movements (while I was missing the “Summer of Love”) and I could not choose between them – I had to find a way to be involved with each. Nobody summed up my Jewish ethical approach better than Rabbi Hillel did more than 2000 years ago, when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers (1:14).

In 1968, I started at UC Berkeley. To say the least, nothing there deterred my social activist instincts. And while there I served as national president of the Reform youth movement, NFTY, where I had a national platform to encourage involvement on the great issues of our day – the four issues I just spoke about.

Amidst all these movements, yet another movement emerged. It was a movement demanding that Jewish leaders be knowledgeable Jewishly – authentic in their grounding as learned Jews. Ultimately, it was that movement that would lead me to the decision to attend rabbinical school. Even though I never envisioned being a pulpit rabbi, if I wanted to feel authentic and be seen as credible in my pursuit of Jewish engagement in social justice I needed to do more than quote a line here or there from scripture like “Justice justice shall you pursue” or “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.”

But before rabbinical school there was one more particularly formative experience – the summer of 1971, which was the first time I had the privilege of visiting Israel, and then with a friend from UC Berkeley went to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks (Soviet Jews who sought to leave and had been denied a visa). Their courage, their willingness to put it all on the line, including the risk of prison, for the right to live as Jews freely in Israel, inspired me. This was not only Jewish resistance in real time, it was a demonstration of what it meant to fight for the right to be Jewish, to live Jewishly, to study Judaism, to be inspired by the dream of Israel and not be able to take the privilege of Jewish life for granted.

Rabbinical school was a five-year hiatus from my activism (well not entirely – I did some organizing in rabbinical school) so that I could ground myself in Jewish sources. Required to do a thesis using original Hebrew sources, I was determined to come up with the hardest ethical issue I could think of – ultimately the “life for life” issue. Known in modern legal cases as “lifeboat ethics,” my focus was on those situations during the Holocaust where the only way to save a life was with the knowledge that another life would be substituted and lost. Rabbis in the ghettos pondered the original sources to arrive at their conclusions. My thesis advisor, a giant among modern theologians, Eugene Borowitz, passed away just weeks ago.

It was good intellectual training because out of rabbinical school, after three years at Hillel at George Washington University, I came home to my beloved San Francisco and to JCRC where my mind, my heart, my Jewish soul and my activism has been kept busy non-stop for 34 years.

(Continued next week.)

Originally delivered as a speech during the San Francisco Interfaith Council Monthly Breakfast on February 11, 2016.