Opinion | Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson: Four questions for a Summit County rabbi
I “met” Rabbi Joel Schwartzman after he wrote to me in response to a recent column. After an exchange of emails, I asked him if he’d be the subject of one of my four question interviews. He agreed, and I’m happy to share his answers here:
Rabbi Joel, please tell us about your religious background and how you came to be a rabbi?
I came from a Reform Jewish family. My father was a Reform rabbi, and his parents were Reform Jews. My father taught at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the city in which I grew up. Cincinnati was the seat of Reform Judaism. It is where Reform got its start. My family was always connected to Reform temples, and I taught at Temple Sholom’s religious school for many years, even before making my decision to go into the rabbinate. I did not follow directly in my father’s footsteps as a congregational rabbi but entered the U.S. Air Force as a military Jewish chaplain.
How has your walk of faith changed over the years, from when you first became a rabbi to now?
I would not call it a “walk of faith,” as much as I would say that I have a deep love of the Jewish people, Jewish values and Jewish community. These have not waivered although much is changing in the American Jewish world these days, and I am far less involved than I was when I was a military chaplain or congregational rabbi. For certain, my voice has grown stronger after I left the military. One could have opinions in the service, but, for the most part, we were required to keep political opinions to ourselves.
Have you ever experienced a loss of faith? What brought you back to your faith, and how was your relationship with God strengthened by the experience?
Again, I find the phrasing of this question somewhat foreign to me. I grew up reading Holocaust literature. I read everything of Elie Wiesel’s writings I could get my hands on. I also read Isaac Basheva Singer’s and Saul Bellow’s books. Leon Uris’ Exodus had a profound effect on me as did John Hersey’s The Wall.
My relationship with God was colored by the immense tragedies my people suffered throughout history. These taught me a certain level of theological skepticism and a wariness about the dealings I have with my fellow human beings. Rabbi Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” spoke to this stance.
While believing in God, mine was not a personal one; I believed that the free will we humans have, but too often misuse or ignore, is the key to our perfecting the world and creating, if not a messianic age, so to speak, at least as good, decent and positive a world as we are capable. If I am to encounter God, it would be through Jewish community, in our being there with and for each other, bound together by our common history, values and religious traditions and practices.
What do you feel is the most pressing matter facing us today, and how can we rely on the wisdom of our faith to help us?
How we can return to a civility in our relationships and a willingness to hear the other without compromising our own position but being open to changing them is probably the greatest challenge of our times.
We are overwhelmed by media, social, print and digital. Technology is outstripping our values and our ability to control and utilize it. We face a future filled with challenges, yet we have been taught that we have been created “a little lower than the angels.” Understanding our position in creation and the importance of the choices we make is critical to our continued existence as a species.
‘Leaving it up to God’ is not a rational or desired position in a world faced with Climate Change. Working in partnership with God, fully acceptant of our responsibilities as sentient beings who must make difficult choices which ensure our survival, is the challenge.
I am always interested in learning about the walk of faith of others. If you, or someone you know, would like to share their walk of faith here, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson’s column “Walking Our Faith” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Anderson is the author of 10 novels and nonfiction books on faith. She has lived in Breckenridge since 2016. Contact her at email@example.com.
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