When Rabbi Stephen Pearce speaks at Monmouth Reform Temple March 28 and 29, it will mark the debut appearance in the local area for a clergyman who appeared three successive times on Newsweek’s list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America. In addition to his leadership of San Francisco’s 2,700-family Congregation Emanu-El, from which he retired in 2012 after 20 years, Pearce became international vice chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall, supporting those seeking more egalitarian prayer at the Kotel in Jerusalem.
Pearce, 68, is the Koret Visiting Professor of Jewish Pastoral Care at the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Jewish Studies, Berkeley.
Scheduled to speak twice during his Monmouth visit, Pearce responded to questions via e-mail, replying first about his connection to MRT clergy, including Rabbi Sally Priesand, the temple’s rabbi emerita and first female ordained rabbi in America.
NJJN: I understand that you have certain connections with Monmouth Reform Temple.
Pearce: Yes, Rabbi Sally Priesand is a cherished classmate. We were both ordained in 1972. I have deep affection for her talents and for trailblazing a path that has led the way for so many other young women.
In addition, Rabbi Robert E. Ourach, MRT’s interim rabbi, was my first student assistant when I was ordained and serving a pulpit in Forest Hills, NY. He is a cherished friend and an exemplary rabbi.
NJJN: Please briefly discuss the themes and major talking points in your presentation on “Shifting Landscapes: Redefining Jewish Groupings.”
Pearce: As I see it, the old ways of categorizing Jews — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and so forth — no longer are meaningful. I believe that we should be looking at new distinctions that reflect more than congregational focus, including: Not-Very-Jewish Jews, Formerly Affiliated Jews, Very-Jewish Jews (a subset of Very-Jewish Jews is the We’ve-Always-Done-It-That-Way Jews), No-Longer-Jewish Jews, Suddenly-Jewish Jews, Half-Jewish Jews, Broad-Spectrum Jews (LGBT, reconstituted families, and interfaith/interracial groupings come with special needs and hope), Non-Jewish Jews, Spiritual-but-Not-Religious Jews, Unconventional and/or Renewal Jews, Alimony Jews, and Excess-Baggage/Disaffected Jews.
NJJN: Why did you choose this particular area as your focus?
Pearce: Because I believe that if we define Jews the way we always have, we will get what we have always gotten! It is time to consider new models that will allow for different kinds of responses.
NJJN: Switching gears, how would you describe your Saturday topic, “Overlooking the Obvious: The Binding of Isaac Revealed in Literature and Poetry?”
Pearce: Last fall, I wrote an article for Reform Judaism called “Wrestling with Abraham,” in which I stated that Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac at God’s behest highlights an impenetrable paradox: How could a good, omnipotent God cause bad things to happen to good people?
The article goes on to present 10 possible explanations, beginning with the suggestion that this episode serves as a case against child sacrifice, a rite that was practiced in biblical times.
Other possibilities are that it is God, not Abraham, who is being tested or that the passages are a reminder we do not “own” our children. Or that the message is intended to help us re-channel our violent nature or teach us to live with uncertainty. Or even that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that God wanted Abraham to bring Isaac to the altar, not offer him up on the altar.
I intend to go over this ground with the MRT congregants and to ask them, as I did the readers of Reform Judaism, which of the possible explanations resonates with them. I hope that they will recognize that there is more to sacred texts than the obvious. The Jewish experience demands that Jews ask questions and not accept things at face value.
The old joke says it all: A rabbi was once asked, “Why do you Jews always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi replied: “Who knows?”