For 400 years, Jews from across the globe have joined America’s multicultural masses, often intermarrying with people of other faiths and contending with a question of what it means to be Jewish in America.
On Monday, one of the world’s most influential rabbis will speak in Charleston to address that question. Rabbi David Wolpe, named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek, now serves at the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.
He will speak at 7 p.m. in the Stern Center Ballroom at the College of Charleston in downtown Charleston. It is free and open to the public. A reception will follow.
Wolpe is the author of seven books, including the national best-seller “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times.” He also writes for the Washington Post’s On Faith website, Huffington Post, New York Jewish Week and the Los Angeles Times among others.
Wolpe’s father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, was rabbi of Synagogue Emanu-El in West Ashley 1955-58.
The Post and Courier recently asked Rabbi David Wolpe about his work and visit to Charleston:
Q: You have been named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post. What was that like?
A: I was both surprised and flattered, but I knew that there were many who could be (and indeed have been) named as well. And there are countless rabbis who do fantastic work but may not have as big a public profile. It is the souls we touch, not the renown, that is the true measure of rabbinic work.
Q: When you were a boy, did you imagine you would reach such prominence?
A: As a boy, I wanted to be a writer and hoped one day people would read my books. More than that, I did not aspire to.
Q: Why did you decide to become a rabbi? A writer?
A: I decided to become a rabbi a few months before I entered rabbinical school. I planned on writing but really had no subject. A rabbi suggested I study Torah and get a great subject. I did and have been very grateful.
Also, my father was a prominent and wonderful rabbi in Philadelphia — his first pulpit was in Charleston — and his influence was tremendous in my life and the lives of my brothers in all their respective fields.
Q: The topic of your upcoming talk is “What Does It Mean to be Jewish in America Today?” What are the most pressing issues facing American Jews?
A: The most pressing issues are to integrate modern life with tradition, the preservation of a Jewish democratic Israel and to carry a value-laden tradition into the future.
Q: You received quite a bit of reaction to a sermon you gave several years ago addressing the historic validity of Exodus. What was the response like, and were you expecting it?
A: I did not expect the response to the historical study of Judaism, since Conservative Judaism has been doing that for its entire existence.
But it was a bracing and fascinating dialogue with many. For others, it was painful. And while I respect that, as the Talmud teaches, the seal of God is truth.
Q: Should historicity affect a person’s faith or worship?
A: I believe what is true should enhance our faith. We cannot make a historical claim and refuse to have it evaluated by history. A faith claim is not historical: Belief in God is not dependent on history.
But what certain figures did — and how — is historical. I am currently writing a biography of King David and struggling with these very questions.
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