Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Jew In The Box, And Why It's Not A Bad Thing


Here's my sermon from this past Friday on this controversial subject that's making the rounds.

I’m sure by now you’ve heard this week about the new exhibit at the Berlin Jewish museum. There, starting this past month, is a glass box, with a chair, in which a member of the Jewish community goes and sits for some set amount of time. The individual—young or old, male or female—is allowed to interact with the folks at the museum, answer questions about Judaism. The sign asks a question: “are there still Jews in Germany?” This is the “Jew in the Box” installment, as part of the exhibit "The Whole Truth, everything you wanted to know about Jews", and it raises some fundamental questions. 

Now, there have been living exhibitions in museums before, including Jewish exhibitions. I’m thinking specifically of the soferet—the female scribe—who wrote a Torah while ‘on display’ at a Jewish museum in California, to show the scribal art and have people ask questions about the process. But this display and its implications are different, and as the reaction to the exhibit has made clear, more challenging. For one thing, the fact that this is on display in Berlin, in Germany, who under Hitler wanted to establish a Jewish museum for entirely different purposes, and who’s Jewish population is down to nearly nothing—a mere 200,000 among 82 million souls—not merely due to immigration or demographics but murder, makes the whole thing seem ghoulish to many. "Why don't they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box," said one member of the Jewish leadership. "It's a horrible thing to do – completely degrading and not helpful," said another. 

And yet, as many of the volunteers have said, who among us has not felt like a museum piece, like a person on display? Who hasn’t had to answer questions, from the sublime to the ridiculous, acting as an impromptu expert on theology, history, the Holocaust, and a myriad of other topics? Right before Passover, Marisa was in the checkout line at Shoprite, and as she was ringing up her matzah and other Passover stuff, was asked by the cashier, “Is there some kind of holiday coming up?” and “Is this what Jesus ate?” The reality is, there’s a lot people don’t know about Jews and Judaism—the questions we get bely the questions we don’t get, the ones that are left unasked, and so, unanswered. The exhibit creates a ‘safe’ opportunity to ask questions that might not be asked in another setting. According to one article, one volunteer was asked about Shabbat, Judaism and homosexuality, and kippot. And if you caught the Good Morning America piece on Wednesday, another volunteer was asked by a teenager about the appropriateness of holocaust jokes (by the way: the answer was, yes they’re rude and no don’t tell them,  especially in Germany).  Now, you and I might think that should be self-evident, but spend enough time with teens and tweens, and you might instead be proud of the fact that the kid asked at all, and didn’t just let one rip in the cafeteria. 

So, was it a good idea? Should the museum have put on this exhibit? It makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Then again, aren’t museums—isn’t art—supposed to make us uncomfortable? To prick at us and poke at us? What makes us uncomfortable, I think, is not so much the exhibit itself. It’s that sense of threat that Jews, and perhaps all minorities, carry around with them. That we’re one step away from some unspeakable horror, or worse, extinction. That we may someday be museum pieces, putting on Passover Seders like Native Americans put on pow wows or Hawaiians luaus. But what makes us uncomfortable, I think, is that the museum exhibit is pointing out what we ought to be doing. No, not sitting in a glass box, but going out and speaking about our Judaism. There was a time that we thought Judaism was the religion of enlightenment, and many of us still think about our faith and its creed as having vital, important truths to share with the world, and a viewpoint that is more empowering, more compassionate and creative than others. It’s the other side of the coin, why we privately crow about Jewish Nobel laureates. We should be promoting our values outward toward the rest of the world—are we not called to be a light to the nations, a nation of priests and a holy people? But we get another question about Chanukah being Jewish Christmas or why so many Jews vote for Democrats and we shrink instead. 

Our torah portion reflects this as well. Aaron lifts his hands up toward the people to bless them, steps down and goes into the tent of meeting with Moses, whereupon both come out and bless the people. Like Aaron, we step forward to share our blessing, our people’s blessing, with those beyond our four walls, but then we stop, and retreat to safety. What would it mean for us to be like Moses and Aaron together, proudly standing before the people, sharing the blessing? For we read, it was at that point that the divine Presence appeared. So the question takes on cosmic ramifications: do we, in our hesitance to ‘out’ ourselves, or answer questions, or engage in dialogue, in advocacy, with others, are we denying ourselves and the world the presence of God? 

In his book Nothing Sacred, Douglas Rushkoff writes, “maintaining the free, open and intelligent conversation that expresses Judaism at any given moment isn’t easy. Still, more than any particular tenet or practice, this evolving conversation—and the right of every human being to participate in it—is the defining characteristic of this tradition.” So, the next time you feel like you’re the “Jew in the box,” the museum piece, remember—museums are meant to educate, and exhibits are meant to challenge. We carry a privilege and a responsibility, we nation of priests. Let’s live up to it. 

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