Yair D. Robinson
Yom Kippur Morning 5774: To be a Jew
A man imprisoned and cast into a spell.
A man condemned to be the snake
Who keeps watch over infamous gold.
A man condemned to be Shylock
A man bent over the earth in hard work
Knowing that once he stood in Eden.
An old man with his eyes put out who will bring down the walls.
A man condemned to wear a mask,
A man who in spite of man is Spinoza and the Baal Shem and the kabbalists.
A man who is a book
A tongue that praises from the depths
The justice of the skies.
A salesman or dentist who spoke with God on the mountaintop.
A man condemned to be the object of ridicule
The abomination, the Jew
A man stoned, set afire,
Asphyxiated in death chambers,
A man who endures and is deathless,
Who has now returned to his battle,
To the violent light of victory
Handsome as a lion in the twelve o’clock sun.
The words of Jorge Luis Borges, from the poem “Israel”, first published in 1970.
What does it mean to be Israel? What does it mean to be a Jew in today’s world, where identity is fungible, not fundamental, personal, rather than communal or tribal? What does it mean for you, for me, to be Jewish?
I suspect that is a question that’s on your minds today, especially today. And I would guess there are others of you who would rather not dwell on that question, those who are here regretfully, out of some ethnic or familial allegiance, but reluctantly, perhaps even resentfully, whose Jewish identity arises only when others call attention to it, frequently in the negative.
What does it mean to be a Jew? Is the question—that is to say, are we, relevant anymore? There is a lot of hand-wringing in the organized Jewish world today over that very question. Once barred from schools, professions, and civic organizations, we clung to each other, or when we did reach out, we did so with an explicit understanding that we were bringing our corporate values to the public square. We were speaking up as Jews for an issue—be it liberalizing school holidays, or policies in the workplace, or causes that were near and dear to us. I’m not necessarily describing religious values, but values that perhaps any minority would embrace: tolerance, acceptance, diversity, room for divergent voices where before people spoke only as one. I think of folks like Henry Schenker, who activelyengaged in interfaith dialogue, of Rabbi Drooz and Nardy Ableman, who made a point of going to Rotary club, and other countless individuals who were explicitly representing us. For them, what it meant to be a Jew was clearly defined: it was ethnicity, it was tribe. It was civilization: it was about being with your own people, your own kind, and promoting their welfare here and abroad, facing hostile enemies and threats.
But that was two generations ago. My father’s generation faced little persecution; I experienced almost none, despite growing up in a community where there were nearly no Jews at all. It has been two generations since intermarriage was stigmatized; today, it is normative. It has been two generations since Jews had no choice but to seek out other Jews; today, regardless of whether you grow up in Muncie Indiana or Monsey New York, whether you grow up fully assimilated or a Satmar Hasid, you can chart your own course. A generation ago you could discuss the differences between American values and Jewish values; the generation coming of age today—and their parents—don’t understand the question. The values of individual experience and autonomy trump tradition and text. Today, we as liberal Jews may find that we have more in common with our friends at Hanover Presbyterian in terms of how we live our lives and the expression of our daily values, than we do with our friends at Chabad on Silverside Rd., despite the fact that the National Presbyterian Church has for years been anti-Israel, and despite our friends on Silverside being members of the Tribe.
A few years ago Alan Dershowitz wrote a book entitled “The Disappearing American Jew” (it seems we’re always disappearing, aren’t we?). What he failed to understand was that the American Jew wasn’t disappearing—it was merely a kind of American Jew that he recognized. For him, the American Jew was one who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, who joined Jewish institutions reflexively, who married within the tribe, raised kids within the tribe, who shared cultural and ethnic markers with one another. Today, that doesn’t hold water at all. I often share an article with folks called “Judaism is not Chicken Soup”. Written by a Jew-by-choice, it laments that image. He didn’t grow up with Yiddish and kneidlach. His Judaism isn’t ethnic, or tribal. It’s spiritual, it’s personal, and it’s rooted in the choices he made. But because he wasn’t raised as an ‘insider’, he laments that he may ever feel like an outsider. And we know that too often this is true. How many times have I heard people say, “oh, it’s an intermarriage—the Bride converted.” As if her commitment to a new faith, a new set of traditions, a different way of looking at the world wasn’t somehow enough to count her in?
What does it mean to be a Jew today? How often do we base the question not on belief, or spirituality, or theology, or connection to text, but on actions that may be irrelevant to our lives. In Inventing Jewish Ritual, The writer Vanessa Ochs laments [quote here]. Is that really how we define our Jewishness? Should those pieces be what defines our Jewishness? And if we don’t do them, is our Judaism even relevant? At the same time, how often have we heard—in fact we may ourselves have expressed—Jewish values reduced to ‘just be nice to one another’ or ‘follow the ten commandments’? Is that even Judaism anymore? What makes that Jewish, as opposed to just being a nice person?
What does it mean to be a Jew today? It means a whole host of diverse experiences and understandings, a myriad of different voices coming together or separating us based on values shared and in conflict. The liberal Jew, the secular Jew, the traditional Jew all on a continuum of practice and understanding, all too frequently questioning one another’s authenticity, creating false boundaries because of hidebound fears. Fears of the empowerment of women—in the case of the Orthodox establishment in Israel, fears that experimenting with tradition, with kashrut, with taking Torah seriously—not literally but seriously—will get one pegged as ORTHODOX, and therefore to be viewed with suspicion by the liberal community. It means existing in silos, duplicating efforts, fearing boogiemen, remembering those who have died because they were Jews without giving people reason to LIVE as Jews. It means creating program after program hoping desperately that our children—marrying older, having children later—will raise up another generation without taking the time to either empower them to create experiences and community for themselves, just as every other generation has.
What should it mean to be a Jew today? It means to live up to our mission, to God’s vision for us, a vision and mission we read this morning. We shall be holy. We are a chosen people, a light to the nations—not to be better, but to be exemplars. We are chosen to do work in the world, to redeem it, to heal it, to root out injustice and remind each other of our diversity and our unity. We are chosen not to be elevated except to shine a light—Israel is not on a pedestal, we’re a lighthouse.
That means accepting the past without smoothing it over or pretending the past doesn’t bleed into the present. We have been an oppressed people. There is still hate and ignorance today throughout the world and in our own community. To many, we are still Fagin and Shylock, we are still slaves in Egypt, and to pretend otherwise is to do a disservice to the generations who came before, and the other myriad minorities in our midst who can’t laugh off a joke and ‘pass’ for the majority. We were strangers once, we are strangers still, the consummate outsider, the prophetic people: when we see ignorance or injustice—in the way women are treated in the workforce, in the casual Jew joke, in the double standard black men are held to in this country—we must speak out, we must speak loudly, and we must act. We must act with a courage greater than ourselves—to speak out at injustice slight and great, to remind the people around us that they were created in God’s image and that means something.
And that means we need each other. To be a Jew is a communal experience. There is a reason we join together in minyan. We study together, we break bread together, we pray together, we mourn together, we rejoice together. We’re good at rallying together when we’re in jeopardy—we don’t come together enough in Joy: to dance at Simchat torah, to sing at Shabbat, to celebrate another child’s bar mitzvah or our confirmation class when they are called up to the Torah. We treat those as private events, meant for a specific group or family. Worse, we sometimes communicate that to each other. We don’t invite all our kids’ classmates, we don’t expand our circle of friends and invite them to sit with us at services, we get uncomfortable when older people come to Kabbalat Shabbat or young children come to services and act like children. The widow or single person too often sits alone, and goes home alone. And frequently, those who are happy to help others reject the loving extension of support when they’re the one in need. For the Jew, these are all communal experiences, meant for everyone, but they only work if everyone embraces each other fully and extends the invitation. Not just leadership, or clergy, or staff, but everyone.
And that community must extend beyond the one we make for ourselves. Israel may not be perfect, but it is ours. We may be angry with our Orthodox brothers and sisters for their rejection of us and their frequent attempts to stymie our progressive values, but our anger must the anger of family members, and not the indifference of strangers. Because the reality is that the challenges are so great we cannot tackle them ourselves. And that is true of non-Jews as well. There is too much poverty, too much damage to our planet, too many people young and old who are suffering from violence and neglect. Vision and mission are never for ourselves alone; to act as such would be an act of tremendous ego, of hubris, mistaking the lighthouse for a pedestal, shining the light in the wrong direction. We must lift those around us up, we must educate in word and in deed, we must make as much of a difference as we can, TOGETHER.
And that means keeping hope. To be Jewish is to be sarcastic, we know that. Our humor is black, and sharp, and speaks to our past disappointments. But sarcasm is different than cynicism. Indeed, we could argue that sarcasm is the humor of hope. We cannot grow cynical, cocooning ourselves away from the plight of the world, ignoring those around us who disappoint us. So long as we see our individual needs as primary above our mission as a people, then we will always be disappointed by those around us, and see them as obstacles, inconveniences. Our mission reminds us: we shall be holy, we may be holy, but we are entitled to nothing. We were chosen for a task; we must fulfill it, and we cannot let our own experience get in the way, our anticipated dissatisfaction get in the way.
What does it mean to be a Jew? It means to struggle mightily with beings human and divine, and it means prevailing. It means remembering that we are a prophetic voice in the world, and that we stand together. It means turning to the tasks of life not only for personal fulfillment but to reshape the world, to heal it entirely. It means at last stepping up out of our doldrums, taking up our mission, and returning to our battle, handsome as a lion in the noonday sun.