Why Be Anything? Rosh Hashana 5775

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

130 years ago, a new language was born – Esperanto. It had regular rules, no exceptions, simple grammar, this new language could be learned in 1/10th the time it takes to learn English. In its heyday they would hold Esperanto conferences – Esperanto speeches, Esperanto poetry, Esperanto songs. When the conference was over, the attendees would go back to speaking their native language, Yiddish.

Jews were not the only ones who spoke Esperanto, but they were very interested. Over the last 200 years, Jews have often been attracted to movements that promised to solve non-Jewish hostility and the dilemma of Jewish separatism. Maybe, these Jews thought, the solution to being different is not to convert and to be something else; maybe the solution is to eliminate difference altogether. Imagine life before the mythical Tower of Babel, or before our actual evolutionary Exodus from East Africa, when all homo sapiens then alive spoke one language, were one tribe, one humanity. A utopia recorded history has never seen, but many have imagined.

The inventor of Esperanto was, no surprise, a Polish Jew, Ludwik Zamenhof. In his words,

In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town, a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is…the most influential basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on. This was always a great torment to my infant mind,…so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.

Zamenhof was a complete universalist: he even declined to join an organization of Jewish Esperantists! Zamenhof did not want to be a Jew nor a Pole nor a Russian – Zamenhof wanted to be only a human being, a member of the human family.

Zamenhof died in 1917, but that’s not the end of the story. Ludwik Zamenhof, internationalist, is buried … in the main Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, near the first chief rabbi of Warsaw and thousands of other Jews. As the Jewish American sociologist Horace Kallen put it in the same era, in gendered language: “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: they cannot change their grandfathers.

Every person lives many identities: humanity, ethnicity, family, philosophy, citizenship, gender, political persuasion, individuality. I recently spoke with a wedding couple, and the non-Jewish bride expressed concern that if she were to sign a ketubah [Jewish marriage agreement], she would be abandoning who she is. I pointed out to her that when you get married, who you are changes by addition, not subtraction – she will still be who she was before, but now she will also be part of her husband’s family, appearing on his family tree, and her home will be connected to his family culture just as it will be to hers. The challenge with multiple identities is finding the balance among them, or between them if they collide. One 19th century Jewish poet called for the Jew to be “a man on the street and a Jew in his tent” – in other words, accept a double identity to minimize the public difference between Jews and everyone else. Some would extend that difference minimization to simply “be an individual, be a universalist, be human above and beyond everything.” Esperanto now, Esperanto tomorrow, Esperanto Chee-am! [forever]

We at Kol Hadash have made a different choice – we have chosen to be something, we accept that we ARE something we do not want to leave behind. Thus our presence here tonight for Rosh Hashana, the beginning of a Jewish New Year. Tomorrow morning, we’ll explore the specific choice of being Jewish; tonight we have to answer a question before that question – why be anything?

There are reasonable reasons to leave an identity behind – perhaps you fear persecution, or you sincerely desire to end conflict and division; just because you were born X, you can still try to be Y, or choose no label at all. The historic Jewish temptation to the universal, the Esperanto impulse. Example: in the 1870s, Felix Adler, son of a famous New York City Reform Rabbi, started Ethical Culture, which drew hundreds of New York area Jews with its emphasis on “deed, not creed” – and minus any ethnic, ritual or cultural orientation. Outside of the Northeast, the population attracted to Ethical Culture was more mixed, but Jews were still significantly over-represented. Example: Communism long had great appeal for Jews, because it promised to end ethnic hatred through international worker solidarity. In the United States in 1947, the International Workers Order had 15 language sections – the Yiddish language section was 40% of the membership, when Jews were only 4% of the American population! For all that internationalism, however, it wasn’t that simple. Leon Trotsky was born Lev Bronstein; he left being Jewish for international socialism in his teens. But that didn’t stop antisemites from using Trotsky’s and Marx’s Jewish origins to criticize communism, or stop Joseph Stalin from using Trotsky’s Jewishness to expel and murder him and to persecute Soviet Jews in the name of universalism. Supposedly the chief rabbi of Moscow said: Trotsky makes the revolution, the Bronsteins pay the bills.

The reality is that who we are is not only a function of our individual choices – you can change David Daniel Kaminsky to Danny Kaye, but you cannot change your grandfather, those people and that culture that came before you. The memories your parents or your grandparents gave you of lighting Hanukkah candles or holding Passover seders will be a part of you until a science fiction future when you can erase the memories you don’t want. I actually have no memory of either of my grandfathers – my father’s father was shot by a burglar while my father was still in utero, and my mother’s father died just before I turned 3. But I know the stories, I have the pictures that look vaguely like me and a lot like my parents, I am an heir.

The Universalist response, “That’s internal, that’s “just” emotional, the tyranny of memory. That can be overcome by strengthening the will and ignoring the guilt.” Unfortunately, we ourselves are not the only arbiters of our identity – society plays a role, and some features are inescapable. Consider the case of Barack Obama – he has one white parent and one black parent. Could Barack Obama really choose to identify as “white,” as he has chosen and society has accepted his self-identification primarily as “black?” Under South African Apartheid, there were several racial categories, including Black, White, Coloured or mixed, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Other Asian, etc. People were racially classified by 3 factors: physical appearance, social acceptance, and individual descent – and you could petition a committee to change your racial identity: in 1984, 795 people were re-classified. 518 went from Coloured to White; two Whites became Chinese and one White became Indian; 89 Black Africans became Coloured, and 5 Coloured people became African.

Ridiculous, but, the universalist might argue, that’s what you get for trying to define borders and boundaries to separate humanity. Maybe it’s better to forget the whole thing! The Jewish experience? There have been times in Jewish history when you could not leave your Jewishness behind, even by assimilation or conversion – the Spanish Inquisition did not persecute self-identified Jews; it pursued so-called “New Christians” who had been Jewish and converted, but were still suspect. The new standard was “Limpieza de Sangre,” or “Blood Purity.” The social snobs of the 19th and early 20th century who excluded successful Jews from country clubs didn’t care about their education, their diction, the Americanness of their names or the shape of their noses – a Jew was a Jew. We know the racial Antisemitism of the Nazi Holocaust, when hatred did not stop to check what you believed or which identity box you marked – one Jewish grandparent could be enough, and the victims could not change their grandfathers, in a tragic way. Gradually, Jews have been accepted as “white,” whatever that means, but you would not have to be crazy to draw the lesson that being anything different, minority, alien is dangerous, and that difference is a source of conflict. You may recall the case of former Senator George Allen – when it came out during his 2006 campaign that his Tunisian-born mother had hidden the fact that she was Jewish, he responded indignantly, “How dare you cast aspersions on people because of their religion,” and then held an awkward press conference the next day admitting she was Jewish while asserting, “But she made great pork chops!” If you know her family’s story, how they were persecuted as Jews during the Holocaust under German occupation, however, the fear becomes more understandable.

There are positive reasons to identify with humanity as a whole: as Shakespeare’s Shylock said, we are “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” Science, philosophy, art can all educate and inspire any human of any background. On some level, it is crazy to divide the entire world’s population into “Jews” and “non-Jews” – 0.2% vs. 99.8%. Our tradition claimed that we were the chosen people, that all history revolved around us, but just as the world does not actually revolve around every 3 year old, it does not revolve around the Jewish people, or around any one people. When you are part of a small people like the Jews, it can be very tempting to expand your group identity beyond 0.2% – how about the international proletariat? Educated seekers of universal Ethical Culture? Pioneers of a global language? All true, and yet, even if we want it, we do not have absolute freedom to choose who we are – we cannot choose our grandfathers, and we cannot fully determine how others see us.

Now our individuality rebels – “who are they, who are you to tell me what I cannot do, whom I can and cannot be?” This rebel sees a slippery slope from group identity to group-think, group responsibility, group limitations. How can I assert my autonomy, my individuality if people think of me as a label first and as unique me second? This is the deep irony of a Humanistic community – we tell you to think for yourselves. “Make up your own mind!” If I am Jewish, am I implicated in anything any other Jew does? If I am part of a group, will they speak for me differently than I would have spoken for myself? Will the group expel me if I think for myself, if I challenge group consensus? Forget it, says the rebel, no groups for me. In the end, if we say that people are in charge of their own life, we had better mean it. If they choose to resign, we cannot stand in their way. But group identity is deeply rooted in the human psyche, everything from family and neighborhood to sports team up to a cultural and philosophic community like Kol Hadash. The benefits from being together can be worth the challenges and limitations of getting along, the need to argue for one’s perspective or to gracefully accept if the group chooses another path. If we want the strength of mutual support, if we want a voice in the larger Jewish and human conversation, if we seek inspiration from both our roots and our shared commitments, then a label and a group it may be. And a label can make all the difference – I recently heard a story of a family living on the Canadian-USA border who were asked to choose which country they wanted to live in. After careful consideration, they chose to be in the United States, since “those Canadian winters are just too cold.”

Let’s look at this differently. Do you love your family? Is there ANYTHING WRONG with loving your family? Is there anything about loving your family that makes you unable to be good and decent to the other 99.999% of humanity? We have to avoid two extremes – on one end, there is loving your family above and beyond the humanity of anyone else – we call that the Mafia – they love “the family,” and they are terrible to humanity. On the other extreme, there is loving humanity more than those who gave you life and who today give you love. Karl Marx’s family suffered terrible poverty, including the deaths of children in squalid conditions, while Marx spent his time in the British Library working on Das Kapital. Yes, you are allowed to have a family, and to love that family, and to love that family more than universal brotherhood, or at least as much. In my 10th year, I love my congregation more than ever, but I still love my family more than you. If you can have a family of love and commitment, can you not extend that family to distant cousins, adopted relatives, even an ethnic community? The radical Rosa Luxemburg, born Jewish, responded to anti-Jewish pogroms by writing: “I have no room in my heart for Jewish suffering. Why do you pester me with Jewish troubles? I feel closer to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations of Putumayo or the Negroes in Africa… I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto.” Can you not feel for both? You can be part of more than one family at once – yours by birth, your partner’s by marriage, your ethnicity, even the human family. Remember the bride and the ketubah: one family does not replace the other – they exist simultaneously in you.

One Jewish ex-communist, Morris Schappes, put it very simply (Judaism in a Secular Age, p. 267):

No one lives in The Universe. There is no address that reads 175 Fairview Boulevard, The Universe. Even the Universal Postal Union could not deliver mail to such an address. You live in a country, a state, a nation. There is no history of The Universe. Uni­versal history is the sum total of group histories (tribe, people, nationality…), seen in their interconnections. Similarly, there is no simply “human” experience that can give rise simply to “human values.” For all these thousands of years all human experience has been cast in the form of the lim­ited group. An “internationalist,” thus, is not one who lives in an “intemation” in outer space, far far out. He is an American interna­tionalist, a Polish internationalist, A Ghanaian or an Indian inter­nationalist. They may converge, but they converge from different points. We here may be American Jewish internationalists. But to omit the American or the Jewish is to strip the “internationalist” of vital, concrete meaning.

The irony is that the more we understand where we live, the more we accept who we are, the more we learn who our grandfathers and our grandmothers were, the better we understand everyone else. EVERYONE comes from somewhere; if we drop difference for universalism, we won’t understand and appreciate the vast majority of humanity that persists in being who they are. I do not want there to be only Applebee’s – I want Chinese take-out, and drive-through Mexican, and Vietnamese-Italian fusion cuisine.

In that Warsaw Jewish cemetery, not far from Ludwik Zamenhof, the father of Esperanto, lies Isaac Lieb Peretz, a giant of modern Yiddish literature. Peretz also welcomed the wider world, but he appreciated the universal from a particular perspective:

“I am not proposing that we lock ourselves in a spiritual ghetto. We must leave it – but with our own soul, our own spiritual wealth. We must make exchanges. Give and take. Not beg.

Ghetto means impotence. Interchange of culture is the only hope for human growth. Man, the complete man, will be the synthesis of all the varied forms of national culture and experience.

To take yet continue to be oneself – that is the important thing. It is also difficult, especially for nations that are weak and not independent. That is why we must be more demanding with the Yiddish writer. He has something that is unique.

He should not do what others have done. Leave the ghetto, see the world – yes, but with Jewish eyes.”

If I don’t understand what it means to be MY something, how can I understand when someone else wants to be who they are? The more I connect with my own culture, the more I appreciate the distinctiveness of Korean culture or Lebanese culture – “yes, we have something like that,” a much better basis for dialogue than “why are you so different from what I want you to be?” Remember, demanding that other groups surrender who they are means that we impose our dominant culture on them – when 19th century White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the WASPs, said “just be American,” they really meant “be WASPy like us!” In our America, where whites will no longer be the majority, group identities will shift too.

If people and peoples are already different, don’t deny their difference and demand they vanish – find a balance between what the former British chief rabbi called “The Dignity of Difference,” and going over the deep end into chauvinism and division. If I’ve sold you on the possibility, even the desirability, of being something, we still have to answer: why be Jewish? Just because you’ve decided to buy a car, now you have to choose which one! We will turn to this question tomorrow morning, but for those who consider themselves Jewish, or at least Jew-ish: why are you STILL Jewish? Not where did you come from, but why are you here, specifically here? On Yom Kippur, we’ll explore balancing our specific Judaism with our connection to universal humanity and human values, celebrating culture while affirming the rights of women, minorities and the individual mind.

130 years ago, if you wanted a place in the world where you could minimize difference, you did not have to go further than the United State of America! Remember our metaphor for diversity? “The melting pot.” Are you at all surprised to hear that “The Melting Pot” was popularized in 1908 by a Jewish playwright as a play celebrating assimilation? Here is a key speech:

“… America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

Note that those are all white Europeans, but that’s part of the blindness of the melting pot ideology. Lose what you are, become what we want you to be – a full universalism denies the dignity of difference and diversity. Yes, we need common ground, common culture, common values, but not at the expense of who we are.

A much better metaphor for the dignity of difference comes, again, from Horace Kallen. We heard him say earlier that we can change a lot, but we cannot change our grandfathers. If that is the reality, and we love our family, and we celebrate our difference with even greater respect for others because we know who we are and they can be who they are, then we do not need to melt away. Kallen’s vision: “a chorus of many voices each singing a rather different tune. … What must, what shall this cacophony become – a unison or a harmony?” A unison or a harmony? Everyone singing the same note, or many notes coming together to sing a fuller anthem? To my ear, harmony is richer through diversity, a more beautiful world in many colors. L’shana Tova.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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5 Responses to Why Be Anything? Rosh Hashana 5775

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