Why Be Jewish? 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.

Ten years ago, in my first Kol Hadash High Holiday sermon, from this very rock, we explored what Judaism means to Humanistic Jews. For us, Judaism is Jewish thought and Jewish culture, Jewish history and Jewish tradition, Jewish freedom and Jewish creativity, and Jewish family and Jewish memory. I began and ended with Yehuda Amichai’s “Poem Without End”.

Osweicim synagogue, restored in 2000

Inside the brand-new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me.
Inside me
Is my heart.
Inside my heart
A museum.
Inside the museum
A synagogue,
Inside it
Me,
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum

A beautiful image: a never-ending spiral of meaning, and each level could be our Judaism – Judaism is the ancient religious tradition and the actual lived history of the synagogue, Judaism is the new creativity of a museum made for future generations, Judaism is the personal experience of the individual, Judaism is the heart of emotional memory. Some of you may remember that sermon, or at least you may remember the story I told about how hard it can be to define “the tradition:” there was a conflict in the synagogue over what the REAL tradition was at a certain point in the service. Half of the congregation would stand, the other half would stay seated, and they would all start yelling at each other. So they decide to consult the oldest man in town to find out what “the tradition” had to say about it. The “standers” made their case, and he responded, “No, that’s not the tradition.” The “sitters” then declared that they were correct, but the old man answered, “No, that’s not the tradition.” They explained to him that at the moment, half of them stand, half of them sit, and everyone yells – “Ah, THAT’S the tradition!” Ten years ago, there was a question behind that sermon that I did not ask, but we must answer:  “Why be Jewish at all?”

A Yiddish saying proclaimss’iz shver tsu zeyn a yid” – it’s hard to be a Jew. Certainly the case when the saying was coined under violent pogroms and persistent persecution. In our generation, we hoped that anti-Semitism was the distant past, but this summer saw everything from protesters in Paris attacking a synagogue to an NFL color commentator joking that his broadcast partner, Josh Lewin, invented copper wire fighting over a penny with a family member. Remember the white supremacist who went to a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and killed 3 people, none of them Jewish. Before we all run for the hills, recall that this summer it was the French police (along with Jewish self-defense) that protected that synagogue, the exact opposite of pogroms under Tsars or Kristallnacht under Nazis when the police were part of the problem. The bad NFL joker: immediately suspended and he apologized. These incidents are shocking because they are rare, foreign to our experience as American Jews. Here we are largely accepted and comfortable, we are integrated enough to be over-represented in Congress, and we are lovable enough that the rest of America keeps marrying us. The reality of open love in a free society may make it hard to be a Jew in new ways, but celebrating love is far better than facing hate. Unfortunately, real Antisemitism beyond bad jokes persists in too many places. Sometimes, the “why be Jewish” is answered by spiting our enemies: “You want us to disappear? Too bad!”

This summer also showed it can be hard to be a Jew when that identity is more than just culture and heritage, but also a living connection to a Jewish state. Many rabbis and The New York Times report that Israel is the third rail of sermonizing, something they don’t want to touch with a ten foot yad [Torah pointer]. Not because they don’t care about Israel, but because they are criticized no matter what they say. Express sympathy for dead Palestinian children, even at a place as liberal as New York City’s flagship LGBT synagogue, and board members resign in anger. Defend Israel’s military actions like bombing rocket launchers in urban areas, and half of your Facebook friends will disown you, assuming you also support targeting militants at home with their families. Governments protect their citizens at the expense of the other, and that means hard choices all the time – if you hadn’t noticed, the United States has been drone striking overseas targets with civilian casualties for years. For those connected by emotion to a land in which they do not live, those who may agree with some choices that Israel’s leadership takes but not others, ethnic solidarity and natural sympathy for human suffering are in conflict. Perhaps such tensions are inevitable given the realities of geo-politics, perhaps they could be lessened by less construction and more constructive choices. Either way, it is hard to be a Jew because of Jewish suffering, and it is hard to be a Jew when we see Jewish actions, however justifiable, cause suffering. When the family you love makes hard choices, it’s never easy.

Last night, we explored the universalist impulse to leave behind ethnic definitions for a universal humanity, solving the problem of difference by eliminating difference. If being Jewish is so hard, why bother? Why stay, why join, why be connected in any way? If something causes you grief, why not just free yourself and move on?

If you are here today, on Rosh Hashana for a Jewish New Year, then you’ve chosen to bother, for one reason or another. And that’s good – my goal is NOT for you to leave and never come back! As Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute once put it, previous generations were Jewish before they knew it: Jewish by birth – language – neighborhood, Jewish by immigrant and ethnic culture. They wondered how to balance being Jewish and becoming American. Today, the question has shifted: with all of my possible identities, connections, opportunities, why should being Jewish be important to me? Why should being Jewish even be on the list? Sixty years ago, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March opened “I am an American, Chicago born … and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” Augie March IS Jewish, as it comes out, but that’s not where he starts his song of himself. If we accept that we are something, if we agree it is preferable to be something and not nothing, if we understand that we can be many identities at any moment, then the issue is different. Not why be anything; why be THIS?

What we really have is three questions with the same answer: First, I asked you to consider last night, if you were born Jewish, why have you STAYED Jewish? Second, why might some choose to BECOME Jewish? And if one is connected to Jewishness through marrying someone Jewish or through one’s curiosity, why is Jewishness interesting? These are very different questions to very different audiences – why stay Jewish, why become Jewish, why explore things Jewish. I can give you personal reasons why I’ve STAYED Jewish, but I’ve never BECOME Jewish; I’ve never discovered the Jewish people through marriage! Nevertheless, I suspect that the answers to all three will be mostly the same: as with a lot in life, it all comes down to sales.

My father owned a business for over 30 years, and he was always his company’s best salesman. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Judaic Studies, he was looking to sell his business and retire. He asked if I’d be interested in taking over the company. I had already decided to be a Humanistic Rabbi, so I thanked him for the offer and declined; I said something like “I’m not that interested in being in sales.” What do I do as a Humanistic rabbi? Brochures, websites, marketing, messaging, promotional offers, advertising – I’m selling something different: I’m selling our community, to some extent I’m selling myself. The art of sales is really the art of persuasion – this is worth it! You SHOULD bother. What I’m selling is the value TO YOU of being with US. A few years ago, we were trying to come up with attention-getting slogans for the congregation. My early favorite was “Kol Hadash: Cheap and Easy.” Another favorite, because it can be read two ways: “We’re better than nothing.” Not that we are the least bad alternative, but that actually choosing us is BETTER than nothing, MUCH better than being NOTHING!

In the new world of the twentieth century, emancipation enabled a new free market – a free market for ideas and inspiration. When people choose for themselves where they live, what they eat, what they wear, and even what they believe, the old answers, the old selling approach won’t work. Imagine you worked for a Jewish advertising agency, call it “Mad Mensch.” In 1964, what were the top Jewish sellers for why be Jewish?

Number one: Be Jewish because we made a covenant with God at Mount Sinai – when we follow the Torah things go well, when we break the rules we ourselves are broken and scattered until we repent. Why was The Covenant a big seller? A clear bargain, a strong incentive program, the weight of tradition and cosmic authority behind it. Why doesn’t the Covenant pitch work anymore? Real life never worked that way – human suffering does not correspond to religiosity or to righteous behavior. To paraphrase the Yiddish poem “Dead Men Don’t Praise God,” ‘at Sinai we received the Torah, and in the Holocaust we gave it back.’ Not to mention the fact that the only “proof” that the Torah was given at Sinai is in the Torah itself, and archaeology and historical study have undermined the event’s claim to have actually happened – as powerful a story as it may be, no Sinai, no covenant, no deal.

Another old pitch: Be Jewish because we are the Chosen People. Not only are we the favorite children of a cosmic Father, we created ethics, we have the most brilliant scientists, the funniest comedians, the best families and the richest traditions. And, as a result, though you shouldn’t say it too loudly, the rest of the world is somewhat lesser than us. Why a big seller? The Chosen People appeals to our ego, it justifies self-pride, and why would you bother being anything else, or marrying anyone else, when you can be the best? The Chosen People pitch doesn’t work anymore either. At a certain point in your development, I hope you outgrew the belief that everything revolves around you – the “me-ocentric” theory of the world. Does it really make sense that the god of an entire universe of billions of stars would choose one small group of one species on one planet as the most important beings anywhere, the only ones to receive the true story of how everything came to be and what all humanity needs to do, in a language that’s hard to learn and that very few people speak? As history progressed, as freedom rang, we got to know our non-Jewish neighbors, and we learned that they too have wisdom and insight and humor to inform and inspire us. In some cases they came to love us, and we loved them back. Every group is wonderful in its own distinct way, but our group better than everyone else? Just too convenient and self-serving, not to mention rude – morality and reality reject it. Chosen People? No sale! Besides, if you’ve ever heard us argue about a thermostat setting, you’ll realize we’ve gone from the Chosen People to the Choosy People!

Here’s another past winner – be Jewish because Hitler would have killed you. Well, sign me up! For a generation, remembering the Holocaust and staying Jewish to deny Hitler’s victory was a powerful motivation. But we have to realize that World War II ended almost 70 years ago, and the fact that your people were hated and killed in the past does not give you a positive reason to stay connected. No one is motivated to stay Jewish today because of the Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine in 1648. I was surprised to learn that one of the Ukrainian navy ships taken over by Russia when it annexed the Crimean peninsula was U-208 Khmelnytskyi – he may have killed thousands of Jews in his revolt, but to them he was a national hero! Again, in 1648. You cannot build a healthy, vibrant, living identity exclusively on fear and trauma and anger. I sometimes define history as “what happened before you were paying attention.” The Mitzvah students I’m tutoring today were born after 9/11. For a child born today, in 2014, 9/11 might as well be Pearl Harbor –they can learn from it, but they cannot live in it or live for it. Yes, sometimes products sell out of fear, but for Jewish identity to be a positive part of our lives, we need reasons TO be Jewish.

The absolute closer, the pitch that worked better than all the rest combined: Your ancestors survived Inquisition, pogroms, persecution, migration, Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and NOW you’re giving up? The award winner, the first best and last resort to keep you Jewish 50 years ago: GUILT. What would your grandmother say if she saw you eating bacon when she starved rather than violate her covenant – not even a covenant with God, but her covenant with the Jewish people. Have you no loyalty? Don’t you love your grandmother? At long last, have you no sense of decency? How could you be the one to break the golden chain of Jewish tradition, 4000 years of pain and tears and joy? You can feel the power, the pull on the heartstrings, the weight of years and expectations, the manipulation. But guilt doesn’t work well in the free market – people in 1964 who refused to buy cars from the Germans or “the Japs” have grandchildren with Toyota Priuses. Guilt has its uses, but being Jewish because you feel guilty means that you’re living your life as someone else wants you to, by someone else’s values and choices. This very morning, rabbis are railing at their congregations about Jews who are not in synagogue. They’re complaining to the people who ARE there about the people who are NOT there! Why? “You should feel guilty if you even think about not showing up for Yom Kippur, because then I’ll be talking about YOU!” The clear truth of Jewish identity today is that it is far easier for people to just tune out the guilt trip and do something that makes them feel good about themselves. If you’re only at High Holiday services, if you’re only Jewish lest you feel guilty that you’ve broken the covenant, if you’re only Jewish lest you feel guilty that you’ve abandoned the chosen people, if you’re only Jewish lest you betray your grandparents and finish the work of the Holocaust, then how does your Jewishness IMPROVE your life, inspire you, motivate you to deepen your connection? If your ties to being Jewish are negative and painful, then you may endure it once or twice a year like a dental appointment (apologies to my dentist in the congregation), but you’ll run away as soon as you can, and you may never come back. Our children learn from what we do far more than from what we say.

We need new ideas. We reject the subservience to the past required by the Covenant. We reject invidious comparisons with other identities inherent in the Chosen People. We refuse to sell through fear or guilt. So what do we have? As we explored last night, there is the value of roots and rootedness, the ability to appreciate diversity because of one’s distinctiveness, the strength of positive family connections, the dignity of inheriting the past while owning your own life. These are not unique to Jewish identity; they are valuable in ANY distinct identity, as long as they do not overgrow their bounds from pride to chauvinism. I have no need for Father’s Day Cards that say “World’s #1 Dad.” My response is always, “Where did you get your statistics? How do you know I’m not #3, or #17?” But a card saying “you’re a great dad and I love you” is distinctive when it’s from my children; our relationship is special without being “the best.” Being Jewish can be special without being Chosen.

Why be Jewish, why stay Jewish, why become Jewish, why connect with things Jewish? The new marketing is called micro-targeting – what are you already interested in, and I’ll find you something similar. People who bought this book also bought these other ones. In other words, your Jewish connection will be your own, as often or rarely as you use it, and however you use it. Let me share with you three reasons that are compelling to me, and they may be to you as well.

First: Jewish is as Jewish does. Judaism is a rich and varied and long tradition – everything from rational philosophy to animal sacrifice to mystical exploration, hereditary kings and priests giving way to rabbis and religious law, multiple languages sharing the same alphabet, artwork celebrated in one corner of the Jewish world while condemned in another. At times we are inspired by our legacy; at times we are alienated. There is something for everyone, every learning style, every intelligence, every aptitude and interest. This is the beauty of celebrating Judaism as a culture: no matter what you believe, there’s always something for you. We can even find a defense of our own challenges to tradition from within our tradition – the Jewish tradition of integrity, those Jews during Inquisition and Pogrom who would not say words they did not believe.

Even Jewish martyrdom has its inspirations. In the YL Peretz story, “Three Gifts”, a soul ascends to heaven, but its deeds are found to be exactly in balance. It returns to find three gifts to tip the scale. The soul witnesses a man killed protecting a small bag of earth around his neck, but it was from the land of Israel to be buried with him; the soul picks up the bag. Then it sees a Jewish woman about to be dragged to hear death in a pogrom jab pins into her legs to make sure her dress will stay closed and her modesty preserved; the soul takes a bloody pin. Finally the soul witnesses a Jewish man being beaten by a gauntlet of clubs; when his yarmulke is struck off, he faces the choice of going back to get it and face more pain or to go on with his head uncovered. The man returns and is beaten to death, and the soul takes the bloody yarmulke. When these three gifts are presented to the heavenly tribunal, they exclaim, “These three gifts are absolutely beautiful. Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.” On one level, this martyrdom is a waste – they died for something that wasn’t true. At the same time, it shows courage and conviction and the strength of identity. “Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.” Jewish is as Jewish does.

Second: Be a Jew, be a mensch. The Yiddish word “mensch” means simply a person, but the best kind of person. I am NOT saying that every Jew is automatically a mensch (I know too many of them), nor that deep study of Judaism will automatically make you a mensch – rabbis are arrested for crimes, too. I do not believe that Jews invented nor have a monopoly on ethics – we’ll talk more about Ethics on Yom Kippur morning when we explore “why be good.” Nevertheless, there ARE values articulated in Jewish culture that we celebrate –an emphasis on literacy and learning that we have broadened to include both men and women and secularized beyond the Talmud; an ethic of community responsibility and mutual support combined with a work ethic of individual success. Jews have often celebrated brains over brawn, a welcome respite from today’s athlete worship and sometimes violent militarism. We have found humor an antidote to the dashed promises of faith – when life doesn’t turn out as you expect, you can laugh or cry, we have done both. We have our failings, but that makes us human. A seasonal example: High Holidays not only about divine forgiveness, but also human forgiveness – not just asking for forgiveness from someone else, but being willing to offer forgiveness when sincere apology is made. This means making yourself available to someone who has wronged you to give them the opportunity to make it right. Is that easy? Not at all. But how wonderful that our tradition explored how hard it can be to repair relationships through human atonement. Buddhist tradition has its lessons, so too does Judaism. Be a Jew, be a mensch.

Third: The Jewish citizen of the world. In the last few centuries, Jews have become a prototype of a globalized identity: living within and fluent in other cultures, but still distinct and separate in some ways. A world people with different daily languages but a common identity beyond that of their city or country. Sometimes that gave us an outsider’s perspective, letting us challenge conventions like Freud’s theories on sex or Einstein’s relativity. At all times it gave us the ability to think beyond our personal identity, since we always had more than one. Because of this dual identity, Jews have been accused of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” citizens of the world, with no allegiance to the people among whom they lived. The more that people circulate in a global economy, the world will need ROOTED cosmopolitans, people who have a global perspective and awareness but still know who they are and where they come from. If you are Jewish, if you’ve become Jewish, that rootedness can find deep origins in the Jewish experience, and so too can that universal perspective. A Jewish citizen of the world.

In the end, I suspect that I am still Jewish because I am stubborn, and that is definitely a Jewish tradition. We have called ourselves a stiff-necked people – we can be a pain in the neck, or as Henny Youngman might have said, some people have a lower opinion of us. More than the Jews have kept being stubborn, being stubborn has kept the Jews around. You do NOT get to tell me that I do not get to be Jewish. I am still here and I am still Jewish because I am going to fight for the right to be who I am, on my own terms. If you won’t accept me, if you don’t think that I am Jewish or you don’t think what I do is Judaism, that’s your problem, not mine. If I lived my life by your standards, it would not be my life. And I refuse to surrender being Jewish to you. Even the Jewish values I reject – chauvinism, anti-feminism, insularity – they are skeletons in MY closet, knots on MY family tree. It’s good to be passionate about things in life – why not this?

Who’s sold? Am I only selling to myself? I have to start there. Remember Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men – he used to say “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.” I’m not only the rabbi of Kol Hadash, I’m also a member and a Sunday School parent and a friend. I’m not only a professional Jew who’s paid to be Jewish; I am a Jew, and that identity provides meaning and inspiration to my life. If the best sales pitch I can offer is a personal testimonial, then here it is:

My first trip to Israel, in the mid-1990s, I went to visit the Western Wall, the last surviving wall of the Jerusalem Temple that was destroyed in 70 CE. On my way there, I knew  there were some barriers to a positive experience. I knew that this is on a mountain that is claimed to be holy by both Jewish and Mulsims, and the Dome of the Rock right over the Western Wall is a source of conflict even to this day. I knew that the site was gender segregated, even moreso today than it was 20 years ago, men and women forced to be apart. I knew that the big beautiful plaza in front of the Wall didn’t used to be there – there used to be houses that were knocked down in 1967 to create that plaza. I also knew that I had forgotten my baseball cap in my dorm room and had to wear a silly paper yarmulke that kept blowing off my head – the price of admission to the Wall. And I knew that I did not bring a piece of paper on which to write a hope for the future to place in the Wall.

I knew all that. But when I got to the front, and I touched the stones, and I felt how smooth they were. I realized those stones were smooth because generations of my people had come to this space and touched these stones with their fingers. It was electric. I didn’t need the supernatural, I didn’t need a revelation. It was a connection with my past, in my present.

That moment deepened my life, and continues to – I can still feel those stones. And if you can feel it too, you know why we wish each other L’shana tova, a good and meaningful new year.

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5 Responses to Why Be Jewish? Rosh Hashana 5775

  1. Pingback: Why Be Anything? Rosh Hashana 5775 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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  3. Pingback: Why Be Good? Yom Kippur 5775 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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