This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.
What is American food? Is American food New Orleans Creole? Pizza? TexMex? Hamburgers and hot dogs? Fried Chicken and grits? A California Sushi Roll? These are ALL American food, even though they are very different from each other. What is Jewish food? My father’s family comes from Syria, and their Middle Eastern Jewish food includes mujadra and idje b’adunes and kibbeh, using spices like turmeric and cumin; it looks and taste nothing like bagels or kugel. For Hanukkah, East European Jews eat potato pancakes, Sephardic Jews eat jelly donuts. My father’s family made Passover haroset with dates; my mother’s family made theirs with apples. Same holiday, same root culture, different tastes. We know that Jewish people are individualistic, and questioning – 2 Jews, three opinions. Why do people assume that there is ONE Judaism?
This High Holidays, we are trying to improve the world one phrase at a time. We do not demand that everyone follow our speech code; we are raising the bar for ourselves. Last night we saw that “post-truth” is not a reality to accept passively; it is a challenge to confront – to know when multiple truths are possible, and to resist when there are right and wrong facts. All those facts are to the best of our knowledge, based on available evidence. But 99% certain is pretty certain.
To the best of MY knowledge, there is NOTHING that ALL Jews believe. All Jews can’t even agree on who COUNTS for “all Jews”! If you ever hear categorical statements like “Jews believe_____” or “Jewish tradition demands_____” or simply “Judaism says_____,” this an educational opportunity. Which Jews? Which Jewish tradition? When and where? Jewish people have been polytheists, monotheists, Buddhists and Secular Humanists. In the Bible, the father determined whether a child would be Jewish; in rabbinic Judaism, it’s the mother; in Israel’s law of return, one grandparent or even a Jewish spouse is enough to be admitted to the Jewish state, though not enough to be officially Jewish for the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Some Jews have believed in reincarnation, other Jews have believed resurrection and in a world to come, still others believed in a Hades-like underworld and today many Jews believe that this life is the only life we get. Groups an anthropologist would call “Judaism” can be male chauvinist or egalitarian, isolationist or integrationist, Jewish supremacist or universalist. This very room represents a great diversity of Jewish opinion, Jewish ritual practice, and Jewish experience, including supportive family members who themselves are not Jewish. And we are no more than one degree of separation from religious West Bank settlers, ex-Jews who have rejected any kind of Jewish identity, and every variety of Jew, Jewish, or Jew-ish among our immediate family and friends.
This diversity is not news to anyone paying attention to Jewish life. So why DO people keep saying “Judaism says”? Perhaps it is simply not knowing any different – they have always been taught that Judaism says X, so that’s what they repeat. Sometimes there are dominant ideas among Jews today, or at least the Jews they have experienced, so they extrapolate from “all the Jews I know” to Judaism as a whole and for all time. “Judaism Says” is also a claim to authority, in effect saying, “Do what I say Judaism says”. At the same time, there is a temptation to claim that your religious and cultural tradition endorses your personal choices. It’s avoiding cognitive dissonance – I am Jewish and happy to be Jewish, and I have my values, and I may not want to admit that sometimes my Jewish inheritance conflicts with my values. Whether it has to do with intermarriage or homosexuality or transgender identity, Judaism is a long and rich creative tradition. You can find just about any episode or one-off statement that is more open, even if the dominant trend is rejection. The rejectionist cannot say unambiguously “Judaism says to reject you,” but the progressive also cannot say, “Judaism is always welcoming and accepting.” For a wedding I recently officiated, the groom used his great-grandfather’s ceremonial Kiddush cup. In the email his mother sent him, which he forwarded to me, she told the story of the cup and wrote, “He would be so proud of you.” I thought to myself, “This wedding is co-officiated with a Catholic Priest, and the bride is a very blonde woman of Lithuanian background who herself teaches in a Catholic school. I’m not sure the great-grandfather’s reaction would have been ‘pride.’” We like to highlight our positive inheritance, but sometimes we have to acknowledge differences between then and now.
This honesty applies beyond Judaism, of course. One may appreciate the courage of a Civil War ancestor who fought to defend his home state against the Yankees, but the Confederacy was also dedicated to brutal slavery – the Mississippi declaration of secession says explicitly “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery;” Texas’ declaration makes the racism explicit:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
Whatever flag became the flag of that cause, cannot be my flag. Whoever fought for that cause may have fought bravely, and is IN my history, but he cannot be my hero. History is also complicated for Yankees – before Philip Sheridan was an army base or a Metra stop, Sheridan was a Civil War Hero in the US Army. He then went on to “pacify” the Plains Indians by encouraging the slaughter of 4 million bison to starve them out, supposedly saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” American values are the Declaration of Independence, and Native American expulsion and genocide, and separation of religion and government, and racism and slavery. They are all as American as Apple Pie; they are all what “America says.”
Honestly, even Judaism itself doesn’t claim “Judaism Says”! In the Bible, who speaks for Judaism – the kings of Israel, or the prophets who criticize them? When rabbis interpreted the Bible, they would say “shivim panim la-torah – there are 70 faces of Torah” and “davar akher – another interpretation” as they gave multiple understandings of the same Bible verse. The Mishnah and Talmud, attempts to collect and clarify Jewish law, preserve the debate of the rabbinic academy, like a minority opinion of the US Supreme Court in one era can become the majority opinion in future generations. The standard Talmud page includes voices from many centuries arranged around each other and arguing “If I had been there, I would have said…” In the 16th century, a Sephardic Rabbi in the land of Israel wrote a code of Jewish law to define exactly what to do without all the arguing, called the Shulkhan Arukh “the Set Table.” Then an Ashkenazi rabbi in Poland wrote a commentary to the Set Table to explain how European Jews did things differently – his work was “the tablecloth”. And all of this disagreement is centuries before the explosion of Jewish varieties that began 200 years ago. Judaism says? Which Judaism? Which Jews?
We sometimes hear that what unites Jews are 3 pillars: god, Torah Israel. I find that nothing DIVIDES the Jews as much as God, Torah and Israel! Judaism says you should believe in one god. Or was it many Gods – the Noah story mentions sons of God hooking up with daughters of men, and even the 10 commandments says “you will have no other gods before me” – there may be other gods, but they have to sit in the back of the bus. Or maybe you re-define your one god to fit the space you have left after science: medieval rabbi Maimonides accepted so much Aristotle that his God lost his mighty hand, his outstretched arm, his jealousy, and his love. Modern rabbi Harold Kushner, writing after the Holocaust and his own personal tragedy of a child dying young, could no longer believe in a god who could have helped but did not, so Kushner’s god cheers from the sidelines but cannot intervene on the field except through human beings. Those who want to motivate Jewish social action from a liberal religious perspective believe in a partner god, who works with the Jewish people and all people for good rather than commanding the Jews, choosing the Jews, or judging the Jews. And some Jews have concluded that in the absence of divine intervention, we needed to solve our problems ourselves – the Jewish socialists and Zionists who said “fix it here! fix it now!” they were also giving Jewish answers to this question. Recall the famous story of a rabbi hearing both sides of an argument, and saying that each side is right. When an observer says, “They can’t both be right!” the rabbi responds, “You are also right.” All of these theologies cannot all be right, but they CAN all be Jewish. So don’t tell me the one message that “Judaism says” about a god.
What do we mean by “Torah”? Is it a specific law, the torah of burnt offerings? Is it the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah of Moses? Does Torah mean the entire Hebrew Bible, all Jewish writing that was supposedly revealed? Does it mean the so-called “Oral Torah” – Rabbinic interpretations that claim continuity with earlier sources? Is Torah any Jewish teaching even tangentially tied to the sources, since Torah and Morah/teacher share a Hebrew root? If every Jewish teaching is Torah, no matter how non-traditional, I’m not sure Torah means anything. Some terms are used so often for so many things they have lost all meaning: “vintage” “gourmet”, “artisanal” – what do they mean anymore? My point is not who is right or wrong with what they call “Torah”, my point is that there is no Jewish consensus on what Torah is. And this is before we argue about who wrote it and when and why and whether it still has authority over our lives!
And as for ISRAEL uniting the Jewish people…. need I say more? Who counts as part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel? Depends which Jews you ask, and where – note that the American Reform movement’s decision to accept those with Jewish fathers as Jewish does not even apply to Reform Judaism in other countries! We in Secular Humanistic Judaism accept anyone as Jewish who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people, whatever their personal descent. If “Israel” means the modern state of Israel, today that is just as divisive. How should Israel balance its identities as both Jewish and democratic? What should its boundaries be, historic eretz yisrael, the land of Israel, or the modern medinat yisrael, the state of Israel with political realities? When should Israel be defended and when are its actions indefensible? And does Israel’s leadership support us as much as it wants our support? Is there one Jewish answer to ANY of these questions? Of course not! The organization If Not Now, which wants an immediate end to West Bank Occupation, proclaims that “Judaism tells us to love the stranger.” Religious Zionism swears that “Judaism decreed all of Judea and Samaria [aka The West Bank] to be the Promised Land, ours by divine decree and patriarchal history.” And Rabbis for Human Rights, which doesn’t CARE about borders as long as human rights are respected, declared that “Judaism says to love your neighbor as yourself and that we are all created in the same image.” We may disagree on which is politically, strategically, or morally right. Maybe they cannot all be right. But they are all what “Judaism says.”
There’s a more vital issue than trying to define or to impose what “Judaism says” – is anyone listening? Rabbi Joseph Hertz, past chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once said, “Far more calamitous than religious differences in Jewry is religious indifference in Jewry.” The more people who insist that Judaism is what I say it is, and not what you think it could be, the fewer people will be left in the tent. We often list the “denominations” of Judaism in descending order of validity – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Miscellaneous (even though “Miscellaneous” is now the second largest group in American Judaism). Sometimes hear them described as “streams” of Judaism, as if they came from one common source. Maybe a better approach is to think of them as “flavors”.
Consider bagels: when I was growing up, there were 4 flavors of bagel – egg, plain, raisin, salt. Just like 50 years ago there were only 3 or 4 flavors of Judaism: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, maybe Reconstructionist or secular Jewish alternatives. Today, you can go into a bagel store and see dozens of varieties: asiago cheese and spinach Florentine and blueberry and chocolate chip. Some people complain and say, “That’s not really a bagel, with blueberries!” Just as some complain that the varieties of modern Jewish identity “aren’t really Judaism.” But the more varieties of bagels, or Judaisms, the more people can enjoy them and find the one that best fits with them. In fact, so many people enjoy bagels today that we can ask whether a bagel is clearly a Jewish food any more. Bagels are Jewish food are if they have Jewish meaning to you. There are all kinds of Jewish food, all kinds of Jewish tastes and most important, you cannot argue about taste. Which flavor of Judaism tastes right to you? There are many Jewish recipes, from all over the world, influenced by all kinds of cultures. “Judaism Says” many things. A more productive approach is to take it personally – MY Judaism says. Your Judaism may be different, but it’s ALL in the family. As our former Hebrew Teacher, David Steiner (may his memory be a blessing) used to joke, “I have Maimonides and you have your Monides.”
Saying goodbye to “Judaism Says” is a first step towards a vibrant and diverse Jewish future. The next step, which we turn to on Yom Kippur, is to forbid another phrase we would never miss: “Bad Jew”. It’s not just a phrase others use to criticize us – we use it on ourselves. To hear more about eliminating “bad Jew,” you need to be a “good Jew” or a supportive family member and return Yom Kippur evening, or catch the rerun on the Kol Hadash Podcast.
We have a vital voice to add the chorus of what “Judaism says.” It’s important for the truth, but it’s also important for the Jewish future. I once met with a bride-to-be whose mother was not born Jewish but the bride had been raised Jewish, attended a Reform synagogue all the way through High School, and her mother even converted to Judaism while the daughter was still living at home. But at college, showing up at a Hillel, some “ethnic bouncer” told her that she wasn’t really Jewish. Their Judaism said that she was out. MY Judaism said to her, “I’m sorry for your experience, and welcome, and thank you for your persistence, and mazel tov!” Today my Judaism wishes all of you “L’shana Tova – a happy and healthy new year.”