This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur 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.
Why do I invite everyone to stand as we take our Torah from the ark? There are many Torah passages that are objectionable to modern values – we heard one last night, where Pinhas the priest kills an Israelite and his Midianite lover for violating a holy space and crossing ethnic boundaries. Death penalties for blasphemy, for same-sex relations, for gathering sticks on the Sabbath – if someone proposed these as laws in Illinois, we would not stand for them. Yet we DO stand for them here! The reason I invite you to stand is because for us the Torah symbolizes the beginning of Jewish wisdom, even if we have moved beyond that beginning. The original Constitution accepted slavery and most states allowed only white men with property to vote, but we can still respect what the Constitution represents. The reason I invite you rather than tell you is that for you the negative may outweigh the positive. So if a group stands for a shared symbol, and you choose to stay seated, or to take a knee, that is always your choice and your right. Because the group is not always right, and you are always you.
Groups, communities, tribes are defined by languages and symbols – do you understand the in-jokes? Do you celebrate what we celebrate and reject what we reject? Do we boo the same villains and cheer the same heroes? Woe be those who reject the symbols, who challenge the group’s authority, who break the boundaries and are willing to see the other side. Woe to those who, once in a while, are able to admit that, maybe, we are not always “Number one”.
This High Holidays, we have imagined how language can change the world. The very beginning of the Jewish creation myth proclaims the power of language – god says “let there be”, and there is; Adam names the creatures as a sign of his rule; the snake’s words start humanity down the road to knowledge and death. What would happen, we have asked, if we refuse to accept concepts like “Post-Truth” “Judaism Says” or “Bad Jew”? Today, as we turn the corner towards the close of Yom Kippur and the real beginning of our new year, we face the challenge at the heart of any “we” – the temptation to proclaim, “We’re Number One!” Are the Olympics about the nobility of athletic competition, or about tribal bragging rights, a chance to chant U-S-A, U-S-A! For if WE are number one, are others lower, lesser, even “losers”? If the only way to feel good about ourselves is to make others feel worse, maybe better not to play the game at all.
I once wrote about how sports and religion are intertwined – and not just because of the athletes’ religiosity or the obligatory news stories about churches praying for a win. There are two sides to the question. First, have sports become a religion? Sports have their “shrines” and their “meccas”, and devotees make regular pilgrimage. There are team rituals and curses, and even occasional exorcisms – remember blowing up the Bartman Ball? And, some will argue, it worked! Players and fans are superstitious, thanking god for successes but almost never blaming god for failures – just like in religion. Fans watching games thousands of miles away yell at the screen as if their words will be heard and the ball will be caught or dropped or “get in the hole!” When else do people send words out into the universe and hope they have a positive impact? And pity the heretics who do not stand, do not uncover their heads, do not place their hands on their hearts for the collective ritual. The best players seek immortality in the pantheon (hear “theos,” god, there) of a Hall of Fame, which collects the holy relics stained by the sweat and blood of the martyrs. Before last year, the connection was even stronger between Judaism and Chicago Cubs fandom, both with many years of suffering and longing, but I think we will find that Cubs fans, like Jews after reclaiming their “Promised Land”, will have a similar response: what can we complain about now? We have evolved from being the Chosen People to being the Choosy People.
You could look at it the other way: is religion a sport? Participating in a religious community makes you feel like you are on an important team, wearing special clothing to feel part of the group. If you believe you are the elect, the saving remnant, the chosen people, is that another version of chanting “We’re Number One!”? Two fans of the same team smile at each other as they cross paths, just as two cross-wearing Christians or kippah-wearing Jews might do. The collective feeling in an arena parallels that in a mega-church – 10,000 people “rooting” for the same thing, sharing the same goals. In fact, Joel Osteen’s megachurch used to be the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets! And the best clergy are those who perform at the biggest events: High Holidays are rabbinic “prime time,” as Easter and Christmas are the Christian “Super Bowl.” Is calling “T’kiah” for the shofar that different from “Play Ball!”?
The truth is that religion is not a sport and sport is not a religion – they are similar because BOTH sports and religion, and patriotism for that matter, are group activities. They are tribes, and human tribalism is very deeply rooted in our evolution. Our first several thousand years as homo sapiens were in small and mostly homogenous groups – group loyalty and fear of the outsider are much more natural than the relatively new idea of “universal humanity.” In theory groups can respect differences, learn from each other, create alliances, find ways to live and be productive together. And that has happened from time to time. As we know all too well, groups can also insist on absolute loyalty and the denigration of other groups. Keep in mind a simple equation: “We’re Number One” = we are supreme = supremacist. We know the violent extremes supremacists can reach when trying to put the lesser “in their place” – we Jews have been on the receiving end of “we’re number one and you’re not” plenty of times. Sometimes wearing the team emblem was to mark you as different – the yellow star was part of a long history of marking Jews as different, other, and lesser.
To be fair, we Jews have also said that WE are number one, even if historically we lacked the power to act on it. Traditional Judaism repeatedly and strongly claims the Jews are the “chosen people” – Deuteronomy 26: “God has declared today that you are a people for his own possession, as he has promised you, and that you should keep all his commandments. He will make you high above all nations that he has made, in praise, in name, and in honor; and that you may be a holy people to your God, as he has spoken.” Or consider the Aleinu prayer, written at least 1500 years ago for a Rosh Hashana service and now part of daily prayers:
It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Molder of primeval creation, for He has not made us like the nations of the lands and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth; for He has not assigned our portion like theirs nor our lot like all their multitudes.
For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a g-d which helps not.
But we bend our knees, bow, and are grateful before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He. . . .He is our G-d and there is none other.
We are right, and they are all wrong. We’re number one because we worship the one and only, and they can’t even count that high. Many prayerbooks today, from Reform to Orthodox, omit the most offensive line – “they pray to a god who is useless.” But the chosenness is still there, “we are not like them,” and it’s embedded in many prayers and blessings – OUR god, who chose US to give us his Torah, who gave US commandments, who loves us and is jealous of us and who organizes history around whether we follow his rules.
Today’s liberal Judaisms in multicultural democracies know how offensive the claim “we’re number one” is when we are one of many groups. They have tried to reframe it – they may print the Aleinu prayer in Hebrew but have a nicer English translation, they may say we were chosen not for special status but for a mission: to spread ethical monotheism or knowledge of the true god. My response is: if being chosen always meant that we had a mission, where were our missionaries? Why did we reject potential converts three times to prove their devotion? Why keep our scripture in its original language centuries after Hebrew was no longer spoken? Let’s be honest: it’s tempting to be “the chosen people”, just like we enjoy chanting “we’re number one” at a sporting event. Have you ever noticed people saying “We won,” but “they lost”? We love being part of the winning team, being special, being uniquely unique, even if it also means special attention, special criticism, special challenges. Being the Chosen People also meant that we believed our suffering was our own fault – if only we had better followed the rules, we would have been protected. At the same time, maybe there WAS a survival value in the medieval Jewish experience – why else would you have stayed Jewish through expulsion and pogrom except for a belief in your group’s superiority?
The $64,000 question (in 1955, which today would be the $578,000 question), the big question is – CAN we stay Jewish today WITHOUT saying “We’re Number One”? Does every group have to have something superlative about it to have meaning, relevance, an impact on its members? Must we define ourselves not only by who we are, but also by those we are better than? Recall the story about the Jewish man saved from a desert island. He had built two synagogues: his own, and one he would not set foot in. Our group, our congregation is open, our sense of Jewishness is non-exclusive – for us you can be Jewish AND, not just Jewish OR. We accept that we have many group identities, and they can’t all be number one all the time. We celebrate marriages to wonderful people outside the group, and we do not demand conformity of dress or diet or fasting or faith. Yet we are still our own group, our community, and we still feel connected to the larger group of the wider Jewish family, even if we disagree with some of them.
Here’s where I believe we need a balance among three values, all of which are important, and all of which work for the individual AND the group. Pride, Honesty, and Humility.
Pride: I am allowed to be proud of who I am, proud of what I do, proud of what I have learned and the good impact I have on the world around me. Likewise, the Jewish people may be proud of the good values they have expressed through their culture, good deeds done by Jews for each other and for others in the past and today, and Jewish culture’s capacity to grow and improve. Pride is needed.
Honesty: I need to have the courage to evaluate myself honestly, to see where I fell short, to understand where I need to improve, to make good where I caused harm. Likewise, we need to understand Jewish life with clear eyes: yes, we have been the victims of intolerance and oppression; and we have also been intolerant. We have housecleaning to do on our own, regardless of what others do. If we criticize certain behavior in others, we should be willing to do the same for ourselves. Honesty is needed.
Humility: I understand that it is not always about me, sometimes the best think I can do is listen and learn, sometimes my concerns are less important. Jews are only 2% of the United States population, and .2% of the world’s population. The world does not revolve around us, and sometimes our needs may be less pressing than those of others. And we are not the best at everything. Humility is needed too.
All three of these are important –we need pride in our group to maintain positive connections, not just guilt or inertia; we need honesty to have a clear sense of our impact on others; and we need humility to not insist on always being Number One. Over the many, many years I was in school, I always preferred grading that prized personal improvement or absolute knowledge over class ranking. I had no need to be number one – I wanted to learn more, to get better, for myself and not for anyone else. And that’s how I understand my Jewishness at its highest – something that brings value and depth and wisdom to my life, independent of its relative position in the world of human culture. Is being part of the Jewish family THE BEST possible way for me to be a good person? Is it THE BEST possible way for me to raise a family, to be loving, to have dignity, to feel fulfilled as a human being? No one has ever conducted a double-blind study, putting the SAME individual through Jewish and Baha’i and Korean Presbyterian and atheist communist upbringings to see which culture meshes the best with ME. Each cultural possibility has some value and some shortcomings, and some might find that another option, or an element from another experience, is a better fit than how they were raised. But there is no objective scale to determine which culture, which religious tradition, which identity is “number one”. You do not have to be “number one” to be good.
After all, the core message of Yom Kippur is “nobody’s perfect”, no one person is “number one” all the time. We all make mistakes, we all fall short of our own expectations and the commitments we make to others. We hurt people on purpose or by accident, and relationships are hard work. The rabbis imagined a book of life, a decision point when our good deeds and our failures would be weighed in the balance, and it would be judged whether we would be alive for the next new year or die sometime in the year just begun. Pass or fail, live or die. But real life is more complicated, real life is more real than books in the sky.
Many of you know that my father died just before Rosh Hashana began. I rushed to Michigan see him two days before our first service. I loved my father, but our relationship was complicated, as all of us are complicated. Sitting at his bedside, I told him, whether he could hear it or not, that we do not love saints. We love real people. He was not the world’s number one dad, and no one is. He was a good father in his way, with his successes and his challenges, and I loved him for who he was. He is the only father I will ever have, and when his yahrtzeit [death anniversary] comes around next Rosh Hashana, just as when we take the Torah from the Ark, I will stand for his memory. In the perspective of history, George Washington, the father of our country, might not have been the best President – as a slaveowner, he was certainly not the best person. But he was still “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. And that’s where it really counts.