This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana Morning sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.
Esau has good reason to be angry. Even though he is first-born, just before his twin Jacob, mother Rebecca loves Jacob better. When Esau arrives home starving, Jacob bargains Esau’s birthright for some stew. And when Isaac lies blind and sends Esau to catch venison, Jacob and Rebecca trick Isaac into giving Jacob the firstborn blessing meant for Esau. So Esau is MAD – he cries, he threatens to kill Jacob, and then he gets even with his parents.
When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him off to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, commanding him, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and gone, Esau realized that Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac. So Esau went to Ishmael and married, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael
Take that, Mom and Dad! Jacob becomes Israel, father of the Hebrew nation, while Esau’s line detours into the wider world of “non-Jews.” In Rabbinic commentary, Esau is the quintessential “non-Jew”: physical, crude, indifferent to Jewish pieties, fighting Jacob. Esau is Rome, Esau is Christendom, dar al Islam – as medieval sage Rashi put it (citing rabbinic comments from centuries earlier): “it is known that esav soneh l’yaakov – Esau hates Jacob.” For centuries, this message was clearly understood – beware the strangers; do not marry out; “they” hate us. When push comes to shove, it will be us OR them. Through centuries of persecution, this Jewish suspicion was often reasonable. But what about today?
This Rosh Hashana, in 2018, can we go beyond the Or, can we try us AND them? Last night, we saw that our best self is not Me alone in a choice between Me OR We; we better understand ourselves and realize our potential if we accept Me AND We. The same is true for understanding our group and its development. Is the Passover seder celebrating Jewish freedom modeled on a Roman feast, complete with reclining? Yes. Is Hummus Israeli or Lebanese, ours or theirs? Yes. In a grocery store, I once saw a container of jalapeño hummus advertised as “south of the border” hummus, and I thought, “which border?” And yes, there was a sombrero on the package. “Ours AND theirs” makes more sense than “ours OR theirs” when it comes to culture, music, language – cultures have always mixed. We created Yiddish by speaking German to our medieval neighbors. Nu? What else is new?
Our question today of “Us or Them” is more visceral, more tribal, more exclusive, more dangerous. In Brooklyn you can find super duper extra glatt kosher pizza, sushi, even Chinese food, and the Orthodox patrons never claim that Moses invented the eggroll. But MARRY an Italian, an Asian, one of “them?” Never! A man once brought his new bride home to meet his old-world Jewish mother. “Mother, I’d like to introduce you to my wife. Her name is Running Deer.” The mother gravely extends her hand and says, “I’m Sitting Shiva.”
The Jews are not the only group that grapples with “us or them”. When the US Supreme Court in Loving vs. Virginia overturned bans on interracial marriage in 1967, 17 states still had those laws on the books. When Alabama finally removed the prohibition in the year 2000, 40% voted against removing it. Lest you think it’s backwater Alabama alone, nationwide opposition to interracial marriage in 2013 was 11%, which means over 30 million people.
Part of an “us or them” mentality means keeping the lines BETWEEN us and them clear. The more Spanish spoken in the US, the closer the white population gets to being less than a majority, the more integrated neighborhoods and universities and families become, “they” become inseparably part of “us.” So when a cereal company uses an interracial family to sell Cheerios, the trolls come out. And lest you think that Jewish suspicions of mixing are only the response of a precarious Diaspora minority, in Israel, where Jews are 80% of the population, there is a de facto ban on Jewish intermarriage. Orthodox rabbis, Muslim Imams and Christian clergy are in charge of legal marriage – no civil marriage means no inter-religious marriage. Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish-American intellectual, got into big trouble in the 1960s by comparing Israeli marriage rules to the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, which also banned intermarriage. You can guess why she got in trouble. Nevertheless, there have been public protests outside of Arab-Jewish weddings, and the quick removal of a novel about such a relationship from the Israeli High School curriculum. There were stories this summer about Israeli Arabs trying to join swimming pools and public protests in Afula against selling a house to an Arab family. Swimming pools? Integrated housing? Sounds sadly familiar here in Chicagoland, even right here in Deerfield, Illinois. In 1959 an integrated housing development split the community – there’s a plaque out there in the North Shore Unitarian Church lobby celebrating the minister and members of the church who argued for integration; I wonder if there’s a plaque at Mitchell Park, site of the planned development. Deerfield is still 95% white, and Highland Park (excluding Highwood) is 91% white, both more than Lake Forest at 90% or Northwest suburbs in the 80s or better. This is why some North Shore residents think of Chicago area African Americans or Latinos as “them” but not “us”, and the “us” of some Israeli Jews excludes Israeli Arabs. “Esau was a man of the fields, while Jacob dwelled in tents.” The culprit is lived experience – if you don’t meet “them”, know “them,” commute and work with “them,” socialize with “them,” then Them is not part of Us.
On the brighter side, the world we live in is very different than even a generation ago. 50 years after interracial marriage became a basic right in the United States, 1 in 6 new weddings are to someone of a different race or ethnicity and 1 in 10 married couples are an intermarriage of some kind. In 1967, only 20% approved of interracial marriage; today it is 90%. Not perfect, but much better. As far as Jewish intermarriage, in many corners of Jewish life, the line between Us and Them is quite fuzzy. If I told that “sitting shiva” joke to an audience of people under 30, they might not even get the joke. Not because they don’t know that a Shiva follows a funeral, but because the absolute rejection of intermarriage is so odd to them! For under 30s, the Reform movement has ALWAYS accepted Jews whose father is the Jewish parent. In their lifetime, the Jewish intermarriage rate has ALWAYS been 50% or higher, whether or not their parents found a rabbi to marry them.
The fruits of this generation of openness are to be seen in the Jewish and Korean heritage of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of the 2,300 member Central Synagogue in Manhattan; the wider welcoming of interfaith families in Reform and now even Conservative synagogues, and the fact that I do 20 weddings a year when at his peak our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman did over 100 – back then, he was one of the only rabbis in Chicagoland willing to celebrate intermarriages; today I am one of several. Through adoption, conversion, migration and intermarriage, the faces of the Jewish family are more diverse than ever. What does it even mean to “look Jewish” any more? Who is “one of them” and who is “one of us”? Jacob and Esau have re-united – in the womb! For many American Jews today, it can only be us AND them, because “they” are “us.”
And yet… tribalism is a stubborn instinct. This summer, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s genetic ancestry test came back 3% Ashkenazi Jewish – many people on social media demanded a recount. Some Twitter examples:
Or as Stephen Colbert put it on The Daily Show, “Haven’t the Jewish People suffered enough?” I have no idea what being 3% Jewish means to Paul Ryan himself – maybe it sparks an interest in exploring that part of his family heritage (which absolutely does happen); maybe it’s just party conversation material. I agree with critics of the story that essentializing Jewishness into genetic percentage excludes those who would join the Jewish family or marginalizes those with multiple heritages. As Rebecca Pierce, a self-described Black and Jewish filmmaker, tweeted,
However, in most cases, the rejection of Ryan’s being “a little bit Jewish” was not from solidarity with Jews of color; it was a visceral, tribal reaction based on politics. In other words, “he can’t really be Jewish because he believes X or votes Y.” I’ve heard it plenty in the other direction – when right-wing Jews say that any criticism of Israel means you’re a self-hating Jew. Either way, if you don’t agree with me, then you aren’t a real Jew, or at most you’re a Bad Jew. Evidently the wider Jewish world didn’t get my memo from last Yom Kippur that we should ban the phrase and the concept of “Bad Jew” – it’s wrong when traditionalists use it on liberal Jews, it’s wrong when we use it on ourselves, it’s wrong when liberal Jews use it on Conservatives. The Jewish tent today may be ideologically wider than some are comfortable with, but to accept that wider family means it will always be some variety of “Us AND Them” – to borrow from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, our Jewish family includes the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, and even the Judean Popular People’s Front, whoever he is.
Still, there ARE limits to “and.” What do we do with a group that refuses to accept us? Maybe sometimes it IS “us OR them,” because they insist on “themming” everyone. These are Islamic radicals who refuse any integration to Western society; a minority of Muslims to be sure but one that raises issues of women’s rights, children’s rights, and what citizenship means. These are the Jewish ultra-Orthodox who reject teaching their children English or owning smartphones, to protect them from the treyfe outside world. These are anti-Semites who are bold enough today to run for office, like the proud Illinois Nazi Arthur Jones in the 3rd Congressional District; some of us remember how the Blues Brothers felt about Illinois Nazis. These are the subtly bigoted who call the police on minorities doing nothing wrong – sitting in Starbucks in Philadelphia, having a barbecue in Oakland California, going door to door as a political candidate in their own district in Oregon, napping in their college’s common room (to my chagrin at Yale University)! These all happened this year, and by the way not in Alabama; in very liberal places. These Themmers are the xenophobic who fear that America is being taken from “us” and given to “them” – we’ll talk more about this on Yom Kippur. All of these groups have an Israel and an Esau, a chosen people and outsiders, an “us” worthy of protection and a “them” they suspect and fear. WE are their THEM – we are modernized, urbanized, secularized, free to think and to act, open to change. We are willing to listen to many opinions and we accept and even celebrate diversity. We WILL replace them, and they hate us for it.
I think of myself as a realistic optimist – I give people the benefit of the doubt, even forgive them once or twice, try to walk a mile in their shoes, see it from their perspective, cut them some slack for having a bad day. Sometimes Esau DOES hate Jacob, real antisemitism exists and has consequences. The Jews are not always number one on the bigotry target list, but we are often there. America has never supported a major anti-Semitic political party or platform. Around 10% of Americans hold clearly anti-Semitic attitudes, which has held steady over recent decades and is much better than the 1960s and earlier. Today that 10% is bolder, more visible, more confrontational. Perspective makes a big difference – 15 years ago, when I would speak about antisemitism, I highlighted that only 10% of Americans are anti-Semitic. Today I point out that 30 million Americans have anti-Semitic attitudes. The numbers haven’t changed: 10% = 30 million. Our perceptions and their public behavior have changed.
So what do we do? Do we persist in us AND them? Invite them to our Passover seders and High Holiday celebrations? Intentionally intermarry into Nazi families to change their attitudes? There’s an old Yiddish saying – don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out. I certainly welcome those outside of my group who welcome me. I will dialogue with those who will talk, and the conversation does not always have to be polite – if I can get angry and believe passionately in my values, so can they.
I will not love those who hate me. I will not apologize away those who hate others. I am Jewish, and I reject those of my group who treat the other 99.5% of the world as universal Esau, unworthy of respect or marriage. I am white when I buy a house, when I talk to a police officer, when I get a sunburn, and I reject those who hate and fear the non-white other. I am American, the grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants, and I reject those who would slam the doors shut behind themselves. My “us” is not universal. I am part of the open us, the welcoming us, the tolerant & diverse us of the present and, I hope, the future. The closed them, the fearful them, the them of high barriers & rejection & anger, the us OR them mentality – those I reject.
I am still open, and hopeful. Over the centuries, there was little love lost between the Catholic Church and the Jews – it was always an Us OR Them relationship. Jewish communities sometimes faced forced disputations, where a rabbi would debate a priest over who was right “us OR them.” Miscommunications could abound, and in their day these disputations could be matters of life or death. That was the REAL Spanish Inquisition, not Mel Brooks’ musical or the Monty Python sketch no one expects.
53 years ago, the Second Vatican council concluded, just two years before Loving vs. Virginia legalized interracial marriage. That council’s declaration Nostra Aetate, In our Times, rejected the claim that Jews were guilty for the death of Jesus, it condemned “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” and it created the possibility for a new beginning. When Mel Gibson’s bloody 2004 movie Passion of the Christ was condemned, some of the condemnation came from US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who had earlier published guidelines on how to create a passion play to avoid antisemitism and be sensitive to Jewish concerns. In this, they were on our side, in that battle between tolerance and intolerance it is indeed Us AND them. We are allowed to disagree – any interfaith dialogue that agrees all the time is boring and mostly useless. We disagree within parameters – we agree on each other’s basic worth, our dignity, our personhood, our right and ability to live our own lives. It is us AND them when THAT defines us.
In Genesis, there is a reconciliation for Jacob and Esau, and maybe too for Israel and the nations. Esau swears to kill his brother for his betrayal, and after many years the brothers meet again. Jacob is fearful, sending many gifts ahead and bowing seven times as he approaches Esau, the angry physical violent hunter. The drama is palpable: Esau runs towards Jacob, Esau grabs him, Esau falls on his neck – and Esau kisses Jacob, and they weep. Some rabbinic readers, convinced that Esau has always and will always hate Jacob, imagine that Esau tried to bite Jacob and broke his teeth – a new version of Israel, a stiff-necked people. In this reading, Esau cried from his own pain. Others see this moment as genuine reconciliation, an opening of new doors. That is possible if circumstances are right.
In the world we want, we see Jacob AND Esau, Israel AND the nations, Jews AND everyone, America AND humanity, me and we and us and them. Together that larger US faces the “them” of hatred and exclusion. In here, we say welcome, “brukhim ha-ba’im”, blessed are those who have come to be with us. Shana Tova.