This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur 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.
Binding of Isaac, Sarajevo Haggadah c. 1350
The saga of Abraham has many dramatic moments. He disguises his wife as his sister to save his own life. He takes his handmaid Hagar to produce a son, the original Handmaid’s Tale. Abraham becomes a father again through his wife Sarah and then expels Hagar and her son. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his new son Isaac, and then stops him from the terrible deed. Abraham buries his wife and sees his son married back into his clan before he himself finally dies and is buried by both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
The most dramatic moment of Abraham’s story may be the very beginning – the first divine command he receives is Lekh lekha – get up and go. Move away from your land, where you were born, from your father’s house – move to a new land. The Hebrew is particularly resonant – lekh lekha could mean “go, get going,” or it could also mean “go to yourself.” If Abraham can leave Mesopotamia, the land of his birth, for the promised land, maybe lekh lekha is better translated as “get lost, and find yourself.” Lekh Lekha also means, “your true home is not here; it is there. So make there your new here. You cannot be in both.”
This High Holidays, we want the best of both worlds. On Rosh Hashana we explored prioritizing BOTH me AND we, and how to balance the needs of US and THEM. Last night we saw the complexities between good and evil. Today we go back to one of the oldest questions in human evolution: here or there? Homo Sapiens has always wandered – we found our way out of Africa 170,000 years ago, and now we cover the globe. Today’s visual and cultural diversity was created by the wide range of environments we made our home. Did our early ancestors hear a lekh lekha of their own? Were they pushed out by drought or disease, or were they pulled by the lure of adventure and greener pastures? We are familiar with the wandering Jew, from many places but at home in none, perpetually looking for a new “there” less agonizing than the insufferable “here”. From Israel to the Roman Empire to Germany to Poland to America. Or from Israel to North Africa to Spain to the Ottoman Empire and back to Israel. We may have called ourselves the “Chosen People” descended from Abraham, but we were also the Choosing People who mixed with global neighbors to produce Jewish visual and cultural diversity. Even the modern State of Israel has not changed this inheritance – Rabbi Sherwin Wine once quipped that Israel is the rare homeland where people ask you, “where are you from?” In that, he added, Israel is very much like America – both nations of immigrants.
There are limits to the political topics clergy should discuss– there are legal limits for the congregation’s non-profit status, and there are prudential limits of what it is wise to discuss. In recent years, Israel has become a third rail in many Jewish communities – with consensus breaking down and emotions rising, maybe better to say nothing. Humanistic Judaism has always affirmed your right to make up your own mind, and we have often asked difficult questions that others avoid. So I am happy if you disagree with me – it means you are paying attention, even on Yom Kippur morning! At this moment, questions of national self-definition both for our country the United States and for Israel as a Jewish state are so important and so disputed that I would be shirking my rabbinic duty if I hid my opinions. Sometimes the dangerous phase in a relationship is not difficult conversation, not even yelling – the dangerous phase is silence. As poet Marcia Falk put it, “It is not our purpose to be divisive. But we are already of many minds. Silencing the concerns will not diminish them; it will not make them go away. Dare we ask these questions? Dare we not ask them? If not now, when?”
Human powers of creation are so strong that we can forget we were the creators! As Yehuda Amichai wrote:
I say with perfect faith
that prayers precede G-d.
Prayers created G-d.
G-d created man,
And man creates prayers
that create G-d who creates man.
Our need for answers and meaning moves us to create entities with a life of their own; they can be a golem that saves us, or one that runs amok like Frankenstein’s monster.
How can a person draw a line in the sand, dividing the earth? I remember the first time I noticed they had to make all new globes because borders had changed. Maybe with Google Maps these days it’s easier to think of those place names as arbitrary. You may have heard that Snapchat’s map data was hacked in August, renaming New York City as “Jewtropolis”! When we only saw names and places printed in atlases and etched on globes, they defined the world and its people. I imagined the lines painted on the ground. And, of course, there were value judgments attached – HERE we are, and they are THERE. In modern Hebrew, you call Israel “Ha-aretz” – THE land, and everywhere else is “khutz la’aretz” – outside of the land. Most of us live in a me-o-centric universe. And we have not moved around as much as we think. A skeleton found in England from 10,000 years ago was DNA compared with area residents, and scientists found a direct descendant living nearby – ironically, a history teacher! Jews lived in Iraq for almost 2,500 years, in Greece and Italy for 2000, in North Africa for 1,500, and in Eastern European communities for several centuries before the Holocaust. Back then, even if we imagined another homeland out there, we were home in our Diaspora “here.” Very few Jews felt Abraham’s pull to get up and go to the promised land between the river and the sea. They read lekh-lekha every year, but almost no one went.
I spin a globe and I find myself in my country, my state, my metro area. I may also look for where I used to live, where my family came from, where we might travel. I have been fortunate in my life – I have never been forced to move. I have never had my legal status challenged, and I have never had to say that my home is no longer livable, that somewhere out there HAS to be better than here. But my grandparents and great-grandparents did face this. And, contrary to popular opinion, not all Jews who came to America did so entirely legally – some bribed their way out of Russia, and some snuck over a border into the United States. Growing up in Detroit, I heard stories about Boblo Boat immigration – Boblo Island was an amusement park island in the middle of the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario, Canada. When some could not gain admission to the US, they got into Canada, made their way down to Windsor, took the Boblo boat from there and then just got on the boat going back to Detroit! No papers, no permission.
Borders may be arbitrary, and they may limit who can move where, but borders may also be necessary. If democracy depends on voting, then lines must be drawn to decide who is voting for what, and which laws apply where. I do not expect to travel to Tokyo or Istanbul or Kankakee and to be to able to vote on their government or their laws. I do not want to get lost today in the swamp of where lines should be drawn or how they should be enforced or what standards of immigration should be – good people can honestly disagree. The human conversation we CAN address – not separating children from parents. Being compassionate to the homeless, tempest-tost that find their way to the golden door. Not demonizing entire populations. Part of the humane side of humanism is understanding experiences beyond our own. My reading of the Jewish experience produces empathy for humans who suffer, not oppressing the stranger because we were strangers in strange lands. Even our mythical father Abraham is famous for migrating, and also for hospitality – when three unknown travelers appear, he offers to wash their feet and brings them food and drink (it was meat and milk together, but never mind). I am not at all saying that Jewish tradition and Jewish values endorse open borders – given the treatment prescribed for the Canaanites upon conquering the promised land, the opposite is more likely true. I AM saying that MY reading of our cultural values and the Jewish historical experience suggest more compassion than we have seen. The success story of America, the bridging of “here” and “there” is shown on Cinco de Mayo, and St. Patrick’s Day, and Pulaski Day. Welcome others to enjoy your heritage. Celebrate where you are from where you live now. From there, living here.
If we accept that the United States, with our abundance and prosperity and relatively benign neighbors, still needs borders, kal va’khomer – how much more so does Israel, with limited land and water, and very hostile neighbors. Love your neighbor as yourself does not always work – it depends on the neighborhood. Just as there are multiple claims to the historic land of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, there are also multiple claimants to Abraham’s legacy – Arabs claim descent from Ibrahim through Isma’il, Jews claim Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father) via Isaac. Again, I do NOT want to sink into the quicksand of border lines and legal sovereignty and who did what to whom when. 25 years after the Oslo Accords, between terrorism and territory, we seem no closer to a final resolution. Again we can turn to the human side, the moral question of rights and the thorny challenges of identity. The immediate ancestors of most of today’s Israeli Jews DID come from “there” – from Iraq and Poland and Morocco and Ethiopia, every corner of the globe. But they are now “here” in modern Israel, which itself has been here for 70 years. The living Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 and their descendants may be living “there” in Lebanon or Jordan, but they hold memories of what they still consider their homes. Both Israelis and Palestinians are in one place, whatever you call it and however you divide it.
If we believe in human rights – the right to have a voice in your government, the right to be judged under the same set of laws as your neighbors, the right to influence those laws by voting and legal petition, the right to have your property respected, to right to live in physical safety – then no matter where you draw the lines, things could be improved on both sides. Do we also believe in collective group rights, like the right to express your culture, to speak and to teach your language, to celebrate your national or ethnic identity? This is more complicated. The Jewish nation-state Law passed this summer made official an Israeli flag with a Jewish star, a state seal with a menorah, and the national anthem Hatikvah as expressing Jewish group rights alone. If you thought those were all already true before the bill passed, you are absolutely correct – the flag already had a Jewish star, the national anthem was already Hatikvah. The problems with the bill were:
- It emphasized a Jewish state without also emphasizing a democratic state;
- It demoted Arabic from an official language to “special status,” whatever that will mean;
- It endorsed “Jewish settlement” as a national value, implying that Jewish population centers in both Israel proper and the West Bank can be created and kept as ONLY Jewish; and
- It included a patronizing clause that Israel will help Diaspora Jews preserve their heritage in the Diaspora – in other words, keep your Reform and Conservative Judaism over THERE, far away from HERE.
Why pass a law that is either common sense or provocative? Right wing Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s alliance with the global trend of rising ethnic nationalism, a response to external hostility, a desire to strengthen the Jewish character of the state. Some speculate it may be preliminary to annexing the West Bank, including its Palestinians, so that even if they become Israeli citizens and the state’s demographics change from 80% Jewish to 60% or less, the officially Jewish nature of the state will be very hard to change. The god of the Bible promises the land to Abraham and his descendants; the Israeli Declaration of Independence makes no reference to this Biblical promise. Which value system will win?
I do not live THERE, in Israel; I live HERE, in the United States. I cannot vote in Israeli elections, I did not serve in their army. The Jewish state affects me as a Jew, but more emotionally & ideologically than legally. There are many Israelis, including many fellow Humanistic rabbis, who are defending democracy & human rights, and I will not boycott or divest from or sanction them. But we do need to listen to each other to make the progress we want to see. As one example of the miscommunications that could happen, an American Jew, a Russian Jew and an Israeli Jew were sitting together in a restaurant. The waiter asked, “Excuse me, you look like you are out of water. Would you like some more?” The American Jew says, “what is ‘out of?'” The Russian Jew says, “what is “more?” The Israeli Jew says, “what is ‘excuse me?'” The American branch of the Jewish family is very attached to creating a mixed gender prayer space at the Western Wall – important for tourists but irrelevant to most secular Israelis. Secular Israelis are much more concerned about a new term: hadata – the imposition of religion (dat) on society. They want the freedom to marry whom and how they want, to be buried where and how they want, and to have these events recognized by their government. They want equal treatment under draft laws, whether one studies Talmud or electrical engineering. Those issues don’t affect American Jews here who do not get married there or live there or get drafted there, so we complain about the Western Wall and they argue about their issues and we can’t get on the same page.
Even here, in America, we can’t agree over which is more important for Jewish survival – what happens there in Israel, or what is happening here. The Netanyahu government happily works with the Trump Administration and Christian Evangelicals because they agree on many issues. This infuriates those American Jews who oppose the Trump and Evangelical agendas. Even staunch Israel supporters can become suspect for wanting to hear the Palestinian “other side.” On the left, some intersectionality advocates are reluctant to push back on antisemitism a la Louis Farrakhan as strongly as on other prejudice, and they have trouble welcoming those who are both liberal and Zionists. Support for Israel has become a partisan political issue in a way it never was before, dividing us still further here, and widening the gap between here and there.
How to bridge the here and there between American Jews and Israeli Jews? My best suggestion is shared experience. We hope to plan a Humanistic Judaism trip there, to Israel, next fall to coincide with our next ordination of Israeli rabbis. Any trip we run will necessarily include meetings with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, because we need to hear many sides to make up our minds. And Israelis need to come here too – we need a backwards Birthright that sends young Israelis to Diaspora Jewish communities, or a March of the We’re Still Here. The current March of the Living takes Diaspora Jews to concentration camps and then to Israel. The March of the We’re Still Here would reverse it – Israel to Europe to America. We will still have different world views and experiences and values – living as a majority is different from being a minority, living with a national identity is different than a religious and cultural identity. Each side needs to hear a new version of lekh lekha – now it should be lekh lahem – go to them. Find out who THEY are, and they can also learn who you are.
While we’re making new terms, we could do better than “Diaspora” to refer to ourselves. Historically, living out of the land of Israel was considered galut or exile, a sad state of not living where you belonged. Moving back to Israel was Aliyah or going up to a higher plane, while heaven forbid leaving there again was yerida, descending to a lower state. “Diaspora” was less negative than exile, from the Greek roots for spreading of seeds (dia and spore), but it was still Israel-centric – spread out from where? Haaretz, the land, and khutz la’aretz, everywhere else. Over a century ago, some Yiddishists and Jewish socialists emphasized the Diaspora with a principle they called “doykeit – hereness“, saying they would address Jewish challenges where they already were in Eastern Europe and using the Jewish culture they already lived in Yiddish. But that’s not perfect either – we are connected to both here and there.
What if we thought of ourselves differently? After all, my family tree has lived in the United States for many generations. Where would a Russian Jew living in Northbrook for 25 years consider their homeland – Illinois? Moscow? Jerusalem? One of the basic arguments Sherwin Wine made for why the Jewish people is more than a religion is our sense of self as an am, a nation, a family. Even if it is a myth, we claimed descent from Abraham our father, while Lutherans don’t all claim to be descended from Martin Luther or Muslims from Mohammed. If we are a claimed family, then we are not Israel and Exile, homeland and diaspora. We are branches of the Jewish family. Abraham’s name offers still more support – from Abram, exalted father, on his journey he becomes Abraham – the father of many. Our Americanness likewise includes a claimed pedigree with Founding Fathers who have nothing to do with our genetics.
If we are the Israeli branch and the American branch and the Australian and Argeninian and French branches of the Jewish family, then we do not have to agree on everything. My Jewish life does not revolve around Israel, but neither can I ignore what 40% of my cultural family does, experiences, celebrates. In your family, in the Jewish family, in the American family, silence, not speaking to each other, is the danger. If we must argue, let us argue. We may yet get from argument to listening, and from listening to learning.
Can you be both here and there? A Yiddish saying tell us ein tuches ken nit tantzen af tsvay khasines – one tush can’t dance at two weddings. The medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi lamented that his heart was in the East, in Jerusalem, while he himself was at the end of the West, the other end of the Mediterranean Sea in Spain. I will not forget thee, Jerusalem, but if I am for Jerusalem alone, what am I? I can be for and work for the best vision of Jerusalem and Washington, Jewish and American and human, here and there, us and them, me and we. We are, all of use, more than one family, identity, place. I asked earlier tonight if a national motto could be useful, I believe this one says it best. E pluribus unum – from many, and from Abraham the mythical father of many, there can be one.