Sermon Theme for 5775 – Jewish Identity
Rosh HaShanah Morning Sermon
When I first came to the United States as a student twenty five years ago, I arrived as an Australian seeking an American rabbinical education. Throughout my years at seminary, I knew that my rabbinate would be in Australia or New Zealand. First, I was obliged through scholarships to return to my home country or my surrounding region. Second, American culture and Judaism are so different to what I had been raised with that I could never imagine staying in this country. I was an Australian, here for the education – My choice was that I could not and would not belong.
After returning to Australia for four years following my schooling, economic necessity saw the need for me to leave the country of my birth. Reluctantly, I headed to the U.S.A. again, this time feeling I was an Australian in exile, forced to make my new home somewhere else. While the transition was easier than before, as I knew how the banking system and the healthcare system worked, and what butter and milk looked like on the supermarket shelves, I still felt out of place and that America was not my home.
Slowly over the next five years as I moved from New Jersey to South Florida and worked in two very different congregations, making friendships and connection, acclimatizing to every-day American life, I began to feel like I was a person “in-between”… I could drive on the right side of the road equally as well as I could drive on the left. I could speak both American and Australian slang. I was acclimatized to both the land of my birth and the land where I could find work. I could not make a choice where I belonged.
Following 9/11 the visa situation forced me to return to Australia for a year. That one year of return with family and friends, away from an American culture that had become so familiar, and without financially sustaining work, affirmed for me that I could no longer go back permanently to the land of my birth. I missed the liberty of Jewish life and thought in the US, some favorite stores and radio programs, and I missed being a rabbi. I had transitioned from a temporary student, to an ambivalent resident alien, to someone who finally desired to be fully part of an American life. When I finally returned stateside, I applied for a green card at the first opportunity, and ever since have been working to become a citizen, something I pray will happen before the end of this year. It has taken 25 years but I now realize it is time to become an American, that the U.S of .A. is where I belong.
Every one of us in our lives has stories of not identifying, ambivalent identity and strong identity. And each of us, who sits in this room today, has a Jewish story along this continuum. Some of us feel apart from the Jewish community, some of us feel like we should belong but have not quite found our place in Jewish life, and others of us cannot imagine our lives without the infrastructure of Jewish practice and communal life.
Our rabbis teach that Torah is a blueprint for our Jewish lives. In the three Torah stories of Rosh HaShanah we can find the blueprint for these different modes of identification. As a blueprint, what do they have to teach us about our own Jewish identities and our own connection to Judaism?
Our first story is not found in the Machzor we hold in our hands. However, it is the traditional Torah portion for Rosh HaShanah morning read in Orthodox, Conservative and some Reform synagogues. It is the story of Abraham’s slave-wife, Hagar and her son Ishmael. To précis:
Sarah has had a fraught relationship with Hagar, the slave-wife she gave to Abraham, and the slave-wife’s son, Ishmael. In this Rosh HaShanah portion, Sarah chances upon Ishmael in inappropriate play with Isaac and convinces Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael, much to Abraham’s chagrin. But God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah.
So Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness with bread and a water-skin. Once the water is depleted Hagar places her child under a bush and walks away so as not to witness his death. She weeps. Her son weeps. And God hears Ishmael’s cry. God calls to Hagar, reassuring her, asking her to return to the boy, and promises her that her son will be the beginning of a great nation. God then opens Hagar’s eyes to a well in the wilderness so that the boy can drink. He grows up and becomes a bowman, living in the wilderness of Paran, and taking a wife from another culture, from the land of Egypt.
In this blueprint of Torah, Hagar and Ishmael, part of the household of Abraham, born into the family circle, are made to feel by Sarah as outsiders, and through their exile literally become outcasts. Hagar and Ishmael are the template for members of our tribe who through some trigger, or lack of experience, know that they are Jewish, but do not feel the need to belong or be with their people. They are alienated from their people and faith. Some event occurred or did not occur that has put them into exile. They may have found different ways, or reached out to a different culture, in search of a place and space to belong. They may still be searching.
Our second Torah portion for Rosh HaShanah should sound more familiar as we read it here at Beth Chaverim each year. Traditionally it is the second day Torah portion but read in many Reform synagogues on first day. It is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.
A short recap: God decides to test Abraham by asking him to take his son Isaac to make a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. Abraham leaves early in the morning with two servants, an ass and Isaac, and heads to the mountain. Leaving the servants and ass behind, Abraham ascends the mountain with his son Isaac, who asks a number of questions as they go up, realizing or not realizing that he will be the sacrifice. When they arrive at the place God designates, Abraham binds Isaac to an altar they have built and goes to kill his son as the offering. An angel of God intervenes just as Abraham is about to do the deed. A ram miraculously appears in a bush and is offered as a sacrifice in place of the boy.
In this story, Isaac experiences the event of “near sacrifice” of his person. Many commentators have noted that in the years of post-trauma, the personality of Isaac never fully develops in our Torah text. He is one dimensional. Isaac’s story is motivated by and in response to the actions of his wife Rebekah and the interactions and tensions between his sons Jacob and Esau. He is a minor character in the plot of his wife’s plotting and his son’s squabbles.
Yet still he attempts to pass on his own parent’s traditions, despite his childhood trauma with faith, giving him a place among the patriarchs of our people. Some of us too, live as the anti-protagonist of our own Jewish lives. We let Jewish life happen around us and respond or not. We are not so sure if this faith with which we are identified is for us. We are ambivalent. Yet we feel a commitment to somehow pass on Judaism to the next generation.
Isaac is the “us” who have a sense that we are Jewish, but have not quite found our own comfortable place in Judaism. Isaac is the “us” that turns up to services out of a sense of obligation – because our parents went on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Isaac is the “us” that joins in on family celebrations but would not make the effort to initiate or know how to host those celebrations on our own. Isaac is the “us” that sends our kids to religious school even though we do not really practice Judaism in our homes, because we want our children to know that which we do not feel comfortable teaching them ourselves.
The third Torah portion of Rosh HaShanah is the foundational story for the holiday. It is not traditional but is offered in Reform High Holy Day prayer books as a creative alternate second day reading. Since Rosh HaShanah celebrates in Jewish lore the creation of the world, the Reform Jewish tradition offers us the opening story of Genesis with which to engage. Genesis teaches us through metaphor how the creativity process works step by step. Those who are regular on Friday night know the steps from the Peter and Ellen Allard song that we use as Kiddush:
“First day – Day and Night; Second Day – Heaven and Earth; Third Day – Plants and Trees; Fourth Day – Sun and Moon and Stars; Fifth Day – Fins and Wings; Sixth Day – Beasts and Humankind; Seventh Day – Sabbath Rest.[i]”
These days are not to be read as miraculous literal happenings as the fundamentalists would interpret it. Rather, they show an evolution of the world coming into being.
The world like a strong Jewish identity is put together step-by-step. The rabbis taught “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah” one mitzvah inspires another.[ii] We learn one mitzvah and then another, and then another, and then another, accruing a knowledge of Judaism. A Jewish identity is formed and molded by our doing Jewish, and learning what this doing means to create a world of spiritual meaning.
In the blueprint of Torah, this story provides us with a how-to plan to inculcate Jewish knowledge and practice in ourselves. It can be used by us to teach us how-to raise our children with strong Jewish roots.
We may build knowledge, understanding and a spiritual practice of Jewish life, step by step becoming Creator Jews. Like the creation of the world, we can create and recreate Jewish identity. Creator Jews experiment with Jewish practice and create new Jewish practices. They constantly grow in Jewish identity forming new worlds, new visions of what Judaism can be for each generation. Genesis 1 is the story of the Jew who engages and learns and is involved in their own identity.
Our stories of Rosh HaShanah, speak to different parts of our community and how each identify with faith: by not identifying, approaching one’s identity with ambivalence, and creative identity. Our past experiences color where we place ourselves along this continuum.
Our present experience, our reflections at this season, are designed for teshuvah, return, to move us to place ourselves somewhere different. One of the great lessons of my immigration experience, is that our attitudes, our sense of belonging, who we are, can change over time. We can move from being outsiders to insiders. We can move from ambivalence of our faith to an understanding of our faith. We can grow in our Jewish understandings.
Many rabbis in the twenty first century have used the phrase that “we are all Jews by choice” so I am not certain of its origins.
We are all Jews by choice. Like Hagar and Ishmael we can be outsiders. But we do not have to stay in that place. The rabbis tell midrashic stories that comment on the wife that Abraham takes after Sarah’s death. The bible names her as Keturah. But the rabbis of the midrash imagine that this is a new name taken on by the exiled Hagar. Troubled by the story that our patriarch threw out a wife and son, they re-imagine that Hagar and Ishmael re-cross the threshold following Sarah’s death. Keturah-Hagar bears Abraham six more sons becoming more integral to the fold of Abraham’s family. The gates of Judaism are always open.
We are all Jews by choice. We can choose to be in a place of minimal identification or remain ambivalent. Our Torah story from this morning continues with a narrative that tells us that Isaac raised two sons. Born into the same household, with a faith-ambivalent father, with no firm spiritual road to follow, they chose very different paths. Esau rejected his father’s ways marrying women from Canaan. Jacob upheld the tradition of his ancestors. Jacob’s was not an easy road, involving some wrestling with the past/his faith/an angel to become Israel, the one who wrestles with God. When we come from a place of ambivalence or find ourselves in that place we can choose to remain in the no man’s land of Jewish being like Esau, or choose to actively wrestle with our identities like Jacob, increasing our own sense of identity and strengthening the identity of those who come after us.
We are all Jews by choice. There are those of us who actively choose to build a Jewish identity that is meaningful in our lives. Like a world being created, we forge our identity, one building block at a time, to create a Judaism meaningful and renewed. For such Jews, being Jewish is a path of meaning and spirituality, a guide to living and an opening of the soul. It is a choice.
Our identification stories are reflected in the Torah blueprints of this Rosh HaShanah season. Yet which story speaks to our identification with Judaism is ultimately a choice we make. Judaism, the people of Israel lives, when we consciously will it to be so through our choices. Belonging, doing, being Jewish is a choice we can consciously make – immediately, or over a journey of 25 years, or through our lifetimes.
Which of these stories are yours, and which of these stories will you make your own?
My dream: Am Yisrael Chai. May the people of Israel live through your engagement and conscious choices.
Sermon Anthem: Am Yisrael Chai (Katz)
[i] From the song “Seven Days” by Ellen and Peter Allard
[ii] Pirke Avot 4:2