This week I was able to make some choices. As a newly minted American I could make the choice to vote (finally!). As a voter I could choose between candidates and parties for the House and Senate.
This week we were able to make some choices. We could examine the issues that were important to us and our country – economic recovery, abortion rights, equality, jobs, foreign policy – and help shape the direction our country would take on such issues.
This week we were witness to choices. We could hear the summation of people’s opinions on the political direction of the United States. We were able to watch as different states chose leadership that was Democratic or Republican.
We could let our will and wills be known.
We also learned of the will of one woman’s anticipated choice.
Brittany Maynard, a young woman with an aggressive and terrible form of terminal brain cancer, was an advocate of the death with dignity law. She was very public about her choice to take her own life “when the time seemed right”. Brittany moved her family from California to Oregon, where such a choice was legal. Her story of death and dying has moved many of us. This week, she took medication which ended her life just short of her 30th birthday.[i]
She let her will be known.
Many of us will have varying views on the outcome of the elections as well as Brittany Maynard’s right to die with dignity. What specifically does Judaism have to say about the specific choice of taking one’s own life in the face of an aggressive and terminal disease? Is this permissible?
Let us begin to untangle the web of theological thought:-
Free will exists in Judaism. But it co-exists in tandem with God’s plan. How so? A bit of background:
The Bible understands that the whole of our natural world is ruled by God’s plan. Think about the bible you know: God brings a flood, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, God decided whether the Israelites will win or lose wars. Within this same system, we can make choices for which we are culpable. Hence the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” of the commandments of the Bible.
Rabbi Akiva summarized the paradox with these words: “..everything is forseen [by God], yet humanity has the capacity to choose freely.”[ii] The Medieval Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas elaborated that while we have the ability to choose between alternatives, there is an underlying cause to all of existence. [iii] In other words, there is an ultimate plan and destiny. Yet how we traverse the paths and by-ways to the final destination, depends on the choices we as humans make along the way.
This theology of “relative free will” impacts the Jewish view on euthanasia. Several case studies are reiterated in the discussion in Judaism on whether we have the right, or someone has the right, to choose the time of our own death. These case studies provide us a window into some of the thoughts that are hotly debated on the issue.
Story Number One: Rabbi Judah the Prince is dying and is suffering greatly. His rabbinic friends insist on ceaseless prayer which is keeping him artificially alive. His servant woman, noting her master’s suffering, goes up to the roof of the house and throws down a large earthenware jar, the crash interrupting the prayer allowing Rabbi Judah to die.[iv]
This story is used as justification to withdraw a means that artificially prolongs a life. Similarly we are taught that if the chopping of wood provides a meditational focus that is keeping someone who is near death from dying, or salt on a tongue provides a focus keeping someone alive, these artificial means can be withdrawn.[v]
This story and Jewish tradition operates in agreement with the principle of “relative free will”. It allows free will in removing an impediment to death, but ultimately God is the one who determines the time of death. Death is not a human choice to make. As Maimonides taught:”A dying person is considered to be alive in every respect… whoever touches him is a murderer… whoever closes his eyes as he dies is a murderer…”[vi]
While not completely analogous to Brittany Maynard’s story, the lesson of this case study should be taken into consideration. In Judaism, impediments to death occurring can be removed, but taking a life pro-actively would be forbidden and even classed as murder.
Story Number Two speaks about one who is in great mental and physical agony. It is the story of King Saul on Mount Gilboa. The first King of Israel suffers a defeat at Mount Gilboa at the hands of Israel’s enemy the Philistines. In conflicting accounts King Saul asks his arms bearer or an Amelekite to kill him. Ultimately, Saul himself, physically injured, humiliated and defeated falls on his own sword. [vii] In the Amalekite account, King David punishes the Amelekite for the death of Saul.
Tradition teaches in relation to these texts on King Saul’s death, that one may not ask for death if they are in agony. However, if they are to take their life under such circumstances, then that death is to be forgiven.
There is some debate over using this story as general case law. At a reform rabbinic symposium in 1948, Dr. Samuel Atlas suggests that the dilemma using this tale as precedent, rests on the fact that Saul is a King. Thus, this is in its essence a politically story.[viii] King Saul died by his own sword to prevent a desecration of the divine name in Israel.[ix] Kings are not commoners and are exceptions because of their national status.
So the question arises – can we ascertain a ruling from this story regarding a commoner like Brittany Maynard? How well do these scenarios mesh?
Unlike King Saul, Brittany Maynard did not actually “fall on her own sword.” She actively chooses her time of death by moving to a state where medications were available for her to “die with dignity”. Someone provided her with those medications. Both King Saul and Brittany Maynard took their own lives, and the mainstream discussion around the biblical precedent would have us forgive Brittany Maynard like we did King Saul. Like King Saul’s death, Brittany Maynard’s public dyinghas a political agenda. His was the dignity of state. Hers was the dignity of the terminally ill. Are they equivalent? Finally, just as King Saul’s death becomes hotly debated in subsequent Jewish literature, Brittany Maynard’s death is now hotly debated in press and public.
The stories do not quite interconnect, but they both are filled with similar moral dilemmas.
Story Number Three comes from our martyrology . Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon is wrapped in a Torah scroll and covered with woolen tufts soaked in water. He is being burned slowly and torturously. His disciples beg him to hasten his own dying by opening his mouth and letting the fire in. He refuses to hasten death since that choice is the preserve of God. When the executioner sees Rabbi Hanina’s piety, he offers to hasten death by removing the wet wool if he, the executioner, is promised ultimate redemption. The Rabbi makes this assurance that the executioner’s soul will be redeemed. The executioner removes the woolen tufts over Rabbi Hanina’s heart, and the rabbi’s soul departs.[x]
In this case the rabbi will not hasten his own painful death even though it is excruciating. In circumstances as excruciating as the painful disease that Brittany Maynard was facing. But easing his death is permitted by someone other than himself.
God’s plan, teaches this story, does not permit us to personally hasten our own death, even underpainful circumstances, for there is a greater plan beyond our understanding at work here. But if someone else removes impediments to our passing out of compassion, then they are to be forgiven. It seems that our Jewish tradition would have a difficult time with Brittany Maynard’s choice to take her life in her own hands.
These cases are just a window into the complicated literature and debate around euthanasia in Judaism. Many theological questions are asked. Can one take one’s own life? What does quality of life mean? Is quality of life a right? If illness and dying are part of our natural life experience, who are we to hasten life experiences? Who is to say that pain itself is not dignified? Is it ethical to hasten death as a consequence of relieving pain?
There is much back and forth, debate, angst and passion. For these questions are not easy ones to ask or answer. The traditional questions are the ones we still hotly debate today. The old is the new.
Like our forebears and our tradition, we too now engage in the struggle between the tension of free will to act in a world of ultimate destiny. It has resurfaced yet again because of the choice and act of one young woman. It is made real by this current debate on euthanasia.
As we wrestle each personally with the questions that Brittany Maynard’s death has raised nationally and personally, let us remember that our Judaism has much to teach us on this question. These are not new questions but ancient ones. The past has much to teach us and can inform our present. Let Jewish wisdom be part of our informed choice, enlighten or limit our free will, whatever side of the current discussion we gravitate towards.
[ii] M. Avot 3:15
[iii] David Winston “Free Will” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (NY: The Free Press, 1972), p. 273
[iv] Ketubot 104a
[v] Moses Isserles quoted in “Allowing a Terminal Patient to Die”, American Reform Responsa #77.
[vi] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avel, 4:5
[vii] I Samuel 31:3-4 and II Samuel 1:5-11
[viii] “Euthanasia” Responsa 78 in American Reform Responsa
[ix] Sefer Hasidim, Chapter 723
[x] Avodah Zarah 18a
(This story has been adapted, shortened, and changed for re-telling. The original is from the Mayse-Bukh a collection of Yiddish folk tales published in 1602. A translation of the original story can be found in Joachim Neugroschel’s “Great Tales of Jewish Occult and Fantasy: The Dybbuk and 30 Other Classic Stories”.)
A true story:
Once a rabbi, as wise as he was rich, ran a Yeshiva attended by a hundred students. The rabbi performed many mitzvehs – not only keeping Shabbes, holy days and kashrus. He paid for his Yeshiva student’s education and he gave tzedakah often to the poor. He was a righteous man.
His wife on the other hand, was not so good. She did not like all the poor students eating their food or giving money to those in need.
Oy! The day came when this rabbi lost all his wealth.
Unable to help his students or give tzedakah he became depressed. Perhaps he had committed some sin for God to deal with him this way?
Unable to help his students or give tzedakah he became embarrassed. So the rabbi came up with a plan to leave town, so no one would know of his shame.
Gathering his students together, the rabbi decided to tell them of his secret, that he was now poor and he felt the need to run away. “Who knows,” he told them, perhaps one day God will make me rich again and I can keep you all in a fine manner?”
The students listened to the rabbi but did not want to leave him. “Rabbi, wherever you go we will go,” they said. “And wherever you lodge we will lodge, what is ours is yours. We will get by.”
So the rabbi left town with his Yeshivah students. Now when the poor people of the town realized that the rabbi and his students had gone, they wondered: where would their next meal come from? But because he was a famous man of learning and great piety, no one was surprised that the rabbi had left home. They assumed he was travelling to some other Yeshiva to teach and study for a while.
The rabbi and his students roamed for years, and over time their clothes became tattered and their money ran out. They became beggars, people closed doors in their faces when they asked for help. Folk refused to give vagabonds food and shelter.
The students, as much as they loved their rabbi and did not want to leave him, finally came to him and said: “Perhaps it is time for us to go home to our parents. Being this poor is really hard.”
The rabbi listened to them and suggested that they remain with him at least till Shabbes… for who knows, maybe God would create some miracle that would keep them together?
The students agreed.
That night as they camped in the forest, the rabbi went to a spring to wash his hands. He sighted a weasel dashing past with a golden ring in its mouth which it dropped into the spring when it drank. The rabbi bent down and picked up the golden ring, looked at it closely, and being wise and learned realized that it was engraved with a magic spell. He wondered about its magic and decided to make a wish. He wished for a purse filled with money… and avarah k’davar, it appeared before him!
The rabbi returned to his students with a smile and a cheer. “My friends, it occurs to me that a wealthy friend of mine lives not so far away from here. Let us visit him in the next town and perhaps he will loan us money.” The rabbi did not say a word to his students of the ring or his new fortune because he feared that one of them might take it.
At the next town, the rabbi bought all his students new clothes and fed them a fine meal. They thought nothing of their change in luck, thinking that the rabbi’s friend had loaned him some money. As they travelled through the countryside their comforts only increased, including a coach fit for a prince on which to ride. The rabbi announced he would pay each student back for all their loyalty and support as now it was time to go home.
The students, offered thanks for the loan from the rabbi’s friend and returned home to their Yeshiva with the rabbi.
They came back to find the townsfolk miserable and poor. But when the town saw the rabbi and the students had returned, shouts of joy filled the air. Such a warm welcome! And the rabbi began to act as he always had with generosity to all, tzedakah, mitzvehs and supporting students and much learning.
The rabbi’s wife however soon became suspicious. Where had all their fortune come from? The rabbi had left the town poor and come back wealthier than before. The rabbi spoke to her of God’s blessings, but she refused to believe that such fortune could “just happen”.
Eventually with much pushing, nagging, and cajoling, her husband told her the secret of the magic ring. But as soon as she knew the real source of their wealth, the rabbi’s wife began to plot…
She asked to see the ring, and when the rabbi refused, she cried out that he did not love her anymore. When he still did not relent, so she put a flea in his ear till he gave her the ring to look at.
As soon as the ring was in her hand the rabbi’s wife made a wish: “I wish that God would turn my husband into a werewolf and let him run around in the forest with the wild beasts.”
That is how the rabbi became a werewolf running around deep in the woods.
He began to eat people in the forest. He attacked intruders. Everybody throughout the land was terrified to go there.
The townsfolk wondered where there rabbi had gone but thought as before, that perhaps he had gone traveling to study and teach insome far off Yeshiva. The town became miserable once more in the rabbi’s absence. The poor became poorer, and there was no-one to feed and house the students of Torah. But the rabbi’s wife, she seemed to get richer and richer, as she got herself everything she wanted.
The rabbi in the shape of a werewolf continued to invoke terror in everyone’s hearts, for there is no animal stronger than a werewolf. No one was willing to kill the werewolf who was stronger than iron and as smart as a human being.
Hearing this, the king of the land decided that the fear of the werewolf must end. He offered a reward of his daughter’s hand in marriage for one that could catch this terrifying creature. But no-one could catch the werewolf, despite the traps and plots and plans they had.
It just so happened, that a young man lived in the woods. He lived so isolated that he had not heard of the panic of the werewolf or the reward for the king’s daughter’s hand. In fact, he had made friends with the werewolf, tamed him and made him his companion. He fed the werewolf food. He talked to him like a pet. He loved to watch the werewolf’s tail wag with joy.
When the news finally reached the young man about the werewolf threat and the King’s daughter’s hand, he placed a rope around the werewolf’s neck and brought him to the palace.
As you can imagine, the king was terrified when the young man and the werewolf entered the palace because he had heard how the werewolf would rip people to shreds. But the young man assured him that the werewolf would harm nobody unless they tried to harm the creature.The young man was given the king’s daughter in marriage and he continued to look after the werewolf who was loyal to his master. When the king died, the young man and the king’s daughter ruled the land.
On a snowy winter’s day the new king, his companions, and the werewolf went out hunting. The werewolf seemed happy to be back in the woods, tail wagging he ran ahead, and in a clearing made some marks in the snow, marks that clearly were writing. The new king thought a miracle had been wrought, that his werewolf could write so clearly in the snow. It then occurred to him that perhaps his werewolf companion might be a bewitched human as such a thing had been known to have happened in the past.
One of the new king’s companions recognized the script as Hebrew and read the letter the werewolf wrote in the snow:
“Sire, remember our friendship. I could have overpowered you many times but I did not. I am, in fact, a human and my wife put a spell on me with a wishing ring. If I do not get the ring back very soon I will be a werewolf till the end of my days. I beg of you, please remember how loyal I have been and go to my wife and get this ring.”
The werewolf concluded his letter with a picture of the wishing ring he sought.
The new king immediately wanted to help his werewolf friend. He and his servants dressed as merchants and rode to the town the werewolf had directed them too. They pretended as merchants that they loved to buy old rings and jewelry. That nothing would be too expensive. The townsfolk told him they were poor, and the only person with such merchandise to sell was the rabbi’s wife who had many jewels and rings.
The townsfolk bought the disguised new king to the rabbi’s wife, who took out her many ribbons of rings and jewels tied together for the merchant to inspect, greedy at the prospect of even more money. There, amidst many rings, just as the werewolf had drawn, was the wishing ring.
The new king disguised as a merchant, looked at all the rings carefully, and thought a wish – that the wishing-ring be returned to his palace, and thus he stole the ring from under the rabbi’s wife’s very eyes without her knowing. It took her a while before she realized what had happened. Of course, she became miserable and grief stricken.
When the new king returned home he threw a banquet and called for his werewolf friend. The werewolf came in overjoyed to see his master, hopeful to receive his ring, his tail wagging and wagging. The new king took the ring from his bag and placed it by the werewolf’s paw. Had the new king known the true power of the ring he may not have given it up so readily.
Avarah K’Davar. The werewolf disappeared. And a naked man stood before them.
The new king called for clothes and then the naked man, the rabbi, asked permission to return to his home for he had been gone for three to four years. The new king knowing how loyal the werewolf had been gave consent. The new king wanted to bestow gifts upon his werewolf rabbi friend, but the rabbi replied he had much wealth, which the new king had already witnessed at his home. All he needed was his ring. Of course if the new king had known the true secret of the ring, he might not have let the rabbi return home with it so easily.
The rabbi began his journey home, and on the way made a wish on his ring: “I wish that my wife, damn her soul, would turn into a donkey in my stable.”
When the rabbi returned home he received a hearty welcome from his students and the poor town folks, but alas, his wife was nowhere to be found. The rabbi looked confused about this fact but said, “Maybe she will return in the end.” All the while knowing his wife was now a donkey in his stable.
The rabbi returned to his life of deeds of tzedakah, supporting his students, helping the poor and doing many kind acts and mitzvehs. One Shabbes he announced that he would like to share his wealth even more with the community, and that he would build a beautiful shul. He gave a donkey from his own stable to the builders to haul the bricks. Of course that donkey was his wife!
The workmen worked the donkey hard. And the townsfolk always wondered where the rabbi’s wife had disappeared too?
When the shul was finally built, the rabbi provided a huge banquet, inviting the towns folk, his students and his wife’s relatives and telling them this improbable story of his life. Of course, they thought it was just a story.
Not long after that the rabbi passed away leaving his wealth to his children. The wishing-ring had vanished. And his wife remained a donkey as long as she lived.
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow.
I know, I know …. You’re in shock!
Story-book retellings would have you believe that the tale ends with the flood abating. The family and animals descend from the Ark. A rainbow shines across the sky. The rainbow a sign of an eternal covenant between God and the people of the earth, that never again such a devastating flood will be wrought.
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow. This is not some cute fairytale.
The biblical story continues with Noah planting a vineyard, getting drunk from the wine he produces causing him to fall asleep naked. One of his three sons, Ham, takes advantage of his father’s nakedness in ways unimaginable between father and a son, and then boasts of it to his brothers. Shem and Japeth, the other two sons, modestly cover their father up. Noah wakes to realize that he has been taken advantage of while naked, and utters a curse on his culprit youngest son. [i]
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow. This is a real story of dishonor, hurt, betrayal, and tragedy.
The events of this week have seen in the newspapers, another story that starts as an idyll and ends in dishonor, hurt, betrayal and tragedy.
Just as the waters of the flood were in Noah’s time to cleanse the earth of all wickedness among human kind, the Mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, has water that marks transitions. Water is cleansing in our Jewish lives. The Mikveh is a sacred and special place, a holy space, of power and transformative effect.
Traditionally, it has been used by men to mark the transition to holy days, or to prepare them for sacred work like writing God’s name in the Torah, or to purify them after they have exposed themselves to the profane. Traditionally for women it has been used to mark their transition from being single to being a bride, and to mark the end of their monthly menses before they resume marital relations. Traditionally it has been the transition point for those converting to Judaism marking the move from one status in life to the next. Traditionally it has been used by Jews to kasher their dishes, transitioning ordinary plates and pots, readying them for holy eating for those who follow Jewish dietary practice.
But as our Chai School class learned two weeks ago on their visit to the Mikveh at Adas Israel in Washington DC, modern uses of the Mikveh which began about 20 years ago, can mark all kinds of transitions. Bar/Bat Mitzvah, birthdays, beginning college, becoming an empty nester, the beginning of pregnancy, the ending of a job, retirement are all Mikveh moments. The ending of a marriage . coming out, can all be ceremonialized with immersion. Earning a driver’s license, healing from an operation, or surviving a trauma, marking the end of a mourning period, gender reassignment, celebrating an engagement can all be marked with sacred waters. Tevilah, immersion, is appropriate for anything that marks a significant change in one’s life.
The scandal, the dishonor, hurt, betrayal and tragedy that emerged just down the road in Washington DC, that made the national newspapers and has had reverberations throughout the Jewish world, involved a prominent Orthodox rabbi, Barry Freundel, who had installed hidden cameras to spy on women as they undressed and used the Mikveh associated with his synagogue Kesher Israel. The scandal, the dishonor, hurt, betrayal and tragedy has further deepened as we have learned of his abuse of power over potential converts, and the rumor that his Shul and Rabbinic Association knew that something was not quite kosher.
With this breach of trust and indiscretion, Freundel has taken a sacred and special place, a holy space for Jewish ritual, and created angst for those who have used it under his direction. The cleansing waters feel not so clean or safe or nurturing because the man in charge has uncovered the nakedness of the women who used his ritual bath, by peeping on them during their sacred preparations for immersion.
Ten years ago with the blossoming of the new Mikveh movement, Anita Diamant, author of “The Red Tent” and so many other books, used the proceeds of her novel to build a Mikveh called Mayyim Chayim, meaning “Living Waters” in Boston. The aim of Mayyim Chayim was to create a beautiful, opening and welcoming space, a space to reinvigorate and re-imagine Mikveh practice, that would be welcoming of anyone Jewish, or of folk converting to Judaism. A Mikveh that would be owned by the community and not dominated by any one group. Their goal, as they state on their website with a quotation from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook is to be a place where “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” [ii]
The Mikveh we use in Washington DC at Adas Israel, follows the same principals upheld by Mayyim Chayim – commitment to traditional Jewish legal values, modesty, love of the Jewish people, belief that we are one Jewish community, education, beautifying the mitzvah of immersion, and openness and inclusivity.[iii]
In all immersions except for a conversion one can choose to do so alone or with a Mikveh Guide. With conversion, which requires a witness, you have an option of who your Jewish witness will be as long as they are of the same gender. Integrity and emotional support and discretion are paramount.
I hope one day, if you have not already, you will participate in one of the programs there, to see for yourself how meaningful and spiritual Mikveh can be, or choose an appropriate transition time in your life to experience immersion .
My colleague, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein wrote an article in 1986 that was published in Lilith Magazine, a Jewish Feminist publication, entitled “Take Back the Waters,” and this week in response to the dishonor, hurt, betrayal, and tragedy of the actions of Rabbi Freundel addressed the topic again in a Times of Israel blog post. She makes a plea to our Orthodox sisters:
“Let some good come out of this. Let Orthodox women take back the waters once and for all, by asking the hard questions about patriarchy and its results in their community. By asking how the idea of mikvah can be cleansed not only from this horrible rape with the eyes, but from its associations with women as clean, unclean, ready, not ready, covered or not covered. Let women-owned, women-controlled mikvaot as we have in the liberal community start to flourish in the Orthodox world, and let new definitions, new vocabulary and new research into human sexuality and its limitations pour out like water. And please, Orthodox sisters: listen to non-Orthodox women who found the mikvah spiritually uplifting when detached from sexuality. The idea just might make us all feel clean again.” [iv]
With admiration for her feminist viewpoint, let me add to my colleague’s wise words. This is not just a tragedy that affects only women. Rabbi Freundel has tarnished the reputation of Mikveh practice holy to both men and women. We all need to “take back” this ritual and imbue it with integrity. But there is more we must understand: Rabbi Freundel has brought a shande to the title of rabbi, teacher, judge through his illicit behavior. He has engendered distrust in Jewish establishment, for as the establishment, he took advantage of those who were at his whim, and advantage of those unawares. We also need to take back what it means to be a rabbi and what it means to be a Jewish institution. Like Shem and Japeth, the sons of Noah, we want to cover over the nakedness of this scandal. Like Noah, we awake knowing that cover up will not remedy the damage done.
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow.
Our story-books and memories re-write the ending of the Noah tale even though the scandal of its ending is forever embedded in the Biblical text. The tragedy does not go away. But how the story ends is reframed in perpetuity – a pledge not to flood the earth again. The reframing offers a promise that things will be better and tragedy, flood or family incest, will not be repeated.
Communities concerned with the integrity of our leaders, communities that want our Jewish establishments to be exemplars of our values, need to re-write this week’s news narrative not to write out our shame, but to demand that we return to the core of Jewish ideals we hold high and believe in. The actions of our leadership and institutions should aspire to be, as best as they can be, a light to the nations.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this week’s shameful exposures, it is that we as a people need to reclaim the sacred, the special and the holy. Justice and righteousness must prevail.
We recall the rainbow of Noah – the rewritten ending of a tragic story.
We pray to have the fortitude and the wisdom, to re-frame this current story of shame, to glean its lessons, and to create rainbows filled with colors of new and meaningful Jewish practice. We ask our leadership and our institutions to join us in this endeavor.
As the prophet Amos preached: “Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a humble stream.”[v]
[i] Genesis 9
[v] Amos 5:24
Sermon Theme for 5775 – Jewish Identity
Yom Kippur Morning Sermon
The morning service almost complete, the early sacred moments of this day almost concluded, and the sermon just beginning, I am going to do something we are not allowed to do in our Sanctuary during the service!
I am going to encourage you to take out your smart phones…
turn them on…if they have been turned off…
make sure they are on mute… (I wouldn’t want us to be interrupted!…)
Now gather those around you into a little group…. Bring up your camera app…Reach out…
and take a Yom Kippur “selfie” …
You are welcome to take a moment to Tweet or FaceBook or put the picture onto Instagram…. (perhaps you can find a teenager in your group to help you!)
Make sure to tag me – “ravlinda” or “Linda Joseph” – or Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation – and of course tag anyone else in your photo (ask them how).
So now we are part of the “selfie” trend! “Selfie” was included in the Oxford Dictionary last year and nominated as the 2013 word of the year – because everybody was doing it. Our President, Barack Obama, made the news at the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life when he took a “selfie” with the Danish and British Prime Minister. Pope Francis has been in on “selfies” with tourists at the Vatican. Ellen DeGeneres put together a celebrity “selfie” at the 86th Academy Awards last March with Meryl Streep, and other film notables, and her tweet of that picture went immediately viral – over 2 million times before the ceremony finished and 2.8 million times in the following 24 hours. By last June, it had almost 3 ½ million tweets.[i]
I wonder how viral our Yom Kippur “selfies” will become?
And what will these Yom Kippur “selfies” we just posted, tell people about us, and our Day of Atonement here at Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation? They say a picture tells a thousand words, but let us ask ourselves, does it really? Some of the most famous photographs can mislead us or have more to them than one would assume.
Most of you will be familiar with the infamous Victory-Over-Japan Day photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, of an American sailor kissing a woman in a white dress in Times Square in New York City, on August 14th, 1945. It was published in Time Magazine with the caption: “In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers”, her body arched as she leans backwards, the intersection of Broadway and 7th in the background.
Certainly this photograph catches the jubilation of the moment. But the picture is not the end of the story. This sailor, reports the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, was running down 45th kissing every girl insight. Eisenstaedt took this photo because of the drama of the sailor dressed in white, kissing the girl in a white nurse’s uniform. If the color scheme had not been right, he may not have even made the shot.
Post publication, there has been controversy over many years surrounding who the sailor and woman are in the picture. Several people have come forward claiming to be the young couple, and there have been witnesses testifying, photograph analysis, and even polygraph tests to try to verify who is actually depicted.[ii]
Our “selfies” often do not tell a full or complete story. They are a façade of what is happening. Nina Nesbitt in this year’s chart-hitting song “Selfies” speaks about how her “selfies” belie what she is feeling inside. She sings her jilted lover angst, and her pop video clip displays her taking pictures of herself having a good time, to post, in the hope of reigniting the passion of her beau:
“Sitting in my bedroom tonight/ Thinking of how to change your mind/ Since you walked out my life again…../ So I strike a pose and tilt my chin/ And hold the light to suit my skin/ Your favorite t-shirt on again/ Counting hours/ Counting lies/ 3, 2, 1/ And I smile
Taking pictures of myself, self, self../ Guess I’m reaching out to be assured/ All I wanted was to be adored…”[iii]
We are witnesses to a young girl’s life in this song…. or are we? There is more to the published images on her media feed, and she lets us know this in her music.
“Atem Nitzavim HaYom”, our Torah portion this morning, speaks of us as witnesses, standing to receive Jewish law and tradition which is an attainable goal for us all. On the face of it, our “Yom Kippur selfies” now published… it seems to the world that we are identified and active Jews, here in the synagogue this morning on our Sabbath of Sabbaths. Good for us! But this is just an image.
Does our “Yom Kippur selfie” from this morning tell our whole Jewish story? Are we the Jews we proclaim to be on the outside as well as on the inside?
In Steve Job’s biography he speaks of his adoptive father Paul Jobs, a man good with his hands and a car mechanic by trade. He gave Steve a sense of design and also a sense of pride in the craftsmanship that could be seen, and that which could not be seen, something that Steve insisted be applied to Apple products. Steve Jobs spoke to his biographer explaining that his father refused to use poor wood on the back of cabinets, or to construct a fence that was not of the same quality front and back. In Steve Job’s own words: “For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”[iv]
Steve would have approved of the design philosophy Bezalel used to create the Mishkan, the Ark used to carry the Commandments through the wilderness. Our rabbis tell us that it had gold on the outside, as well as on the inside, even though no-one ever saw the interior. The interior gold was hiddur mitzvah, a beautified mitzvah, just to honor God.
Everybody might see the gold on our outside, but what would they see, what would they understand, what would they know about our Jewish identity, if they could see our insides. Would it be gold? Would it be quality? Would it be our best? Would it honor God?
Our Torah portion has us ask hard questions of our Jewish identity. We stand here as witnesses today being told Torah is not beyond our reach.
Are we authentic in the Jewish lives we lead? Are we Jews what we proclaim to be to the world at large? Do we live our lives through Jewish values? Have we succeeded in prioritizing the Judaism we say is important to our families and kids? Are we real in the Jewish commitments we espouse? Are we supportive of our local Jewish community and the community at large? Are we giving of Tzedakah? Are we committed to Jewish learning?
Are we golden on the outside and golden on the inside, or at least trying to be…
as the Talmud tells us “No one can live up to the words of Torah, unless they fail at them.”[v] But once you fail, than your learn and try to live up to the words again.
Each High Holy Days, we are beckoned to come to home, back to our self, our place, the Divine. We are beckoned to be better Jews. A breathtaking poem by Yahia Lababidi, an Egyptian Lebanese poet, called “Encounter,” speaks to this process, imagining a self meeting with their better self:
I stirred in the small hours of the morning. Sensing a presence, I did not return to sleep, but ventured into the living room, apprehensively.
There, by the balcony, sat a familiar figure — cross-legged and reading in the semi-dark, with just the milky moonlight for company.
I do not know how I knew, but I did. I recognized the intruder, at once, with a mixture of dread and affection.
“I’m sorry,” were the only words to leave my lips. “I’m sorry, too,” replied my longed-for-self, with a sigh of infinite kindness and pity.
He did not rise to greet me and, somehow, spoke without words, transmitting what was needed.
Catching his glistening eye, the caring made me cry. “You’ve taken every detour to avoid me,” he gently reproached. “For every step I’ve taken towards you, you’ve taken back two”.
I did not know what to say in my defense (how could I protest against myself?) “I missed you,” he said, and feared you’d forgotten me.”
His admonishment was tender as a kiss. “I visit from time to time, and hope you’ll ask me to stay.” I knew what he said was true, and felt that way, too.
“I worried,” he continued, “if I postponed this visit, we might never meet, in this life… and so I came to sharpen your appetite.”
He rose and moved towards me. “There’s no need to speak, return to sleep. But when you rise, try to remember me. And to keep awake.”
Yom Kippur is the day of meeting our longed-for Jewish self and to remember, to take stock, to keep awake. Rabbi Arthur Waskow reframed the word “atonement” from Day of Atonement, using the same letters, to The Day of At-One-Ment, a day when our self makes the supreme effort to become one with our higher self.
And isn’t that what we want for ourselves? To pull ourselves together? To be the best that we can be?
So when you next look at your Yom Kippur “selfie” on your Twitter or Instagram or FaceBook page, really look beyond the picture of yourself into your inner self. Ask: Are you true to your “Yom Kippur Selfie”? Let it be a reminder on your social media app of choice, that the picture on your inside should match the picture on your outside, a reminder of the work that you have undertaken on this Day of At-One-Ment, and a reminder of your aspirations to be the best Jew that you can be!
Anthem: “HaB’rachah” by Norman Roman
from Psalm 128:4-6
Behold, anyone who is awe-stricken by God shall be blessed,
God will bless them from Zion.
They will see the goodness of Jerusalem all of their days
and live to see their grandchildren
and peace in Israel.
[v] BT Gittin 53:1
Sermon Theme for 5775 – Jewish Identity
Yom Kippur Evening Sermon
When the incursion into Gaza commenced this last summer during the war now known as Operation Protective Edge, among the first Israeli casualties was an American who had made Aliyah. Texas born Sean Carmieli was the son of Israeli parents. He had made Aliyah from America, and was what is known in Israel as a “lone soldier – one who has come to live in Israel not having the physical support of his large family to go home to.
When he died, his friends went to social media, concerned that Sean would have a small funeral, since the family and the friends he grew up with, lived in Texas. They published a photo of him draped in the flag of his soccer team, Maccabi Haifa. The officials of the team saw this photo, empathized with Sean’ story, and urged fans to show up to the funeral, so that Sean would not be buried by his family alone.
In less than 24 hours, Sean Carmieli’s two sisters and 20, 000 people gathered at his funeral. They came in scout groups and biker groups. They came young and old. They came as individuals in tears. Most had never met Sean. Ariel Horowitz penned an amazing song paying homage to this poignant moment at the beginning of the war:
“Esrim elef ish, v’atah ha’rishon /Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
Esrim elef ish, acharecha ‘Sean’ /twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
Tzoadim b’sheket im prachim/ marching in silence, carrying flowers:
Shtei Achayot, esrim elef achim/ two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.”
For me, one of the most moving lines of the song, filled with poignant lines is –
“a young woman holding a flag who doesn’t know why she’s crying so much when she’d never even known you.”
There are times we identify or are identified with a cause. The Jewish people and Israel are causes that are inextricably intertwined. Our relationship as individuals with Israel is one we must choose to be engaged in. We have no choice but to make it part of our identity as Jews.
My own politics are neither AIPAC or JStreet. I know we have folk to the right and to the left in their beliefs on Israel who sit here at BCRC this evening, and people who feel distanced from Israel. My politics are unaligned but they are not ambivalent. I am a Zionist and understand that my identity as a Jew cannot be separated from Israel, land and people. As Yossi Klein HaLevi stated so eloquently in a recent Rosh HaShanah article about the events this last summer: “I am, like many of us, a confusion of emotions. I am angry and fearful, grieving and grateful, proud and ashamed and, despite everything, hopeful”[i]
I believe in a two-state solution. I feel sympathy for the Palestinians caught in a nightmare world created by terrorists and am livid that the world perpetuates the Hamas myth that more casualties on their side, which Israel tried their best to avoid, makes Israel the villain. I feel sadness and fear for Israeli friends caught in the horror of constant terrorism hanging over their lives and for mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters grieving over their children. I accept as true that the conflict perpetuated by Hamas and reluctantly engaged in by Israel radicalizes Palestinians. I am angry that the UN has turned Israel’s right to defend herself into a war crime.
I dare to dream that peace is possible, and it will come, as Golda Meir said, “when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us” and when we begin to see the humanity in the Palestinians faces and souls. I advocate that we should speak out lovingly in our critique of Israel, but with Israel our loyalty should remain. For in Israel lies my heritage and right, our heritage and right. And when Israel is vilified in false reports in the media, it is my responsibility to speak out.
But not everybody feels as I do. There are Jewish pundits, journalists and activists and tribe members, who take the position that Judaism is separate and different to supporting the land of Israel. What happens in Israel does not reflect on Judaism and Jews elsewhere. They take the side of the Palestinians who portray themselves as the underdog, even if an element of that underdog is using terrorism to further its cause, in the name of social justice.
Rather than lovingly critiquing Israel, angsting with her people on the state of her soul, wanting the best for the Jewish homeland, they voice their dismay of Israel as a “them” rather than an “us”. If in disagreement with the policies of the Israel government, they voice that to the world at large, differentiating themselves from such behaviors, believing that there are no consequences for the Jewish people, and dismissing the arguments that criticizing Israel in such a way has a greater long-term effect on the Jewish people.
But there are repercussions for every anti-Zionist voice which affect us personally. Protests and demonizing Israel has melded to make anti Jewish rhetoric strong once more. In the past one might have been able to argue that anti-Zionism was not anti-Semitic. But these hatreds are more aligned than ever before and can clearly no longer be separated.
This last year has seen a rise in anti-semitism. It is hard to fathom the numbers found in the ADL Global 100 Report, the recently published index of surveyed anti-Semitism, that tells us that over a quarter of the world population holds stereotypes and hatred of Jews.[ii] Much of this anti-Semitism is based in historical biases but reinforced by negative reports around Israel. The Anti-Defamation League has well documented in their Global100 reort, the belief by many in the world that Jews and Israel are one and the same. What I believe to be biased tainted anti-Israel discussion in our media, has spurred larger anti-Semitic repercussions. In this last year, there has been an acceleration of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which are in essence made of the same cloth.
Anti-Israel rhetoric is pervasive. From the divestment and sanctions put in place by the Presbyterian Church towards Israel, to the propaganda of the BDS movement that has falsely labeled Israel as an apartheid state, to the vilification of Israel at the UN, without condemnation of the terrorists Hamas who provoked and sustained the most recent conflict.
Anti-Semitism has followed quickly on its heels… From the political leaders in Turkey, Venezuela and South Africa who have called for violence against their Jewish population. To the protests on the streets of New York that damaged Jewish stores, to the calls in France for Jews to be gassed and bombed, the ice bucket challenge that turned into the blood bucket challenge at Ohio University followed by the arrest of Jewish students who protested this grotesque action, to the unlikely candidate running for US senate in Kentucky, who posted a sign on folks lawns with a central platform that reads: “With Jews We Lose”. [iii]
Two weeks ago in Jackson MS, my rabbinic colleague Ted Ritter from Congregation Beth Israel, ordered a salad and was asked by the owner: “A full size or a Jewish size?” When Rabbi Ritter asked the owner what he meant he explained: “It’s small. Jews are cheap and small. Everybody knows that.” Incredulous, and thinking he may have heard the owner incorrectly, he asked “Did you really just say that? The owner then asked him if he was a Jew and when the rabbi replied “Yes”, a whole lot of expletives followed, and the rabbi was asked to leave the restaurant. Rabbi Ritter wrote publicly on this, “It was all a bit surreal, so I left.”[iv] And then he spoke out asking for an apology fitting this Jewish season of forgiveness.
Anti-Israel opinion has garnered into anti-Semitic reality. Being anti-Zionist has become even more obviously than in the past, a synonym for and a justification for Jew-hating. Anti-Zionism has become without equivocation just another guise for Anti-Semitism.
On the Facebook page of my dog breeder there is a cute picture of a puppy looking a lot like my Zuchon dog Ben Bag Bag. His mouth, face and paws are covered in a red lipstick he has been playing with and chewing. His little mouth has an innocent dog look. The caption reads: “No. I have not seen your lipstick. Why would you even ask me that? I’m insulted. Every time something goes missing around here, everybody looks at me.”[v]
We might ask what we have done to be blamed? We might claim to our friends and society – that Israel is not us. But will they understand? Will they listen? They see Israel as us. They see a smear of lipstick all over our faces. We have no choice but to make Israel part of our own Jewish identity, because the fate of Israel and Zionism is linked as one to us as Jews in the minds of others. Like our 19th and 20th century ancestors, Israel is our haven, Israel is our representation, Israel is our country – because we are Jews linked historically to our birthplace.
When I visited Israel this last year, as a Jew living outside the land of Israel, I was given the opportunity with a number of rabbis to visit the Knesset and to make the views of world Jewry heard on religious pluralism. Israel has always understood that what happens in Israel effects the Jewish world. That is why they allow Jews from other countries, not just rabbis, to lobby at the Knesset. We too need to have such an understanding. They are us. We are them.
This means that we need to make sure that we are educated around Israel. I have put together this evening, a sheet with resources for you to take, that will help you with this endeavor. You need to peacefully arm yourself through knowledge. To protect yourself and our people, you must become familiar with the history of the Middle East and its mindset. You must read history books and articles, play video games to teach us about the complexities of the situation (such a game night is on our Adult Education agenda), attend plays and films that show us the complexity of Israel and her neighbors today.
You must visit Israel if you can and become sensitized to the realities of everyday living. You must understand what it is to live as part of the Jewish people with Israel at her center. You must comprehend what it means to be a tiny democratic country surrounded by hostile nations. You must keep abreast of Israel’s politics, her challenges, and her struggle with mores.
Join organizations that are Israel focused. Educate your friends and those around us about Israel, and respond to newspapers and media when you see things that are falsely reported.
You must partake in having our voices heard in Israel. ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists here in the United States, speaks for us as a Reform Movement in Israel. Who of you would be willing to take the lead in running an ARZA membership campaign among our congregants? Or is there some other Israel focused organization that speaks your Jewish language and politics that you might join?
Make sure that our children have a strong connection with Israel. Perhaps we as a congregation might consider a Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip for our families? Or you might speak about Israel in your car pool or around your dinner table? Or you might consider collecting Tzedakah from your kids allowance for a cause they designate in Israel fostering their connection.
You should consider buying Israeli products, trying Israeli foods, listening to Israeli music and learning Hebrew. Tout Israel’s achievements and be proud of her scientific and cultural and humanitarian endeavors. You must draw your soul closer to this country to which you will always be identified.
We must bear in mind that they, Israel, are us, American Jews. What happens there is linked to what occurs to us here. Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh B’Zeh. All Israel is responsible for one another.
In Ariel Horowitz’s song about the funeral of Sean Carmieli, the lone soldier, he sings:
“They came to thank you and to say goodbye,
to say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier
or a nation that dwells alone…”
Israel can never be a nation alone. It is our country even though we live here and are loyal to the United States. It is a nation that dwells inside our Jewish souls. Our destinies are linked.
It is our business to foster and maintain that connection. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom/May the One who makes peace on high make peace for us, in the autumn that Sean Gavrieli did not live to see.
This Kol Nidre, a night when we renounce vows that we did not fulfill between ourselves and our God, may we make a vow…. to recognize that Israel is part of our Jewish identity. May we make a vow to march with Israel through our lives. May we vow to honor her and to work for her and to pray for the peace of Israel and all Jews, wherever they live around the world.
Anthem: Esrim Elef Ish (Ariel Horowitz)
Translation (with thanks to Julian Duband who notated words, music and provided this translation)
Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
in silence, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.
The soccer fans
who came wearing scarves in the team colors,
and a young woman holding a flag
who doesn’t know why she’s crying so much
when she’d never even known you.
Twenty thousand people…
They came to thank you and to say goodbye,
to say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier
or a nation that dwells alone
as long as in Texas, Haifa and Gush Etzion
there are people like you.
Twenty thousand people…
May the One who makes peace on high
make peace for us in the autumn
that you will not live to see, Sean,
and that’s why they’ve come here, from elderly to infants,
from Haifa, from Gush Etzion.
Twenty thousand people…
Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
silently, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers,
Twenty thousand brothers.
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
Sermon Theme for 5775 – Jewish Identity
Rosh HaShanah Evening Sermon
Who here would like to find a treasure?
Once a man named Avram lived with his wife and children in Crakow, and dreamt of finding a treasure. One night asleep, his dream whisked him away to the magical city of Prague to the outskirts of the King’s Palace. There he heard a voice that commanded him to dig under the bridge which led to the palace in order to find a treasure. But it was just a dream.
However, the next night he fell asleep, and once more he found himself journeying to Prague navigating the labyrinth roads of the city, and by the bridge leading to the King’s Palace he hears a voice “Dig, Dig! A treasure is to be found!” But it was just a dream.
Asleep a third night, he is revisited with the same dream again, the King’s Palace, the bridge, the voice. It was just a dream – or was it? Or was it? Finally, he decided to walk his way to Prague.
Everything in Prague seemed just as it he had imagined in his dreams, Well, perhaps the bridge was a little smaller than he had imagined. And…. he had not foreseen that there would be sentries standing guard at each end. One guard demanded to know what Avram was doing there, and Avram tells him the story of his dream.
The guard laughed and laughed at Avram. “Really, you came here because of a dream? How ridiculous! I have been having a dream over and over about finding a treasure under the stove of a man named Avram who lives in Crakow! Do you see me leaving my post?”
On hearing this, Avram returned directly home to his house in Crakow. He took a spade and dug under his own stove. And what did he find?… He found a treasure… that has been under his feet all along.[i]
Just as the treasure we seek might require a journey, so the treasure we seek might also be under our own feet.
This year I read the groundbreaking book by Andrew Solomon, “Far From the Tree” in which the author tells the story of children with identities different from their parents and how the parents deal with their child’s exceptional differences. Andrew Solomon identifies two ways we assimilate our identity.
From our parents and family we are given a vertical identity. We are White, Black, Hispanic. We are American, Norwegian or French. We are impoverished or middle class or upper class. We might inherit genetic traits like dimples or the propensity to put on weight or to be skinny. These are markers that make us like our parents and our ancestors.
Yet sometimes we are not like our parents and ancestors. We have identities that differentiate us from them and them from us. We may be gay or dwarves or have Down Syndrome, we may be autistic, schizophrenic or live with multiple disabilities. We may explore a life of crime, be a prodigy or transgender. This encourages us and our families to connect in a different way with folk that have these different life experiences. These connections, teaches Solomon, are our horizontal identity.
Reading this book got me thinking: Is being Jewish a vertical identity, something we pass on “L’Dor Vor” – FROM generation to generation. Or is it a horizontal identity – something we join “B’Dor V’Dor” ENTERING THROUGH a generation and effecting other generations. Is being Jewish a treasure that is directly under our feet, or is it a treasure that requires us to journey?
Those of us born into Judaism might immediately think that being Jewish is a vertical identity. An identity we pass down “L’Dor V’Dor” from generation to generation. Born of a Jewish mother or father or both, we too regard ourselves as Jews. We inherit ways of being and thinking which come to us generationally.
Our family customs make us Jewish. Children are named for someone who has died if we are Ashkenazi, or someone who is alive if we are Sephardi. If our ancestors are Ashkenaz we begin wearing Tallit at our Bar or Bat Mitzvah and if our families are from Sepharad we may have been given a small Tallit as a child. Our family tradition is to be married under a Huppah if we are Ashkenazi and wrapped in a Tallit if we are Sephardi. We have a commitment to Tikkun Olam/ repairing this world and a sense of moral justice based in the Jewish prophetic tradition because we are inheritors of Reform Judaism.
We eat Jewish food – bagels and lox, herring and lekach, egg and onion. We have special dishes for festivals – bimuelos or latkes for Chanukah or apple cake for Rosh HaShanah or challah for Shabbat. We cook dairy and meat dishes and know that traditionally these things should be kept separate. We pass on our recipes for chicken soup and matzah balls and blintzes. We lament the absence of good Jewish delis in Northern Virginia and discuss which supermarket has the best pesach-dik selection as Passover looms in front of us. We have our culinary traditions!
We recognize Jewish language as “ours”, whether that be a smattering of Yiddish or Hebrew or Ladino. We do mitzvahs, we take a schloof, we sit Shivah. We find our beshert and make Shabbat. We take pride when “Jewish” vocabulary enter the Scrabble dictionary – this year “schmutz,” “schtum” and “tuchas” were added to the words permissible to play. We smile when a non-Jew like Mick Jagger speaks twelve phrases of Hebrew at his concert in Tel Aviv giving the crowd a festival greeting “Chag Shavuot Sameach” and asking “HaKol Sababa?” was everything cool?
But inheriting Judaism and being immersed in Jewish customs is not the only way of being Jewish. There are those who belong to the Jewish people through their horizontal identification. They are part of the Jewish people “B’Dor V’Dor” inserting themselves into the generations and affecting the generations that surround them. They choose to do so because of their own beliefs, or inspired by the Jewish life of the family they are raising, or because they have found within Judaism the questions they seek answers to.
Our tradition teaches that a convert to Judaism is more precious to God than one born into the faith.[ii] Why? Because if you are born Jewish, it is your vertical identity, you have no choice in the matter. Judaism does not even have provision for you to convert out. It just puts you on the periphery till you come back. But one who chooses to be Jewish, who joins Judaism as their horizontal identity, knowing the good and the bad that has happened to the Jewish people, they are extra deserving of God’s love.
In Lydia Kukoff’s classic work “Choosing Judaism” she documents the testimony of folk who are proselytes to Judaism. For many of them, the process of conversion is not the end but a beginning of their Jewish journey. Lydia Kukoff writes of her own experience: “I suppose I expected a flash from the heavens to give me an instant personal Jewish past at the moment of my conversion. No such luck. It took practice and time, but it happened. And eventually you, too will have a Jewish past of your own.”[iii]
The Talmud contains a teaching which says that at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, it was bestowed upon the Israelites and the souls of all their descendants, but also the souls of all those who would in the future convert to Judaism.[iv] In so doing, it teaches that those who choose Judaism have not just a horizontal identity but also a subliminal vertical identity.
And many folk who are born Jewish, realize on their own, or as they raise their children, that they still have much to learn about Judaism since their Jewish practice and custom has diminished over assimilating generations. They realize practically that Judaism for them is not just a vertical identity but it is also a horizontal identity they must acquire.
Being Jewish is not as simple as finding a place in a community through vertical or horizontal identification.
A folk tale tells of a Jewish skeptic, a soap maker by trade, taking an afternoon walk with a rabbi. The soap maker asks the rabbi “What good is Judaism? How does Jewish thought and practice make an impact on the world?” The rabbi does not answer but continues to walk contemplatively. They stop and watch some young boys playing soccer on the field. The rabbi turns to the soap maker and asks: “Tell me, what good is soap to those boys dirty from the mud on the soccer field?” “Rabbi”, the soap maker says, “For soap to be effective it must be used.” “Aha”, responds the rabbi, “So it is with Judaism. It must be learned and applied for its impact to be felt.”
Ultimately, whether we are born into Judaism or whether we choose Judaism, we continue Judaism as an inheritance “L’Dor V’Dor”, from generation to generation, and B’Dor V’Dor, needing to incorporate Judaism in our lives and the generations to come. For Judaism to be a valued treasure we must consciously create memories and values for ourselves, as moral and practical exemplars for our children, and for those around us.
There are so many different ways we can learn and grow in our Jewish lives, conscience and practice. We can take a class here at our synagogue. (Our Adult Ed brochures will be available for the taking after the service.) We can participate in family programming through our Religious School. Or use a skill we have in our secular lives and find ways to apply it Jewishly and teach a class ourselves – one of the best ways to learn is to teach.
We can take courses online or use “Rabbi Google” to procure and find information on customs, texts and doing. We can buy Jewish books and media that will give us how-tos and explanations. We can use social media to connect with Jewish organizations, learn from their posts and join in on their offerings. We can make Jewish retreats and learning part of our holiday plans. We can ask our rabbi questions by email or in person.
The name of our movement is Reform Judaism. Often it is mispronounced as “Reformed Judaism” with an “e.d.” We have not ossified our approach and engagement with Judaism. There is no “e.d.” As Reform Jews we are encouraged to continue enlarging our comprehension of Jewish practice and understanding, and find meaningful ways to incorporate it in our modern lives. We are the inheritors of a tradition and the ones who mold its practice.
Our Jewish identity is both a vertical identity, an identity that we inherit from the souls of our ancestors, and a horizontal identity, one that we create by conscious doing. It is a treasure that might require a journey, but it is also a treasure under our own feet.
As we begin this New Year of 5775, let us make the dream of Jewish continuity a reality, let us set out on a journey to find the Jewish treasure that is ours for the taking.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be your will.
Anthem: Here I Am (Horowitz/Baesh)
[i] Tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
[ii] Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 6
[iii] Lydia Kukoff, “Choosing Judaism” p.24
[iv] Talmud Shavuot 39a
I am blessed to be part of a congregation filled with talented musicians. Each of them bring something unique to the services they lead. And when they get together… magic! Here is a YouTube of a Jammin’ Shabbat from just before Purim in 5774. Lots of musical excerpts from this Shabbat together. The joy of our small community is evident. It even has me telling a classic Chelm story which hopefully will raise a giggle from your kishkes. Wish I could share with you the hamantaschen I baked for the congregation to share with my story!
“All beginnings are hard.” (Mekhilta Yitro BaChadoesh 2)
With this thought I begin my personal professional blogging career. I have occasionally been blogging as a guest poster on Kol Isha, the Women’s Rabbinic Network blog for a while. But this new blog aims to be a personal conversation between you and me.
In this age of new media, the way we communicate has changed vastly. I used to preach from the pulpit. And it was enough. I once wrote for the congregation’s newsletter and publish in newspapers. And it was enough. I got the word out to those who needed to know by letter. And it was enough. I taught in the classroom and in the pulpit. And it was enough.
But the congregational world is no longer local. It has become global. The walls of our synagogue are more ephemeral than in the past.
We use emails, blasts, text messages, websites, Facebook, twitter, Instagram and blogs. We communicate differently. There are no more newsletters (at least in my congregation). The letter has given away to email programs. The sermon is no longer 3 points, but a time to communicate using various forms to engage congregants. My teaching happens on varying mediums.
In this new global world our congregations are more than our membership. So I begin and reach out to you. So I begin and will share with you. Perhaps this will not be so hard!