Today is February 16, 2019 -
As many of you know I grew up in what is known as an Ultra Orthodox home. For a variety of reasons, some emotional and some intellectual/theological, I left that lifestyle around 16 years ago. For one thing, I doubted the existence of God. I figured even if God existed, how do we know that God created the world? or how do we know that he gave the Torah? What does God giving the Torah mean? Did he literally dictate it to Moses, as I was taught?
I was also lured by the outside world. Despite growing up in Crown Heights where our exposure to the world was intentionally limited, and television was considered treif, I managed to see plenty of television and see the outside world. I wanted to be normal, I wanted to be able to have fun and not be self-conscious all the time about being Jewish. I just wanted to blend in and be like other people.
I tried to do it, I tried to disengage from my Judaism completely but I couldn’t do it. I remember a friend of mine who grew up Satmar, but now left once tell me that she didn’t feel any connection to Judaism at all, and it shocked me. She didn’t care what happened to Israel. She didn’t feel shame that Bernie Madoff, and many slumlords were Jewish. I did. I felt shame and fear about those ganeifs. I also felt empty inside. Judaism had given my life meaning and not being engaged with it was upsetting.
I started going to B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, and although I liked the ruach, I was put off by the overemphasis on progressive politics, thus began my journey to re engage with my Judaism in a new way, but on my terms, not some dogmatic system that I happened to have been born into, and never chose.
I tell this personal story, making myself vulnerable before you, because I am going to ask you to try to be vulnerable. I am going to ask you to try to listen and reciprocate my vulnerability.
Connecting the topic to Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah combines several themes. One of the themes of Rosh Hashanah relates to the blowing of the shofar. The blowing of the shofar makes us think of several things we have been taught over the years including the Akeida story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac but the ram getting caught by it’s horn, which we read tomorrow. As well as the idea of the shofar being an alarm to awaken us to teshuvah/repentance. But when you look at the verses quoted in the Shofarot section of the Musaf service you will notice that the Shofarot theme on Rosh Hashanah is primarily about revelation, specifically the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. For example in referring to Sinai it says: V’yehi kol hashofar holech v’chazak m’od (The sound of the shofar grew ever more powerful), The shofar was used during the dramatic events that took place when God gave us the 10 commandments. It seems that the authors of the liturgy believed that the reason for the mitzvah to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah was to get us to think about the revelation at Sinai.
We have a lot of variation of beliefs in this congregation. In my family growing up we were taught that all the events mentioned in the torah and everything else the midrash said happened, really happened. All the beliefs even when they were contradictory were all true.There is a mystical teaching that says that our souls were there even though our bodies weren’t. There were three million bodies and souls present at the time, but through reincarnation over time those souls have splintered off and been housed in many bodies. Although hard to believe, it is still a beautiful Jungian idea. While we may not believe that all of it literally happened exactly the way I was taught it happened growing up, we still find the mitzvah of shofar blowing as a reminder to those events meaningful. We still value and believe that we are supposed to hear the shofar as a connection and continuation to our tradition. In my hospice work during the month of Elul I bring my shofar and offer to blow it for my Jewish patients. Most of them are secular or less observant and yet it is very meaningful to them. Sometimes bringing them to tears.
Regardless of what one believes happened at Mt. Sinai, whether the tablets were given or whatever else happened there, regardless of what one believes or feels in relation to shofar blowing, it certainly a seminal moment in Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is the continuation of the Judaism from Biblical times, and is practiced by Jews today. Unlike the many religions and groups that have branched off of Judaism, such as Christianity and Islam, the Judaism practiced now, despite significant changes is generally considered a continuation from the original given at Sinai.
Most Jews I know care about Jewish continuity – the continued existence of our religion. Even if we don’t all practice all of the mitzvot, I’m going to assume that the fact that you are all sitting here today means Jewish continuity is important to you. The possibility of us going the way of the Mayans, the Incas and Phoenicians is unimaginable. I want to explore this idea of Jewish continuity with you.
What aspects of Judaism do we want to continue? What is good about Judaism? What does Judaism contribute to the world? There are many things that are associated with Jewishness that we are all familiar with some cultural and some religious.
Please take a minute to close your eyes and consider what Jewish continuity means to you.
What came to mind? Show of hands- Not letting the anti-semites win? Babka cake (or other foods)? tikun olam? being the chosen people? The state of Israel? There are so many beautiful things about Judaism worth preserving.
What good are Jews bringing to the world? I know many of you are teachers. Did you know that the original reason for why there is no school on RH & YK is because in 1960 nearly half of the 40,000 teachers were Jewish and the superintendent knew that they would take the day off? How would they get substitutes for all those teachers? The fact that so many Jews went into teaching is a testament to Judaism. Teaching is a job that is often thankless but the contribution is enormous.
Additionally, in a NYTimes op-ed David Brooks spells out some of the remarkable achievements of the Jewish people in modern times. He points out that while “Jews make up [only] 2% percent of the U.S. population, [we are] … 21% of the Ivy League student bodies, 26% of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37% of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38% … of leading philanthropists, 51% of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.” Also, as of 2017, 22.5% of Nobel Prizes winners were Jews, despite us being less than 0.2% of the world’s population. This means the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is 11,250% above average. Let those number sink in. It is amazing to see how much intelligence and creativity Jews contribute to the world.
Jews are clearly big on philanthropy. When you pass hospital buildings, nursing homes, university buildings and libraries, or even park benches, how often do you see Jewish names posted as sponsors? I can only imagine what New York would look like without Jewish philanthropy. Is this an outgrowth of how much the mitzvah of Tzedakah has seeped into our culture and is valued? possibly.
I am not going to pretend that we don’t have our scoundrels, thieves, rapists and other ills of society, but there is no indication that we have any more of them than any other group. So what can we attribute all of this success to?
I am reminded of a wonderful man I had gotten to know doing my hospice work. He had dedicated his life to community service. He was a groise macher on his community board, had been involved in education initiatives, and all kinds of other good things. He was a nice secular Jew. When I asked him if his Judaism had anything to do with all his public service, he said no. He said that the reason is that he was a shy man and that doing service helped him connect with other people. Also, his wife was really into it. I was a little disappointed. I know that it is possible that one had nothing to do with the other, after all there are many people who are not Jewish who do public service and make major contributions to society. Having said that I also know that we aren’t alway aware of our motivations.
Jews are at the forefront of many social justice movements and organizations. Sometimes they do good because of the Jewish values such as Tikkun Olam and to be a Light onto the Nations and sometimes they do it because they believe or feel that it is the right thing to do. Ironically, in our zest to do good we often run into problems. In the political arena some of the leading figures of the right and the left are Jewish. In the global struggle between globalism and nationalism we find the State of Israel right in the middle of it.
In the book of Isaiah it states:
“and I shall submit you as a light unto the nations, to be My salvation until the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
In the midrash Eliyah Rabbah it expands on this idea.
This is what the Holy One said to Israel: My children, I have lacked for you nothing – what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another and fear one another and that there should not be any sin, thievery, or harmful actions among you so that you do not come to invalidate the world. (Eliyahu Rabbah, 26)
These, and many other verses talks about the responsibility of the Jewish people to live a moral life and to be an example for the rest of the world. The idea of being a Light on to the Nations and Tikun Olam, while very important, and I really don’t mean to minimize its importance, is only part of the picture. I am doubtful that Tikun Olam alone is going to cut it for Jewish continuity. So what else is there?
In a short youtube video you can see the economist Dr. Robert Auman, a 2005 Nobel Prize winner for his work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis, explain why he thinks Jews are particularly successful. He believes it is because we are the people of the book. He attributes our success to the priority on the Jewish value and mitzvah of learning Torah. As it is stated in the Talmud, Masechet Kiddushin 39b “V’Talmud Torah k’neged kulam”; that Torah study is equal to all of them. It is more important than for example honoring one’s parents, inviting guests to one’s home, and bringing peace between friends. Torah study is, in addition to teaching us the laws, an end in itself.
One can challenge the notion that our success is attributable to Torah study since many of the people having these successes haven’t learned very much Torah. I would counter that with saying that this is not one generational. The impact of our heritage for both good and bad is in us. We are a link in a long chain.
The idea that we are successful because we are the people of the book, and that we are the people of the book because we learn Torah, implies that Jews aren’t inherently smarter than anybody else, but rather it is nurture, it is growing up in an environment that values learning. It may not even be primarily motivated by social justice but may end up doing more good in the world than many social justice initiatives. The idea that our success is attributable to Torah learning also has practical implications. It suggests that if we don’t learn Torah in a serious way then we will lose this success. But even learning Torah is not enough for Jewish continuity.
Not Just Tikkun Olam, and Not Just Torah Study
The idea that is mentioned much more in the Torah, than being a light onto the nations, is that God chose us to enter into a covenant. God elevated us to be a “mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh”. A kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6).
To the modern ear this might sound strange. The idea of chosenness has caused us all kinds of problems. Ad to that words like kingdom, priests, and holy and it could easily be interpreted as holier than thou. Unfortunately for some misguided and often ignorant Jews that is exactly what it is and they feel entitled to say things like “shiksas are for practice,” “shvartzes are animals,” and that “it is ok to kill arabs indiscriminately,” or even more extreme, to cozy up with white supremacists, and neo-nazis. It is bizarre but sadly true. Obviously, that is not a good selling point for the next generation to continue wanting to identify as Jewish.
What makes us special? What brings us holiness? Following God’s directive as best we can. That is what brings glory for us and to God. Coming from a place of humility and not a place of superiority.
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם (וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה)
You shall keep and perform them because they are your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear all these decrees and will say “What a wise and understanding people is this great nation”. (Deuteronomy 4:6)
The deal is simple and it goes like this: You follow my commandments and I will give you success. We are God’s Chosen people with a special covenant. It is our job to act as a “Light onto the Nations” and to be an example of right living, and we learn right living by studying Torah. Thus, we have a central role to play in this drama of life. Many Jews and non-Jews have this image of the Jews, and when they perceive us not living up to that expectation they are particularly disappointed in us. It is hard to be judged by a different standard, but it helps to understand where it comes from.
So does this mean that we all need to be orthodox and sit in kollel (special yeshiva for married men) studying Torah all day? NO! Sure it is good to have some scholars who are supported by the community, but most people work. The idea of thousands of students sitting in kollel for years living off of public assistance is not Jewish continuity, it is modern mishegas. The idea of withholding secular education (which is what was done to me) to keep us in the fold, is irresponsible and one can argue against the Torah.
Does it mean that we shouldn’t do social justice? of course not! But making all of you Judaism about social justice and conveniently aligning it with a political party is not Jewish continuity. It is Jewish appropriation.
Does it mean supporting the State of Israel no matter what? NO! However, when the you see a negative headline about Israel for God’s sake give our brother’s and sisters the benefit of the doubt.
Does it mean that intermarriage is going to destroy us? NO! Focusing on intermarriage misses the point of why someone would find it a viable or necessary option in the first place. In most cases the person intermarrying has not been immersed in Torah, and often has trouble connecting with other Jews.
Encouraging intermarriage on the other hand, where it would make it much harder to sustain Judaism is just ridiculous. This explains the outrage following the writer Michael Chabon’s commencement speech, on May 14th, at the reform rabbinical school in California, where he said that intermarriage is “the source of all human greatness” and that endogamy, (the custom of marrying only within the limits of a local community, clan, or tribe) is keeping us from making progress in the modern world.
So what does it mean?
Growing up we used to have a song that went like this this: “Oy! S’iz shver tu zain a Yid. Oyoy yoy yoy yoy.” Oy! it is hard to be a Jew. It was a song that bore out the persecution that our ancestors experienced in trying to practice their Judaism. If they chose to not work on Shabbat, they often got fired for it. Walking down the street as an identifiable Jew, whether in Europe or in the Lower East Side often earned them being cursed at or worse indignities. Nevermind the internal struggles of the many sects of the Jewish community who’s squablies could get pretty ugly. The bottom line is that for many of those Jews, their Judaism was the source of a lot of problems and caused them to feel negatively towards Judaism.
I think it is safe to say that we have it pretty easy compared to recent previous generations. I’m by no means saying that all our lives are a bed of roses, but it is certainly not comparable to the Jews of many generations. While I would never God forbid suggest that we give up kvetching all together, after all it is another one of the identifying markers of our people, I think we may want to tone it down. The next generation may not understand where it is coming from and not want any part of it.
The great Talmudist Adin Steinsaltz once said that a Jew is not someone whose grandparents are Jewish but someone who wants his or her grandchildren to be Jewish. To be clear Rabbi Steinsaltz is not talking about a halachic definition of who is a Jew, but rather he is defining what it means to live as a Jew.
So what if we tried a paradigm shift? What would it look like if we removed the concern of continuity and instead focused on something else. What if we focused more on living a more authentic day-to-day Jewish life. Instead of thinking of Judaism in a dramatic all or nothing fight for survival, let the survival come as a consequence of making conscious choices that would offer Judaism as an attractive way of life. We are not the first generation to worry about Jewish continuity and I am confident that we won’t be the last. So what can we do? At the very least we could get out of apathy, if that is where we are with our Judaism. We need to engage in a passionate way with our Judaism.
In the book Bad Rabbi author Eddy Portnoy writes about newspaper reports of Yom Kippur battles where the devout believers would argue and at times even physically fight with the non-believers who would have Kol Nidre parties and use other provocations. I am not recommending it, but at least there was passion.
Better yet, we could take more initiative and ownership of our Judaism and not wait for others to bring it to us. When I left the Chabad community I didn’t want much to do with Judaism and I certainly didn’t want a leadership role in the Jewish community and yet here I am. Maybe it was the call of the shofar or the learning I did but something pulled me back. I think of the a story about the great sage Rabbi Akiva.
In the last weeks of his life. The Romans had decreed that all Torah study was forbidden and punishable by death, and yet, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Torah to his students. A Roman friend of Rabbi Akiva urged him to stop, “What are you doing rabbi? You’re risking your life!” To which Rabbi Akiva answered, “This is my life. You ask how I could learn Torah, I ask, how can I not?”
This is our life. This is who we are. Whether your soul was at Sinai or not, whether you grew up in an observant home or not. This is our heritage. We just need to ignite or redirect our passions that we may be able to easily access when it comes to politics or sports to our Judaism. Our contribution is too important to ignore.
One thing is for certain, we will not likely achieve Jewish continuity if we practice Spectator Judaism. Being passive in our participation of Judaism will guarantee lack of Jewish continuity. It is the difference between being the driver of the car or the passenger. As the passenger you may see the scenery but you usually don’t learn the route, the speed limit, the speed traps, which is the faster lane during traffic, etc. It is the difference between reading Torah and learning Torah with the intent to teach it. I know when I am preparing a sermon or a class my learning is much more engaged than when I am studying something out of a sense of obligation or casual curiosity. Studying when I know I may be challenged or contradicted by someone about it makes me think about it in much more comprehensive way. I am not suggesting that everyone become a rabbi this year, but we don’t need to be a rabbi to teach. We are always teaching. Every interaction is a potential class. Friday night dinner is an opportunity for a mini sermon. Learning like our pride depended on it is the opposite of passive Judaism. If we really want Jewish continuity let’s get into the driver’s seat, whatever that looks like for your situation and give up our passenger status
So whether we use the motivation of the holocaust, wanting our grandchildren, other family member or ourselves to win a Nobel Prize, doing it to make the world a better place, or even if you don’t believe in God but think that our Jewish experience can help save us from the tyranny of delusional Conservative despots and starry eyed naive Liberals. or whether you believe that we have a covenant to keep, Let’s bring meaning into our lives and in the process have future Jewish generations. Let’s do this!
Brooks, David. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/
Chabon, Michael. https://www.youtube.com/
Steinsaltz, Adin-Even. https://steinsaltz.org/essay/
Unger-Sargon, Batya: How the Obsession with Jewish Continuity Perverts our Liberal Values. Forward 9/14/2017
Aumann, Robert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?