Congregation Shomrei Torah
Santa Rosa, California
Yom Kippur 2011/5772
Shannah Tovah. That’s how they say it in the old country. Or at least my old country, because I’m from London. I’ve heard that at some Eastern universities you can say whatever kind of nonsense you want in an English accent and people will still fall down and worship you. Well, I’ve never noticed that. But I will say that it’s just the reverse in some American Jewish circles.
Let me tell you a story. My daughter works for a large Jewish organization in Manhattan. I visited this year and when she introduced me to this rather frum-looking co-worker I could see the woman do a double-take. And I know just what she was thinking: How could this British sounding man with such a goyische name (my name is Adrian by the way) possibly be a Jew?
So in case YOU are wondering, I’d like to point out that the word British has two syllables: brit, which in Hebrew means commandment and ish, which means man.
My brain works in this weird way because I’m an anthropologist. So when people in social situations aren’t sure of what I am—is this guy a Jew or not—I know just what’s going on. It’s all about identity. Every ethnic group—and Jews are an ethnic group—has rules and symbols to help them tell who is a member and who’s not. The woman at the Jewish organization I mentioned didn’t immediately accept me because I don’t display the symbols she’s used to—like an Israeli accent or a Jewish-sounding name.
So ethnicity is about inclusion and exclusion. You can’t have a social group without excluding some people. You cannot be a Christian and a Jew at the same time. And this is this the point of my talk. That it’s a good thing to think of oneself as a Jew, to have a distinctly Jewish identity. And that it’s worth the effort to maintain it.
There’s a Yiddish saying: sh’ver tsu zayn a Yid – it’s hard to be a Jew. In Eastern Europe, in earlier times this is and was true. In previous generations it was hard to be a Jew. Let alone the 613 mitzvos, it was hard just to survive.
My mother (aleh-hashalom) was born in 1910. She grew up in an immigrant, Yiddish-speaking family in a very Jewish part of London. Later, she moved out to this beautiful village on the River Thames near Oxford.
It has thatched cottages, picturesque pubs, it’s even got a village green where they play cricket… the whole megilla. And she lived there for more than 20 years. Long enough, you’d think, to get comfortable. But for all that time she was quite careful not to let her Jewishness show. It was part of who she was, but aside from food, a sense of nostalgia, and the desire not to be buried in the village churchyard, being Jewish was something of a liability. Certainly, nothing she would mention outside the family. For her generation, it was hard to BE a Jew because of subtle English anti-Semitism and the Second World War and Hitler 20 miles across the Channel. That was her context.
But in modern America the challenge is different. Here and now it is hard to remain a Jew. Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of my favorite authors, was born in 1902 in Poland. He wrote this in his memoirs:
I was born and reared in a house where religion, Jewishness, was virtually the air that we breathed. I come from generations of rabbis, Hassidim, and Cabbalists. I can frankly say that in our house Jewishness wasn’t some diluted formal religion – but one that contained all the flavors, all the vitamins, the entire mysticism of faith. (Singer, Love and Exile, 1975, page 3)
To Isaac Singer, Judaism was that feeling he experienced growing up. It wasn’t just religion. It was an all-encompassing culture, Yiddishkeit, the essence of the Jewish life, and it affected every aspect of his life and his psychology. The way he thought. The way he understood reality. Singer felt that Jewishness reached its pinnacle in the diaspora of Eastern and Central Europe. He felt that the poverty and oppression of the ghetto in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania forced Jews to be Jews with no compromise. And as far as Singer was concerned, either a Jew followed all the rules or none of them. Now this is powerful stuff. Singer was a brilliant writer and if you read his stories it’s easy to get completely absorbed in that world of Yiddishkeit.
Singer’s story is rich and important. But it’s not MY story. It’s not My experience. I did not grow up in that environment. And I would guess that it’s not the experience of most people here. I am, I suppose, part of what Singer called “diluted religion”. But whether I like it or not — whether he liked it or not — here and now are where I am. It’s where WE are. Modern America is not 19th century Poland and I’m glad isn’t not. That’s why my grandparents left the place. And Isaac Singer didn’t want to live there either. He had this yearning for the Yiddishkeit of his father’s house. But he didn’t try to get back there by becoming a religious Jew. Far from it.
Singer was conflicted his entire life about what it meant to be a Jew in the modern world. He traveled on Shabbos, although he was desperately ashamed of doing it. He almost never went to synagogue and was probably ashamed of that too.
But he said this: “One thing I have kept… I do fast on Yom Kippur. Not with a full heart or a full belief. I don’t feel it is really my duty. I just want to be a Jew among other Jews.” (Singer cited in Telushkin, Master of Dreams, 1997)
Now that’s a really powerful line. “I just want to be a Jew among other Jews.” And it’s typical of Singer. It’s short and pithy, and it makes me think. What does it make me think? Why. Why did he want to be a Jew among Jews? Why do I want to be a Jew among Jews? Why do I want to be a Jew at all? Why bother? What has Judaism got to offer? Do I turn up on Yom Kippur just out of duty or nostalgia? Why is it worth holding on to this Jewish thing?
These questions are so important that they have no final answer. They aren’t the questions that you can get out of the way, and never think of again. We don’t live surrounded by Yiddishkeit so we must think about these issues continuously. Is it worthwhile holding on to this Jewish thing? It’s hard to remain a Jew.
I mentioned that I am an anthropologist. I work in a university. Anthropology is a field that studies human cultures in all their variation. I have this trick to break the ice with undergraduates and to get them thinking about the culture they live in: I write on the board these two words “I am – dot dot dot ” and I tell them to write down five different words that complete this sentence. I’ll often get “I am a student” “I am a daughter” and sometimes “I am a Christian. ” I’ve had “I am an Iraq veteran” and even “I am in debt.” What I don’t get is “I am a Jew.” And I think the results would be similar if I asked many of my colleagues.
The fact is most academics avoid organized religion. Being Jew-ISH is OK but being an out of the closet, active Jew isn’t so popular.
Stand up comic Simon Rakoff has this shtick about how the very word “Jewish,” sounds so darn… tentative.
As in Jew – hyphen – ish. Think about it.
“ ‘When’s dinner?’ ‘Seven-ish.’
‘Are you a Jew?’ ‘Eh, Jew-ISH.’ ”
Now, students and anthropologists aren’t ashamed of being Jews in an ethnic sense, and they aren’t afraid of anti-Semitism like my mother. They’re just not that interested. Many simply chose to live ethical lives the best they can. But their guides for how to do that aren’t based on Jewish values. Instead they are universalist ideas of right and wrong. And I think that goes for most people.
And is there anything so very bad about that? I don’t think so. Judaism has always taught that the performed mitzvah is more important that belief in some dogma or other. The idea that you get somewhere in a spiritual sense by believing something, is quite un-Jewish. Our tradition says: what you do is more important than what you think.
But to get back to identity. One Shabbos last month, Rabbi Gittleman spoke about how the founders of the Reform movement wanted to do away with parts of traditional Judaism. Those parts that separated we Jews from the rest of the population. Instead they wanted to emphasize the values we have in common with everyone else like justice, kindness, and doing good in the world. Things that everyone accepts as good and meritorious. They hoped that Jews would no longer be an ethnic group who spoke an exotic guttural language and had problems with certain foods. Who wore funny little hats and were attached to some arid patch of desert on the other side of the world they’d never seen and probably wouldn’t like if they had. Instead the founders hoped we’d be a nice religion, like the others.
And why not? Doesn’t every religion, every people have similar desires for peace, for justice, and for kindness? Aren’t these universal values? Yes they are.
“If something is hateful to you, don’t do it to the other person”. That’s Rabbi Hillel’s famous sum up of Judaism while standing on one foot. You don’t have to live like a religious Jew with a black hat or a shytel to adhere to that. Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, agnostics and atheists can all get behind those ideas. You don’t have to be a Jew to be generous. Or to be just. Or to give up your time to benefit other people. You don’t have to be religious at all to do these things.
So, as a result many people, many Jews, think something like this: Human beings are one species. We have to work together to solve our common problems. War, hunger, inequality. Religion divides people. Religion has been the source of war and hateful ideologies since the beginning. Why perpetuate religion at all? Why not follow these universal truths and just try to live an ethical life doing what seems right to me?
These are important questions. And my answer goes back to the idea of identity. That how being human involves being a member of a group that has boundaries, as well as being a member of humanity as a whole. And our tradition recognizes that every person has both universal and specific identities. Let me explain.
With the New Year we started to read the Torah from the beginning. Bereyshis/Genesis. But consider this: There’s nothing Jewish at all in the first 11 chapters. It is the universal story of creation and early events. It tells how everyone has the same ancestors. How good acts have good outcomes, and bad acts have bad ones. Initially, everyone speaks same universal language. Presumably, that means everyone is part of a single culture. There are no villages allied against one another, no political parties, no nations. Then there’s the Tower of Babel episode. Remember, everyone got together and tried to build this huge tower up to heaven. God didn’t like the idea so he divided people up and spread them across the world. All of a sudden there are lots of different languages. Lots of different cultures and many religions.
Life goes on until the great flood. And Noah and his family, the survivors, come up with a simple list of laws against murder, theft, cruelty to animals, and so on. Let me ask a question: Was Noah a Jew? No. And Noah’s laws aren’t religious rules. They are, for the most part, universally applicable ethical principles.
Our tradition has never taken these stories literally as history. So what is the Torah teaching us here? It’s this: That all human beings are leaves from the same tree. All peoples, all cultures have the same origin. And that there are some rules that apply to everyone so we can just live as human beings.
Those first 11 chapters give a unified view of the world. Later, different cultures develop different religions. The Jews emerge as one group among many. Jews, of course, develop monotheism that’s taken up by Christianity and then Islam. Now although they have different beliefs, there’s one thing Christians and Moslems agree about – that their religion is universal. It works for everyone, for every human being. That their particular beliefs and practices are THE way that God has established for all human beings, in all places and at all times. It isn’t for a particular nationality, or speakers of some language, or for a particular ethnicity. “It is guidance revealed by the Creator to His creation.” (citation missing) That’s why there are missionaries. As a Christian friend explained it to me: if you have THE answer, the foolproof plan for everlasting happiness, wouldn’t you be out there knocking on doors on Sunday afternoon?
And yet Jews don’t. Even the Chabad movement, the ultra-Orthodox, aren’t that interested in making converts. Why is that?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls Judaism a “particularistic monotheism.” (Sacks 2003, The Dignity of Difference, page 52). By that he means it’s the religion of a particular group. As a people, Jews are an anthropological oddity, a leftover from pre-modern times: Jews are a people with a national religion. We are an exclusive group. Most Jews were born this way. I am a Jew because my mother was one.
Now Judaism welcomes converts. It always has. In fact, according to the Talmud, the souls of all converts were actually present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given. So Judaism welcomes converts as new members of the family. But Jews don’t go out looking for them. I feel that Judaism says “This is our way. It can be your way too if you want it, but explore your own tradition before you decide.”
Judaism, by definition, is the religion of the Jews. As Rabbi Sacks has said, it’s a particularistic religion. It doesn’t claim to be the one true way for all humanity. It only claims to be our way. The way of the people called the Jews.
Fair enough. But since it’s such an effort maintain a Jewish identity in modern society, why bother? For me the big reason is that Judaism and the wisdom of our tradition is the antidote to a really serious problem: cynicism.
Cynicism begins with hope. I want to make a difference in the world, but society’s problems are just too big. I’m only one person. There’s nothing I can do to make things better. To quote from the Christian scriptures “the poor are always with us”. Nothing changes. Gradually, I become comfortable with the status quo. I blame other people. I blame the Government. I say that some undefined ‘they’ should do something about society’s problems. I become, in a word, cynical. It’s a really bad place to be. But fortunately for me, I found the antidote in Jewish wisdom.
On my study wall at home is a quote paraphrased from Rabbi Tarfon. You’ve heard it before: “He said, You don’t have to finish the task, but you must help to get it done.” (Mishna, Tractate Pirke Avos 2:20). The task, of course, is tikun oylem, repairing the world. You can’t fix the world and neither can I. But Judaism does not allow us to stop there, to shrug and say that ‘They’ should do it. That the poor are always with us. Judaism says it’s our continuing responsibility to DO something about it. Not everything, just something. To do those small things that are in our power to do. As Rabbi Gittleman noted on erev Yom Yippur: our tradition says that to save one life is to save a world. Because that one life is the world to that person.
Yom Kippur is about tikun atzme – repairing myself. The process of reminding myself that, although I am just one among many, I can affect the world of the people around me. My family, my students, my subordinates, the people I work with.
Judaism is wise because it doesn’t demand the impossible. It doesn’t tell us to go out and sell everything and give it all away. And because its demands are realistic it doesn’t allow cynicism to dominate. And that’s one reason it’s worth holding on to.
Sounds good, but maintaining that attitude in day-to-day life is another matter. Humans are creatures of emotion, not just intellect. So we need role models, people to admire and emulate. Now, role models are good, even essential. But if we over invest in them that too can lead to cynicism.
Dvorah Telushkin was Isaac Singer’s assistant, translator, and friend for many years. She admired Singer. I might even say that she loved him. But she was often disappointed in him. Isaac Singer had this great need to be liked, so he would often say things that he thought people wanted to hear. He’d make promises with great emotion and sincerity — that came to nothing. Gurnisht mit gurnisht. And this what Telushkin had to say about this flaw in her role model:
Having to accept this aspect of Isaac’s character – that he would make promises and then take them back – has been the hardest thing I ever had to accept. I had wished and needed” she writes “that his word would be his bond. I so desperately needed him to be different [from other people]. (Telushkin, Master of Dreams, 1997, page _)
But, of course, he wasn’t. Like all of us, she wanted consistency. She wanted a rock. But Singer was as messed up as anyone. He just happened to be a messed up literary genius.
We need role models but we feel let down when it turns out that they are, well, human. We shake our heads and moan. “Oy vey ist mir! The whole world is corrupt. What can you do?” Cynicism.
It’s a paradox. We want role models, but we like to see them fall. And the news media now, as in the past, pander to this, with serious consequences. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about Britain, what he has to say is just as applicable to this country. He writes:
It seems to me that Britain… has now become a shame culture. What counts today is public image – hence the replacement of prophets by public relations practitioners, and the Ten Commandments by three new rules: Thou shalt not be found out. Thou shalt admit nothing. Thou shalt not apologize. (Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: Pasha Vayigash, 2009).
And this leads to a national culture of cynicism. We hear it every day: All politicians are crooks. All business executives are greedy. All poor people are lazy, if they aren’t just crazy. The world’s problems are unfixable.
Well, perhaps the cynics are right and the world can’t be fixed. And perhaps even making the effort is just self-righteous egotism. Perhaps so. But if that’s the case, I chose—with Singer’s character Joseph Shapiro—to live with the Jewish fantasy that we can make a difference. And what if we’re wrong, says Shapiro? What if we die and there is no God, and it turns out that our ancestors made it all up? Well, the worst that could happen is that we would have lived ethical lives and tried to do some good where we could. And that’s not so bad. (Singer, The Penitent, 1983).
I feel that Judaism is a tested recipe for Jews to live by. But it’s not just a philosophy. It’s emotion. As a Jew I have a feeling, a certainty, that I am a link in a chain that goes back to Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father. And it’s that connection that helps me keep on the track. The ritual, the language, the funny little hats. These aren’t archaic, dispensable frills. All of it is essential. Because they are reminders, symbols, signs between our eyes, of what we are and where we’ve come from.
We ARE Am Yisroel. The people Israel.
And all the ancestors culminate in us. In you and me.
We are the end product of 3000 years, of hundreds of generations. And the knowledge of that past isn’t just sentimentality. It’s what gives us identity as a people. Separate from all the rest. Continually chosen and choosing to be part of the Jewish people.
I want to end with a true story told by Rabbi Sacks about the late Sidney Morgenbesser, a philosophy prof, who took some students into a New York restaurant. The waiter asks him, “So what would you like to eat?” and the prof says, “I’d like some soup.” The waiter shrugs and says, “We have chicken mit lockshen, borsht, minestrone… What kind of soup do you want?” And the prof, who’s trying to make a point, says, “I don’t want any particular kind. I just want soup.”
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? The fact is, we live in a material world and must eat a particular kind of soup.
There are universal principles of goodness out there that most of humanity can endorse. And this thing we call Judaism is nothing more than our particular recipe for carrying out these principles, for making this particular kind of soup. Following the recipe is what it means to be a ‘chosen’ people. We choose, and we are continually chosen. It’s what binds us together as a people who move forward in history, and makes us more than just as believers in some intellectual philosophy.
I have chosen Jewish soup. Yes, the recipe has changed a bit over time and from place to place. But, at base, it’s how our ancestors have been cooking it up for generations. Jews like the taste and it nourishes us. Judaism is our way of being human among all the diversity of human kind.
Ken yeh hi ratzon. Shabbat Shalom.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTES
Many of the ideas in this presentation were derived from the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The concept of ‘chosen-ness’ is explored in parts of his Letter in the Scroll (2004) while The Dignity of Difference (2003) speaks of multiculturalism in modern societies, particularly the UK.
Isaac Singer’s collection of stories In My Father’s Court (1991) is a brilliant invocation of time and place, filled with strange paradoxes. Singer grew up in an environment of grime, dybbks, washing lines, and saintliness. Although his father was a revered and honored rabbi, the family lived in semi-poverty.
Dvorah Telushkin’s Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1997) is an essential read for lovers of Singer’s work. Telushkin treats her complex relationship with Singer with a level of honesty that came at some personal cost. She is a skilled and compassionate writer.
The creation of an American Jewish identity through consumerism is the topic of Andrew Heinze’s Adapting to Abundance (1990). Alan Silverstein’s Alternatives to Assimilation (1994) is a bit heavy going, but does a good job of showing how the development of the American Reform movement was a response to its historical/cultural context.