Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
In the late 1990s I had the opportunity to teach Jewish history to Jewish high school students. When we came to the part on anti-Semitism, every student in the class insisted to me they had never experienced anti-Semitism personally. I went around telling adults about it all over Portland’s Jewish community. Oh, yes, they all said, anti-Semitism is a thing of the past.
Then came the year preceding the most recent presidential election. During the campaign, expressions of hatred toward Jews were dismissed as “the crazy fringe.” It will all subside, we reassured each other, after someone sane is elected.
After the election, we reassured each other: look, there are Jews in the inner circle. Perhaps it will be just like the Purim story – a bumbling and dangerous but easily manipulated ruler, with Jews undercover in the Administration – sorry, I meant to say Palace – bravely saving the day.
After the inauguration, we joined forces with others, seeking to protect those who were truly threatened. We reassured each other that we were safe, and we dedicated ourselves to using our safety and our privilege to support others.
And then came Charlottesville, where white nationalists were heard to chant: “Jews will not replace us.” Anti-Semitism, it turns out, is not a thing of the past.
In parts of Europe there’s a saying: when someone reaches a realization that is already obvious to everyone else, the answer is “congratulations, you’ve discovered America!”
Anti-Semitism, it turns out, is not a thing of the past. Congratulations; you’ve discovered America. But in the United States of the twenty-first century, just exactly who is its target?
What defines a Jew today? Ironically, in 1946 Jean Paul Sartre wrote that because of the attraction of assimilation, Jews would have ceased to exist if it were not for the anti-Semites who would not permit that assimilation, and kept on identifying Jews, in order to blame us for their misfortunes.
Anti-Semitism is the modern political form of an ancient religious hatred, hatred for Jews, that was taught by Christianity. It caused horrific forms of persecution of our people everywhere in our Exile, and especially in Eastern Europe.
Here’s the thing, though: scientific studies of normal population growth patterns indicate that there should be something like 60 million Jews in the world, not somewhere around 15 million. It’s clear that even with pogroms, inquisitions, the Holocaust, and of course other kinds of mass murder without a formal name, there should be a lot more Jews than there are. Where did they go?
It has been suggested that many simply disappeared because they ceased to become Jewish, and stopped practicing in any way, and much less did they pass anything on to their children. Thus we hear stories of hidden Jews, half-Jews, and people who find out that they are Jewish because of a cotton swab and a DNA analysis. Some of you in this place have told me stories of an older relative who admitted just before death that, by the way, your mom was Jewish, or that your grandfather’s name was actually Yankele.
You may have noted recent reporting on “Jewish tourism” that allows us modern, privileged, safe American Jews to trace their roots in Eastern Europe. A recent article described a tourist’s realization that the icy parking lot where her bus had stopped in a remote Eastern European location was most likely located directly on top of her ancestors’ graves.
It has been observed that such tourism is depressing, and rather backward-looking. Such exploration of the Jewish past does not necessarily build its future – there used to be a strong argument that you should be Jewish so as to deny the Nazis the final victory, but that reasoning is not very compelling for today’s Jews.
That tourist in the icy parking lot, the one who is seeking her past in that Eastern European shtetl, describes herself as the descendants of Jews who gave up religion and became communists. It is true that many Jews, not long after emigrating to the United States, did not daven daily, but expressed their urgent sense of Jewish ethics by rising up against labor conditions and other capitalist predations, helping to establish new national norms such as labor unions, shorter work weeks, and safe working conditions. They also kept kosher homes, observed Jewish holy days, gave tzedakah, and supported Jewish communities and organizations both locally and worldwide.
Now, according to a story in the New York Times just this morning, there’s no real definition of a Jew any more, and everyone is sort of Jew-ish, since so many people feel “uprooted, wandered and dispersed.” The writer suggests that being Jewish “no longer corresponds to anything fixed. It’s not necessarily an identity. Better to call it a sensibility: the sensibility of whoever feels a bit unsure of who they are — a bit peculiar or out of place, a bit funny.”
So tonight I find myself wondering just how this particular Jewish tourist, seeking her Jewish roots, might identify herself as Jewish. What is her Jewish observance? Does she practice? Was she born Jewish, so that she can trace a personal connection to ancestors who escaped the mass murder of their families? Does she keep kosher? give tzedakah? Or is she just feeling uprooted, wandered and dispersed”? How and on what basis does she define herself as Jewish when meeting the local Jewish communities over there, in the land where our ancestors lived and died because of their identity?
In other words, as our tradition asks us to consider on this night of nights: when she visits, who shall they say is calling?
- “modeh Ani l’fanekha” – the Kotzker: but who is the “ani”?
You are standing at the door, and you knock. Someone asks “who is there?” and you say “I am.” And so this is the first question: who is the “I”?
“I” is an interesting word. It designates me alone, but it cannot be said by me alone unless you also share the definition of the word. Think about that for a moment. If I say yah, what do I mean? In Russian, I mean “I”, but in German, I mean “yes” and in Spanish I mean “already.” It’s a delicious irony that unless I am part of a community that shares a language, I cannot in words assert either my independence from, or my belonging to, community.
In Jewish tradition this existential question arises from some of the first words of the first of our morning prayers: modah ani l’fanekha, “I give thanks before You.”
A story: in 19th century Eastern Europe, the Kotzker Rebbe was known as a teacher and spiritual guide who insisted on honesty. He was fearless in his openness. Kotzk during his lifetime was not a place where you would go to hide from the truth you needed to learn.
It is said that one morning he joined the group praying in the shul and opened his own siddur. He began in the usual way with the opening words, modeh ani l’fanekha, and then stopped. For a long time he was silent, until his students noticed that he had stopped praying, and was simply standing there, lost in thought. Finally he looked up and said, “this ani, this ‘I’ – who is this? and what is the ‘before You’?” and he stopped, and prayed no more that day.
Interestingly, in Hebrew you do not ask someone “what is your name?” you ask “how are you called?” To answer this question is not only to give your name; it is to know how you are named by others.
The lesson of the Kotzker Rebbe’s interrupted prayer is that you have to know who you are, or we might say, what you are called, before you fully exist in the world. A midrash suggests that the first human beings were partners with G*d in the act of creation, demonstrated in our Book Bereshit by G*d’s bringing the animals to the human beings so that the humans might name them. The message is that the animals did not fully exist until they were named. The implication is that this is also true for us. We do not fully exist until we know the answer to the question “who shall I say is calling?”
- Who is the Jewish ani?
How do you define a Jew? how do you define yourself? how do those definitions converge? How do you know?
The famous Israeli poet Zelda Mishkovsky wrote about names, in a poem included in our prayers on this Kol Nidre eve. In part, it reads “each of us has a name / given by the stars / and given by our neighbors.”
For those born Jewish, that identity is a kind of destiny; for those who grew up in a Jewish family, there is a sort of low-key radar regarding who is Jewish. The person may do absolutely nothing in the way of Jewish practice, but yet that person is MOT, a “member of the tribe” and two Jews finding each other, whether on a mountain trail or at a downtown demonstration, know that somehow, they have something in common. You’re part of what is called amkha, a Hebrew word which literally means “Your people.”
When you grow into Judaism, having realized that you weren’t born that way but you are supposed to be a Jew, it’s all about the name “given by our neighbors.” Amkha again. So to become a Jew is to adopt the norms that Jews – your neighbors – will recognize in you as Jewish.
Story: “By you you’re a captain, by me you’re a captain, but sonny, by captains you’re no captain.”
It’s fascinating to consider the Talmud’s instructions for the case in which someone seeks to be Jewish. Two millennia ago it was written:
With regard to a potential convert who comes to a court in order to convert, at the present time, when the Jews are in exile, the judges of the court say to him: What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them? If he says: I know, and although I am unworthy of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so, then the court accepts him immediately to begin the conversion process.
The judges of the court inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot, and they inform him of the sin of neglecting the mitzvah to allow the poor to take gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and produce in the corner of one’s field, and about the poor man’s tithe. And they inform him of the punishment for transgressing the mitzvot, as follows: They say to him: Be aware that before you came to this status and converted, had you profaned Shabbat, you would not be punished by stoning, since this prohibition does not apply to gentiles. But now, once converted, if you profane Shabbat, you will be punished by stoning….
And they do not overwhelm him with threats, and they are not exacting with him about the details of the mitzvot, i.e., the court should not overly dissuade the convert from converting. ….
If he accepts upon himself all of these ramifications, [if it is a male], then they circumcise him immediately. … When he is healed from the circumcision, they immerse him immediately, and three Torah scholars stand over him at the time of his immersion and inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot. Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a born Jew in every sense.
Have you noticed what’s missing from this series of requirements for conversion? There is no requirement to believe in the One G*d. That does not mean that belief doesn’t exist in Judaism; only that how we treat each other is held up as more immediately urgent in this time and context. Our actions in community are vital – how you think and what you believe should vary and waver as you go through your life, your experiences, your challenges.
That’s not to say that Judaism did not develop a series of beliefs, of course we did when the need presented itself. The great scholar Maimonides created Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were set to music as the Yigdal, which we will sing to conclude our Tefilah this evening.
But Jews know each other by what we do, not what we believe – except of course for the belief that what we do matters. Who is a Jew? Not one who davens, necessarily, but one who supports the Jewish community’s ability to daven – ideally, that means that even if you’re not a davener, you understand the power of making the minyan for those who need to daven.
A prayer minyan – our way of expressing critical mass – is a community symbolically made of ten Jews. They don’t necessarily all love the Rabbi, or the tune chosen by the prayer leader for the Ashrei, but they take for granted that Jews support Jewish community. The community holds our common sense of who we are and allows us to affirm each other. It also keeps track of time for us, guarding our memories and reminders and teachings, all that we need to know and couldn’t possibly keep track of alone.
Who shall I say is calling?
Zelda’s poem also includes this line: “each of us has a name / given by our celebrations.” How we mark time – how we celebrate it – is also, for Jews, a calling card. As we saw in the Talmudic text, you can tell a Jew by what they do – and don’t do – on Shabbat.
If you as a Jew know what to do on Shabbat, or on a holy day, in shul, or at home, think about how secure in your Jewish identity you feel. After a meal someone hands you a bencher or offers you another honor, and you can accept it, and feel honored.
But how uncomfortable it can feel to be in a place where everyone else knows what they are doing – except for you. There is a certain stress in knowing that no one there is going to mistake you for someone who belongs. That, in turn, may put a certain stress on your spiritual growth.
And the irony is that there’s no secret Jewish handshake, for Shabbat or anything else. This congregation’s entire reason for existence is to help us help each other to engage, explore, enjoy – and so grow spiritually.
The challenge, as Jewish tradition teaches it, is that coming to know myself actually requires getting out of my own way. The more I focus on myself, how I feel, what I know – the less I can focus on what I need to learn from the experience of us together.
- each of us has a name
In the days after last November’s election, our office received random phone calls from people who just wanted us to know that they supported us Jews. My first reaction was “who me?” No, really, others are far more endangered than I am.
Then last November I sat down with a couple that wanted my help to think about how to raise their children. One was Jewish, one Christian – and I do mean committed, active Christian. The Jew, on the other hand, told me that it was feelings of guilt that caused the meeting: how will my grandparents and parents feel if my kids aren’t Jews? but there was no real sense of commitment on the part of this Jew to Judaism, and no current practice.
A few years ago I would have encouraged this couple to explore Jewish practice before giving up on it. But this past winter another reality emerged: raising your kids as Jews now requires you to be aware that you are raising them to be noticeable, different, and vulnerable. That takes á priori commitment. If it ever was, choosing Judaism is not now simply choosing an attractive flavor or fashion or fad.
If we Jews are going to be singled out as we were in Charlottesville and will be again, shouldn’t we know what for? If we are going to be oppressed or persecuted or G*d forbid killed, should it not be for something we believe in deeply, and are fully committed to?
It was when I lived in Jerusalem that I first saw people living the teaching that life is not worth anything unless it is lived with a sense of purpose. It was there that I first heard people say that they refused to change their personal behaviors, such as riding the bus to work every day, even though buses were a favorite target of suicide bombers. To stop riding the bus would be “to let the terrorists win.”
Someone wiser than me has already said it: if there is in your life nothing worth dying for, then really, there is nothing worth living for. And if one is a Jew, the way to define that sense of self really has nothing to do with ancestors, and everything to do with the choices we make for ourselves and in our communities.
We have all day tomorrow to consider how we identify ourselves as Jews, and to consider how others identify us, as individuals and as part of our Jewish communities – here at Shir Tikvah, in Portland’s larger Jewish community, nationally, and also, of course, over there in Israel.
This makhzor of ours is a carefully developed entry into an intergenerational conversation, for us to engage with other Jews who have prayed these same prayers for centuries. Throughout the book there are kavvanot, “intentions,” bits added here and there to help us focus on the meaning of the prayers. Our own minhag is to continue adding kavvanot in the form of poetry and prose that we take turns reading, so that we may more deeply experience the sense of being part of this day. So let’s use it fully.
On this Yom Kippur of 5778, I invite you to set your own intention for your existence, just as if it were a somewhat mysterious and ancient book that nevertheless contains the story of your life. You know, like that book in which we hope to be sealed for life after this day. The thought of that symbolic book usefully reminds us that none of us knows how much time we have. As it is said in our tradition, “do not say when I have time I will study. Perhaps you will not have time.”
Seize the day while you have it: to find your way to more deeply and meaningfully to explore the name and identity of Jew (or as one who loves a Jew) as you bear it, through celebration and learning.
Take the time while you have it, to re-organize your life so that you spend more of it meaningfully and purposefully doing what defines it. There is still time for you to decide that you want your life’s identity to be shaped by you, not by social media, public advertising, or applicable affinity groups.
There is even still time for you to join me in visiting Israel next spring, where you can learn more about being a Jew in a week than you can anywhere else in a year. I urge you to consider it.
My hope and prayer for you and me here today is that there is still time in our lives to discover what we mean when we answer the question. Who shall I say is calling?
(finish with Zelda poem – p. 240, green sticker)
 Jean-Paul Satre, Réflexions sur la question juive, 1946
 Charly Wilder, “Seeking the Shtetl: a Writer Looks for her Jewish Past” New York Times 9/24/17
 Emet v’Emunah, Menakhem Mendel of Kotzk, 101 n.647
 Zelda, L’kol Ish Yesh Shem, Translation: 2004, Marcia Lee Falk, The Spectacular Difference Publisher: Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 2004, 0-87820-222-6
 BT Yevamot 47a-b
Why I have to thank the Movement for Black Lives for helping me to clarify my Jewish identity.
Once upon a time, years ago during a visit to London, I took a tour to a town called Salisbury where I actually got to see a copy of the Magna Carta. I love historical artifacts, and so I was entranced – until I got to line 5, or thereabouts, where I discovered that according to the Magna Carta’s medieval writers, none of its provisions would be applicable to Jews.
Once upon a time in the modern era, European Utopian Socialism was born in a rush of excitement over the chance to participate in the creation of a better world. We Jews were as excited as the next group, and we rolled up our sleeves to help – until we were informed that we were not invited. The anti-Semitism of early nation-state utopian socialism is one of the factors that led Jews to develop Zionism – itself a form of national state utopian socialism – instead.
It keeps coming down to being Jewish. Those British Jews probably were hoping to be considered equally subjects of the crown. The Jews of Western Europe wanted to be socialists, anarchists, comrades in arms. They wanted to be included in the great dramatic wave of human effort toward a better world – only to be told that, because they were Jewish, they were not wanted.
In America the story has been different. American social justice work – Jews have been involved in it all: the establishment of labor unions, the civil rights movement, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. Jews – even who hardly would self-identify as such – are drawn to social justice causes. We don’t necessarily call our social activism part of our Jewish identity. Sometimes it seems beside the point. We are involved because that’s what it means to be a good citizen, a good member of one’s community. We may even hold up a vision for ourselves and others of a world in which it no longer matters if you’re Jewish or Christian or secular, black or white or brown, gay or straight or trans.
In America the story has been different – or has it? Why does it keep being so hard, then, to be involved in social justice work as a Jew? Why does it sometimes feel that I am welcomed to feminist work as a woman but not as Jew? And why do people who know I’m Jewish keep surprising me by linking me with Israel when I’m acting as a U.S. citizen?
Jews Do Social Justice
Shir Tikvah is a shul which, like many if not most other congregations, was created to allow Jews to learn and grow spiritually, either ourselves or, for some of us, at least for our children. As we have grown to our current size (which is not any longer so small) we have become a home not only for Jews who want to learn and pray, but for Jews who expect that learning and prayer are only two parts of the three-legged stool that I mentioned on Rosh HaShanah. The third is g’milut hasadim, which we typically translate as social justice. So we do social action.
But G’milut hasadim isn’t exactly “social action.” It means “loving kindness.” We are urged by our tradition to understand that what keeps our world going, what makes life worth living, what allows our world to survive – is Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Hasadim: learning, prayer, and acts of loving kindness.
This is a shul’s raison d’etre. These are the three primary activities that a shul exists to offer. Everything else that we do, if it is not one of these three activities, it’s nice, but it’s secondary.
We have always participated in certain activities of g’milut hasadim: the Oregon Food Bank is a major recipient of our tzedakah, both during their Annual Blues Festival and also through our yearly High Holy Days Drive. We act in other ways as well – our Hevre youth group has developed a relationship with the NorthEast Emergency Food Pantry, and we’ve begun to support a women’s shelter called Rahab’s Sisters. On a bi-monthly basis we go there to serve a meal we’ve cooked.
We react to other causes and take our place in support where we can. The signs on this building indicate some of our causes: we are an LGBTQ Safe Space. We welcome immigrants. We reject Islamophobia. And we have posted the sign out there that declares that Black Lives Matter.
Since Ferguson, if not before, we at Shir Tikvah have been saying to each other that we have to do something.
We knew we must act: first, because we are liberal Americans, and this is an expression of our values. And second, because we are Jews, and Judaism declares to us over and over again that we must pursue justice. In our Torah, in the Rabbinical Judaism that created our prayers, and in the social justice movements our people helped to found and lead in this United States, we are exhorted:
do unto others as you would have done to you,
do not do unto others that which you do not want done to you,
and each of us and all of us are created in the Image of G*d.
How to Begin
Okay, so we have to do something – but how? when? where? We were not sure how to begin. We knew one thing, though: the time for dialogue seems to be over. You know the kind of dialogue events I mean: they might take the shape of encounter groups that gather dissimilar people in a room so that they could see that they are really the same, or holding a Freedom Seder at which Jewish hosts invite Black guests to sing Go Down Moses and eat matzah. That kind of event is laudable in its time, but only when it leads to acts. As we know, Pharaoh does not let the people go because of a song.
A few first acts which I undertook on your behalf:
*seeking out a black pastor – that didn’t work and in retrospect I know exactly why: I tried to schedule it, according to my convenience.
*attempting to get in touch with SURJ (Stand Up For Racial Justice), meeting local Jewish activist (and one of the local SURJ chapter’s founders) Eleyna Fugman
* seeking out books and articles, and reading them, and sharing them with you
Now it Gets Complicated
In our conversations, Eleyna shared with me her disappointment and discouragement over the anti-Semitism she experienced on the left, and the lack of understanding within SURJ
Then the Movement for Black Lives issued their platform. It is tremendously intelligent and sophisticated. The introduction impressed me very much.
It is organized into xix sections; one of them calls for divestment and investment. “A cut in US military expenditures and a reallocation of those funds to invest in domestic infrastructure and community well being” sounds wonderful to me.
And then in the second paragraph of the Platform, in the context of their argument for divestment from military support for Israel, words were posted that described Israel as a state that was committing genocide against the Palestinians.
There has been a lot of dismayed public comment by different Jewish organizations. Some have asked whether Jews can support the Movement for Black Lives; others have asked how Jews can do anything else. Many Jews were deeply pained.
Is this another case of “everyone is welcome to help – except the Jews”? Again??
I found myself wanting to reach out my white hands to help lift others up to my place of privilege – certainly that’s laudable, right? – but reacting as a Jew to the Movement for Black Lives platform, feeling misunderstood, attacked, and rejected.
It took me a while to realize the bifurcation that I experience, between being Jewish and being White.
I realized that I wanted to have it both ways: to be White when it suited me, and to be Jewish when that part of my identity was called forth. But what I have learned is that the two identities don’t exactly mesh.
Duh. You can be White and not Jewish. And you can be Jewish and not White.
I once wrote an entire book offering the perspective that one’s Jewish identity can ground all of one’s acts and guide one through all of life’s challenges, and I did not see that my reaction to Black Lives Matter was really part of my White liberal values system, not my Jewish values system. Like many other Jews in this country, I had assimilated my Jewishness into that of the American social justice movement.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Jews tend to quote civil rights ideals first when we engage in racial justice efforts. We demand of our society that it live up to its promise of equality for all its citizens. We bring out the Jewish citations that support the demand, sure, but we are making an American demand, not a Jewish demand.
But watch what happens: I join a group as an American, and I work for the ideals the group shares. Then something happens that makes me feel singled out as a Jew. No one in the group necessarily even knows that I am Jewish, because I joined the group as an American. Now I have to come out as a Jew, and defend myself as a Jew, and maybe either leave, or have to ask for equal treatment as a Jew in this group. I thought I was equal in this work, and now I feel vulnerable in my Jewishness.
Here is the issue: we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be American when we join a group and then turn Jewish when we’re made to feel vulnerable.
There are Jews who know this – they’ve dropped their Jewish identity as much as a Jew can. They may feel that the work they are doing, the human beings they are being, they are despite their people.
But we who are here this evening have not made that choice. What does our choice look like?
The Way Forward
What does Jewish involvement in the struggle for racial justice look like?
As American Jews, we have always taken for granted that there is plenty of overlap between those two identities. And there is, especially when we are encouraged by so many American social influences to conform.
Do you remember the Gary Larsen cartoon of the penguin, indistinguishable in a sea of penguins, singing “I Gotta Be Me”?
Do you remember the Reebok advertising campaign which suggested that if you buy the same pair of sneakers from their company as 100 million other Americans, you will be in some way asserting your individuality? “Reebok lets you be you.”
Some years ago Rev Tara of Bridgeport UCC and I organized a lunch for our two congregations – United Church of Christ and Shir Tikvah – so that we could explore our differences, but each table reported back on all the similarities they found.
But true diversity doesn’t require you to minimize your difference with another human being; it celebrates the wonder of so many different ways to be human.
As our tradition teaches: “The amazing thing about the creation of human beings is this: when many coins are stamped from the same mold, all the coins are exactly alike. But the Holy One stamps every human being with the Image of G*d, yet no two are exactly alike.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5)
This bit of ancient Jewish insight can help us begin to consider how all of us who work for social justice are alike, yet each of us has an essential quality that is different from all others.
How does Jewish teaching and a Jewish perspective help? What can it offer us? Only the opportunity to explore the essential quality that each of us has more deeply, in the hopes that it will help us feel more grounded, more confident, and more powerful when we go out into the world as human beings bearing a stamp that happens to be Jewish.
It’s interesting to consider the difference between a prevailing American idea and a Jewish idea by comparing the words “charity” and “tzedakah”. Charity is derived from the Latin word caritas, which is related to love, and the heart as the seat of emotion. Tzedakah has a very different etymology: it is derived from the word tzedek, which means justice. It has nothing to do with love. Therefore, a Jewish understanding of the concept of tzedakah is not interested in whether you love the person you are called upon to help. It is a simple matter of justice that you must help – no matter how you feel about it.
It’s fascinating to take this focus and consider the difference, in essence, between the concepts of social justice and g’milut hasadim.
Social justice is defined as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The political philosopher John Rawls wrote in his book A Theory of Justice that, “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.”
The Jewish principle of g’milut hasadim is, actually, not too different from this, except in one respect. It may be possible for a society to be just in an indifferent way. This is actually a good way to think about the Jewish definition of justice – it doesn’t matter how you feel, you must act justly.
But that’s not considered good enough in our Jewish tradition. Otherwise we would have asserted that the three pillars that hold up our world are learning, prayer and justice. And indeed, that’s exactly what I used to say, deliberately mistranslating the last pillar’s meaning in order to bring it into line with social justice rhetoric.
What g’milut hasadim literally stands for is the principle that justice is expected, but that it is not enough. In the same way that people don’t want to be tolerated but accepted, Jewish tradition insists that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than justice. Justice is expected from every Jew; what we are to aim for is kindness: acts of loving kindness.
Why do racial justice as a Jew? because it demands that we aim higher than justice, not only for those we seek to help, but for ourselves as well. We can’t help others if we aren’t helping ourselves as well – and denying part of who we are is not helping.
Tomorrow during our regular Yom Kippur discussion at 2pm I will share with you a page of Jewish teachings that I collected as a starting point for us, so that we can begin to learn our way into Jewish racial justice work.
Why? because we’ve learned that we can’t be who we’re not. So we might as well be who we are….
Identity is not merely about recognition, or acceptance, or representation; it is about becoming a people again, about finding our potential within that, about power. We must acknowledge the advantages we’ve been given by this system so we can use them as weapons to destroy it. But we must also acknowledge that we are an oppressed people — not so that we can evade responsibility for the ways we are empowered, or use our victimhood to shame and tear others down — but so we can align ourselves deeply and authentically with the titanic struggles for collective freedom before us. It is the only way we will ever genuinely stand in solidarity with others, the only way we will truly become our most powerful selves, the only way we will become whole again.
And as we become whole, we can play an even more grounded role as partners in the struggle for a free Palestine by refusing to allow Israel and the US to shed blood in our name. We can show up in this moment for Black Lives as true partners, as we are being called upon to do. Those of us who are white can disrupt white supremacy by using the benefits it gives us as tools to destroy it, sabotage it by reclaiming our Jewishness and refusing to do its dirty work. We can make all the movements of which we are a part stronger, smarter, fiercer, kinder, and funnier. And we can reclaim the peoplehood that is at our fingertips, protect our people — love our people. We can even, perhaps, give ourselves permission to grieve — for ourselves and our children, but also for our Savtas and Sabas who never got the chance.
Imagine how the entire movement would benefit from this, how much better off we’d all be if we fought from a place of wisdom, pride, and love, instead of guilt, shame, and fear. Imagine how much closer we’d be to winning freedom for all people. And this is where the lesson transcends the question of Jewishness and anti-Semitism and goes hand in hand with the most essential questions the movement must ask itself today: What do we — each and every one of us — have to do to become our most powerful selves? We had better have a good answer, because becoming our most powerful selves is the only chance we have at winning the world we all deserve.
What a humbling challenge, then: to become whole again.
– Yotam Marom, Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion
Today, October 11 2016, is National Coming Out Day. We need to come out – to ourselves, and then to our community – as Jewish. It is our Jewishness that will ground our social action.
And then it will turn it into something richer. It will be g’milut hasadim.
רצון יהי כן
The human being is a messenger who forgot the message. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
This evening at sundown begins Yom Kippur, a Shabbat like no other. It is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the “Shabbat of Shabbatot” – we might call it “the Mother of all Shabbatot.” (ShabbatOHT is the plural of Shabbat.) The concept of a shabbat shabbaton is also applied to the Shemitta year, which we have just begun. I will have more on that for you when we reach Sukkot. For now, suffice to say that the shemitta year is a year when the Land of Israel is supposed to have a Shabbat from being worked – no sowing seed, no manipulation at all of the soil. We are to eat only what the land itself will give of its own accord, and in that way to “revert” to a “more natural” relationship with the land – without imposing ourselves upon it.
According to well-established rules of Torah study, we can learn something from the fact that both Yom Kippur and the Shemitta year are called Shabbat Shabbaton. Perhaps it is just this simple: we are not to impose our will on the world during a Shabbat Shabbaton. We step back from overt, pro-active, interactive, goal-oriented behavior. We are to stop considering what’s in it for us, how we should respond in order to encourage a favorable outcome, and so take refuge in planning our future, even if it’s only the next hour we are considering. During a shabbat shabbaton, we are to Be Here Now, and consider: what is this Now? what have we wrought? Leave the question of what we can do about it for later – we escape to that too soon. Stay here, in the question: what have we done?
Yom Kippur is a day of prayer and fasting and, well, more prayer. Why does it take a full twenty-four hours? Why fast? Why repeat the confession of sin so many times? It may be as simple as what you already know in your own life: what is important gets repeated. What is even more important is repeated even more. So often that we begin to be able to hear it. And fasting is meant to express regret, and willingness to change. That’s why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, as an object lesson. If the people of Nineveh (Babylonians!!) could find atonement for sin, so can the Jews – or so we are encouraged to believe.
But, we are still finding it difficult to understand the day: how do we find the modern relevance of a very ancient ritual meant to express repentance for misdeeds?
Some things cannot be explained rationally, although they can be described. The ritual roots of our Yom Kippur observance come from the ancient Jewish response to life-threatening drought. Yom Kippur is, simply, a human response to the terror of death. But it is also much more than that, if only because we are so complicated, and human beings have not changed all that much in only a few thousand years. It’s not easy to explain – one must first be open to the experience.
A few years ago a Jewish public intellectual wrote the following in a private notebook:
The High Holidays are gone and I am impressed once again with the two spirits that dwell in the breast of Judaism…. First, the rationalist (in the Aristotelian sense), which provides rational explanations for religious practice, and the second which takes religious practice as primary and, contemplating it, derives profound human meanings from it. I believe the second is more authentically religious, but also the most dangerous, since it can open doors one didn’t know existed. The first, however, is more “conservative” as well as more popular with rabbis and clerics, since it provides them with plausible explanations for the laity.
When I was at Commentary, we published only anthropological-rational explanations for the holidays. Even then I knew it was a sterile exercise. Judaism does not explain the holidays; the holidays explain Judaism.
(Irving Kristol, cited in http://mosaicmagazine.com/tesserae/2014/09/irving-kristol-born-jewish/)
Never mind trying to figure out ahead of time what you are doing on Yom Kippur. First, let yourself really experience it – join a Jewish community for the prayers (if it was good enough for Franz Rosenzweig, it’s good enough for you to drop by on Yom Kippur day at any welcoming shul.) Open yourself to the more dangerous spirit of the day, and let’s look for those doors together, as a people standing before G-d, whatever that means.
We are now entered into a ten-day period of what are meant to be Days of Awe. Awe is a difficult concept for us – the vibrant, incessant creativity of the English language has turned “awesome” into an appreciative adjective for almost anything. For our ancestors, awe – in Hebrew, yir’ah – meant the emotions that go along with a state of awareness in which one became aware of the incredible vastness of the Universe, and one’s own smallness within it. What emotions? nothing easy, really: slack-jawed amazement; heart-opening transcendence; the kind of humility that led a poet to write “O G-d, thy sea is so vast, and my ship so small”….and, also, fear.
If we are lucky, we will each have that experience at some point in our lives. For Jews, one way of understanding it is as the “Sinai moment”. The philosopher Rudolph Otto describes the experience in his classic book The Idea of the Holy. Of all things, Otto visited a shul on Yom Kippur and wrote of having a sense of a mysterium tremendum during the prayers – an overwhelming, mysterious sense of something vast, and it filled him with an unsettling awe.
That awe, yir’ah in Hebrew, connotes the wow of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or of – for a privileged few – seeing the Earth from space, or even of contemplating a good photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. But it also includes an edge of fear: the fear of one so small in all that vastness, that one becomes aware of one’s terrifying vulnerability to loneliness, to accident, and to meaninglessness. What is it, to be a speck in the cosmos? And to be assured that, nevertheless, you, yourself, are worth it all?
And how might one react to this awareness? If you have the experience on a mountaintop, all well and good – but when you bring it to shul, you are given the gift of a chance to explore it, to talk about it, or just to react to it, within a community that will support you in those moments, and even, possibly, say, “yeah – I know what you mean.”
The prayers we recite during the High Holy Days are meant to help you find the awe in your life – whether you are feeling very small, even helpless, or very blessed, and grateful. Either situation can leave one without words. But no situation need leave you without companions.
Teshuvah, “turning” is a movement toward the self, toward others, and toward G-d – all at the same time. On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you find yourself willing to turn, even toward that which is the most awesome and frightening mystery of all – your ability to change.