Itís Good to be a Jew
Rosh Hashanah Morning
I can’t resist beginning with this story.
Once upon a time, a Christian, Jew, and Muslin traveled to Istanbul. When they arrived, they found a gold coin in the street. They agreed to buy baklava with the money and decided that whoever had the best dream would get to eat the entire pastry. They proceeded to an inn for a good night’s sleep, each hoping for a wonderful dream.
When they awoke, the three went to a coffeehouse to tell their dreams to the people gathered there. They wanted those present to judge who had the best dream.
The Christian began, “I dreamed that Jesus came to me in Nazareth, carried me to Paradise, and showed me the saints sitting there.”
The Muslim recounted his dream, “I dreamed that Mohammed came to me in Mecca, bore me on his shoulders and showed me Paradise.”
The audience at the coffeehouse was impressed. How could any dream be more beautiful than these.
Then it was the Jew’s turn. “My dream is not on the level of yours, for I did not get to Paradise. Instead, our teacher Moses came to me and said, ‘The Muslim is with Mohammed in Mecca, and the Christian is with Jesus in Nazareth. Who knows when they will return?’ Then he advised me, ‘The baklava will get stale. Eat it yourself.’”
“Did you eat it?” Asked his companions.
“What do you think?” thundered the Jew. “Who am I to ignore the advice of Moses?”
(From Folktales of the Jews, edited by Dan Ben-Amos as told by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso)
Now a question: Some day…maybe 25 years from now…Will Chelsea Clinton tell this story to her child and will he or she have enough of a Jewish sensibility to get it?
These are amazing times when we can even wonder out loud if the grandchild of a United States president will connect to the Jewish people.
If you really want to have fun, imagine what might have happened had Hillary Clinton become president. Imagine Chelsea’s becoming pregnant in the third year of the presidency. There could have been a bris in the White House some time in 2011. A brand new use for the Lincoln Bedroom!
These are amazing times and changing times for Jews in America.
I remember what Justice Stephen Breyer said several years ago when I was part of a rabbinic group visiting him in the Supreme Court. Breyer, who is a Jew, began our meeting by commenting, “My grandfather would not believe where I am and what I do. My grandfather came to this country as a Yiddish speaking immigrant at the beginning of the 20th century. For a Jew to be in the Supreme Court? My grandfather would be overwhelmed.”
Think about Elena Kagan, the newest addition to the Supreme Court. During her confirmation hearings, there were innuendos she might be gay. There was plenty of focus on her status as a woman. But barely a mention of the obvious fact that she is a Jew. That variable, which could have been the occasion for an uproar in days gone by, was virtually no part of the 2010 conversation.
We live in amazing times and changing times.
The non-Jewish world around is changing or has changed so that majority America seems quite pleased that Jews are part of the American mix. Jews are becoming as American as apple pie.
What’s more, we Jews are changing in our approach toward being Jewish. Steven Cohen, professor of social policy at Hebrew Union College, identifies two trends affecting our community.
The first is integration. It’s the flip side of what I’ve just said. As America opens its doors to Jews, we Jews are happily walking in through the doors. The Jewish sense of ethnicity is becoming less prominent among Jews. Younger Jews especially move in a new world. Consider this statistic. About 2/3 of older American Jews have mostly Jewish friends. In contrast, 2/3 of the under-thirty generation have mostly non-Jewish friends.
This is new. This is different.
Plus there is a second trend among Jews. Professor Cohen describes what he and others call the rise of the sovereign self. This means that Jews today feel far more ready to assert whether, when, where, and how they will express their Jewish identities.
Years ago you were born a Jew and you felt obliged to live as a Jew. If you didn’t, you felt disloyal to the clan.
With the rise of the “sovereign self,” the focus changes. People are more willing and more comfortable defining Judaism as they want it to be on their own terms.
Here’s Rabbi Elie Kaunfer writing in a new book called Empowered Judaism. “The internet age has created a general culture in which people feel empowered to differentiate themselves more than ever before. Why tune in the network news when there are hundreds of blogs and independent media websites that speak more specifically to your worldview?”
The same holds true for Judaism. Why do what tradition tells you to do when you can design something that suits you and you alone?
Of course, we are not the first generation of Jews to contend with identity and boundaries and the meaning of being Jewish. Some time ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said that if he met a person who said, “I’m a Catholic,” he knew the person was a Catholic. If he met a person who said, “I’m a Protestant,” he knew he was a Protestant. If he met a person who said, “I’m a human being,” he knew the person was a Jew.
The truth is that Jews have always been precocious and a little bit contrary. Do you remember a language called Esperanto? It was designed to be a universal language. Easy enough so that anyone could learn it. The hope being that, if all separate languages could be replaced with one shared language, we human beings would finally get along. One language for humanity would let our common humanity triumph.
So who invented Esperanto? It was the creation of a Russian Jew, Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, a physician from the city of Bialystok. Zamenhof actually invented this brand new language and became relatively famous along with Esperanto starting in the 1880’s. His dream, which really wasn’t so far removed from classic Jewish messianism, was to remove divisions among the nations and march forward into a brighter era.
Only one problem – The Nazis despised anything universal. Writing in Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that Esperanto was part of the Jews’ international conspiracy to take over the world. Although Zamenhof died in 1917, his three children were murdered by the Nazis.
And what does that prove?
Maybe it proves how deluded Jews are when they go for the universal. Maybe it proves we Jews shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The antisemites will always put us in our place.
Or…perhaps what happened to Zamenhof’s children is a sad chapter in Jewish history but can’t really be used to learn about our Jewish situation today. That’s what I believe. In the year 2010, I can’t think of a weaker argument for Jewish commitment than to hark back to the Holocaust.
The whole point is that in America times have changed. You can’t advocate for Judaism by scaring people with the specter of antisemtiism. You and I shouldn’t tell our children to stay Jewish because there are antisemites out there ready to discriminate. Frankly, we shouldn’t be telling our children or ourselves that we have to be Jewish only because we owe it to Jews of the past. We shouldn’t be guilting ourselves into Judaism.
Imagine saying something like that to Mark Mezvinsky, Chelsea’s new husband. You’d know it was bogus before the words left your mouth.
But what could you say to someone if you wanted to explain your own commitment to Judaism?
Actually, forget trying to convince another Jew that Judaism matters.
How do you make sense of Judaism for yourself?
And if you are one of the many congregants married to someone who is not a Jew, what words do you have for communicating why Sinai and why this very moment are important to you as a Jew? And if you are so kind as to be here although you are not a Jew, how does this tradition called Judaism make sense to you?
Here is my response for Rosh Hashanah 5771.
Here is how Judaism touches my life. Perhaps it works this way for you as well.
I am a Jew because the Judaism I love doesn’t bully anyone. You don’t have to be Jewish in order to be saved. You don’t have to believe what I believe. You only need to be a decent human being.
I am a Jew because Judaism’s vision of God is also open-ended. Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush. He is launched on the central mission of his life to go free the Israelite slaves. At that pivotal moment Moses asks God for a name or a divine sign. What does the Torah offer? Ehyeh asher ehyeh…I am what I am…I shall be what I shall be.
In other words, God can’t be defined once and for all. Nobody owns God. Nobody can claim their faith is the correct and final faith.
I am a Jew because Judaism allows for a questioning, evolving, thinking, sometimes doubting faith.
There is more: The Book of Genesis teaches me to walk humbly through life because all human beings are created “b’tselem elohim – in the image of God.”
The prayerbook reminds me that the soul inside everyone of us is pure.
The rabbis of our tradition teach as follows:
“Greet every person “b’sever panim yafot - with a pleasant face.”
“Aizeh hu ashir – who is rich?” A person who is happy with his lot.”
And Hillel says: “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must always strive to be a human being.”
There is something kind and gracious about Judaism. I feel it whenever we light candles to create holy time. The flames quiet, shimmering glow softens any day and gives any home a breath of eternity.
There is something reassuring and affirming when the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child holds the Torah scroll for the first time. Many times the scroll almost overpowers the 13 year old, but that’s the beauty. At a time when so much is changing in the life of this adult-to-be we affirm that he belongs. She shares in a tradition that can steady her for the rest of her life.
I am a Jew because Judaism values learning and respects memory.
I am a Jew because Judaism values community.
I also love the way Judaism encourages us to look at the world with open eyes. That’s what a blessing is all about. Baruch atta Adonai…Praised are You, God. There are so many ways to complete that sentence. One tradition suggests that a Jew ought to say 100 blessings a day, which means we Jews are on a kind of daily mission looking for whatever is good, novel, or positive in life.
Say a blessing. Give thanks. Become a thankful person. That’s what Judaism means.
If you’ll permit me the word, I think Judaism is wholesome. Its power lies in its ability to elevate us in a world that often wants to drag us down.
Think of Shabbat, which has the power to rescue us every seven days from the tyranny of fractured, pressured time.
Think of Sukkot with the fragrance of the etrog, our dancing in the auditorium at Simchat Torah, our laughter at Purim. Can you conjure up that perfect image of a child struggling and then triumphing at center stage with the Seder’s Four Questions?
Most of all, for me, there is a smile surrounding my Judaism. In spite of so much adversity, somehow Judaism remains joyful and passionate. There is a vision of a better world. There is a commandment – Justice, justice shall you pursue. And there is a feeling that somehow, some way life is worth living.
That’s why I am a Jew.
Is that good enough to convince you?
Do you think it’s enough for some of those 21st century Jews (young and old) who aren’t here with us this morning?
Have I made the case for being Jewish?
Maybe yes. Maybe no.
Yes – I’ve certainly convinced myself. I loved creating this presentation of Judaism and I have felt privileged sharing it with you.
On the other hand – You may wonder if the good words really correspond with your life. I also know that the committed universalist who is a Jew and may not be here this morning can’t be convinced by words alone.
It’s a matter of living and trying on Jewish life.
It’s a matter of study too. (That’s why this sermon will be on the website by tomorrow morning. I hope you’ll take some time to look it over and wonder where you fit in.)
While you are doing that, however, and maybe just before you send this sermon to someone you love who isn’t here today, let me close with a story. Rabbi Janet Marder shared it with me. It’s a Holocaust story that doesn’t confine itself to the past. It’s a story for us today who want our Judaism to remain strong.
In 1958, a Chasidic Rabbi moved into a neighborhood in Queens, New York. He stood out from his neighbors with his long beard, black hat and coat.
A young Jewish man, bored by his suburban congregation, decided to pay a visit to the Rabbi’s new synagogue. He found the atmosphere intriguing. When the service ended, the Rabbi came over to him. Pesach was coming, he said, and he needed a young person at his Seder to ask the four questions. Would the young man be so kind as to join him?
Seder night came and the young man was at the Rabbi’s table. He was surprised to see, between the Rabbi and his wife, a baby carriage. They had brought their infant daughter, now sound asleep, to be present for the reading of the Haggadah. The Seder began and the young man asked the questions. The Rabbi began telling the story in the ancient Hebrew chant.
Suddenly the baby woke up and began to cry. The Rabbi asked permission of his wife and guest to leave the table for a few minutes. He picked up his daughter and carried her into the next room. The young man could hear the Rabbi soothing the child, cradling her in his arms, and singing to her. The song was in Yiddish – a language the young man did not understand.
Soon the baby stopped crying and fell asleep. The Rabbi put her back in the carriage, came back to the table and resumed the Seder. The story might have ended here but it didn’t.
Inspired by the Rabbi’s tenderness, the young man started asking questions and soon learned the personal story of the couple. The Rabbi and his wife were originally from Warsaw. They were newlyweds when World War II broke out and found themselves prisoners in the ghetto.
After a time, the Rabbi was sent to Treblinka and from there to other concentration camps as was his wife. Somehow both of them survived. After the war they were reunited. In time they came to America.
There they discovered that because of what had happened to his wife during the war, it would be impossible for the couple to have children. But the couple refused to give up hope. More than ten years later, the miracle happened. His wife conceived and had a child.
This was the baby the Rabbi had cradled so tenderly in his arms. But that wasn’t what changed the young man’s life so that he became a committed Jew and in time a Rabbi.
What mattered was discovering the meaning of the song that the Rabbi had sung to his baby daughter. What were the words that he sang with such sweetness - this man who had lived in the Warsaw ghetto and Treblinka and passed through the gates of hell?
S’iz gut tzu zein a yid. S’iz gut tzu zein a yid.
It’s good to be a Jew. It’s good to be a Jew.
I couldn’t agree more.
It is good to be a Jew.
It’s positive, wise, stabilizing, and life-enhancing.
I’m proud to be a Jew; glad to be a Jew.
I hope each of you feels this way too.
Sing that song today.
Sing that song always.
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