Saturday, October 4, 2014

What it Really Means to be Jewish

On Rosh HaShanah, I shared a message about the sacred purpose of the Jewish people:  we are here to find every kind of brokenness in this world and to repair it.  In every broken shard of life, there is a hidden spark of Divine light that we must find and return to its source in God’s oneness.  It’s up to us to take the initiative in overcoming hatred and judgment; it’s up to us, and not anyone else, to teach the world what it means that we are all one human family in the image of God.  In these times of so much violence and polarization--the violence, racism and outrage in Ferguson; the contempt-ridden polarization of left and right in so many political spheres, the missiles and tunnels of Hamas, the atrocities of ISIS, and the scourge of anti-Semitism around the globe--we, the Jewish people, must rise to our sacred purpose.  Why are we constantly beset by hatred and violence in our lives?  It actually all boils down to one root cause: it’s the propensity that lives in each of us to ‘other-fy,’ to reduce individuals and groups to the status of alien or different or inferior to “me” or to “us”.  We see this phenomenon in various forms--in the political polarization in this country, in the scourge of racism, as well as in the atrocities of Hamas and Isis.  This living in a state of alienation from other human beings violates an essential value in Judaism. The Torah exhorts us over and over to Remember the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt.  
It’s ironic, however, that with this clear universalist ethic in Judaism, we Jews also exult in being the “other” in the world.  As Leviticus says, “Kedoshim t’hiyu,” “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”  According to most biblical scholars the Hebrew term Kadosh, or Holy, is best translated as “separate-and-elevated.”  For example, in biblical times, special objects were “Hekdesh,” consecrated, or set aside--made as ‘other’--in a separate and elevated way so that they could not be used for profane purposes, but rather for Divine purposes.  So the standard interpretation of all of this is that we, the Jews, are to be a Holy people--separate and elevated above the rest of the world--the “chosen people” with a special and Divine purpose in the world.  If you’re anything like me, this notion of being a ‘Holy-Other’ and Chosen people leaves you ambivalent at best, and downright alienated at worst.  This chosen to be other idea can even feel a little creepy:  if other-fication is the root of so much evil, and we celebrate our otherness, does that mean, God forbid, that we are to blame for anti-Semitism?  
...Don’t worry, the answer is no!  Not at all.  On this Yom Kippur, I am going to suggest today  a deeper understanding what it means not only to be Kadosh--holy-- but what it means to be Jewish in the first place!  I am going to explain today that being Jewish is not, and was never about us vs. the world.  Rather, it’s in how we can transform our relationship with the other that can truly sanctify the world.  I will show us how the great purpose of the Jewish people begins with each one of us today, and how we choose to live in every one of our relationships in our lives.   
The problem is, of course,  that people can be crazy-making!  You may have further noticed that life is constantly a mess:  for all our attempts at order and creating a life that meets expectation--free from drama--life keeps surprising us, and not often in pleasant ways.  “Der mensch tracht un Got Lacht,” as the Yiddish proverb goes:  “Man plans and God laughs.”   In truth, this proverb is an overriding theme of Yom Kippur:  on Kol Nidrei we ask to be released from vows knowing full well that we will mess up again and ask to be released the following year.  In our services today, we acknowledge that some of us in this room may be dead next year at this time, and we can’t predict who or how or when.   It’s all too easy, as happens to many in our society today, to become nihilists or atheists, to believe in nothing but chaos.  But Judaism rejects chaos and Godlessness.  Despite the messiness of life, we are called to sanctify the “sacred messiness”--as my teacher Irwin Kula calls it--of life itself.  In other words, whenever life is a mess, whenever bad things happen to us, whenever life itself feels “other” and alienating and terrifying, all of Judaism can be boiled down to a simple question:  “What can we do now?”  And do you know what we do?  We defy the chaos!  We bless this life, despite everything.  As the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof says, “There’s a blessing for everything.”  Sometimes that blessing is literally a bracha, sometimes it’s a life-affirming act of tzedakah or kindness or courage; and even in the face of death itself, we respond with the Kaddish--an ultimate affirmation of life’s holiness.
My wife, Batya, is the Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives at the JCRC of Greater Washington.  Through her work with leaders of other faith traditions, she learns not only about their traditions but about what it means to be Jewish.  Once she was having a meeting at our dining room table with clergy from various faiths.  Batya put out a bowl of fruit and a Catholic priest expressed his understanding that that fruit isn’t kosher unless it is first blessed and declared holy by a rabbi. Now, this priest’s misconception makes a lot of sense:  in Catholicism,  objects like holy water are not holy until a Priest, a holy man, blesses them and declares them to be holy.  In that priest’s confusion, the fundamental difference in worldview between Catholicism and Judaism became clear to Batya.   For that priest, the world is not holy.  It needs to be made holy.  For Judaism, the world IS holy; we sanctify our lives by recognizing the holiness inherent in the world.  Whenever we perform a ritual mitzvah in Judaism, we invoke the phrase “Asher Kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu,”  Blessed is God “Who sanctified US through the commandments and commanded us…”  In other words, what makes us a Holy people is our actions, our words, our very outlook on all things as inherently holy and belonging to God.  In other words, we’re not inherently holier and closer to God than everyone else; rather, we’re the ones who can see how we--together with everyone else--are holy and close to God!  In other words, to be Jewish, to be an ‘Am Kadosh, a holy people,  is to learn to see the world and all of life through the eyes of God!
Imagine with me what it would be like, over the course of a lifetime, to relate to everyone and everything with this understanding of holiness.  Imagine with me cultivating God’s perspective on life, and not just our own.  Where we see life’s messiness, life’s darkness, life’s violence, and apparent chaos--God sees the world as Tov Me’od, very good--perfection in its very imperfection!  Where we might only see life’s Otherness, God sees Holiness.  Where we might see fear or despair, God sees infinite potential for the good, for justice, for beauty, for peace.  Batya has a beautiful way of practicing this Holiness-perspective even when walking down the street or stuck in traffic:  when she encounters people who are rude or angry, she repeats to herself over and over:  “You don’t know what he/she is going through.  You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  She does this practice because it helps her feel more at peace with whatever is annoying her.  Now that may be so, but I think she is blessing them even as they might make her life more difficult.  She is blessing them by acknowledging God’s perspective, by recognizing that what they truly are is infinitely more than how she might judge them based on one encounter or behavior.
So to be a Jew in the world is not about being a “separate and elevated” tribe above and beyond other peoples in the world.  Being a Jew is not limited by shared history or ethnicity or brilliance or neuroses.  In this day and age of so much other-fication in this world, we must indeed start by  celebrating what makes us unique and different.  But as individual human beings, we are not inherently unique or different because we’re Jewish.  We are not holy by being separate and elevated.  We are holy by relating to the world as God’s sacred Creation.  Kedushah, Holiness, at its core is a quality of awareness, of mindfulness that everything--even those things that frighten us, that make us feel out of control--everything belongs to God, is of God.  Our sacred purpose as the Jewish people in the world is--as individuals, as families, as communities--to teach the world how to transcend Otherness!
This sacred purpose is so important, so central, that I want to spell out how each and every one of us can do this:  the very moment you perceive another human being or situation as Other, as frightening or alienating or inferior to you--stop!  And find a way--no matter how agonizing or painful--to find the image of God, the spark of the Divine at the very core of that Other.  Our job is to replace all Otherness with Holiness!   Judaism serves as a technology to get us there.  In our service, in the Kedushah, we say “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh,  Adonai Tzeva’ot, Melo Kol Ha’Aretz Kevodo,” “Holy holy holy is the God of all the forces of nature, the whole world is the fullness of God’s Presence.” Our ancient rabbis teach us over and over that all of the mitzvot, the commandments, come as one piece, one package to live every moment of our lives with this insight!  In this day and age, we like to think that the ethical commandments of Judaism take precedence over the ritual actions.  Not so, insist the rabbis.  A famous passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) says that the act of simply studying Torah is equal to all the great ethical injunctions like honoring parents, visiting the sick, caring for the needy, and even making peace!  How could just sitting and studying be equal to making peace in the world?!  Other teachings insist that rituals like prayer, like lighting Shabbos candles, are equal to acts of justice.  How could this be?!  When we light Shabbos candles, what is it that we are really doing here?  An empty ancient tribal act?  Or, are we recognizing that there is Divine light in the world, despite all the darkness and otherness we perceive during the week?  
In this way, this practice of seeing with the eyes of God is equal in ritual and in ethical acts.  One informs the other.  So when the time comes in each of our lives to stand up for justice, or to stand even in the face of our enemies--are we doing these acts out of a  place of anger, out of a place of seeing our adversaries as alien Others?  Or are we engaging in these actions in the spirit of Kedushah, of that Divine Holiness perspective, where even in the moment where we are in the presence of our enemy we have the courage to remind ourselves “You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  Even as we struggle against overwhelming odds when all seems hopeless and despairing, are we able to defy that darkness and otherness and find even the smallest spark of light and hope?
Just as our people, even in the darkness of Hitler’s Europe, even in the Warsaw ghetto and elsewhere, continued to light Shabbat candles and acknowledge the possibility of light and renewal in the midst of apparent chaos, we are still here to continue to bless the possibility of light, to overcome the fear in our hearts of all those who terrify us, and recognize how they too, however distorted they may seem to us, are in the image of God.
At Ne’ilah, we will be distributing cards with the phrase “Ani v’Atah,   Me and You.”  It’s the name of a famous Israeli song, sung by Arik Einstein.  We do this as a simple reminder to take with us into the New Year of 5775 our sacred purpose as the Jewish people.  It’s what the philosopher Martin Buber taught in his famous work “I and Thou”:  It’s a reminder that just as we try to be Havruta partners with each other whenever we study Torah, we must understand ourselves to be Havruta partners with everyone whom we encounter in our lives--however briefly, however painfully or frighteningly, however alien and Other they may appear to us.  It is only together as Ani v’Atah, me AND you, not me versus you, that we sanctify this world.  It’s only when we set as our chiefest goal and purpose as the Jewish people to be the ones to transcend otherness that we can begin to create the possibility of peace and lasting justice.  We can’t wait for the rest of the world to live this message of transcending otherness.  This, and only this, is what we were chosen for in the first place.  So this year, let’s resolve together as a community to live in Havruta, Ani v’Atah, with all those in our lives and in our world.  Let’s make use of the ancient technology of holiness that we have received from our ancestors and learn to see the world not as a dark place of hostile others, but rather as an imperfectly perfect work in progress, one where God is always present, seeing it for all its beauty and potential, where we have the power to help the whole world see one another with the eyes of God.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The One True Narrative of Israel

A few weeks ago, I was working with a bar mitzvah child as he prepared for his simchah.  At some point, we were discussing the terrible events that had been going on in Israel this summer.  After this talk, his mom pulled me aside and said to me, very simply, “It’s hard to be Jewish at this time.  It’s just so hard.”  I think she expressed a sentiment that we all feel as we enter this Jewish New Year.  It began with the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar.  Next, some Jew, in retaliation, decided to murder a Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir.  And the terrible theme of this summer, along with the missiles and the world condemnation of Israel, was the murder of children and other innocents.  Hundreds of children in this conflict as a result of the Hamas policy to place the innocent in as much danger as possible and use the innocent as human shields knowing the power of these deaths and images to tear at our souls.
        Here at home, we have watched in horror and fear as missile after missile was fired at Israel, relieved at Iron Dome’s effectiveness, but still deeply terrified, knowing that their aim is to kill our people--men, women, and children.  Our fears and heaviness have only multiplied as the world, it seems, has chosen to utterly vilify Israel as a cruel and vicious oppressor.  And our hearts were breaking knowing that so many innocent Palestinians were dying because of Hamas’ cruel tactics--and because of Israel’s need to defend itself nevertheless.  I’m sure many of you join me in feeling like the world is going mad.  Everywhere, we are moving to extremes, hatred, and violence.  The specter of Anti Semitism is springing up all over the world again. We are all so scared, and indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now.
        While I so wish I could point to a clear way out of the pain we all feel right now, what I can do for us this Rosh HaShanah is to at least point us in the direction of hope.  And indeed, that message of hope did rise up in Israel this summer--and many of us may have missed it in the shuffle of events of the summer.  After the Palestinian boy, Muhammad, was murdered in retaliation for Hamas’ murder of the three Jewish boys, something remarkable happened. Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barakat paid a shiva call to Naftali Fraenkel’s home.  While there, the Mayor called Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy’s father, and suggested that he speak to the family.  The uncle of the slain Jewish boy got on the phone and had an emotional conversation with the father of the Palestinian boy.   “We expressed our deep empathy with their sorrow, from one bereaved family to another bereaved family,” Yishai Fraenkel reportedly said. “I think it’s very good they seem to have found the culprits. We expressed our absolute disgust with what had happened. He accepted our statements, it was important for him to hear it.”   The Fraenkel family also issued an official statement:   “There is no difference when it comes to blood. Murder is murder; there is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for any murder.”
        In these extraordinary actions and words, the seeds of a way out of the out of control hatred and violence were planted…
        There is simply nothing in our human experience more despicable than the murder of children.  Such murders send shockwaves through all of humanity, engendering not just horror and anger, but the deepest of fears.  The fallout from such murders--be they by kidnappers or by Hamas’ tactics--turns otherwise good and decent people into extremes of fear and judgment--on both the political left and right about Israel.
        On the left, Israel has become the ultimate villain of western imperialist domination, one of the great impediments--literally and symbolically--of all oppressed peoples in the world.  In other words, age-old anti-Semitism, dressed in progressive liberal drag, has invaded the left.  For those of us who are proud Jewish liberals, this has felt like an incredible betrayal.  This insidious anti-Semitism--that so perverts true liberal values of compassion for all troubled peoples on all sides--has effectively muzzled those of us who feel that current Israeli policies and approaches deserve criticism in a respectful and democratic fashion.
        On the political right, as well, fear and rage have pushed not only some Israelis, but many here as well into ever-more hateful vilifying of all Palestinians, and delegitimizing of valid Palestinian claims. As much as Israel has every right and need to defend itself, I have heard too many Jews callously write-off the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children as collateral damage; who refuse to acknowledge the horror and immediately deflect the conversation away from the children to hatred of Hamas and Palestinians.  The great tragedy of Israel these days is not just the war casualties--it’s the very humanity of all people in their fearful reaction to this war.  This diminishing sense of the humanity on all sides is also a betrayal of what it means to be Jewish, and the deepest Jewish value that every human life is sacred.
        Indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now….
At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics.  We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place.  On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things.  Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice.  In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “...unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke...to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
        Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “ 'The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
           Our own Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for the Atlantic, brought in a quote where the famously left wing writer Amos Oz--one of the founders of Peace Now, in fact--poses two questions to his interviewer at the beginning of an Interview with Deutsche Welle:
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
And indeed, with this apt metaphor, we, the Jewish people, pass the simple truth onto the world.
           There is a stark contrast  between the two foundational documents.  There is no moral equivalence between Hamas and the Israeli government. And yes, Hamas’ aims are terrifying.  Their hateful, barbaric, extremist ideology, echoes the barbarism and contempt for human life we have seen from ISIS.  Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler.  But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children--we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level.  Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism.  If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must NO LONGER be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians anymore.  It is NOT about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace, and those who do not yearn for peace.
        What must rise up from the terrible ashes of this summer is that Jew and Jew, left and right, Jew and Muslim, Jew and Christian, religious and secular, Israelis and like-minded Palestinians-- must all come together with voices joined to speak out against extremism on all political sides.  We must recognize that not all Palestinians are evil.  Hamas and their ideology are evil.  There is a famous story in midrash Tehillim (Psalm 104) about how there were once “ruffians,” or evil people living in the neighborhood of the great Rabbi Meir.  Rabbi Meir began to pray that these evil-doers die.  Upon hearing this, Rabbi Meir’s wife, Bruriah, was outraged.  She quoted the 104th Psalm to him, that says, “Yitamu Chataim min ha’aretz” which means “May sins be uprooted from the earth.” She said to her husband.  It does NOT say May sinners be uprooted from the earth, rather their sins.  “Pray that the sinners repent of their ways, NOT that they themselves would perish.”  Bruria reminded her husband that the role of the Jewish people in this world is not to seek the death of others, but overcome sins and all sources of evil.  The story ends that Rabbi Meir took his wife’s advice.  He prayed on behalf of the evil-doers, and lo and behold, they ceased to be evil.
Judaism tells us over and over again--all hope for Tikkun Olam--repair of the world--MUST begin with us, the Jewish people to create a world that is whole and just.  In Kabbalah, we are taught that our role as the Jewish people is to respond to every kind of brokenness that we encounter in this world,  to redeem the broken shards of every brokenness, and to liberate the spark of the Divine in every shard so that that spark may return to its source in God’s Oneness .  We have to break the chain of hatred and see through our fear to the real humanity of the other.  And, equally importantly, we must DEMAND that others must recognize our humanity as well!
        It is essential that we, like the Fraenkels, grieve the loss of innocent Palestinian children as much as we grieve the loss of our own.  We must learn from the Fraenkel and Abu Khdeir families, and realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world.  There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself.  The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, “...for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, "My parent was greater than your parent".  Remarkably, it’s not only the Talmud that teaches this wisdom.  There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself!  The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam.  Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts--but as a religion it is not evil.  It is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.
        Now is the time, more than ever, for us to lift up Judaism’s message for all peoples of the world:  We are one human family--the children of Abraham--Jews, Christians, Muslims, and together with all families of the earth, we are all the children of God.  And our Torah teaches us that the Land of Israel contains the seeds of turning the hearts of brothers and sisters, parents and children toward one another, recognizing the sanctity of life and God’s creation.  This summer, the Fraenkels and the Abu Khdeir families lived this truth.  Now we must all do it.  We express this vision every day when when we say the Aleinu in our services:  that the nations that today seem so scattered and dissonant, will one day come together and recognize the oneness that we all share.  We can and must hold our heads high and speak the truth of what Israel can and will be to this world.  It is most clearly summed up with the words that we end every Kaddish with in our Machzor:
“Oseh Shalom bimromav,”  “May God who makes peace in the Heavens above,” “Hu Ya’aseh Shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel,” “May God bring peace upon us, upon all Israel, and upon all inhabitants of this world,”  “V’imru Amen”!