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.