Friday, November 25, 2011

The Best of Both Worlds - Toledot 5772

There are several Shabbatot throughout the year that have a special name related to the calendar.  For example, there is Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  There is Shabbat HaGadol, right before Pesah.  And so forth.  Today might be called Shabbat Toledot, after the parashah that we read this morning, or it might be called “Shabbat Thanksgiving,” for obvious calendrical reasons.  Regardless of what you might call it, this is a great Shabbat to be thinking about being both Jewish and American.

A few days ago, a member of this congregation was telling me about a Persian synagogue in Los Angeles that has “an American rabbi.”  
“But we’re all American,” I pointed out.  
“You know what I mean,” she said.

Since Napoleon granted the Jews of France emancipation in 1789, one question that Diaspora Jews have constantly struggled with is that of national identity.  Napoleon’s intent was to make the Jews of France French.  A primary goal of the German haskalah, or Enlightenment, in the late 18th century was to encourage German Jews to be thought of as Germans.

But really we have always wrestled with identity.  In the beginning of Toledot, Rebekah is troubled by the twins wrestling with each other in her womb.  Ya’aqov and Esav are not only foreshadowing the struggle between the two brothers that spreads over three parashiyyot in the Torah, but also physically demonstrating the ongoing struggle that Jews have always faced when grappling with the non-Jewish world.

Ya’aqov, of course, represents the Jews.  In next week’s parashah, he will be renamed Yisrael, and it is for him that the people of Israel are named.  Esav is considered the father of Edom, the people who live across the Jordan river to the east of Israel.  In rabbinic times, when the rulers of Israel were Roman, the name Edom was used as a euphemism for Rome.

Ladies and gentlemen, we continue to face this struggle today.  And particularly right here in Great Neck, among those of us who identify with Temple Israel and the Conservative movement.  Let me explain:

Orthodox Judaism, in general, expects that its adherents will always choose Jewish law and practice over secular options.  For example, there is no question that children in Orthodox homes will not attend school on, let’s say, the first two days of Sukkot when they fall on weekdays.

Reform Judaism, meanwhile, expects that its adherents will make educated Jewish choices, understanding that halakhah, traditional Jewish law, is no longer binding on them.  Secular concerns are thereby given a seat at the table when engaging with Jewish life.

Our environment, the Conservative movement, is where things get really complicated.  On the one hand, we accept halakhah as valid and binding.  We work within the halakhic system, not outside of it.  The service that we are all participating in today is, with a few small exceptions, the same as what you will find in most Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues.  This is a kosher building; we observe Shabbat here traditionally, and thus we don’t, for example, take money or turn lights on and off and we ask people not to use cell phones or cameras in the building on Shabbat.  

But all of us are engaged with the rest of the world, the non-Jewish world, as well.  And it is that struggle that most of us face on a regular basis.  Do we keep kosher at home, and how?  What about outside the house?  Do we come to synagogue regularly?  Do we celebrate holidays, particularly the less well-known ones?  How do we educate our children Jewishly?  Do we continue to learn Jewish tradition after bar/bat mitzvah?

I read a report this week from Brandeis University about Jewish teen engagement in the New York area.  It’s really a fascinating portrait of teen involvement in Jewish life, a subject that many of you know to be of utmost importance to me.  The 344 teens surveyed were among the most connected to Jewish life - all had celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah in a New York-area synagogue between 2006 and 2009, and two-thirds had continued their Jewish education after bar/bat mitzvah.  It’s possible that some who were surveyed even came from this community.  Among the more interesting findings were:

About 80% of those surveyed said that being Jewish was very important to them, and nearly half had some involvement in a Jewish youth group, but only 7% cited Jewish activities as being their top priority; the majority cited team sports as receiving the greatest priority.  Few had an interest in Jewish ritual or synagogue participation.  “Many give high importance to family and to making the world a better place,” says the study, “but they do not attribute their sense of personal or societal right and wrong to Jewish teachings.”

I could cite interesting statistics all day, but the fundamental message that emerged for me was that our teens are, like all of us, engaged in a kind of wrestling match.  We all straddle this fence of Jewish vs. secular activities, understanding, belief, and of course identity.

We who are seated together in this room are quite an unusual mix of Americans.  Some of us were born here; some in Europe, some in Iraq or Iran, a few in Israel and elsewhere.  On my father’s side, I’m the fifth generation in America.  Although my maternal grandmother was born in what is today Ukraine, my mother’s grandfather on the other side fought for Uncle Sam in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  My wife’s first language is Hungarian, although her parents came to this country by way of Israel in the late ‘60s.

It is a fundamental human quality to separate ourselves according to national identity.  The Greeks are distinct from the Turks who are distinct from the Mongols who are distinct from the Chinese, and on and on.  The Torah itself, a particularly human document, is obsessed with classification not only about what is kosher or not, but also about categories of people: tribal affiliation, man, woman, child, slave, rich, poor, and so forth.

A century after Napoleon granted the Jews citizenship, French army captain Albert Dreyfus was convicted of treason on the basis of falsified evidence.  The question that roiled France was, are the Jews really French, or does their allegiance lie elsewhere?  (The trial and its aftermath inspired the secular Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl to pursue Zionism as a solution to this problem.)

In my lifetime, nobody has ever questioned my loyalty as an American.  I don’t think anybody will doubt that we live here in America at least as well if not better than in any other place and time in the last two millennia.  We are well-integrated into society; there are few barriers to Jews even at the highest echelons of politics, business, and academia.  And few of us would argue that this is a bad thing.

But looking around the American Jewish world today, one must marvel at the various communities to our right on the religious spectrum that are, in some ways, isolating themselves from wider American society.  They attend their own schools, live in their own neighborhoods, and avoid contact with people who are not of their community.  There are American Jews who do not celebrate Thanksgiving because to do so is to assimilate, and they are studiously trying to avoid doing so.

Our community, however, is not like that.  Most of us celebrated the non-religious, secular American holiday two days ago (I hope that just as many observed Shabbat, the second-holiest day of the Jewish year, last night with a traditional meal).  We are integrated into the fabric of American society.  We are as much American Jews as Jewish Americans, and as much Americans as our non-Jewish neighbors and colleagues.

So that raises the question in my mind: when few of our teenagers, our most connected teens, consider Jewish activities a priority and fewer still have an interest in Jewish practice, how will we maintain firm ground in the eternal struggle that we as Jews have had with the non-Jewish world?  How will we continue to maintain our customs and our traditions moving forward?

My suggestion is the following: seek out the best of both worlds and grab it.  Jewish tradition is rich with family-centered activities, valuable life lessons gleaned from ancient texts, and moments to connect with God.  American life, meanwhile, highlights the spirit of independence, stellar opportunities for education and advancement, and plentiful cultural offerings that go far beyond what’s on TV.  Leaving aside this season’s commercial fervor for shopping, being an American is a blessing that can only be elevated by the principles that Jewish tradition teaches, like expressing gratitude for what we have, taking care of the needy among us, and judging others fairly.

While I would not go so far as to call this the Promised Land, and you know how important the modern State of Israel is to me, I cannot deny that America has been good for the Jews.  As we stand here looking into the future as immigrants and the children of immigrants, we must find a thoughtful way to balance Ya’aqov and Esav, to embrace the elements of Jewish life and American society such that the former part of that equation is not eclipsed by the latter.  

Happy Shabbat Thanksgiving!  

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 11/26/2011.)

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