Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh Hashanah 5773: Why Be Jewish?

Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish woman from New York, goes to her travel agent. "I vont to go to India."

"Mrs. Cohen, why India? It's filthy, much hotter than New York, and very crowded."

"I vont to go to India."

"But it's a long journey, how will you manage? What will you eat? The food is too hot and spicy for you. You can't drink the water or eat fresh fruit and vegetables. You'll get sick.  And can you imagine the hospital, no Jewish doctors?"


"I vont to go to India."

The necessary arrangements are made, and off she goes. She arrives in India and, undeterred by the noise and crowds, makes her way to an ashram. There she joins the long line of people waiting for an audience with the guru. She is told that it will take at least three days of standing in line to see the guru.

"Dats OK," Goldie says.

Eventually she reaches the guru’s entryway. There she is told firmly that she can only say three words.

"Fine," she says.

She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the guru is seated.  As she approaches him, she is reminded: "Remember, just three words."

Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate at his feet. She stands directly in front of him, folds her arms on her chest, fixes her gaze on his, and says: "Shmuel, come home."

Ladies and gentlemen, we are all Jews by choice.

Usually, that is a term reserved for those who were born into another faith and became Jewish. We often refer to converts to Judaism not as “converts,” but as “Jews by choice.”  In Jewish tradition, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, whether born Jewish or not.  A Jew by choice is first and foremost a Jew.

But the reality of today’s marketplace of ideas is that we are ALL Jews by choice.  We have all made the choice to be here today; we choose to celebrate Pesah with family, or light Hanukkah candles together, or to eat only kosher foods, or bring our children for berit milah or bat mitzvah.

The ability to opt for something different, to start over in a new place with a new identity, is the hallmark of the American character.  Personal autonomy -- individual choice -- has always been placed at the top of our pile of values.  We do not ask our children, “What do you need?”, but rather, “What do you want?”  We reinforce from birth that we have choices. (I’m not sure if this method always works out so well for parents, but that’s the subject of a different sermon.)

Our people arrived on this continent in 1654, almost 360 years ago.  The first American Jews resisted Old World rabbinic control for decades; to this day, this country has the only significant Jewish community in the world that has never had a chief rabbi.  Meanwhile, Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, Issur Danielovich Demsky became Kirk Douglas, Sandy Koufax became a hall-of-famer even though he did not pitch on Yom Kippur, and full assimilation and interfaith families became inevitable features of the American Jewish landscape.

Shmuel, the Jewish guru, chose something else.  For whatever reason -- perhaps he could not find that path within Judaism that led to spiritual satisfaction and so he found another option -- he and others like him have left the fold for other pastures.  But far more of our young people today are exercising their freedom of choice by simply opting out of Jewish life, not necessarily to become gurus in ashrams, but becoming what is increasingly known as “Just Jewish,” or not Jewish at all.  A friend of mine from my Cornell days casually announced on Facebook that he was “no longer Jewish.”  When I asked him if that meant that he had converted to another religious tradition, he told me that he had not.  He had simply stopped practicing any Jewish rituals and disconnected himself from the faith of his parents.

And he is not alone.  What is the fastest-growing religious tradition in America today, across all demographics?  None.

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately, because I think that we, those of us who are still committed, who are still invested in the traditional aspects of Jewish living, have to start making the case to ourselves about why Judaism is valuable.  Why be Jewish?  If we can answer that question for ourselves, we have a better chance of making the case to others for whom the inclination is to drop out.

Why be Jewish?

We need an answer to that question, one that we must share with our families and friends.  I’m particularly concerned with our children who are in the parking lot, or at home on Facebook.  I’m concerned that the ultimate result of the freedom of choice that modernity highlights will be that Judaism will cease to play a role in the lives of its descendants.  And I am particularly concerned that our Judaism, the open, non-judgmental, progressive, egalitarian practices that we represent here at Temple Israel.  We are the inheritors of Rabbi Mordecai Waxman’s principles of Tradition and Change, principles that I know many of us hold dear.

So the question should be asked and answered, re-asked and re-answered.  Why be Jewish?  And some of our children and grandchildren will no doubt find the answers not compelling enough, and will, like Shmuel and my college buddy, end their relationships with Judaism.

But some (and, I hope, many) will choose Judaism, will choose our open, tolerant approach to tradition.  Just like we in this room have done.

One traditional response to the question of “Why be Jewish” is that of faith.  The Torah tells us that if we embrace the mitzvot / commandments of Jewish life -- Shabbat, kashrut, tefillah, lifecycle events, holidays, and so forth -- we will be rewarded by God.  

But let’s face it: that does not work for everybody.

So we have to find another way.  We have to make other arguments for why choosing Judaism is a good idea.  

Here is another way of looking at this, one way that has worked for me.  I’m going to call this “the History Argument.”

There have been Jews in this world for at least 2300 years, and arguably as many as 3500 years.  Every one of us in this room is the descendant of at least 100 generations of Jews.  Our ancestors have followed these ancient customs and laws for millennia.  Who are we to question their adherence to Judaism?  Who are we to break the chain?

I choose Judaism because my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and on and on and on were Jews.  They carried their faith through war and peace, East and West, through slavery and oppression and liberation and migration, from place to place and nation to nation.  Likewise, I want my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and on and on to continue these practices as well, wherever they end up and in whatever circumstances.

Tradition, sang Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  The key to our lives is maintaining our tradition.

The History Argument may work for some of us.  My suspicion is that for most of us who are under the age of 30, that will not work very well at all.  As humans, we are much better at living in the present than acknowledging the past or envisioning the future.

So we need some better reasons to be Jewish.  I’d like to propose the following:  What makes Judaism valuable today, and in an ongoing way are the Jewish values that we share. These shared values can be called the Internal, the External, and the Holy.

1.  Internal: Judaism values learning and mandates critical thinking.

2.  External: Judaism encourages us to relate well to others.

3.  Holy: Judaism offers a glimpse of the Divine.

First, let take a closer look at the Internal:  Judaism values learning and mandates critical thinking.

As I grow in my own relationship to what we call Judaism, I am ever more fond of the statement found in the Mishnah, tractate Pe’ah 1:1: Talmud Torah keneged kulam.  The study of Torah outweighs all the other mitzvot, including honoring your parents, performing deeds of charity, and making peace between people.

That’s right.  Learning is the highest value in Judaism, going all the way back to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, nearly 2000 years ago.  In the wake of that destruction, our ancestors grappled with the question of how to maintain our distinctiveness, and they settled on learning.  Judaism would become a tradition that would be related from teacher to student.  No more priesthood, no more hierarchy; Talmud Torah, the learning of Torah is the great equalizer of Jewish history.  Only a small elite could perform the sacrifices in the Temple, but everybody could learn and relate our Jewish stories.

“Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?”  
“How should they answer?”

We are a people who ask questions, who challenge, who seek wisdom.  And the critical thinking piece is essential.  Unlike some other religious traditions, which urge followers to check their intellect at the door, Judaism encourages us to question, to argue, to disagree.  There is never one answer in the Talmud; there is always a second opinion.  

We are the original critical thinkers, and every single one of us can benefit from Judaism’s rigorous pursuit of study, learning, and debate.  That is the Internal reason to be Jewish.

Second, the External.  Judaism requires us to relate well to others.

One of the best-known stories of the Talmud is as follows: a potential convert who approaches the sage Hillel and asks him to teach him all of the laws of Jewish life while standing on one leg.  Hillel lifts a leg off the ground and says, “Do not do unto others what is hateful unto you.  All the rest is commentary.  Now go and learn it.”

The second part of his statement, the “Go and learn it” part, refers back to the learning that we just discussed.  But the first part, the part about not doing unto others what is hateful to you, is the key to being Jewish in relationship to others.  We have to treat each other well.  

And let’s face it: treating your neighbor respectfully is not so easy.  We live in a fundamentally selfish society, in which independence is prized above all else.  We compete against each other for resources, for access to good schools, good grades, good jobs, and good business deals.  We learn from a young age that performance outweighs learning, that bringing in a good salary can sometimes justifiably conflict with being a dedicated parent.

But the Torah and Judaism ask us to re-examine those equations.  Ve’ahavta le-reiakha kamokha - love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).  Honor your parents, says the Torah, even when it might be inconvenient to you.  Pay your employees a fair wage, says the Torah, even if it cuts into your own profits.  If you find your enemy’s ox suffering under a heavy load, says the Torah, you must help lift it up.  Don’t put a stumbling block in front of the blind; don’t curse the deaf.  From Pirqei Avot: Al tifrosh min hatzibbur - do not separate yourself from your community.

Today (yesterday) we enter/ed the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  On these days we can ask for forgiveness from God for those transgressions of mitzvot bein adam lamaqom, commandments that are between us and God.  God will forgive us if we ask.  

But regarding those violations of mitzvot bein adam lehavero, the obligations between people, only those we have personally wronged can forgive us for what we have done to them.  We can only be forgiven with the help of our haver, our buddy, spouse, child, parent, sibling, coworker, boss, employee, neighbor, or enemy.  As Jews, we take this human partnership seriously.  

And that’s another great reason to be Jewish, the External reason.

Third: Holiness. Judaism offers a glimpse of the Divine.

Last spring, we hosted the noted professor of Jewish education, Dr. Ron Wolfson.  Dr. Wolfson’s work is primarily to help synagogues become more welcoming.  But he also reminds those of us who work in synagogues that we are not a business, whose bottom line is a dollar amount.  Our bottom line is qedushah, holiness.  That is the one thing that you can get here at Temple Israel that you can’t get at the gym, or the supermarket, or at   

Why do we maintain the rituals of our ancestors?  Why do we read the Torah from beginning to end every year?  Why do we offer classes and discussions on various topics in Jewish text and law and philosophy?  Why do we recite the lengthy prayers in this mahzor?  Because that is how we Jews get access to God.  And let’s face it: despite the growing secularity of American society and among American Jews, most of us still want some access to God.  And the place to do that is here.

But we also stand for the qedushah / holiness that you can get outside this building.  Why do we bless our children on Friday night?  Because setting aside that holy moment with your kids, a pause from the insanity of the week, reaffirms everything that is sacred about life.

Why do we give tzedaqah / charity?  Why does the Temple Israel Chesed Connection, which goes out into the community to help people in need?  Why does the Youth House feature Mitzvah Corps, which brings 8th-graders to soup kitchens and retirement homes and the ACLD group-living home for disabled adults? Because there is nothing holier than reaching out your hand to others who have less.  

Why do we sponsor the PJ Library program, which provides absolutely free Jewish children’s books to kids in our community?  Because the holiest thing a parent or grandparent can do is to teach our tradition to the next generation.  (Call our office to sign up for PJ Library!)

Why be Jewish?  Because Judaism offers a connection to God, moments of holiness.


I’m going to conclude with the words of French-Jewish writer Edmund Fleg, a secular Jew who, like Theodor Herzl, rediscovered a connection to his people in the wake of the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in the 1890s:

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.

I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.

I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.

I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.

I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; we are completing it.

I am a Jew because, above the nations and the faith of Israel, we place humanity.

I am a Jew because above humanity, which is created in God’s image, Israel places God’s oneness and divinity.


Why be Jewish? Because Judaism offers a framework for living, a set of shared values that if applied properly, will enable your inner spirituality by turning on your mind, will enhance your outer relationships, and will, once in a while, offer contact with God and qedushah / holiness.  As we move forward, those of us who continue to be Jews-By-Choice will draw on these offerings of Judaism, gaining inspiration as well as inspiring others.  

Epilogue: A congregant came to me last week to tell me that she has found her path through Judaism at Temple Israel, but she had to work quite hard to seek it for herself.  When he was here in May, Dr. Wolfson told the story of his having visited a synagogue, and upon arriving he found the front door locked.  He looked around the building for a good twenty minutes, and when he finally found his way in and met with the rabbi, he was told, “Everybody knows you go in through the kitchen!”

Some of us are self-motivated seekers; others are not.  If you can’t find the kitchen door and you need an entry point to learn more, to participate more, to step up your relationship with the faith of your parents and grandparents, give me a call, shoot me an email, friend me on Facebook, find me on Twitter, or whatever.  I would be personally thrilled to help you find your way.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Monday morning, September 17, 2012.)

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