“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.
I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?
Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?
There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood. Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.
For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”
Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?
Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.” These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:
Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.
Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”
Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”
I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic. We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”
I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.
I have always loved telling the Chanukah story because it is so much about the strength of the Jewish people. My own Jewish identity is nourished by powerful pride in our improbable survival for all these many centuries of challenges. Chanukah is an opportunity to celebrate the courage, smarts and drive of the Jewish people. Not only did our ancestors find a way to prevail during the Syrian Green conflict of the second century BCE, but we have also been inspired by their story at many subsequent crucially challenging moments.
How does that story relate to us today? In our increasingly individualized society, how many of us have the kind of commitment to any cause that we would risk our lives for it? How much are we willing to fight for what we value? Do we value our people enough to be courageous and selfless for the preservation of Jewish civilization? What would that courage and devotion look like?
Last week was a significant anniversary on the Jewish calendar. December 6 was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the huge march on Washington to Free Soviet Jewry. 250,000 participants came from all over the country, even from other countries. Their presence, coinciding with the White House meeting of President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev caught the attention of the American president. He told his guest that he could not ignore these constituents. American aid to the Soviet Union would depend on freeing Soviet Jews. Slowly but surely the doors opened and our brothers and sisters were permitted to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. We did it – courage, drive, devotion, sacrifice and intelligence won again.
It can be easier to find the resolve to respond in a crisis. But what about the in-between times? In many ways our people has thrived and contributed to the world out of day-to-day devotion to our shared destiny. We are in it for the long haul. Our covenant with God has inspired us, our belonging to the Jewish people has grounded us; we have lived for the “us.”
American culture presents a renewed challenge to Jewish peoplehood. This calls for transformed commitment to the “us,” to the ideals of the Jewish people. It’s worth fighting for our people – it is really not so selfless – after all, we are the beneficiaries of this great Jewish civilization.
Chanukah celebrates the victory for religious freedom that the Maccabees won for us. In every age we have new opportunities to renew that victory, as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the National Council on Soviet Jewry did in 1987. Every year Chanukah gives us an opportunity to celebrate pride in being Jews. We are the newest Maccabees, fighting for “us.”
Victory will be seen by the gifting of our talents, time and resources to make our Jewish organizations as engaging and soulful as the next generation needs them to be. Chanukah means “dedication.” Renewed dedication to the Jewish people’s well-being would be a triumph worthy of the celebration of light that we enjoy.
Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah, filled with light, inspired by courage and devotion.
I’m going to be busy this coming week. I’m heading to Israel, England, Iran, Canada, China and Jamaica. There will be music, exotic foods, late night parties and lots and lots of learning. My passport is ready, because on Sunday, I head off to Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jewish camps are a cornerstone of Jewish life. And in many ways they all build on a similar set of ingredients. In our day to day lives we exist in multiple communities in multiple settings. At camp, we exist in one community and come together with a focus on Jewish identity. So while we swim, hike and sing, we are able to look around and know what we share.
Much of that holds true at Camp Be’chol Lashon, but instead of setting aside our multiple identities, we embrace and celebrate them, making them the focus of our Jewish conversation and connection. Camp Be’chol Lashon takes the diversity of the Jewish people as our starting point. Each day the camp “travels” to a different country using our camp passports to record our impressions as we experience Jewish life around the globe through art, music, dance and crafts. These explorations not only teach us about the traditions of Indian or Ugandan Jews, for example, but also provide the platform from which we launch conversations about complex contemporary issues such as living as a minority in a majority culture or the place of tradition in keeping a community strong.
The campers at Be’chol Lashon come from around the world and from right in our neighborhood. Their racial backgrounds and personal histories are as varied as those of the Jewish communities that we “visit” each day. In many settings Jews of Color have to choose which part of their identities they will put forward and which they will leave at the proverbial door. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, they have the opportunity to be their full selves in a community that celebrates racial and ethnic heritage and the reality of modern Jewish life.
Jewish camps are treasured places but all too often they are seen as places that inoculate Jews against the complexities of the broader world. At Camp Be’chol Lashon we embrace the complexity, for not only does it represent the reality that most of our young people encounter, it represents the world that they will grow into. By grounding their vision of their Jewish selves in the complexity, we hope to prepare them to lead us into the Jewish future.
I have been an active participant in a group of Muslims, Christians and Jews that meets two to three times a year for presentations and dialogue. All of us would define ourselves as active religious practitioners. Our conversations have moved into areas of genuine dialogue and have space for disagreements and different views from both within our religious traditions as well as between religions. In other words, we have begun to trust each other.
Our meeting last week looked at the question of interfaith marriage. I was asked to be the Jewish presenter and a Catholic priest and Muslim chaplain at a local university presented their traditions.
What I found fascinating was that the priest, although an expert in canon law, approached the question from a pastoral care perspective. He clearly saw the couple and the success of their marriage as his desired outcome. The Muslim presenter gave a legal discourse and argued that while Muslim law allowed men to marry Christian and Jewish women, the reverse was not accepted. She argued that this should not be the case and that Muslim women should be allowed to marry Christian or Jewish men, citing a number of contemporary Muslim authorities. Parenthetically, at my table during conversation one of the Muslim participants commented that most Muslims would not find the contemporary authorities cited as being authoritative. This certainly has its parallels in contemporary Jewish legal debates and sounded very familiar to me as an Orthodox rabbi. My primary focus was a theological argument why Jews should marry other Jews. It was not intended to be an argument against interfaith marriage which would be silly and futile for reasons that my readers surely understand. Rather the primary focus was on understanding Jewish Peoplehood in theological/legal terms and how one’s decision whom to marry might be shaped by this understanding.
This is what I said:
“Jews stand in relationship to God as members of the covenant. In the Bible, this covenant while it begins in the Bible with Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people as a nation enter into this covenant at Mount Sinai when they receive and accept the Torah and it is reaffirmed forty years later in the Book of Deuteronomy before the death of Moses.
“You are standing, this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders, your officers, every Jewish individual; your children, your wives, the strangers in the midst of your camp, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water; to bring you into the covenant of Lord your God and His oath, which God is making with you today.
In order to establish you today as a nation unto Him, and He shall be your God, as He told you; and as He promised your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And not only with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath; but rather, with those that are here with us standing today before the Lord, our God, and with those THAT ARE NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Deut. 29, 9-11).
This Deuteronomy passage reaffirms the covenant that began in Genesis with a family, continued in the Book of Exodus as a nation at Sinai-thus the reference to be your God, and then adds with those who are not here today. This is understood to include all those not yet born. Covenant is rooted in family and peoplehood. It is not a relationship made with a single individual qua individual, but with a family and then a nation.
The next passage from the Mekhilta, a third century rabbinic text, builds on this and elaborates on the implications of this covenant relationship.
“Rabbi says: This proclaims the excellence of Israel. For when they all stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah they all made up their mind alike’ to accept the reign of God joyfully. Furthermore, they pledged themselves for one another. And it was not only concerning overt acts that God, revealing Himself to them, wished to make His covenant with them but also concerning secret acts, as it is said: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God’ and the things that are revealed,” etc. (Deut. 29.28). But they said to Him: Concerning overt acts we are ready to make a covenant with You, but we will not make a covenant with You in regard to secret acts lest one of us commit a sin secretly and the entire community be held responsible for it.”
Now this passage is seen as a dialogue between God and the people. God makes a covenant, but the implications of the covenant are that that the people are responsible one for another and therefore accountable when people sin and transgress. Here the people agree to that but with one limitation, it only applies to public transgressions. How can I be responsible for something someone has done in private? God agrees and therefore a text from Deuteronomy 29 is quoted that secret acts belong to God, but revealed public acts are the responsibility of the people.
Now this understanding creates the principle of “All Jews are responsible one for another, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”. Now this was not understood as only responsibility and accountability on a social level, but as a metaphysical construct of creating a religious sense of peoplehood. Let me describe how this plays out. For example, before I eat I am required to make a blessing over the food. It is quick and usually all of 7-9 words. However, Friday night for example in my home before we eat the bread at the Sabbath dinner only my wife makes the blessing and everyone answers Amen. Now if it is my responsibility to say the blessing, how can my wife recite it for me or the others at the table? The answer is we share this covenantal peoplehood bond, and her reciting of it is as if I have done it as well. We are linked together in the performance of commandments.
You can see this also in the Jewish wedding ceremony. This is the last blessing recited at the wedding ceremony.
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King/Ruler of the universe, who created joy and happiness, groom and bride, gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight, love, friendship, harmony and fellowship. Lord our God, let there speedily be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride, the sound of exultation of grooms from under their huppah, and youths from their joyous banquets. Blessed are You Lord, who gladdens the groom with the bride.”
The wedding ceremony is not only about my joining in marriage with another person, but it also means we share the same vision. The vision of redemption in this blessing is the vision of a redeemed people, and a wedding is the manifestation of that redemption. The prophet Jeremiah whose words are paraphrased here sees weddings as sign of the redemption and in getting married my wedding is a foretaste, a hint, a statement of faith, of the redemption of my people And this redemption is not a spiritual redemption of the soul, but a physical, in history redemption of a people into an ideal political, spiritual life. Weddings here are not a metaphor of redemption, but an expression of it. Under the huppah, the wedding canopy, is this affirmation of peoplehood, again not a social construct, but a religious entity.
Finally, the vehicle, the institution for teaching the faith, but more importantly for living Judaism is not the synagogue, although it is needed and important, but it really is the family. Shabbat is observed at my table, I transmit and teach my children at the Passover Seder centered around my table. My table is an altar and the Temple, long destroyed, is recreated in my home. It is around this table that I teach my children. In particular we see this at Passover and Deuteronomy 6 is an important text of the Seder. “If your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?”. You shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)
My child asks what does this mean to you and I answer we. It is not about me and you, but about us. Our religious identity is centered in our we, being part of the people who stood at Sinai and we are in covenant with God. And it is that sense of we that I transmit to my family in the holy moments we gather in family.
This is why I married a Jew, this is why I want my children to marry Jews, and I cannot simply imagine sharing this covenantal responsibility and bond with someone who is not part of the people who share this consciousness. I cannot imagine having the deepest most intimate relationship with someone with whom it is only me and you and not we, sharing a sense of covenantal peoplehood. Can I fall in love with someone outside my faith who is a wonderful person in all the right ways, yes. Can I have a successful marriage, very possibly yes. But can I share a common religious bond, common religious language, stand as covenantal partners reaffirming Sinai and transmitting this consciousness? Here I would answer in the negative.”
What do you think?