Throughout the high holiday season, we think a lot about judgment. It’s a heavy word, and also a word that brings to mind lots of possibilities. In the month of Elul, God is judging us to see what we have done in the past year and what will happen to us in the future. Knowing this we reflect and pass judgment on ourselves and, often, others.
I am going to borrow a phrase from Rachel Stern’s #BlogElul post and say: life is about perspective. She used this phrase to encourage people to see things as blessings. Here, I’d like to remind everyone that our judgments are also a matter of perspective.
When I tell people I work for a Jewish organization in Mississippi I occasionally get a response like, “there can’t be a lot of Jews there!”… and it’s true that there are not as many Jews here as there are in New York or Los Angeles. But I am sad when people say things like “It’s great that you are helping those Jews, they must really need it.”
I think this statement reflects a judgment, intentional or not, lacking in firsthand knowledge. It also reflects a judgment about what a Jewish community should look like, that it should look one certain way, when in fact there are lots of different ways to build a Jewish community. The Jewish communities that I visit have rich Jewish lives, they just might not look like the life we know in New York or Los Angeles.
“Those Jews” don’t need judgment. None of us do—but we can all use support.
I also have to be careful of my own judgments. I am a visitor in the communities I serve as an ISJL Education Fellow, and it is my job to empower educators. It is not my place to judge what a community’s priorities should be, how they should spend their resources, or which values they should hold most dear. And it is also not fair for me to judge them against any other community, Northern or Southern. Each congregation is its own special place.
Throughout this month of Elul, as I begin my fall visits and my second year as a Fellow unfolds, I will have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the communities with which I work, so that I can help them plan for a successful year. As I do this I am being extra careful to evaluate, but not to judge. I want to help each community be the very best versions of themselves, whatever that might be; evaluating their needs will help guide me to what support will be most helpful.
So, too, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, should we strive not to judge, but rather to evaluate. To take a personal inventory of what worked for us and against us in the past year, and how we can—and what support we need.
Each congregation I work with deserves respect, evaluation, and support—not judgment; each of us deserves the same. We are all “those Jews” who “really need” that!
While recently driving through one of those long rural stretches that blur the lines between Midwest and South, I saw a large billboard that said in cheery letters: “Happy Holidays!”
But the billboard featured an angry red cross-out, replacing the inclusive message with the strident proclamation: “ONLY MERRY CHRISTMAS HERE!” Let’s be clear: It wasn’t graffiti; it was part of the design.
The image included herein is a recreation. (Thanks, computer-magic.) I couldn’t take a picture of the actual billboard, because it was stationed beside the highway on which I was driving. Since I was driving, obviously, I couldn’t capture the image; normally, I might have stopped, but it was also nighttime, and raining with near-freezing temperatures, with snow and ice also threatened.
In other words, it was exactly the sort of December night where one might appreciate a nice, warm-and-fuzzy holiday wish, rather than a small town’s declaration that only one holiday was welcome there.
The sign bothered me.
The funny thing is, I am not bothered by religious Christmas signs in general. I actually understand the inclination to emphasize “the reason for the season.” Practicing, faith-driven Christians who want to spread the reminder of Christmas as a religious holiday make sense to me. After all, don’t Jewish people emphasize the messages and meanings behind Jewish holidays, too? Don’t rabbis and educators lament when Chanukah becomes “just about the presents”?
What bothers me is the aggressive exclusion of others. I wouldn’t have blinked at a sign that said “Keep Christ in Christmas.” That sign simply isn’t aimed at me. But a sign that slams other holidays does feel aimed at me. One that essentially shouts out down with happy holidays, Christmas is the only celebration allowed in these parts, seems hurtful and mean-spirited to me. (To say nothing of what the menorah in my trunk must have been feeling…)
What bothers me is the fear conveyed therein, and the notion of a “War on Christmas.” As one rabbi-friend commented when I posted a Facebook status about this billboard: “Isn’t the War on Christmas, like, SO last decade?” Apparently not.
What bothers me is the whole idea that it’s a seasonal zero sum game; the absurd notion that if all holidays are welcome, one in particular is threatened. Doesn’t that go against the love-thy-neighbor spirit associates with this season?
So I added something to my holiday wish list. I’m hoping for a deeper understanding that including everyone does not mean diminishing anyone. Saying “Happy Holidays” is a way of wishing someone whose practices you may not know a joyful time of year regardless of whichever holiday they will or won’t be celebrating. It is not said to replace Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanzaa – but to make room for them all.
So whatever holiday(s) you’re celebrating this season, may they be full of peace, and joy, and light, and with that I’ll say – to ALL - a good night.
Does this billboard bother you, too? Share your thoughts!
The month of May, known as “Liberation Month,” contains Cinco de Mayo (celebrating Mexico’s liberating victory over the French in 1862), America’s Memorial Day (recognizing all those who died in defense of our freedoms), Mother’s Day (marking a mother’s independence from pregnancy – all right, so that one might be a stretch!), and also usually contains one of two Jewish freedom festivals: either Yom Ha-atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) or – today, in fact! – Shavuot (marking our freedom from Egypt with the gift of Torah).
But there’s also another, perhaps lesser known holiday this month: May The 4th, marking the glorious defeat of the evil Empire by the Jedi and their allies.
Okay, okay, it’s a cinematic feat and not a real one (even I know Star Wars is a work of fiction!) But this day has become known as Star Wars Day, and on May 4th, it’s a blast (pun intended) to dress up as our favorite characters and relive the unforgettable scenes from the films. Before departing from like-minded, Jedi-inclined souls, we say to them: “May the 4th be with you!”
After this year’s celebration of May the 4th, I found myself looking at the little guy I share my office with, Yoda. (That’s us in the picture above.) Inspired by him, and in the spirit of the recent Star Wars holiday and this entire month of liberation, I now offer you three simple proofs to Yoda’s Yiddishkeit, or Yoda’s Jewish soul.
First, his name. Yoda, it can be argued, is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew yo-dei-ah, meaning “knowledgeable/wise.” Surely, a fitting title for this man renowned for his intelligence in the ways of the Force (that Essence which pervades all life)!
Second, his speech. Yoda speaks the way Hebrew would sound if translated word for word. For Hebrew, particularly in the Bible, is often written verb first, then either the direct object followed by the subject, or vice versa. Case in point, in Luke’s Jedi training, Yoda says to him: “Judge (verb) me (object) by my size, do you (subject)? Hmmm?”
Third… well …. And in case points one and two don’t persuade you that Yoda is indeed Jewish, then allow me to articulate my third and final point. Yoda is an old… short… bald man… who kicks major tuchus (booty)! Could there be anything more Jewish than that?
So, here’s to having another member of the Jewish Jedi tribe! May the force be with y’all!