Yom Shishi, 11 Sivan 5778
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  • Dedicated Clergy

“What is a Jew?” 

Our Response to Anti-Semitism and the Challenge of American Jewish Life

The year is 70 of the Common Era.  Jerusalem is surrounded by four Roman legions including the feared Tenth Legion under the overall command of Rome’s General Vespasian, and Vespasian’s son, Titus.  Roman-occupied Judea has been in open rebellion for four years, and that this tiny outpost of the Roman Empire dared to defy Rome was intolerable to Emperor Nero and his successors – and so the Roman legions have been dispatched to crush the Jews.

In 70 the end is approaching.  The city is besieged; no one can enter or leave.  Jerusalem is in turmoil, internal conflicts threaten the Jerusalem population almost as horrifically as the Roman Legion does camped outside.  Those who wish to make peace are threatened and even murdered by the Zealots, and a small group of assassins called The Sicarii. 

Jews who attempt to leave the city are brutally murdered by their own people.  Only dead bodies may leave the city, for the city must remain ritually pure.  

It was in this atmosphere that the leader of the Rabbinic community, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, decides that there is no future for the city, nor for the Temple that stands as it’s center.  And so, he devises a plan to save the Jewish people.  He fakes his own death, has himself placed into a coffin, and has his students carry his body to the gates of the city, where the Zealots and Sicarri permit them, as is the custom with corpses, to leave.  

According to legend it is at this moment that Yochanan Ben Zakkai orders his students to take him to the camp of General Vespasian – where miraculously, the General receives him.  Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai then takes an enormous gamble, and tells General Vespasian that he, Vespasian, will be the next Emperor of Rome.  Flattered, Vespasian tells the Rabbi that he may make a single request and it will be granted – and so the history of the Jewish people now turns on one answer.  Uttered by a homeless, frightened refugee scholar, Yochnan Ben Zakkai asks that he be granted permission to establish a school in the little town of Yavneh, not far from the Mediterranean Sea.  The request is granted.

And the aged Rabbi gathers teachers and scholars around him and together they begin to shape the next timeline of Jewish history.  A timeline that leads right to the door of this synagogue.  Together over the next century, they and their spiritual descendants, create what would become the Mishnah, literally “The Teaching” – the book of custom and law and practice that is the foundation for everything we do, up to and including, this very moment.

In the words of my teacher, Mellila Hellner Eshed, this period of the decades following the fall of Jerusalem, is the single most creative period ever in the history of the Jewish people other than the completion of the Torah itself.  It was the Mishnah that attempted to answer the question in the wake of the destruction and oppression, “What does it mean to be a Jew – what is a Jew?”

If you’ve seen Fiddler On The Roof, you know this famous verse spoken by Tevye the milkman:  “We have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work.  How to wear clothes.  For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl.  This shows our constant devotion to God.  You may ask, how did this tradition get started?  I’ll tell you.  I don’t know.”  


Well, Tevye may not have known, but we do.

It was the Mishnah, the work begun by Yochanan ben Zakkai that answered the questions of “What is a Jew” and laid the foundations of the Jewish practices we observe to this day.  If you are fasting today, then you are observing rules laid out in the Mishnah.  If you are not fasting today because you are ill or have any condition or situation that precludes you – that permission to eat today is given to you by the Mishnah.  If you are a child and are not required to fast – it is because the Mishnah made that determination.  If you observed the Torah service today, then you saw a ceremony devised by the Mishnah.   If you prayed today, then you are using an order of prayers established by the Mishnah.  

If you read the passage last night or today that states – for sins between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones, but for sins between a person and another person, Yom Kippur does not atone, but you must appease that person – than you are reading directly from the Mishnah.  If you were moved today by the passage from our Haftarah from Isaiah that calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless and help the oppressed, then you read the passage that the Rabbis of the Mishnah wanted you to read.

Long ago, as Jerusalem burned and the Temple crumbled and old ways became obsolete, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked, “So, Nu?”  In our world today, “What is a Jew – What Does It Mean to be Jewish” – and did it so brilliantly, that his answers and the answers of those who followed him have sustained Judaism for two thousand years, and guide us to this very moment in this room.

In America of 2016, we are not a people besieged.  There are no walls, no surrounding armies, no ghettos.  We are living in a state of freedom that in the long history of our people, has perhaps never been equaled.  Our community, the Jewish community, has achieved so much in education, wealth, professions, universities that once had quotas restricting Jewish students, now have Jewish Presidents.  Jewish name after Jewish name appears on every list of the wealthiest and most influential of Americans.  Think about it, whoever becomes President in November will have Jewish machatonim, no matter who becomes President, they will have a Jewish son-in-law; and the grandchildren of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton could legally emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return – and we are two percent of the population.  It seems a Golden Age, one that my grandparents who came here fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia would never have imagined.

At the same time, we are confronting a rise in anti-Semitism that is truly astonishing, and we, affluent, successful, high achieving are simply not prepared to respond to it.

Fact:  the majority of hate crimes committed against religious groups in America are committed against Jews.  60 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes are committed against us.  While anti-Semitic incidents in general in America are declining from a high in 2006, violent anti-Semitic assaults are increasing, not decreasing in America.  2015 saw a 50 percent rise in physical assaults against people simply because they were Jews.  On average, according to the Anti-Defamation League, there is at least one anti-Semitic assault every week in America.  Just this week, the Jewish cemetery in Warwick, New York, one hour away from here and in the same town as our Reform movement Kutz Camp was desecrated with swastikas and the Democratic candidate for Congress from our seventh district had his house desecrated with Nazi imagery.

The Internet has exploded with anti-Semitic websites and bulletin boards and anti-Semitism is rife on Twitter.  A number of prominent Jewish journalists among them, Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times and freelance journalist Julia Ioffe have reported being threatened with death as a result of stories they have written.  Julia Ioffe was sent photos of herself wearing concentration camp garb and a cartoon photo of a bearded Jew being shot in the back of the head.  Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent of the Atlantic was sent e-mails telling him he will be sent to a concentration camp.  Of course, most of us have heard about the rise of anti-Semitism on college Campuses, and it is real.  The number of anti-Semitic incidents committed on college campuses has doubled in the last two years.  Just from January to June of this year, anti-Semitic incidents at institutions of higher learning have risen by 45 percent from last year.  We have all heard the stories of Jewish students marginalized on campus, prohibited from serving as leaders of student organizations, Jewish events shut down by protesters with no intervention from the campus administration, Jewish speakers threatened and silenced including just a few short months ago, my own teacher, The Hebrew University Philosophy Professor Moshe Halbertal, a liberal Jew, a Professor of Ethics, who was escorted from the University of Minnesota campus under armed protection when student protestors disrupted his planned speech. Fifty-four percent of Jewish college students have reported either being the target of, or witnessing anti-Semitism on their campuses, which include such prestigious places as Stanford, Emory, Oberlin and Yale.

We are witnessing a rise in anti-Jewish activity, in anti-Jewish violence, and we are sending our young people out into the world woefully unprepared to confront it because we have failed to ask the right question.  My generation of Jewish leadership is to some extent a failed generation.  For two decades we asked ourselves “Who is a Jew?”  We worried deeply about whether someone’s mother or father was Jewish.  We argued passionately over the legitimacy of one Jewish person over another, over conversions, we fought amongst ourselves as to who could be accepted as Jewish in Israel.  We worried about who is a Jew – who is Jewish enough?  We also asked ourselves why be a Jew?  We talked about Jewish pride and Jewish continuity and the Jewish future, and we talked about the Holocaust and Israel.  We fought with our kids to take them to religious school without quite knowing why.  We fought other than we knew it was important for their identity, and we struggled to instill in the next generation something we called “Pride in Their Jewishness”.  But pride is simply a feeling and as my teacher Doniel Hartman has said, feelings can be temporary and easily punctured; and when our children get to their campuses, they find that simply knowing that they are Jewish and that they should have pride in that fact is not nearly enough to successfully confront those who despise them, marginalize them, demonize them and attempt to shame them into silence.

Now “Who is a Jew” and “Why be Jewish” are important questions, and perhaps it was right to ask them these past decades.  But like Yochanan ben Zakkai two thousand years ago, we should be asking ourselves today, not “Who is a Jew?” or “Why be a Jew?” but “What is a Jew – What Does It Mean to be a Jew?”  What does it actually mean to be Jewish?  This morning, I am convinced more than ever that in today’s world, that is the proper question – the proper way to live a Jewish life and respond to the challenges that confront us because the Jewish person armed with the knowledge of what it means to be a Jew does not flinch when the anti-Semite calls them corrupt or wicked or an oppressor and persecutor, because they know our tradition teaches us to break the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free and to share our bread with the hungry and to clothe the naked.  They don’t just know it, they can quote it, and they have lived it.

The Jewish person armed with the knowledge of what it means to be a Jew knows that when the anti-Semitic bigot slanders us as being clannish and selfish, they can say with complete confidence and certainty that our Torah commands us to love the stranger; that we have an obligation to all humanity, for we were strangers in Egypt.  And when the anti-Semite taunts us by saying that ours is an Old Testament religious with a vengeful God, we simply need to quote from the Book of Leviticus of that same Old Testament, “Love thy Neighbor as Thyself”, but that needs to be taught, it needs to be learned.  If we teach what it means to be a Jew, we will meet their brutality and their bigotry and their hate and their ignorance with our knowledge and our confidence and our awareness of what it really means to be Jewish to live out the Jewish way of life; to live out the values of our people.  

So I say to the campus activists and Facebook posters, Twitter haters and others who so easily label us oppressors and silence our speakers and disrupt our meetings and refuse to partner with us simply because we are Jews.  They use their propaganda to make it seem like we are morally unfit because we have a deep connection to our ancestral homeland, Israel, we will answer you with the words from our tradition that teach that peace is the highest value of all. We are commanded to seek peace and righteousness and pursue peace, and who are you to lecture us on peace?

The challenge of our time is to ask ourselves constantly the same question asked by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai in the little town of Yavneh – “What is a Jew?”  We will match the bigot’s capacity to inflict suffering and despair and confusion with our age old capacity to learn and to teach – and to live as committed Jews – we will meet your ugliness with the beauty of our Jewish learning and Jewish living.

Now to ask “What is a Jew?”

To educate our children

To educate ourselves

This will require sacrifice – 

It means supporting our Jewish schools

It means valuing good education for children and adults

It means respecting our Jewish teachers

It means taking prayer seriously

It means being present when Jews gather and when holydays are celebrated

It means asking hard questions of ourselves about the observance of the commandments and traditions and what they mean to us as modern Jews

It means living according to patterns of Jewish life

This is hard – so hard in our busy frantic complex lives where each day presents such challenges.  How can we possibly add to that frenetic list learning and study and prayer and grappling with what it means to be a Jew?

In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, African-Americans boycotted the buses that forced them to sit in the back and chose instead to carpool to their jobs; volunteer drivers picked people up and drove them home at the end of the day.  There was a poor elderly black woman names Sister Pollard who participated in the boycott against the racist city bus system.  Sister Pollard, although aged, chose to walk to work instead of accepting rides, even though it meant a daily trek of miles.  When asked why she chose to walk, and if she was tired, sister Pollard replied, “My feets are tired, but my soul is rested”.  Asking ourselves and answering the question of “What is a Jew” will take effort and sacrifice, but it is the only real answer to anti-Semitism and prejudice and bigotry,  the only answer to the challenges of Jewish life, far more than wondering “Who is a Jew” or instilling an idea called Jewish pride.  It was true for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai two thousand years ago, and it is true for us today, and it will be true for us tomorrow.  

It is a New Year.  Each one of us has the opportunity to write new pages in our own Book of Life.  Make this the year we grapple with the question of “What is a Jew” and although our feet may be tired and our resources may be strained, and our time may be challenged, our community will be strengthened, our children will be prepared, and our souls will be rested. 

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