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What Does a Jewish Person Look Like? – Lekh Lekha 5781

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

God said to Avram, “Go forth from your land, your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1)

One person. 

Lekh lekha. Pick yourself up and go, says God. It’s a singular imperative. Avraham is chosen to launch monotheism, and hence Judaism, into the world.

And then there are two monotheists. And then a family. And then Yitzhaq, Ya’aqov, Rivqah, Rahel, Leah, and then 12 tribes and then two million former slaves are standing at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

And what color was their skin? Did they “look Jewish?” Does the Torah tell us?

No, it does not. The only thing we know about the Imahot and the Avot, the Matriarchs and Patriarchs is that they are all descendants of the first humans, who are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. And usually, when we use that term, we are speaking more about our spiritual construction than our physical appearance. Rashi, by the way, disagrees; he claims that God created us in God’s physical image as if stamping us out like coins.

And if we are following Rashi, then, every single human face reflects God’s image, and God’s holiness.

**** 

Perhaps you are familiar with the following rabbinic anecdote:

A man is riding a train from Pinsk to Minsk. He is reading a book, minding his own business, and he becomes aware of a woman seated across from him, who is staring at him intently. He tries to avoid her gaze, but then she speaks:

“Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?”

“No,” he replies politely.

Some time passes and she continues to stare. “Are you sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I’m not Jewish.” Now he’s annoyed. 

More time passes. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Alright, alright. You got me, lady. I’m Jewish. Now will you leave me alone?!”

“Funny,” she says, “you don’t look Jewish!”

Many of us are burdened with a stereotype for what Jews look like. I am blessed with an ample, yet otherwise well-designed nose, for example, and throughout my life have been told that it is a “Jewish” nose. And yet, I know plenty of Jews, even Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews that have more petite, yet fully functional noses.

My wife, however, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and gets very resentful whenever she hears anybody talking about how somebody “looks Jewish.” She grew up in New York, a secular Zionist born to two Hungarian Holocaust survivors. When revealing her Jewishness, it was always a toss-up as to whether the response would be, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” or “Yeah, I figured.” When she went to Israel as a teenager, she was struck by the wide palette of Jewish looks there, and she realized that there is no single Jewish appearance.

I want to suggest something. No, I want to mandate something. (I know, I cannot really do that, but bear with me here.)

We have to try to strike that idea from our heads, that there is a particular Jewish look. Why? Because it actually causes many Jews very real pain, and very likely has led some people to leave the synagogue and never come back. And yes, even here at Beth Shalom.

Let me explain:

You may have read an opinion piece in last week’s Jewish Chronicle written by a Beth Shalom member, high school senior Naomi Kitchen. I know that Naomi is well-known to many members of our community; she is a CDS alumna, and in fact the first time that I met her was during my first year here on a visit to CDS, Naomi spoke to me as a Student Ambassador.

Naomi’s father is half-Korean, and her mother is of Israeli Ashkesfardi extraction, and in her article, titled “A Message to my Squirrel Hill community, from a Jew with a touch of color,” she documents how she has often been confronted with comments that are related to “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” although many of them were very unpleasant to endure. In a related article that appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy, which Naomi co-wrote with Makeda Zabot-Hall, who is a Black Jew, the two describe being interrogated, to see if they are “really Jewish.” 

Once in this very building in which I stand, ladies and gentlemen, Naomi became so frustrated at people’s assumption that she is not Jewish that a few years ago she swore to herself that she would never enter this institution again.

That was us. That was you and me. And that hurts.

And of course Naomi is not alone. We have a number of members of this congregation who do not present as stereotypical Eastern European Jews. And frankly, that’s a good thing, and not only because stereotypes are bad. 

It is a sign that we have made it in America. In the five and a half years that I have now been in Pittsburgh, I have helped make more than 50 new Jews through conversion. A decent fraction of them would stand out in a crowd of Eastern Europeans. 

But as you may know, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and we are forbidden by halakhah / Jewish law to remind somebody that they were not born Jewish, or question anybody about their background or demean them for what they know or do not know.

We have a member of this congregation who is of Chinese and Japanese extraction whom I have heard reciting Birkat Hamazon / the grace after meals better than the vast majority of members of this congregation, and yet it happened once that when entering Beth Shalom on the High Holidays, she was not handed a siddur, even though the people in front of her and behind her received them.

And of course conversion is only part of the story. There are adoptees. And those born to non-white Jewish father and a Jewish mother. And do not forget that there are many Black Jews in this world, from native populations from Ethiopia and from Uganda. 

Judaism has no requirement for skin color; like Sarah and Avraham, we are only colored with the Divine image.

We all make snap judgments based on the way people look – clothing, hair style, posture, glasses, etc. People are simply wired that way. And we all have biases to which we can either succumb, or try to overlook. And the Jews, at least historically, have a distinctive mistrust of non-Jews, which we have inherited from our ancestors. When we were confined to shtetlakh and subject to blood libel accusations and pogroms and laws applied to dhimmi in Muslim lands, it was hard for Jews to trust strangers. This is a part of the historical burden that has filtered down to us.

But look at us today: we have, the events of two years ago in Pittsburgh notwithstanding, been welcomed into the wider American society with open arms. We have lost many of our number in America to assimilation. That is how successfully the great Jewish-American project has proceeded.

So we should be grateful (א) for those of us who are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who are still willing to come into a synagogue, and (ב) for anybody else who wants to join us. And when a young woman tells me that she was so turned off by people’s assuming that she is not Jewish, because of their preconceived notion of what a Jew looks like, that she decided to leave this building and not come back, I am ashamed. I am embarrassed for all of us. And you should be too.

Shomer yisrael, shemor she-erit yisrael. Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel. That is what we say in tahanun, the brief moment of supplication recited on most weekday mornings. We are but a remnant, a she-erit. And we have to do everything we can to make sure that we cast a wide net, that we share our values and the framework of our tradition with as many as we can. If somebody wants to be a part of us, we have to reach out and embrace them. 

You know, I usually speak about issues of welcoming when we reach Parashat Vayyera, which we will read next week, in which Avraham Avinu rushes to invite three strangers into his home. I know many of you have studied this passage (Genesis 18:1-8) with me.

But how does Avraham become so welcoming? Returning to Lekh Lekha: The Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Chasidic rabbi, suggests that Avraham’s leaving home for Canaan is at least part of it. Avraham travels from the familiar, his home in Haran, to the open-ended, the unfamiliar land of Canaan. The final word in the first verse is “areka,” which is usually read as “I will show you,” that is, God is telling Avraham that he should pack up and leave, and when he gets to the right place, God will tell him when to stop. 

But the Sefat Emet is telling us that we might read this instead as, in leaving your homeland and traveling to this unfamiliar land, I will cause you to see more. I will enlarge your vision. 

We all need to enlarge our vision, to take a step back from our natural biases, and widen our sense of what a Jew looks like. Because none of us really “look Jewish” unless everybody else sees God’s image in your face, and in your words. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/31/2020.)

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There is Only One Side – Naso 5780

:’לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor; I am God. (Vayiqra/Leviticus 19:16)

(The “I am God” bit is often left off; but it is an essential part of the verse. Understanding that we are all in holy relationship, that God dwells in the space between each of us and connects us, is needed now more than ever.)

***

On October 28th, 2018, there was a hastily-prepared memorial service at Soldiers’ and Sailors Memorial Hall for the victims of the previous day’s murders at the Tree of Life building. I remember the silence, the shock and grief, the over-capacity crowd, the sea of umbrellas outside of people who could not get into the hall. 

I remember that the clergy who were invited to join the presenters on the stage were from across the community: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, white, black, and everything else.

Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018

I remember that we stood together, unable to fathom the depth of what had happened, unable to imagine the sheer brutality and hatred required to carry out such an unspeakable act.

I did not watch the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. I could not bring myself to do so. The print details were enough: 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe.” “Mama!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in pain as a society. The coronavirus, the 108,000 dead; the economic fallout, 13% unemployment; and now a slew of events on the national stage that remind us all of the deep ugliness that lurks within the American psyche. The hatred, the systemic racism, the political division, the festering anger toward the judicial system and law enforcement, the resentment that different groups of people feel toward one another.

I attended a peaceful protest of clergy on Monday. One of the African-American preachers riffed on Psalm 94, which we recite in our weekday services every Wednesday.  

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה’ עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃

How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult? (Tehillim / Psalm 94:3)

How long? He cried. How long?!

Pittsburgh, June 1, 2020

How long indeed. 

As you know, we had an 8:30 curfew for three nights last week. I confess that I broke the curfew on each of those nights; on Saturday night because I did not know that there was a curfew (I don’t use computers or listen to the radio or turn on TV on Shabbat or Yom Tov). On Sunday and Monday evenings because I was taking an evening stroll in Frick Park after dinner, and did not quite make it home by 8:30. 

On the latter two nights, I suppose that I broke that curfew because I knew I could. I knew that if a police officer were to stop me, he or she would not interrogate me or knock me to the ground or handcuff me or arrest me and take me down to the station. And if I happened to say the wrong thing or not look sufficiently submissive, she or he would probably be forgiving, tell me to just go home, you’re not supposed to be outside right now.

And that is exactly the point.

I will not have to have “the talk” with my sons, the talk that all black parents must have with their sons. Although I am 6’4” and arguably intimidating if you were to pass me alone at night, I will probably not have to worry that I will be perceived as a threat, and I know that people do not immediately assume that I am up to no good when they see me in public. I can go jogging or bird-watching without fear of anything going wrong.

And that’s because I look white. And I wear a kippah on my head.

But my tradition teaches me to be sympathetic to others; to listen to their needs; to help them when we can.

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Shemot / Exodus 22:20)

We remember where we came from. We remember that we were slaves, so that we understand the oppressed, the enslaved, the disenfranchised. And we remember that we have to stand up for them, whether they are Jewish or not.

I was dismayed to read an opinion piece in the Forward this week, written by some rabbinic colleagues, titled, Every Jew Must Decide Which Side They Are On.

No! Hevreh, there is only one side: the side of humanity. The side in which we build a better society, one in which police officers do not kill unarmed people, and in which peaceable assembly is not accompanied by violence, theft, and vandalism. The side in which there is no need for city curfews. The side in which visibly Jewish people can walk in the street without fear of being attacked. The side in which law enforcement, and indeed the US military, do not use tear gas on American citizens who are lawfully exercising their Constitutional rights. The side in which people are not divided between “sides.”

I am afraid right now that, given the division between people, our society will be torn apart by well-meaning people who point angry fingers at others. Let us not be manipulated into thinking that there is an “us” and a “them.”

There is only one side, and I am on that one. And so is the Torah.

Ladies and gentlemen, the only way we are going to move forward as a society in a way that is safe and respectful and loving is by understanding that we are in this together. 

:’וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Love your neighbor as yourself.
(Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)
[ זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is a great principle in the Torah, adds Rabbi Aqiva.]

Hevreh, there is a lot of blame to go around for how we got here. But blame is also a game that involves picking sides, drawing lines. Let’s face it folks: we are all a little guilty of bringing us to this point. Parashat Naso (Bemidbar / Numbers 5:7) teaches us that when we seek atonement, we must confess our sins, and here are a few we have all done:

We are guilty of not helping raise up our enemy’s donkey, after it fell from a too-heavy burden. (Think metaphorically, folks.) (Shemot / Exodus 23:5)

We are guilty of repeating slander of one another via social media, like the tzara’at skin disease that spreads so easily, and cannot be taken back. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 13:1ff)

We are guilty of not having a system of justice that is applied equally to the rich and the poor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:15)

We are guilty of not following the Torah’s imperative of “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – צדק, צדק תרדוף. Justice! you shall pursue justice. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)

We are guilty of standing idly by the blood of our fellow human beings. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16)

But here is the upshot: we are all in this together, and we can change.

What we need now is not anger. Not division. Rather, what we need right now is to listen to one another, to work together, and pull ourselves up out of the mess we have made. 

Our neighbors showed up for us, ladies and gentlemen. And we must show up for them.

And not just that. Get to know people outside your familiar range of friends. It is only through being in relationship with others unlike you that we learn to counteract our own natural biases. We, the Jews, have spent so many centuries in ghettoes and in forced exile and subject to pogroms and genocide that we are reflexively suspect of others unlike us. But now is the time for us to listen to the stories of all of our neighbors, and act through love toward one another. That is the Torah’s great principle.

Parashat Naso includes a piece of text that is well-known in Jewish life, the so-called Birkat Kohanim, which the Torah identifies as the blessing that the kohanim, the priestly class shall bless all the rest of us:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ 

May God bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you!

יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God’s face lift up to you and grant you peace!
(Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26)

It is up to us to seek God’s face, to look for and understand the divinity in each and every person. It is up to us to find ways to reach out, to learn, to listen, to create spaces in our lives beyond our comfort zones to connect with others. We must all stand on the same side at this time to be blessed and protected. We must seek to change ourselves, to change our behavior, to rid ourselves of the anger and the fear and the hate, to create that single side, the right side of justice and peace and love. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/6/2020.)

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Race, Gender, and Who We Are Today, or, Is Gal Gadot White? – Qorah 5777

You may be aware of an Internet dispute that popped up a few weeks ago with the release of the new Wonder Woman film. Some critics were quick to note the unfortunate tendency in the world of comic-book heroes turned into movies to feature only white actors. Wonder Woman is, according to some, yet another example of such an oversight.

Leaping into this fray, with a commentary posted on the website comicbook.com, was a brief piece about this by Matthew Mueller, arguing that Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress and model who plays the lead, is not “white”; rather, she is Ashkenazi Jewish.

How Wonder Woman Solves The Comic Book Movie Villain Problem

I must concede that I have often questioned the idea of Jews being white, and when I have submitted forms that ask for my race, I have occasionally checked off “Other.”

Despite the fact that Jewish students on college campuses are reminded of their “white privilege,” I think it’s a stretch to call us “white.”

But that’s mostly because “race” (I’m using a lot of air-quotes here) is an unfortunately enduring social construct that comes from 19th-century thinking about the palette of human physical traits, reducing them into approximately three major branches. But of course humanity is more of a continuum; the lines are not so clear. That is why scientists today speak of ethnic groups or populations rather than “races.”

But really, the challenge is that the human mind likes categorization. That’s the way we work. Part of the lens through which we understand the information we take in relies on a kind of series of shortcuts: black/white/yellow, male/female, gay/straight, etc. Our minds are not trained to think flexibly about these categories.

And this mode of thinking certainly permeates our tradition as well. The Torah exhibits a need to categorize, to classify, to separate. Consider the laws of kashrut: if a land animal has split hooves and chews its cud (series of stomachs and culture of gut bacteria that break down cellulose) it is fitting to eat; if not, then are not permitted to eat it. There is no grey area. Fish, as you know, must have fins and scales. (And some of you know that there are certain fish, like sturgeon and swordfish, which have scales early on but lose them. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards permit these fish as kosher.)

The sociologist Mary Douglas, in her seminal work Purity and Danger, examined the need of religion to categorize; things that cross boundaries were, to ancient people, dangerous. Our ancestors strived to keep things separate; think about the Torah’s laws about not sowing two kinds of seed together (Deut. 22:9), or not allowing wool and linen to be woven together in clothing (Deut. 22:11).

And that thinking continues into rabbinic literature; hence the continuous need in halakhah to determine where are the boundaries: what time of the day may you recite minhah / the afternoon service? Can you eat a grilled cheese sandwich on a plate used for eating a hamburger within 24 hours? Is electricity a form of fire, and if not, can you turn on a light switch on Shabbat?

One of my favorite examples of the rabbinic need to set boundaries is that of the woman in labor who is in the miqveh, in the process of converting to Judaism, and she is crowning at the same time (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot 46b). How far out, the rabbis ask, may the baby be before s/he requires a separate conversion? The answer is (drum roll!) that if the baby’s nose has not yet emerged, then s/he is a Jew. Now THAT’S a boundary.

So one of the curious things about living in the 21st century is that we are rapidly expanding the range of identities.

Consider our erstwhile president, Barack Obama, who has described his family as “a mini-United Nations.” He was born to a Kenyan father and a mother descended from English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, and French ancestors, who was also connected to a black former slave as well. Mr. Obama defies easy categorization, and although he may be referred to by some as the first “black” president, the reality is much more complex.

Have you had genetic testing? Nowadays, among the things that you can learn when you have your genes analyzed is your ethnic composition. I have not had this done, but I’d lay a fair wager that in addition to a hefty chunk of Ashkenazi Jew (itself a construct that dates to no earlier than about 1000 years ago, really only yesterday in terms of Jewish history), that there would be a fair mix of Slavic and Germanic, and who knows, perhaps even some Italian. (I’ve always enjoyed a hearty marinara.)

We are inching toward an age of gradients, in which there will be no black and white, nor gay or straight, but a virtually infinite variety of people that fall somewhere in-between.

While we may have been inclined to categorize people with reductionist brushes in the past, what may soon be the new norm is to acknowledge those gradients, to accept that none of us fits neatly into precise categories. And this transitional time will be challenging to many of us.

In parashat Qorah, which we read from today, there is a tension that comes through based on rabbinic interpretation of a couple of verses, a tension between what is eternally fixed and what is not.

First, there is the Qorah rebellion, which our bat mitzvah spoke about earlier. Pirqei Avot (5:19) cites this as challenge to the authority of Moshe and Aharon as a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven, a mahloqet she-einah leshem shamayim. What is a mahloqet leshem shamayim? A dispute which is holy, and will last forever. Internecine political struggles, which are not holy, do not last; disputes over the various understanding of our tradition are.

Elsewhere in the parashah (Numbers 18:19), we read about the “berit melah,” literally the “covenant of salt” that is between God and humans.

יט  כֹּל תְּרוּמֹת הַקֳּדָשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר יָרִימוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לַה’–נָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶיךָ אִתְּךָ, לְחָק-עוֹלָם:  בְּרִית מֶלַח עוֹלָם הִוא לִפְנֵי ה’, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ.

19 All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord, and for your offspring as well.

What is the nature of this covenant? It is something that lasts forever, that is stable and unchangeable, like salt.

The tension that we might perceive here is that nothing is fixed and immutable. The way we relate to God, the way we understand Jewish life, our relationship to Jewish text – these things have all changed over the last twenty years, let alone the last 2,000. And these things are, in fact, in the category of mahloqet leshem shamayim, holy controversies that will continue forever; how we worship, how we observe Jewish law, how we engage with our holy texts – these things are not fixed.

Two weeks ago, in honor of Pride Shabbat, BD Wahlberg spoke to us about BD’s experience in not being confined to one of two binary genders, and how we might understand that in a Jewish context.

I know that for some, BD’s talk was inspiring and affirming. For others among us, it may have been challenging and disorienting.

But facing the challenges of how we understand gender, how we understand “race” and ethnicity, these are holy challenges that we must continue to wrestle with. We cannot pretend that any of these things are like salt, unchangeable. We have to acknowledge that just as Judaism made room for relating to God through words instead of sacrifices, or accepted sturgeon as kosher, or learned that electricity is not fire and therefore may be used on Shabbat, that the way we categorize people also has to change.

And, to refer back to a point that BD made, we have to acknowledge that all of us are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And if that means that we do not fit into neat categories, well, then we are in mahloqet leshem shamayim territory once again. It is a holy struggle that will continue.

So is Gal Gadot “white”? Is Barack Obama “black”? Is BD a man or a woman? The answer to any of those questions could be yes, no, or neither. Once our minds have acclimated to this brave new world, we will no longer have to answer such questions. But in the meantime, let’s just live with the postulate that each of us is divine in our own way.

Shabbat shalom!

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/24/17.)

~

Articles about Gal Gadot and the “whiteness” of Ashkenazi Jews

May 31

http://comicbook.com/dc/2017/05/31/wonder-woman-person-of-color/

June 2

http://forward.com/culture/film-tv/373658/gal-gadots-wonder-woman-is-white-lets-not-pretend-otherwise/

June 4

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yes-ashkenazi-jews-including-gal-gadot-are-people-of-color/

June 11

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ashkenazi-jews-are-still-people-of-color-reply-to-critics/