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Sermons

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.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

A Night of Yearning – Kol Nidrei 5776

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 much hotter than New York, and crowded, and not for the faint of heart.”

“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.”

***

There is a great tradition of Jews who have sought spiritual fulfillment in other traditions, particularly those of the East. We are a people who yearn for connection, and our rich, ancient tradition is often perceived to be insufficient, or perhaps merely impenetrable to satisfy some of us. Author Rodger Kamenetz wrote about these people, whom some call “JuBus,” Jewish Buddhists, in his book about the Jewish delegation that went to see the Dalai Lama in 1990, The Jew in the Lotus. (I think the Shmuel of the story actually appears in the book, perhaps under a different name.)

And yet, we have in our tradition, which is vast and deep and thoughtful and complex, all of the spiritual tools to provide that nourishment, that sense of qedushah*.

The irony, it seems, is that many of us do not appreciate the range of offerings our tradition has. Many of us have confined Judaism to a box that contains Hanukkah candles, bagels, Yiddish-accented humor, and a whole lot of mumbling in a language that nobody can understand (and takes hours).  Hence the need to seek elsewhere for spiritual satisfaction.

A synagogue is not just a place to daven / pray. It is not merely a place where you can interact with God. You can talk to God, or listen for God’s voice anywhere.

Rather, a synagogue is a beit kenesset, a place of gathering. It’s our communal home. It’s a place that is designed for Jews to come together, whether for ritual, social, educational, spiritual, or organizational reasons. The English word “synagogue” is a direct translation of the Hebrew beit kenesset: “syn” = together, “gog” = place. Each of us should think of this place as an annex of our home, a third place (home, work, synagogue) whose doors are always open. We’re here for you. Not just me and the staff, but your community. We’re here. Gather with us.

This is a place of the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, qedushah*. Connection, community, and holiness.

The real reason that you are here tonight is because of the three qofs. You need to be counted as part of the qehillah, to be with your people, to connect with others who are here, to reach out and grab just a wee bit of qedushah, holiness. It’s not about Kol Nidrei, per se. This is a night of yearning. Yearning for these three things, which most of us are not even aware that we need.

Judaism does not really have intrinsically holy places or objects. Qedushah is a little more elusive than that. I know that runs counter to what many of us have been taught. The beit kenesset / synagogue?  We make it holy with our presence. The Sefer Torah? “Holy” books? We endow them with holiness when we use them. The Kotel? Har HaBayit / the Temple Mount? While there is a tremendous sentimental value to those ancient rocks, the prevailing opinion is that when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed. Like a beit kenesset, we make those items and locations holy when pray, celebrate, weep, and yearn with them or at them.

It’s not the tangible things in Judaism that are holy. It’s time. We sanctify time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as “a palace in time.” We mark holy moments. We resonate together at Kol Nidrei, at Ne’ilah, at joyous and mournful lifecycle events. The high points within Judaism are moments in time, moments marked by qedushah / holiness. It’s not the stained-glass windows; it’s the moment.

That is why the Jewish calendar is so much more complicated than the Gregorian calendar** – because we care very deeply about the sanctification of time. Time is much more valuable than any physical thing.

And the older I get, the more I appreciate the value of time, and the more I understand that I have to try to fill as much of my time with as much qedushah / holiness as possible.

We all want a little holiness in our lives. But we do not always know how to find it.

I have good news for you. The real action is right here, right now. Tonight is the night to get a little taste of holiness, when the gates of heaven are truly open. It’s the most powerful night of the Jewish year, this night of yearning.

All it takes to make it happen is for you to open up, to allow that yearning to surface.

الموضوع: أشواقنــا ؟

But that’s not so easy.

I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about how the shofar opens us up, breaks through our tough exterior to reveal our internal radiance. But Yom Kippur works a little differently.

It is a unique day for many reasons:

  • It is described in the Torah as Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths – the only day in the Jewish calendar more holy than Shabbat
  • This is the only evening of the year when we wear a tallit
  • We never actually conclude any service until the very end; it’s as if we are in prayer all day, the full 25 hours
  • We are supposed to “afflict our souls” on this day. Not necessarily the body, but the soul. (Don’t confuse the two!)
  • We wear white (as I suggested on Rosh Hashanah) to suggest the purity for which we yearn
  • This day is both weighty and joyous: historically, a happy day on which young women went out into the fields looking for husbands (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:4)

The very singularity of this day, its uniqueness, point to one thing: that we are all united today. That Benei Yisrael, all of the descendants of Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah, stand together on Yom Kippur.

One commentator to address the nature of Yom Kippur was Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the late 19th-century head of the Ger Hasidic court, often known by the name of his major work, the Sefat Emet (or Sefas Emes, depending on your perspective). The Sefat Emet took note of the rabbinic explanation that Yom Kippur is the day when Moshe brought down the second set of tablets from Mt. Sinai. This is, of course, after the first set was broken because the Israelites had built an idol, a calf made from melting down their jewelry.

The molten calf (although we often refer to it as the “golden calf,” “molten” is the translation of the Hebrew, “egel masekhah,” the term the Torah uses to describe it in Exodus 32) is the closest thing that Judaism has to the Christian concept of “original sin.” (We do not see people as fundamentally sinful – everybody is born with a clean slate, and every Yom Kippur we have the ability to wipe that slate clean again.)

Ancient interpreters understood the molten calf as having inspired a cascading effect that compelled the Israelites to perform a wide range of bad things, from sexual indiscretion to murder to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred.

And so, when Moshe returns on Yom Kippur with the second set of tablets, the Israelites had many transgressions for which to atone. Yes, avodah zarah / idol worship was high on the list. But also the relationships between the people had been broken through these sins. They were in need of interpersonal repair; they needed to stand together, to achieve wholeness once again as a qehillah, a community.

And so too today. The Sefat Emet tells us that on Yom Kippur, we seek to recover wholeness as a community – mercy for one another, acts of hesed, the sense of ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha / love your neighbor as yourself. When we seek those things, we recapture the qedushah / holiness of the moment when Moshe comes down with the second set of tablets. Then we can re-activate the Torah within us; we regain that clean slate; we start fresh on a new path for the new year.

That is why we are here tonight: to restore a sense of who we are as a community – what connects us to each other, what values unite us, how we live the words of our tradition from day to day.

And for the entire day, from Kol Nidrei until the final teqi’ah gedolah, we yearn for that unity, that wholeness. We yearn to be restored as a qehillah.

****

I have been overwhelmed with many emotions since meeting you all for the first time back in February. This is a congregation with tremendous history. We are very nearly 100 years old. A whole century. There are not too many congregations in America that can claim that sort of lifespan.

And over the arc of the last century, the fortunes of this congregation have risen and fallen. But you know what? The reason that Judy let me apply here (in our house, the rebbetzin wears the pants!) is that we saw readily that this congregation has wonderful potential; it has all the features that we were looking for in a qehillah:

  • Many, many volunteers. The level of personal involvement here is very impressive. There are a lot of you who care very strongly about Beth Shalom, and are willing to put in personal time and energy to help make it better
  • Very knowledgeable active core of members
  • Not just a number of young families, but a bunch of actively-involved young families. This core will inevitably attract more.
  • Day school nearby that is integral to the community.
  • Unique and vibrant JJEP religious school
  • Tight-knit, urban setting
  • Healthy daily minyan
  • Enthusiasm. Judy and I have been overwhelmed with how excited people are about Pittsburgh, about Beth Shalom, about our joining this community.
  • It is part of a wider community that is a shining beacon of Jewish pluralism and togetherness (very different from the New York area, BTW) Jewish Pittsburgh is indeed a unique community.

All of the ingredients are here for a shining future. We – you and me – are going to make it happen. We are going to make this congregation not what it was, but what it can be.

There is so much here to be proud of; so much to celebrate, so much to be inspired by and to be hopeful for.

And, given that the Sefat Emet tells us that this is a night of unity, Yom Kippur 5776 should be a powerful reminder of the task before us. We must see ourselves as united to move forward, and willing to do the following:

  • Be more open: open to outsiders; open to people from across the religious and social spectrum; open to new ideas and new methods of engagement; open to all the variations on the contemporary Jewish family
  • To have a sense of togetherness, that we are all on the same side
  • To have a sense of purpose – that we have a shared mission upheld by Jewish values writ large and Conservative Jewish values in particular.

Those are all attitudinal points. In terms of what we offer, I think we should have:

  • More engaging services.
  • More music, both vocal and instrumental.
  • More provocative speakers.
  • More social action activities.

And all of these have to be reinforced by what I think is the most valuable thing that Jewish communities should be doing today: More small-group experiences.

While the Judaism of our parents and grandparents was buoyed by the dramatic feeling of classically beautiful services in huge, ornate rooms and featuring fiery rabbinic oratory, most Jews are not looking for these experiences today. What most of us are looking for in this isolated, impersonal world is more intimate, more personally meaningful interactions with other people like us. We are looking to sanctify those holy moments in ways that are familiar and amiable.

I am going to pause from all this envisioning for a moment to suggest that on this eve of Yom Kippur, on this holiest of holy moments, we ask ourselves a crucial question. It seems that there is something for which we must, as a united community, request forgiveness, something for which we must seek teshuvah / repentance.

I am told that there are many people who left this congregation or are still angry because members of this community spoke to them in a way that was inappropriate (or mean, or nasty). So it is extremely important that we ask ourselves if we are indeed repentant. Have we changed the way we speak to each other?

Have we spoken ill of any of our fellow congregants, whether in private or in public? Have we gossiped?  Have we exchanged harsh words or spoken with a lack of respect within or without these walls?  We cannot truly heal ourselves as a qehillah qedoshah / holy community, we cannot move forward if we do not resolve to treat and speak to each other with only the highest respect.

And so, looping back to Shmuel, or anybody else who has not yet found their entree into a fulfilling Jewish life, I hope that together we will find ways to present our very rich heritage of learning, values and culture by reaching out through affinity groups, by capitalizing on our own internal social networks. We will thereby draw more of us into the center from the periphery.

In the mean time, let our yearning this evening translate to action. Let our desire for the future of Beth Shalom, un-clouded by the uncertainties of the past, drive us to fashion a new type of congregation, where more of us are involved on a more regular basis through a new set of entry points.

Here is the action item: Find some way to participate. Volunteer to help out. Come to our adult ed offerings. Learn something new so you can participate in parts of services. Brainstorm new programs or ways to engage others. Donate your time or your funds (or both). Come to the parlor meetings that we will be hosting through the coming year to discuss all of these things.

We are going to build. And for that we need you. We need you to seek connection, community, and qedushah here, among your people.

Tonight we yearn for that rosy future; on this night next year, we will be well on the way to building it. Let’s stand together to bring Shmuel, and all the other Shmuels, back home.

* Apologies if the “q” seems strange. One way of representing the Hebrew letter ק (qof) in English transliteration is q, because (as you can readily see if you look at them right next to each other) the Latin q is actually related to the Hebrew ק. (The Latin “k” comes from the Hebrew כ (kaf).) By transliterating this way, it helps English speakers learn or remember the Hebrew spelling of the transliterated word.

** How much more complicated? I can’t even begin to explain. Just trust me on this.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Leil Yom HaKippurim, 9/22/15.)