E Plurbus Unim, Jewish Style – PT 1

The story Tevye the Milkman by the Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem follows the life of a poor Jewish dairy farmer named Tevye. With his wife and five daughters, Tevye lives in a small Jewish village in the Ukraine during the days of the Bolshevik revolution. His faith in God helps him sort through the cultural changes challenging the traditions that have provided his life with a sense of balance.

I’ve been thinking of Tevye during this season, a time when I think a lot about the balance in my life; a time when I examine the year now ahead and wonder what my fate, what our fate, will be, and about who determines that fate.

In one scene, Tevye pulls both the horse and milk wagon as he hurries to make it home before the start of the Sabbath. His only horse, old and broken down, has just injured his foot. In Job-like fashion, Tevye looks up to heaven and complains.

“Ah, dear God…was that necessary? Did you have to make him lame just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me. You bless me with five daughters and a life of poverty. That’s all right, but what have you got against my horse?

And later in the story, feeling the load of life’s injustices, he says to God: “I know, I know, we are the chosen people. But once in a while can’t you choose somebody else?”

Let’s talk about the concept of Jews as the chosen people, an idea that may attract or repel or even mystify us. It’s an idea that may resonate, especially at a season when we consider our destiny in the coming year, and pray fervently that God remember us, protect us, and help us return to the best we can be.

Chosenness, classically explained, is the idea that the Jewish people were singled out from other nations to have a special relationship with God. This concept is absolutely central in the Hebrew Bible, which is the story of one large extended family’s relationship to the God of the Universe. Early on, our ancestors Abraham and Sarah are called to leave their home and start a new life in covenant with the Eternal One, and the rest of the book presents history from the point of view of the Jewish people, God’s special treasure.

Scholars of biblical history believe that the idea of Jewish chosenness was born in the wake of tragedy. In the year 586 BCE, the Babylonian empire conquered the tiny kingdom of Israel. Our capital in Jerusalem was destroyed, our holy Temple laid waste, our leaders sent into exile, and our faith in God’s protection shattered.

But in response to this tragedy, Judaism evolved. Our ancestors quickly realized that they could feel God’s presence not only in the safety of their own land, but anywhere — both in times of triumph and in times of defeat. God had not abandoned them. Their hope was restored, and our chosenness was born.

Not only after the Babylonian Exile, but throughout the many dark chapters of Jewish history, our chosenness has been a source of hope – a reminder that even in the worst of times, we remain under God’s care. Many tragedies would befall our people: the Roman destruction of Jerusalem; the Crusades; expulsions from France, England, Spain, and Portugal; the pogroms of Russia; the Nazi Holocaust. In these dark times, our chosenness was a warm flame that kept us alive – a reassurance that this – whatever travail we were currently experiencing – was not the end.

Our chosenness not only sustained us, it invigorated us. Our feeling of destiny drove us to make advances in every human endeavor – in literature, philosophy, science, and the arts. We made a name for ourselves, and we worked to live up to what we saw as our divinely ordained stature.

Jewish chosenness, so central to the Bible, finds expression throughout Jewish religious practice as well. The Kiddush, our prayer over wine sanctifying Shabbat and holidays, is an excellent example of the idea. The Kiddush praises God: “asher bachar banu mikol am, v’romemanu mikol lashon – for selecting us from all people, exalting us above every tongue.”

And chosenness features prominently in the Aleinu prayer that we will shortly recite – a prayer that draws most of our services towards a close.

My liturgy professors in rabbinical school taught us that every translation is an interpretation. But the translation of Aleinu that appears in our Reform prayer books is, in my opinion, less of a translation than a riff on what we may want the first paragraph of Aleinu to say. In our prayer books, both here on the high holidays and on Shabbat, the Aleinu we recite is translated thus:

Let us now praise the Sovereign of the universe, and proclaim the greatness of the Creator who has set us apart from the other families of the earth, giving us a destiny unique among the nations.

That sounds pretty good, but there’s only one problem. That is not what the Hebrew text actually says. Let me lay a more literal, more faithful translation of Aleinu on you:

It is incumbent upon us to praise the Sovereign of the universe, and proclaim the greatness of the Creator, Who did not make us like the nations of the earth. And Who did not place us like the families of the land, Who did not make our portion like theirs, nor our destiny like theirs.

The first paragraph of the Aleinu is all about Jewish particularism, about Jewish chosenness, and as such, it makes me, and perhaps you, now that you understand it, more than a bit uncomfortable. I am sure that the early reformers of our movement rewrote the interpretive translation that appears in our prayer books out of a discomfort they felt expressing such superior particularism, such “chosenness.” They probably wondered: How will non-Jewish guests at a service (including our own relatives!) feel when they read these words?

It gets even tougher if you know the history of Aleinu. The Hebrew version prayed today in essentially every synagogue of every denomination is already the result of an act of self-censorship, of the reform of Judaism, if you will. After the phrase “nor our destiny like theirs,” there used to be another sentence, contrasting our worship with theirs.The text used to additionally read: “For they bow down to emptiness and vanity, praying to a god who does not save.” The words are biblical allusions to passages in the book of Isaiah which predate Christianity by hundreds of years. Yet, in the Middle Ages, this phrase was cited as evidence of the Jews’ antagonism toward Christianity, since the “god who does not save” sounds like a veiled dig at the Christian hope for salvation. The line was removed from the liturgy of even most Orthodox Jewish communities, out of fear of retribution and persecution. There has been tension about these words, about these ideas, for hundreds of years.

I grew up believing the idea that we Jews are God’s chosen people. Even outside religious settings, we relate to this concept: our expectation of Jewish genius, our pride when Jewish public figures experience success, and our corresponding shame in Jewish scandal – these are secular expressions of the core Jewish idea that somehow our people is destined for greatness.

So much of our history– one largely defined by persecution and isolation – made the idea that we were better than our tormentors comforting. It is no surprise that, in the most extreme form, the idea morphed into a sort of biological theory which holds that there is something in the “Jewish DNA” that makes us superior. This idea persists in many quarters of the Jewish world to this day

But a counter-narrative is present among our people, and it, too, goes all the way back to the Hebrew Bible. Early on, the concept is clarified as referring to a chosenness for service, not for some sort of superiority. In the book of Exodus, we are taught “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests.” The words of the prophets challenge Israel’s self-image as the favorite child. The prophet Amos hears God asking, “Are you Israelites more important to me than the Ethiopians?”… “[Yes,] I brought Israel out of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Crete and led the Arameans out of Kir.”

The book of Jonah, which we will read tomorrow afternoon, is about nothing so much as the universality of God’s providential care, and the promise that that relationship held out even to Israel’s rivals and enemies. “Don’t be so smug and self-assured, O Israel,” God says through his prophet Jonah. “I care about Jews, sure…and also, the people and even the cattle of your arch enemies, the Ninevites.”

The counter-narrative of Jewish chosenness finds its fullest expression in modern times. As we Jews came out of the ghetto and entered the world-at-large, we began to see our neighbors differently. No longer only an oppressive “Other,” non-Jews became our friends, and they became our family members. As we got to know them, many Jews became increasingly uncomfortable with chosenness, in the superior sense, as an ideal.

It will come as no surprise to you that I embrace the second narrative of Jewish chosenness more fully than the first one. As someone who believes that interfaith work is essential to the mission of the Jewish people and the synagogue, I cannot step into relationship with my friends from other faiths believing that God chose only me, and not them, to serve. As someone with non-Jewish members in my family, I do not believe that my people are superior to theirs by dint of birth or conversion.

And yet, I do not jettison the idea of Jewish chosenness entirely. Without it, why be Jewish at all? No, I believe that a healthy tension exists between Jewish chosenness on the one hand, and the belief in the communion of all beings on the other, and that out of that tension we reach the very best expression of Judaism and the very best expression of humanity. I call it, in this sermon, and my sermon for tomorrow, at least, e pluribus unum…Jewish style.

E pluribus unum. Out of the many, comes the One. In my view of religion, God delights in the many and varied paths to belief and service, and it is in their diversity and variety that humanity reaches for what some of us call a better world and other religions call the Kingdom of God. My teacher, Dr. Carol Ochs, teaches that there is only one God, and that the various religions represent many pathways to that one God, like the spokes on a bicycle wheel, all leading to the center. Perhaps my view on chosenness might best be summarized by saying that Jews are a chosen people, but not the chosen people.

I believe that religion is the attempt to know the unknowable, and that claims to absolute truth are usually evidence of falsehood. Indeed, the exclusivist claim that others pray in vain while we have a lock on the truth is out of place in Judaism, or in any religion. I like the fact that we excised that line from Aleinu, whatever the motivation. And, to be completely honest, I still wrestle with the actual words of the first paragraph of Aleinu in our prayer book; it seems to me to define us more by what we are not than by what we are. I am in search of a different version of Aleinu that will fit my vision of Judaism. I seek a version of this prayer that strikes a better balance of the universal and the particular. If Judaism is to survive and thrive, it must have a more compelling message than simply, “we are not like those people.” Perhaps, as we continue to define Judaism for our time, we will find a version of Aleinu that resonates, or we will write our own. For now, though, we will hold on to the words we know, even as we wrestle with them.

In fact, I believe that we Jews do have a unique destiny. We are chosen. I embrace that idea. I actually believe that what it means, though, is not that we are the only people chosen for a unique relationship with God and a unique destiny. I believe it means that we can be chosen and other people can be chosen, too.

Statements of Jewish uniqueness are reasonable in my opinion; indeed, they are patently obvious! Jews are different. The world sees us that way, and events bear it out. I think an argument can be fairly made that the phrase, “God did not make us like the nations of the world…” is not a prayer so much as a verifiable description of history. For better, or often for worse, as Tevye reminds us, we have been singled out. We are particular. We are distinct. And I believe that our unique chosenness comes with unique obligations and responsibilities we must live up to. The prayer is called Aleinu after all – “it is incumbent upon us.”

Perhaps it is out of our hard earned experience that we begin Aleinu, that we begin as Jews, with a focus on ourselves. Hillel’s maxim is well known to us: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? For much more of our history than not, we remember, if we Jews did not take care of ourselves, we knew that no one else would. And while we live more freely in this country than in perhaps any time or place in Jewish history, we hold fast to an obligation to be in deep relationship with our fellow Jews.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer writes in part that, to her, chosenness means that “We are born in debt, not only to the people who came before us, but also to something larger, to life itself. With that debt comes obligation.” For her, chosenness is part of the experience of seeing her life as obligated to commitments — in this case, to those who share, in part or wholly, something of her identity.

This is why Temple Shaaray Tefila belongs to a denomination – the Union for Reform Judaism. Our synagogue, if you didn’t know it, is essentially part of the 1% of synagogues. There are likely fewer than 100 synagogues in the entire world as large as the one you are a member of. That being true, we could easily say: why belong to a movement? With your support, we have a program and a staff that, one might argue, makes us too big to need to be in any formal relationship with any other synagogues. We can do what we want, we can have the programs and events we want, all on our own.

And yet, Shaaray Tefila’s leadership for the last 100 years has made an ideological commitment. We are part of a unique people in a formal way. Being a part of a movement is an obligation if we are committed to other Jews, and that commitment, in turn, strengthens us. It gives us access to wisdom and experience that is beyond even the great wisdom and experience contained within these walls. That’s why part of your membership dues go to pay for Shaaray Tefila’s membership to the Reform Movement. We are a part of a people, and not just in a general, “we feel like Reform Jews,” kind of way, but in a concrete, “we are all in, and we gain strength from that connection” kind of way.

And every person who is a part of this congregation has the opportunity to feel that strength – that wisdom, that experience. You want to know what chosenness feels like in a good way? Come with me and dozens of other leaders of Shaaray Tefila to the Reform Movement’s Biennial Convention in Boston from December 6-10. Experience the joy and beauty of Jewish learning, singing, and worshipping with over 5,000 other Jews. The blessing of chosenness means the privilege of being part of a denomination that finds strength in numbers – numbers even larger than a large community like Shaaray Tefila.

What is true of the commitments we make to the Reform Movement is true of other Jewish organizations as well. For those who take the first paragraph of Aleinu seriously, who know that we have a unique destiny, we choose to support Jewish charitable endeavors at least as much as we support other organizations. In addition to your support for this, your synagogue, I am looking out at people who generously support UJA-Federation, Hadassah, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Museum, The Museum of Jewish Heritage, T’ruah, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Joint Distribution Committee, Hazon, and so many more. These commitments help perpetuate Judaism and Jewish values. They help us live out what we pray in Aleinu when we speak of our Jewish family, our Jewish portion.

As a part of the equation of universal and particular obligations we have, it is okay, even necessary, for us to take care of our own Jewish people, here and around the world.

We have a particular obligation to care for the State of Israel. In the nearly 70 years of Israel’s existence, Jews both in Israel and in the diaspora have wrestled with what it means to have a state of our own after 2000 years, wrestled with what it means to actually have two foci of the Jewish people – one in our ancestral homeland and one outside it, wrestled with the question of what it means to have a Jewish country at all. But our name, Israel, implies a wrestling that began with the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. We wrestle because we care, because we have a deeply rooted connection to a place, because we are more than just a religion or a culture, or a collection of individuals; we are a people.

That is why we at Shaaray Tefila teach our children about Israel; that is why we have an Israel Engagement Committee that has been held up as a model for synagogues everywhere by leaders of the Reform Movement; that is why we have built over years a strong teen exchange program with Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa and why I’ll be accompanying our teens there this December; that is why we encourage our kids to go on NFTY in Israel and Birthright trips; that is why I seek to lead a congregational Israel trip very soon.

That is why I encourage you to prioritize giving to organizations that place the ongoing development of a Jewish and democratic Israel at the center of their mission. Folks in our congregation support ARZA, the New Israel Fund, the Jewish National Fund, Israel Bonds, Magen David Adom, and too many organizations to list here. We must make meaningful space in our charitable giving to pro-Israel organizations that is commensurate with our commitment to Jewish particularism.

We express our Zionism in multiple ways, because, as a member of my Senior Seminar, Elena Messinger, taught so beautifully at the communal Yom Ha’atzmaut observance this past spring, our relationship with Israel is both “more beautiful and more complicated than ever.” This is why I am so pleased to announce that Dan Adler and I will help lead a congregational delegation to the AIPAC Policy Conference in 2018, and why the two of us will lead a congregational delegation to the JStreet Policy Conference in 2019. These are not delegations, of course, unless you come with us, and so I invite you to make plans for both conferences so that we all might be challenged to think even more deeply about our obligations to, and our love of the Jewish State.

I’m sorry, Tevye. I believe that God did choose us. Not to the exclusion of other people, not because Jews are automatically born more menschlikh or righteous or holy than other people, nor because we are more deserving of reward or success, but because we have a unique mission. The challenge I issue to us all on this Day of Days is to consider that uniqueness in a new light – as one major part of our obligation as a people.

Chosenness can work both for us and against us. In dark times, it gives us a reason to hope, a reason to be Jewish, a guide for our decision – and priority – making. But it can also easily become a dangerous tool for self-congratulation.

To deny Jewish distinctiveness is to deny reality. On the other hand, to turn it into smugness or self-aggrandizement is to sully our faith.

I invite you to check back tomorrow morning, where I will suggest that Judaism itself – Aleinu itself – paradoxically offers an antidote to those dangerous impulses.

G’mar chatimah tova.

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