E Plurbus Unim, Jewish Style – PT 2
It’s great to see you all here!
We, the Jewish people, come together in droves to a Jewish building at this season of the Jewish new year to recite Jewish prayers in a Jewish language. And yet, on these, the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, what are the prayers that we recite? When we review our list of shortcomings during our prayers on Yom Kippur, what faults do we list when we beat our chests just now? What exactly did we atone for with all the beautiful and haunting al cheits that Cantor Kipnis recited? Have you ever really noticed?
Not once does the High Holiday prayer book ask us to confess for not observing Shabbat, or for not studying enough Torah, or for eating non-kosher foods. The High Holidays seem essentially unconcerned with these specifically Jewish behaviors. Instead, we confess to having spoken unkindly, to having held a grudge, to having indulged our impulses, to having taken advantage of others, to having spoken evil words. The holiest days on the Jewish calendar are a platform, it seems, for improving not so much our Jewish selves, but our human selves.
Last night, I argued that we are indeed one of God’s chosen people, and that that chosenness demands that we take care of Judaism and our fellow Jews.
This morning, I’d like to argue that Judaism also teaches us that the other aspect of chosenness necessarily obligates us to apply ourselves in the service of all humankind as well.
In his book Chosen Peoples, sociologist Todd Gitlin argues that the feeling of chosenness can be a blessing, a spark of hope in dark times, it can also easily become a burden – a sometimes misguided feeling that the chosen group can do no wrong, or that our only obligation is to other Jews.
As I mentioned last night, when speaking of my belief that Jewish chosenness is a concept we should embrace, it’s clear to me that all that striving for greatness can lead to a shadow-side – to the claim that Jews are somehow morally or intellectually superior to other people.
This is a misunderstanding of chosenness. If anything, our biblical narrative goes out of its way to illustrate just how unmeritorious were our mythic forebears. It consistently portrays them as stubborn, stiff-necked, and short-sighted – rather like us.
Today, we may point to our people’s many achievements as evidence that we are chosen, but as Rabbi Shai Held reminds us, “Nowhere does the Bible congratulate Jews on how many Nobel prizes [we] have won.”
There is a recurring motif in Yiddish folklore of the imaginary town of Chelm – a city of fools, where each person is more dimwitted than the next. Perhaps you’ve heard one such story – for example: of the night that the people of Chelm noticed the moon reflected in a barrel of water and, thinking that the moon had fallen from the sky, quickly sealed the barrel and tried to sell the moon for profit.
Novelist Michael Chabon asserts that the fools of Chelm serve a literary purpose, as a comic foil for the Jewish people – a caricature intended to highlight the absurdity of thinking that Jews are gifted with a superior intellect. The people of Chelm serve as a safety valve against Jewish triumphalism.
And, I would suggest, it is a necessary safety valve, at that. Our feeling of chosenness can easily cause us to expect too much of ourselves. We have high rates of anxiety. We often expect too much of our kids, as well. Ask any teenager in this community, as I have, and they’ll tell you: the pressure is immense.
What’s more, an overly prideful view of our chosenness can easily become fodder for people with an anti-Semitic agenda. They see our claim to chosenness as evidence, in their eyes, that Jews think they’re better than everybody else.
Last night, we looked at the first paragraph of our Aleinu prayer, and I shared my struggle over the fact that, on the face of it, it seems to set Jews as superior to other nations of the world. I argued that other nations of the world can also be chosen peoples, with unique relationships with the one true God – that choseness is not reserved for us alone.
If the first paragraph of Aleinu is concerned with the uniqueness of the Jewish people, however, the second paragraph of this prayer is all about the universality of God. It goes like this:
For God spread out the heavens
and established the earth,
God’s precious habitation is in the heavens above,
God’s powerful presence in the highest heights,
our only God, there is none other.
Our Ruler is real, no other One exists,
as it is written in God’s own Torah:
“Know then this day, and take it to heart,
that Adonai is God in the heavens above
and on the earth below: there is no other.”
“There is no other.” Or, as the Hasidic masters put it, alles ist Gott. “It’s all God.”
The mystical truth that “it’s all God” thus serves as a counterpoint to the statement of Jewish uniqueness in the first paragraph of Aleinu. In the world as we know it most of the time, Jews are different – not better, but different. But here, paragraph two of Aleinu shows us that God is the One before whom all differences melt away. To live only in the world that sees divisions – “us” and “them” – is not the goal.
The world as it should be is the one we glimpse in this paragraph, and which we realize more fully as the prayer reaches its apex. It is to that apex that we now turn.
The third paragraph of Aleinu imagines a world in which all peoples unite around a singular cause. The third paragraph sounds like this:
And so, Adonai our God, we look to You,
Hoping soon to behold the splendor of Your power revealed:
A world free of idolatry and false gods;
A world growing more perfect through divine governance;
A world in which all human beings make known Your name,
While those who do evil turn toward You.
As the prophet announced,
“The Eternal shall be sovereign over all the earth.
On that day, the Eternal shall be one, and God’s name shall be one.”
Now, it’s easy to make a mistake when reading this paragraph, and to think that it envisions a world in which everyone will be converted to Judaism. This is a misread of these words.
No, this prayer is not about the conversion of all people of the world to Judaism, but rather about the conversion of all people of the world to justice.
In this prayer, we look forward to the day when God’s Oneness, the subject of the second paragraph, will become known throughout the world through the agency of, among others, that certain people who are the subject of the first paragraph of Aleinu.
The paradox of a universal God standing in relationship to a particular people melts away when we realize that all people are God’s people when, and to the extent that, they embrace justice and truth.
Our tradition says it this way in Psalm 145: karov adonai l’chol kor’av – l’chol asher yikra’u’hu be’emet. “God is close to all who call upon God; to all who call upon God in truth.”
That we perceive of our relationship with God as one of chosenness is not a problem unless we make it so, by letting it blind us to the deeper truth of the communion of all humanity. I admit that it can be hard to see that communion through the fog we live in these days, but the search is what Judaism is all about.
So if Aleinu teaches that our task, indeed the human task, is to seek a world of justice not only for Jews but for the entire world, how are we to do that? Here, again, God shows the way. Or, should I say, God tries to show the way.
Let me take you back to a story you likely know very well, and in so doing, point out a detail that you might just have missed, no matter how many times you’ve read it.
So God says to Moses: I want you to go to Pharaoh and tell him: let my people go!
And Moses marches right down to the palace, goes into Pharaoh’s court, demands that Pharaoh let the Israelites go, and Pharaoh immediately agrees.
Now that version of the story would have made for a short seder!
Of course, we know that that is not how the story played out in the book of Exodus. No, the story drags on and on. God does tell Moses to go to Pharaoh, but Moses demurs. He is afraid. He asks, “why will Pharaoh listen to me?” He insists that he has no power, that he cannot change the world.
God hears him out, and then makes a suggestion. Go to each Israelite tribe, God says to Moses. Identify a key leader, and take them with you to Pharaoh. That way, you won’t be alone. That way, you’ll show Pharaoh how much power you bring to the table – the power of 12 united families, the power of disparate tribes who collectively know the one true God.
So in the next scene in Exodus, Moses and Aaron do go to the elders of Israel. They lay out the plan to confront Pharaoh as a team. So far so good.
But in the very next passage of the story, the text says, “Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh.”
I have a question for you: where did the other 12 guys go that were supposed to come with Aaron and Moses? Did they remember they had Jets tickets? Did they have a poker game? Did they remember they had to do their hair that day? What gives?
The classic midrash is remarkably silent on this point, so here’s a midrash I first learned from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Elliot Tepperman of Congregation Bnai Keshet in Montclair, New Jersey.
Rabbi Tepperman teaches: why didn’t the 12 leaders go with Moses? Because Moses didn’t know them, and they didn’t know each other. Moses asked them to join him in facing down the king of the known world. And they were scared. And they were intimidated. And they were divided amongst themselves – 12 distinct tribes with a vague ancestral connection they barely remembered after 400 years of slavery. Twelve individual tribes who were only concerned with their own well-being, one might say. Twelve individual tribes who didn’t understand each other, were perhaps even suspicious of each other.
And so yes, when it came time to face the most powerful man they had ever heard of, they begged off. We know the rest of the story. Blood, frogs, lice, cattle disease, darkness, the death of the first born, and then and only then, finally Pharaoh agrees to let the people go. Tradition says that this process lasted an entire year.
What might have happened, Rabbi Tepperman wonders, had the leaders of each of those proud tribes seen themselves as having an obligation to something larger than their own family? What if they had stopped for a moment to consider that their interest in freedom was actually the same self-interest of the other families all around them? How might the story have been different had they decided to get to know each other, understand each other, work together, using their collective power, instead of only looking out for themselves?
What might have been? Maybe we would have been able to leave Egypt sooner. Maybe we would have had time to let our bread rise. Maybe all of our seders today would be 4 minutes instead of 4 hours. We’ll never know.
What I do know is that Jews have often been a part of collective movements to change the world.
In the interests of things we care about, we Jews often write letters. We march. We protest. This is a proud part of our history going back to the days of the prophets.
Some of you, who have marched and protested and written letters over the years for a whole range of causes across the political spectrum, have told me stories about how frustrated you have sometimes been – that the efforts you have made have so often felt fruitless – that those activities have left you feeling as powerless as Moses and Aaron in their first visits to Pharaoh.
How do we engage in powerful action, not just engage in lots of activity that can feel less than impactful? How do we hear Aleinu’s call to make a world of justice?
My experience tells me that acting powerfully usually involves acting together with people who are different than me – people of different tribes, if you will: people with different skin color, different religious traditions, even people with whom I might differ with politically on some issues. In short, acting effectively requires hearkening to Aleinu as a call to universal obligation.
If we want to actually make real and deep and lasting change, we might need to leave the safety of our neighborhood, get into real and deep and lasting relationships with people who may have different histories and experiences and perspectives.
The good news is that your synagogue is primed to be a vehicle to get you proximate with folks whose experience may well be different than yours, but whose passion for a world growing more perfect equals yours.
This past year, Temple Shaaray Tefila joined Manhattan Together, which is a part of a city-wide network called Metro IAF, consisting of more than 80 faith institutions who work together across lines of difference to act powerfully on justice issues that affect us all.
Over the decades, Metro IAF has built thousands of units of affordable housing and new schools across the city, and worked to make intersections safer for pedestrians, and developed better and deeper relationships with police in various precincts and got Police Commissioner O’Neill to commit to using the NYPD’s purchasing power to reduce gun violence in America.
And this coming Tuesday, October 3, at 7 p.m. here at Shaaray Tefila, Metro IAF will kick off the research phase of a campaign to address the issues of mass-incarceration and mis-incarceration that are impacting the city. This educational forum is being co-sponsored by Metro IAF, the New York Daily News, and the Greenburger Center.
Please join the anticipated diverse crowd of 500 people at a forum I will co-moderate with Reverend David Brawley of St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church in East Brooklyn, as we explore ways to address the challenges of mental health needs within the criminal justice system.
And then I invite you to join leaders of Shaaray Tefila and 10,000 other leaders for a rally at City Hall on Columbus Day,October 9, at noon, for just one hour. Metro IAF has set in motion an ambitious plan for turning underutilized property and vacant city-owned lots into tens of thousands of units of affordable housing.
Let’s face it: when those of us with college-age kids are blessed, God-willing, to see those kids graduate, there’s little to no chance they’d be able to afford a place to rent in the neighborhood, or in much of the city for that matter. At this forum, New Yorkers from across lines of faith, race, and socio-economic class will demand that Mayor DeBlasio use his power to build housing that will accommodate young families, the elderly, and thousands of our homeless neighbors. If your kids are off of school that day, bring them with you so that they can act with you on the universal obligations that Aleinu places before us.
Metro IAF does this work by using our collective, diverse power to challenge local and city-wide leaders to make this city more just.
In short, Metro IAF does what Moses failed to do. For as much success as Moses had in his distinguished 40 year career as shepherd of the Israelites, he failed at the start to build powerful relationships across tribal lines, and in that way, may have squandered an opportunity to get things done much faster.
I am thrilled to tell you that over the course of more than a year, thanks in no small part to the incredible work of Rabbi Wajnberg who began to lay the groundwork for this effort before I was even named Senior Rabbi, we have trained dozens of members of Shaaray Tefila in the work of multi faith community organizing.
We’ve taken dozens more to two public Metro IAF actions so that we might see what these tactics look like in their fullness. We’re building an incredible core team that has spent the year listening to each other about the issues we care about. We have the beginnings of a team that can take the lead in moving this work forward.
But if we are to be powerful, dozens of members of Shaaray Tefila just won’t do. Or more accurately, we could have so much more power to act if, instead of dozens, we had hundreds of deep public relationships within our congregation.
If we take the time to build those relationships internally, hear hundreds of stories about why we care about what we do, know more about who is in the congregation and what skills, talents, and relationships we each have outside the walls of this community, Shaaray Tefila will begin to be a power player with the 80 Metro IAF institutions across the city.
And that power will be magnified, because at the same time as we are having a relationship building campaign inside the congregation, we will continue to have opportunities to deepen and broaden the relationships we have with the other synagogues, churches and mosques who make up Metro IAF, with whom I am convinced we share deep mutual self-interest.
Today in our congregation, there are a total of 25 of us who have been training for this moment. Together, we are formally announcing today the launch of a relational campaign. Each of us has committed to doing 5 thirty-minute relational meetings in the next month. Our team has made commitments to each other that we will collectively do 125 relational meetings between now and the middle of November.
We want to meet members who are passionate about issues you’d like to change in the city. These conversations are not surveys; they’re not therapy. They’re most definitely not about you telling us what we should do, or what the synagogue should do. They are about buildng relationships, and about sharing stories about why you care about the justice issues you care about, and what you yourself might be willing to do about them given the chance to be a part of a diverse team that seeks to bring positive, grassroots change to our city.
If you are willing to have a 30 minute relational meeting with a member of our team in the next month, please respond to the email that will be in your inbox tonight when you get home from break the fast. The first 125 people who sign up are guaranteed to have a relational meeting in this first round.
On this sabbath of sabbaths, as a sacred community of faith, we hear the first call of Aleinu: we have been chosen to take care of the Jewish people.
And, too, we hear the second call of Aleinu: we have been chosen to be part of bringing together the other people in the world to be partners with the Holy One in the ever-unfolding work of creation. These aspects of chosenness, while asking a lot of us as Jews, are not mutually exclusive. I see them as mutually reinforcing.
In this new year, may we embrace our chosenness – a chosenness with no hint of bigotry, a Jewish particularism that leads us toward universal values. May we find our place among all nations and peoples who search, haltingly and earnestly, for the One.