This past May, in an outreach effort toward the Jewish community, President Obama spoke at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington about the state of relations between the United States and Israel. At the beginning of his speech, he noted that one of the congregation's members, Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly, had once called him the first Jewish president. Mr. Obama happily assumed this as an honorary title.
I found this intriguing, so I looked up Mr. Goldberg's article to try and understand his thinking. He begins it with a funny story. Mr. Goldberg, it seems, was one of the contributors to The New American Haggadah which was published three years ago. When he gave Mr. Obama a copy of the book, the President asked, “Does this mean we can't use The Maxwell House Haggadah anymore? Mr. Goldberg refers to this as an Member of the Tribe remark.
Mr. Obama's sense of humor is not the only evidence he cites to support his contention that the President is Jewish. In his education at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama was exposed to and taught by more Jewish teachers than any previous American president. In his political career, not only has he had more Jewish advisers, they have been among his closest, and they have exercised considerable influence over the President who apparently does use The Maxwell House Haggadah at the seven Passover Seders he has held in the White House. From this, Mr. Goldberg not only learns that Mr. Obama is Jewish, he learns that he is a traditional Jew; a Jew more comfortable with the known and well-trodden paths of American Judaism; the kind of Jew you would expect to find inhabiting a retirement community in Boca Raton.
Well, I don't know the types of Jews to which Mr. Goldberg was exposed as a child, but where I came from, Mr. Obama could only be taken for one thing: a goy. And therein lies the subject I want to discuss with you today; the subject of Jewish identity. What is it that makes us Jewish?
Let me begin with a word of cautious clarification. The object of this story was not Barack Obama, it was Jeffery Goldberg. The President, I believe, as a black man, feels a deep empathy for the Jews in the same way that Jews, fifty-years ago, became prominent in the Civil Rights movement. Mr. Obama makes no claims of being Jewish. He seems to have enough trouble getting certain people to believe he is a Christian. It is, rather, Jews like Mr. Goldberg who make the claim. Which leads me to wonder: what do Jews think being Jewish means anymore?
This is a very large question; one that cannot be done full justice in the course of a short – or even very long – sermon. But I believe it a vital question for us right now. On Rosh Hashanah, I asked us to dedicate ourselves to rebuilding this synagogue – a new entryway, a new sanctuary, a new social hall, new classrooms – perhaps even a mikvah. This would be an enormous and risky challenge for us. We should undertake this challenge, I suggested, to make this place vital and exciting again – a place where people want to come together to learn and pray and eat and argue and live in a rich, rewarding Jewish community. It all sounds wonderful and I am sure even the doubters among us would love to see this place crowded and thriving again. But to make that happen, you have to be able to answer the question, why be Jewish? What does being Jewish mean? What makes Jews different?
Jews used to be different because we lived differently. We spoke Yiddish, we ate kosher, we had weird holidays that involved strange rituals like throwing out our bread or building little booths for ourselves, and which seemed to creep up on us, sporadically. All of that is a shadow of what it once was. As Jews have become fully integrated into American society, we are looking more and more for universal messages from our religion – the things that make us more like everyone else. You can see this in the evolution of the idea of mitzvah. Ask virtually any Jew what a mitzvah is and he or she will tell you its a good deed. Gone is the idea of commandment which implies a particular responsibility performed as part of a relationship – a covenant.
But the covenantal relationship not only connects a Jew to God, it connects her to her community. If we are going to rebuild this synagogue and with it this Jewish community, we are going to have to become comfortable again with the idea of a Jewish covenant and the particularism that implies. In other words, we are going to have to get used to the idea that Jews are – in important ways – different from everyone else. To me, this is not a theoretical proposition, it is a simple fact. In trying to understand this fact for myself, my thoughts have focused on three ways in which Jewish identity is inevitably different from that of our neighbors. First, we live in a different place from everyone else. Second, we live with a different sense of time and personal identity than everyone else. And finally, these profound differences in our understanding of place and time impress upon us an equally profound sense of purpose that is different from everyone else. Let me try to explain.
When I say that we live in a different place from other people, of course I mean this metaphorically. What I mean to say is that Jews constantly have before us both a vision of the real world in which we live and an ideal world which we need to build. The place we live in is somewhere in the middle, and we are constantly negotiating between the two, never quite sure in which we want to be.
This strange limbo comes directly from our relationship with Torah. To us, Torah is sacred – the unchangeable, immutable word of God. To question the sanctity of a single letter – let alone a word or phrase or commandment – is absolutely forbidden. Yet as my friend Ken Burt, one of my most devoted study partners and himself a Catholic is constantly asking me, “Is this really where you want to be?” Let me illustrate his point. Torah prescribes the death penalty for something like two dozen different offenses including blasphemy, sabbath breaking and cursing a parent. Yet when we actually look at how Jewish law is carried out, we discover that the death penalty is virtually never imposed. Our tradition teaches that a rabbinic court that passed down a single death sentence every 70 years was considered blood-thirsty. Caught between the Torah's demands and the real world in which we live, we have sided with the real world – all the while insisting that in doing so, we are honoring the Torah's sanctity. And this is but one example of the thousands of interpretive liberties that Jews have taken with the Torah – all done in the name of being true to its message. So convinced are we that kol n'teevotekhah shalom – all of its ways are ways of peace – that we will not rest until they have found the decency and humanity in even the most challenging of its pronouncements.
This ability to, on the one hand declare something immutable and unchangeable and, on the other, to change it, may sound like madness. It is, in fact, our peculiar genius. It has cultivated within us the attributes that have made Jews so successful in so many endeavors. On the one hand, it has developed our skills of deep analysis and creative thinking as we try to negotiate between the worlds that surround us. On the other hand, it has ingrained in us an incessant dissatisfaction with our choices which is the essential spur to achievement. Is it any wonder, then, that Jews have so greatly succeeded in virtually every academic and artistic field? And is it any wonder that Jews have practically defined American humor – infecting it with the strong sense of irony and neurosis that are themselves the byproducts of feeling oneself forever caught in the middle?
This strange sense of place that I believe is the essential element that makes Jews different, is enhanced by another sense that is equally weird: our sense of identity. The old joke that seeks to summarize every Jewish holiday in three simple sentences captures the essence of this weirdness: They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat. The weirdness comes from the pronouns: us and we. Jews have a peculiar ability to see the world not in terms of “I” and “mine” but of “we” and ours.” This is not due to some inherent generosity that makes Jews more selfless then other people. Far from it. Jews can be as avaricious as anyone. It comes, rather, from the way our tradition demands that we see ourselves. Think about all the einus and ahnus in our prayers as in ahnu amechah or eloheinu v'eilohey avoteinu. Each one of those is a we or an our. Even on this Day of Atonement, our lengthy confessions of sin are all in the first person plural.
But the truly cool thing about this collective identity of ours is that it travels through time. We learn in both The Maxwell House and The New American Haggadah that every Jew needs to see him or herself as coming out of Egyptian slavery. We were there when we were led out of slavery, and we were there when we were marched into captivity. We were there with the Maccabees, and we were there on Masada. We were expelled from Spain in 1492, and emancipated in France in 1791. We were on the boats that landed in this country at the turn of the last century, and on those that were turned away 40 years later. We were dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv in 1947, and were crying at the Wall in 1967. The way we pray, the way we talk about history, the way we think about ourselves as part of the covenant all evokes a single message: that each of our lives compasses all of Jewish history. And that is the real point here: because all of Jewish history takes in not only the past, but the future as well. This peculiar sense of Jewish identity teaches us that the past is ours to draw on as we shape the future that is in our hands.
These two great differences – our altered sense of place and time – leave a deep impression on us, leading to yet a third difference – the belief that being Jewish really matters to who we are. Down through history, many Jews have decided they do not want to be different and therefore have left Judaism, one way or another. But those that remain – whether they embrace their Judaism or are hostile to it – do so because they are, in some ways, marked by their faith. I remember when I was in college talking to a casual acquaintance with whom I had no religious connection when one of us dropped a coin. “That sounds like a dime,” he said. “How can you tell,” I asked, a bit incredulous. He shook his head at me and gave me a wry smile. “I'm Jewish,” he replied, thus embracing a dubious stereotype as part of his identity.
To be a Jew in this country is to be one person in 50. To be a Jew in this world is to be one in 50,000. For those who do not consciously cast their faith away, the sheer improbability is often enough to give us pause. So long as being Jewish means being different and so long as that difference retains the vitality it had for their ancestors, they will see their being Jewish as something meaningful. And if their Judaism is meaningful, then their lives must be meaningful as well. Finding meaning is the greatest quest each of us.
My concern with defining how Jews are different, may strike some of you as exclusionary. If it does, I urge you to come to Torah study one Shabbat morning. Around our large table you will find quite as many Christians as Jews, studying together and learning from each other. The Christians are not there because they want to convert. Far from it. They are there because they find that that atmosphere – where we all struggle to find the sanctity in what are often very difficult texts, and where the voices of thousands of years of Jewish thinkers echo in our very modern ears – is something unique and precious; something they cannot find in their own churches, but something that adds sanctity to their lives. In other words, we become closer to our neighbors not by hiding our differences, but by sharing them.
I was raised an atheist in a thoroughly Jewish home – a home filled with Yiddishkeit. The Yiddishkeit alone, though, was enough to convey to me those things that make Jews different. The concern for the health of our society which was a constant subject in our home, and the deep sense of irony though which all my elders seemed to look at the world, taught me to measure what there is against what there might be. Concern for the plight of Russian Jews and the safety of the State of Israel turned my attention from “me” to “we.” And the prevalence of playground antisemitism made me believe I was a Jew for a reason. When it came time to make my own home, to raise my own family, I knew the Yiddishkeit I could bring to it would inevitably be a lower cholesterol version. It would not be enough to convey to my children that which makes us different – that which makes us Jewish. And so I found myself turning to Torah. Etz hayyim he lamah khazikim bah – it is a tree of life to those who grasp it. What I learned in grasping Torah was not a substitute for Yiddishkeit – for the Jewishness of my youth. It is Yiddishkeit, Jewishness, itself. It is the thing that defines us, it is the thing that can sustain us. It is the thing around which we need to rebuild.
I want to rebuild this place, I want to make it new again, I want to see it grow again because I want every Jew that enters its doors to want to be – and love being – distinctly Jewish. I want us together to delight in this beautiful, complex and weird world of ours that demands our imagination to understand it, our sense of irony to cope with it, and our passion to make it better. I want us to feel the weight of our history – a powerful history that has known humankind's greatest heights and deepest depths. I want us to engage meaningful in our own times, driven by the sense of a bond that links every individual Jew into a “we” and an “us” and an “our.” And I want us to shape the future together, confident that we will, somehow, be present for every moment of it, as we have, somehow, been present in every moment up to now. In doing so, we will teach and reteach to each other the profound truth that every one of our lives not only matters, but is of infinite importance.
As to Barack Obama, perhaps in his post-Presidential years he will choose to make his honorary Jewishness official. To which I can only say that I would be honored to help him prepare for his conversion. He already seems to have the humor down. I suspect that, along with the aleph-bet, and with him being a politician, it is the “we” versus “me” part that will need the most work. But then he can take a dunk in our new mikvah and become someone different.