One People- God’s Partners
Rosh Hashanah Evening Weds Sept 24 2014
I do some genealogy research on my own and I am signed on to a website called Geni.com. One of the members has decided to track and link everybody who has a smidgen of Jewish connection into the website. So, I find curiosities like: Victor Borge,born Rosenbaum, or the author of that most typically American character,Holden Caulfield, the creation of J D Salinger. Even when you go into time travel in the future, both Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Shattner and Nemoy, a Yisroel and a Cohen, belong to the planet of “Yidden”.
I don’t know if people of other religions get so caught up in this conceit of “ So and so is Jewish” . This must be the Jewish version of tabloid journalism.
So, who is a Jew? Better yet, what is a Jew?
During these ten days of Teshuvah, we have one way of determining- who gets tickets to get in to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is one way to determine it.
It is clear that we have come here, not to a Church, and not to a mosque, nor to a Buddhist Temple, because we feel the need to be here. But it is hard, often, for a modern Jew to articulate the reasons for that need.
For the Jews of history, the Jews who saw themselves as if still be standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, during these ten days they opened themselves in prayer, examined themselves and their actions in light of the belief in a God who examines and judges and holds accountable for their doings
But what of us today? We are the Jews of modernity, a modernity that is already two and a half centuries old. We seek desperately to connect the threads of 3800 years of history to make sense for ourselves.
So who is a Jew? what is a Jew?
David Ben Gurion, the founding father of the State of Israel, was very much perturbed by this question, “ What is a Jew”. What could be more Jewish than a man who creates a Jewish state. To have a State for Jews means to know what a Jew is.
He phrased the dilemma in a speech in 1971, when we was well past any political involvement in
. As he said it,” 400 years ago, it was clear that a Jew is someone who keeps the 613 commandments. Today, I doubt if there is anyone here who keeps 100 commandments. So” , he told his audience, “you are not a Jew according to this.!” Israel
Ben Gurion had himself questioned the leading Jewish scholars, religious and secular, for a good answer. Finally, he came up with his own:
“A Jew is one who says he is.
A Jew is one whose neighbors say he is.
A Jew is one whose friends say he is.
A Jew is one whose enemies say he is.”
A Jew is one whose neighbors say he is.
A Jew is one whose friends say he is.
A Jew is one whose enemies say he is.”
Is this a satisfying answer? Do we have to let our enemies tell us we are Jews.
So what is a Jew?
I wrote in my letter to the congregation for Rosh Hashanah, that this season, I would emphasize the concept of Jewish solidarity. It was brought home to all of us with the vitriol and hate that we saw in mobs in Europe and then regurgitated in sophisticated language by UN Human Rights officials and celebrities. “ Genocide” hurled at Jews by these sophisticated elites who don’t lift a finger to protest the murder, in the hundreds of thousands, of Yazdis, of Christians, of Moslem by Moslem in the
Middle East. “Genocide” hurled at Jews by sophisticated elites who keep silent on the crushing of Tibetan and Uighur nationalities by China. “ Genocide” hurled at Jews by sophisticated elites who keep silent on the mutilation of women in large parts of the world. And so on!.
Yes, even some of our Jewish intellectual elites seemed only too happy to join in the fray, joining in the mindless accusations.
Yes, we know for Jews, it is always different.
So, we are all in one boat, altogether. We are reminded of the old Jewish tale of a boatload of people in the middle of the Sea. One of them begins to drill a hole under his seat. The rest of the crowd scream at him to stop, and he replies,” What are you worried about—I am only drilling under my own seat!.”
So, my friends, we are altogether in the same boat. We can’t drill away at our private seats, so to say. We all sink or float together. What happens in one Jewish community impacts all of us. Moslems have not taken to the streets of the US or Europe to protest the death of Moslems in Iraq. Christians have not taken to the streets to protest the death and expulsion of Christians in Iraq. This is a uniquely Jewish response, to feel so closely bound up in the fate of our fellow Jews.
So ,let’s go back to our question, What is a Jew?
One way, to borrow the metaphor of science, is the null hypothesis. We eliminate what can’t be, and we can get to what is.
Why are we not Christians?
We live in a Christian society, a very hospitable, open and accepting Christian society, which we appreciate very much, a first and one of few of its kind in history. Yet, we choose not to be Christians. We hold that God is totally other than human, that no human is God in the flesh or God’s son, and that our salvation depends on our actions and deeds in this world and in this life. So, we are not Christians.
Why are we not Moslems?
We Jews began in the middle east and have always been a part of that world for thousands of years, before Islam. So why did we not join Islam when the rest of North Africa and Western Asia jumped aboard?
. After all, Islam has so many similarities. God is indivisible, not in the flesh and the human finds his purpose in following the commands of God, commands strikingly similar to Judaism. So why is it that we did not, in some 1300 years since Mohammed was rejected by the Jews of Medina, why did we not become Moslems? It’s very simple. We believe we have the original word of God and in the course of 1300 years, the Moslems could not convince us that their word of God replaced ours. Why then replace the original with the newer model, when we get good mileage from the first, with all the good accessories, and we still have the factory warranty ?
We are also not complete secularists. It is true, as a whole, Jews are the least devout of all religious groupings. It is true that we gave rise to such giants of secular and religion shattering figures as Spinoza, Marx or Freud. It is true that we have Jewish atheists and Jewish humanists and Jewish secular nationalist and Jewish secular anti-nationalists. Still, for most Jews, as secular and denatured as they may be, there still is a glowing ember, a nitzotz hakodesh, a spark of the divine, that yearns for a core message, a core hope .
So, now, what are we?
On Rosh Hashanah, when we blow the shofar, we do it in sets of three, for the three notes: Tekiah, Shevarim, teruah. So, I want to put my answer also in a set of three.
First, for the tekiah. The blast of being a Jew out of that deep , ingrained instinct that identifies us as a Jew, with Jews, as part and parcel of Jewish history. We are Jews as part and parcel of the Jewish people.
Do we need someone’s else’s testimony to make us understand this?
How about this description of us as a unique people:
“What is the Jew?...What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed. . . despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. . . .The Jew — is the symbol of eternity. ... He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.” This is how the great writer, Leo Tolstoy saw us when the largest mass of world Jewry was still living under massive discrimination and wide-spread poverty in Tsarist Russia.("What is the Jew?" ,1908).
So we have our pride in being part and parcel of a unique and dynamic people.
But one note does not a Rosh Hashanah make, and social identity alone is not Judaism.
Therefore ,we have to have the second blast of the trumpet, the Shevarim, It knocks us with three hard blasts.
.The Shevarim is for the Jewish way of life, of observance.
Therefore I must be a Jew in my life and my observance .I must give flesh and blood to my existence as a Jew.
We Jews measure content by does, not dogmas.
Ben Gurion pointedly remarked that of the 613, most of us can’t keep even 100. But just because we can’t keep everything is no blanket excuse to keep nothing. Or to not try.
One of the great teachers of Judaism to the disaffected Jew, Franz Rosenzweig, was asked if he put on tefillin every day. His replay was, “ Not yet.” In other words, we aren’t and don’t claim to be pious saints. . Be we can’t close the door on any aspect of Jewish life- whether it be Shabbat or kashrut or prayer or personal ethics and social morality. If you remember you basic math, zero plus one is greater than zero by a factor of infinity. Even doing one thing in the name of Judaism is infinitely greater than doing nothing.
Finally, for all of this, Jew by identity and Jew by observance, there must be an underlying basis.
For this, we need the third blast on the shofar . It is the Teruah, the staccato notes to shake us out of our complacency. It is the blast of Jewish purpose, the soul of a Jew. What are we for? What is our reason to be Jews?
We are Jews for a message. If I am to be a Jew, I might as well be a Jew to the core. At the core, A Jew is a Jew of faith, a searching faith, a seeking faith, open, not closed..
At the core of Jewish faith is the midrash, the inquiry. It is an inquiry, an examination, probing the texts, the words of the Torah as well as the words of the sages, using those texts to lead us to the truth for ourselves. Ours is a faith in one God who demands of us , in the words of the prophet Amos: Dirshuni vichyu.” Seek me, inquire, examine and probe the Divine and you shall live.”
So, we have our three blast of the shofar. A tekiah for Jewish identity, a shevarim for Jewish observance, and a teruah for the Jewish soul. Then we can get to a tekiah gedolah, and be solid in our foundation as Jews.
You know that I published a book on the account of my father, Rabbi William Weinberg, z”l. He was imprisoned by the Nazis twice and escaped to the Soviet Union and returned to serve the surviving remnant in Austria and Germany after the Shoah. In between prisons, he managed to write an essay that summarized the message of Judaism I have translated the essay as “ Courage of the Spirit”, and it is an attack on the major movements of modernity, scientifically based movements, the proven science of its day : economic, genetic and psychological determinism.
“It has been an accepted thesis for decades within all trends of our culture that all events occur independently of human will. Little and rarely does anything result from conscious thought. Like the apparition that vanishes at the toll of the bell to usher in a new day, so all the values and ideals of mankind melt away, overpowered with unpitying might by the merciless hand of economic, biological, and historical fate.”
Over and against this was the core concept of Judaism.
“Judaism's theory of history is activist, the Jewish ethos is a willful ethos, the Jewish religion is outspokenly a religion of will. The originality of Judaism rests primarily on the point that the Bible, for the first time, inquired into the question of the sense and inner unity of all human history and conceived of the individual events of history as steps up to a meaningful and powerful world goal. . .
“No! Humanity is not the disturbed dream of some sleeping deity and no mad chaos wildly swirled about by a happenstance. God created the world according to plan. . . . The duty of humanity in this world is prescribed in these brave words by an ancient Jewish philosophy of history: "Man is called upon to be God's co-worker in the act of creation.” (Mechilta Exodus 18:13).
That is a dramatic a reason as any to be a Jew and to affirm our Judaism and our solidarity with our fellow Jews. As difficult as the world appears, as confused and caught up in struggle, we hold on to our belief that we are not victims of our world but that we are God’s partner in the act of creating the world. May our every step be one of creation of a better and divinely infused and blessed world. Amen.