Sunday, September 24, 2017

I am a Jew

I am a Jew
Rosh Hashanah 2017 5778

            I am going to jump ahead about three months and take us from Rosh Hashanah directly to Chanukah.       
               You are familiar with the Chanukah song by the comedian, Adam Sandler—
It’s one way to identify someone as Jewish. 
               Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli
Bowser from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzerelli
Paul Newman's half Jewish, Goldie Hawn's half too
Put them together, what a fine lookin' Jew.
               The song has been revised over the years, but one thing stays eternal in that song- No matter what generation- The greatest or their boomer kids or gen x and millennials- we are here tonight because we know we are Jewish and we know that, tonight, we belong here.  That is why we opened the doors of Hollywood Temple Beth El, wide open, so everyone could feel that here we belong.
                But it is hard, often, for us as modern Jew to articulate the reasons for that need.
               For my grandfather, who grew up in the end of the 19th century, it was no problem. 
He knew he stood at the foot of Mount Sinai with Moses. He felt it, he knew it in his bones. But in my father’s times,
 that clear identity had already begun to evaporate—one could be an internationalist or a loyal citizen of the Empire 
, one could be a Marxist, or a Freudian. The options were wide open. Legend has it that the ocean floor at Ellis
 island is filled with the tefillin that Jews threw overboard when they came to this country.
 A century ago, the preferred choice was “anything but Jewish”. So it would see to continue down to our times.
               Yet, for all that, we keep coming back, in one way or another. 
               A little over 50 years ago, one of America’s great magazines, Look Magazine, ran a doom and gloom
 indictment of the American Jewish community. It was titled “ The Vanishing American Jew”. The joke is 
that Look Magazine vanished, but we are still here.
               Yes, we are the eternal vanishing people.
               Still around. But why? What for?
               David ben Gurion, the founding father of the State of Israel, was very much disturbed by the problem, 
“ 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, but this answer escaped the founder of the Jewish state.          
               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.”
               But this is only an excuse for an answer, especially if we have to let our enemies tell us we are Jews. 
               So what is a Jew?
               One way is to define ourselves by what we aren’t.
               We live in a Christian society, a very hospitable, open and accepting Christian society, which we 
appreciate very much, a first and one of the very few of its kind in history. Yet, we choose not to be Christians. 
We know we share common roots, but we also know that we are very different.
               We Jews have lived in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, among Moslems. Yet we did not become
Moslems. Our religions bear striking similarity, and it could have been so easy to just melt into the majority. 
Yet we remained distinct. That is now a moot point, as, the Islamic Middle East has expelled almost all of its
 indigenous Jews.  
               Of course, we have, in the previous century, in other parts of the world, lived in a Marxist-Leninist society, 
and, truth be told, it drew a great many of us. There is no God and Marx is his prophet, religion is the opiate 
of the masses, and Jews have no place, as Jews, in the new proletarian utopia. These were the “ Jews of Silence.”
 Yet, irony of ironies, our fellow Jews there retained their identity and they refused to disappear despite some
 70 years of oppression. One in ten US Jews is a former Soviet Jew. Many are in this room, and in our own
 families. Marx fell and we are still here.
               We know what we are not. So, now, what are we?
               We know that we are part and parcel of the Jewish people. 
                If we have any questions about the worth of belonging to the Jewish people, then we could find no
 better answer than these words of the Second President of the United States, John Adams:
I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. … They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth . . . They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern. (From a letter to F. A. Van der Kemp [Feb. 16, 1808] Pennsylvania Historical Society.  
Now, if you prefer Hamilton to Adams, because of the musical, he went to a Jewish day school himself and rumor has it, was of Jewish origin. He too wrote: “Progress of the Jews . . .From their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. Is it not then a fair conclusion that the cause also is an extraordinary one – in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?’” ( Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow).
So we have our pride in being part and parcel of a unique and dynamic people. What better way to express that pride than to be an active part of a Jewish community? That is why we opened our doors to help you come in and share in our community. Be part of that amazing people that so enchanted our founding fathers and mothers.    
We also know that we can’t just sit back and glory on what our predecessors did. Adams and Hamilton aren’t here today to remind us.  
            A Jew has to be a Jew for something, a Jew for Judaism. That identity with the Jewish people must have shape and form, a common core of behaviors.
            We are not, and never have been, a people of formal theology or philosophy. We have always been a people of common behavior and activity, a Jewish way of life, of observance.
            We Jews measure content by do’s, not dogmas, even if, in truth we don’t observe much of our 613 commandments.
            A century ago, in Germany, without Hitler, Jewish religion and identity was thought to be on its last legs. A young German philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, was on his way to be Baptized when he walked into a small synagogue on Kol Nidre eve and had an epiphany, to borrow a Christian phrase. He led a revival of Judaism that gave rise to unprecedented creativity and engagement. He was once asked by his students if he put on tefillin every day. His reply was, “ Not yet.” What he meant is that “ Not Yet” means a readiness to explore the possibility of “ Now.”  Or, as President Kennedy once quoted a Chinese proverb,” Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
            So, tonight, you can take that first step- or second step- or, if you get there, even the 613th step. We are here for you. By coming into our community, by our services or our holiday events, you can be involved in that great step forward.
            Finally, for all of this, Jew by identity and Jew by observance, there must be an underlying basis. A Jew is a Jew by virtue of studying and learning Judaism.
            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 a searching faith, a seeking faith, open, not closed.  It is for that reason, that we find people, not born into the Jewish faith, yet choosing the Jewish faith.

Ours is a faith of seeking and inquiring , in the words  of the prophet Amos: Dirshuni vich’yu.” Seek me, inquire, examine and probe , and you shall live.” Seek into our Jewish sources, see how our teachers argued and debated eternal values, and find your purpose and meaning in life.
Again, we have opened our doors for you. Our study sessions are open, our events are open for you. We can do even more, when we know we have your involvement.
I want to conclude with the thoughts of a  French Jewish  writer, Edmund Fleg, who grew up without any Jewish affiliation and then became an active and involved Jew He wrote this in 1927, before there was a State of  Israel, and without any Nazi defining him as a Jew, about why he decided to stay a Jew.
 “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; people are completing it.
I am a Jew because, above the nations and Israel, Israel places humanity and its Unity.
I am a Jew because above humanity, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the divine Unity, and its divinity.”
I want to wish each and every one of you that on this coming year will bring you to the next step of your Jewish journey in life. May this journey bring you fulfillment and personal happiness.  May this coming year  be good and sweet, may it  be a year of health and prosperity and of doing good to others.
At this moment, I want you to turn to your neighbors, to right, the left, front and back, to greet him or her and wish each other the best for this coming New Year. L’ Shanah Tovah- For a good year.