Why Be Jewish?: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5773

From my Yom Kippur sermon yesterday:

Let me leave you with this vision: the vision of a people who have over the centuries learned to build a nation without borders, a multi-ethnic nation suffused with the beauty of a myriad of cultures, a nation inspired by a religious tradition it constructs and reconstructs in every age and in every generation. At its heart, a nation committed to the struggle for meaning in our lives and justice in our world. And in the end, a nation that has nothing to fear and every opportunity to gain from the remarkable changes underway in the 21st century.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

Before I get started with my remarks, I’d like to briefly refer back to my Rosh Hashanah sermons. If you didn’t happen to be at services – or if your memory needs a little refreshing – I gave two sermons on universalist themes. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I suggested a broader way of understanding Jewish monotheism – not so much “God is One” as “God is Everything.” And on Rosh Hashanah morning, I suggested a new approach to Jewish tribalism – not as mere loyalty to Jews alone, but as a sense of solidarity with all who share our sacred values of justice, equality and peace.

In both of these sermons, however, I left one important question open – namely, if all this is true, Rabbi Rosen, then why be Jewish at all? If we do affirm that God is beyond religion, that we should break down barriers between faiths and peoples, and that we should rise above Jewish tribalism, then what’s the point of even affirming a Jewish identity?

It’s a fair question – a critical question, in fact. Indeed, it’s a question that has been asked one way or another through every twist and turn of Jewish history over the centuries. We might argue it is all the more trenchant given the unprecedented global realities of the 21st century. With barriers between peoples and nations breaking down at an unprecedented pace, why be Jewish at all? This is the question that I’d like to explore with you this Yom Kippur.

Before I do, however, I’ll tip my hand. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying I do indeed believe it’s possible to affirm a non-tribal Judaism – a spiritual peoplehood that espouses universal values and seeks solidarity with all who share them. In fact, I would go further and argue that Jewish life and Jewish tradition has something quite important to offer our 21st century globalized world. But in order to do this, we’ll need to accept that it cannot be the Judaism of previous generations. We’ll have to avoid the temptation to fall back on old paradigms that are becoming less and less relevant to a new generation of Jews – to define and reconstruct Judaism in bold and compelling ways.

I won’t deny it’s a daunting proposition to take on such a task. To be sure, defining Judaism has always been a notoriously thorny enterprise. So let’s start at the beginning – with the ancient Israelite nation of the Hebrew Bible. Whether or not such a nation ever actually existed, there can be no doubt that our Jewish collective memory is firmly rooted in the narratives of the Biblical Israelites – a nomadic group of tribes that eventually, if briefly, became a sovereign empire in the ancient land of Israel.

After the destruction of the Temple, in 73 AD, Judaism as we know it was born – and from here, definitions become a bit more complicated. For all our attempts to define what Judaism is, in some ways I think it’s easier to define what we are not. For instance, we’re not a nation in the traditional sense of the term. After all, Judaism as we know it developed in the Diaspora, in many nations throughout the world. And while Jewish tradition has always held out the dream of return to the land of Israel, until the relatively recent establishment of the modern Zionist movement, these yearnings were traditionally expressed in religious terms. According to Jewish tradition, our return to Zion would come at the end of days, after the coming of the Messiah.

However, we can’t rightly say we’re just a religion either. Indeed, throughout Jewish history, we’ve referred to ourselves as Am Yisrael – the “People of Israel.” Judaism certainly has religious values and practices, but Jewish religion has always gone hand in hand with peoplehood. No matter where we’ve lived, no matter what we’ve believed – or even if we’ve believed at all – Jews everywhere have always maintained an underlying sense of belonging to one another.

So perhaps we’re a culture? No, that’s not quite it either. It would probably be more accurate to say we are Jewish cultures. To be sure, Jewish life has developed in a myriad of countries throughout the world; Jewish communities have been shaped by a variety of different cultural influences. If we compared Medieval Spanish Jewish culture to Rabbinic Babylonian culture to pre-modern Lithuanian Jewish culture, we’d find that they all have their own languages, their own literature, cuisine, their own music, art etc.  In truth, what is considered “culturally Jewish” has always been dependent upon time and place. This continues to be the case even today. Here in America, for instance, much of what we assume to be Jewish culture would be culturally alien to a Persian Jew, and vice versa.

Then maybe we’re an ethnicity? That’s probably the most problematic definition of them all. How can we honestly say that Jews are an ethnic group when there are Arab Jews, Asian Jews, African-American Jews, White Jews, Hispanic Jews, African Jews and more throughout the world?  It’s a particularly problematic definition in today’s post-ethnic America. Although American Jews are routinely referred to as an ethnic group, we’re witnessing a sharp increase in the number of Jews of color. Be’chol Lashon, a prominent Jewish Research and Education institute estimates that at least 20% of the American Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse – and that this number is on the rise.

Now all of these complexities have been exacerbated even more by modernity, which has brought the Jewish people out of the ghetto and into open society in unprecedented ways. It might be said that every Jewish movement today, one way or another, is itself a response to the challenges of the modern age. That is certainly true of Reconstructionism, which in my humble opinion has come up with the best definition of Judaism we can ever hope to find. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan famously put it, Judaism is “an evolving religious civilization.”

What makes this definition so brilliant is the way it renders Judaism as greater than the sum of its parts. We are more than just a nation, more than just a religion, more than just a culture or ethnicity or race. Judaism is a civilization – the total product of the Jewish people’s spiritual strivings throughout history and around the world. Moreover, the product of our spiritual quest has always been evolving – constantly developing and adapting to ever-changing historical and social circumstances.

If you think really think about it, it’s fairly amazing to consider the model by which we’ve forged our group identity. We’ve managed, over the centuries to literally create a global peoplehood that transcends national boundaries, that makes room for cultural diversity, and that affirms a dynamic, evolving religious vision.

This, then, is my first answer to the question “Why be Jewish?” Because it gives us the opportunity to participate in this remarkable and still fairly unprecedented project. And I’ll say it again: this global peoplehood that transcends national boundaries, that makes room for cultural diversity, and that affirms a dynamic, evolving religious vision. I would go even further and say that this model has a great deal to offer in this particular age – as we witness an increasingly globalized post-ethnic, post-national world.

Apropos of this, I’d like to restate something I said on Rosh Hashanah:

As we begin a new millennium, it seems to me, two forces seem to be heading in opposite directions at an increasingly faster pace. On the one hand, the barriers between peoples and nations are breaking down at an unprecedented pace – yet in other corners of the world we are witnessing a retreat into even greater sectarianism and nationalism. Thus, given our the ways in which we’ve defined our own history until now, I’d suggest this is a time of reckoning for Jews. How will we view the outside world? Will we circle the wagons and view the outside world with suspicion? Or will we see our future as connected to the future of others and open our community up to this new global reality?

As Reconstructionists, as liberal Jews, as Americans, I believe the answer must be the latter. Our world needs those who can model how to create peoplehood without borders, how to affirm connection across cultural and ethnic lines, how to worship God in an intellectually honest and non-coercive way.

So that’s my first answer: our model. My second answer to the question “Why Be Jewish” has to do with our method. And here, I’d like to refer to my sermon last night, when I discussed the story of Jacob’s late night wrestling match, and the change of his name from Jacob to Israel:

Indeed, both the names Jacob (“Heel/Deceiver”) and Israel (“Godwrestler”) are used to refer not only to a Biblical character but to the Jewish people as a whole. And I would venture to say that this story provides a central paradigm – perhaps even the central  paradigm – for collective Jewish identity today.

As I mentioned last night, this story has a great deal to teach us about our own spiritual and existential struggles. In addition, however, I believe it also teaches us about the very essence of our collective identity as Jews, as Am Yisrael – “the people who struggle with God.”  Jacob is one character in the Torah, but he is also much more.  According to Jewish tradition, Jacob/Israel is also a surrogate for the Jewish people writ large. Throughout the Bible, we see the name Jacob or Israel used interchangeably to mean either the man Jacob or the people Israel. The most well known example of the latter is probably the Mah Tovu, the verses from the book of Numbers that have become a famous part of our liturgy:

Mah Tovu ohalecha ya’akov/Mishkentecha, Yisrael!” – “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel!”

These words, of course, do not refer to the Biblical Jacob – they refer to us. In very profound way, Jacob/Yisrael is the “collective us.” And in a very real sense, Jewish tradition identifies his struggles as our struggles. Like our namesake Jacob, we are the ones who struggle with God and live.

I’d suggest that this is much more than just a graceful literary allusion – I believe it is deeply ingrained in the Jewish spiritual psyche. It is suffused throughout our Biblical heritage: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah and Job – all are iconoclasts par excellance – spiritual role models who refuse to take the world at face value and struggle actively with God. This ethic is also deeply ingrained in Talmudic tradition – which models a culture of debate and dialogue “le’shem shamayim” – “for the sake of heaven.”  In modernity, our struggles have broadened as new Jewish movements have taken Jewish tradition in radically different directions, creating a kind of intra-communal discussion and debate on how to be Jewish in a world that is changing in so many ways.

I would also suggest that our collective God wrestling has social and political dimesions as well. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that so many Jews have been part of movements for social change – many of whom were or are thoroughly secular, yet have still inherited the Jewish the value of struggle. Sixties radical Abbie Hoffman, for instance, was famously quoted as saying:

I see Judaism as a way of life. Sticking up for the underdog. Being an outsider. A critic of society. The kid on the corner who says the emperor has no clothes on. The prophet.

Why be Jewish? Because we model a spiritual peoplehood that values struggle and debate that is not afraid to take God to task, that seeks to challenge the icons of the status quo, particularly – as the Prophets so eloquently teach us – the icons of the powerful and the privileged.

Now let me be clear: I’m not trying to argue that the Jewish people have a monopoly on the values of theological struggle and socio-political transformation. I don’t believe for a second that Jewish tradition is any more noble in this respect than any other tradition. This is not about religious triumphalism – (“Why be Jewish? Because we did it first and we do it best!”) But I am suggesting that there is still great relevance in this spiritual model and method.

If anyone – including Jews – find a similar form of meaning in other religions, I’d say gai gezunterhait – “go for it.” I think we’re well past the point where we want to encourage Judaism through superiority claims, by promoting survival for survival’s sake, or God forbid, through fear of anti-Semitism. The best way to ensure the future of Judaism, it seems to me, is to celebrate it in a meaningful and relevant way. All the rest, it seems to me, is distraction – sometimes harmful distraction.

In this day and age, there is a rich and varied marketplace of spiritual traditions, as there should be. But if you pardon the crass imagery, I believe by and large the organized Jewish community is doing a very poor job of marketing our product to our newest generation of Jews. In some ways, I think we’re barking up the wrong tree trying to think up snappy answers to the question “Why be Jewish?”  Maybe if we did a better job at creating a compelling form of 21st century Judaism, the very question itself would be superfluous.

Speaking personally, I’m enormously proud that JRC is the kind of community that models the kinds of qualities I’ve been discussing here. I like to think of us as true B’nai and B’not Yisrael – Godwrestlers – in the best sense of the word. We observe and celebrate our religious tradition with equal parts reverence and irreverence. We study, we question, we debate, we challenge and together and we grow from the experience. We teach our children – and our adults – in a manner that gives them room to question their tradition, to struggle with it, and live it in the way that makes sense to them – not in the way we think they must.

We’re also expanding our previously tribal boundaries in important ways. While I don’t know the exact percentages, there is a significant number of interfaith families in our congregation – and I know that number is increasing. As a result, many of the most valued members of our congregation are not formally Jewish, yet they are participating in Jewish life, keeping Jewish homes, raising Jewish children in more impressive ways than most Jews in this country. While the more boundary-conscious in the organized Jewish community continue to view intermarriage as the death knell of the Jewish people, we see it as an invaluable opportunity – something that enriches the life of our community in innumerable ways.

We ‘re also expanding borders in the way we understand Tikkun Olam – the sacred imperative to repair the world. While in the past, this has traditionally meant repairing the Jewish “olam,” we have been involved in any number of service projects locally and around the world that see fewer and fewer boundaries between the Jewish world and the greater world in which we live. I’m so proud that this past summer, JRC went on its third service delegation to Africa – a trip to Rwanda, in which we volunteered with NGOs doing critical health and development work in communities ravaged by HIV/AIDS and poverty. I’m particularly proud that of our sixteen participants, nearly half were teenagers. Does it matter that they went with their rabbi and their synagogue community? Let’s put it this way: if it wasn’t for their synagogue community, they may never have had the opportunity – and as long as we keep providing opportunities such as these, questions like “Why be Jewish” will be fairly irrelevant.

So let me leave you with this vision: the vision of a people who have over the centuries learned to build a nation without borders, a multi-ethnic nation suffused with the beauty of a myriad of cultures, a nation inspired by a religious tradition it constructs and reconstructs in every age and in every generation. At its heart, a nation committed to the struggle for meaning in our lives and justice in our world. And in the end, a nation that has nothing to fear and every opportunity to gain from the remarkable changes underway in the 21st century.

This is the vision that inspires me as a rabbi, a Jew, but most important, as a human being who considers all who struggle alongside me to be a member of my most important tribe.

I hope it is a vision that inspires you as well.

9 thoughts on “Why Be Jewish?: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5773

  1. Howard Cort

    I like and highly value what you wrote (and delivered). I also wonder if you might mention a few out-of-town Reform rabbis who have a similar view (perhaps particularly if they might be intrigued by the possibility of relocating to the Chicago area)?

  2. Sylvia

    1. There is no such a thing as “Jewish tribalism”. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for example has rescued and helped resettle thousands upon thousands of refugees from every continent who were not Jewish. Check their website.
    -The first action of the Alliance Israelite universelle upon its founding in 1860 was to help the oppressed Christians in Lebanon among many other initiatives. And it has welcomed Muslims in its schools. Its schools have served and are still serving thousands of children in the Muslim world. What “Jewish tribalism” are you talking about? You may aggrandize yourself but why does it have be at the expense of “the Jews”?

  3. Mark Braverman www.markbraverman.org

    I wish I could agree with your, Sylvia — and I get your point, and it is all the more tragic because I get your point. I was raised by a father who proudly served the Anti-defamation League when they were the good guys — he raised me, in the 50’s, to oppose white on black racism and bigotry in all its forms. Which is why it is so tragic and shocking how our ethnic nationalist project of modern Zionism has distorted our proud legacy of promoting human rights above all other principles. There is a Jewish tribalism, Sylvia, and it is painfully evident in the West Bank and Gaza, and, in fact, in the two-tiered citizenship system inside “1948” Israel. The sooner we own up to this, the sooner we can forgive ourselves for our understandable but catastrophic mistake, the sooner we can reclaim that proud heritage.

    Brant, kol hakavod to you once again. I’m in Albuquerque at the Friends of Sabeel conference and I am going to quote from this sermon in my plenary address tomorrow.

    Mark Braverman

  4. vangoldberg

    morning, rabbi. i was out of town for the holidays this year, but have read your sermons. thank you for making them so easily accessible on line. kudos to you for raising questions and stating positions that challenge us to think in different ways. the yom kippur sermon is a wonderful synthesis of themes and thoughts raised in the prior sermons, and answers the question of why be jewish in a broad and historically pertinent way. i revel in the teachings of judaism, both ancient and modern, and find them very relevant in so many ways to contemporary life. you have provided a very thoughtful and comforting context in which to consider these teachings. why be jewish? why be part of the larger community? how to carry the jewish banner/values/teachings forward in a rapidly changing world? how to engage the next generation of jews who do not have the same experience of a world either sequestered into ethnic and nationalist ghettos of various types, but do have an experience of a world in dramatic flux? why be a light unto the world, but not the only candle? thank you, brant.

  5. Ellen Gordon

    Thank you for putting your sermons up as posts – I really enjoy following this blog. It was great meeting you in Rwanda this summer, and I hope to come the the JRC synagogue at some point this year!

    Shanah Tovah,

    Ellen (intern at WE-ACTx summer program)

  6. Clif Brown

    Wrestling provides a good image – twisting and turning, looking for a good hold, trying to gain an advantage, especially if the wrestling partner is a concept that one has been given but that one holds (pun intended) a bit uncomfortably.

    In modern times, where inclusion is valued, distinguishing oneself (one’s identity) is more and more uncomfortable because it demands what the word means – drawing a distinction from others.

    In history, identity was easy because the other came in easy to name categories, and one was born into a life that determined what one was and wasn’t to the day of death. At the most fundamental level, a man could proudly and publicly say, “thank God I’m not a woman” and women would agree with the superiority implied. My point is the individual swims in the outlook of the times. Everyone knew their place.

    The outlook of our times is a solvent of distinction, because all the old divisions are proving to be full of holes. Animals are discovered to have personalities, genetics are showing great differences in appearance can be caused by insignificant distinctions in the genome. Did you know the bear is a near relative of the whale?

    Distinction by religion, race, speech, are all following the path that racial and sexual discrimination has followed – they are dissolving. Not without much sound and fury in opposition, but the trend is clear.

    The question that drives the wrestling is a simple one: What is a good person?

    Closely allied to this is another: How is it that a person who knows none of the teachings and writings I have been told are of utmost importance to morality, can be moral without knowing any of them?

    To belong to a group is pleasurable. Has there ever been a tribe that didn’t think of itself as “the people”? To feel at home with oneself in a group of like-minded, confident of one’s beliefs because they are shared by others brings peace of mind. But the positive feeling of belonging is so powerful that distinctions will be made up out of thin air if need be – so the problem of humanity in a nutshell – we must belong but we must distinguish. We find heaven in belonging but we manufacture distinctions that bring the hell of strife.

    At the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan, the protagonist stands in the cemetery where his fellow soldiers are buried. For what did they die? Why was he spared? He turns to his wife and with an anxious voice asks, “Have I been a good man?”

    That is the only question we need ask and the only real distinction we can attain.

  7. Reynaldo Hernandez

    Brant, I am not Jewish, but rather of the Brethren branch of the Anabaptist movement. I greatly appreciate your insights, and cannot help but see their similarity to those of Franciscan priest Richard Rohrer, whom I consider something of a prophet within the Catholic church. Your comments on tribalism and identity should be well-taken by members of all religious groups.


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