Following is a text version of my sermon from 12/14, touching on the Executive Order signed this week to combat anti-Semitism.
It has been a tumultuous week in the news, to say the least, from the election results in England to the need for a third election in Israel, to the impeachment hearings taking place in Washington DC, to the tragic shooting in Jersey City. But there was a particular story that, at least for a couple of days in the middle of the week, captured the attention of the Jewish community. That was the signing of an Executive Order by the President entitled Executive Order on Combatting Anti-Semitism. As with so many other issues these days, reaction was swift and at times fierce, some people in the Jewish community claiming this was a good thing for the Jews, others claiming it was not so good.
If you didn’t follow the story, the order essentially connects Jewish identity to Title VI of the Civil Rights act that was passed in 1964. That act outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance. So, for example, if a university receives financial assistance from the Federal Government – and most do – and it refused to hire someone because of their race – that university would lose the federal assistance it receives. And for many universities this is serious money – at Maryland, for example, %16 of the budget comes from federal money. And the new Executive Order ensures that this same law will be applied to Jews.
Whether in the end this will be good or bad for the Jews only time will tell. If I had to guess at this point it will be mostly neither good nor bad. If you’ve read the order it has a parve feel to it, and sometimes within the document, which is short – the whole thing is about a page long – there are sections that work at cross purposes, and it really doesn’t say anything new as far as I can tell. I would honestly be surprised if at some point in the near future we read a story in the paper about the Order actually being applied in a court of law.
What did catch people’s attention about the order, particularly in the Jewish community, was the inclusion of Jewish identity in the general rubric of the Title VI law, which again, is about race, color, and national identity. And of course the question about this is does Judaism fall into any of those categories? By and large we understand Judaism as a faith tradition, as a religion, like Islam, or Catholicism. You cannot convert into another race or nationality. If I wanted to be Italian, for example, I can’t! There is no mechanism, no structure, that I can use to become Italian – it is a nationality, an ethnic identity. But it is possible to convert to Judaism. That in and of itself seems to indicate that Judaism is defined not as an ethnic identity, but as a faith, a religion.
That being said, there is a strong ethnic flavor to Jewish life. You can’t find, for example, lox, or herring, or gefilte fish for that matter, listed as requirements for a Jewish diet in any of the codes of Jewish law. But those foods are associated with Jews and with Jewish life, with Jewish breakfasts and lunches. There is a tribal sense to being Jewish, and that comes from ethnic identification. In the most recent Pew study of the Jewish community younger Jews report that they are very proud to be Jewish, but they don’t want to do anything religious. And what that means by definition is that they see themselves as Jews, even though they are not at all engaged in religious life. How can they do that if not through their ethnicity, through ethnic or national identity?
So the truth seems to be that Judaism is an odd bird in terms of the world’s great faith traditions. It is a weird hybrid of ethnic and national identity, on the one hand, and religion on the other. It is possible to live your life as a proud Jew, connected to Jewish history, to the Jewish people, proud of Israel, and to be entirely areligious. You can’t say that, for example, about Catholicism. It just wouldn’t work.
In part Judaism developed this way over time because we have so often in our history lived in lands that were not ours. When Moses’ wife Zipporah has their first child she names the boy Gershom, and she gives the name an etymology, an explanation for its origin. The name Gershom comes from two words – גר – which means stranger – and שם – which means there. “I was a stranger there,” or as Zipporah herself says it in the Torah, גר הייתי בארץ נכריה – literally, I was a stranger in foreign land. And that sums up the majority of Jewish history.
And that also is the story of our ancestor Jacob, about whom we read in this morning’s Torah portion. At the beginning of the reading we find Jacob returning to the land of his birth, but he has been away for twenty years, living in a land not his own. If you think about it the arc of Jacob’s life parallels the history of the American Jewish community. He leaves home as a young man, with nothing – he himself says כי במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה – I left with a staff in my hand, nothing else. Exactly like our grandparents and great grandparents left Eastern Europe, with a few bags, with little to no money, with virtually nothing in terms of material possessions.
And then Jacob arrives in Haran. A foreigner, a stranger there. But he makes a good life. He marries, he has children, he works hard, he is clever, and also smart. He builds a business, becomes very wealthy, his life is a success in every measurable way. And again the parallel to the American Jewish community and our ancestors – coming to these shores, working hard, emphasizing the importance of education and the intellect, creating successful businesses, and over time the Jewish community here, and many of our families, becoming successful and thriving.
But Jacob never feels fully settled in Haran. And he is never fully accepted. He always feels that he is other, he remains the stranger who arrived with nothing so many years ago. And I think that is also our experience here. Despite the fact that we’ve put down roots, despite the successes we’ve had, despite the level of assimilation, the way we’ve integrated into American life – despite all of that, there are moments when we are reminded we are still ‘other,’ still looked at as strangers.
The shooting in Jersey City this week was certainly one of those moments, now one in a series of anti-semitic incidents that our community has had to grapple with over the last year plus. But the Executive Order signed into law this week is also one of those moments. It is theoretically designed to protect Jewish life, but it is also a reminder that we are still seen as a distinct minority, we are still seen as other, by the culture and society in which we live.
That is why we need each other. And by the way we need each other in both senses of Jewish identity, both ethnically and religiously. We need that tribal feeling of connection and caring, that sense of responsibility, of looking out for one another and caring for each other. But we also need a connection to religious life, to our distinct rituals and customs and holy days. We need to have Hanukkah when there is so much Christmas around us!
We should always be grateful for where we are. We have been truly blessed as Jews to make a life, both as families and as a community, here in America. But when we are grateful for where we are, we should never forget who we are. Ethnically, religiously, in every facet of our being, in every aspect of our lives.