Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Woman President

Following is a text version of my sermon from 1/18/20 – mazaltov to my cousins Andrea and Gidon Margolin on the naming of their beautiful daughter Romi Maya!

     If you happened to be watching the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate this past week you heard one of the best debate lines to come along in many a long year.  The question was about whether a woman could win the presidential election, and Elizabeth Warren was quick to point out that of the six people on the debate stage, the two women – Warren herself, and Amy Klobuchar – had never lost an election, while the four men who were there all had.  Classic debate moment – in one sharp line, you say something positive about yourself, you criticize your opponent, and you know people will be talking about it the next day.  And we all were.  Take that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders!

     Whether Elizabeth Warren will be the woman to finally put that question to bed remains to be seen.  For the time being she is locked in a tight race with Sanders, her once friend and now nemesis, and it seems at this point like one of them will indeed be the democratic nominee.  But if it doesn’t happen in 2020 it can only be a matter of time before a woman will be president.  When you think about it the US is actually lagging in the area of women’s political leadership.  Germany had Angela Merkel, Britain has had Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Israel had our beloved Golda Meir.  Canada had Kim Campbell.  But so far in the US?  Bupkiss, as we say.  Not even a woman vice president to date.

     If it ever were to happen, now seems to feel like it might be the time.  Have you noticed in recent months how many of our major movie and TV programs revolve around women heroes?  On the small screen – or maybe not so small screen anymore – you have the TV series the Crown, about Queen Elizabeth’s life, as well as the Marvelous Ms Maisel, and the more recently popular Fleabag.  Each of these shows features a strong willed, savvy, intelligent woman who is willing to push the limits and speak truth to power, even if that power is represented by men.  

     In the movie world we’ve gone from Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, the original Star Wars hero, to Daisy Ridley’s Ray, the woman who is the hero in the newest Star Wars trilogy.  And of course you can’t miss Little Women, the newest movie version of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott.  This film, which tells the novel’s story faithfully but plays around a bit with the chronology, is a wonderful tour de force of acting and directing, and a powerful statement about life from a woman’s perspective, a perspective not often explored in the world of Hollywood cinema.  

     But we don’t need to look to contemporary culture for women who are heroes and role models.  They’ve been around for a long time, and are at least as old as the Torah.  We’ve just finished reading the book of Genesis, and in story after story we met women who were at the center of the great events of their day.  In each generation in Genesis a woman plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along in the direction God intends.  Sarah makes sure that Hagar is out of Abraham’s house so that Isaac will be the sole inheritor of the covenant.  Rebecca takes this to the next level, directing her son Jacob in the deception of Isaac so the birthright and blessing will go to Jacob and not Esau.  And as we saw in last week’s Torah portion, Rachel remains in Jacob’s mind, to the very end of his life, his one true love.   In each generation the matriarchs – just as well as the patriarchs, and in some cases even more so – are central figures in the historical narrative of our people.  

     And that certainly does not end with the book of Genesis!  This morning we began reading the Book of Exodus, and in the midst of the exodus narrative, with Moses and Aaron, with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with the plagues and ultimately the splitting of the sea, it is easy to lose track of the crucial roles that women play in the story.   But the truth is there is a women’s narrative in Exodus, almost like a second theme or motif in the book, and it is particularly evident in the opening chapters that we read this morning.  On many levels it is actually the women who are propelling the action, and over and over again in the story a woman must make a choice to act, and if she doesn’t, the story would literally end.  It is no wonder that our Sages, in the Talmudic tractate Sotah, make the following statement:  בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור  – נגאלו ישראל ממצריים – it was because of the merit of the righteous women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

     What did these women do?

     Harold Kushner, in his commentary in our Humash on this morning’s portion notes that there is a subtle pattern in the Moses story – namely, that Moses’ life is constantly threatened by men, and when that happens, he is saved by women.  It happens with his mother – whose name was?  Yocheved!  She makes the decision to hide him in the basket and send him down the Nile when she can no longer conceal his presence.  Then it is Pharaoh’s daughter who draws him out of that basket.  Then it is Moses’ sister – what is her name?  Miriam! – who happens to be there and manages to arrange for Moses’ mother to nurse him and take care of him.  Then later in the portion there is a bizarre scene where Moses is mysteriously attacked when he and his wife – what is her name?  Tzipporah! – are traveling.  And it is Tzipporah’s action in that strange story (Exodus 4) that saves the day. 

     So the Talmudic Sages are picking up on this story, and they seem to be saying that without the actions of each of these women – Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter,  Miriam, and Tzipporah – then Moses would not have survived, and if Moses didn’t survive, it is possible we would still be slaves in Egypt, and not sitting in a beautiful chapel here in Baltimore, worshipping freely.  We might amend the Talmudic statement, and say it wasn’t the merit of the righteous women that redeemed Israel – instead, it was their determination and courageous action that ultimately enabled Israel to go free.

     I must also say this morning it strikes me as no coincidence that we have had the blessing of celebrating Romi’s naming.  As Andrea and Gidon explained, she is named after people who have been important in their lives and in their family.  But Romi Maya also is the great, great granddaughter of my Bubbie, Kate Schwartz, whom many of you in the room today knew as a true matriarch in our family, strong, determined, proud, and fiercely loyal to her family and her faith.

     With Gidon and Andrea’s guidance may Romi share in some of those qualities as well.  I suspect by the time she is aware of such things there will already have been a woman president of the United States.  And if not, you know what – maybe she will be the first.  Wouldn’t that be something?  A woman – and a Jew – in the Oval Office!

     As they say – halavei!!

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

He Said She Said

Like the first baseman chatting with the player who just hit a single, we’ll never know what that exchange between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren was about at the end of the most recent Democratic primary debate.  From all appearances it didn’t look warm and fuzzy.  There was no handshake, no body language of ‘we’re all in this together.’  If anything, it looked more like an agree to disagree moment.  That may be the best we’ll get at this point.

I am guessing that you know that the entire kerfuffle came about because of a disputed statement, supposedly made by Sanders to Warren, during a closed door meeting.  She said he said that a woman can never be president.  He is saying that what he actually said is a woman won’t be able to beat Trump.  When asked about it at the debate, he denied, while she came up with the line of the night (only the women on this stage are undefeated in elections!).  Whichever one of her staffers came up with that zinger should get a bonus.

I am less interested in the he said, she said than in the substance of the claim itself.  Actually, both claims.  Can a woman be president?  And can a woman beat Trump in a general election?  The answer to both questions has to be yes.  The first one is easy to answer – of course at some point a woman will be president.  Many have pointed to the fact that Hillary Clinton had millions of more votes than Trump, despite losing in the electoral college system.  That alone indicates that women are very close.  It seems (to me, at least) it is just a matter of time.

Which leads to the second question – can a woman beat Trump in a general election?  We can’t answer that by returning to Hillary’s simple majority victory.  Instead, what we are really asking is can two specific women – namely, Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar – beat the current president in the upcoming election of 2020?  You would have to hope so.  Both women are intelligent, well versed in the issues, savvy, have a nuanced understanding of and respect for the political system, and are experienced as well.  But the real answer is we won’t know until first of all, one of them becomes the nominee, and second of all, the general election results are counted in November of this year.

One thing I can tell you for sure – the time feels ripe for a woman in the White House.  Just take a quick glance around at popular culture, always, I believe, a good measure of the general zeitgeist.  Little Women has returned as a splendid movie that feels entirely contemporary, with its protagonist Jo March playing as a proto-feminist character.  If you watch the Crown on Netflix you are currently seeing a truly spectacular performance by Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth.  The series Fleabag  on Amazon (via the BBC) has become a sleeper hit with its living on the edge lead character making her life in London.  Even the newest Star Wars trilogy focuses on a young woman as its central hero!

You may remember the Star Wars setup line:  A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

If it can happen there, it can happen here.  In fact, maybe it should!  We will all know soon enough.

And by the way, can it only be coincidence that the Queen and Senator Warren share the same first name?

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

There and Back Again

It just caught my eye.  The way the sun touched on the upper branches of those distant trees, each branch covered in glittering snow, sparkling and shining in the early morning light.  The quiet of dawn.  The soft and gentle rising of the sun.  The island of light that formed, as if from nothing, the trees, oaks and maples, reaching to that light and carefully holding the beauty of the fresh snow.  My morning prayers offered from that high spot, gazing out towards the east.  A new day arriving in infinite increments of increasing light.

What is the great line from the end of Casablanca, that Rick says to Ilsa?  The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world?  In a strange way there is comfort in that thought.  The world does not revolve around us, around our concerns and cares.  We are part of a greater tale, playing a small part, but connected in with all that has gone before us and all that will come after.  Every once in a while we are granted a moment of insight into that simple fact.  And so it was for me that morning, with the early light, the white snow, the high branches, the rising sun.

There is a wonderful scene in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s great tale of adventure, subtitled ‘There and Back Again.’  Bilbo and the dwarves are lost in Mirkwood Forest, a dark and dangerous wood.  The dwarves urge Bilbo to climb to the top of a tall tree, thinking perhaps he might be able to see the edge of the forest to help them find a way out.  At the end of an arduous climb he suddenly emerges from the darkness as his head pokes through the forest’s canopy.  Here is Tolkien’s description of that moment:

“Bilbo’s eyes were nearly blinded by the light.  He could hear the dwarves shouting at him from far below, but he could not answer, only hold on and blink.  The sun was shining brilliantly, and it was a long while before he could bear it.  When he could, he saw all around him a sea of dark green, ruffled here and there by the breeze;  and there were everywhere hundreds of butterflies.  He looked at them for a long time, and enjoyed the feel of the wind in his hair and on his face;  but at length the cries of the dwarves, who were now simply stamping with impatience down below, reminded him of his real business.”

The momentary vision must always end, and we are inevitably called back to the real world.

You’ll remember the song “I Can See Clearly Now,” from the album of the same name recorded by Johnny Nash in 1971.  It was a huge hit, reaching #1 on the US Billboard charts in 1972.  Here is a part of the well known lyric:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies
And here a link to the original recording:  Clearly Now

1 Comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Uncategorized

Reflections on Antisemitism

If you’ve been to Europe you know that the vast majority of Jewish institutions there have armed guards at their doors.  Certainly any large and recognizably Jewish organization – a synagogue, a museum – will have an armed guard.  This past summer we were in Prague, and on Shabbat morning the city’s main shul had two guards outside, one actually giving each and every person who wanted to enter a full interview (where are you from, what is your Hebrew name, do you belong to a congregation, etc).  Along the same lines,  if you’ve been to Israel, you know that many public places have armed guards at their entrances, to include pubs, food stores, shopping malls, let alone the museums and shuls.

I’ve been wondering if this is the place where the American Jewish community is headed.  A few years ago it would have been inconceivable to most American Jews that they would have to set up a security station in the entranceway of their synagogues, JCCs, or Federations.  But over the last two plus years virtually every Jewish organization in America has increased its security, from simple locks on doors to the physical presence of an armed guard, to metal detectors.  Last winter I went to Shabbat services in Florida, and passed through three stages of security before I entered the sanctuary – at the parking lot entrance, walking through a metal detector to enter the building, and then the presence of an armed guard.

In my synagogue we’ve gone from almost no security two and a half years ago to an armed guard on duty at all times and an ID scan requirement for entry.  We have panic buttons on the bimah.  We’ve run active shooter drills with our Hebrew school children and our day care staff.  With each successive assault  – whether on a synagogue, a home, an individual, a grocery store – we grow more concerned, and more careful.  And the simple truth is, our members are scared.  My synagogue is about as visible as a Jewish institution can be – a large building, right off a major highway, easy access from multiple directions.  Oh, and since our name begins with the letter ‘b,’ we are right at the top of the phone listing.

I must confess, full disclosure, I am not quite sure what to do with the various statements of condemnation and outrage that are released after these antisemitic incidents take place.  After a while it seems like they are filled with the same stock phrases and say the same things, things that we all know.  Of course this is horrible, heinous, awful.  Of course we stand in solidarity with those affected.  Of course we must be vigilant.  Of course we must reject hate and embrace tolerance.  Of course we are thinking of those whose lives have been changed for ever, and yes, we are actually praying for them.  I suppose it all must be said, and perhaps it even helps in some way.  I just worry that it is almost starting to sound like a form letter, and we just cut and paste the date and place where the tragedy occurred.

And yet we can not turn away, or become indifferent, in the face of these repeated and hateful acts.  Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and I am afraid tragedy fatigue might be as well.  These antisemitic incidents can all too easily be lost in the ever increasing national plague of gun violence.  The truth is, they can even become lost in themselves, one after another.  How much can one pay attention to?  How much can one’s soul truly and deeply feel?

We must be vigilant, and we can control that.  Our campus is significantly – significantly! – safer that it was two years ago, even a year ago.  We have been proactive, and we have embraced the consideration of worst case scenarios, something that is necessary in today’s world.  We have been willing to inconvenience ourselves, put ourselves out a bit here and there as individuals, to increase the security and safety for all.  We are doing this communally as well, and virtually every morning I receive an emailed security briefing from a trusted security expert about what is happening around the country, and in our community.  This email is sent to every Jewish organization in Baltimore.

We must also continue to speak out, to raise awareness, to keep each antisemitic incident and comment in the public eye.  And while doing that to remember that this is not happening in a vacuum.  Incidents of antisemitism are treated as hate crimes, and hate can extend to many other minority groups, whether Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and the list could go on and on.  What we must remember is that one minority group will not be spared while another is attacked.  Ultimately hate and prejudice become like a viscous scum, seeping through the streets and affecting everyone.  Jews are not hated in a vacuum.  Instead, Jews are hated along with other groups that are hated.

My last thought after this overly long posting:  I am hopeful.  When the Pittsburgh shooting happened, the response was over whelming and powerful.  One of the most touching experiences I had during those difficult days came from receiving hundreds of hand written letters from members of a local church, each note telling us we were loved, respected, and cared for.  Later that day, my neighbor walked down the street a ways to greet me, offering me words of support and condolence.

The vast majority of people are good, kind, and caring.  The common humanity that binds us all together is more powerful than hate or prejudice, small mindedness or fear.  We must remind one another of this everyday, as we continue to work – together – to create a world of justice, tolerance, and peace.

3 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, civil rights, community, gay rights, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Angel or Man?

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/21.  Best to all for a Happy Hanukkah –

     The following scenario may be familiar to you – less so for your children and grandchildren, who have grown up with cell phones and GPS.  There are two people, driving in a car.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the two people are husband and wife.  And let’s also say – again, for argument’s sake – that the husband is driving.  They are going to a place that is not familiar to them, and they seem to have reached a point where they are not one hundred percent sure where they are.  In other words, they are lost.  The wife is encouraging the husband to pull over to ask for directions, but he is resistant.

     Finally they are at a stop sign, and a young stranger walks by.  The woman rolls her window down – some of you will remember roll down windows, as well – and she calls out.  The stranger comes over to their car, and once they tell him where they are trying to go, he gives them directions.  A few minutes later, they reach their destination.  Later that evening the woman says to her husband, we were lucky we ran across that young man.  The husband, of course, says “I would have found it!”

     The predicament I just described is essentially the situation that our ancestor Joseph finds himself in in this morning’s Torah portion, called Vayeishev.  You’ll remember the story of Joseph – the 11th son of his father Jacob, born to his mother Rachel, Joseph has a troubled relationship with his other brothers from the time he is young.  In part this is caused by his father’s favoritism, the symbol of which is the coat of many colors that Jacob has given Joseph as a special gift.  But in part Joseph’s sibling issues seem to stem from his own personality.

     After the Torah establishes these facts the brothers are sent by Jacob on a shepherding mission that takes them a number of days away from home.  Jacob then – maybe against his better judgement – sends Joseph, all alone, knowing of the animosity between him and his brothers – to go out and find them.  And of course we know the rest of the story.  Once he does find them they strip him of his fancy coat, throw him into a pit, and ultimately sell him into slavery.  

     But in the course of this narrative Joseph finds himself in exactly the same situation as our husband and wife in the car.   He is lost, in an unfamiliar area, and he does not seem to want to ask for directions.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a mysterious man appears.  Referred to in the Torah only as an איש – meaning simply ‘a man’ – the stranger approaches Joseph and asks him מה תבקש – what are you looking for?  It is the Torah’s way of saying ‘can I help you?’  Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers.  The man just happens to know exactly where they are, and sends Joseph to meet them.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

     And I mean that literally.  He finds his brothers.  They sell him into slavery.  He is brought to Egypt.  Ultimately he becomes the second most powerful man in the entire country.  When there is a famine in the land of Israel Jacob and his other sons come to join Joseph.  The Israelites will be enslaved.  Moses will be born, will meet God in the form of a burning bush, and will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  And to this very day, each spring, we celebrate Passover and tell the story of יציאת מצרים – of Exodus from Egypt.  All because of this mysterious man who sees Joseph lost, and asks if he can help.

     If you have any sense of rabbinic commentary, you probably already know that the traditional commentators are very interested in the identity of Joseph’s mysterious stranger.  They suggest a number of possibilities as to who the stranger might have been.  The great biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 11th century, explains that the stranger was really the angel Gabriel, sent by God to guide Joseph on the way.  Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain, believed that the man was just a simple passer by, a regular old Joe who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  But it is the comment of the Ramban, Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, that I find the most interesting.  He writes about the mysterious stranger – כי זימן לו הקב׳׳ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו – which means, God sent him a guide – שלא מדעתו – without his knowledge.

     The question is, without whose knowledge?  It is unclear from what the Ramban writes whether he means without Joseph’s knowledge, or without the knowledge of the mysterious stranger.  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  It might mean that the stranger was sent, and Joseph didn’t know he would find a guide along the way.  But it could just as well mean that the stranger himself didn’t know he would end up being Joseph’s guide.  

     The first interpretation, I suppose, makes the most sense.  Certainly Joseph had no reason to expect to suddenly find someone, in the middle of nowhere, who would be able to point the way to his brothers.  But the second interpretation – that the stranger didn’t know he would end up helping Joseph – is, at least to me, more interesting.  Let me explain.

     We often don’t realize the effect our actions have on others.  We might say something, or do something, and in our minds what we’ve said or done is for all intents and purposes insignificant – we might not even remember it – as the Ramban said, שלא מדעתו – we do it almost without knowing it.  But what we’ve said, or done, can make a big difference in someone else’s life.  The right word of encouragement at exactly the right time.  A small act of kindness that passes in a moment, but brings warmth to someone’s heart on a difficult day.  All the stranger did was point Joseph in the right direction.  But because of that small act, everything was different.

     I’ll conclude this morning with a quick Hanukkah story.  We got a call a few weeks ago from a family that wanted to do something nice for a family in need, but whatever they did they wanted it to be strictly anonymous.  So we said ‘sure, we know of a family that could use a little extra help around the holidays.’  Thursday the family that wanted to do the mitzvah brought in a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages.  We then called the family in need, that the gifts were intended for.  It has been a terribly difficult year for them.  Illness.  Loss of a job.  Just one thought thing after another.  

     You should have seen the look on the face of the parent who came to pick up those gifts.  For a few moments the burdens were lifted.  For a few moments the parent was reminded of goodness and hope and kindness and possibility.  Knowing that they would have gifts to give to their children on Hanukkah.  Suddenly knowing that a holiday they were probably dreading, would be – filled with light.

     They will never know the identity of the family that did that kindness for them.  And the family that did the kindness will never know the impact their generosity had.  The difference they made.  In both cases, שלא מדעתו – they’ll just never know.  But I would say, somewhere, somehow, in someway, God knows.  May both those families be blessed with kindness, goodness, happiness, and health.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Winter Reading 2019-2020

84DAD841-D034-4BE0-AD06-F56D22F47DE9

A brief dusting of snow in the mid-atlantic yesterday reminds us that winter has arrived and will be around for a bit.  With longer nights and colder days and the natural inclination during this time of year to hibernate, here are a few books that I expect to be reading over the next couple of months:

The Club, by Leo Damrosch.  It is the 1760s, and on Friday nights in London you can find a brilliant and exceptional cast of characters meeting at the Turk’s Head Tavern.  The Club’s members include Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Edmund Burke.  Damrosch brings these characters alive, and conjures a sense of 18th century Britain where they met, hashing out the intellectual issues of their day.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang.  Nine short stories that explore some of humanity’s oldest questions through the lenses of time travel and alternate universes.  Chiang is the author of the short story ‘Story of Your Life,’ that became the award winning film Arrival.  His prose was recently described in the New Yorker as ‘soulful science fiction.’

The Lost Art of Scripture, by Karen Armstrong.  One of the most important contemporary religious voices, in this book Armstrong attempts to reclaim sacred scripture from the current trend to either read it literally or to discard it.  She argues that scripture is not meant to be read literally, but instead should be seen as a fluid literature intended to open the door to spiritual life.

And a last word (or two).  I’ve just finished reading a wonderful novel called The Overstory, written by Richard Powers.  It is a book about trees, but also about how much we humans have to learn about the world around us, our responsibility for that world, and the humility we should have when faced with the vastness of creation, both in space and time.  Written in beautiful prose, all at once touching, poignant, sad, and hopeful, if you are looking for a novel that can help you contextualize the current climate crisis, this may be it.  I highly recommend it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Strangers in a Strange Land

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, Jewish life, politics, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized