Deserving to be Jewish – Shabbat Nachamu

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם–כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים:  אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה.ד

Keep them and do [these statutes and rules], for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.(Deut. 4:6)

This week, in this verse, we learn the bold and surprising principle that Torah — and the Jewish people — are are supposed to be a public good A blessing for the whole world. Isaiah the prophet expands this in a familiar metaphor: “I will also make you a light unto the nations, that my salvation will reach the ends of the earth(Is. 49:6).” God has a message —Torah — for everybody, and we are the advertisement.

This should intrigue us, because instead of depicting a world of moral relativism, the Torah indicates that all people should naturally be able to appreciate the Jewish wisdom — that the plain righteousness of Jewish wisdom is basically common sense. Jewish rationalists here (and at Beth El, I know we have a lot) here will appreciate this story from the Talmud: In Masechet Shabbat, what does Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman say? “It is a mitzvah for Jews to engage in astronomy — to calculate stellar and planetary movements. (Shab. 75a)” And why? Because of this verse — “they are your wisdom & your understanding in the eyes of the nations.”  Show the person who worships the moon and stars some astronomical data, and they might notice that the sun, moon, & stars follow universal laws, have no will of their own, no sentience, no personality, and — eureka! discover that they are not gods. That Judaism sure has a lot of common sense!

Now this easily applies to the foible of mistaking natural bodies as the source of justice or God. And indeed, it even makes the case for the open marketplace for ideas that our generation enjoys. Because we want the P.R. for God —we want to share Jewish truths with the world!

But how have we done, as a public good?

I don’t want to spend all day making the case, but in the spirit of Lavar Burton and the newly revived Reading Rainbow, I’d like to introduce you to this book: The Torah Revolution: 14 Truths That Changed the World by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, PhD. In this book, Rabbi Hammer outlines the many unique truths that Judaism brought and continues to bring into the world, which include:

  • God is Unique
  • Morality is God’s Supreme Demand-
  • Worship is just for Human Benefit
  • Human Life is sacred
  • All Human Beings are Equal
  • Men & Women are Equal (if you still dont think Judaism believes this, definitely read this book)
  • Slavery must be Mitigated
  • A Day of Rest for All

…and many others. So please go online and check out this book (it’s even discounted on Amazon). As Lavar would say, you don’t have to take my word for it.

So we see today that Judaism & Torah are to be a public good —our accessible gift to the world, our advertisement for God. But today, almost surprisingly, it seems like our brand is — quite literally — under fire. If our nation and laws were supposed to be clearly just in the world, then our current predicament has obscured this. That is to say that with all the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism around, it has become much harder for Jews to be themselves, to be themselves, and to share their wisdom and their understanding with the world.

While I was in Ireland on my honeymoon, Elyssa and I had shabbat dinner with two young members of the Dublin Jewish community. We discover  that they are very concerned about the angry tone and marked one-sidedness of the Israel-Palestinian conversation in their country, but they are afraid to speak up because of possible repercussions. This this the case especially too on college campuses, both in Europe and here, and this is where I’m really quite afraid. That in addition to the pressure of simply fitting in as a Jew, that there is now often an added social cost to being outwardly Jewish, or pro-Israel. And for some, god forbid, there is sometimes a physical cost. I fear that around the world, on Facebook and in person, many of our young Jewish students are being bullied into silence.

So how do we deal with this, that we’re told today that our Torah Wisdom and experience are supposed to be a public good to the nations, an advertisement for God—- when it would seem that some of “the nations” want to shut down our station! There are voices telling us that we shouldn’t stand out, be Jewish, or support Israel. Even for me, who was raised to be a nice Jewish boy, the constant advocacy and facing of uncomfortable realities is draining, and I know I’m not alone. We’re supposed to be a light unto the nations, but in this climate we seemed pushed to fit in, to simply blow the light out.

Milton Steinberg, one of my favorite jewish authors, took up this question 70 years ago, and much of what follows I borrow quite directly from him. He cited that blowing the light out was the typical American solution to anti-Semitic pressure — that is to say — become less Jewish, or less distinct, or less outspoken, or less observant, or less different. Less ourselves.

But Steinberg says, this process of becoming less ourselves, less Jewish, is like resisting the Borg — is futile:

  1. We’re often not accepted anyway, because our identity transcends our attempts to escape it.
  2. It gives us an inferiority complex — hence the self-hating Jew.
  3. It leads to repression and timidity. It hurts us. It hurts who we are inside. It hurts our dignity of self-expression.

In letting our Jewishness slip into the background, Steinberg sums it up: “Here is neither peace, nor happiness, nor proper adjustment.”

He then says something that blew my mind, and it’s in this that I hope can direct us to some inspiration that we can pray on at musaf today. Steinberg points out that there’s a paradox and contradiction in our sensitivity to anti-Semitism because our lot is infinitely better than that of our ancestors. From the Crusades, to the Ghetto, years of bloodshed of persecution— our Medieval ancestors suffered from anti-Semitism on a daily basis  to an extent which we can scarcely imagine. But they seemed to not have given it much thought. There are no major tomes about anti-Semitism — violence against Jews, perhaps. But how to deal with problem  “anti-Semitism” didn’t seem to matter.

Why?

It is because our Medeival ancestors, Steinberg says, were not tired of Judaism. It directed their lives. It gave them ideals. And it gave them a sense of dignity. In consequence, the world might rage against them as it would, they never gave a thought to anti-Semitism per se. Whatever suffering might be their lot as Jews, they took, Steinberg says, as an inevitable part of an eminently worthwhile task.

We can even see this in Israel today — that despite everything the UN and international community —or Hamas, quite literally —throws at them, Israelis see themselves as part of an eminently worthwhile task, a unique and important nation. Like our ancestors, they have strength because, they were neither weary of their Judaism nor their homeland.

But if Judaism does makes us weary, if it gives us no ideals, if we have no deep sense that what we are doing as Jews is worthwhile, then, Steinberg says “every petty limitation or restriction chafes us, burdens us and haunts us until it fills our lives with distortion and a loss of a sense of values.” Without a life-giving mission, the social cost of being different becomes too much, and we get tired of it.

Now Rabbi’s Steinberg’s solution, as he attributes to our Medieval ancestors, was not less Judaism but more. The results of this owning of who we are, of investing in Judaism, were great — a sense of pride, Purposefulness, and (and this is my favorite quote for because it demonstrates one of the great benefits of religion), the ability to “recapture that sublime sense of indifference to the opinions of others that comes to those who are engaged in an important work.”

Ki hi chochmatchem uvinatchem leyney haamim —because Torah and Jewish ideals are our wisdom to give, and if we let them go because of embarrassment, or conflation with anti-Israel sentiments, or worry about social acceptance, we will grow weary, repressed, and unhappy, and the world will be lesser for our loss.

Because all of you, my friends, deserve to be Jewish.

You deserve to have a nuanced conversation about Israel that involves care and justice for all human lives, alongside recognition of the great moral decisions that our Jewish State makes, both with difficulty and with immense care. And you deserve to know what this Torah, this gift of love written directly to you from God — you deserve to know what it has to say. You deserve to feel your heritage, your people’s ideals coarsing through your veins, filling your life with purpose like adrenaline. And you deserve to shine your light unto the nations — both your light as an ben yisrael or bat yisrael and your light as a unique individual with unique destiny, whose very soul, the Proverbs say, is ner adonai — is the candle of God, shining forth into the world.

You deserve to be Jewish. Our Torah has had and continues to have a profound effect on the world. Rabbi Hammer’s book begins to outline just the beginning of how we have already redefined the meanings of justice, mercy, and faith all over this planet. And we’re just at the beginning. In these weeks of needed comfort before the High Holy days, may we not repress who we are or be daunted by the news, but may we put down deeper roots in Torah and God for greater strength. In this hour, may we not miss this opportunity to be the light unto the nations that we already are in our own hearts, to be the Jews that we deserve to be.