When Will We Realize That The Guns Are The Problem? – Toldot 5779

Here we are again.  One week ago, we came to synagogue in shock and mourning over the massacre of eleven mostly elderly Jews who had come to synagogue to pray.  Today, we are still reeling from the murder of 12 young adults who had gathered to dance for college night at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks.  One of the victims had survived the Las Vegas shooting last October.

When I woke up to the news two days ago, I just felt nauseous.  My heart is sick from this senseless violence.  When will this end?  What is wrong with our society?

There are indications that the shooter had a history of mental illness, and possibly PTSD from his service in the Marines.  

What do these, and all of the other mass shootings have in common?  Guns.

Every time there is another tragedy, we start arguing about gun control again.

Does Judaism have anything to say about gun ownership?  As is typical, one can manipulate the sources to support any conclusion.  We have gun enthusiasts in our congregation.  My bias is definitely anti-gun.  I grew up in a home in which there were no toy guns.  We were not allowed to turn anything into a toy gun.  So it is pretty ingrained in me.  

I am not unique.  The common wisdom is that Jews don’t own guns.  In fact, there is data to support this.  According to a 2005 study, Jews had the lowest rate of gun ownership among all religious groups in the United States.  The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have repeatedly issued formal calls for increased gun control, turning to Jewish law and tradition to support their positions.  That is something on which we all agree.

Where does this Jewish antipathy towards guns come from?

Since ancient times Jewish law has not looked favorably upon weapons.  It is forbidden to sell weapons to idolaters, and to Jewish bandits.  In other words, to someone who might use those weapons inappropriately.

A Mishnah (Shabbat 6:4) discusses whether the weapons that a soldier might carry during peacetime should be considered as decorations or tools.  At the end of the discussion, the Sages declare that even though they must sometimes be used, weapons are inherently disgraceful.  As proof, the Mishnah quotes the famous passage from Isaiah, describing a messianic vision of a world at peace.  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)

Finally, because the laws of kashrut require animals to be slaughtered in a specific fashion, hunting has never been popular in Judaism, for practical reasons.  Plus, it is considered to be cruel to the animals.  This disapproval for hunting is evident in the Torah itself.  We find it in this morning’s parashah, Toldot.

Esau is one of two people whom the Torah describes as a hunter.  The other is Nimrod.  Neither of them are Israelites, and both are portrayed negatively.

In the beginning of the parashah, Rebecca gives birth to twin boys, Jacob and Esau, after a difficult pregnancy.  Shortly after introducing them, the Torah summarizes their personalities: “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.”  (Gen. 25:27)

Reading the text straightforwardly, we see the classic juxtaposition of the hunter vs. the shepherd.  The commentators delve deeper into the contrast between the two brothers.

Rashi, citing the midrash, claims that Esau would hunt his father, Isaac, with his words, deceiving him into thinking that Esau was a kind, observant young man.  He hid his true nature.  Never mind that it is Jacob who is the one to do the actual deceiving.

Another commentator, Ibn Ezra, claims that hunting is by its nature a deceit-filled activity in which the hunter must trick his prey in order to catch it.

Esau, as depicted by the Rabbis, is a murderer, a brigand, and a rapist.  In contrast to the violent, weapon-loving Esau is Jacob, the mild-mannered brother who uses his head instead of his hands.  He is the one whom the Rabbis prefer, placing him in the Beit Midrash, the Academy, instead of the houses of idolatry.  

The Midrashic depiction of these brothers reveals the Rabbis’ preferences for which kinds of behaviors to emulate and which to avoid.  Their bias against physical violence and arms is abundantly clear.

On the other hand, the principle of pikuach nefesh directs us to do almost everything possible to save life.  There are ancient sources which emphasize the permission, or even obligations, to defend oneself or an innocent person who is under attack.  One might defend gun ownership for purposes of self-defense.

But there are clear limits.  Despite acknowledging the permissibility of using force in certain circumstances, the Rabbis are always concerned with going too far.  Someone who kills in self-defense, in a situation in which it would have been possible to only injure the assailant, is considered to liable under Jewish law.

It is fair to say that Judaism would support fairly rigorous gun regulations.

Over the last few years, the idea of “Common Sense Gun Laws” has been tossed around.  Even though they are so “common sense,” they still generate opposition from the NRA.  Practically, this means that nothing happens at the Federal level.

To be clear, there is no agreement on what “common sense” means.  Here are some of the regulations that are typically described as “Common Sense Gun Laws.”

• A ban on semi-automatic weapons, or assault-style weapons

• A limit on the capacity of bullet magazines

• Red flag laws, in which a relative or police officer who is concerned about a gun owner’s mental state can go to a court to determine whether that person’s gun rights can be suspended.

• And of course, closing the gun show loophole, which permits gun sales from private owners or at gun shows without background checks.

But this week’s killings would not have been prevented by any of these measures.  California already has the most restrictive gun laws in the country.  We have enacted most of the “common sense,” provisions on a statewide level.

The shooter had a license for the handgun that he used.  He also used a high capacity clip.  Although these have recently been made illegal in California, the ban is currently held up in court.  The shooter’s mother had reported her concerns over his mental health, and he had been evaluated earlier this year no decision was made to remove his weapons.

The shooter in Pittsburgh used three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, all purchased legally.  Perhaps more restrictive laws might have made a difference, but I am skeptical.

Most gun deaths do not occur in mass shootings, but it is the mass shootings that tend to generate the most emotional reactions in us.  Gun violence in America is an epidemic .  In 2013, there were 33,636 deaths by firearms.  Of those, 11,208 were homicides, and 21,175 were suicides.  

It’s not the regulations that make the difference.  It’s the guns.  States with higher rates of gun ownership experience higher rates of firearm homicides, while non-firearm murder rates remain at normal levels.

Federal law prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from spending any money to study the public health aspect of gun violence, including mass shootings.  This makes it very difficult to get usable data.

The National Firearms Act forbids “any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions [to] be established.”  This means that the government does not know where the guns are, who owns them, or even how many exist.

When we compare the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States to that of other countries, the contrast is shocking.  According to the OECD, the U.S. has the 4th highest incidence of firearm homicides out of 34 developed nations, behind only Mexico, Turkey, and Estonia. 

Compared to other countries, the United States does very little to restrict gun ownership.  The result: there are a lot of guns.  That is why we have so many gun-related suicides, murders, and mass shootings.  If guns were not around, gun violence would not exist.  That is common sense.

Do not expect this to change anytime soon.  While it might only be a fraction of Americans who own guns, we have a national fascination.  Why does the Second Amendment guarantee “the right to bear arms,” and why do people feel so passionate about it?

In America, the idea of private gun ownership is built on suspicion.  Part of the American mythos is that we have a deep mistrust of the state.  We need to be able to own guns to protect ourselves from a government that might become corrupt, or from other people when the government is unable to protect us.

Is gun ownership a God-given right?  Of course not.  It is a human-bestowed right.  There are many countries in the world that come close to outlawing guns altogether.  Would we say that they are violating God’s will?

Private handgun ownership is essentially illegal in Great Britain.  Even the police do not typically carry guns.  In the 12 months that ended in March 2016, the highest number of firearm deaths in four years was recorded:  26.  This is consistent with other countries around the world.

But we in America like our guns.  So we have to ask: Is it possible to have a society in which there are a lot of guns without high murder rates?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Imagine a society in which, to own a gun, a person had to undergo extensive background checks.  The government would look into criminal, physical and mental health history.  The person would need to demonstrate a bona fide reason for needing a gun, such as living in an area that is particularly dangerous, or working as a civilian security guard.  Anyone with a gun would need to take a training course on responsible gun ownership.

Because the disproportionate amount of gun deaths occur in young adults, a person would have to be at least 27 years old to be eligible for a license.  If he or she had undergone combat training as a combat soldier in the military, the age would be 21. 

The owner must demonstrate that there is a gun safe in the house. To maintain the gun license, a person would need to complete a refresher course every three years.  Since a person’s mental state changes over time, the gun owner would receive a psychological evaluation every six years.

Finally, since the purpose of the gun is for self-defense, an owner would be limited to owning one handgun, and would be restricted to owning 50 bullets at any given time.  

There could be some variations for those who use guns for sport or for hunting.

How does that sound?

I have just described the gun ownership laws of one country.  Can you guess which one?

Israel

There is no “right to bear arms” in Israel. The private gun ownership rate in Israel is 7.3 guns per 100 people.  In America, it is 88.8 guns per 100 people.

But wait, you are thinking.  I have been to Israel.  There are guns all over the place.  It seems like everyone has a gun.  Soldiers.  Police.  Guards outside of buildings.  The vast majority of firearms in Israel are issued by the military, and fall under military jurisdiction, which has extremely tight rules.  Anyone who violates those rules would have to face a military tribunal.  Only 4% of guns in Israel are not issued by the military.  So there are a lot of guns in Israel, but the regulations on those guns is extremely tight.

What is the result?

In 2009, the death rate in Israel from guns was 1.86 per 100,000 people.  In the U.S. in the same year, it was 10.3 — 6 times higher.

In America, protection from the state underlies the obsession with guns.  In Israel, the attitude is the opposite.  Guns are seen as tools for the protection of the state.

I don’t know what it will take to change the culture of suspicion that pervades our nation.  We need to do what we can to foster greater cooperation and trust among one another.  That is the only way that we will be able to bring about Isaiah’s vision.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

May that dream become a reality speedily, in our day.

Opposing Antisemitism After Pittsburgh

I am indebted to this powerful Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at New York’s Central Synagogue, from which I borrowed some ideas and several sources.

I have stated, on more than one occasion, that this is the best time and place to be Jewish in human history.  We have never enjoyed so much freedom, success, safety, and acceptance by the wider society than we do today.  I still believe that.

But last week, we were reminded that antisemitism is very real, and it is not going away any time soon.

Last Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue, eleven Jews, men and women between 54 and 97 years old, were murdered while praying.  These are their names:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfrie, Rose Mallinger—97 years old, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, along with his brother—David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.  May their memories be a blessing.

These were the most dedicated members of their community, the ones who, week after week, showed up at the beginning of services to ensure that there would be a minyan.  They are martyrs: Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s name.  

Their murderer, whose name I will not mention, shouted “All Jews must die” as he slaughtered them.

He did not care if his victims were Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  It did not matter to him whether they were Democrats or Republicans, or whether they leaned to the right or to the left.

All that mattered was that they were Jews.

While the shooter seems to have been working alone, his beliefs were consistent with views embraced by those who identify as part of White Power, Neo Nazi, or Alt-Right movements.  In an article in the The Atlantic last December, journalist Luke O’Brian summarizes White Nationalists’ fears of Jewish influence.

The Holohoax, as it is known, gives its adherents an excuse to blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews: Feminism. Immigration. Globalization. Liberalism. Egalitarianism. The media. Science. Facts. Video-game addiction. Romantic failure. The NBA being 74.4 percent black. According to the Holohoax, it’s all a plot to undermine traditional white patriarchy so Jews can maintain a parasitic dominion over the Earth.

They see Jews as the top of the pyramid, the ultimate cause of everything that they consider bad.  

Saturday’s murderer had been railing against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is one of several agencies that partners with the Federal Government to settle refugees – legal refugees, by the way.  HIAS had sponsored National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Tree of Life Synagogue had participated proudly.

In one of his final online posts, the shooter wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people, I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”  

Who is to blame for letting immigrants in the country?  The Jews.  The ultimate Other.

Antisemitism has a long and terrible two thousand year history.  We have suffered countless persecutions: expulsions, forced conversions, torture, massacres during the Crusades, the blood libel, blame for the Black Death, the Inquisition, ghettos, the Chmielnitzki Massacres, pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.  

All of these and more were driven by hateful, antisemitic lies and stereotypes.  Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death, Jews are usurers, they are greedy, they have big noses and ears, they run the media, there is a secret organization of Jews that is controlling the world.

While these stereotypes originated in Christendom, they eventually spread into Muslim lands, where blood libels persist to this day and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still in print.

While we seem to have made great progress after the horrors of the Holocaust, the old antisemitism is still very much with us.  

Anyone who has traveled to Europe and tried to visit a Jewish community knows that synagogues there are fortresses.  To attend services on Shabbat in many communities, you have to first send a picture of your passport.  I attended Tisha B’av services in Trieste, Italy, a few years ago.  We barely had a minyan, but we were protected by an Israeli security guard at the door, two machine gun wielding Italian carabinieri, and two undercover police officers.

A synagogue is supposed to be a welcoming place.  It is a House of Worship, a sanctuary, a place of peace.  Sadly, antisemitism prevents this.  But not in America.

Yes, there are some very large, mainly urban synagogues that employ security, but we take for granted that our shuls are open places.  We take pride in it.  As Sinai’s Rabbi, I am constantly inviting people to join us on Shabbat for services, and to stay for lunch afterwards.  I insist, with 100% sincerity, that we love having guests.

In the last week, we have been questioning this sense of safety and security.  We have learned most painfully that antisemitism in not just words and rhetoric.

While Jews in America are trusted and seen positively by higher percentages than ever, we are also seeing increasingly nasty antisemitism on the fringes of both the right and the left.  Let me give a few examples.  As I do, pay close attention to your emotions.  How do you feel as I describe the following examples?

First, the right.

A Republican candidate for State Senate in Connecticut sent out a campaign mailer this week attacking his opponent, Democratic State Representative Matthew Lesser, who happens to be Jewish.  The ad depicts a photoshopped picture of Lesser with bulging eyes, a maniacal grin, hands clutching wads of cash — not dissimilar to other antisemitic caricatures of Jews that have appeared over the past centuries.

Last year, White Nationalists held their Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer.  President Trump infamously told reporters, “I think there is blame on both sides…  You had some very bad people in that group… but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”  The Alt-Right took his words as an endorsement.

Just last week, the President proudly declared himself to be a “nationalist.”  And at a rally Saturday night, just hours after the massacre in Pittsburgh, he railed against immigrants, referring to this coming Tuesday as the “election of the caravan.”

Many have drawn connections between the President’s frequent anti-immigrant, anti-Other language and the hate-driven violence that we have recently witnessed, including the shooting of two African Americans in Kentucky, and the mailing of 14 pipe bombs to targets that the President has verbally attacked repeatedly.

That’s on the right.  How about the left?

Traditionally, the Jews of Great Britain have been strong supporters of the Labour Party.  But its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has tolerated and even encouraged antisemitic rhetoric and actions within the party for years.  In 2012, Corbyn hosted a panel comprised of a number of Hamas members.  In 2013, he suggested that “Zionists don’t understand English irony.”  In 2014, he attended a memorial ceremony and placed a wreath for the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Just recently, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee refused to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

Ilhan Omar is a Democratic representative in Minnesota’s House of Representatives.  This past August, she won the primary for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in Minnesota’s 5th District, meaning she is all but certain to win the general election this Tuesday.  In 2012, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

Liberal Jews should be natural allies for the Women’s March.  And yet, three of the Co-Chairs, most notably Tamika Mallory, have refused to denounce the march’s association with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who has a long history of blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, including praise of Hitler.

Just last Spring, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s annual gathering, at which Farrakhan praised her and declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy… the Jews have control of those agencies of government” like the FBI.  The Jews are “the mother and father of apartheid,” and they are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”  When confronted with this, Mallory refused to disassociate herself or the Women’s March from him.  Quite the opposite, she has often praised and appeared in photographs with Farrakhan.

So let me ask a question.  Over the last four minutes, I spoke about antisemitism on the right and antisemitism on the left:  A Republican ad depicting a Jewish opponent with classic antisemitic imagery; President Trump’s divisive rhetoric encouraging right wing extremists.  I spoke about the leader of the British Labour Party’s tolerance, and even encouragement of antisemitic behavior.  I mentioned a soon to be elected Democratic Congresswoman who made references to global Zionist conspiracies.  And I spoke about an organizer of the Women’s March who has refused to renounce Louis Farrakhan.

Which made you more angry?  Be honest.  Who did you find yourself trying to excuse in some way?  

My guess is that those who consider themselves to be politically liberal got angrier about the antisemitism on the right, while those who consider themselves to be conservative got angrier about the antisemitism of the left.  And both sides probably found themselves minimizing, dismissing, or even rejecting the antisemitism on their own ideological side, or getting mad at me for even suggesting it.

I have been looking at myself this past week, and I have found that I have done all of these things.

On the Conservative Rabbis’ listserv, less than 24 hours had passed, and there were already arguments raging over who was to blame for the rhetoric that encouraged the shooter.  Of course, there were those who placed responsibility on President Trump for fanning the flames of hatred.  But in response, there were accusations that it was in fact President Obama who started the divisive language that led to Trump’s election and Saturday’s tragedy.

Here is what I have observed about how Jews react to antisemitism.  We blame the antisemitism of the other side.  It makes us so mad.  “Why don’t other Jews see it?” we ask in exasperation.

And then we ignore, excuse, or minimize the antisemitism on our own side.  “Those are just a few fringe elements,” we tell ourselves.  “They don’t really matter.”

What is the result?  A few things.  No antisemites change their minds.  Jews on the right and Jews on the left get angrier at each other.  We widen the rifts within the Jewish community. 

Right now, there is a small window of cooperation in our grief.  I was impressed by a joint editorial written by the ideologically opposed Editors-in-Chief of the Forward and The Algemeiner, and signed by a dozen leaders in Jewish journalism.  It was titled #WeAreAllJews.

We […] join together to unequivocally condemn this brutal act of antisemitism and all deadly acts of hate. We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now, especially on college campuses and on social media, where the veneer of anonymity has allowed antisemitic cesspools to flourish, and from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and who are abetted by the silence of others.

I think we can all agree on the following:  Antisemitism is evil, whether it comes from the right or the left.  I can accept that you have a different opinion than me about taxes, or health care, or immigration policies.  But if there is one thing that ought to unite us, it ought to be our Judaism.  We have got to be united in opposing anyone who expresses hatred against the Jewish people, or who stokes that hatred.

What is more important?  Being a Democrat or Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, or being Jewish?  Why would we ever let political affiliation to drive a wedge in the Jewish community?

Don’t just blame the other side.  From now on, I want all of us to commit to calling out the antisemitism that persists on the fringes of our own political perspectives.  Those who are active in progressive causes need to stay engaged.  And similarly with those involved in conservative causes.  Do not allow the organizations and movements that you care about to get hijacked by antisemitism.  Do not allow antisemitic—or any hateful language—to go unchecked.  

Racism and hatred should not have a place in our politics.  If we do not call it out, then we are responsible for allowing it to grow.

This past week, our wider Jewish community gathered together on two occasions.  The first was a service of mourning on Sunday night.  It was attended by more than 400 people who felt an urgent need to come together to express grief and offer each other comfort.

The second gathering was an Interfaith Vigil of Solidarity Against Hate, which took place on Tuesday.

It was a special event.  More than 600 people assembled at the plaza in front of San Jose City Hall.  Mayor Sam Liccardo and the entire City Council attended, along with Joe Simitian, President of the Santa Clara Country Board of Supervisors, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and many of our other local elected officials.

There were also dozens of clergy, and laypeople of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds.  Protestant Ministers and Pastors, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Greek Orthodox Priests, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. These religious leaders brought their congregants with them.

We came together to say that we will not succumb to hatred.  Despite many differences, we are united as human beings, and as Americans.  While the need that brought us together was tragic, the experience of standing shoulder to shoulder was so reassuring. 

How did such a diverse crowd come together?

On Saturday, as soon as news about the shooting emerged, I started receiving personal emails from interfaith colleagues and friends.  They expressed their sorrow to me and offered condolences to our community.  They said that they would be reciting prayers and lighting memorial candles during their worship services the next day.  They offered to help our community in any way possible, including standing outside our entrances during service so that we would feel safe while we prayed.

Who was it that sent these messages?  Some were members of a small interfaith group of which I am a member.  We have met every month for the past couple of years to study and learn from each other.

One email came from a representative of the Evergreen Mosque.  Last year, when that community received a bomb threat, I was one of several dozen people of different faiths who stood outside the entrance to support their community during its Friday prayers.  

Another came from a leader in the local Hindu community, who I have gotten to know through a different interfaith organization.

When we decided to hold the Interfaith Vigil, I immediately sent out the notification to my interfaith colleagues, and many of them came, on very short notice.

All of my local Rabbinic Colleagues had the same experiences.  And this is true of the countless other interfaith vigils, services, and rallies which have taken place around the country this past week.

A threat, or God forbid an attack, is uniquely personal to the community that experiences it.  Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.  All Jews are interconnected with one another.  At the same, how remarkable it is that people from extraordinarily different traditions feel such profound empathy for one another.

Can you imagine this happening in any other time or place in history?

I suspect that many of you had experiences this week in which non-Jewish friends, acquaintances, or co-workers reached out to express their condolences and sorrow.  Why do you think they did that?

Because they see you as a whole person, and they know that being Jewish is an important part of who you are.  And they value you for that.  That is what makes America so special.  And that is why I do not think we are facing the same situation as Germany in the 1930’s, or even contemporary Europe.

Antisemitism will certainly continue to exist.  It may even turn violent.  But I have faith in the goodness of most people.  

I was reminded this week of a letter that President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Road Island in 1790.  While his address is specifically addressed to the American Jewish community, it really expresses the best of what pluralism and religious freedom is supposed to be in America – for people of all faiths.  I would like to conclude with these words by our Founding Father.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Amen.

Tzedakah or Selfishness – Vayera 5779

Justice, tzedakah, is one of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Vayera.  As God contemplates the fate of the Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Jordan River Valley, God decides to hire a consultant.  

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…—tzedakah u’mishpat.

God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy the two cities because of the extreme wickedness of their inhabitants.  Abraham immediately challenges God:  Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha  

Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?…  Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…

God is convinced, promising “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

This is just the opening salvo in the negotiation.  Abraham lowers the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 innocent people to save the remainder of the population.  God agrees every time.  

It seems, based on God’s original assessment, that this was the plan all along.  After all, God has already identified Abraham as someone who will pass on the values of tzedakah and mishpat — justice and righteousness — to his children.

It turns out that there are not even 10 righteous individuals in the two cities, leaving God free to carry out the original sentence.  Perhaps if Abraham had gone still lower…  God would probably have agreed.

This story depicts Abraham at his best.  He puts everything on the line for the sake of his fellow human beings.  These particular human beings are the worst of the worst,  but Abraham cannot sit idly by, even for such a depraved population.

Soon afterwards, Abraham and Sarah find themselves the land of Gerar, which is near Gaza.  As in a prior encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister.  So what happens?  The King, Avimelech, thinking that she is single, has Sarah brought into his household.  [She is 89 years old at the time, but never mind.]

Before anything happens, God speaks to Avimelech in a dream.  “You are to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman!”

Still in the dream, Avimelech defends himself.  “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent? — ha’goy gam tzadik ta’harog?  Sound familiar?  Avimelech makes the argument with God on his own behalf as Abraham made earlier on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God agrees, and instructs Avimelech to return Sarah to her husband.

The next day, Avimelech confronts Abraham.  “What did I ever do to you?  You’ve brought disaster upon us.  You have done things to me that ought not to be done!”

Abraham’s response is difficult to hear. “I thought,” he says, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”  (Gen. 20:11)  Then he offers some weak excuse explaining how Sarah is really his half-sister, and he did not technically lie.  Whether she is his sister or not is irrelevant.  What matters is his hiding the fact that she is a married woman.

Abraham, who had just recently behaved so nobly, now thinks only of himself.  He puts a lot of people in danger.  First of all, Sarah.  As soon as they arrive, she is taken to the palace, presumably to be made part of the harem.  Avimelech is endangered, as even a King is not allowed to be with a married woman.  And finally, because Abraham is, well Abraham, Avimelech’s entire household is stricken with temporary infertility, merely for bringing Sarah in to the palace.  If things had gone further, God’s wrath would have turned lethal.

Abraham assumes the worst of Avimelech and his people.  He condemns them before he even meets them.  But Abraham is wrong.  These are not wicked people.  As it turns out, Avimelech is a God-fearing man, with a sense of justice.  

This story has close parallels to the earlier story.  Only this time, it is Avimelech playing the role of the prophet standing in the breach, arguing for justice against a vengeful God.  In this case, like the previous, God wants to be convinced.  God wants tzedakah, justice, to reign.  God does not want the innocent to suffer the fate of the guilty.  As before, Abraham must personally intercede, praying to God for the health and well-being of Avimelech and his household.  But Abraham’s prayers come only after Avimelech bribes presents him with sheep, oxen, servants, land, and silver.

Abraham does not come out well in this story.  Is this the same person who put everything on the line to argue with God on behalf of people that he knew were wicked?  He is supposed to be the optimist, the one devoted to bringing justice into the world.  He should at least have given Avimelech the benefit of the doubt.

What are we to make of Abraham?  The Torah does not hold back in presenting its heroes as flawed individuals.  They make mistakes.  Sometimes, their opponents have qualities going for them as well.  The underlying theme of these two stories is tzedakah.  God wants justice.  God does not want the innocent to suffer punishments that should be reserved just for the wicked.  And in both stories, it seems that God is not capable of holding back the injustice without human intercession.

Abraham’s abrupt turn from being a justice-hero to behaving with selfishness and distrust teaches us something about the impact that fear can have, even on the best of us.  Abraham is afraid.  He says so himself.  His fear leads him to treat others unfairly, including his own wife.  He succumbs to stereotypes.

And Abraham, remember, is a good man.  He is the one whom God has selected to be a blessing to the world, and to teach his children about justice and righteousness.  If Abraham is susceptible to fear, how much the more so are we!

I don’t think I need to detail the many examples of how fear leads to injustice.  In this case, the victim was King Avimelech, a person in power.  But usually, the ones who are most harmed by fear and distrust are those without power.

The lesson from both stories is that God needs human intercessors to bring tzedakah into the world.  Any of us has the capacity to be such an intercessor, just as any of us has the capacity, through fear, to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.

As Jews, we take this on as a special obligation, going all the way back to Abraham, whom God selected to “instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

May we always strive to live up to that ideal.

A Natural Family with a Supernatural Mandate – Lekh L’kha 5779

The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week.  It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community.  I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.

Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations.  Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.

At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class.  Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.

Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago.  Some are members of synagogues.  Some are not.

There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners.  Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.

Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism.  This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.

Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.

Some share strange, mysterious family traditions.  Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.

Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection.  But not always.

With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry.  That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.

Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons.  It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing.  That is kind of the point.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion.  Simply by being born to a Jewish mother,  a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes.  Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs.  It does.

So does this make Judaism a race?  Not at all.  For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert.  And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.

Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.

The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms.  Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.

Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition.  Then he offers us one:

Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.

“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.”  We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.

This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him.  Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:5)

A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence.  v’et ha’nefesh asher asu.  Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household.  Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently. 

An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively.  Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.”  Is it possible to create life?

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being.  The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted.  We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran.  They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.

In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family.  This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values.  That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.

Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day.  People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.

A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism.  Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”

Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”

She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”

Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words.  We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.

Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words.  He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point.  His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”

In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry.  Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.

For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household.  In other words, part of the family.

Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts.  Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”

Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.

While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view.  Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.  

A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip.  She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible.  She was ultimately denied.

This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law.  I hope it is not a precedent.

Jewish identity is not in the blood.  It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents.  It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children.  Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.

Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out?  Absolutely.  But we are a family, after all.  And families are messy.

Etrog: The Fruit of a Goodly Tree – Succot 5779

Today is the Shabbat of Succot.  It is the one day of the holiday on which we refrain from the Arba Minim, the Four Species.

It is similar to how we do not blow the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.  Instead, we refer to zikhron teruah, the memory of blasting.  

So let this morning’s drash serve as a zikhron arba minim.  A memory of the Four Species.

In Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus (23:40), the Torah give us the details.

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י ה֥’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃

You shall take for yourselves on the first day: the fruit of a goodly tree, branches of date palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

Four species: Fruit of a goodly tree – it is not clear what tree it is.  Branches of date palm trees – that is the lulav.  Boughs of leafy trees – that also is not clear, although it is understood to be the myrtle, or hadas.  And finally, willows of the brook – that is the aravah.  

Let’s focus on the pri etz hadar, the fruit of a goodly tree.  What is this fruit that the Torah is talking about?

The etrog, of course.  Everybody knows that.  Known also as the citron, or citrus medica.  

You might be surprised to learn that, 2,000 years ago, there was no such thing as an orange, a lemon, or a grapefruit.  All citrus fruits today are the result of the hybridization of three original species.  Pomelos and mandarins are known to have been in cultivation for the past two thousand years, and originated in China.  The citron is native to India and has been in cultivation for at least 2,300 years. 

Theophrastus of Eresos was an historian who accompanied Alexander the Great.  In his book, Historia Plantarum, he describes the citron that he encountered during a trip to Babylon in approximately 310 BCE.  He refers to it as “Median Fruit” and claims that it cannot be eaten.

It seams that Alexander brought it back with him to the Mediterranean.  It was the first citrus fruit to be introduced to the region.  There were no citrus fruits in the land of Israel during the biblical period.

Or, at least, that was the assumption until a recent archaeological discovery.  A layer of plaster from an ancient palace on the grounds of Ramat Rahel, a kibbutz in Southern Jerusalem, was dated to the Persian period (5th or 4th century BCE).  In that plaster, an Israeli archaeo-botanist discovered pollen from a number of plants, including the citron.

This suggests that etrog trees might have been imported from Persia to Israel during the early second Temple period.  Further supporting this find is the word etrog itself, which seems to be a derivation of the Persian name for the citron, turung.  

Textual and archaeological evidence exists that indicates that by the first or even second century, BCE, the citron, or etrog, was being used by Jews as one of the Four Species during Succot.

One of the only letters found to have been written by Bar Kochba himself during the revolt of 132-135 CE includes the following instructions:  

Shimon to Yehudah Bar Menashe: Kiryat Arabaya. I have sent two donkeys. You shall send two men with them to Yehonatan bar Be’ayan and to Masabla. They shall pack and bring back to you palm branches and etrogim. You should send others from your place to bring back myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed. Send them all to my camp. Our army is large. Peace.

In the midst of the fighting, Bar Kokhba made sure that his soldiers would be able to observe Succot properly, with the Four Species in hand.

Synagogue mosaic floor from Hamat Teveriah, 4th century. Note the Four Species in the bottom left corner.

Images of the Four Species, with etrogim appearing prominently, appear all over the mosaic floors and fresco walls of ancient synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine era.  It is one of the most frequently-appearing religious symbols, which indicates how important it was in the ancient world.

Rabbinic texts—the Talmud and early midrashim—agree that “fruit of a goodly tree” refers to the etrog, and there are many explanations as to why.  Here are a few:

Does hadar, “goodly,” refer to pri, the fruit, or to etz, the tree?  It could be either, and the expression could be translated either as “fruit of a goodly tree” or “goodly fruit of a tree.”  The Talmud (BT Sukkah 35a) concludes that we should understand it both ways.  Both the fruit and the tree must taste the same.  Only the Etrog meets this standard, the Talmud concludes.

Rabbi Abahu offers a different explanation.  Hadar, he claims, is related to dirah, a dwelling place.  Pri etz ha-dar.  the fruit that dwells on its tree year round.  The citron is not a seasonal tree.  It produces fruit year round.

Ben Azzai draws a connection between hadar and the Greek word hydro, meaning water.  Citron trees require intensive irrigation.

Others (Song of Songs Rabbah) identify the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as the Etrog.  Genesis (3:6) describes the woman’s impression of the tree: “The woman saw that the tree was good for eating.”  Rav Abba of Acco asks, “what other tree is there whose wood and fruit are both edible?  It can only be the etrog.”

One thousand years later, Maimonides seems to doubt the validity of any of these explanations.  The fact that everyone knows the Torah is talking about the etrog, despite such a vague description, is proof of the validity of an oral tradition going back to Moses.

But it was Eleazar ben Yehudah of Worms, from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, who proved it *conclusively* using gematria.  But first, we must recognize one of the fundamental rules of gematria: a difference of plus or minus 1 is irrelevant.  Let’s add up the numerical value of the letters in pri etz hadar.

פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר – pri etz hadar 

80 + 200 + 10 + 70 + 90 + 5 + 4 + 200 = 659

אתרוגים – etrogim (plural of etrog)

1 + 400 + 200 + 6 + 3 +10 + 40 = 660

Seems conclusive to me.  

In any event, we can say with almost 100% certainty that Jews have understood “fruit of a goodly tree” to mean the etrog for over 2,000 years.

This was fine when most Jews were living around the Mediterranean, where citron trees grow easily.  As Jews began to move further out into the Diaspora, however, acquiring an etrog for Succot became more of a challenge.  In addition, Jews stopped being farmers—often because they were forbidden by Christian authorities.  This meant that they would have to rely on non-Jewish farmers, who may not have been aware, or may not have cared, about halakhic concerns.

The main halakhic concern is grafting, when a branch is attached to healthy root stock from a different species.  A grafted etrog, called murkav, is not acceptable.  Italian Jews were said to have been able to identify etrogim grown on a grafted tree on sight.  This was not the case for Jews who lived outside of cultivation zones.

A Jew living in northern Poland found himself at the mercy of the Jewish trader who would import etrogim for the holiday.  This resulted in a considerable amount of dishonest behavior.  In medieval times, local lords would grant exclusive charters to individual merchants to be able to conduct their trading practices.  These charters were often granted in exchange for bribes.

There were some years in which etrogim simply could not be obtained.  There are some prominent Ashkenazi Rabbis who gave permission to communities to use grafted etrogim, or even a previous year’s etrog, which had become completely dried out and would therefore not have been permissible under normal circumstances.

The difficulty of acquiring an etrog was so great that communities would sometimes import a single fruit, which would be owned in partnership by the entire community.

Through the seventeenth century, etrogim grown around the Mediterranean were shipped by way of Genoa or Venice, port cities located at the top of the Western and Eastern sides, respectively, of the Italian boot. 

By the eighteenth century, most etrogim made their way to Northern Europe through the port of Trieste, which is located in what is today northeast Italy, at the very top of the Adriatic Sea.

With the rise of Napoleon, borders between French and Austrian controlled areas became closed, upsetting trade routes and interfering with the traditional paths that etrogim took each year.

Only the Ottoman Sultan’s territories in the Eastern Mediterranean remained unaffected. Etrogim from that area were shipped through Corfu, an island off the coast of Southern Albania and Northern Greece, and on to Trieste.

The Sultan’s etrogim came to be known as Corfu Etrogim, and were highly regarded as being of great quality and consistency.  Because of tight controls, they could also be trusted to not come from hybrid trees.

In 1840, the Sultan let his exclusive monopoly on etrog production expire.  Without central controls, etrogim could no longer be relied upon to be ungrafted.  Etrog production exploded on islands surrounding what is today Greece.  The Rabbi on Corfu gave his hashgacha, his seal of approval, to them—without ever actually inspecting the orchards.

Eastern European Rabbis objected.  In 1846, they issued a collection of teshuvot, legal decisions, banning all etrogim from the area, advising that Jews should instead purchase etrogim grown in Parga, Corsica, or North Africa.  

This turned out to be impossible.  Most Mediterranean etrogim were being shipped through Corfu, where Greek traders packaged them together indiscriminately.

Further exacerbating the problem was the practice, also by Greek traders, of literally dumping etrogim into the Adriatic Sea to create scarcity and raise prices.

This led to a wholesale ban on Corfu etrogim by most of the Rabbis in Eastern Europe, the Chief Rabbi of England, and Rabbis from several German cities.  Sephardic Rabbis were more likely to permit the use of Corfu etrogim.  Some Hassidic Jews not only permitted the Corfu etrog, but even came to prefer it, seeing it as symbolic of Hassidism itself.

In addition to the religious issues, there were also economic implications.  Controversies arose between competing authorities, some of whom had personal financial stakes in the permissibility or otherwise of the Corfu etrogim.

Despite gains made under the Enlightenment and under the influence of Napoleon’s granting of citizenship to the Jews, antisemitic sentiments were widespread.  With growing Jewish boycotts of Corfu etrogim, attitudes towards Jews worsened.

In 1891, the Jews of Corfu were accused of ritual murder, leading to pogroms against the community.  In response, even more Rabbis issued bans against the fruit.  More moderate leaders advised caution, fearful of exacerbating the situation.

With European demand falling, Corfu etrog traders tried to market directly to the American Jewish public by touting the high quality of the fruit.  “Real Corfu Esrogim” almost became a name brand.

A Latvian immigrant named Ephraim Deinard was not impressed.  He was a professional traveler and writer, but not a Rabbi.  In 1892, Deinard wrote a pamphlet in Hebrew entitled God’s War Against Amalek in which he did not mince his words:

The shriek of the children of Israel on Corfu, the island of blood, pierces heaven. These cursed beasts, these Greeks, children of Antiochus the tyrant, after two thousand years have still not gorged themselves sufficiently upon the blood of our fathers. Not a year passes, but these cannibals slander us with accusations of ritual murder in all the countries of Greece, Turkey, and Russia. Before our eyes runs the blood of our brethren in Salonica, Smyrna, Odessa, Alexandria, Port Said, and Corfu.

Calling out the New Yorkers who were importing Corfu etrogim, he wrote:

. . . they are traders in the blood of Israel . . . and since there is hardly a man in Europe who will touch them [the etrogim] they bought these etrogim dripping with the blood of the sons of Zion. . . . These circumcised anti-Semites . . . have connived with importers from Trieste and a group of Galician Jews . . . to mislead the people of God.,  

Deinard identified the “robbers’ hideout” of these dishonest merchants: 185 East Broadway.

Around the same time, Jewish farmers living in Palestine were beginning to grow etrog trees.  The Fruit of the Goodly Tree Association was founded by Palestinian growers to promote their product.

The Chief Rabbi of Jaffa at the time, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, offered his endorsement.  He stated that when the Torah declares ul’kachtem lakhem, literally, “you shall take for yourselves… fruit of a goodly tree…” it implies, you shall take purely – that is not steal.”  He adds, “you shall take for yourselves” means “you shall take from yourselves,” that is to say from Jews and Jewish soil.

Today, most of the etrogim that we get are from Israel.  During shemitah, or sabbatical years, supply shifts to other sources, such as Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Yemen.

Don’t get too bogged down in this long, and sometimes unsavory, history.

The Torah tells us to take for ourselves pri etz hadar.  The fruit of a goodly tree.  From this expression comes the idea of hiddur mitzvah: the beautification of the mitzvah.

It is possible to simply go through the motions when we fulfill our ritual obligations.  The Torah suggests that there is a higher level that we can achieve.

It has become customary to try to get our hands on the most beautiful etrog available.  

This was true when entire communities would join together to purchase a single, sad etrog that had made the long, thousand mile long journey from a remote Mediterranean island by boat, mule, and cart.

It is a bit easier for us today, as our etrogim are shipped by overnight delivery, each in its own insulated and foam-lined box.  But there is something special about it.

The Etrog is a strange fruit.  We don’t eat it.  With its bumpy skin, it looks kind of ugly.  It has a unique, beautiful smell. 

Every year, I savor the moment when I first take my etrog out of its box.  I inspect its skin, check to see that it has its pitam intact.  Then I inhale its special smell.  Beautiful.  Moadim L’simchah.  Have a Happy Succot.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Erich and Rael Isaac, “A Goodly Tree” in The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, “The Trail of the Elusive Etrog,” The Forward, Oct. 2, 2008

Gabriel Moskovitz, “The Genesis of the Etrog (Citron) as Part of the Four Species,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2015

Eliezer Segal, “Citric Asset

What Is Life Worth? – Yom Kippur 5779

[I got the idea for this sermon from an interview of Kenneth Feinberg by Steven J. Dubner on the podcast Freakonomics (of which I am a regular listener).  You can listen to the podcast here.]

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we observed the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, when 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  Nearly 3000 people were killed and more than 6000 were injured.

Almost immediately after the attacks, the airline industry started lobbying Congress.  It worried that the victims would bring lawsuits that would bog them down in court for years.  Congress worried that lawsuits would cause Americans to lose faith in air transportation and stop flying, which could have devastating effects on the country.  It quickly began drafting a law to limit the airlines’ liabilities.  But that meant victims’ family members, as well as those who were injured, would be restricted in their abilities to seek compensation.

At the last minute, Congress added a provision to address this concern.  They created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, to which eligible persons could apply in exchange for foregoing all rights to sue.  The American people would collectively pay damages to the victims of 9/11.

On September 22, 2011, just eleven days after the towers fell, the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act passed and was signed into law by President Bush.

The Act required the Attorney General to appoint a Special Master, who would be granted sole authority over the entire program.  The Special Master would be responsible for developing procedures by which family members and injured persons could apply for compensation.  He would have to develop a formula for determining award amounts.  He would also determine the total amount of money that the fund would distribute.  No distinctions whatsoever were to be made between citizens and non-citizens, including victims who were undocumented.

In effect, Congress gave the Special Master a blank check with which to compensate the victims and family members of 9/11.  Short of being fired by the Attorney General, there would be no oversight and no review.

No program like it had ever existed.

Attorney General John Ashcroft turned to a lawyer by the name of Ken Feinberg.  Feinberg was a Democrat, having worked for Senator Ted Kennedy early in his career.  Feinberg also had prior experience serving as a mediator for victim compensation funds.

Although a Democrat. Feinberg was well-respected and liked across the aisle.  Perhaps most importantly, he could be easily jettisoned if things did not go well politically.

Feinberg turned out to have been the perfect choice to serve as Special Master.  He demonstrated wisdom and sensitivity for the victims and their families.  He took his role as fiduciary for the American people seriously, and he considered the precedent that his decisions would set.  After closing the compensation fund three years later, Ken Feinberg wrote a book called What is Life Worth? in which he describes his experiences.

Consider the difficult position into which Feinberg was placed.  In administering the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to determine how much the lives of thousands of human beings were worth—in dollars.  He would have to weigh the relative merits of competing claims and decide whose death would be compensated with more and whose would be compensated with less.

It would have been far easier to simply state: “a life is a life.  We are all equal in the eyes of God,” and allocate identical amounts for each victim. 

But, in its hastiness, Congress ruled that the awards needed to be based on economic loss, that is to say, current and future anticipated earnings.  That meant that the family of a bond trader who earned $20 million annually would receive a greater payout than a firefighter, police officer, or soldier, not to mention a busboy who earned $20 thousand per year.

So Feinberg went to his Rabbi for advice.  It was not so helpful.  His Rabbi acknowledged that 9/11 was unique.  There were no ready-made answers contained in the Torah or Jewish wisdom.  “I alone had the ultimate responsibility of determining each award,” Feinberg wrote,

based largely on a prediction of what the victim would have earned had he or she survived.  It was a job that called for the wisdom of Solomon, the technical skill of H&R Block, and the insight of a mystic with a crystal ball.  I was supposed to peer into that crystal ball, consider the ebbs and flows that made up a stranger’s life, and translate all of this into dollars and cents.  (87)

Reactions by victims’ family members were all over the place, as one might imagine.  There was tremendous distrust of the program at first, and of Feinberg in particular, who became the public face of the U.S. government’s response to the families.

This program became the primary way that the American people would acknowledge the families’ losses in the first few years after 9/11.  It was inevitable that these payouts would be perceived as determinations of the worth of a person’s life in the eyes of the public.  

But money cannot bring closure.  Feinberg tried hard to emphasize that the purpose of the fund was to meet financial need, and not to value the moral worth of the victims.  But in creating this fund, Congress set up a dynamic which encouraged people to translate the value of their loved ones in dollars.  That perception was difficult to overcome.

Feinberg knew that the families’ emotions were raw, and that they would need time and space to vent.  At the beginning of the process, he personally led public meetings, strongly encouraging all family members to attend.

He and his office personally tracked down the relatives of every single victim, in the US and abroad.  That included eleven undocumented workers, whose foreign relatives were especially difficult to locate.  He made himself available for one on one meetings with anyone who desired, at any stage in the process.  In two years, Feinberg personally met with over 900 families.

In those meetings, they told him stories about their loved ones.  They expressed anger and sadness.  They wanted to know why it happened, and why their loved ones had to die.  Some expressed faith.  Others shared their loss of faith.

Of course, every family had a story to explain why their loved one was unique, and why their death deserved greater compensation.  After all, if money is the measure of a life’s worth, I would be disrespecting my loved one’s memory if I did not argue for more.

How can the pain and suffering of two different people be compared?  Is the loss more difficult for a spouse who enjoyed thirty years with another person, or for a newlywed who had an entire lifetime taken away?

Should the family of a firefighter who died saving the lives of dozens of other people be worth more than that of a secretary, or a chef, or a lawyer?  Should age be a determining factor?  What about the more than 60 widows who were pregnant with a child who would never know their father?  Is that worth more?

In the end, Feinberg decided that he would not distinguish.  Each victim would get $250,000 for pain and suffering, and each surviving spouse or dependent would receive $100,000. 

Nevertheless, he encouraged families to talk about their loved ones, inviting them to share what was special and unique.  This program could help serve as witness to their grief.  It was an important step in reframing the program and helping families begin to move on.

Senator Kennedy advised Feinberg “to make sure that 15% of the families don’t receive 85% of the taxpayers’ money.”  While the awards could not be identical, they also did not have to be proportional to income.  Feinberg could nudge low amounts upwards, and nudge higher amounts downwards—and he did.

He developed a formula to determine awards, and further reserved the ability to make adjustments in special cases.

In the end, ninety seven percent of all eligible families entered the program.  Spouses and dependents of 2,880 victims received almost six billion dollars in tax-free compensation.  The median award was just under 1.7 million dollars, and the maximum award was 7.1 million dollars.

2,682 of those who were injured received more than one billion dollars in compensation.  

When the fund was closed at the end of 2004, it was considered to have been a tremendous success.  The families were appreciative of Ken Feinberg and his team.  The compensation they received did not bring their loved ones back, but did help them to piece their lives back together and begin to move on.  It was not so much the money that did that, but the respect and dignity that was afforded to each individual life.

Judaism has many teachings about the extraordinary worth of an individual human life.  The earliest law code, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:3), imparts this lesson as early as the second century.

Therefore, Adam was created by himself, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.

The context of this teaching is important.  It is a short speech that is delivered to witnesses in a murder trial before they present their testimony.  It is supposed to warn them of the importance of testifying truthfully, as the accused’s fate will be determined by their words.

Each human being must be considered to be like Adam, the first human, from whom all of humanity descended.  “Choose life,” the Torah instructs us.  Life is of such enormous value that, with just three exceptions, we are commanded to violate every mitzvah in the Torah to save it.  In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, we learn that a person is an olam katan, a small world, a microcosm of heaven and earth itself.

To quote a certain credit card company, a human life is “priceless.”

Valuing a life in dollars and cents is cold and arbitrary.  But we tend to do exactly that.  Think about the expression, “So and so is worth x amount of dollars.”  Or a company.  Apple recently became worth more than one trillion dollars.  I hope we can agree that a person’s real value, and even a corporation’s real value, should not be determined by income or wealth. 

To do so would seem to go against everything that Judaism teaches us.

But, in other contexts, Judaism does value human life in shekels.  In ancient times one of the ways in which a Jew could express gratitude or hope to God, would be to proclaim a vow.  A vow is essentially a promise to deliver something specific of value to the Temple.  

In making a vow, I might dedicate a field, a particular animal, or the income that someone will earn over a period of time.  Or, I could dedicate a person—either myself or a member of my household.

If I dedicate an animal, I am obligated to bring that specific animal to the priest.  No substitutions are permitted.  So if I offer a person, must that person be sacrificed, or sent to work in the Temple for the rest of his or her life?  How do I dedicate a person to God?  

The Torah establishes that to fulfill a vow for a human being, I must pay that person’s value, in shekels, to the Temple treasury.

The exact value is determined by the priest, and is based on the ability of the vower to pay.  But there is a minimum and a maximum.  The minimum, according to the Mishnah, is 1 shekel of silver.  That is about $9 in today’s money, at current silver rates.

The Torah lists the maximum amounts, based on age and gender.  Adult males between twenty and sixty are worth 50 shekels of silver.  Females are worth 30.  And so on for children, babies and elders.

The only factor that can be used is personal wealth.  The Mishnah specifically states that the maximum assessment of 50 selas (the replacement for the shekel) would be identical for the finest looking and the ugliest person in Israel.  (Arachin 3:1)

This formula is not so dissimilar to the formula that Ken Feinberg used.  Values based on wealth, with minimum and maximum caps.

What is a life worth?

Since none of our riches will come with us, what can serve as the true measure of a person’s value?  

The High Holidays bring the question of our life’s value to the forefront of our consciousness.  It is nowhere better expressed than in the prayer Unetaneh Tokef in our mahzor.

This prayer, which is really an allegory, takes place in a courtroom.  God is never mentioned directly by name, but presides as Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Each of us is the plaintiff, with our actions serving as evidence and the fate of our lives hanging in the balance.  Every deed, public and private, remembered and forgotten, is entered into the record.

The shofar sounds, and the allegory shifts.  Now we are sheep passing before the Shepherd, one by one.  The Shepherd examines each one of us, counting and inspecting, and determining our fate for the year ahead.

Who will live, who will die.  Who by fire, who by water.  Who will be impoverished.  Who will be made rich.  Who will be brought low, and who will be raised up.

The results are not shared with us.  But that is not all.  Read the prayer closely.  There is no causal relationship between the verdict and the sentence.  We emerge from the courtroom in suspense, with our destinies hanging.

Unetaneh Tokef captures the fragility of our existence.  There is no appeal for the Judge to change the verdict, nor for the Shepherd to alter the decree.  The imperfect world we live in does not work that way.  Despite the illusion of control, we know that so much of our lives are determined by forces outside of our control.

In the year ahead, it is certain that each one of us will experience disappointment and loss, joy and success.  At some point, may it be many years from now, each of us can be certain that we will face the end of our own life.

While terrifying, this allegory invigorates.  It tells us that every action, in every moment, matters.  Every deed in the Book of Remembrance is a record of our impact on the universe.  

So what is a life worth?  From one perspective, almost nothing.  One of the prayers after Unetaneh Tokef compares a human being to: a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a dream that flies away.  In the vastness of the universe, we are almost nothing.

But each of us is also an olam katan, a microcosm of that same universe, with a spark of divinity hidden inside our hearts.

The knowledge that there will be a reckoning makes life matter.

The value of the lives of the 9/11 victims could not be measured by any dollar amount.  It is measured by the deeds they performed in the time they were allotted; the love they shared; the people they helped; the mistakes they made; the husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, parents and friends they left behind; the communities they enriched; the traditions they passed down; the beauty they paused to acknowledge; and the growth and learning they experienced each day that they were blessed to be alive.  The lives of those who died rescuing others are valued by those whom they saved.

The same is true for all of us.  Unfortunately, that is a lesson that we too often learn at the end.

What is life worth?  It is worth what we decide to make it worth.

Rabbi Harold Kushner once told the story of a man who, at the end of a full life, dies and suddenly finds himself standing at the end of a long line that leads to two doors — and there is an usher. 

“Move along,” says the usher.  “Keep the line moving.  Choose a door and walk through.”

Looking ahead, the man sees, at the very end, one door marked “Heaven” and the other marked “Hell.”

Gradually, the man proceeds up the line.  He observes that most people, without hesitation, walk confidently to the door marked Heaven, open it, and enter.  For every person whose turn arrives, someone new joins the back of the line.

Eventually, the man finds himself up front.  This is his chance to ask the question that has been burning inside.  “Wait a minute.  Where’s the Last Judgment?  Where am I told if I was a good person or a bad person?  Where are all my deeds weighed and measured?”

The usher looks at him and says, “You know, I don’t know where that story ever got started.  We don’t do that here.  We’ve never done that here.  We don’t have the staff to do that here.  I mean, look, you’ve got ten thousand people showing up every minute.  I’m supposed to sit here with everyone and go over his whole life?  We’d never get anywhere.  Now move along.  You’re holding up the line. Choose a door and walk through.”

“You mean I really have to choose?”

“Yes.  Now pick one already.”

Heaven.  What would that mean?  All would be wiped away — the acts of cowardice, the mistakes and regrets.  But also the agonized moral choices, the moments of courage, the times he chose the more difficult path.  

Hell.  That would bring judgment and accusation.  It would mean risking punishment.  Can he face that?  Will his merits outweigh his misdeeds?

“Come on.  We don’t have all day,” complains the usher, tapping his foot.

Taking a deep breath, the man says to himself, “I want my life to have mattered,” and walks through the door marked “Hell,” ready to be judged.

In Defense of Strong Walls (with Big, Fat Doors in Them) – Rosh Hashanah 5779

In Jerusalem, a CNN journalist hears about a very old Jewish man who has been going to the Kotel, the Western Wall, to pray twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she goes to check it out. She arrives at the Western Wall and there he is!

She watches him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turns to leave, she approaches him for an interview.

“I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?”

“For about 60 years.”

“60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims.  I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for all our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”

“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I’m talking to a wall.”

What is the purpose of a wall?  It depends from which side you are asking the question.

A wall could be meant to keep those on the other side of it out.  Or, it might be to keep those on this side of it in.  Most walls, intentionally or not, accomplish both.

Putting up a wall invariably designates those on the opposite side as “Other.”  We humans have shown, time and again throughout our history, that “other” translates, in some fashion, to “inferior.”

The wall on a border between countries prevents those who are not citizens, or those without permission, to enter.  That is not the wall that I am going to talk about.  Sorry.

The wall around a prison keeps those whom society has decided to punish for their crimes inside, both as vengeance for the crime committed and for the protection of society.

The walls of a building at one of our many high-tech campuses here in Silicon Valley keep proprietary secrets inside, and prevent would-be corporate thieves from overhearing conversations to which they should not be privy.

A firewall stops would-be hackers from infiltrating a computer network where they could steal data or wreak havoc.

One of the most famous walls in the world of course is the Kotel, the Western Wall.  Originally, it separated the busy marketplace streets of Jerusalem—the profane—from the holy precincts of the Temple—the sacred.  Today, it separates Jewish worshippers from Muslim worshippers.

We are not going to talk about any of these walls today.  We are going to address the walls around American Judaism.

But first, let’s look at a wall that was erected some time back. 

Five hundred years ago, there was a small Jewish community that lived on the mainland outside of Venice.  They were not permitted to live inside the city proper.  Merchants would occasionally enter during the day to conduct business, departing at night. 

For more than one hundred years, Jews had been required to wear a distinguishing mark: first a yellow badge, then a yellow hat, then a red hat.

After the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews began fleeing East, pouring in to cities around the Mediterranean.  Political instability, along with wars between Italian principalities, resulted in more population movement.  One of the refugees’ destinations was Venice.

With burgeoning numbers of Jews flooding in, something needed to be done.  The Venetian Senate voted to cordon off an area inside the city, building walls around the site of the former iron foundry, called geto in Italian.  Jews were permitted to live inside these walls.

That is how, in 1516, the first ghetto came into existence.  

The Venetian Ghetto was an instrument of repression and bigotry.  It served as the model for the establishment of other ghettos throughout Europe up until and including the Holocaust.

But the Venetian Ghetto also brought Jews together, forcing them to cooperate and innovate in creative ways, and helping them to maintain social cohesion at an unstable time.  The walls were physically strong and imposing, but permeable.  

The community had to fund the building of the gates that locked them in every night at sunset and the salaries of the guards stationed at the entrances 24 hours a day .

There was overcrowding and poverty.  Jews were forced to pay higher rents compared to Christians outside the ghetto.

And yet, Jewish life flourished.  By creating the ghetto, the Venetian Senate granted legitimacy to the Jews.  Not only could they legally live in the city, they enjoyed protection.

It was a diverse Jewish community.  Separate synagogues were built by the German Ashkenazi, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and Levantine Sephardic communities.

Some Venetian Jews enrolled at the nearby University of Padua, which issued hundreds of degrees to Jews from all over Europe.  That is where many Jewish physicians received their training.  This placed them in important positions to serve as informal ambassadors between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Daniel Bomberg, a Christian, moved his printing press into the Ghetto, helping make Venice the most important early publishing center for Jewish books.  There were cultural exchanges between Jewish artists and thinkers and their Christian counterparts outside the walls, contributing to literature, music, and even religious studies.

It was not too long ago when American society erected figurative ghettos to keep Jews away.  There were walls that literally kept us out of country clubs and prevented us from moving in to certain neighborhoods.  Antisemitism prevented or limited Jews from enrolling in universities and joining certain professions.

Thankfully, those days are over.  In the last four or five decades, have any of us been held back in any way in this country?  In my life, there has not been a single thing that was denied to me because I am Jewish.

Today’s situation, in fact, is quite the opposite.

A recent study looked at attitudes towards different religions in America.  It found that overall, Jews are perceived more warmly than any other religious group in the country.

We have made it, my friends.

By and large, the non-Jewish world in America does not see us as other.  We are no longer behind a wall of “their” making.

But remember, walls don’t just keep the undesirables out.  They also keep us in, which means that we now face a different kind of danger.  The question that every Jew in America must ask is existential: do I put up a wall around my Jewish identity, and if so, what kind?

There are those who choose to put up higher and higher walls as protection against an evil and corrupting society.  They see themselves as the protectors of Torah-true Judaism and predict that all of the rest of us will cease to exist within a couple of generations.  

On the other side are those who would erase all differences between Jews and non-Jews.  Since the essence of Judaism is about being a good person, I can just be a humanist.  What do I need Judaism for?

This past May, the novelist Michael Chabon, whose books I have enjoyed, ignited controversy when he delivered the keynote address at Hebrew Union College’s graduation ceremony.

He told his audience of newly minted Rabbis, Cantors, Teachers and Community Professionals to “knock down the walls.  Abolish the checkpoints.”  He referred, emblematically, to the walls separating Israelis from Palestinians.  But those were not the only walls.

He deprecatingly described marriage between Jews as “a ghetto of two,” declaring:

I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence…

Looking at Judaism, Chabon saw only exclusivity and separateness, subjugation of women, and mistreatment of Palestinians.

Chabon told that cohort of newly minted Jewish professionals that he no longer attends synagogue on the High Holidays, and that the Passover haggadah has ceased to have any meaning for him.

Chabon ridiculed anything that makes Judaism distinctly Jewish.  Considering the values that he hopes his own children find in a mate, he rejected any wish that they find Jewish partners, declaring:

I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights.

It is hard to argue with those values.  I certainly want those qualities in my future children-in-law.  But then he continued:

I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct.

Nations, borders, and ethnicity may be human constructs, but we are, after all, humans. 

A construct exists because lots of people agree that it exists.  As a writer by trade, Michael Chabon knows this well.  Here are a few constructs that we employ on a daily basis: money, traffic lights, marriage, language, a high school diploma.  And yes, nations, borders, and ethnicity are also constructs.  So too is religion.  Our celebration of today being the 5,779th anniversary of the world’s creation is a construct—an incredibly meaningful one.

Constructs are what enable us to relate to the world around us.

Humanity is not ready for Chabon’s universalism.  In fact, it appears to be moving in the opposite direction.  Multicultural societies are fragmenting into traditional ethnic and religious subgroups.  We see this with the rise of nationalist parties in Europe, and the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya in Burma.

A 2014 Pew study on religion in America found that the gaps are expanding here as well.  The overall percentage of Americans who identify as religious has decreased, along with the number of people who do not have any religion.  This is especially true among millennials.  At the same time, those who identify themselves as religious are becoming more observant. 

We see it in the American Jewish community, where we increasingly polarize into one side that is religious, conservative, Republican, Zionist, and pro-Likud and another side that is increasingly secular, progressive, Democrat, and either ambivalent about Israel or even anti-Zionist.

It is becoming harder and harder to occupy the middle.

Michael Chabon’s vision of a universal global society in which the walls come down, and everyone is equal and shares the same values of freedom is wonderful.  It is a Jewish vision.  It is also a messianic vision.

Judaism is perhaps unique among religions by claiming that the path to the universal lies in the particular.

We do not expect the rest of the world to conform to Jewish beliefs and practices.  We do not promise redemption only to those who embrace our faith.  Nor do we expect other people to tear down their walls and throw out their distinct beliefs and practices.  The Torah recognizes that there are multiple paths to God.  Multiple formulations—constructs, if you will—of what it means to live a good life.

In fact, this idea finds its greatest expression on Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the creation of the world.

One of the most ancient prayers in Judaism, dating back to the Second Temple, is Aleinu.  

Aleinu was composed at a time when Judaism was the only monotheistic religion around.  It expresses a particularistic vision of the relationship between the Jewish people and God.

While we now recite it at the end of every service throughout the year, it was originally recited only once—on Rosh Hashanah.  It appears in our Mahzor during the Musaf service. 

Aleinu l’shabeach la’adon hakol.  It is for us[, the Jewish people,] to praise the Master of everything.  To assign greatness to the One who formed Creation.  

She-lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot.  Who did not make us like the peoples of other lands…

We Jews have a particular obligation to serve God.  It is an obligation that we do not share with the other nations of the earth.  We, the Jewish people, have a unique role and fate in the world.

Va’anachnu kor’im, umishtachavim umodim.  And so we bend our knees, and bow and give thanks before the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.  

And it continues in this vein.  Then, in the second paragraph, the focus shifts.

Al ken n’kaveh l’kha.  Therefore, we put our hope in You…

L’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai.  To fix the world under the Kingdom of Shaddai.    

We imagine a future world in which all people acknowledge the one God.  Notably, this Messianic vision does not expect all the nations of the earth to convert, nor does it ask them to embrace the covenant of Israel.  It is (merely) a vision in which wickedness is banished and humanity is unified under God’s Kingdom.

There is a story being told here in two acts.  In the first act, earth is broken and disunited.  Israel serves God in a way that is unique to it among the nations of the earth.  In the second act, each of the peoples of the earth turn to God, accepting that there is a single, unitary power who created the universe.  It is an idyllic time in which evil is banished and humanity is united.  But the nations are still distinct from one another.

This is a Jewish story.  It is our way of understanding our role in the world as a particular people.  It explains why we have unique practices, mitzvot that only apply to us, and customs that might seem strange to an outsider, but that are distinctly ours.

We can and should tell the ancient stories of Jewish peoplehood unabashedly, and with pride.  They are our stories.  They root us in time, and connect us to other Jews who, for the last three thousand years, have turned to the same stories and rituals for meaning.

The Jewish Passover seder is not about the liberation of all enslaved peoples everywhere.  When I tell the story of the Exodus of the Israelites, it is my story.  By internalizing that story, I am better able to empathize with another person’s story of slavery and freedom.  

I can be proud that the Jewish people, throughout their worldwide dispersal over two thousand years, continued to long for and pray for a return to the Holy Land.  I can hold my head up high when I look at the State of Israel’s incredible accomplishments over the past seventy years.  

We have the right to build a strong wall around Judaism.

The Jewish biochemist and philosopher, Henri Atlan (

Henri Atlan (“Chosen People” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought), asks how it is possible for us to manage relations with other people who hold on to such different beliefs with just as much passion and conviction as we do.  He answers that belief in a unique God can be quite helpful, as long as my belief does not negate your right to believe something different.

Instead of worrying about what other groups believe, or whether they are worshipping the same God as we are, it would be better to focus on what each group’s unique God calls upon it to do.

Where would so many of our people be if not for the courageous actions of Righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, many of whom were inspired by their own particular religious teachings?

We can “put off the unification of the gods until a messianic era that has yet to arrive.”  Atlan concludes by quoting the prophet Zecharia, from the end of the second paragraph of Aleinu:

Bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad ushmo echad.  In that day, Adonai shall be one and the name of God, one.

For now, we should be putting up walls within which Judaism can thrive and flourish.  And we should be opening doors so that we can make our contribution to humanity, and welcome inside all who would join us. 

Congregation Sinai’s mission is “to connect people to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.”

We should never water down the Jewish content of what we do.  Quite the opposite, we should be strengthening it, doing everything we can to offer more opportunities for learning, engagement with Jewish practice, and performance of mitzvot.

It is our particular Jewish way of connecting with each other, with Jews around the world, and with our ancestors.  “Jewish” is the language by which we wrestle with questions of faith, identity, and history.  It is the unique way in which we struggle to understand suffering, and it offers beautiful traditions for comforting each other.

To maintain our identity, we need strong walls.  We need to be able to say: We are Jewish.  This is what we do.  This is what we believe.

Just one generation ago, marrying outside of the faith was looked down upon.  The Conservative movement was seen as being not especially welcoming to intermarried families.  In contrast, Reform synagogues opened their doors.

Today, things are changing quickly.  The big discussion in the Conservative movement is how to do a better job of welcoming intermarried families.

I am really proud of our congregation.  We strive to be friendly and non-judgmental.  Anyone looking to engage in Jewish life is welcomed, whatever their background.

It is especially challenging to maintain a Jewish home when one parent is not Jewish, and yet there are numerous families who have committed to exactly that, raising Jewish children and being part our community.

We have non-Jewish members who take it upon themselves to learn more, without necessarily intending to convert.  Why?  To better support a Jewish spouse or child, as well as to grow and derive personal meaning.  You have given us quite a gift.  Todah Rabah.  Thank you.

Look around this room.  There are Jews here who personally immigrated from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, France, Belgium, England, Romania, Egypt, South Africa, Israel, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, India, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and I am sure that I am missing some.  Traditions and practices vary widely among Jews from different parts of the world, and yet there is a profound sense that we are all brothers and sisters.

Many in this room are Jews by choice, without a direct family history of being Jewish, but who are the direct spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah.  Some are considering becoming Jewish, and are actively learning about practice and community.  There are those here who are not Jewish, but who are committed to supporting Jewish homes.

Every one of us fits inside these walls.

This year, let us commit to invigorating our unique, Jewish way of life—in our homes and in our synagogue.  Our tradition has something wonderful to offer us personally, and we, the Jewish people, have something wonderful to offer the world.

The path to universalism lies through particularism.

We need to have walls that are strong and solid enough to define and uphold our practices and values.  And we need to make sure that there are big fat doors in them that are open for all who wish to come and share.