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.

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