Kol Nidre 5771/2010 A Puzzling Question

Kol Nidre 5771/2010
A Puzzling Question
I received the following email from a very thoughtful and sensitive young person in our congregation.  He agreed that I could share it with you this evening.  He wrote:  Rabbi, a puzzling question has been plaguing me recently.  My mother is not Jewish, but my father is. Does this make me a Jew by Jewish Law? I have had Israelis tell me I'm not, and this angers me greatly, as I openly support Israel, but if they don't think I'm Jewish, then why try? I would appreciate your response.  This email brought back a memory from when I was eight years old.  My parents had enrolled me in the Jewish Community Center Day Camp. Every day my mother would pack me a lunch – the same lunch, I was a picky eater – peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of fruit, a drink, and a package of Tandy-Cake cupcakes.  One day, a fellow camper in my group got hold of the package of cup-cakes and saw that there was no heksher on it – the sign that a product is kosher.  He began to taunt me, saying I must not be Jewish, because I was eating traif.  I went home crying to my mother.  Her solution?  The next day she sent me with the same cupcakes, this time wrapped in clear saran wrap instead of the package they were sold in.  My Judaism, and my honor, had been restored!  Let’s look at this issue from an historical perspective.  In this young man’s case, his father is Jewish, but his mother is not.  In Biblical times a child would be considered Jewish if their FATHER was Jewish.  Many of the leaders of our people married non-Jewish women – Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph an Egyptian, Moses a Midianite and an Ethiopian, David a Philistine, and Solomon married women of every description. There was no formal conversion in Biblical times.  With marriage to a Jewish man a non-Jewish women joined the clan, people, and religion of her husband. Their children were all considered to be members of the People of Israel.  That way of defining who was Jewish changed sometime in the Greco-Roman period.  No one is sure exactly when, or, for what reasons.  Some think this was due to increased intermarriage.  Others speculate that in a time when Rome ruled the Land of Israel, the people wanted to be able to accept into the community the child of a Jewish woman who had been violated by a Roman soldier. Still others believe that the Jewish people followed the practice that Romans used in defining a Roman citizen – which was according to the status of the mother.  The definition of who was a Jew was re-evaluated beginning in 1948 with the founding of the State of Israel. The Law of Return stated that every Jew had a right to immigrate to Israel.  The meaning of “Jew” was, however, not defined.  In 1970, the law was amended and clarified.  The amendment stated that if you have one parent, or one grandparent, who was Jewish, you are considered Jewish by the State of Israel for the purposes of immigration. The one exception is the Jew who has converted to another religion.    Then, in 1983, In the Reform movement broke with Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, and with traditional Jewish law. The Reform movement declared that a child born of one Jewish parent, whether the Jewish parent is the mother or the father, is under the presumption of being Jewish.  However, his/her Jewishness must be activated by "appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people." In this understanding of Jewish identity, it is not enough to simply be born to a Jewish parent.  What confers Jewish identity is ones public behavior as a Jew: membership in a synagogue, circumcision, a Jewish education, support for Jewish causes, bar and bat mitzvah, not following any other religion, attending High Holiday services, to name a few of these public acts. Your living of a Jewish life publically, within community, bestows your Jewish identity.  The Reconstructionist movement has followed this line of thinking in defining who is a Jew. Last semester, I taught a course titled Introduction to Judaism at North Central College in Naperville.  The students were mostly Christian undergraduates.  Imagine my trying to explain to them Jewish identity.  “But what exactly does a Jew believe?” they wanted to know.  I couldn’t blame them for asking.  After all, Christians have a definitive set of doctrines and beliefs which define their identity as Christians.  If you do not believe certain tenets of the faith, you cannot call yourself a Christian.  What about Jews? – consider this story: In the 1920s a Jew travels from his small Polish shtetl to Warsaw. When he returns, he tells a friend of the wonders he has seen:  “I met a Jew who had grown up in a Yeshivah and knew large sections of the Talmud by heart.  I met a Jew who was an atheist.  I met a Jew who owned a large department store with many employees.  I met a Jew who was a communist.” “So, what’s so strange?” the friend asks. “Warsaw is a big city. There must be a million Jews there.” “You don’t understand,” the man answers. “It was the SAME JEW.”  My students struggled all semester to try to wrap their minds around the definition of a Jew.  I wrote a rap song just to help them understand it: Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstuctionist, Renewal, Hassidic, Haredi, athiest, agnostic, socialist, communist, cultural, religious, Zionist, secular, traditional,. Yiddishist, Hebraist, Renewal, pluralistic Throw in unaffiliated just in case ya missed it …….   So what is a Jew?  Having explored this from an historical perspective, let us look at it from an ethical point of view. A Jew is someone who feels responsibility for other Jews. A Jew is someone who chooses to be Jewish. A Jew is someone and who carries out the Jewish mission, and lives their lives according to the values of the Jewish people.  Let us look at each of these in a little more detail.  First, a Jew is someone who feels responsibility for other Jews:  Several years ago the synagogue I was serving received a threat on a Shabbat morning. That very morning, a certain middle aged man, a member of the congregation, attended services.  Since he usually did not attend services on Shabbat morning, I asked him, “Do you have a yahrzeit this morning?”  “Rabbi,” he said, “I heard about the threat to our synagogue. If our synagogue was going to be attacked, I was going to be here.”  There is a saying among our people. “Kol yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh” – all of Israel is responsible for one another.  My welfare depends on your welfare.  When Jews in other parts of the world suffer, I too suffer.  When you are in danger, I am in danger. When you are not free, I am not free.  Second – A Jew is someone who chooses to be Jewish:  Up until modern times, Jews who were born and lived in Christian or Muslim lands had their identity assigned to them by the majority culture.  A Jew had to live in a certain section of the city, had to work in certain occupations and not others, might be required to wear special clothing or badges identifying them as Jews.  One could literally not survive outside of the Jewish community as a Jew.  Today things are quite different. One might say that the essential defining action of a Jew today is that he or she chooses to be Jewish.  Judaism is no longer a destiny into which one is born and cannot escape.  Being a Jew today requires a conscious choice. Third — A Jew is someone and who carries out the Jewish mission: Let us look back to G-d’s first words to Abraham.  On sending Abraham into the world, G-d said, “Lech-L’cha — Go forth — from your land and from your place of birth to the land which I will show thee … and you shall be a blessing.”  Abraham and Sarah were not sent off to a new Garden of Eden, to start a new kind of human being who would then live their lives in accordance with G-d’s will.  They were sent out into the world as it was, to be a blessing to those around them, and ultimately to the world.  They were sent on their journey, so that they could teach the world about G-d.  They were sent to proclaim to all people G-d’s concern for the weak, the hungry and the defenseless.  To be a Jew is to be like Abraham and Sarah, absolutely committed to helping others, to showing compassion and to working for justice.  To be a Jew is to live up to the cherished values of Chesed, kindness, and Tsedakah, righteousness. To be a Jew is to be a blessing; not just to your family or to your fellow Jews, but to be a blessing to all people, throughout all time. The young congregant who I introduced to you at the beginning of this talk felt demoralized by the comments of some of his peers.  “If they don’t think I am Jewish,” he thought, “Why should I bother supporting Israel?” This is an understandable reaction to an assault on ones identity, indeed, ones very sense of self.  The solution, however, is not to withdraw in pain and anger and give up.  We must not allow others to define us. The solution is to fight back, to proudly declare that you are a Jew and that Israel is also your heritage.  You are not alone.  The majority of American Jewry stands behind you, and is fighting that battle, too.   We will prevail, however, only if we care enough to struggle for what is ours as well. Let this be a wake-up call for us.  We American Jews are trying to be more inclusive in our understanding of the Jewish community. We are trying to expand the tent under which our community dwells. On the other hand there are those in Israel, who are seeking to define that community ever more narrowly.  This threatens to alienate American Jews from Israel, especially our young.  Gone are the days when Israel has an automatic claim on the allegiance of American Jewry.  If Israel wants a privileged place in our hearts, then Israel must be a place where pluralism reigns. Israel must become a country where all streams of Judaism are accorded recognition and respect.  Israel must place the spiritual welfare and unity of world Jewry above the expediency of power and narrow interests of politics. Israel must be a place that all Jews can call home, a country where all Jews can feel accepted for who they are.  If Israel is to become that place, it will need our involvement, our commitment, our passion, to bring it about.  Why try?  The future of the Jewish people depends on it.