We begin by asking what Jewish identity means. What makes a Jew a Jew?
The blessing of a dear friend is that he or she helps you access deep places in your heart that you may not have even realized were there. My mom shared with me a story about her dear friend Michelle. Michelle was brash and outspoken, full of life and strong opinions. She was my mom’s soul friend, who cared deeply and held gently my mom’s heart. One day, Michelle turned to my mom and asked, “Leah, what is the most important thing to you?” It is a question anyone might ask, but only a dear friend would create the trust to reflect, to be vulnerable and to explore honestly.
Listen to my mom’s answer from over fifty years ago – my brother and I were little kids – my sister was not yet a twinkle in my parents’ eye. My mom said, “I want my kids to be Jewish.”
Once you articulate an essential truth, you figure out how to realize it My mom got busy. We joined a synagogue. She signed us up for Religious School. We went to Jewish summer camp. We attended Youth Group and she was the Youth Commission Chairperson. We celebrated holidays and, at one point, began to have Shabbat dinners. We marched for Soviet Jewry and stood with Israel in good times and in difficult times. My mom helped shape Jewish identity, not just in me; but also in my brother and sister.
As I think about my mom’s heart truth, “I want my kids to be Jewish,” I realize that in the best of ways, I have turned into my mother. I want my kids to be Jewish. I also want you who pass through these doors to feel your Judaism in a deep and sustaining way. It is the deepest desire of my heart.
I know there is no checklist that can guarantee it. I have no control over the decisions of my children. I have raised them to make their own decisions. I know that I have no real control over what anyone else decides to do. I know that even to say that I hope my children are Jewish as my heart hope creates of a variety of reactions for some of you: Perhaps similar hopes for your children didn’t work out. You may want this for yourself or your family and feel doors close as you try to enter. You may not be sure if Jewish identity is a deep piece of you. There may be ambivalence about the legacy and purpose of religion. You may say, I’ve done all I can do; it’s not about the kids anymore. The topic brings out lots of emotions.
So while acknowledging all of the dissonance, I ask you to journey with me as I explore the thesis that instilling Jewish identity in ourselves, our community, our children and grandchildren may be the most important thing we can do, especially right now, for this identity guides as we face this moment in history.
We begin by asking what Jewish identity means. What makes a Jew a Jew? At an interfaith group composed of twenty-five Christian leaders and five Jewish leaders, who will travel to Israel at the end of October, Rabbi Donniel Hartman asked this question. He wanted Christians to better understand that Jews use faith as a way to talk about Israel, but his answer summed up Judaism in a framework I had not articulated before and I loved the answer. He said,
“What makes a Jew a Jew is the synthesis of BELONGING and BECOMING, both essential to creating, living, experiencing personally, and transmitting deeply rooted Jewish identity to future generations.”
Let’s explore these words BELONGING and BECOMING.
BELONGING is being part of a nation, a culture, a people, a family. BELONGING simply is who we are. For this pillar, we don’t have to do anything to be Jewish. But it is more than just who we are; it is what we feel. In Yiddish, it’s in our kischkes, our gut.
The other pillar of Judaism is BECOMING. We are called to bring mitzvot and ethics into the world so that the world BECOMES a world of the ideals Judaism teaches. As a religion of BECOMING, we are called to look squarely at our world and act to bring our vision to life.
The beginning of Judaism was almost solely about BELONGING. Rabbi Hartman calls it Genesis Judaism and it defined us for our first one thousand years as a people. God tells Abram to go to the land God will show him and form a nation. BELONGING confers ethnic identity with a strong collective consciousness, and a connection to one another. Genesis is the story that simply BELONGING makes a Jew a Jew! No deeds are required; it simply is who you are.
Then we move into Exodus, and the whole Jewish story changes. Into our story one key word is added, “IF.”
“IF you will obey Me faithfully and keep my Covenant, you shall be My treasured possession.”
Identity is not assumed as it is in Genesis. It is earned through our actions, our mitzvot.
Exodus Judaism is not about who we are; it is about what we do. It is about BECOMING. Identity is conditional. Judaism is now an aspirational religion that demands that we organize our lives around uncompromising standards of moral and spiritual excellence. Jewish rituals, prayers, holidays and study come to define and reinforce who we are meant to BECOME. Ritual is the act of BELONGING that instills BECOMING. We are confronted with areas where our visions of justice, human dignity, care for those in need, protecting the splendor of creation, have yet to be realized.
It is a difficult challenge to impart both BELONGING and BECOMING! There was a moment in Rabbi Hartman’s lecture that made my stomach knot up. To the group of pastors and rabbis sitting around the table, he shared how lonely it can be as a modern rabbi. We embrace BELONGING and BECOMING in our souls, yet so many of the Jews in our communities do not share the level of commitment that allow these concepts to develop deep roots. So many American Jews, especially the younger generation, define identity in universal ways. For all that BELONGING confers Jewish identity no matter what, translating it into a feeling that makes you say, “This is who I am!” it isn’t who people would say they are.
To add to my angst, Rabbi Hartman wondered whether the Judaism of BECOMING could take the deep roots it needs to thrive in a culture pulled in so many directions. Many resonate with the call to social justice, but Rabbi Hartman questioned whether the Jewish framework of ritual, study and holy dispute, which leads to internalizing and evolving our vision, is something people prioritize. If it isn’t a priority, it does not pull us to action in the way, nor with the nuance, that questions and expansive application of Judaism demand.
As for me, I hold onto the power of these pillars, knowing that they give strength and meaning, believing in the power to communicate how important these pillars are for ourselves, our community and our world. Let’s go deeper into each one: BELONGING – being part of a people – Mishpacha – roots me. It gives us support, strength and connection. I felt it at summer camp, youth group, and at our Shabbat table, deep connections that sustained me. I feel it every time there is a loss and I watch how the community is there during tough times. I came to understand fully BELONGING when I traveled abroad in college. I would go to a synagogue and someone would invite me over for a meal because we were Mishpacha, even if we didn’t speak the same language.
I feel the power of Mishpacha all of the time. I can be vacationing in an isolated place and somehow will meet the other Jew. The next thing you know I am inviting their distant relative over, talking about senior residences for their parents who might move to the area, and fixing up their niece with a great young adult from our congregation. That’s Mishpacha.
Think about the impact of being Mishpacha. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. We stand up for one another during troubled times and support one another through the emotions of those times, like Charlottesville and other moments of anti-Semitism which are growing and hitting close to home. This year is the first year in my twenty-four years, during which I have had to devote classroom time to the anti-Semitism that the students are experiencing. This shared experience simultaneously pained us, and enervated us to stand up for ourselves in a thoughtful way.
As Mishpacha, we feel the pull of our shared history, pain and resilience, wandering and reorienting, persecution and adaptation. Mishpacha takes deeper roots and hues as we visit, live in and support Israel. One spiritual response to this difficult historic moment is simply being with Mishpacha. Feeling the care, reaching out, coming together, we need to cultivate mishpacha.
And as an important footnote, know that when someone converts, they not only join the family, but have always been part of the family. Maimonides teaches Ovadiah the convert, who asks whether he can say in his prayers “God and God of our Ancestors,” and the answer is an emphatic “YES!” For Ovadiah, upon his conversion, became a descendent of Abraham and Sarah, who also chose the Jewish faith.
All of this fuses together with a Judaism of BECOMING. While the connections of Mishpacha root us, the demands of creating a world of morality and goodness, defined by caring for fellow humans and justice, animate us and give direction to how we are meant to deal with this moment in history. The vast legal/ethical system of the Rabbis that I learned about in camp, religious school, youth group, at synagogue and in the prayer book brought me face to face with an immense insistent vision: Strive to create the world that ought to be; where there is darkness, light a flame. Amidst a broken world, so dissonant from what we are called to create and so full of moral injustice, we are the people who will not stand still. Judaism of BECOMING demands action.
BECOMING demands that every human being be treated like a reflection of divinity, with dignity and kindness.
BECOMING demands that we pursue justice.
BECOMING demands that we care for the needy, the hungry, the person without economic resources. When hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes hit, we jump to help.
BECOMING demands we care for our environment.
BECOMING demands ethics of language and economic morality. As we encounter a world of human suffering, injustice, poverty, pollution, lies, dishonesty and insensitivity, our call to act to be a holy nation drives us to activism.
The shofar blasts, “Wake up! Act!” It reminds us that this cannot wait. Right now is the time to address the dissonance between what is and what should be in the world.
Let us be passionate in creating deep ties which reinforce both BELONGING to a unique people to whom we are bound, and acting to realize a moral vision of what society should BECOME. My call today is to consider your personal roadmap, which deepens your personal sense of Jewish identity and realization of sacred aspirations, personally, in your families and in our community. The beauty and challenge of today’s Judaism is that there are so many options and roads we can take. But our direction has to be intentional and mindful, a different path for each of us. It will not take root unless it is a priority.
As a community, let’s be audacious. Envision a BIRTHRIGHT for Jewish connection. Jewish education should be available to everyone, affiliated and unaffiliated. Jewish summer camps and day schools should be affordable. Religious school should be offered at a variety of places and all of us should work together so that people have options that have the highest standards of educational excellence. Synagogue connection should be so easy that one simply feels welcome and embraced. Every single person should travel to Israel. Let’s start right here, and make it happen.
Fusing together BELONGING and BECOMING gives us the tools to live a Jewish life that guides and nurtures, supports and inspires. It is what we need to guide us at this moment. As I close, I lift up a hero, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel whose BELONGING and BECOMING fused together seamlessly. Many know the famous line about Rabbi Heschel, that when he marched for civil rights with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, he was praying with his feet. Heschel’s BELONGING was rooted in Bible, Shabbat, the prophets and a sense of service to God. Driven by faith, Heschel became immersed in work of BECOMING, shaping the world to reflect these values. Before he died, Heschel was interviewed by Carl Stern on NBC television. Stern asked Heschel whether he was a prophet. Heschel demurred:
“I won’t accept this praise…It is a claim almost arrogant enough to say that I’m a descendant of the prophets… So let us hope and pray that I am worthy of being a descendant of prophets.”
As we fuse together a deep sense of BELONGING and BECOMING, we too can be worthy of being descendants of prophets.