Friday October 7, 2022 – י”ב תשרי תשפ”ג
Yom Kippur is meant to be a wake-up call. Sure, it’s a time for personal reflection, prayer, introspection, repairing relationships, and for wiping the slates clean to enable a fresh start. But it’s also a moment to ask the big questions, specifically “Who am I?” and “What do I want to be?”
Some will answer these questions with character and attributional responses. I want to be a kind person. I want to have more patience. I want to be more mindful. I want to be more open-minded. Those are all important, AND, it is time to strengthen my Jewish identity, learn more Jewish texts, improve my Hebrew, observe more mitzvot, and be more active in efforts to repair the world.
Reading the Yom Kippur Haftarah, we encounter the resistant prophet Jonah. Despite his attempt to flee from responsibility and the mission that God gives him, he is able succinctly to articulate who he is and what is at the core of his identity:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם עִבְרִ֣י אָנֹ֑כִי וְאֶת־יְהֹוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֲנִ֣י יָרֵ֔א אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הַיָּ֖ם וְאֶת־הַיַּבָּשָֽׁה׃
“עִבְרִ֣י אָנֹ֑כִי – I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship יהוה, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.” (Jonah 1:9)
What is it that makes him a Hebrew? According to the verse, his adherence to a God – יהוה – is the determining civilizational factor.
What about for us? Is it values? Observance? Language? Culture? Music? Food?
This is the fundamental debate: “What, inherently, is Judaism.” Is it, for us, about morality and values, or is it a system of law and ritual?
Our tradition is helpful here. A midrash explains:
“We were led out of Egypt because we kept three things intact: our name, our clothing, and our language.”
Jews living in post-Enlightenment Western society did their best to assimilate – specifically by changing their names and dress and abandoning a Jewish language. Now, to be Jewish, of course, we must adhere to universal values of humanity in how we treat each other, but those don’t make one distinctively Jewish.
Why is it important to be distinctively Jewish? Why strive to remain a separate people at all?
There are certainly plenty of people—Jews and non-Jews—who say that it isn’t important. They argue that it’s time for the Jewish people to be absorbed into the greater body of humanity. As the great prophet John Lennon teaches: “Imagine there’re no countries…” Just a solid homogeneous mass of humanity with no distinctions between nation and nation, culture and culture. If Yom Kippur is personal and particular, Sukkot has a strong universal and nature theme, and it is also about Jewish peoplehood. It is about “doing Jewish.,” and about belonging. Many of today’s Jews often search for where they belong, and these holidays and rituals provide that.
Even more, a Jewish is about belonging. Why a Jewish State, they ask; why not live in a single democratic nation for all who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea?
There are those who point to antisemitism as the only thing keeping the Jewish people alive. We’ve heard this argument: Surviving and thriving is the best revenge. We’ll show the antisemites!
We have also heard the counter-arguments: But, are we to justify our existence only in opposition to our enemies? Are we to define ourselves by their animosity? What has their hatred to do with us? Their hatred certainly ought to say more about them than about us.
Both arguments leave out the heart of the matter—we are part of something greater than ourselves (a sentiment that manifests on Yom Kippur and Sukkot). That “something” has its own existence, its own biography, and its own future. It does not belong to us; we belong to it.
Truthfully, we have plenty about which to be proud! Why let others determine the limits of our being or tell us how we must identify? Better that we define ourselves by what we wish to be and accomplish. Just as these things change over time, we continue to change as well. While we may have started out as a genetically and culturally homogeneous society, that is no longer true.
Throughout the millennia, we Jews have become quite a mixed lot and a diverse people, absorbing genes and cultures from those among whom we’ve traveled and lived. This should be regarded as a source of pride, as diversity drives life and creativity. And yet, our core Jewish identity remains through it all; our cultural DNA is uniquely our own.
I hope that our core identity remains in the body of human civilization because it performs a necessary function. As a distinct people, we have something to contribute to the world that we could not contribute as individuals subsumed into an undifferentiated mass of humanity. Of course, the same could be said of every other nation. The world would be a poorer place if all cultural and racial differences were lost.
So why are we Jews having such an identity challenge and facing such waning support in progressive spaces? Why for so many is the connection between Jewish identity and the Jewish State met with animosity? So many feel like it’s ok to be Jewish, but they don’t want to be too Jewish.
As the journalist and author Matti Friedman writes in his wonderful account of Leonard Cohen’s sojourn through the Sinai desert during the Yom Kippur war (“Who By Fire”):
“…it’s true that attitudes towards Israel were changing in the years after the [Yom Kippur] war, in part because winning, which Israel had just done at great cost, makes you less sympathetic. The politics became more treacherous.”
However, if it were merely a case of just winning that caused Israel’s support to wane in the international community, that would be one thing. The Palestinians have managed to get sympathy from the world operating under the notion that it is legitimate for them to go to war and “resist.” Despite taking that risk, losing is not acceptable. They are allowed to persist by all means necessary until they “win?” At what point will the world expect them to accept the fact that they are unable to defeat Israel and they should come to the negotiating table as honest brokers?
Thankfully, Israel, for its part, has been able to maintain a qualitative military edge, which has historically, and still today, been responsible for preserving a Jewish State. Yet, waning support amongst our people is not just in response to those who hate us or are uncomfortable with Jews having power and a Jewish political sovereign entity in our historical Homeland.
It is about the Occupation and the growing extreme nationalism that is manifesting and growing in popularity. I have written about this before and will write about it again. Just as the 2016 presidential election saw a release of a White Supremacist populist sentiment and a rise in antisemitic attacks and violence embraced by the Unite the Right coalition, neo-Nazis, and Proud Boys, among others – so rose in popularity also the leader of the Jewish Power party, Itamar Ben Gvir, in Israel. As a so-called “religious” Zionist, Ben Gvir teaches a Torah of hatred, racism, bigotry, homophobia, and Jewish supremacy.
Once upon a time, Jewish nationalism was about preserving our identity, our diverse cultural heritage, our language, and our rich textual tradition of wisdom for the generations to come. Jewish nationalism was never about championing oppression or espousing notions of our superiority over another people. For us to survive as a people and not fade away into the amalgam of Western liberalism, we must take pride in our own identity, feel a sense of dignity in preserving our names, language (Hebrew), traditions, and culture(s) because these are the tools through which we can find meaning and relevance in our lives and provides for us a framing and grounding through which we can approach the world.
As we set out for the holiday of Sukkot – a week of temporariness, exposure to the elements, and the great outdoors – let us also take pride in the notion that we are unique and are part of something bigger. We have an opportunity to explore who we are as a people, an ethnicity, and a culture, as we hold up our values. Just as we open our Sukkot to welcome strangers, guests, and people from outside our circles, we can also look for answers to the big questions of who we are, and who we want to be.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!
 This “well-known midrash” is actually a distillation of two different midrashim—one from VaYikra Rabba, the other from a commentary known as Pesikta Zutarta:
ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה לב
רב הונא אמר בשם בר קפרא בשביל ד’ דברים נגאלו ישראל ממצרים שלא שנו את שמם ואת לשונם ולא אמרו לשון הרע ולא
נמצא ביניהן אחד מהן פרוץ בערוה
Yayikra Rabbah section 32 R’ Huna said in the name of Bar Kapparah: Because of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: They didn’t change their names or their language, they didn’t speak lashon ha-ra, and none of them was promiscuous.
פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) דברים פרשת תבא דף מו עמוד א
דבר אחר ויהי שם לגוי. מלמד שהיו ישראל מצויינים שם. שהיה מלבושם ומאכלם ולשונם משונים מן המצריים. מסומנין היו וידועין
שהם גוי לבדם חלוק מן המצריים:
Minor Pesikta, Devarim (Ki Tavo) 41a Another interpretation: “And there they became a nation” – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians.