Sunday, October 01, 2006

 

Is this Tshuva, Repentance?

hat tip to Fred

"My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish."

These were the next-to-last words of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist brutally murdered by Pakistani terrorists. What did he mean by those eleven words?

He wasn't a religious Jew. His wife wasn't Jewish. He probably knew as he said these words that they would only enrage his captors. Danny's next sentence, the very last he spoke was: "Back in the town of B'nai Brak, there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town. Why tell his captors, of all things, that his great-grandfather founded a town in Israel?

His parents believe he chose to tell this story to convey three messages. "First, to his family: I am volunteering information nobody outside the family knows. Understand from this that I am speaking freely and I am not defeated. Second, to his captors: I come from a place where people are judged by the towns they build, the trees they plant, not by the death and destruction they bring. My great-grandfather was angry, too; he had plenty of grievances in the Poland of 1924, just as you have in Pakistan. He didnt blow up their churches. Instead he sold everything he had, moved to British Palestine, and created a better life for himself and his family. And third, to the world: Despite all the protests and criticism that we hear around us, we are still the town builders in this world. We, America, Israel... have not been perfect, but we are still the largest exporters of hope, pluralism, tolerance, equality, and basic freedoms, and our heritage is still the most reliable source of values in the world."

I am Jewish. Would you have said that? And if you would have, what would it mean to you? As we gather together tonight, at the beginning of this New Year, we are saying with our presence: "I am Jewish. It is important to me." My question to each of us, then, is simple: Why? What difference does being Jewish really make in your life?

Over the next ten days, I want to explore that question with you by studying different texts from Torah, the rabbinic tradition, and contemporary thinkers. And then on Yom Kippur afternoon, we will have the privilege of hearing Daniel Pearl's parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, talk with us about transforming tragedy into hope.

Tonight, as we begin the New Year, I want to explore Danny's message about being a Jew and an American.




This month marks the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. In 1654, twenty-three Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil, landed in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan.) These men, women and children left their homes after the Portuguese recaptured Brazil from the Dutch and reinstituted the Inquisition, kicking out the Jews. The governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, didn't want these Jews. He wrote to his superiors in Amsterdam: "If we give the Jews liberty, we cant refuse the Lutherans and the Catholics who are sure to follow." But the Dutch authorities, encouraged by the many Jews in Amsterdam who were shareholders in the Dutch West India Company, instructed Stuyvesant to let them stay, "providing that the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or the community, but be supported by their own nation."

And so in 1654 the American tradition of religious freedom and pluralism, as well as of communal responsibility, began. It began through us.

In 1790 in his famous letter to the Jews of Newport, President George Washington articulated these principles for the very first time, writing that the US government "gives to bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance." He described religious liberty as an inherent natural right, which was very different from Europe, where Jews were tolerated but not accepted on equal footing. Remember, this was 1790. France was just about to emancipate its Jews, but Jews would have to wait 70 more years for England and 100 more years for Germany to do the same. No wonder that President Washington even suggested America might in fact prove to be a promised land for the Jews.

And it has.

America, thanks to the separation of church and state, and the establishment of individual, civil and minority rights, has given us freedom to be both Jewish and American. It has enabled us to become the richest, most successful community of Jews in history. Ours is an amazing success story: you know this from your own family stories. Anti-Semitism in America, of the state-supported variety that so threatened our ancestors, doesnt exist here. Jews can be admitted to any university become the university president; Jews can work in any profession and marry anyone they love. We are not "tolerated" in America; we are America. We are among those who have created what America is ---the culture makers, the intellectuals, the policy makers, the voters, the consumers, the soccer moms; we are Americans.

We are Americans. And we are also Jews. What a unique privilege to be living in a time and a place where we are the inheritors of two great cultures. This is so different from all the pre-modern generations when we could only be Jews... or, as the modern era dawned, when we had to split our identities to be what Moses Mendelssohns described as Jews in our homes and citizens on the street. Now we can be "Jews in our homes and in the streets." We can be Jews in our private lives and in our offices. We can be Jews in our synagogues and in the public square. We can be are we? Or have we forgotten the values that allowed us to make a difference throughout our 4000 years of history.

Yes, our children go to Harvard and Brown and UCLA and USC, but they, and we, are illiterate when it comes to the Jewish "higher education" of Bible, Talmud, Maimonides and modern Jewish thought. Yes we are privileged enough to take our families on wonderful vacations, but members of our congregation are more likely to visit the cathedrals of Italy than the living culture of Israel. Yes, we get a kick out of hearing that Madonna studies kabbalah, but few of us know enough about Kaballah to realize that what she is studying bears little resemblance to the real depth of the Jewish mystical tradition. Yes, we are successful beyond our great-grandparents wildest dreams, and yet... something is missing. We've given up half our inheritance... Voluntarily.

We are losing our back-story,... our story of coming out of the narrow place of Egypt... our story that constantly reminds us that because we were once slaves... we must fight against oppression; our story about being town-builders and exporters of hope, our story about one God one power in the universe that demands of us that we be Gods partner in repairing the broken world. It is a counter cultural tradition, this story of ours; it was countercultural in Abraham's time, countercultural in Moses' time, countercultural in our great-grandparents time, and countercultural in our time as well. It is a story that has always held us to our highest aspirations... and its a story that can also challenge America to live up to its best vision of itself.

Because sometimes, America loses its way. In spite of its great ideals, American society culture often seems to be moving in the wrong direction...

Let me give you a few examples. All of us have some idea of the pressures that our kids face as the struggle to become adults pressure, social pressure, the constant bombardment from popular culture about sex and materialism and looking a certain way and being popular. No wonder that many of our kids are involved in self destructive behaviors cutting, drugs, sex. And it starts very early... as early as Thirteen, a point made painfully clear in a movie that came out last year called Thirteen. It is based on the true story of a 13 year old girl who fell in with the wrong crowd. We want to believe that this couldn't happen in our families, but it could and it does. We just don't talk about it.

But our tradition gives us some help in re-framing for our thirteen year olds what it means to be a young adult. Through the ritual of a bar or bat mitzvah, we try to teach our young people that to be an adult means to be part of something bigger than yourself, a tradition that calls on us to make a difference in the world, where we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, where what we do in the world really matters. What is important, says the bar mitzvah ritual, is not what you wear or what you look like, but how you treat other people. The Bar Mitzvah teaches that being an adult is not measured by freedom to act out, but by the freedom to give back some of the blessings we have been fortunate enough to receive. And the Bar mitzvah links us to our grandparents and great-grandparents, town builders and exporters of hope.

Not all b'nei mitzvah convey these values. In fact, some of the opulent celebrations connected to b'nei mitzvah suggest the opposite message. So I am not saying that a bar or bat mitzvah will keep a teenager safe. But an ongoing connection to a caring community rooted in spiritual values can. Maybe thats why non-Jews on Long Island are having 'bar mitzvah' parties. Did you see that article in the Wall Street Journal last year? Funny... and sad too. True they are imitating the most excessive aspects of b'nei mitzvah celebrations, but perhaps it is motivated by a longing to discover for themselves what we already have: a meaningful rite of passage into adolescence.

Here's another example of our counter cultural tradition: many of us have bigger homes and more money than our great-grandparents could have imagined, but we have less time to be with our families. All of us, whether we feel affluent or not, live under a great deal of stress to earn enough money to support the life styles we see portrayed all around us. This is true...we are lawyers whose law firms expect us to bill 60 or 70 hours a week or social workers trying desperately to keep up with a growing case load by working twelve-hours days or single mothers making minimum wage we are all overworked. And even on vacation, we are never really away. Our cell phones, e-mail, and palm pilots keep us connected to a life without any down time, with no time to take a breath. Our Jewish back-story, our countercultural tradition, challenges all this. Because our story centers on Shabbat. You can do all your work in six days, it teaches us and you have one day to take a break, to disconnect from the world of doing and achieving and acquiring and mastering... and to re-connect to your soul.

That's a gift.

It's a gift that can transform us as individuals and families, and can also transform America. It already is, manifested by a new campaign called Free Time/Free People. It began with Jews and has spread into other religious communities with a call to American political, economic, and cultural leaders to reduce the hours of work imposed on individuals without reducing their income; to strongly encourage the use of more free time in the service of family, community, and spiritual growth; and to make work itself sacred by securing full employment in jobs with decent income, healthcare, dignity, and self-direction. Yes, it is utopian, and yes, it is countercultural... and yes, it is our inheritance as Jews. It is one of the most important gifts we have contributed, not only to America, but to the entire Western world. And we should work to make it the inheritance of all Americans.

I am Jewish. When I claim the Jewish story as mine, when I celebrate it, when I allow it to challenge me, and me to challenge it, it is a story that enriches my life.

I learned this again this year as I mourned for my father who died almost a year ago. Though not an observant Jew, my father taught me more about being Jewish than all my other teachers. He genuinely believed that he had been placed on this earth to make the world better for other people and he did it though small acts of kindness. He won't be remembered in history as a great man, yet he was a profoundly good man, who taught me that the way to honor God is by honoring other people. The last few years of his life were difficult as his Alzheimers became more pronounced. Mercifully, he died just before my mother would have had to make some really difficult decisions about his care. She was able to take care of him at home, showing him all the love that they shared through their almost 60 years of marriage. His death was a blessing... so I was surprised to discover how sad I was.

I said Yizkor for my father for the first time on Passover. I have of course led Yizkor many times as a rabbi. But saying Yizkor for my father was different.

I was there, not because I am a rabbi, but because I am his daughter. And being there brought my father back to me, before he got sick. Being there brought him back, like a photograph from long ago, my father, handsome in his Navy uniform... my father, laughing with the little girl who grew up to be me. I realized that Yizkor is a gift a way to remember those people whose lives made our lives possible and of reminding ourselves that wherever we go, we take them with us. Yizkor keeps us from losing them, by giving us a way of remembering at those very moments when their absence is most powerful, the times when our families gather for holidays.

What a gift being Jewish is. What an inheritance!

One of the blessings of being a rabbi is accompanying a Jew by choice along a spiritual journey. A high point along the way is participating in the bet din, the Jewish Court that sits with the convert to explore his or her reasons for choosing Judaism. To hear some one who has chosen Judaism, say I am Jewish because is often breathtaking. It is sometimes accompanied by tears.

"I am Jewish" one woman recently explained, "because I fell in love with sukkot. I grew up on a farm in Minnesota and I have always felt close to the land. There I was, sitting in a friends sukkah, understanding that sukkot challenges us to recognize that the harvest of our lives isn't measured by material things, but rather by what we take with us into the sukkah family, friends and memory. Nothing else really matters. Sitting under the sukkah, looking through the palm fronds into the night sky, I felt connected to nature in a way that I don't usually feel here in Los Angeles, connected and responsible for the environment, and also for reaching out to hungry people whose harvest is less bountiful than my own. Sitting under the sukkah it was kind of an epiphany. That's when I chose Judaism. And I feel so privileged to become part of this tradition and the people who brought this consciousness into the world."

Ironic, isn't it, that sometimes Jews by choice have an easier time saying I am Jewish than those of us born as Jews. They see as precious something that we may take for granted.

But the truth is...350 years after the first Jewish community was created in America, we are all Jews by choice. In America no one can force us to choose our Jewish inheritance and no one can force us to give it up. The ultimate blessing of being a Jew in America is that we don't have to choose between being a Jew and an American. We don't have to choose between one and the other but we still have to choose to give our Jewish inheritance meaning.

The New Year has begun, 5765 years since the creation of the world 350 years since the arrival of Jews in America. What do you choose? Does that choice bring meaning to your life? Could you say, would you say, as Daniel Pearl did, I am Jewish? And if you did, what difference what would it make in your life and in the world?

"My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish. I pray my grandchildren will be Jewish as well and continue to be town-builders and exporters of hope."

Amen.

Comments:
Off Topic Post
I am doing research on the roots of certain American Christian religions and have found that some appear to be from 19th century Kabbalah. I would like to contact a legitimate scholar on the subject to collaborate on a paper. I don't know how or where to look. If someone could help me contact such a person, I would appreciate it.

Thank you

jhuston7@yahoo.com
 
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I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;

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(And wait to watch the water clear, I may);

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I'm going out to fetch the little calf

That's standing by the mother. It's so young

It totters when she licks it with her tongue.

I shan't be gone long.--- You come too.

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