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I am a Jew because …

January 10, 2020

Sermon on anti-Semitism and parashat Vayechi. 

On Friday nights, traditional Jews bless their sons with these words, y’simcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’chiMnasheh. This blessing comes from our Torah portion, where Jacob blesses his grandchildren in the following manner: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Gen. 48:10).

This blessing can be a little confusing, because we know almost nothing about this biblical pair. We know that they are Joseph’s sons, and that they were born in Egypt. We know that Jacob believes that both children are worthy of blessing, but that the younger child, Ephraim, will be greater than his older brother. Although Ephraim is blessed with Jacob’s right hand, and Menashe with Jacob’s left, this is the first pair of brothers who are blessed at the same time, with essentially the same blessing. This is the closest we have to a pair of brothers being treated equally in Genesis.  From this, the rabbis extrapolate that what made the brothers special was their lack of animosity towards each other (Abarbanel on Genesis 48:20).

The rabbis also suggest that what makes the pair worthy of blessing is that Ephraim and Menashe were able to maintain their identity in a foreign land (Etz Chayim 298). Some commentaries base this on the fact that, although they were born in Egypt, both boys have Hebrew names. But legend has it that, when Jacob finally meets his grandchildren, he doesn’t recognize them, because they look Egyptian, so “they reassured him by reciting the Shema, “Hear O, Israel” [that is, Jacob] we may look like Egyptians but we affirm the same God as our father and grandfather” (Etz Chayim 295). It is only with this knowledge that Jacob can bless them.

While we might not know as much about Ephraim and Menashe as we do about their ancestors or their descendants, we do know that we share something essential in common with them. We, too, are faced with the question of how to maintain our spiritual identity outside of our ancestral land.

There have been many generations when our people didn’t have much choice about their Jewish identity. Jewish identity was imposed upon them, by the nations that surrounded them. At best, we were excluded from majority culture. At worst, we were persecuted by our neighbors and our host nations.

In recent years, as many of those barriers began to come down, the question of physical survival was replaced with the question of spiritual survival: if we have the freedom to be anything, why be Jewish?

We had the luxury of asking ourselves that question, because thought we were done facing down anti-Semitism, at least in developed countries in the Western world. But we are learning every day how much it is still present, meaning that we still have to answer the darker side of our question: if being Jewish can make us the targets of hatred, why be Jewish?

jewish and proudIronically, it is in the aftermath of this terrifying increase in anti-semitic incidents that we have obtained some of the most powerful answers to these questions. And some of these answers came from surprising places.

At the closing plenary of the URJ Biennial in Chicago, the Reform movement welcomed Dr. Deborah Lipstadt to the stage. After a week of hearing the pounding drums of “the world is in crisis and we’re not doing enough,” “the next generation isn’t engaged with Judaism,” and “we’re failing Jews of Color, LGBTQ Jews, Boomers, millennials, Generations X, Y, and Z, and interfaith families, etc.”, I hardly expected Dr. Lipstadt to end us on a high note. Lipstadt is an American History professor who studies anti-Semitism, and who became famous when Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel. But Lipstadt’s talk turned out to be the most uplifting and passionate speech about being Jewish today that I’ve heard in a long time.

Lipstadt shared the story of a student who began wearing his kippah every time there was an anti-Semitic incident, “to show the anti-Semites they can’t frighten me.” Lipstadt admired his “chutzpah,” but also felt her heart breaking for the young man, “because he had allowed the anti-Semites to determine when he felt Jewish. … He had ceded to them the power over his Jewish identity…he was motivated by the ‘oy’ and not the joy of Jewish life… he left my office, I prayed that he’d build [his Jewish identity] eventually on the knowledge of what Jews do, and not what is done to Jews.”

For Lipstadt, someone who spends her entire life confronting antisemitism, there is still a lot to be joyful about in Judaism: the rest that Shabbat mandates for all creatures, the codes demanding ethical treatment of land and livestock, the commandment to actively pursue justice, and the connection to the State of Israel, even as we hold it to the highest moral standards.

Like Lipstadt, I’ve long been concerned that the answer many adults would give to, “Why be Jewish?” is “Because our ancestors suffered and died at the hands of their persecutors and we can’t let our enemies win.” That answer, rooted in guilt and fear, is not compelling enough for our children and grandchildren. And I don’t think it’s working for us, either, even in a time of heightened anti-Semitism. We need to be able to give an answer rooted in the positive: that our tradition is both eternal and relevant, and that it has the power to shape and transform our lives.

Another surprising source for positive answers to the question “why be Jewish?” was New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, who spoke at Sunday’s “No Hate, No Fear” Solidarity March in Brooklyn, New York. While Weiss and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, I found her speech and much of her book to be compelling.

On Sunday, she said, “I am not a Jew because people hate my religion, my people, and my civilization. Not for a single moment does Jew-hatred…make me a Jew.” Instead, she roots her Jewish identity in the “audacity” of Abraham, the loyalty of Ruth, the courage of Esther, and the resistance of the Maccabees. She cites the integrity of Rabbi Akiva and the empathy of Emma Lazarus, as well as the commitment to justice ingrained in a people who have been exiled, enslaved, and persecuted. “The Jewish people were not put on earth to be anti-anti-Semites,” Weiss said, “We were put on earth to be Jews. We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we. We are the lamp-lighters. We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.”

Like Weiss, I believe that there is much to discover and connect to in the Jewish story, and that engaging with our people’s ancient narratives can give us courage, wisdom, and strength that we need to face the challenges of the world today.

One answer Weiss ultimately gives to the central question of How to Fight Anti-Semitism is to “Lean into Judaism … [and] Nurture your Jewish identity—and that of those around you”: “Cultivating and strengthening your Jewish identity may not seem like an obvious way to combat antisemitism, but it is actually one of our most powerful weapons. That is especially the case for parents, who have the opportunity to raise educated, proud, and joyful Jews of the next generation” (Weiss 201-2).

And that begins with our filling in the blank: I am a Jew because…

And whatever our answer to that question might be, let that point us in the direction of how we will be Jewish going forward.

If we are Jewish because of our love for the sacred space of prayer, how will we bring more mindfulness and gratitude into our lives in the coming year?

If we are Jewish because of our people’s commitment to social justice, how will we pursue justice in the coming year?

If we are Jewish because of our people’s treasure trove of wisdom, how will we engage with Jewish learning in the coming year?

If we are Jewish because of the joy of celebrating Shabbat and holidays, how will we make these holy days more special to more people in the coming year?

If we are Jewish because of the warm embrace of community, what will we do to make sure that more people, of diverse backgrounds and communities, have access to our community in the coming year?

If we are Jewish because our parents or grandparents were Jewish, how will we nurture the next generation in the coming year?

And if we are, in fact, Jewish because of our people’s history of wandering and persecution, what will we do to combat isolation, ignorance, and oppression in the coming year?

May our answers to these questions guide us in our quest for a richer and more meaningful life. May we, like Ephraim and Menashe, be blessed and be a source of blessing.

And may we follow Deborah Lipstadt’s call to us and to future generations to be joyous in our pursuit: “May they embrace Judaism because it is theirs. May you embrace it because it is yours. May we all embrace it because it is ours.”