YK morning sermon
A black rabbi of a black Jewish congregation in Chicago tells of being interviewed for a story by a journalist who titled his article, “Twice Cursed.” “You were cursed,” he said, “because you were born black, and that wasn’t bad enough. You became a Jew!” Ironically, the journalist was Jewish. The rabbi responded, “What kind of Jew are you? I am twice blessed, not twice cursed.”
A black woman enters a synagogue on Shabbat morning. She wears a kippah and a tallis and chants the Hebrew prayers. As the service ends, a congregant walks over to the woman and asks, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
An American man whose parents are Catholic walks into the Spanish Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam and discovers a 400-year-old plaque on which is written his mother’s last name. He later discovers his family’s 500-year secret…they were Portuguese Jews, who in 1497 were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Is this man Jewish? Funny, he doesn’t look Jewish.
All of us at one time or another have seen a person, blonde and blue-eyed, at a Jewish gathering, and remarked, “Funny, that person doesn’t look Jewish!” What does it mean to look Jewish, to be a Jew?
Jews have never been a homogenous people, nor for that matter, racially monochromatic. Since the time of the Exodus, we were, according to the Torah, a “mixed multitude.” Our ancestors traveled from Asia to Africa, to the Mediterranean and Europe. They intermingled with Greeks, Romans, and Turks, all of whom conquered Israel at one time. Jews were never defined by race, but by Torah, G-d, and Israel.
Our biblical ancestor, Joseph, intermarried. His wife was an Egyptian woman and the children she bore, Ephraim and Menashe, are the ones whose names are traditionally used when blessing sons on Erev Shabbat. By Orthodox standards today, they wouldn’t be considered Jews. Yet every Friday night, the Orthodox say to their sons, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Jewishness was determined by the father’s line until the Roman period.
Moses married Zipporah, an Ethiopian. David and Solomon took wives from Africa. Ruth, after whom a book of the Hebrew Bible was named, was a Moabite, a member of a sworn enemy of Israel. She became a convert and after she died, became the great grandmother of the one-and-only King David. Funny, but by our present standards, they didn’t look Jewish.
By the mid 16thcentury, Jewish communities could be found in countries as far flung as Jamaica, Brazil, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, and China as well as in Europe. The World Jewish Congress represents Jews from 100 countries across 6 continents.
Jews speak German, Russian, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, and Arabic. They do not only eat blintzes and matzah balls, they eat injera, Ethiopian flat bread, Indian curries, Arabic pitas, and Carribbean empanadas.
Not only are Jewish people racially and ethnically diverse by birth, but many others through intermarriage, conversion, or adoption, have become part of the Jewish community. The 2013 Pew Research survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found that 2% of American Jews are black, 3% are Hispanic, and another 2% are other/mixed, non-Hispanic. While those may sound like small percentages, it represented 371,000 American Jews in 2013, and that number continues to grow.
There are Jewish communities around the world in places we would be least likely to look. In South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Burundi, there are people of color who are exploring Judaism. Whole communities like Beta Israel of Ethiopia have been practicing Judaism since the First Temple period. Or there’s the Abayudaya in Uganda, who’ve been keeping kosher and observing Shabbat for 100 years. The B’nai Moshe, Jews from Peru, have been practicing Judaism since the 1960s, and received formal conversion from Chabad in 1985. And there are more emerging Jewish communities all around the globe.
Harvard-educated scholar and peace activist, Ephraim Isaac, is an Ethiopian-born Jew who is often asked, “You’re Jewish? But you don’t look Jewish.” He responds, “Ethiopia is mentioned in the Bible 50 times, but Poland not once. The Jews of Ethiopia are a 2,500 year-old biblically Jewish community.
There are hundreds of thousands of men and women with Jewish ancestry who either grew up in another religious tradition or who are secular. You know them. They have at least one Jewish parent, grandparent, or great grandparent. For whatever reason, their parents chose not to transmit their Jewish heritage to the next generation.Should we consider these individuals lost to the Jewish people forever?
If your child ran away from home, would you resign yourself to the loss or would you do everything in your power to bring them back? And so, for those whose families were Jewish, should we not also open our doors and say, “this is your house. Come, not just for a visit, come to stay. Welcome home.”
The 2013 Pew research poll estimated there are 5.3 million Jews in America. Interestingly, however, a 2012 Brandeis University poll found that there are 6.8 million Jews in America. It all depends on the questions you ask. It all depends on the boundaries you establish, the walls you erect, the gates you open or close.
Many Jews, when asked if they identify with the Jewish religion, answer “no.” But asked if they identified as ethnic and cultural Jews, they answer “yes.”
Additionally, another study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research found that there are some 2.5 million Americans who don’t identify as Jewish, but who have a connection to the Jewish people through marriage, extended family, or personal interest. Many participate in Jewish life and raise Jewish children. If they want to identify as Jews, should we close the door, question their sincerity? Imagine if we opened the gates.
If we care about the Jewish future, we should fear uniformity, not diversity. What will spell the decline of the Jewish people is a narrow definition of “who is a Jew” and “what is Judaism.” Tragically, despite an ever-dwindling Jewish population, there are those who advocate that the openings in our gates be narrow or closed altogether. They see intermarriage only as a threat and don’t seize it as an opportunity. They discourage and limit conversions.
Israel’s Rabbinical High Court has questioned the legitimacy of conversions done even by Orthodox rabbis abroad and in Israel. In 2009, the court retroactively annulled more than 40,000 conversions performed under Orthodox auspices because it claimed that these conversions were not genuine, since the converts were not following an Orthodox lifestyle.
One of the individuals whose conversion was retroactively revoked was Yossi Fackenheim, a 38-year-old who served in the Israel Defense Forces and is the son of the distinguished Jewish theologian and holocaust survivor, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim. Rabbi Fackenheim created the 614thcommandment, not to give Hitler a posthumous victory.
Yossi’s mother is an Orthodox convert, and Yossi was converted in Canada at the age of two. Yet the court questioned whether the motive behind his conversion was pure. Are he and tens of thousands of others whose sincerity was called into question – are they “real” Jews?
There is no precedent in all of Jewish history for nullifying a conversion. Where does this concern with purity come from? It certainly doesn’t sound very Jewish. Purity laws were historically used against the Jewish people.
In response to cases like Fackenheim’s and growing efforts of the ultra-Orthodox to monopolize religious and spiritual life in Israel, organizations like Hiddush (renewal) and the New Israel Fund came into existence. Their coalitions include a broad spectrum from the left and right, religious and secular. Their goal is to partner with world Jewry to work for the promotion of religious freedom and diversity in Israel by advocating for civil marriages, equal recognition of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist marriages and conversions, and equal funding for non-Orthodox religious services.
Amos Oz, the renowned Israeli novelist, has said, “The prime struggle in Israel is not between left and right, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, not even between rich and the poor or between Jew and Arab. It’s the struggle between tolerance and pluralism on the one hand, and fanaticism and hatred on the other. It is not for nothing that Judaism never had a pope. The concept of a Chief Rabbi is an Ottoman imposition on the Jewish people. The idea of a Chief Rabbi is not part of the Jewish tradition. We are a tradition of diversity, creative invention, and argument.”
The matter is more urgent than ever. An Israeli journalist lamented, “I am giving up on the notion of Jewish peoplehood. Let’s have two people. Let them have Jerusalem and we will have Tel Aviv.” He is not referring to the two states of Israel and Palestine, he is speaking about a Jewish state divided against itself. Due to differences in birth rates, secular Jews are no longer the clear majority in Israel. With about 28% of current Israeli 1stgraders ultra-Orthodox, and with their core educational curriculum woefully insufficient to prepare them for civic life and gainful employment, this is a strategic issue about the future of the State of Israel.
There is so much creative renewal going on in Israel, in America, and in Jewish communities around the world. We need to open the gates to the Jewish spirit. Will the influx of individuals from other cultures with diverse ideas about Jewish tradition change the Jewish landscape? Yes. Should we worry? No.
Throughout Jewish history, our people have intermingled with the people and cultures in whatever country they resided. Those experiences augmented our language, varied our cuisine, deepened our philosophy and enriched our music, literature, and poetry. Did those experiences change us? Yes. But they didn’t weaken us, they made us stronger.
When women began to enter the rabbinate for the first time, many people were antagonistic. They were afraid. “Judaism will change,” they claimed. They were right. It did change, for the better.
Today, there are many empty seats at our Jewish table. Should we open the door and invite others who may wish to join us, or should we send them to look for their spiritual nourishment elsewhere? Shall we open our gates just a crack, or shall we open them wide? The American Jewish community ought to be reaching out in a more organized and concerted way to those who are Jews by virtue of their history, Jews of the unaffiliated variety. We should welcome with open arms those who seek a connection to Judaism. We need to fill the empty seats.
You might say, “That’s not Jewish! If people seek us out, fine, but Jews have never sought converts.” That’s actually not true. While Judaism recognizes that salvation is determined by living a moral life, not by belonging to a particular faith tradition, it has always welcomed those who find in Jewish teachings a way to enrich their lives.
The great Jewish Prophet Isaiah said, “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…these I will bring to my holy mountain…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
In the Talmud, we read, “G-d scattered Israel among the nations for the sole purpose that converts should be numerous among them.”
Judaism always had open gates. From the time of Roman Emperor Constantine (4thcentury), it was Christianity and later Islam, who closed them, prohibiting Jews, under threat of prosecution, often death, from receiving converts. We need to unlock those gates. And we can feel proud of our congregation – it’s outreach and its warm welcome.
David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, wrote, “A Jew is a Jew and finished. Every human being who comes to me and tells me, ‘I’m a Jew’ and I have no reason to think he’s saying it for some criminal purpose, I’ll accept him as a Jew.”
Boundaries are important, you can’t have a group without them. The question is, who gets to set the boundaries? How large shall we draw the circle? Shall our gates be open or tightly guarded with lock and key? Shall we doubt everyone’s authenticity and purity of motive, because they don’t live an Orthodox lifestyle, because they don’t look Jewish?
Many of the anecdotes I’ve shared with you come from Jewish researcher Gary Tobin’s book, In Every Tongue: The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People.He wrote, “It is time for Jews to quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in.”
Neilah, tonight’s evening service, means “the locking of the gate.” It derives its name from ancient times when the gates of the Temple would be closed at nightfall, and no one could enter or leave. Neilah invites us to enter the open gate of repentance before it closes, before it’s too late.
I once heard an ultra-Orthodox rabbi talking about how even though Neilah is the closing of the gate, G-d’s gate is alwaysopen, wide open, and the opportunities for prayer, repentance, and charity are constantly available to us.
And so, as we enter 5779 together, let us remember that if G-d’s gate is always wide open, then ours can be as well.