Peoplehood and Religion – Rosh Hashanah Day 2012-5773
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman
It was wonderful to see people from across the spectrum of the Jewish community in Des Moines join us for the Rabbi Larry Hoffman scholar in residence weekend at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in April. Throughout the weekend, one dominant theme prevailed; the Jewish world is changing and its institutions need to adapt to the changing times.
Rabbi Hoffman noted the situation of the Jews in Napoleonic France as the beginning of the modern period for Jews.
At that time, the Jews were asked, “Are the Jews a foreign people, their own nation? Or are they Frenchmen practicing a religion called Judaism?” They had a profound decision to make. Were they Frenchmen who could benefit from that status or foreigners potentially not loyal to the local government who would constantly find themselves under threat? Jews, historically, were not able to make that choice. They were simply considered as foreigners in nation after nation. These Jews decided that they were Frenchmen, pledging their loyalty to the state, and were welcomed to remain in France.
Rabbi Hoffman noted that today most American Jews consider Judaism to be their faith, but do not consider themselves to be part of a Jewish nation. We tend to see ourselves as Americans who practice the Jewish faith, not as Jews who happen to be American citizens. Ethnicity, peoplehood, is on the wane.
This has major implications for Judaism today, and many articles have appeared on the topic just in the past year alone in the Forward, the Huffington Post, Jweekly, eJewishphilanthropy and in just about every other publication dealing with the Jewish community.
I will share with you some of the ways in which the weakening of a sense of peoplehood has impacted the Jewish world today and non-traditional Jews in particular. This sermon will focus on three areas connected to peoplehood all of which I believe have been affected by this: The Jewish World, The Jewish Community, and The Jewish Individual.
The Jewish World.
The rise of Reform Judaism fits well with the shift away from peoplehood that began in the early 19th century. It was a shift away from the idea that Jews constituted a nation practicing a national religion, Judaism, and it is not a new phenomenon at all.
Reform Jews came to stress that they were practicing a religion and not part of a nation from the very beginning of the movement in Germany in the early 1800s. They were Germans practicing the faith of Judaism, granted in a Reform version. They were loyal citizens of the nation in which they lived, wherever they lived, who happened to practice the Jewish faith. They were not “Israelites,” but Jewish Germans.
The practice of Judaism up through the 1800s, and continuing on today for Orthodox Jews, included the hope for the return to the Jewish homeland and the restoration of traditional Jewish practices there. For the Orthodox, this desire includes the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the reinstitution of the sacrificial cult.
The traditional focus on a return to Zion as the homeland for the Jewish people was not part of what came to be seen as Classical Reform Judaism, the dominant form of Reform Judaism through the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. In some communities, rabbis went so far as to preach against Zionism because they believed that the Mission of Israel could only be accomplished in the Diaspora, working among non-Jewish communities. Through the 1920s in the United States, in fact as late as the 1950s in some congregations, rabbis gave sermons about being better Americans.
In Europe as well as in America, many Reform Jews, the cultural elites in particular, did not appreciate the attitudes of their Eastern European brethren on Zionism and other matters which they saw as potentially jeopardizing promotion of Jews as good Americans. The influx of a significant number of Eastern European immigrants during the early 1880s brought challenges and in 1885, the leading Classical Reform Rabbis produced a platform of beliefs for the official movement in America which was only a decade old.
The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform included the following paragraph:
We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
By the 1930s, the focus of Jews in America began to shift toward maintaining traditions that might otherwise be lost. This was the result of the situation in Europe and World War I in particular during which the American Jewish community saw a radical transformation with a huge influx of Eastern European immigrants.
Events of the late 1930s through the 1940s greatly amplified the fear that Judaism, not just the Jewish people, were under threat. The Shoah and the creation of the nation of Israel suddenly made opposition to the attempt to create a Jewish state seem awkward at best and anti-Jewish at worst. There had been prominent Reform Zionist voices prior to the war, people like Rabbis Stephen S. Wise of New York and Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, but their voices were drowned out by others such as rabbis Kaufmann Kohler, the President of Hebrew Union College from the 1900s until his death in the mid-1920s, and Irving Reichert, the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in San Francisco who was one of 92 rabbis who created the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism in 1942.
Reichart, as late as the early 1940s echoed the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform when he stated that:
Judaism is a religion and a religion only. Zionism is a retreat from the highway of Jewish destiny and achievement in America to the dead end street of medieval ghettoism. One wonders what the Gentile world makes of all this Zionism. It is notorious that anti-Semites, when other arguments fail, sometimes succeed in prejudicing even friendly Christians against the Jew by quoting this type of nationalistic propaganda to convict us out of our own mouths for being a nationality embedded within a nation. Too dangerous is a parallel between the insistence of Zionist spokesmen upon nationality and race and blood and sinister pronouncement by Fascist leaders in European dictatorships. We may live to regret it.
The concept of separating Judaism from peoplehood, separating the faith of Judaism from Jewish ethnicity, was not found in Eastern Europe or among Traditional Jews at all. For them, Jews were a people, Am Yisrael, who practiced the faith of the children of Israel, the people whose homeland was Judah. As Eastern European Jews became more prominent in the heretofore German ancestry dominated Reform Congregations, conflict between anti-Zionists and Zionists became inevitable.
There was real fear among those Reform leaders like Rabbi Reichart that Antisemites would seize upon the statements of Zionists and be able to convince large numbers of Christians that Jewish Americans were a fifth column. After World War II ended, however, most American Jews along with most other Americans, saw the creation of a Jewish state as a refuge for Jews as reasonable and many saw it as a moral and ethical imperative. The American Council for Judaism continued to work against American Jewish support for the new Jewish state, but its voice was much weaker, and Reform Zionist voices continued to gain strength until after the creation of the new nation and especially after Six Day War when Anti-Zionist voices became far fewer and less influential.
The Reform movement’s seminary had already created a campus in Jerusalem in 1963 with slits for windows on the side facing the old city because of regular Jordanian sniper fire against its walls. Since 1970, it began sending rabbinical students for their first year in Israel, and interaction with and support of Israel has since become more and more of a part of Reform Judaism. NFTY, the Reform movement’s program for teens, has sent many thousands of teens on six week summer-long trips to Israel and more and more teens are spending semesters there in college.
Whereas Kaufmann Kohler in the 1900s would have argued that Zionism would have inhibited the Mission of Israel to spread understanding of Universalistic Ethical Monotheism to the corners of the earth (Jews had to be in a Diaspora for it to work best) and Irving Reichart argued that Zionism could well not only prohibit the Mission of Israel, but result in threats against Jewish lives, modern Reform Jews tend to believe that the Jewish state should exist in peace and security but also that it be an exemplar of our religious values in the world, promoting the betterment of humanity and the spread of prophetic ideals.
The debate today about Israel among Reform Jews is primarily about the promotion of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and about internal Israeli issues such as women’s issues and pluralism within the state. The Reform movement supports Israeli security and promotes connections between American Reform Jews and Israel as a Jewish state or as a state for the Jews depending on who you ask. Reform Jews should be involved with and care about Israel.
At a macro-level, a new kind of peoplehood has developed, one that separates to an extent the practice of any particular type of Judaism from deliberation about what it means to be part of the Jewish people. This has brought great pressure to respond to a new concern that crosses the lines of faith and peoplehood and about which I have spoken many times and will speak again in the future without any doubt, namely, “Who is a Jew?” That question will continue to challenge the Jewish community and the Jewish world for some time to come. So how does the weakening of the concept of Jewish peoplehood affect the Jewish community?
The Jewish Community
I came across a great joke that pretty much describes how things in the Jewish community functioned not terribly long ago:
An elderly Jewish couple are sitting together on an airplane flying to the Far East. Over the public address system, the Captain announces: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am afraid I have some very bad news. Our engines have ceased functioning, and this plane will be going down momentarily. Luckily, I see an island below us that should be able to accommodate our landing. Unluckily, this Island appears to be uncharted; I am unable to find it on our maps. So the odds are that we will never be rescued and will have to live on the island for a very long time, if not for the rest of our lives." The husband turns to his wife and asks, "Esther, did we turn off the stove?" and Esther replies, "of course." "Esther, are our life insurance policies paid up?" "Of course." "Esther, did we pay our United Jewish Appeal pledge?" "Oh my G-d, I forgot to send the check!!" "Thank Heaven! They'll find us for sure!!"
Once, every Jew in a community was connected. You had to work hard to avoid contact with Jewish organizations. Today, younger generations of Jews do not, by and large, join or support Jewish institutions simply because they are Jews. A large percentage of those who join synagogues do so because they need something from them, a life cycle event or education for the children. While increasing numbers are joining as part of a pursuit of spirituality in their lives, few join because that is simply what Jewish people are supposed to do.
The younger generations search for meaning and relevance just like older generations have. However, they do not particularly like keeping traditions for tradition’s sake, and do not, as a manner of general practice, join organizations. They may “like” them on Facebook and then may well block their postings so that they do not even see what the organizations post. Many Jewish people today do not see the institutions of Jewish peoplehood that focus on serving those of Jewish ethnicity, as opposed to Jewish faith, as a primary concern. Jewish community centers, Jewish Federations, Jewish homes for the aged, Jewish Family services and food banks, have all seen support wane in favor of institutions and organizations that serve the broader community.
The fact that many today give money to secular institutions but not to Jewish charitable ones and spend their volunteer hours in the secular community rather than the Jewish community has made it more difficult for Jewish organizations to be there for Jews in need and to promote the very ideals embodied in our prayers and in our philosophy that challenge harmful cultural norms.
It isn’t that working in the broader community or supporting its institutions is a bad thing at all; by no means am I saying that. In fact, you all know that I am active in the broader community. However, it is vitally important to be active in the Jewish community and to be charitable to it as well for our community to be healthy.
We need to be upset if we have forgotten to contribute to our Jewish communal organizations. We need be a part of supporting the Jewish community’s ability to serve the needs of Jews in need.
The Jewish Individual
A couple of years ago, I shared the words of Rabbi David Aaron, who said that:
On Rosh Hashanah…my illusion of being self-contained, without any accountability to a Higher Power, is shattered…I realize that I cannot do whatever I want, whenever, or wherever I want…There is someone to whom I am accountable. My self wants to feel accountable, because if I am not accountable then I don’t count.
This brings me back to the joke about being found on a deserted island by the United Jewish Appeal. There is something very comforting in that. Yes, it may be annoying to get financial appeal letters at times, especially when we are in financial circumstances when we may be unable to contribute as much as we would like. Yet, it is comforting to know that each of us matters. We may wish to avoid responsibility at times, however there is comfort in knowing that other people are counting on us, that others care if we contribute of our time, energy, or resources.
For certain, people in the broader community are counting on us as well. We need to do our best to help there too. That said, why so often do we do so without thinking about how the kindness and generosity, the care and commitment that we show in our acting out the mitzvah of “Loving our neighbor as ourselves” is connected to the values of the Jewish tradition or even to our own practice of Judaism? Judaism is not confined to the moment you cross the threshold of a synagogue until the moment that you leave it. Our tradition teaches us that everything that we do in interacting with the world around us should be done while considering the Jewish tradition.
What has happened to an extent is that in redefining ourselves as a faith and not a people, we have forgotten that Judaism as a faith is part of whom each of us is as a person. Its practice is not done solely within the synagogue, nor solely within the home as well.
We are taught to go beyond just the Jewish community and to bring blessings to the broader community. The Torah [Gen 12] tells us that God said to Abram:
Go forth from your country, from your people, and from your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse. All peoples on earth will be blessed by you.
The possibility of losing this blessing is the context of the story of the Binding of Isaac that we read today.
If we choose to see ourselves as Jews by faith alone or if we choose to see ourselves as Jews by birth if not by faith as well, let us remember that we are Jews wherever we go.
This new year, may we indeed be a blessing to all peoples and to each individual. May our efforts bring light into darkened lives, Shalom into the midst of chaos and discord. May afflicted bodies and spirits find healing and comfort. May this year, be a year of blessing for us, a year of health and happiness, prosperity and joy. May the nation of Israel, the people of Israel, and the people Israel, the Jewish people, have a year of peace and well-being.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.