I AM JEWISH
SERMON FOR KOL NIDRE 2004
Rabbi Robert Dobrusin
One of the most well known of all modern Jewish songs is Yerushalim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold, written by poet and songwriter Naomi Shemer.
One of the most beautiful lines in this exquisite song is the final phrase of the chorus: Halo lichal sheyirayich anee keenor, “I am a violin for all of your songs.” While I will not be speaking about Jerusalem or Israel this evening, this line and the line which precedes it have inspired the beginning and the end of my message.
In one of the piyyutim of the Rosh Hashana Musaf service, there is a phase chanted by the Shaliach Tzibbur which says lihalotcha shilachoonee makhalot hamonecha: “O God your great congregation has sent me to pray to you”. The word makhalot comes from the word kahal, congregation. But, as I looked at it, I noticed its similarity to the word makhela, choir, and I realized that it was another proof to me that you constitute not only a Congregation but a choir: a choir of distinctly different yet somehow connected voices.
The Rabbinate is a complex endeavor. For me, besides the obvious difficulties of time commitment and the difficulty of balancing different aspects of the role, there is one aspect which makes it uniquely difficult that most members of the choir usually do not consider.
One of the most difficult aspects of a Rabbi’s job is that he or she is expected to be a kinor, a violin, to accompany and set the melody for each and every Jew’s understanding of Judaism. Sometimes, Jews turn to a Rabbi and expect him or her to endorse every different approach to every different question which exists in the Jewish world and to prioritize Judaism in the same way that they do.
When I first became a Rabbi, I tried to do that. After a few months, I learned that it is impossible. I have my own opinions and my own priorities and they become clearer and more sharply defined as the years go on and as our relationship as Rabbi and Congregation deepen.
Does that mean I can’t relate to someone with different opinions and priorities? Of course not. One of the reasons that this Congregation is such a wonderful sacred place is that there is such a high level of participation from congregants in so many different areas and the Synagogue is not bound only to this Rabbi’s melodies. But, I can’t deny nor should I deny that some responses to Jewish life move me more than others. Some approaches to Jewish law resonate in my mind more clearly than others. Some understandings of Jewish theology or history or philosophy touch me more closely than others. No matter how I, or any Rabbi, might try, I can not be a kinor, a violin for all Jewish songs. Some just sound better to me than others.
None of this is meant as an apology. It is meant as a celebration of the broad experience of Jewish life and while I promise to continue to search out different understandings, different models and different ideas, so that I can serve more of you more effectively and with greater empathy and understanding, I, like you, am my own Jew. And I, like you I hope, am proud of who I am as a Jew.
But, while this sermon begins and ends with me, it is really about you.
None of you, no matter how committed you may be to Judaism; no matter how much all of this may mean to you; no matter how proudly you identify yourself; no matter how deeply you yearn to become a better Jew; none of you can play every part in the choir and none of you can be a kinor for all of Judaism’s songs. There are just too many of them.
While there might be an occasional music lover who finds tremendous enjoyment in the Beatles, punk rock, Italian opera, blues, the Grand Old Opry, Klezmer, Tibetan chants and Polish polkas, I assume most of you have a playlist that is a little less broad. Eclectic can only go so far.
And so it is with Judaism. I look at you tonight and I know that you connect with a shul for profoundly different reasons. Some of you find tremendous delight in Torah study, finding the pages of Talmud filled with evidence of divine inspiration and the words and ideas to be an intellectual and creative challenge. Others just don’t get it.
Some of you take or dream to take spiritual retreats, looking for a sense of the mystical and deep cleansing and internally strengthening experience in meditation and prayer while others find their Judaism in the here and now of the New York Times or Commentary.
Some of you are burning with the passion of Tikkun Olam, working to better the world and see in it the reflection of everything Judaism is and all our world could be. Others write their checks to charity, volunteer a bit but see Judaism in a much different light, celebrating peoplehood and nationhood.
Some of you come back from trips to Europe delighting in the fact that you discovered some small but significant Jewish connection that you learned of in a small town. You rush to tell others and they nod and smile a bit and then move on to what they clearly feel are more important things.
Some of you are passionate about your commitment to the Jewish people, looking for every opportunity to connect with those far beyond these walls. Others recognize kinship but focus back on your own immediate family and community.
History, theology, mysticism, peoplehood, social action, spirituality, Hebrew language, literature…Moses, Rabbi Akiva, Heschel, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Perlman, Philip Roth, Avivah Zornberg, Natan Scharansky. What a list to pick from.
And no one Rabbi and no layperson can be a violin to all of their songs.
I hope at least a few of you have found this statement liberating. It was intended to be. Too often, Jews feel that they don’t measure up because they don’t jump at the mere mention of anything thathas a Jewish connection. We must be more discerning than that to make Judaism meaningful for us. Taking every part in the choir doesn’t make you a better singer.
But, I also hope you will find my words challenging and in that spirit of challenge, I ask you this year to do two things. First, try to expand your playlist a bit more. Find some aspect of Judaism that isn’t as important to you, doesn’t touch you as deeply or, if you’re in the mood for a real challenge and shouldn’t we all be, an aspect that you just don’t understand and have no place for. Find it and work with it. Try to add it to your repertoire. Learn how the melody or harmony or underlying rhythm of that piece could, with your arrangement of course, please you in ways you couldn’t imagine.
Seek out the more spiritual. Engage more deeply in tikkun olam. Delve into Jewish history. Explore Jewish music of the past and present. Go to Israel. Take the trip to some Jewish landmark. Learn to blow the Shofar. Build a Sukkah. Engage in serious Torah study or pick up a new book of commentary. Say blessings more often. Whatever it is, find one or two new areas to look into and consider seriously. Widen your perspectives enough to bring more meaning into what you are as a Jew.
The second challenge is get out the pen and paper and try to define, at some point over the year, why this all matters to you. Try to define why you are Jewish.
Now, I want to explain something about that last sentence. I don’t ask you to explain why you are a Jew. You are a Jew because your mother was Jewish or you converted to Judaism. That is why you are a Jew.
I am asking you to explain why you are Jewish.
Are the questions the same? To some, they are and if you are one of those people who aren’t interested in semantics, you can ignore the next few paragraphs.
I make a distinction between saying: “I am a Jew” and saying: “I am Jewish” with the latter striking me as being more engaging, more deliberate, more pro-active, more thoughtful, more critical
“Being Jewish”, and more precisely, “acting Jewish” because that is even more important, means we take what is in our heart, our soul, our family history and make it our own actively and purposefully and meaningfully. For if “being a Jew” is just a statement, a title or an affiliation, it is, in the long run, meaningless. Each of us must know not only who we are but also what it means to us to be who we are.
It is in that spirit that I want to introduce you to a book which some of you might already have seen and read. The book is entitled: “I am Jewish”. The “I” in the title is a tribute to Daniel Pearl, alav hashalom, the reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was brutally murdered by terrorists in Pakistan. These were his last words: a statement of pride by one who refused to hide, even under the most horrendous of situations, who experienced in the most dreadful way imaginable, the reality of hatred and evil and in this world. Daniel Pearl stood for who he was in a way that, God forbid, any Jew or any human being should have to experience.
And, in tribute to him, his family compiled a collection of statements by Jews throughout the world: midrashim on the phrase “I am Jewish”.
It is, as would be any book of this kind, uneven. Some of the statements are trite and some are eloquent. But, since one person’s “trite” is another person’s “eloquent”, the book is a masterpiece, even if read selectively.
The contributors are of all ages, all walks of life, all degrees of commitment to Judaism. All are bound by only one criterion. All are proud to be and act Jewish.
From Olympic gymnast Keri Strug (yeah, I didn’t know either!) who writes that she can’t believe she didn’t look Jewish on the medals podium when it was so clear she had shown “perseverance when faced with pain and hope in an uncertain future” to Milton Friedman who writes that he shares in “a deep and brilliant stream of culture and intellectual activity that has flowed for thousands of years”. From Julius Lester who writes that to be a Jew is to be “a love song-to the God of our people- and to the world” to Elie Weisel who cautions us that “to remain indifferent to persecution and suffering anywhere, in Afghanistan or in Kiev is to become an accomplice of the tormentor” to Professor Samuel Freedman of Columbia University who comments on the life story of Daniel Pearl and by doing so, calls so many of us to look at ourselves when he tries to balance what he calls tribalism and universalism and concludes that “Universalism without tribalism is a kind of self-loathing”. From brilliant essays by Rabbis Jonathan Sacks and Harold Kushner and Harold Schulweis to authors and poets and scientists and entertainers to Hebrew School children, each of us can find something that we agree with deeply or, in the true spirit of Judaism, disagree with enough to help us realize what it is we truly do believe.
I hope that this book will help you to find that song you haven’t yet sung, that piece of music you haven’t yet explored as you think about what it means to be a member of the choir. And, I hope it will encourage you to sit down and write out your own essay and more importantly live it.
And that is how I want to close this evening. I want to share with you my midrash on these three simple words. Each of us has our own.
These are mine.
I am Jewish.
I am inspired by the words of Naomi Shemer who wrote about Jerusalem, symbol of our history, our yearnings, our current struggles, our hopes and dreams to write of Zahav, gold. Nehoshet, metal, Or, light.
Judaism is pure gold and being and acting Jewish and committing one’s life to this ancient yet dynamic and changing tradition is a way of mining some of the most precious metal which exists in our world.
The words of the Torah are pure gold, sparkling and priceless. The words of our holy texts are food for the mind and for the heart. They can keep us up at night with challenge or lull us to sleep with their beauty and comfort.
The traditions of tzedakah and of interpersonal standards of behavior beckon to us as goals for our lives. They help me to aim to be a mentsch in a world which often denies the importance of treating one another respectfully. They inspire me always to believe in and live for and work for the betterment of all people, those I see around me and those half a world away.
Our ritual traditions form the basis by which I reach for something greater. When I hold a yad to read Torah or hold a lulav at Sukkot or pick up the matza at the Seder, the connection is so deep and is so lasting that it is pure gold. Truthfully, sometimes the gold is a bit tarnished with familiarity. Sometimes it is less attractive than other things which shine in our world of freedom but even if my eyes stray to something else, the gold is there waiting for me to return and see it with new appreciative eyes.
Judaism is metal. It provides strength beyond anything else in my world. It links me together with a past and a present and a future which provides meaning for everything that I do and everything that I am.
It provides a connection for me and for my family with people far away, with times long ago and it helps me to believe that we are not alone. It gives a structure to our lives in ways that nothing else could, no matter how much we might love the fun, good and pleasant things in the world we share with everyone.
It inspires a connection, a deep connection, with those who need me and whom I need, and the line between those is sometimes blurred. When I stood on a street corner in Kishinev, Moldavia on Erev Pesach 1982 and was taken in by a family for Seder and later in a small way helped that family to freedom; or when I said el malei rachamim at a Jewish cemetery in an inner city which had fallen into disrepair; or when I stood with the members of the community of Alon HaGalil this past year on Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day and heard the names of those who had died in wars to defend Israel and in terrorist attacks and the next night danced with those same people at a Yom Ha’atzmaut party, when all of these experiences and so many more come into my mind, I wonder, how could anyone who has such a family available to them not grasp it and embrace it, be strengthened by it and add to its strength?
And Judaism is light. It is God. It is the sense of the spirit, the meaning, the hope, that believing in something beyond us brings. It is light at times of darkness and light to add to the light so resplendent around us. It is light to make us love our partners that much more deeply, hug our children that much more tightly, sing our songs that much more clearly, dedicate our lives to pursuits which are that much more lofty and, in the spirit of this kol nidre evening, take our vows that much more seriously.
I am Jewish because my life needs gold and it needs strength and it needs light and I know where to find it. It is there for all of us, for all of you, in whichever doorway you enter, in whatever part you play, in whatever you decide to do with it. It is within your reach and it is a wealth, a strength, a light that we are privileged to call our own.
I can’t be a violin for all of its songs, no one could be. But, I can not imagine a world without the melodies that we, as a people, have composed over the millennia. They have given a wealth of meaning, strength beyond compare and a glowing light to our people and those who know us and see us. It is a song which, God willing, will always be sung.
It is what it means to me to be a Jew. It is why I am Jewish.