Peter J. Rubinstein | October 8, 2011
I didn’t always believe that Jewish existence was exceptional, but I have come to think otherwise. In fact, I believe that the convincing manifestation of God’s existence is you.
This too is part of the story I began last week.
Some of you know that I grew up in the Bronx. My father, raised on the Lower East Side, was a fervent committed Jew. He was fierce and passionate about his Jewishness. Though he was the fourth-born child in his family, he was the first born in America. His parents and older siblings were immigrants from a shedtl near Minsk.
One might think that my father would have been a knowledgeable Jew given his Eastern European background and his having been raised in the vortex of cheders [chederim] and yeshivot on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But he was not.
As a child, I never observed the slightest indication of Jewish learning or textual interest in our home. However, what was blatantly obvious was that my dad had a powerful ancestral, primal, and instinctive connection to the Jewish people. He had a commanding Jewish pulse which drove him incessantly and defined his loyalties to Jewish organizations. Surprise Lake Camp and the Educational Alliance particularly rescued him from the street and gang fights and guided him to a life outside the East Broadway ghetto.
Born out of the pogroms, as a witness to the Holocaust, he was a fervent supporter of the establishment of the state of Israel and made very certain that his sons felt equally impelled to Jewish loyalty and life.
My father’s Jewish tribal credentials were impeccable. While I never asked him why being Jewish mattered to him, I’m sure in his inimitable fashion his answer would be:“What are you stupid? It’s just because…” For him, “why be Jewish?” was beyond words or logic. It was intuitive. It was instinctive. It was the fiber of his life. He embodied it in the way he spent his time, in the way he gave to tzedakah, and in his expectations for and demands of my brothers and me.
My mother was different. She grew up in Yorkville which, though in the same borough as the Lower East Side, was a world apart. She was from a secular Hungarian Jewish background. She too, like my father, was the first American-born sibling in her family. My mother didn’t care anything about being Jewish, barely knowing that she was. For my mother, secular humanism was good enough.
Jewish ethnicity didn’t define the uptown Jews of Yorkville. My mother and her family did not cherish distinctiveness and yearned above all to blend in. Jewish tradition was not part of her life. In the way of acculturation, my mother was probably ahead of the curve and foreshadowed the porous and inviting dissolution of Jewish uniqueness. Her religion was liberal politics. She felt no adherence to the tribal glue of Jewish life.
I have no doubt that if my mother had not married my father, my mother would have been content, perhaps happier, blending into the great wash of American society.
Once I witnessed my mother when excitedly asked by a friend how she managed to raise two sons to become rabbis: my mother answered, “I must have done something…wrong.” I’m not sure my mother would have had a reason or even cared whether her children grew up as Jews.
Obviously my father’s Jewish soul prevailed in creating the Jewish identity of our family. But there was something else helping him in those days. It was the neighborhood. We were Jewish because everyone else was.
In our Bronx neighborhood, there were enough kosher butcher shops, synagogues, bakeries with fresh rye bread (with and without seeds), and appetizing stores with all the commanded Jewish foods including every possible variation of herring so that we didn’t need to pre-order from Russ & Daughters to have food to break the Yom Kippur fast. We just went around the corner.
For the first three-quarters of the 20th century, Jewish neighborhoods were ethnically and culturally robust. One didn’t wonder “why be a Jew” if you grew up in the Five Towns on Long Island, in the southern towns of Westchester, in the Fairfax and Beverly Hills section of Los Angeles, the North Lawndale area of Chicago, and Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. If you lived in these self-delineated ghettos or another similar to them, the neighborhood conveyed the message of Jewish peoplehood and survival.
But for most of us those days are gone. We are not living in neighborhoods of ostensible Jewish character. Ethnicity is not binding. Memory of the Holocaust is fading. Nostalgic recollections of the “old country” is so over. Grandparents today would shrink if they were called bubbehs and zeides. Our tribal DNA is diluting.
The tide is changing.
Every year we have a 6th grade retreat for the families of our children who will become bar/bat mitzvah the following year. I have the opportunity to speak to the parents of these children. Initially my assignment was to address the matter of the values they wished to convey to their children as their son or daughter rose to the pulpit to stand beside and to receive the Torah from the preceding generations of their family.
For every one of those parents, that their child is becoming bar/bat mitzvah is a precious mystical transition, but it is not only a time-mark for their child. It is a time-mark for themselves as well.
And when those parents hand that Torah into the arms of their child they intuit that a new link in the chain of their family is being forged. That link is being tempered by the life story of their own family line. Parents understand that a child’s becoming bar/bat mitzvah means more than a well-orchestrated party or celebration.
Because they have been through it, parents know that what endures in memory occurs on the pulpit in the morning, not on the dance floor afterwards. Jewish values are implanted in their children before the open ark and not before an open bar. We are grateful that many of you have already meaningfully changed the culture and tone of your families’ b’nai mitzvah celebrations to resonate with the presumed values of your family.
But, having clarified the values by which we desire our children to live, there is a far more compelling challenge for a parent when ethnicity and tradition have faded. For whether a child asks it directly or not, we search for ourselves, if not for our children, to know why do we still care.
Why do we care that our child becomes bar/bat mitzvah? Why do we care that our family continues to live as Jews? And what do we say to our children and grandchildren when they ask? To answer that question for our child or anyone else means we have to know the answer for ourselves.
Our children will ultimately make their own decision as to whether or not they live as an adult Jew. But their decisions will be powerfully persuaded by the integrity and purpose with which we convey to our children that we care—if we care—about Jewish life and survival.
Because many of you are raising questions like these, we will focus on them at a series of home meetings to which all of you will be invited during the coming year.
For now, let us consider for a moment: why is it that we care? Why do we pass on this tradition, this faith, this life? What does it mean to us to be a Jew?
I confess to you that the answers are complicated and difficult and as individual as we all are. I remember when my then-10-year-old son asked me about God: after significant hesitation I told him to ask his mother.
For me, I care about Jewish continuity and survival partially from tribal instinct. I do not want to be responsible for the end of Jewish life in my family. I do not want to be responsible for cutting the thread and dishonoring the memory and the sacrifices of my forebears who sometimes passed on Jewish life at the risk of life itself.
But there is another reason I care about the survival of Judaism. I believe we Jews are a unique people with an extraordinary history. I believe we’ve been given an unparalleled mission and the world needs us. I have faith that God wants us to be here and we the Jewish people matter.
Last week I explained that my entry into the Rabbinate resulted from my investigation into and search for God. But, the truth is that in the end I didn’t gain faith by theologically thinking about God. I came to believe in God by finding God in the remarkable course of Jewish history.
For me the single most powerful proof for the existence of God is that we Jews are still here. Without God’s existence our survival is inexplicable. With God our survival is miraculous. To be a Jew, I need God.
When our ancestors gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, our tradition says we were all there. Against the backdrop of a barren mountain, still exhausted from the cauldrons of Egyptian slavery, we heard the words that once and for all time launched us into history and gave us purpose.
Upon the mountain, God said to Moses, “Tell the people… v’atem tihyu li mamlechet cohanim v’ goi Kadosh: And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6) You shall uphold the sacred and live it in your history. As I bore you on eagles wings to keep you alive, so shall you carry aloft the banner of your mission.” And our people’s response to that Divine commission at Sinai was simply “na-aseh”: All that God has asked of us we will do! (Ex. 19:8).
Though we have suffered every manifestation of human evil from the tortures of the inquisition to the massacres of the crusades, from the humiliation of the pogroms to the crematoria of the Holocaust, we are still here. We are and have always been few in number, but our will remains strong, our faith intact, and our people still lives.
Extraordinary, isn’t it? While I embrace that God works through well-meaning people of all faiths, for me there is no doubt that Judaism and the Jewish people are God-given miracles. And miraculous as well, and perhaps even more breathtaking, are those of you who were not born Jewish and through conversion have cast your lot with the Jewish people.
And I am also awed by those among us who, though not Jewish, stand beside Jewish partners, raise Jewish children, and give us love and substance in your remarkable and courageous willingness to assure our future and our destiny. You are an integral part of our story.
Despite the innumerable horrific tragedies that have beset us, we remain a people with a sacred purpose. That is what we can say to our children as we tell them our own stories about how our parents raised us and why we care.
We tell our children that we are to be a beacon, a light to the nations. To be a Jew means to not turn away from the pain of others even when it is unclear as to what we can or should do to remedy their pain.
I am well aware that even today the protests on Wall Street continue. We may not completely understand the demands or agree with the strategies of the demonstrators. But we cannot be so heartless to deny the despair of the unemployed in our country. We cannot ignore the hardship of one in five of our neighbors in this city living in poverty. We cannot neglect families who have lost their homes. We cannot disregard the aged who must now choose either between food for sustenance or medication for health because they cannot afford both.
Isaiah reminds us: “This is the fast I ask of you today: to share your bread with the hungry and to take the poor into your home, to clothe the naked and to free the oppressed…For then your light will burst forth like the dawn…and God will guide you always.” (Is. 58) Isaiah’s words are etched into our souls.
We may not yet have the solutions to complicated problems, but we cannot turn away.
When someone is in pain, we give them comfort. When there is need to stand strong for principles of decency, we stand taller. We envision a better world, and then work for it even harder. We tell the truth when it is difficult and support the weak when it is uncomfortable.
We tell our children that we are witness to God’s existence in our improbable, indefinable, wondrous journey. And that is our mission.
Ethnicity itself will not feed the soul or keep our people alive. And faith alone without active societal expression is communally inconsequential and selfish. God commanded us to do, not just to believe.
The great French rabbi and philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin, speaking about spiritual growth in his book about Bar Mitzvah, recounts a meeting he had with twelve year old Alexandre, the son of his publisher. Just as Alexandre was preparing to become Bar Mitzvah,
Ouaknin gave Alexandre “a detailed overview of the ethics of the bar mitzvah.” Ouaknin spoke to Alexander “of the rigor required to be a good man.”
Ouaknin writes: “I have no doubt that what I told Alexandre about uprightness; about the evil of dissimulation and lying; the right to heresy, the power to discover one’s potential for confrontation in order to avoid fleeing; the art of saying ‘thank you’; generosity; and respect for one’s parents, teachers, and friends. What I told Alexandre took root not only in his mind, but in the very core of my being.” Ouaknin was no longer writing a book about Bar Mitzvah, “he was actually experiencing the responsibility of passing on, not words, but a power which gives a child the possibility of growing.” (Bar Mitzvah as a Guide to Spiritual Growth, p.11)
That is why we speak of Jewish life to ourselves, to our children, and those we care about.
We have a unique destiny and our children are our future. We tell them to be sensitive to the weak, care for the needy, protect the powerless. We are a people that knows about oppression.
We tell our children that they have a responsibility to honor their ancestors by keeping the chain of Jewish life intact.
We tell them that for inexplicable reasons and with a tenacity that even bewilders us, that we will not allow Jewish life in our family to end with us.
We tell them we have a mission: to be a holy people and to live as God commanded us.
We tell them about what it means to be a Jew for us in order to give them the possibility and privilege of being a Jew for themselves.
Before every child’s becoming Bar/bat mitzvah, I explain to that child that every generation in their family line helped bring them to our sanctuary, that at least one parent in every generation in their family for the past millennia passed the Torah to their child and never knew whether that Torah would ever reach to the generation after.
Every child who sits in our sanctuary, every child who is here, every one of us is the fulfillment of a promise that began at Sinai. That they are here—that we are here, is an exquisite miracle. You are an exquisite miracle. “You are the promise of our people.”
In our member Abby Pogrebin’s words set to music by Tom Kitt, we feel the wonder and loveliness of it all when our children and grandchildren take the Torah into their arms and stand beside us as it was at Sinai. In that remarkable transcendent moment, our story unfolds, our destiny is assured and God resides. God lives in us. It is a blessing and responsibility for which I hope we are grateful. Amen.
“TAKING YOUR PLACE” for Central Synagogue - Audio Available Download Mp3
Lyrics by Abigail Pogrebin
Music by Tom Kitt
Taking your place
In an enduring line.
This is the day
That you stood up to say
“Our tradition is mine.”
You have now read the Torah.
It’s been passed onto you.
It’s our law and our story
But each telling is new.
It is said we stood at Sinai
And today, you know you’re there.
You’re the promise of a people,
A blessing and a prayer.
Taking your place
In a resilient line
This is the day
That you stood up to say,
“Our tradition is mine.”
You have now held the Torah,
Forged a link to the past.
You’re the face of our future,
And the reason we last.
lalechet bidrachav v’lishmor mitzvotav kol hayamim
lalechet bidrachav v’lishmor mitzvotav kol hayamim
[TRANSLATION: “Walk in God’s ways and guard God’s commandments all of your days”]
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