September 26, 2022 | Jewish Pride: Live Up to Your Name (Rosh HaShanah 5783)
Angela W. Buchdahl
Jewish Pride: Live Up to Your Name
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Rosh HaShanah 5783
One of my most engaged students at Central started law school this fall
and was happy that campus Hillel invited her to Shabbat dinner her first week.
But soon a text chat began circulating among Jewish students:
“I’m not sure I want to go,” one said. “I might get canceled.”
Another wrote, “I think I’ll go, but there’s no way
I’m putting my name on any sign-in list,or appearing in any photos.”
My student decided to go to the dinner,
which included Shabbat blessings, sushi and small talk.
Nothing political was discussed.
When it came time for a group-picture, however, several left the room.
One student concluded, “I’m never going back to that again.”
In his view,
it seemed any association with something Jewish
was inherently problematic.
My student stayed for the picture.
But she wondered out loud with me if she would later pay a price for it.
What does it mean to be a public Jew right now?
What does it mean to post a Magen David, a Jewish star, on Instagram,
show up to a Hillel event, march in an Israel parade?
Since when did our kids have to hesitate before showing up to a Shabbat dinner? Weighing what their mere presence might project about who they stand with
or what they stand for?
This story is not an isolated incident.
A 2021 Brandeis Center survey of Jewish students on campuses found
50% of students said they hide their Jewish identity.1
Half our kids are hiding.
A student gave color to these numbers saying:
“When I meet new people and they ask me what I’m involved in on campus,
I always hesitate to admit that I am involved in Hillel
and the Jewish community, afraid of how they may react….
Many people view us as the oppressors,
echoing the classic antisemitic trope that Jews are responsible
for everything wrong with the world.”2
Part of what I find most surprising about this recent study
and the stories I am now hearing from our students,
is not the increase of antisemitic acts and conspiracy theories.
I’m no alarmist, but I have been alarmed by this rise
since I spoke about it four years ago on this bimah,
and saw it up close with Colleyville last January.
What I find devastating
is watching the impact antisemitism is having on our next generation
who feel they need to down-play of deny their Jewish identity;
who have absorbed the idea that just being a Jew
confers some kind of culpability. Brings shame.
That is a chilling turn.
Many Jewish organizations have responded to this increasing reality
by offering seminars and pamphlets with talking points and debate tactics
to arm our kids for battle on behalf of unapologetic Jewish identity and Zionism.
These are admirable efforts to balance the imbalance we see too often
on campuses and in social media.
But as a rabbi, I want to offer another strategy:
instead of preparing our kids to armor up,
we should embolden them to double down
on Jewish pride–
the kind of inner spiritual fortitude that comes
from Jewish self-dignity and confidence.
Now when I talk about “Jewish pride” here,
it's not a “Jews-are-just-smarter” kind of hubris,
or a misunderstanding of “Chosenness.”
That pride can be dangerous.
Instead, I’m speaking of the pride described in Pirkei Avot,
the Ethics of our Fathers, which offers this directive:
“The best path for people to choose
is the one that is a pride to those who pursue it.”3
In other words, true pride comes when you know your values
and live them.
This kind of pride is moral ambition.
Here the sages use an unusual Hebrew word for pride, tiferet.
Put another way: There is arrogant pride–
which is about who you say you are.
And there is authentic pride – which comes from what you do.
So tiferet must be rooted in a sure-handed grasp –
of what Judaism stands for and what Judaism expects of us.
But here’s the real hurdle, not just for the next generation, but for all of us:
If genuine Jewish pride derives from acting on
what Judaism values and expects of us,
I’m hearing from so many–
we don’t actually know what that is.
I remember a conversation with a congregant, who had just traveled to India.
He said he had an excellent tour guide who explained Buddhism to him….
in 5 minutes.
He said, “The guide distilled it to its essence and it made sense.
I’ve never had anyone be able to summarize Judaism to me like that.”
Now rabbis are not exactly known for our…brevity,
but this sermon is my attempt at a response.
Let me first debunk our community’s most common misconception:
What Judaism values and expects is not merely a tally
of religious observances.
But I cannot count how many times I sit with congregants
and I hear some version of a guilty apology:
-I’m not a particularly good Jew, I only come for the High Holidays.
-My family used to be really Jewish, but now we don’t keep kosher
and I don’t know how to read Hebrew.
-My non-Jewish girlfriend asked me about my Judaism and all I could say was:
‘I feel culturally Jewish.’
So often – after someone explains to me the many ways they’re not a ‘good Jew,’
in the next breath they tell me
that they care for their 94-year-old father at home,
Or that they accompany their neighbor to her cancer treatments,
Or that they’ve attended 11 weddings this season.
Or that they serve in our Breakfast Program, work with our refugee families,
do pro bono legal work.
These deeds read like the list of ethical mitzvot the rabbis elevated
in the Mishnah, entitled: Eilu Devarim –“These are the things”–
that came to be known as the “rabbinic ten commandments:”
Honor your father and mother,
Visit the sick,
Rejoice with bride and groom
Perform acts of love and kindness…
The rabbis felt these mitzvot – of care for others – were so important
they made it part of our daily morning prayers.
We read them this morning.
I want every apologetic Jew to understand:
Performing these ethical actions IS JUDAISM.
That the beautiful, compassionate, caring acts that you are already doing
are what Judaism expects of us.
They are authentic expressions of tiferet–
and you should feel well-founded pride.
Now it won’t surprise you that I will still encourage you to come to more services.
Engage in more Jewish learning. And to try new Jewish observances.
I became a rabbi because I see how these Jewish practices
deepen our daily life,
connect us to our families and generations before us,
bring comfort, or righteous agitation, as needed.
They are undeniably powerful in their own right.
In fact the rabbis include in their ‘Top Ten’ list:
–Attend the house of study morning and evening
–Pray with sincerity
And conclude Eilu Devarim with: The study of Torah is equal to them all.
Why? Because it leads to them all.
But many of us still think that Judaism is mostly about ritual laws,
fasting, and kashrut.
The truth is, it’s not even primarily about them.
And don’t just take my word for it.
Listen to the prophet Isaiah.
Every year during these holidays,
we read how Isaiah watched a community of observant Jews
beating their chests and fasting on Yom Kippur,
while they ignored the hungry people right at their feet.
He admonished them severely:
“This is not the fast that God wants!”
Isaiah urges us instead to: “share our bread with the hungry,
take the poor into our homes,
and not to ignore our kin.”4
For Isaiah, the essence of Judaism is Ethics. Ethics in action.
The rituals, prayers and holidays are all important.
But they are not an end point. They are spiritual technologies
meant to open our eyes, stir our conscience, and compel us to act.
Or listen to the great, 1st Century Rabbi Hillel,
who, when asked to explain all of Judaism
while standing on one foot, said:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to Others. That is the whole Torah.
The rest is commentary, go and learn it.”5
Listen to my teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman,
a Modern Orthodox Israeli rabbi,
whose summation of Judaism commands:
A Jew cannot be indifferent.
Throughout the centuries, when pressed to explain the essence of Judaism –
on one foot –
Jewish teachers agree that Judaism is fundamentally about
the Ethics of how we treat one another.
So if Judaism is principally about Ethics, you might ask:
Why practice any of the rituals?
Why study Torah? Can’t we all just BE GOOD?
You wouldn’t be the first to ask the question.
In the late 19th Century, Felix Adler,
the son of a Reform Rabbi,
took this thinking to its logical conclusion:
He extracted the ethics from Judaism, stripped away all the particulars,
and founded the Ethical Culture Society –
a movement “whose God was ‘the Good’,”
“whose Church was the Universe.”
He established noble things like the first free kindergarten,
which still stands today as the wonderful Ethical Culture School.
But the movement never really grew, peaking in 1965 with 5300 members.6
When it stripped Judaism of our Hebrew, Holidays and Heroes,
it also lost the particularism, the passion, and the pride of a people.
Ethics feel theoretical without context.
You need the taste, smells and melodies of an ethical memory
for them to be sticky.
Do you remember Rabbi Hillel’s statement of Judaism on one foot?:
What is hateful to you, do not do to Others.
People remember this, but forget the essential second half:
The rest is commentary. Go and learn it!
You’ve got to go and learn it!
If you don’t know where to begin – we are posting a list on Central’s website
with some of my favorite books and online resources
in addition to the myriad adult programs happening right here.
Understanding what Judaism values and expects of us is a lifelong pursuit.
But since my challenge today was to summarize Judaism in 5 minutes,
I would humbly like to conclude with my own personal encapsulation –
the driving force of my own Jewish pride.
For when I think of what Judaism values and expects of me –
it’s rooted firmly in one idea: to live up to my Name.
More specifically, the 3 names that God gives our people in the Torah:
Ivrim – Hebrews.
Yehudim – Jews.
Yisrael – Israel.
Names are no accident. They identify where we come from,
connect us to who we are,
tell us who God wants us to be.
You’ll spot our first name – the Hebrews – in Genesis,
as God tells Abraham, “Lech Lecha” – Go forth from your home and birthplace.
When Abraham and his family cross over the River Euphrates
and become strangers in a foreign land,
God calls them “Hebrews,” or Ivrim,
which literally means, “the ones who cross over.”
We are boundary-crossers who know the experience and the soul of a stranger: we’ve been foreigners from our very beginning, in Egypt, in the Diaspora,
When you open your heart in empathy to the refugee, the lonely kid in class, when you champion the underdog,
when you re-live our enslavement at your Passover seder,
You are living as a proud Ivri.
Our second name is Yehudim, Jews.
When Leah, the lesser-loved wife of the patriarch Jacob,
gives birth to her fourth son, Judah, she says,
Odeh et-Hashem, “I will give thanks to God.”7
It is the first time in the Torah that anyone verbalizes gratitude directly to God.
Judah’s name literally means, “to give thanks.”
From this we know that our primary religious posture as Jews
is one of gratitude.
Jews are to give thanks when we wake up, when we lie down,
before and after we eat, when we see a rainbow.
We’re to say 100 blessings a day!
When you walk through the world with radical amazement,
when you take time to thank your spouse, a colleague, a grocery clerk,
when you stand with your community offering the Shehechiyanu –
and take a moment to give thanks to God for blessings big and small —
You are living as a proud Yehudi.
Our third name is YISRAEL. We are the people Israel.
When our patriarch Jacob has that famous dream,
he physically wrestles a divine Being, who dislocates his hip socket.
But before daybreak, the angel gives Jacob a new name: Yisrael.8
Which literally means “one who wrestles with God.”
Yisrael grapples with who God is, and what we are called to do in the world.
We do not take command belief,
but relish a tradition of questioning and dissent.
When you challenge the status quo, when you argue for the sake of truth,
when you grapple with our mistakes –
in our homes, and in our homeland,
You are living as a proud Yisraeli.
Ivri. Yehudi. Yisraeli.
These are the names God gave us.
This is how we are reflected in God’s eyes.
These names direct us not just towards an ethical life, but a proud one.
If you strive to live up to your name
you cannot walk through the world with indifference.
You will not accept others’ assumptions about what you stand for or don’t.
And you will not hide.
You will instead uphold the verse from L’cha Dodi: l’shem ul’tiferet v’lithila
And bring “pride and blessing to your name.”
Always Remember: You descend from a people
who traversed impossible boundaries,
opened eyes to wonder, and bravely wrestled with God.
What could be a more noble inheritance for you to live out?
I hope you feel proud to walk into that Shabbat dinner,
write your name down on the sheet,
stand up for the picture
and live up to your name.
To find the list of resources Rabbi Buchdahl mentioned in her sermon, please visit www.centralsynagogue.org/5783.
3 Pirke Avot 2:1
4 Isaiah 58:6-7
6 Genesis 29:35
7 Gen 32:29
8 BT Shabbat 31a