The Thread That Binds (Rosh haShanah Sermon 5771)


The Thread That Binds

Rosh haShanah sermon 5771

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann


The rabbis of the Talmud are speaking. They say, 

“There are 613 commandments given by God to Moses. 

David came and reduced them to 11 principles.

Isaiah reduced them to 6 principles.

Micah came and reduced them to 3 principles.

Isaiah came again and reduced these to 2.

Amos came and reduced them to one.

Finally, the prophet Habbakuk came and based them all on one principle.”

What are they doing? Is it a kind of ancient Jewish math?  No.  Rather, I read their discussion in Talmud Makkot as answering one big question:  What is the essence of what it means to be a Jew? 

Their answer is to strive for these foundational principles, which they see as coming from David and the prophets:  Justice, righteousness, mercy, truth, and faith in God.   What they do not say, but show, is that being a Jew also means connecting to the teachings of the past – the king, the prophets who came before them provide them with their foundation, their essential understanding.  That distinguishes them from the Christians who are gathering strength around them and adhering to a “new covenant.”  The question the rabbis also toss back and forth – about whether faith in God is enough, or is Torah needed — also reflects the awareness of the strength then of early Christianity. 

As I read this passage, I wondered, What would happen if we posed the question now, in 2010, as we begin the Jewish year 5771?  Today, tonight, right now, what is the essence of what it means to be a Jew?    We too look to the peoples around us and wonder how we are different, if we want to be different, if we need to distinguish ourselves in some way.   We too wonder:  What is most important?

Mostly I ask now because what it means to be a Jew has changed beyond recognition in the 21st century. Those who remember the Holocaust are nearly gone.  Responses to Israel are complicated no matter where you stand.  A sense of connection to the Jewish people does not matter much to thousands of Jews young and not so young.  As my cousin Rabbi Sharon Brous writes in this month’s issue of Sh’ma, 

“The reality is that the Jewish community is going through a paradigm shift. A generation of Jews feels at best alienated by, at worst deeply suspicious of, the communal agenda that many … see as narrow-minded, exclusivist, and morally inconsistent. But [they are engaged, and] … Through a sheer force of will, driven by creative discontent, the rules of engagement are shifting. “

We Jews are all over the map when it comes to where and how and if we pray, how we vote, what we fear, and what we wish for.  Is there any thread that connects us, anything we might all agree on as the essence of being a Jew?   Or are there more likely many such essential understandings, which I am betting reflect far more the voice of our ancient rabbis than they do the leadership of the organized Jewish community?

A recent genetic study notes that we Jews are still connected:  It[1] “highlights the strong genetic bonds both within and among Jewish communities around the world, their distinctiveness vis-à-vis the populations among which they have dwelled, and their links to the Middle East.”

So the two Jews who share 3 opinions, the Jews who believe in at most one God, are actually linked genetically.  The Lubavitcher on the subway and Abe Foxman and I are in fact linked.  This may feel good, in an odd way, but it is a double-edged sword:  Just last week, a member of the board of a German state bank scorned us Jews by noting that we are of one gene.   We may be linked, indeed, but we are never of one mind nor would my answer and that of a dozen other Jews even in Brooklyn to the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew?” be in any way similar.  

Nevertheless, I want to ask the question and see if we can begin to discern even in this room something that binds us, what poet Denise Levertov calls the thread.  She writes,

The Thread

Something is very gently, invisibly, silently, 
pulling at me-a thread 
or net of threads 
finer than cobweb and as 
elastic. I haven't tried 
the strength of it. No barbed hook 
pierced and tore me. Was it 
not long ago this thread began to draw me? Or way back? Was I 
born with its knot about my 
neck, a bridle? Not fear 
but a stirring 
of wonder makes me 
catch my breath when I feel 
the tug of it when I thought 
it had loosened itself and gone.

In the 21st century or the 58th, with the old moorings gone and clarity a distant hope, it seems a crucial question to ask.  I am asking because this is the day of judgment and as we gather here, on this Jewish new year, it seems a crucial basis for our judgment.  I am asking each one of you sitting here to think for yourselves, on this day when we examine ourselves deeply, what it means for you to be a Jew.  Does it matter? I think it matters a lot, to a vibrant Jewish present and to an enlivened Jewish future.   The answer can affect every action we take in the year ahead, be it in the realm of learning, prayer, communal care, or the reach for justice.

Note that I am not asking, “Who’s a Jew?”  That is a question often and hotly debated and one that interests me very little just now, especially standing in a room filled with people who know they are Jews, no matter if someone wants to say, “You don’t look Jewish!”

And I am not asking “What is Judaism?” another question for another time.

If you are not a Jew, I am assuming you are here because a) you care a great deal about this question and are moved to learn and know more or  b)  you care a great deal about someone who is a Jew and are moved to learn and know more, either about what makes your loved one tick or so you can join in the exploration.  Either way, I hope this question does not turn you off or away; I welcome your answers too to the question of what you understand it means to be a Jew.  You may be raising Jewish children or shaping a Jewish home and the answers here will be crucial to how your proceed. 

From the Talmudic rabbis to today, people have raised this same question, often at times of community stress, change, or rupture. 

In the years between the world wars, Edmond Fleg, a naturalized French Jew originally of Swiss origin, wrote his own list of answers within an essay titled “Why I am a Jew, “ written for a yet-to-be-born grandchild.  Kolot member Sally Charnow, who is studying Fleg, informs me that he was born into a secular Jewish home and as he watched the Dreyfuss affair unfold, he embraced more religious Judaism.  He saw in Judaism the best way to reach an ideal universalism, which we can see as his list ends:

I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.

I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.

I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.

I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; men are completing it.

I am a Jew because, above the nations and Israel, Israel places man and his Unity.

I am a Jew because above man, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the divine Unity, and its divinity.

Writing in 1944, the second World War and the Holocaust coming to an end, American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote these words in a section of her longer “Letter to the Front,”

To be a Jew in the twentieth century

Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,

Wishing to be invisible, you choose

Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.

Accepting, take full life. Full agonies… .

The gift is torment. Not alone the still

Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.

That may come also. But the accepting wish,

The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee

For every human freedom, suffering to be free,

Daring to live for the impossible.

Are you internally writing your answer as I speak?  I hope so. 

I was visiting my father and brother a couple of weeks ago as I was thinking about this sermon.  I asked them what they would say if I asked “What does it mean to you to be a Jew?”   My brother was with the prophet Micah; to him, being a Jew meant doing right and good, helping others.  My father was on the side of history: Being a Jew meant being connected to all the Jews who have come before.  Both noted a connection to God, but only as a second thought.

So I decided to ask some Kolot members who represent some span of Jewish self-identity.  I ask them now to tell us their responses, as we continue to engage in the ancient rabbis’ task, finding the essence, the one or two or three principles that can undergird a whole system of belief, law or behavior. 

NATHANIEL HAVILAND-MARKOWITZ, age 14: To me, being Jewish is very challenging but uniting. To become a man or a woman officially in Judaism, you have to become a bar or bat mitzvah. This is challenging. It takes a lot of work to memorize a language that isn’t yours, and then get up in front of your congregation and sing it. But at the same time, you are united with your teacher and the rabbi, and you are thinking about all the other people who are saying the same things in front of their congregations. Another challenge is Yom Kippur, when you have to fast for an entire day, which is tough mentally and physically. But you know that every other Jew in the world is doing it. In 2004 my brother Jonah went to the Maccabbi games in Chile, and his team won the gold medal against 7 other Jewish teams. Being in the presence of so many Jews from different countries felt special to me. These are some of the achievements and bonds that have made me proud to be a Jew..

SETH BORGOS: What it means to be a Jew is to have an exit route from the prison of the self, an attachment to things not chosen for their instrumental value but revealed over the course of one’s life.

An attachment to a family, a tribe, and a nation

An attachment to the ancient stories of humankind, and to an unknown future

An attachment to the life of the earth, and to a whispered hope of transcendence

RABBI ALISSA WISE: Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, the Jewish ethical tradition, was once visiting one of the mussar towns he was leading and building— as he built the movement, he would travel around from shtetl to shtetl and teach mussar and help the community to take shape as a mussar town, rooted in the ethics at root of Jewish life. Arriving into town in the late morning, he sees a school age boy sitting on the street. He asks him, “Boy, why are you not in school?” the boy replies “my parents don’t have enough money to pay the tuition, so I cant go to school”. This enrages Rabbi Salanter—what kind of mussar town can have a young boy not in school?—So Rabbi Salanter takes the boy and heads to the school. He demands from the headmaster “why is this boy not in school?” and the headmaster replies “his family can’t pay the tuition, and we can’t have him in school if he doesn’t pay the tuition”. At this point Salanter is fuming, he rushes into the beit ha’knesset, the house of prayer, and opens the aron, the ark, and finds in it a big, beautiful Sefer Torah, Torah scroll. He turns to the headmaster and demands—sell the Torah, put the kid in school.

This is what it means, to me, to be a Jew. A sense of radical responsibility in the world, of obligation to community, not just to self, and above all else a readiness and ability to refocus. Ever since the temple fell and Judaism was born, Jews have been narrating and living exile—an emotional/spiritual condition we share in common with all humanity --and that demands flexibility, resiliency and the chutzpah to turn it all on its head in service to the Other—the most intimate through the most infinite .

AMINA RACHMAN: Abraham was called to leave what was familiar, to step outside of his comfort zone and go forth.  That command, Lech L'chah is usually translated as "go forth." But some commentators say it can also be translated as "go to you," or go to yourself."

Judaism asks us not only to reach out more widely, but to reach inside our selves more deeply, to wrestle with difficulty and complexity, to find and befriend the stranger inside.   And I often wondered how many times Abraham heard that call before he responded.  Perhaps that still small voice called to him many times.  Perhaps it took a long time for him to respond, Hineni.

I had a deep attraction to Judaism very early in my life. I moved in and out of several religious traditions. That was my family's approach = we had Catholicism, Islam, atheism, Black Israelites, agnostics even our political activism was like a religion.  But I always came back to Judaism. My father started us down this road.  He moved from the Black Israelite tradition of his father into the study of main stream Judaism and took me along with him.

My father and I had wonderful conversations, debates.  Periodically my father would ask me a simple question, "which way is up?" And would point my index finger toward to sky and answer "that way."  He would ask me that question every few months and I would respond with the same answer until one day I said "you know Dad that question is driving me crazy! What do you mean by up? And I proceeded to rattle off 3 or 4 different possible meanings for concept of "up."  Well this wide grin began to spread across his face and he said "now we can begin to have some real conversations, now your education begins.”  My father taught me to question, to challenge, to not look for simple answers, to wrestle with difficulty and complexity, to be weary of people proclaiming absolutes.

But that kind of questioning was not welcomed in most places.  I fact my questioning got be put out of many places and groups.

Part of my love of Judaism is that Judaism welcomed the questioning, the challenging, the doubts, my craziness.  No offense to the Democratic party, but Judaism seems to be the real Big Tent, welcoming all who are ready to wrestle with these questions (of God and man/woman kind, self and our relationships to one another) not just looking for pat answers. We seem to have an overall need for context, for meaning that enables us to make sense of our stories. Judaism allowed me to bring my whole self to the table and gave me a context for my questions, my struggles, my craziness!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * ** *

And me?

I return to our ancient rabbis as they grappled with the beginnings of Judaism.   I note that their 613 mitzvot comprised a system they called “halakhah” – the walking, the going, maybe “the path.”   More than anything else, I think, to be a Jew means to go, to do, to act.  “Naaseh v’nishma,” our ancestors gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai said to Moses, “we will do the commandments we receive, and through doing truly understand and thus hear what God intended.” 

Like Amina, I hear God’s call to Abraham:  Lekh lekha, get going, go to yourself, go. Leave all that is familiar and all that you love to reach for – what? – the place God will show you. 

We became a people who leaves and walks into action and then into history.  Every year we celebrate our great collective leaving, the exodus from Egypt, the leaving behind of slavery and the familiar for freedom and the vast terrifying wilderness.   

What does it mean to be a Jew? It means to leave and to go, to act and learn, and act on what we have learned.   For Jews throughout the ages, learning was done in order to act, to live. Halakhah, the path.   For us, the learning, the prayer, the holiday celebrations serve as reinforcement:  They remind us we are Jews, they teach us the foundational values, they give us time to rest and renew, they urge us to reflect and change — and keep going. 

Psalm 15, which the rabbis read as David narrowing 613 commandments down to 11, begins by asking, “Who shall dwell in God’s holy mountain?”   The rabbis turn away from the conversation for a moment to tell a story about Rabban Gamliel, who wept because he knew he could not keep all the commandments, and feared he would not be allowed on that mountain.  Not so, his fellows assure him.  Just as one transgression can get you kicked out, so one commandment done well opens up the path for you. 

Like Gamliel, I can’t begin to follow all those laws.  But I hope that adhering to some, and to the principles that undergird them, will enable me to dwell in God’s holy mountain. 

I hope to find fellow travelers there, Jews and not.  I hope to feel the indentations of Gamliel’s footsteps there, a hint of his tears and brilliance.    I’d like to meet Edmond Fleg and Muriel Rukeyser and every one of the Kolot members who spoke tonight. Walking that path requires learning, and the walking leads to learning.  For me there must be Torah, as well as God, and there must be community, as well as an individual path.  We must walk as individuals, we must act as a community, we must care for one another at all the times care is needed, we must always pursue justice.  A thin thread may be all that binds us, but as Levertov remind us, we feel the tug of it just when we thought it had loosened and gone.


[1] The study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics and titled “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era,” was reported on in the Forward by Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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