Welcome to the Tribe

Kol Nidre, 2012:

Some years ago the Jewish Week asked me to write an op-ed before the High Holydays. At the risk of being thrown out of the rabbi’s union I said that I wasn’t quite sure how many of the Jews showing up for Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur were there for the prayers or, for that matter, to wrestle with the themes of forgiveness and repentance. Rather, they were there to hang out with other Jews. Well before the internet was invented, Jews created the original flash mob. “Pass the word. Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur are coming. Everyone will be there. Show up.” And we do.

There is something nice, comforting, even exciting about being with other people that you know and even many that you don’t know who share a common history, religion and ethnic folkways. Mordecai Kaplan hit the nail on the head when he called it “peoplehood.” In many ways, peoplehood is another term for tribalism. For me, there are no negative connotations to the term “tribalism”.  It does not require drums, feathers or body paint (although Adat Shalom is really big on drums). Tribalism is simply an extended family, and it carries all the charm and dysfunction of family as well. The tribal instinct of Jews is strong due to historic conditioning; in so many places over so many centuries, Jews were the oppressed minority. There was no one we could count on except each other.

There are, however, two problems with tribal Judaism. First is that we are becoming increasingly aware that tribal identity can be morally corrosive. It is too easy to get into our tribal cocoon and see everything exclusively from our own, limited perspective. Jews are certainly prone to the syndrome. There are many Jews who evaluate every matter of public policy based on whether or not it is “good for the Jews”. In Israel, the tribal path is the one that makes Palestinians invisible. Too many Jews in Israel and in the diaspora choose to ignore the abuses of Palestinian rights that take place in the territories every day and the discrimination facing the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Arabs. Sometimes our tribal tendencies make us so obsessed with our own history of persecution and ongoing threats to Jewish survival that we cannot see how we might be complicit in the oppression of others.

There is also a second problem with tribal Judaism. Our children, next generation Jews, the Jews who are Millenials, are increasingly post-tribal. I call their identity “covenantal”. Covenantal Jewish identity is strongly rooted in universalist tendencies. Covenantal Jews have some awareness that Judaism brought many core values into the world like compassion, charity, human dignity and care for the natural world. They might even take pride in that fact. Yet they will see those values best realized in service to humanity at large. Because their primary identity is as global citizens, and their Jewish identity is secondary at best, covenantal Jews resist the bias of previous generations to preference Jewish loyalties. That bias relates to friendships, organizational affiliations, relationship to the state of Israel and even the choice of spouse. In fact, the suggestion to a covenantal Jew that they should only consider marrying other Jews sounds ethically offensive because they see it as violating a key Jewish value about treating all human beings equally.

As with all attempts at categorizing attitudes and behaviors, my tribal and covenantal categories are stereotypes. Many here will identify with some parts of each. The case I want to make is simple. The Jewish community we have today was created by tribal Jews for tribal Jews. To the extent that the next generation of Jews is more heavily covenantal than it is tribal, the Jewish community cannot conduct business as usual and expect that the Jewish community will still be around in 100 years. We are already seeing dramatic declines in all of the tribal indicators of a strong Jewish community including synagogue affiliation, participation in communal Jewish federation campaigns, support for the state of Israel and in-marriage.

So here is the challenge: Can we transmit a tribal Jewish story in a way that next generation, covenantal Jews can hear it?

This evening, I want to articulate the shape of this new narrative.  I’ve got two objectives. First, there are a fair number of covenantal Jews here tonight whose future commitment to their Jewish identity and that of their children is up for grabs. I am hopeful that what I say and how I say it might make them open to Jewish identity in a way that they may not have been before. Second, for those whose Jewish identity is stronger, I hope you will take on some missionary work. Not in the Mitt Romney/Mormon fashion; I don’t want you to go door to door either in your neighborhood, or God-forbid in a developing country across the globe. Yet you interact daily with family members, friends and colleagues who don’t totally “get” why you identify as strongly as you do with your Jewish heritage and with the Jewish community. I want to provide you with some language that will help you because I think that our Jewish identity should be a great source of pride that we are willing to share with others.

Let me start with a story. Last December, I led a group of 18 members of Adat Shalom on a trip to Haiti. Organized by Pamela Sommers and Wendy Swire, the group was evenly divided between adults and their children, ages 15 to 30. We stayed in Leogane, near the center of the earthquake that devastated the country two years ago, and close to the New Christian School of Pastor Johnny Felix which Adat Shalom is supporting financially. During the days we worked side by side with Haitians helping to build houses that would enable them and their families to move from one room wood huts with no plumbing to these new homes. In the evenings, after our physical labor was done, we explored the teachings of Judaism to understand how our work was a fulfillment of Judaism’s core commandments about tzedek u’mishpat, doing righteousness and justice in the world without regard to race, religion or nationality.

It was clear to me that the adults were more taken by the study of Jewish sources than the young people. Though respectful, my sense was that to the teens, the Jewish study was some nice window dressing offered by their rabbi to fill the evenings. To paraphrase the title of a sermon I gave from this bimah a few years ago: “What’s Judaism got to do with it?” The important work was happening during the day.

Then on Sunday we went to Pastor Johnny’s church. It became abundantly clear in that setting that our being Jewish mattered a great deal.

The church was in a tent with a dirt floor. The benches people sat on were cast offs. Some were broken. It was clear how poor these Haitian were. Most did not even have permanent homes. Yet they were dressed exquisitely and had been there already for two hours when we arrived for the last 90 minutes of the service. As we walked in we were greeted by a Hebrew song that I taught a year earlier when I first visited the congregation–Shabbat shalom.  Our visit fell during the festival of Chanukah. Pastor Johnny had invited me to preach the morning sermon so I chose to use the lessons of Chanukah to offer words of hope and encouragement to people that had endured not just the devastation of a natural disaster but whose families had endured decades of brutality, oppression and corrupt rule by a string of dictators. And when our makeshift Adat Shalom choir got up to teach some Hebrew songs, the congregation joined with passion to the words: Hine mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad, “how good and beautiful it is to be in this space, one tribe of sisters and brothers sitting together in the spirit of friendship and in unity.”

These Haitians were devout Christians who live on next to nothing. Most had not finished high school. Sunday worship was the highlight of their week and no one would dream of missing it. They were simple people but beautiful souls. They had never read Mordecai Kaplan. To them we were God’s chosen people who had come to worship with them, to support their pastor and to provide financial support to the school Pastor Johnny built to educate their children. To them we were the children of Israel doing God’s work in the world just as had been written in the Bible.  The fact that we were Jewish mattered and everyone of us in the Adat Shalom delegation walked out of that church tent knowing it.

The work we did was not benefiting Jews; we were engaged in helping poor Haitians whose predicament got worse as a result of an earthquake. But Judaism framed our entire experience. It helped us explore the meaning of faith and suffering. It offered us the wisdom passed down through the centuries about our obligations to the poor. And to the Haitians who had never met a Jew before, we were the children of Israel, behaving in accordance with the word of God as written in the Bible. We were engaged in covenantal work but it took on much greater meaning when understood and presented in the context of our tribal identity.

Which brings me back to the changing nature of Jewish identity in America. How do we fulfill the commandment from the Sh’ma: v’shinantem l’vanecha, “you shall teach it diligently to your children?” How do we convey that Judaism is not some relic of religious practices and superstitions handed down from the past but rather a way of being in the world that allows us to live a life that honors our particular history and urges us to make the world better for all of humanity?

I believe that being a member of the tribe that we call the Jewish people helps us to live lives of sacred purpose. I offered a glimpse of what that looks like by bringing you with me into Pastor Johnny’s church on Sunday morning. But too many Jews, disgusted by the excesses of tribal identity, come to the conclusion that they are better off, the world is better off, if they abandon their religious/cultural/ethnic identity. They are wrong.

It is not a coincidence that Jews have been in the leadership of movements for positive social change for more than a century in numbers totally disproportionate to our percentage of the population. I could cite the labor movement, the civil rights movements, the anti-apartheid movement, international human rights and a dozen more such causes. Even fairly assimilated Jews are powerfully motivated by the Jewish tribal story because it contains universal, covenantal lessons. We are a people who were born in slavery and transitioned to freedom. We are a people who are reminded again and again in our liturgy and sacred texts, “oppress not the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. We are a people that has been history’s perpetual minority so we have worked to make the most radical teaching of Torah become part of a global ethic of human rights–that every human being has within them the spark of the Divine and must be treated with respect and dignity.

And you, my friends, by virtue of being part of the tribe called “the Jewish people” are potential carriers of that sacred covenantal message to a world that desperately needs it. I know many of you. And I know how many awesome good things you are already doing in the world. Yet I fear that there are still too many Jews who rejoice in their Jewish tribalism without thinking about the sacred purpose behind the tribe. And I also fear that too many Jews do the covenantal work but don’t value the tribe that is necessary to carry the message forward.

So much of the program here at Adat Shalom is designed to balance those twin commitments. Whether it is showing up the third Tuesday of every month when Adat Shalom staffs the Manna Food Center in Rockville; participating in Sukkot in April in conjunction with Yachad, to rehabilitate the home of a poor resident in our community; or perhaps signing up for Adat Shalom’s second annual service mission to Haiti Dec. 22nd-30th. I could give you a dozen other examples, but you get the point. The way Jews “walk the talk” of prophetic Judaism is by practice, practice, practice. I urge you in the year ahead to consider increasing your commitment to engage in just such kind of holy practice.

When we make “lives of sacred purpose” the central core of our Jewish identity, it is much easier to appreciate and celebrate the tribal aspects of our identity. I remember bumming around Europe as a college student with my best friend. In every city, we made a bee line to the synagogue or Jewish community center where we never failed to find a free meal, a warm bed and stories that gave me a new appreciation of the tenacity of Jewish survival and the mutual support from one Jew to the next that made that survival possible. Thirty years later Sandy and I were in Madrid during Passover. After we finished touring the Prado Museum we sat outside to eat lunch with the matzah and tuna fish that we had brought with us. A college student walked by and exclaimed: Matzah! She was a Jewish exchange student studying in Spain for the semester and had not made a single Jewish connection in all her time there, not even for Seder. But seeing matzah, all of her tribal bells starting ringing and she was elated. Of course, we invited her to share our matzah. We did not stay in touch, but I’d like to think that that little matzah moment helped connect this college student to her Jewish identity. Welcome to the tribe!

Some of you know that for more than 20 years, one of my central passions was the Soviet Jewry movement. I can think of no better example in my lifetime of how tribal ties between Jews was leveraged to achieve a greater good. In fact, the Soviet Jewry movement effected a change in the course of the history of the world. I was therefore deeply touched when just this past shabbat, David Silberman relayed a story initially told by Shlomo Carlebach during his session at shabbat breirot. It takes place in a Russian Gulag prison during the dark days of Communism. A Jew is serving a life sentence for his activism to emigrate to Israel, a crime under the Soviets. He hears that another Jew was just brought to the prison and he is committed to seek him out. During their one hour of exercise in the yard, he sees the new inmate, and falls into step beside him.

“Shalom Aleichem landsman”, he says in a whisper.

The new inmate glares at him. “Are you crazy? You will get us shot.”

“Do you know what tonight is?” asks the first Jew. “It is the start of Yom Kippur.”

“Big deal. We are Jews. So what? What has it gotten us?”

“I’ve been in this prison for ten years. You are the first Jew I have seen in all of this time. We must share this night together in some way. Let’s sing Kol Nidre together. Do you remember the melody?”

Tears filled the new inmate’s eyes. He whispered: “I used to sing Kol Nidre with my father in synagogue as a young boy. I haven’t heard it since then.”

So the two of them begin to chant the Kol Nidre melody together very softly. Suddenly they see the guards in the watchtower pointing their guns at them. The captain climbs down from the tower, walks in their direction with gun drawn. “What are you two Jews doing?” he demands.

“We are just singing a song.”

“Let me hear it again” said the captain. The two Jews are certain that this will be their final act before they are shot. The captain listens for a couple of minutes, allowing the prisoners to sing the melody through.

And then the captain said: “I was taken away from my family at age 14 and put into the Tsars army. I have been in the army my entire adult life. But your melody brought back memories that I had long forgotten–going to synagogue with my father, huddling under his talis as the cantor sang the Hebrew prayers. Now I realize that I was born a Jew even though it has been decades since I had anything to do with my people. I cannot help you out of this prison, but thank you for helping me remember who I am.”

Welcome to the tribe indeed.

Each of us asks ourselves. “Who am I? What parts of my identity are most meaningful? What is the legacy that I want to pass on to the next generation? For me, there is no part of my identity that confers more meaning than being part of the Jewish people. Not just the tribal part of the Jewish people but, as well, the piece of the Jewish story that compels me to ask myself every day whether I am worthy of my ancestors who stood at Sinai to receive the covenant of Torah.

At this time of the year we are painfully aware of our own mortality. Part of the beauty of connecting our personal life journey to the Jewish tribal story is that we know that the work of healing a broken world neither started with us, nor will the work end with us. To the extent that our values are important to us we hope that they will be carried on by our children, our grandchildren and generations well into the future. If we are successful perhaps our sacred tribal legacy might just bring the world a tad closer to redemption.