Yom Kippur 5762 - 2001
Some weeks ago my head was spinning with the difficult issues dividing the Jewish People: Conversion in Israel…Who is a Jew…Oslo/Peace Now/Likud/West Bank Settlers…Assimilation. All of those terrible problems that divide us and threaten our future. Then I went to participate as a panelist in a community forum, one of the many appearances I make in the general Greater New Haven Community for civic, church and other groups. After the presentations on whatever the topic was, one of those in attendance asked, “Rabbi, how do you account for the Jews’ extraordinary unity throughout your history?”
I realized that the view from the “outside” does not always correspond exactly to the view from the “inside.”
What if we could see ourselves as other see us, as individuals and as a community?
This is what the High Holidays – the Days of Awe – are partly about. We are supposed to stop and perform a heshbon nefesh, a self-evaluation. That is not to say that everybody else and the rest of the world could not stand some improvement, too. But we are responsible for ourselves. We can change ourselves.
This year, due to the trauma of the Twin Towers and Pentagon catastrophe, many people stopped to re-think what is important in our lives. People stopped to think, is my work meaningful? Is what I do outside of work meaningful, is it important or worthwhile? We are supposed to do this every day, actually, and certainly every year, as our holiday cycle creates a special opportunity for stock-taking. But this year was different. We were shaken to our core. We were traumatically reminded that any moment could be our last in this world.
Part of our self-evaluation might include trying to understand how others see us. At the very least, it can be an informative viewpoint. Although others’ perspectives on us may be inaccurate, they represent the “reality” that those others experience, and so are important at least for that reason.
One the one hand, some people worry too much about, pardon the expression, “what will the goyim [gentiles] think.” There is no end to that kind of thinking, based on a deep insecurity. Being overly concerned about public image can cause distortions. But this concern for our “public image” is exactly what Moshe raises in arguing with God in the Torah. God gets angry at the Jewish People, and says, “I should destroy them and start fresh with another group of people.” Moshe say, “But what will everyone else say? That You take people out of slavery to destroy them?” And Moshe’s argument seems to be compelling, at least to God. So concern for “what others think” is a legitimate, although not determinative, consideration.
On the other hand, some say, “Who cares what the world thinks? Ultimately, we are answerable to God, not humanity. We should do what we know is right.” This viewpoint, too, has merit, but it is also an extreme.
Our sage Rabbi Yehuda haNasi in the Mishna (Avot 2:1), writing in the second century of the Common Era, had this advice:
Which is the path of virtue a person should follow? Whichever brings honor to our Maker and brings us honor from our fellow human beings.
He’s saying both are important. True, sometimes there might be a conflict between what pleases the public and what God would want, but in the long run these should be the same.
Let’s look for a few moments at how “we” appear to the world.
First, as a people, as a nation. In the public’s mind, Israel is a “huge” country. If you ask high school students to list the world’s twenty biggest countries, Israel usually makes the top ten. The actual size of Israel is all of 8,020 square miles, and if you throw in Judea and Sumeria (the “West Bank”), that adds another 2,410 square miles. The State of Connecticut measures 5,018 square miles. Similarly, Israel’s economy is comparable to those of the larger states in America. Its population is only about 6 million, counting Arabs, Druze and other non-Jews (not counting Gaza and the West Bank), just a little more than that of Connecticut.
But Israel is in the news a lot, in part because Jews are interested in it, and we buy newspapers, and also because of Christianity’s special connection. For me, Israel is one of the most “important” countries in the world, because I am a Jew. But Israel “looks” much, much bigger than it really is.
It is said that “Israel is responsible for the violence in and emenating from the Middle East.” In our fine local newspaper, there have been a number of experts and non-experts quoted in the last few days saying that Israel is somehow responsible for the attacks of 11 September. Let’s examine this charge and put it in some perspective.
It is certainly true that there is a lot of violence in the Middle East. One measure of violence, if we are to quantify violence, might be the number of deaths in battle. Here is a partial listing of deaths in wars in the Middle East and nearby Muslim countries in recent years, that is, during the lifetime of many of those in this sanctuary.
Iran-Iraq War: 1 million
Gulf War: over 150,000
Lebanon Conflict 1958: 1,300
South Yemen 1986: 10,000
North Yemen 1960s “civil war”: 100,000
Egypt vs. Muslim Brotherhood 1992-: 1,200
Iraq Shia Rebellion 1991-1992: 40,000
Kurdistan 1980s-1990s: 200,000
Israelis all wars + terrorism: 8,000
Palestinian Arabs killed by Israel 1948-present: 18,000
This is far from a comprehensive listing. It is a small sample. If the body count is a measure of significance, then we would observe that the number of Palestinian Arabs killed in battle or otherwise by Israelis amounts to perhaps 1% of the Middle East total.
This does not in any way minimize the tragedy of the loss of life in Israel or Palestine, or minimize the importance of the issues. But it puts it in a perspective of Middle Eastern violence. Blaming Israel for the larger problems in the Middle East is pure scapegoating. Specifically this means that many secular and religious Arab regimes point to Israel as a source of their problems or use antagonism toward Israel (or Jews) to unite their own embattled populations against an external enemy. Israel is demonized in much the same way that Jews were demonized by the Nazis. Sorry to harp on this, but it is important for us to recognize this and be able to name it.
Years ago, during the Gulf War, when Iraq invated Kuwait, Iraq launched scuds against Israel. Israel had no part in that conflict. Iraq attached Israel in the hope of uniting Arab states against a common enemy. Osama bin Laden has said that his aim is to rid Saudi Arabia of Americans. That is the starting point of his hatred of America. America is in Saudi Arabia to protect its government and its oil from the threat of radical Islamic movements such as bin Laden’s. It has nothing to do with Israel. The hatred of Israel and Jews is just added as an extra bonus. Nothing that the State of Israel has done or could do, or even its very existence, affects this situation.
One might fairly assign Israel some share of the responsibility for the civil war in Lebanon, especially in the 1980s. But overall, the scale of violence experienced by the Palestinian Arabs, while brutal and objectionable, does not fairly allow Israel to be labeled a leader in creating violence in the Middle East. The Government of Jordan has killed similar numbers of Palestinian Arabs. The Government of Syria has killed similar numbers of its own citizens. I am sorry if I sound like a reactionary Zionist cheerleader. I am just trying to point out that calling Israel the source for Middle East violence is a distorted perspective. I am not trying to minimize Israel’s problems or the problems of the Palestinian Arabs. But I am trying to minimize its significance in the broader picture of Middle East hatred and violence.
We as Jews tend to be sympathetic to calls for the recognition of Palestinian Arab’s national rights, just as we are to Kurds, Druze, Basques and others who equally deserve independent states. As a stateless people for 2000 years, we understand the yearning for “independence” and “homeland.”
We have to stop seeking an eye for an eye, and start trying to see eye to eye.
Now, let’s look closer to home.
There are persistant myths about Jewish wealth and control.
The story is told of Mrs. Goldberg who was reading during the Yom Kippur break. The rabbi noticed that she was not reading the local Jewish newspaper or Moment Magazine but shockingly, she was reading “white supremacist” literature. “Mrs. Goldberg!” the rabbi exclaimed, “why are you reading that?” “Well,” answered Mrs. Goldberg, “whenever I read the Jewish press, or hear your sermons for that matter, I hear about the threats of assimilation, pogroms, persecution, poverty and the general decline of the Jewish People. But in this paper, I read how the Jews control the banks, the press, the government. It’s wonderful!”
Compared to the general American population, Jews as a group are wealthier than average. Most of that can be explained by a couple of demographic facts. First, the age of the average Jew in America is somewhat above the national average, and about twice that of the average African-American. A person at age 45 is more likely to make more money and to have accumlated more wealth than a 19-year-old. Second, Jews have a rate of advanced education above the national average. This also correlates to, and explains, Jews’ above-average incomes. Unfortunately, we all know the reality of poverty among American Jewry. But the image of the wealthy Jew persists in the public’s mind.
This is the way Mark Twain summed up his perspective on the Jewish People — a perspective that included numerous stereotypes, but perhaps, on the whole, positive. (Gila Reinstein quoted these words from Mark Twain in her Devar Torah at BEKI in July 2000.)
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent. of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.
He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
(Mark Twin, “Concerning the Jews,” Harper’s Magazine March 1898.)
Twains stereotypes are, fortunately, generally “positive.” But of course we know that there is no such thing as “the Jew.” We are a diverse people with a range of racial backgrounds, economic conditions, ideological commitments and religious approaches. Likewise, we know that there is no such thing as “the Arabs.” The over 100 million Arabs are united mainly in what defines them as Arabs, the fact that they speak some form of Arabic. Indeed, many dialects of Arabic are not mutually intelligible. Other than having a common literary language, they are diverse with respect to religion, color, political and national affiliation. One can no more speak of “the Arab” than one can speak of “the Jew.”
Even closer to home, there are persistant myths about our BEKI members. The stereo-typical BEKI member is a happily married couple with two or three children at Ezra Academy, keeps kosher, speaks fluent Hebrew, does not drive on Shabbat, has many friends in the community. Actually, I think, this might describe my family! But it is not a common profile. One-third of our membership units represents adults who are not married. Of families with school-aged children, half enroll their children in BEKI’s religious school. A small majority of members’ households are kosher. I might guess that about 15 percent are suffiently proficient in Hebrew to understand the prayer book. A small proportion refrains from driving on Shabbat out of religious conviction. Many of our newer members have not yet developed deep friendships in the Congregation, and many of our veteran members experience some isolation because their fellow members from yesteryear have moved away or passed away.
In some respects, the reality is that we are a diverse congregation. We or our parents were born in America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Israel. Some are in our tenth decade of life and some in our first. Some grew up in Conservative Jewish homes, some in Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Secularist, Catholic, Baptist homes. Some of us are Democrats, some Greens, some Socialists, and, yes, some of us are Republicans. Some are single, some married, some in committed relationships, some “straight,” some “gay,” some are both. Some are working, some retired, some looking for work. Some have doctorates, some professional degrees or college degrees, some high school diplomas, some were educated in the “school of life.” Some are students, some are teachers. Some are singers, some are dancers.
What we have in common is that we all care about our spiritual life, we all care about being Jewish. We are all here together tonite. We care about Jewish continuity, education for our children and for all children, we care about Israel, Justice, Human Rights, the Environment. We care about our Congregation.
Our Congregation — Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel — is very visible in New Haven. Ours may be the most visible “Jewish” building in our area. Over one-thousand cars per hour pass our building every day. Our members are involved in in government, academia, business, medicine, education, social services. Every day there are names of BEKI members in the local newspaper – hopefully not in the “Police Blotter.” To our neighbors, to our co-workers, to the world, we are “The Jews.”
You are “The Jew.” You represent yourself and your people to the world. Know what to answer your co-worker or neighbor. Be strong and confident in who you are.