Going into my second year of rabbinical school, I was awarded a scholarship to offset my tuition, but it came with a string attached. It was endowed by a congregation in the west of the state, with the expectation that the recipient would join them over a weekend in the mid-fall, to serve as a visiting rabbinic leader and scholar. So, on the Friday morning of the first week in November, I set off in my trusty station wagon, arriving just in time to settle in with my hosts, eat a quick Shabbesdinner, and then be brought over to the shulfor the evening service. It was a memorable weekend. I learned that, in the parlance of this congregation, to “lead” a service meant to announce the page numbers, whereas the more arduous task of chanting the prayers was called, “being the cantor.” Beyond that quirk, it was really my first chance ever, anywhere, to play the role of spiritual leader of a Jewish community. Only at the beginning of the second of five years of training, this was indeed a momentous ascent. What I remember vividly is that, before Kabbalat Shabbat began, I took a trip to the bathroom, where I stared at myself in the mirror, repeating the phrase: “You are the rabbi. You are the rabbi. You are the rabbi.” I enjoyed my time with these friendly people, and was delighted to have the chance to visit with them again a few years later, over the High Holidays, when I served, in fact, as the cantorial soloist for my friend’s nearby synagogue. They were warm and kind, and enthusiastic about their particular rendition of Jewish community.They were—and still are–Congregation Dor Hadash of Pittsburgh. This is the Reconstructionist group that met on the premises of the Tree of Life synagogue, whose member, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz–who I must have met but do not personally recall–was gunned down last October 27th, along with ten other Jews, while they were engaged in prayer and study on a Shabbat morning, by a merciless white supremacist, may his name be blotted out for all time.
By the time this happened, I was already a well-seasoned leader of Jewish community—which, let me tell you, entails a lot more than just announcing the page numbers. Nonetheless, beyond whatever individual upset I was feeling, my first reaction was still: you are the rabbi. You are the rabbi. You are the rabbi. What was foremost in my rabbinic mind was this concern: now, with what has happened, people are going to be afraid to come into this building. My immediate acts, in the aftermath of the shooting, were all intended to address, and, in so far as possible, allay this fear. After reconnoitering with the JCA leadership, I placed a call to the Amherst police department, and determined, in conjunction with a very helpful officer, what security reassurances I could honestly offer to the community. I drafted and sent out a statement, affirming sadness, anger, and fear, while likewise arguing that none of it was sufficient to intimidate us, which, as the saying goes, would just be letting the terrorists win. I sat at the door as families came in for Hebrew school the next morning, and then presided over a spontaneous gathering of over fifty people in the main sanctuary, for listening, sharing, witnessing, and grieving. But I don’t presume, a year later, that all of this has had the effect of eliminating the tension that is tangled so thickly these days around the very notion of being a Jew in this world.
A little bit later in our service, during musaf, we will engage in an exercise of historical reenactment called the “Avodah service.” Through words, chant, and movement we will recreate just the shadow of a sense of what it might have been like for the High Priest, in the time when the Temples stood in Jerusalem, to perform his once a year duty of entering into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, to purify that most sacred of Jewish sanctuaries. What I have always been struck by, since I first heard this tale as a child, was the sense of danger that attended this ritual performance. There was something so fraught about the atmosphere of this inner chamber that it was quite possible the priest who went in would never come out alive. One tradition even relates that a rope was tied around his waist, in case he perished and his corpse had to be dragged out. At the close of this unit of the service, we recite these poetic words of religious lamentation and transvaluation: “We have no leader, no High Priest, as we did in the days of old. Now, each one of us must be the High Priest.” This idea has carried a variety of meanings throughout the centuries of Jewish history. At our present moment, I want to suggest that it invites us to wrestle with the extent to which truly claiming our identities as Jews is an act akin to braving entry into—and having the courage to stand in—our own dangerous sanctuary.
It took me a while to figure out what to say next. I know that part of the danger of entering this sanctuary stems from the fact that the conversation about its danger is, in and of itself, so fraught, laden with potentially explosive realities and buzzwords, like right-and -left- wing-anti-semitism and the State of Israel. I also know that when the rabbi gets up on Yom Kippur to speak about these things, it may seem that I am purporting to carry the mantle of absolute truth: to proclaim what you, as Jews, must believe. I’m the rabbi. I’m the rabbi. I’m the rabbi. Let me assure you, though, this is not my intention, even if I thought I could get away with it. I have opinions, and I will share them, but I see my primary rabbinic goal here as opening up the conversation–holding the space for the intensity of feeling. In fact, the feelings and thoughts that I carry are those of just another Jew running the same gauntlet, albeit a Jew who has long since surrendered his amateur status. These seem to be the High Holidays, this year, where I offer you, in various forms, my subjectivity and the rawness of my own perspective. That’s what I want to do here, too, sharing with you ways in which these issues have been brought into stark relief for me over the past year, and seeing what we have to learn through brief analysis of a few of the moments that have done so.
I remember clearly the first major gathering we held after the Tree of Life massacre—a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the main sanctuary. There had been no violence perpetrated here, but it felt like there could have been. Hadn’t we, in a sense, been doing the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place, as our brothers and sisters who had been killed in Pittsburgh? We opened our doors wide that night, welcoming not only “irregular” Jews who were seeking solace in community, but also friends and well-wishers from other houses of worship—Christian and Muslim—as well as unaffiliated humans seeking to express their support and solidarity. The rawness of emotion was palpable. I saw it in the serious faces, the tears, even the fervor of the prayer. I reflected that night on the tradition of turning to face the doorway during the last verse of Licha Dodi, pantomiming a joyous and respectful welcome to the Shabbes Queen, who has come again to grace our holy place, and our lives, with sanctity and peace. It reminded me of the moment in the Passover seder, when we dare to open the door wide to welcome Elijah the Prophet, the harbinger of messianic redemption. Some historians suggest this custom actually arose out of a kind of passive-aggression. During the blood libels of the Middle Ages, when Jews were slanderously accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood for matza, the tradition arose of opening the door to demonstrate that nothing sinister was going on inside. We do not live either in the Middle Ages or in 1930s Germany. I think that point was made clear enough to us by the friends who came to support us, and by the police and civic leaders who continue to take our concerns seriously. Still, I think, in these times, we have become increasingly haunted by the anxiety of the open door—by worries about what is going on in the society around us and the extent to which we are vulnerable, along with other even more marginalized communities, to the rise and proliferation of homicidal and conspiracy-driven nationalist chauvinism. I seek to name this fear, not to stoke it. I still believe the bad actors here are super-empowered individuals, rather than mass movements, albeit individuals deriving the nutrition in their petri dishes from rhetoric emanating at the highest levels. I think the best strategy of response is not to circle our own Jewish wagons but to continue to do what we are doing: reaching out to other peoples of good will in joint efforts to mend the fraying of our social fabric. Still, it’s important to frame the question: to what extent is the danger we feel in our sanctuary a function of worry about what lies in wait for us on the other side of the door?
My second reflection stems from a more recent incident. If you know me by now, you know that questions of Jewish identity are not primarily what keep me up at night, nor what darkens the mood of my days. It was important for me to help the JCA engage in the global Climate Strike that took place a couple of Fridays ago, so I sought out local manifestations, and discovered there would be one on the UMass campus. I encouraged others to attend, and planned on being there myself. As I drove by the gathering—ironically–looking for a place to park, the first thing I noticed was a Palestinian flag hanging from the rostrum. Though I did not personally choose to stay, I learned from a friend who did that the event turned out to be an anti-climate change and anti-Israel rally, with the second phenomenon perhaps taking more heat from the organizers than the first. In addition to the flag, the crowd was encouraged to engage in the “From the River to the Sea” chant, a de facto call for the elimination of the Jewish state. The head of the UMass student government, an ardent BDS-supporter, later tweeted out a message equating climate change with no other global injustice but the “Occupation,” which, in such rhetoric, is seldom clarified to mean solely what we call “the occupied territories.” Let me be clear that I am not seeking to silence even virulent criticism of Israel, nor besmirch those who stand in solidarity with Palestinian suffering and aspirations. One of the most dangerous moments that has occurred in this very sanctuary in recent memory was when we spent time, one Shabbat morning, processing our own feelings about the atrocities taking place on the Gaza border. But, at the same time, this anti-Israel climate rally was not an isolated incident, but simply one example of a phenomenon raging in progressive circles: the weaponization of “intersectionality” against Jewish experience, through the matter-of-course linking of every other social cause with a reflexive anti-Zionism. Whether or not this is deliberate anti-Semitism, it nonetheless quite effectively recreates the classic tropes of Jew-hatred, through which Jews are understood to lie at the root of all the world’s evil. Further, it caricatures and one-dimensionalizes, even thoughtlessly erases, the complex realities of Jewish historical experience, in which Zionism, for all its tragic flaws, has played a crucial and salvific role. What it does, fundamentally, is set up a sifter, by which those of us who would whole-heartedly give ourselves over to progressive causes are graded into the categories of “good” or “bad” Jews—welcome or unwelcome—depending on the extent to which we are willing to vilify this historical reality, or disown the over a third of our tiny global population that calls Israel its home, or repudiate the notion that there has ever been any justice to the notion of Jewish self-determination in a world overbearingly dominated by Christian and Muslim hegemonies. And so we find that the danger of being ourselves is not simply about how safe we feel in our own home, but how much hostility we are willing to bear as we seek to claim the other spaces that are sacred to us.
One more—and this one takes a slightly different angle to the topic. Twice, last fall, I was called over to Amherst Regional High School to sit and listen, and occasionally speak, as a group of Jewish students, along with allies, teachers, and school administrators, gathered to share their perspectives, first on the Tree of Life massacre, and then in the aftermath of an incident of anti-semitism that took place on school premises. I don’t want to come off as condescending or infantilizing, but I was very touched and moved by both experiences. Here was a group of Jewish teens, some of whom I didn’t know and others whom I hadn’t seen since their b’nai mitzvah struggling to articulate feelings and reactions that I think can be boiled down to a simple question we may all ask ourselves, as Jews: do we exist? For the young people, the force of the question seemed to come out of the milieu of identity politics, of anti-racist consciousness, in which they are steeped, and the effort was to comprehend how the experience of anti-Semitism, and their own minority identity, fit, or didn’t fit, into this discourse. I recognize, as I say this, that we have much work of our own to do in terms of acknowledging, and centering, the experience of Jews of Color. But for the majority of these kids, it was a matter of whether they were simply a subset of the white American comfortable middle-class, or whether there was something substantial to their Jewish difference. They talked about not being seen, or taken seriously, by teachers or peers in conversations about marginalization and persecution. They spoke of how the Jewish calendar is routinely ignored in matters of school and activity scheduling. They even brought up the experience of learning from textbooks that give over a version of history in which, apparently, no Jews, as Jews, were involved. As I said, I believe, ultimately, that their questions are our questions: are we real? What happens when we proclaim our reality? What problems do we then take upon ourselves? What burdens of history? What responsibility? What petulance or pomposity? And what is the nature of our reality? What is the nature of the ambivalence we feel about ourselves? What does it even mean to be Jewish and to be seen as being Jewish? Is it something you have to perform? Is it something that disappears if you don’t do it? Is it something that clarifies itself only when it comes under attack?
I need to tell you I have some ambivalence myself—about this sermon. As I said, while these things preoccupy me, they don’t rise to the top of my own list of priorities. I know that only the most conservative of scientific projections have given us a rapidly closing window of time to make drastic and nearly impossible changes to our way of life in order to have the best chance of preserving our planet. I think about this most of the time, and it makes me feel wretched. I feel petty speaking about Jewish identity and continuity, when the continuity I am most concerned about is human continuity, or, more broadly, the continuity of biological life as it evolved to thrive in the Holocene era. I know that others have areas of grave concern, whether climate change, or immigration, or health care, or racism and homophobia. Why don’t I talk about all of this, instead? It’s a good question. In part, I think it’s because if I were to give a sermon on these topics, at this point it might just sound like a ten-minute scream. That’s partly what I was going for on Rosh Hashanah, and maybe that’s how we should understand the meaning of this entire day of Yom Kippur, in our times: a cry of the broken heart rising up to meet the seething sky. So, in part, it’s because I need to talk about the things I can talk about, and bend them as best as I can to meet the things it is harder for me to name. And to that point, as I have been considering these matters, an old rabbinic parable has been playing in my mind, which, while inexact, I think has some bearing. In the times of the Roman persecution, a rabbi was asked: why do you continue to teach Torah, when it may mean your death? The rabbi said: your question reminds me of the story of the fish, the river, and the fox. The fox came to the edge of the river, and said to the fish: why do you continue to swim in that river where the fishermen cast their nets? Surely you will be caught and eaten. Come up here on dry land where I may keep you safe.
I once played a thought exercise, asking my own feelings which of the many words I could use to describe myself provoked the most abundant reaction, and what came back was this: I am a Jew. It is not all that I am, but it is much of it. It is my cultural and my spiritual foundation in this world, even as I may open my heart to other ways of being. And I need to clear out the clutter and make space for it, if it is to be where I make my stand, like the High Priest who went once a year to purify the holy-of-holies, despite all of the danger inherent in standing within that room. But let’s remember—he didn’t go in there because it was dangerous. He braved the danger because he was looking for something he could only find if he withstood it, and that was: the joy and blessing of being alive. And let’s remember, too: I am the rabbi. I am the rabbi. I am the rabbi. But we are all of us the High Priest.