Meet the Jacobsons - Rosh Hashana 5776
I want to tell you about the Jacobsons.
They were a wonderful Jewish family. There were four children, and they had happy, suburban, activity-filled Jewish childhoods.
While their parents were living, they came together as a family on a regular basis, for Pesach Seders, Chanukah candles, Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries. Their parents were good, hard-working people who loved each of their very different children, and they inspired loyalty and devotion.
But now that their parents have passed on, it’s up to the next generation of the four children, and they get together when they feel they have to, at least once a year on some mutually convenient, arbitrary date. It takes a lot of planning and effort, and some go into anxiety attacks beforehand, but they try to get together once a year and at some life-cycle events.
As different as they are from each other, they do try to get together. And they are very different.
There is Shmueli Jacobson. His siblings still call him Sammy, but since he has become Orthodox and married his wife Miriam, he uses Shmueli. Shmueli and Miriam have been married eight years and they have seven children: six girls: Dassy, Rivvy, Siri, Ruchie, Esty and Malki, and the new baby boy, Menachem Schneerson Jacobson.
Then there’s his brother Aaron, still called Airhead by his siblings, who doesn’t belong to a synagogue, and is antagonistic to most things about Judaism. He thinks all rabbis are pompous and thinks you can get better music at the opera. He’s never been married.
Jon is married to his Japanese wife Yoko and they have twin boys, Chuck and Dave. Jon belongs to a Reform synagogue and the twins go to Hebrew school. Yoko is very supportive.
And the youngest is Laura and her partner Lisa; they’re planning to get married and have a family. It’s taken a long time for her Conservative synagogue to catch up and understand that equal is equal, but now she’s quite comfortable and active.
So the four kids are very different. And when they get together, someone will say something that will turn into a fight. They argue and sometimes they scream and a slamming door is not unusual. Even if they try not to talk about religion or politics, somebody says something that gets it going.
I want to tell you about a huge family fight that happened recently. There was a really bad row between Shmueli and Jon, with Shmueli saying he won’t come to Chuck and Dave’s B’nai Mitzvah ceremony because the kids are not legally Jewish since they are Yoko’s kids and Jewishness is through the mother, the matrilineal line. But Jon said, “My kids are Jewish. In the Reform movement, if you have a Jewish father, you’re Jewish as long as you go to Hebrew school and have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. And they even had a double bris.” But Shmueli said that without going to the mikveh, the ritual bath, the kids are not Jewish and so any Bar Mitzvah ceremony is a farce. And that’s when the screaming started, with two slamming doors.
Laura went to her Conservative rabbi and asked him what to do. And Laura’s wise Conservative rabbi said, “If they consider themselves Jewish anyway, why not go to the mikveh and take care of the issue, so you can be a united family and everyone will come to the ceremony?” He suggested that Jon go talk to his Reform rabbi and ask him to take Chuck and Dave to the Mikveh. Laura passed this advice on to Jon, who wasn’t thrilled but went to his Reform rabbi, who readily agreed and happily took Chuck and Dave to the mikveh, and they had a great time splashing each other and cracking jokes about dunking.
Shmueli, Miriam and all their kids, including little baby Menachem Schneerson, came to the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony, though they didn’t daven because men and women sat together and the kids used a microphone on the bima. But then again, Aaron the Antagonistic Atheist didn’t daven either because he doesn’t believe in prayer. And Laura and Lisa weren’t really comfortable because they were two of the only people wearing a tallis or a head covering, and they were disappointed with how little Chuck and Dave did during the service, and they really couldn’t take the organ and the non-Jewish choir.
But all of that was beside the point. The point was that they were all there. And when Jon went on the bima and talked to Chuck and Dave about their late grandparents, and what Jewishness meant to them, and how their family had survived the Holocaust and had come to America and built a family here, and when Jon said how important it was to him that they be Jewish, two rows of Jacobsons, for just one moment, forgot all of the differences and all of the fights, and there wasn’t one Jacobson without a lump in the throat. And each of them realized all over again, that now that their parents have passed on, it’s not the same, but they do have this sense of family, of a common past, of a bond that cannot be broken.
I tell you about the Jacobsons today because they represent the diversity of the modern American Jewish community and their issues are issues for all of us.
Let’s be very basic. What does it mean to be Jewish? If someone asked you: “How would you explain what being Jewish is?” what would you say? It sounds like a stupid question, but it’s really very hard. Even if you just say that being Jewish is being an adherent of the religion of Judaism, you leave out all those who feel Jewish but have nothing to do with Judaism.
Is it possible to describe Jewish identity?
My definition of Jewishness is that you feel that you are a member of the Jewish family. Jewishness is a feeling of being part of a familial group, and as you know from your own family, a family can be made up of very different people. The Jacobsons are very different people who are all Jewish.
We have to think of Jewishness not as one particular identity, but as a family of identities. Think about the fact that while Jewish people from different parts of the world have different outlooks and cultures, all share a common Jewish heritage.
But here’s the thing: We live in a really interesting time. You can have white skin and claim to be black. You can be a male or a female and choose to identify with or change to the other gender. In our time, the phrase is “expressive individualism;” you can articulate who you are any way you want. In terms of Jewishness, there is a phenomenon of a personalized Jewish identity that is influenced by an individual’s own experiences and lifestyle. There are all these individual narratives that have little to nothing to do with recognizable movements of our religion.
In this time of individual choice, drawing a line and saying that this is a Jewish person and this person is not, sounds out-of-date and rigid and even harsh. Given the ways in which we’ve defined Jewishness until now, this is a time for the Jewish people to think about who’s in our family.
Maintaining lines of identity in a time of blurred identities is a tough go. In the 21st century, two forces seem to be heading in opposite directions at an increasingly faster pace. On the one hand, the barriers between peoples and nations are breaking down at an unprecedented pace because of our amazing means of communication. On the other hand, a lot of people in this world are identifying more strongly with their specific religions, sects and nations than ever before.
So let’s see how the different movements of modern Judaism are responding to this identity crisis. I’m going to use one issue, the stance of each movement towards conversion to Judaism, to explain the different definitions of Jewish identity.
An Orthodox rabbi says that the only logical definition of who is a Jewish person is the religious one. Orthodoxy maintains that you must be religiously observant to be Jewish. Orthodoxy thinks that it can say who is in the family and who is not, what is Jewishness and what is not. And many Orthodox, especially in Israel, say that if you’ve converted to Judaism but you didn’t do it through them, under their auspices, then you’re not Jewish at all.
I would respond to the Orthodox: You have a right to be Jewish any way you want. But you don’t have a right to say who’s a Jacobson. No one can do that. This is a big family.
My problem with Reform Judaism is that it has made the question of personal status so complicated by its formula of patrilineal descent with educational provisions, as in the story of Chuck and Dave, when a simple dunk in the mikveh goes a long way.
Conservative Judaism knows that Jewish descent was originally through the father, patrilineal, and then changed around two thousand years ago to be transmitted through the mother, matrilineal, and that that was probably because it’s how it was done in Rome, and the Jews were living in the Roman empire.
But like the wise Conservative rabbi said to Jon and Yoko, isn’t it simpler to respect these two thousand years of tradition and have the child of a Jewish father just go through the simple and warm ceremony of the mikveh?
The Conservative way is a complex way; it is the way of preserving identity and yet being open,
being strong in our identity but reaching out.
Conservative Judaism is criticized for being in the middle. But I think this is its greatness, being authentic but being open.
What’s going on today, in my mind, was prefigured in a very famous book that most of us have never read, Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve never understood Ulysses, called by many the greatest novel of the 20th century. But thank G-d we have this really interesting congregation filled with amazing people, and one of these people is my friend and neighbor, Dr. Paul Schwaber, who has written a wonderful book about Ulysses called The Cast of Characters. And the point that I learned from Paul’s book for this discussion is that the important character Leopold Bloom is not Jewish but says he’s Jewish. His father was born Jewish and converted to Christianity, but may have returned, at least in his mind, to Judaism in his old age. Leopold Bloom was born of a Christian mother, baptized, not circumcised, never became a Bar Mitzvah, became a Catholic to marry his wife Molly, and owns a burial plot in a non-Jewish cemetery. He admits to another character that he isn’t Jewish. Still, his Jewish identity is very important to him. He has what Paul calls his “felt Jewish soul.” Jewishness symbolizes many things, including his social isolation and vulnerability. Jewishness is about values and continuity. So for Bloom, there is meaning and pride in his self-recognition that he is Jewish, even though it is not recognized by anyone else. Ulysses was written nearly a century ago, but Bloom prefigures the idea of a person who has his own narrative that does not fit the usual definitions of Jewishness.
So I’m reading Paul’s book and I ask myself: If Leopold Bloom were a real person and he came to our shul and said he was Jewish, but we knew he wasn’t, and he asked to have an aliyah, what would we do?
Let me go over the question. When you have an aliyah you say Asher bachar banu. It is a statement of Jewish identity: “G-d, thank you for choosing us to be a people that is different from the other nations… Thank you G-d for You have given the Jewish people the Torah and thereby have planted eternal life in our midst.”
This is a statement of faith and identity.
So I wouldn’t give Leopold Bloom an aliyah, but somehow, that makes me feel lousy.
So I wouldn’t just say no. I would take Leopold Bloom into my office and go over all this. I would explain what the blessings mean and see if he believes in these statements of faith and identity. Whenever non-Jewish people ask to have an aliyah, I show them what the blessings mean and they agree that they don’t want to say them anymore. I would ask Leopold Bloom: “You want to be Jewish? Here’s how you can become Jewish. It’s a process. It takes time and commitment. You can have it both ways in your head, you can be Jewish in your mind, and this is your right. But you can’t have it both ways with us, and it is our right as a group to define the group.
We’re entitled to our standards. We insist that you don’t just click your fingers and say a sentence about what you believe and you’re in, as you can in other religions. We take this whole identity thing much more seriously than that. If you can click your fingers to get in, you can click your fingers and get out.
We want you to be sincere about all this; we want you to know what it’s all about.
We have enough self-respect and respect for our ancestors and our descendants, not to give in to an individual’s possibly temporary personal narrative.
Do you want to be part of our family? Show us something. Earn it. Show that you want some knowledge. Show your commitment. Explain to us why this is important to you.
And if you do that, we’ll break our backs to make it happen. And you will be as Jewish as anyone else.”
I’m a third-generation Conservative Jewish person, and I am sure of my identity. I make no apologies for who we are as a synagogue or who I am as a religious person. It would be easy for me to speak about why I believe that Conservative Judaism has the best and truest interpretation of the Bible and history, and the best understanding of how we should live our Jewish lives today. We believe in the equality of all Jewish people.
But if I’m going to be a good member of the Jewish family, I shouldn’t emphasize what I think is wrong with Orthodoxy or Reform. We should fear Sectarianism. In Jewish history, we have known such movements. We have known Sadducees and Pharisees and Essenes and Karaites and Mitnagdim and Chasidim. In our time, and especially in Israel today, we are rapidly approaching a new angry Sectarianism. In case you don’t follow what’s going on in Israel, such sectarianism is very dangerous indeed.
There are lots of stupid people in the world who have a lot against Jewish people for no good reason. Do we need to help them by treating each other with disrespect and antagonism? Different movements do not have to divisive.
The existence of different ways to G-d is good.
I am afraid of the Jewish movements becoming like the Democratic and Republican parties. The parties used to be big tents and you could have southern Democrats and Northern Democrats that disagreed on just about everything. You could have Bobby Kennedy and Richard Russell in the same party. You could have Jacob Javits and Barry Goldwater in the same party.
But now they’re so rigid in their definitions that you’re run out of a party if you don’t toe the party line. Something has been lost; something called free thought and discussion. Something called mutual respect.
The Jewish community should be a big tent. It should be a big cast of characters. It should be a big family. Conservative Judaism believes in pluralism. We don’t ask or need every Jewish person to accept our ways. From a G-d’s eye view, all of these varieties of Jewishness are good and necessary.
So here’s what’s good about Orthodoxy: You do not need to worry about the future of the Jewish people because the Orthodox have created vibrant communities that maintain high standards of observance.
Here’s what’s good about Reform: With a beautiful heart, it reaches out to everyone.
So I may think that when it comes to the issues surrounding Jewish identity, Orthodoxy is not open at all, and Reform is too open, and that we’re just right. I may believe that there is a way to balance preservation of identity and to be open.
I would encourage all Jewish people to understand that Jewishness is not just a personal narrative like that of Leopold Bloom. Jewishness is not just your particular biography but also your relationship to others in our community. I would encourage all Jewish people and all would-be Jewish people to follow a course that would lead them to a Jewishness that others can recognize.
But my beliefs are my beliefs and I would never want to stop anyone from identifying as Jewish. And so in this Conservative synagogue, there is a wide range of beliefs and levels of observance. You can be here and know that we don’t ask you to toe a certain line. In return, you respect this authentic approach to our religion.
I go back to the scene of all the Jacobsons sitting with lumps in their throats, all together, as the next generation asserts its Jewishness. I’m not asking all of us Jacobsons to believe like each other or practice Judaism like each other or live like each other. But I am asking us to be a family, because that’s what being Jewish is.