35 years ago or so, my father was visiting me while I was spending a year studying in Jerusalem, and I decided to take him for the most authentic Jerusalem experience possible -- a Betar Yerushalayim soccer game. Jerusalem has two teams, HaPoel and Betar, but Betar is usually the better team. HaPoel fans tends to be wealthier and Ashkenazi; Betar fans are generally less well-off and Mizrachi -- in other words, of Middle Eastern background. My dad, who grew up in a Yiddish speaking home with two Eastern European-born parents, looked at the crowd and asked me why there were so many Arabs at the game. I said to him that they weren’t Arabs, they were Jews of Moroccan, Iraqi, Yemenite or Persian background. In fact, given the leanings of most Betar fans, an Arab would be uncomfortable if not actually unsafe at a Betar game. He still had a bit of trouble digesting this information, and finally he asked me “how did they get so dark?” I responded -- “wrong question, Dad. How did we get so light?” We tend to assume that our people look like the people we know, that they look like us. But the reality is often more complicated.
If you read the kinds of magazines and website and discussion groups which I as a rabbi read, you may have seen some discussion in the last few months of the question: “are Jews White?” While I understand the motivation for the question, I think the answer is actually very simple. Some Jews are White, and some Jews aren’t. Jews come in many different hues.
It was not so long ago that a rabbi whose spouse was a convert to Judaism would be advised by the Rabbinical Placement Commission that this could be a problem for some congregations. I was told that it was best to get the issue on the table as soon as possible in a roundabout way. That I could say “as a rabbi whose wife is a convert, I think it’s very important we work to make converts feel as comfortable as possible.” That way, it was out there, and if it was a congregation that wasn’t welcoming of converts, both sides would be aware that it was probably not going to be a good match.
Virtually every person who has converted to Judaism has had the experience of being told “you’re not really Jewish.” Sometimes it’s because someone converted in one movement of Judaism and an adherent of another movement doesn’t accept the validity of the conversion. But just as often, it’s because somehow many born Jews don’t really accept or understand the concept of conversion. Since for born Jews being Jewish may well be primarily about a common ancestry, a common history, and certain cultural markers, it stands to reason that you can’t really become Jewish, you’re either born into it or not. To such a person, someone can no more become Jewish than I could become Chinese.
Believe it or not, this issue was addressed almost 900 years ago by Maimonides. He was asked a question by a man who is known to history as “Obadiah the Proselyte” about whether or not he should say certain prayers. “You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our ancestors,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our ancestors,” and more of this kind.”
Maimonides responded: “Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.
Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father.
Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5).
Maimonides makes it very clear. You can be a Jew because you are biologically descended from our patriarchs and matriarchs and centuries of Jewish ancestors. Or you can be a Jew because, even though not born a Jew, you have attached yourself to the Jewish people and the Jewish way of life. Obadiah the Proselyte was concerned because he was not biologically descended from Abraham and Sarah, but Maimonides assured him that in becoming a Jew, our story became his story and our ancestors became his ancestors as well.
Is this really possible? Can a story from prior generations really become ours even if our ancestors were not a part of it?
When I was a kid in Hebrew school, every once in a while we would discuss the question: “are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?” But as I get older I realized that it’s actually a question which is impossible to answer. Identity is incredibly complex and most of us have many different affiliations which impact each other in interesting ways. This is true for us as we consider what it means to be a Jew, but it’s no less true as we consider what it means to be an American -- let alone an American Jew or a Jewish American.
For me, there is no place in the DC area more moving and more emotional than the Lincoln Memorial. There are so many historic associations with that place. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Inaugural concerts, the legendary Marian Anderson concert after she was denied use of DAR Constitution Hall due to her race, and even a scene from the movie “Hair” in which I was one of tens of thousands of extras.
But what’s most moving about the Lincoln Memorial is of course the man and the story it memorializes. Our nation torn asunder, both sides deeply flawed, but one side nevertheless fighting to preserve the Union and the ideals it stood for even if imperfectly implemented, the other side fighting to preserve, as Lincoln himself said, the right to wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces. And Lincoln himself, making compromises with which he himself was sometimes uncomfortable, holding our country together and paying for it with his life.
And this story moves me so deeply, that even though I have visited the Lincoln Memorial at least a dozen times over the course of my life, every time I do so I cry. It’s story is my story, the words carved in its walls are part of my sacred canon. And yet, here is the odd thing. Not a single one of my ancestors lived in this country when Lincoln was President; they didn’t get here until at least 30 years later. None of my ancestors wore the Union blue or the Confederate grey, but when I visit Gettysburg I am as haunted by the ghosts there as any other American is. And who among us chooses to forego celebrating Thanksgiving because we aren’t Mayflower descendants? Their story has become our story.
Why is this so? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, emeritus Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has written extensively about the influence of Jewish ideas on Western and particularly American civilization. Rabbi Sacks writes that the United States is a “covenantal polity.” Our Founding Fathers -- by which he means not only those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but also other documents such as the Mayflower Compact -- “not only conceived of civil society in covenantal terms, but actually wrote national covenants to which loyal members of the body politic subscribed. Covenant is central to the emergence of free societies in the West.”
Rabbi Sacks contrasts the origins of the United States with most of the countries of Europe, for example. Although this is starting to change at least on a legal level, in most European societies what makes you a part of that society is mostly ancestry. I had relatives, now deceased, who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to France at the end of World War II. They left France in the 1960s because they came to believe that no matter how French they tried to become, they would never be accepted as French. To be truly French is not just a matter of citizenship or language. If your ancestors haven’t lived in France for centuries, if your background is not Catholic but rather Jewish or for that matter Muslim, many French will never accept you as being really French.
We Americans have flirted with this idea, known as nativism, from time to time. Many Americans don’t know this, but there is a long history of anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States. The ironically-named Native American Party, more commonly known as the Know Nothings, operated in the 1850s and opposed all immigration but especially that by Catholics. The Know Nothings believed that a Catholic could not be a true American, due to his or her loyalty to the Pope.
But by the 1930s Catholics were well enough accepted that some of them could jump on the nativist bandwagon. The famous radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, regularly attacked immigrants -- although he was one himself, having been born in Canada -- and especially Jews. He said that Soviet communism was a Jewish plot and supported Hitler and Mussolini as bulwarks against it; under the slogan of “America First” he charged that Jews were trying to force the United States into World War II, a war that was not the business of the United States. In 1939, the Church hierarchy had had enough and forced him off the airwaves.
On Yom Kippur our ancestors practiced, and in the absence of the Temple we read about, the scapegoat ritual. Many ancient societies would choose a human sacrificial victim to bear the sins and evils of society. Our Torah had the humanity and the wisdom to substitute a goat instead. But the secular practice of scapegoating continues, especially when times are tough. Most often it has been the Jews who are society’s scapegoats, and the Nazi-KKK march in Charlottesville taught us that there are still those who seek to blame us for society’s ills. But more often in this day and age those who are scapegoated are immigrants. This despite the fact that for the last several years more undocumented immigrants have voluntarily left this country than have entered it. Despite the fact that immigrants have a lower crime rate and a lower incarceration rate than citizens. Despite the fact that the jobs immigrants occupy, whether as migrant farm workers or rural physicians, otherwise go unfilled because Americans either don’t want or aren’t qualified for them. When people are scared, it is often perception more than fact which motivates them.
But by and large Americans of all religions and all political views have rejected scapegoating. We know that society’s ills are not caused by any particular religious or ethnic group and they won’t be solved by blaming or getting rid of any particular religious or ethnic group. They are solved by working together, by listening to each other, and by having open hearts and open minds. And by realizing that “real Americans”, like “real Jews”, come in many hues and from many different backgrounds.
Opening one’s mind is not always so easy. I can testify to this from personal experience. As both Americans and as Jews, we have inherited legal traditions which at their best provide guidance for every moment of life. As a Conservative rabbi I’m committed to working within that tradition. But as I wrote to you this summer after my mother passed away, there are times when the legal tradition simply doesn’t work well because it makes certain assumptions that were probably valid in previous generations but no longer are, due to societal change.
The Jewish people has always been small in number -- even in the Torah, the same God who promises Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars also says he chose us as the bearers of divine revelation despite the fact that we are the least numerous nation on the face of the Earth. Our fears for our future as a people have always been there, and they were exacerbated by the loss of six million of our brothers and sisters in the Shoah. We still haven’t replaced their loss -- there are still today fewer Jews in the world than there were in 1939. The only way our people will continue its existence is for parents to create and raise Jewish families.
But what is a Jewish family? When I was younger the answer was obvious: a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man raising Jewish kids. But today Jewish families come in many different combinations. Jewish women married to Jewish men, for sure; but also two Jewish women or two Jewish men. Single parent families, blended families. But also: a Jew married to someone who isn’t Jewish, yet they have made the decision to have a Jewish home life and raise Jewish kids. These non-Jewish parents of Jewish kids are the unsung heroes of Jewish life. They shlep and they carpool and they work to pay tuition and synagogue dues. They learn Hebrew so they can help their kids with Hebrew school homework, they learn the rules of kashrut and they learn to make latkes and charoset and matzoh brei. And they do this, in many cases, despite the messages that our movement and our community sends to them that they aren’t really wanted; despite policies -- which thankfully we no longer follow -- preventing them from even having their names listed in synagogue directories or having synagogue mailings addressed to both members of the couple. Our message needs to be: if you’re a parent raising Jewish kids, you’re a part of our community and we appreciate and value your participation. If you want to join us in a formal way, we will make that process as smooth and painless as possible; but if you feel that you don’t wish to or can’t for whatever reason, that’s okay too.
If the notion of who is a Jew or who constitutes a Jewish family is in flux, so is the notion of who is really an American. I firmly believe that most Americans reject nativism and understand that people of any race, religion, ethnicity or orientation can be a part of our American collectivity. What makes you an American is fidelity to a certain set of ideals and a desire to make the American story your own even if it wasn’t that of your ancestors. But there is a legal element as well, and this is where things get complicated. Because sometimes people are brought to this country as children by parents or other relatives who lack legal residency. These kids grow up here, they go to school here, they are your neighbors, the nurse in your doctor’s office, your kids teacher. They may even, like 31 year-old Alfonso Guillen of Lufkin, Texas, have lost their lives going from house to house in a small boat trying to rescue people from Hurricane Harvey. Many of them speak only English and have no memory of their lives in any other country. Because of their parents’ actions, these young men and women now face being uprooted from their homes, their families, and their communities. This shouldn’t be considered a political issue; it’s a human and a moral issue and regardless of your stand on larger questions of immigration, a fix needs to be found for this problem.
During the Days of Awe, we ask God to have mercy on us. Let us act with mercy towards others. We ask God to understand us. Let us seek to understand others. We ask God to listen to us. Let us listen to others. Other Jews may or may not look like us, speak like us, behave like us -- but together we are building the Jewish future. Other Americans may or may not look like us, speak like us, or behave like us -- but together, we are building the American future.
May our people and our country be a blessing in the coming year. Amen.