Rabbi Micah Citrin
November 21, 2014
Who are you? If someone asks you that question how do you answer? Do you say what your name is? Do you say, I am the son or daughter of? Do you share what your profession is, that you are a husband or wife, brother or sister? Do you respond, I am an artist, a musician, an athlete, a scholar, survivor? Do you say, I am an American or I am a Jew? There are many ways we might answer this question when others ask us who we are. Perhaps the most important person who deserves an answer to this question is our self when we look in the mirror and ask, “Who am I?”
Who are you? One answer to this question does not exist. It depends on who is asking and in what context. It depends on our stage in life and how we feel at a given point in time. Yet all the answers we offer to this question amount to our identity. Our identities are a composite of all the aspects that make us who we are. We are multifaceted individuals and irreducible to one characteristic.
Of course, when we start talking about identity in the synagogue, lights start flashing. Identity, Jewish identity, is a buzz-word and people perk up when we start talking about Jewish identity. It recent decades, the collective Jewish community has been concerned about Jewish identity of future generations. Millions of dollars have been invested in maintaining and strengthening Jewish identity, and polling and testing Jews to measure depth of Jewish identity. Ultimately, questions of Jewish identity are rooted in the concern for Jewish continuity. Will we continue to persist as a people, especially here in North America?
When our American Jewish community enters into a discussion about Jewish identity there is an inherent problem. What do we mean by Jewish identity and how do we measure commitment? Sociologists of the American Jewish community debate the indicators that mark Jewish identity, but many agree that identity is comprised of beliefs, behaviors, and patterns of belonging for an individual. The patterns and even what constitutes Jewish behaviors and beliefs are constantly changing. Unfortunately, sometimes our community sees changes and unfamiliar patterns of belief, behavior, and belonging as a threat to continuity rather than an opportunity.
Our friend and colleague Rabbi Tali Zelkowiecz, a professor of Jewish Education at the Rhea Hirsh School of Education of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion calls it the humpty-dumpty attitude toward Jewish continuity. We all know the story of Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. According to this notion, Judaism was once whole and complete, but ever since modernity and assimilation, Judaism has been on a perpetual free fall. No one will be able to put Judaism back together again.
Rabbi Zelkowiecz challenges the Humpty Dumpty attitude. First, she challenges the idea that Judaism was ever perfect and pure leaving us today with an ongoing deteriorating fabric of Judaism and Jewish identity. Second, Rabbi Zelkoweicz suggests that changes, evolutions, and breaks with tradition are integral parts of our Judaism. Breaking with aspects of Jewish belief, behavior, and even belonging has always been our secret to Jewish growth and survival. Rather than viewing our heritage and Jewish identities as a china shop in which we fear everything might break, Rabbi Zelkoweicz encourages us to see Judaism as a playroom where we can experiment, touch, play, and stretch our relationship with Jewish traditions.
Let me share with you a couple of examples of how Jews pushed and stretched their Judaism in relationship to the needs of their time, breaking, in some ways, with what came before. In the mid 1700’s Judaism in Eastern Europe was in a state of depression. A multitude of pogroms had devastated villages throughout the region. The expression of Judaism focused only on scrupulous adherence to the law, and rabbis focused on debating Talmudic principles to the minutest detail. Judaism was moribund. Then a young Jewish rabbi, started to teach the notion that God could be found in every moment, that any Jew, no matter how ignorant of halachic dispute, could pray and have a relationship with God, and that song, joy, and prayer reside at the heart of Judaism.
This rabbi was the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidic Judaism. His teaching caught fire. His movement was a popular response to what was perceived as a tired, irrelevant tradition. Though reviled by many in its day, Chasidism, this radical movement for change, has today become synonymous with traditional Judaism. The dress of Chasidic Jews today, that seems so very traditional, is nothing more than the style that Polish gentry wore in the 17th century. Chasidism in its origins was a non-traditional movement that challenged the status quo.
Fast-forward 100 years to the French German boarder. Jews in this region, who had tasted learning and integration through newly won freedom, yearned for a Judaism that did not feel so anachronistic. These Jews wanted to look and feel modern without leaving their heritage, so they changed some of the aesthetic appeal in a worship revolution. They drew from what their Protestant Christian neighbors were doing and adapted it to the synagogue. They held worship services in which men and women sat together, the rabbi wore robes like the Protestant minister and offered a sermon in the vernacular, and a popular instrument of the time, organ, accompanied the liturgy. Of course, we are talking about the origins of the Reform movement, what was in its day a fresh attempt to keep Judaism powerfully relevant, but seen by many as a catastrophic break with tradition.
There are countless examples of how the Judaism we think of as traditional today began as a radical response of Jews to shape a new Jewish identity. And this struggle with identity goes back to the very start of our people. Torah stories wrestle with what it means to be a Jew, to find the balance between internal and external influences. Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Toledot speaks to this struggle. Rebecca feels twins struggling in her womb, and asks, “If this is so, why do I exist?.” When she inquires of God the meaning of her predicament, God explains that the two children growing in her womb represent two nations.
The midrash explains that the struggle in the womb happened when Rebecca would walk through town. Whenever Rebecca passed a house of study, Jacob would be drawn to it, but whenever she passed a house of pagan idols, Esau would be drawn to it. While our ancient texts spoke of two nations deriving from the matriarchs and patriarchs, I wonder if the story of the twins in Rebecca’s womb represents competing impulses within the Jewish tradition. One impulse is to shape identity from within an accepted body of Jewish culture, while the other impulse stems from an interest in external cultures and ideas that we integrate into our Jewish heritage. Out of the tension and interplay Judaism was born and continues to be reborn.
As Jews continue to shape Jewish community and culture wherever we live, our identities cannot be measured with static understandings of what it means to hold Jewish beliefs, engage in Jewish behaviors, and belong to Jewish communities. This evening at the oneg, I will screen the film “The Tribe.” This 17 minute treatment of Jewish identity through the study of the Barbie Doll asks us to think about Jewish identity in more nuanced ways. It invites us to think about what makes us Jewish. The film also asks us to consider what elements of our tradition are foundational, and which elements of our tradition continue to evolve and need to evolve in order to keep our expression relevant. After the film we will have an opportunity to respond and discuss.
Just as Torah is our master story, Jewish identity depends on how we choose to tell the story of ourselves. Our tradition is deep enough and wise enough to absorb the changes each generation of Jews integrate into the tradition. The only way our Jewish identity and continuity breaks is if we let it fossilize because we are too afraid to mold it or change it. We need to bring a sense of holy play to our Judaism and our identities. When we take our tradition seriously and push it, pull it, and knead it we will shape Jewish identities that bring us into a vibrant and innovative Jewish future.