To Be a Jew, Rabbi Cutler (Beth Tzedec)

To Be A Jew – Rosh Hashanah II, 5776
September 16 2015

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I joined the Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda choir when I was seven years old and stayed until a few months after my Bar Mitzvah. Every week, following the conclusion of the haftarah, we came into the Sanctuary, bedecked in our blue choir robes—robes that were made of the same material as the shul’s Kiddush tablecloths. For children with limited attention spans, it was not a great time to come into the Sanctuary. We would sing for about five minutes as the Torah made its way around the shul, led in song by H̱azzan Louis Dantoz”l. Then we would sit, supposedly quietly, as the rabbi—usually Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz”l—would preach. Not yet aware of my career aspirations, to my detriment, I did not listen. Mostly, I would daydream or do mental math—I’d do anything to avoid actually listening to the sermon. Sometimes, in my anguish, I would even would flip through the black Silverman Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book.

Almost all of you will remember this siddur. It’s what we used here at Beth Tzedec until we inaugurated the Sim Shalom in Spring 2013. As fellow siddurbrowsers, you may remember pages 353 and 354, titled “America—Founded on Biblical Precepts”. The Silverman siddur first went to print in 1946, a time when Judaism began to find its voice in America. These two pages alternatively provided complimentary texts from American political thought and the Bible.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

From the Introduction to the American Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.

The siddur then provides Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”

From George Washington: “The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens”.

Followed by Proverbs: “Righteousness maketh a nation great, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

These two pages were my first introduction to political thought. They also opened up my mind to questions that continue to challenge and inspire. What does it mean to be a person, to be part of a community? What am I owed and what do I owe others? What does it mean to be a Jew living in the Western world?

Though understandable at the time, the view that American political precepts were founded in biblical text is facile at best. Certainly, there are thematic overlaps, especially with the more universalistically-oriented prophets, but American, and indeed all Western thought, is more firmly grounded in Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau than Moses, David and Isaiah. This by the way is a very good thing.

The classical western political philosophical myth that came out of the Enlightenment presents a collection of free, autonomous individuals who trade in a portion of that autonomy, in what is called the social contract, for a degree of collective security. That individual has rights, some of which are inalienable—the right to life, liberty and property being foremost among them.

We Jews have our own founding story. We speak not of the social contract, but of Sinai. Not of individuals coming together to form a functional society, but of God commanding and us accepting. We establish our society not solely as individuals, but as a community, for it was in the presence of the community standing together that the Torah was given.

I spoke yesterday about what it means to be a person. Today, I want to narrow in on what it means to be a Jew. It should go without saying that in the Venn Diagram of Jews and Human Beings, the former is completely subsumed within the latter. Everything I said yesterday applies to Jews as much as it does to non-Jews.

For Jews, though, the path that we are meant to walk in the world is narrower than that of our non-Jewish neighbours. Living in covenant with God necessarily implies a way of life, a set of obligations that are incumbent upon us and not others. To be clear, this is not to indicate any degree of better-than, but rather other-than. Although I do believe that the path, though at times studded with difficulties, is one of beauty and of meaning.

Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary Arnie Eisen relates that when he and sociologist Steven M. Cohen were doing research for their book The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America, they heard, unsolicited, again and again, “No one can tell me what to do as a Jew” and “I elect to observe Judaism as I elect to observe it.”1 The modern person, seeing him or herself as entirely sovereign, free to pursue his or her own path, necessarily understands that indeed individual Jews do have a right to behave as they see fit. Not only do they have that right, for many, they see their decisions as being equally valid to all other decisions. There is no hierarchy of behaviour. “As long as it makes me happy,” many say.

Yet, the Jewish attitude towards life is not one founded upon rights, but rather upon obligation. It is not about what one is entitled to expect from others, but rather what one is expected to do for the other. It is an idea that preceded John F. Kennedy’s ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ by more than 2,000 years. Judaism states: Ask not what you are entitled to, but what are your obligations to others. Judaism says quite clearly, it’s not all about you.

Unlike a worldview of absolute relativism in which all decisions are equally valid, from a Jewish standpoint what you do with your life, what you do with your Jewish obligations, does matter. Indeed it matters very much. Living in struggle with obligation, pushing one’s self down the path of obligation is understood to be not desirous path, but the desirous path.

Jewish obligation is premised on the idea of mitzvah, translated not as ‘good deed’, but as ‘sacred obligation’. When a girl becomes Bat Mitzvah she doesn’t become emancipated as does a Canadian turning eighteen, no longer living under the dominion of her parents, finally gaining the right to do as she pleases. Rather to become Bat Mitzvah, upon reaching Jewish adulthood, she becomes further restricted. She becomes literally one who is of the obligations, a Bat Mitzvah.

When parents makes the blessing Baruch Sheptarani Me’onsho Shel Zeh, Blessed is the One who has released me from the punishment of this one, after their son is called to the Torah for the first time, they’re not thanking God that their child is now free to exercise all the rights of adulthood, that he is welcome to do as he pleases so long as it doesn’t trample on the rights of others. Rather, these parents are recognizing that their son, having reached the age of mitzvot, is now responsible to do something with his adulthood, to fulfill mitzvot. He is required to see the world not as a place that is responsible to maintain his basic rights, but rather to see himself as obligated in creating a world where, to new just a few, health care is provided to the sick, where God is worshipped, and where Jewish education is available to Jewish students.

Education is a particularly useful example to demonstrate the important difference between a right and an obligation. The most widely signed piece of international legislation is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, in Article 28, speaks of the right of the child to education. This right, like many rights, is unintelligible as its audience is unclear. Telling a five year old that she has a right to an education is useless. It addresses a need, without giving the means to an end.

Judaism actually contains no such right. In our tradition, it is not written that children have a right to an education. Yet, it would not be an exaggeration to argue that for most of Jewish history, Jewish children—at least Jewish male children—were the most highly educated children in the world. Not only did education become highly prized, its provision was seen as a sacred obligation. V’shinantam l’vanekha— and you shall teach your children – we say it twice daily in the Shma.

The primary holder of the sacred responsibility of education lies with a child’s parents, but it does not end there. Already in the Geonic era, beginning in 539 CE and lasting for 450 years, teachers were considered community functionaries—appointed by the community and paid by the community. Some communities imposed taxes on wine and meat, as well as compulsory fees associated with circumcisions, weddings and funerals in order to fund education. Recently engaged? Mazal Tov! Now put some money into the community education fund or the rabbi won’t officiate. When the tuition fees from the pupils’ parents were insufficient for a teacher’s needs, the community had to supplement his income.2

Jacob has his first day ever of school tomorrow, although I’ve already been paying tuition for a few months. There is a growing communal conversation on the sustainability and affordability of Jewish education. TanenbaumCHAT is down 500 students. In most places that would be as if an entire mid-sized school disappeared. Tuition fees go up at rates that far, far exceed income growth. Full tuition in elementary day schools is currently about $15,000, at CHAT $26,500.

We know on the one hand that a Jewish day school education is no panacea for the challenge of developing a strong, secure, life-affirming and meaningful Jewish identity in the twenty-first century. But on the other hand we know that is it the most important ingredient in the matrix of Jewish experiences that will ensure a vibrant Jewish future.

I am not dismissing supplementary schools. We run one here and under the excellent guidance of our Director of Education and Family Programming Daniel Silverman, and it has made tremendous strides in recent years with respect to curriculum and faculty. Our school has responded to the universal challenge of decreasing available hours, by changing not what we teach, but how we teach it, utilizing creative experiential and activities-based learning. The Beth Tzedec supplementary school is a proud participant in the WOW Initiative, a Federation program, funded by long-standing Beth Tzedec families, aimed at transforming Jewish supplementary education across the GTA. Supplementary schools have an important role to play in providing Toronto’s Jewish children—including many for whom day school is simply not an option—with a core Jewish education.

I want to focus today, though, for another minute or two, on Jewish day schools. As my friend Daniel Held writes “Jewish day schools are the gold standard in Jewish education. No other form of Jewish education provides the robust training in Jewish values, imparts the level of knowledge, or instills the same level of Jewish commitment. Nearly a quarter century of studies have … demonstrated the profound impact of a day school education on students’ Jewish knowledge and identity.”3

We also know that day school graduates are “… more than twice as likely to marry Jewish partners, to join synagogues, to observe Jewish rituals, Shabbat and holidays, and to become involved members of their Jewish community upon reaching adulthood.”4 You should be proud to know that in the Jewish professional world, Torontonians in specific, and Canadians in general, punch well above our weight class. We are over-represented in prominent positions and as recipients of prestigious fellowships. We are the products of our communities and, by and large, a product of Jewish day school educations.

While there are many ideas about how to make day school more affordable and sustainable, there are clearly no easy answers. With foresight UJA Federation Toronto allocates a higher percentage of their annual allocation to education than any other Federation. About 2,200 students, roughly 35 percent of those enrolled in day school, currently receive tuition subsidies. But a more expansive effort is needed.

Though self-conscious that my request is somewhat self-serving, I nevertheless urge you today to pay attention to the conversation and, as your ancestors did before you, to see yourself as obligated in providing a Jewish education for Jewish children, whether you have school-aged children or not and whether you have been sending cheques to the day school of your choice for years or not.

Ultimately, from a Jewish perspective, it is not a question of whether a Jewish boy or girl has a right to a Jewish education. Rather, it is a question of how each Jew as an individual and this community as a collective whole will fulfill the obligation of providing an education. The onus, both individually and collectively, jointly and severally, is on all of us.

To give a social justice example, the political theorist Daniel Elazar writes that for Jews, “the obligation is that they must do justice to the widow and the orphan and the stranger in order to be holy.5 So it is not that the widows, orphans and strangers have rights in an abstract sense, but that they can call upon their fellow Israelites to live up to their obligations.”6

Of course no one Jew can solve all the world’s problems. No one can care for all the orphans, all the widows. No one Jew can teach all the children. But we are reminded always of Rabbi Tarfon’s maxim: It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.7

All of what I am saying is not meant to be dismissive of rights or that the Torah doesn’t deal with rights as well, although it’s not clear if these rights—the right for the poor to glean for example—is directed to the human community at large or the Jewish community in particular. Indeed, our very humanity, about which I spoke yesterday, necessarily leads to the idea of rights.

We can learn from the eminent legal scholar Bob Cover, “I believe that every child has a right to decent education and shelter, food and medical care; of course, I believe that refugees from political oppression have a right to a haven in a free land; of course, I believe that every person has a right to work in dignity and for a decent wage. I do believe and affirm the social contract that grounds those rights. But more to the point, I also believe that I am commanded—that we are obligated—to realize those rights.”8

Near-universal Jewish education succeeded, at least in part, because our faith identified who was required to provide it and not simply that children have a right to it. The difference may perhaps seem small, but in it is contained a world of distinction. What is perhaps most compelling to me regarding the concept of mitzvah is that it shifts the centre of the universe away from me. Without negating the self, mitzvah begins to indicate that the world is not all about me. Life is not about my rights and entitlements, it is about how I can lead another to something greater. The limitation of the language of rights is that it seeks only to describe the minimal standards of the world as it is. Sacred obligation, mitzvah, pulls us to a world as it should be.

As Rabbi Hillel teaches, אם אין אני לי, מי לי; וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני; ואם לא עכשיו, אימתיי, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?9 The individual is important and there is a divine imperative to care for one’s self over others. But we must not stop there. As Jews we have an obligation to fellow Jews, to God, to Torah, and to our communities. The time to act on that obligation is now.

What is the source of that obligation? Whether you believe a mitzvah is from God, or from our best guess at what God wants, or from communal wisdom as passed down through the generations, may seriously affect how you choose to observe that commandment and how, and in what ways, that mitzvah may evolve. But for my purposes today, I care less about what one understands the source of the mitzvah to be, or whether through its performance you believe that you become holier, or purer, fulfill a divine mission or help establish a national identity, what I care about is whether one—whether you—take mitzvahseriously.

The idea of the community of obligation, is not some theoretical construct. It is one that has implications that affect us as Jews at Beth Tzedec. Jewish women are classically understood to be exempted from time-caused mitzvot, including the mitzvah of thrice daily prayer. In Jewish law, understandably, the general principle is that only one with the same or higher level of obligation can lead others in prayer (and in so doing in some way actually pray in their stead). That’s why a child, even a very precocious child, does not lead Musaf. His obligation to pray, as someone not yet Bar Mitzvah, is of a lesser degree than an adult. In perhaps the most important teshuvah, rabbinic responsum, regarding women being counted toward the minyan and leading men in prayer, my teacher Rabbi Joel Roth argued that it is indeed permissible for women to be counted and to lead, provided the woman accepts upon herself the obligation of prayer to the same degree that Jewish men are already obligated. To lead men in prayer, Rabbi Roth argued, a woman has to voluntarily state that she is self-obligating. Equality of obligation is what creates membership in the minyan.

Similarly, it is obligation, in a significant although not technical way, that creates membership in the Jewish people. Obligation is our defining feature. To the extent that Jews, especially younger Jews, will say that they are free to choose how they want to express their Judaism, they are distancing themselves from the core idea of mitzvah, the heart of Judaism, which is to see one’s self as required to follow certain behavioural patterns, to be bound by sacred obligations.

While obligation lies at the heart of Judaism, Islam has a different concept at its core. The word Islam comes from the same triconsonantal root as the Hebrew word Shalom. It means wholeness, peace, or submission and obedience. Submission to God is central to Islam. Biblical Hebrew actually has no word for submission, no word for ‘to obey’. Perhaps that’s why God is always complaining about our ancestors’ poor behaviour. We literally have no word for obeying God. Rather, we have the concept of shamoa, or listening and hearing, of hearkening to God. For Jews, our obligations are not based on submission to outside authority. But neither are we autonomous actors. For Jews to be in covenant with God, means to mediate all mitzvot through the lens of human experience and communal understanding.

In Judaism, obligation precedes the rights of the other. Action is primary. Doing is above receiving. Rights are not associated with normative goals, but with the preservation of individual life and liberty. Obligation teaches us that the world has to lead in a certain direction and that is our responsibility to bring it there. Free will gives us liberty and mitzvot tell us to choose to live a life of meaning.

By way of conclusion, I want to share a snippet of an insightful book. In Habits of the Heart, a sociologist of religion and his colleagues interview a woman named Sheila about her religious beliefs. “I believe in God,” she said. “I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”10

This to me is terrifying. From a Jewish perspective it misses the whole point. It is not merely about believing in God, but living a life in covenant with God. Such a life creates a partnership with the Eternal. Our end of the bargain is called mitzvah, which brings us to care for others, to nurture Jewish life for others, to live in community, to strive to serve. It is not that being spiritual is bad; rather it is just not sufficient.

The fastest growing religious population in North America are those that identify their religious affiliation as none. In Canada, three quarters of people claim to be spiritual, but only one half declare themselves to be religious.11 Seeking God is good. Fostering an inner spiritual life is good especially since Jews, as it turns out, of all ethnic groups, are actually the worst at this, even as our tradition possesses many avenues to a life of the spirit. But those who fit into the category of spiritual but not religious, are missing the mark. There is a self-centredness to their approach. Like a rights-centred world view, life at its core becomes all about me, focused on personal happiness and self-improvement.

The Jesuit priest James Martin writes, “being spiritual and being religious are both part of being in relationship with God. Neither can be fully realized without the other … Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.”12 This life orientation is vacuous. It misses the point. I don’t mean to say that members of this group or any other cannot be moral beings. They can, and of course many are. But taking seriously the idea of being part of a covenanted community requires the adherent to live a life of mitzvah, to engage daily in behaviours that elevate others, and to bring sanctification to the Divine name.

We spend a lot of time during the High Holidays thinking about what we did wrong during the past year and what we can do to not repeat our failures in the year to come. On this Rosh Hashanah as we think about the year ahead, may we have the wisdom to consider deeply the idea of mitzvah, to consider deeply our sacred obligations. May we be blessed with a year in which mitzvah plays a central role in our lives and through us in the lives of others.

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