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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
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(574) 234-8584

Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.


Rosh HaShanah 5779, Day 2 - Judaism Adores Boundaries: A Response to Michael Chabon

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Tuesday AM, September 11, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland

In the beginning all was tohu vaVohu, chaos. And then in a burst of creative energy, the world came into being. The Divine Force began to separate and fashion, distinguish and form. Within 6 days everything in the universe, stars , planets, oceans, continents, mountains, valleys, creatures of every size and variety came into existence. However, God’s overwhelming creative energy threatened to devastate the universal canvas; what began as wrenching beauty out of chaos, now endangered the world by returning it to bedlam and disorder. Until God said, Dai! Enough! And the world was bound in orderliness. And this, our sages tell us is why one of God’s name is Shadai, the God who said Dai! Enuf!

On this Rosh HaShanah, as we celebrate the creation of the world, we acknowledge God as Sovereign of the Universe, who creates through definition and limitation, who distinguishes and creates boundaries.

The Torah teaches that the Creation of the world was a result of Havdalah, separation and division. Water from water, water from land, earth from sky, day from night and all the flora and fauna unique from each other. The Torah also informs us that holiness itself requires boundaries. What we eat, how we tend the earth, with whom we are intimate – the holiness of these acts depend on boundaries. Liminality, or rites of passage, also recognize temporal boundaries. From conception to birth, from child to adult, from life to death these thresholds are occasions for holy celebrations. Geographic boundaries detail holiness – the Land of Israel promised to our Patriarchs is called the Holy Land, outside of it, rules regarding certain treatment of land are relaxed. And of course time itself is distinguished between holy and unhallowed time – 18 minutes before the sunset on Friday afternoon until stars are seen clearly in the sky on Saturday night differentiate Shabbat from the days of the week.

From creation onward our tradition insisted that holiness requires boundaries and limitations. We contemporary Jews appreciate through a growing self awareness in recent decades, that what our tradition set as place holders for sanctity must occasionally be modified. Once a sacred community of worshippers was defined as 10 men, we now define as 10 adults, male or female. Modifications are made to the borders; still we recognize that holiness requires definition.

But recently in a remarkable address Michael Chabon the famous author whose Jewishness comes through in almost everyone of his books, made the case that Judaism’s problem, or perhaps more accurately his problem with Judaism, is this very appeal to boundaries.

What made the critique remarkable was its context - the commencement ceremonies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College rabbinical and graduate schools. To graduates whose mission would be to teach and inspire Jews to live more intense Jewish lives in an overwhelmingly secular world, Chabon’s message was, basically, Judaism as a distinctive culture brings division and dissension, and withholds potential harmony from the universe.

“I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles”. So far so good. Most of us realize that as Americans, and as Jews as well, that our lives are enriched by integration.

He continues, “Monocultural places—one language, one religion, one haplotype—make me profoundly uncomfortable whether they’re found inside or beyond the ghetto walls.” Chabon says this to criticize what he has experienced as Judaism – a static, culturally distilled blandness. But a knowledgeable Jew knows one thing very well: Jews are the least monocultural civilization that exists. All one need do is spend five minutes in Israel with its over 100 languages and multiple Jewish ethnicities to realize this. The star of a new Israeli television show on Arab cuisine Salim Dau, irritated by all the attention Israeli cuisine is getting in the foodie world, declared “There is no Israeli cuisine!” And he’s right – Israeli cuisine is an amalgam of numerous ethnic fare that different Jewish cultures borrowed from their non-Jewish neighbors.

But Chabon was only getting started. Even within marriage, boundaries carry a negative valence: “An endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two; … it draws a circle around the married couple, inscribes them—and any eventual children who come along—within a figurative wall of tradition, custom, shared history, and a common inheritance of chromosomes and culture.” And creating such a wall is bad because? Jewish culture is corrupt? Perverse? Antiquated?

No, Chabon seems to believe that all borders are negative: “We tend to draw a distinction between walls that protect and walls that imprison, but that is only the same dark logic again, justifying itself, as always, in the name of security. Security is an invention of humanity’s jailers.” And thus endogamous marriage leads inexorably for Michael Chabon to Hevron, the second holiest city in Jewish historical geography but today hosts a small Jewish enclave in a large Palestinian population: “I have never seen a sorrier and more riotous group of convicts than the Jews of present-day Hebron.”

Now I do not disagree with his negative assessment of the kind of Jewish nationalist triumphalism on display in such settlements in Occupied areas of the west bank. But for Chabon, any act of Jewish distinctiveness or pride in Jewish culture and achievement leads to hatefulness and xenophobia. In his youth the Passover story inspired him with its language of liberation and freedom, but today he realizes it is all false – the story of the Exodus is baloney but Jewish oppression of Arabs in Hebron and East Jerusalem is real.

Let me pause for a moment to ask, would Chabon recite such a sermon to African Americans? Are they wrong to promote their cultural and ethnic pride even though there are African countries that commit the most heinous human rights abuses and there are African American communities struggling with numerous sociological challenges? Would he share his message with Arab and Muslim Americans, pointing out that their pursuit to maintain religious and ethnic values will only lead to divisiveness and hatred of the other? Or is it Chabon’s discomfort with his own heritage, of which he knows very little?

No matter, many Jews like Chabon have felt that Judaism confined them, and rather than see in it, its nobility and grandeur, saw only perversion and putrescence. No, what does interest me in his address is his conception that boundaries bring isolation and borders make integration impossible. Because our tradition teaches that harmony and holiness require clear boundaries and distinctions.

There is a passage in the Talmud (Bava Batra 25b) which suggests that mustard farmers and bee farmers keep their products at a significant distance because according to best farming practices in ancient Israel mustard harms honey production and bees hurt mustard plants. Elli Fischer in assessing Chabon’s address (Jewish Review of Books) notes that while Honey mustard is a great flavor, if you turn the bees loose on the mustard plant you ruin both, because they have to develop independently with their own integrity.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain and author of the book the Dignity of Difference, expressed this in a metaphor to Krista Tippett in her On Being radio show: “One way is just to think, for instance, of biodiversity. The extraordinary thing we now know, thanks to Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human and other genomes, is that all life, everything — all the three million species of life and plant life — all have the same source. We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.”

And attempts to create mixtures and hybrids in which the integrity of each component is lost are not successful. I love colors. The more bright, the more true, the better. I wear a pocket square and love ties only in order to wear more color on my person. When I was a child, the best part of the new school year was getting the brand new box of 64 Crayola crayons and unveiling the latest hues and tints. I determined that since each color was so beautiful how much the more so would it be if I melted them all together! I am sure you can imagine the result: not a startling brilliant new shade but a grayish brown mess. Colors like cultures mix best when each retains its own virtue.

This is true for human relations as well. The great sage Hillel’s famous teaching “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I?” highlights the need for both self-regard and self-transcendence.

The most significant mitzvah in the Torah is V’ahavta L’rayecha kamocha translated as Love your fellow as yourself. Taught the Saba of Slobodka, “Just as one should love himself or herself intuitively so one should love a fellow person.” To fulfill that mission one must love oneself.

The Saba of Slobodka’s point is that one is more likely to be capable of self transcendence, that is to go beyond one’s narrow self interests , if one can appreciate one’s own sense of self worth. It is a great human tragedy to view oneself with self loathing. For the religious person, ‘self worth’ does not come from anything the individual has achieved or from any talents that the individual possesses but rather from simply being created in the image of God. Benefitting from God’s grace, I have a place and role in God’s world.

Without the ability to recognize one’s value as a human being created in the image of God, it makes it very difficult to appreciate the needs, the wounds, the joys of other human beings. Graham Greene wrote, “one can’t love humanity, one can only love people.”

Jonathan Sacks points out that at its core this is a paradox. He notes how people are attracted to and respectful of the teachings of the Dalai Lama who presents himself in his distinctiveness as a teacher of Buddhism. The more one can delve into one’s particularity, that is where more people can appreciate the universality of the message.

This holds true for us as Jews as well. The more we are able to appreciate and express our people’s uniqueness the more others will value that distinctiveness and connect it to their own cultural values.

In a prayer which originated in our Rosh HaShanah liturgy and eventually concluded every daily worship service, we express this process of particularity leading to universality. We all know the Aleynu prayer. We recite it in the Musaf service for Rosh HaShanah. The Aleynu divides into two complementary paragraphs. The first paragraph acknowledges our Jewish uniqueness and that this distinctiveness was purposeful, whereas the second paragraph envisions a world of harmony and commonality.

“It is incumbent upon us to praise the Master of all…for God did not make us like the other nations of the world, nor fashion us like the other families of the earth; God did not assign us a portion like theirs, nor a destiny like the masses of humanity…This is our God there is no other.”

We recognize that our development as a people was ordained and designed by God. We have a specific history that distinguishes us from all other peoples, religions and nations. Some read into this an exceptionalism which arrogates to the Jew a superiority over others. But that is not how thoughtful Jewish thinkers have understood this.

Arthur Hertzberg, a Conservative rabbi and scholar of Jewish history insisted, “I regard any question about Judaism as the "one true religion" as irrelevant in the form in which it is put. Classical Judaism believes that many faiths of (humankind) all play a role in the divine scheme. What Judaism does contend is that it's divinely appointed role is uniquely its own and that appointment is both its task and its destiny.”

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz the preeminent theologian of the Reform movement when asked what Jewish chosenness means, replied: “What Judaism can uniquely give the world is Jews, (human beings), and equally important, communities that live by their social, messianic hopes and try to effectuate them into day to day reality. That does not mean all Jews are noble or even that individual Jews are faithful all the time …. It does not mean the Jewish commitment will quickly reveal answers to the problems of nuclear disarmament or feeding the world's hungry. What it does mean is that when this people is faithful to its God and its tradition, it produces an astonishingly high proportion of (people) and communities whose sense of inter-human responsibility is as great as anything (hu)mankind has ever known.”

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, a leading Orthodox rabbi in the US and for most of his life in Israel, pointed out that while halakha, Jewish law, was the specific discipline for the Jewish person it did have universal implications. “the ideals and values embedded within the halakha addressed themselves to (hu)mankind as a whole. The degree and the obligatory means of attaining these ideals… are Israel's and Israel's alone. However the central underlying purposes --of integrating the secular and the holy, of suffusing all human activity with a pervasive sense of religious meaning and direction – these belong to everyone…”

These scholars, coming from very different theological perspectives, understood that Judaism’s distinctive destiny and qualities were intended to lead the Jew to an appreciation of God’s world, an awareness of the Jew’s part in that world and ultimately that Judaism has a role to play to bring the universe together in harmony. We Jews do that by, as Rav Lichtenstein says, integrating the secular and the holy: how we eat, how we do business, how we use our financial resources, how we dress, how we use our time, how we choose what to read and learn. For Dr. Borowitz the essence of our distinctiveness is our commitment to hope for a better a future, and to work toward making that hope real even in the most dire circumstances. It is hope for a universal betterment of the world, for every people, for each human being.

That is why the second paragraph follows the first.

“And we therefore hope in You Lord our God soon to see Your splendor: that you will sweep away idolatry so that false gods will be utterly destroyed; and that you will perfect the world under your Sovereignty so that all humanity will invoke Your name and all the earth’s wicked will return to You repentant. Then all who live will know to You all must pledge loyalty, give honor to your Glory and accept Your dominion.”

Aleynu seeks to perfect the world through the coming together of all nations and peoples, without denying human differences in identities. It sounds a universal call for submission to God alone. In this sense Aleynu hearkens back to the opening lines affirming God as Creator of the universe, who created each human being b’tzelem Elokim, “In the divine image”, and a world in which boundaries and limitations and Havdalah lead to harmony and paradise not division and conflict.

V’ahavta L’reyacha Kamocha – to love others, requires one to see one’s own self worth.

Im ayn ani li mi, ucsheatzmi latzmi mah ani, If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if only concerned with my needs, what am I?

Aleynu L’Shabeach Ladon Hakol – We as a community need to also see our distinctiveness as Jews not to lord over others, or condescend to others, but as preserving our place in the panorama of humanity that together will work to perfect the world and bring about the Divine goal of universal harmony.

That is what I believe the message of Torah to be: If you can appreciate your own worth, you can love another. If you can love one person, you can love others. If you can appreciate the value of your Jewish culture and civilization, you can appreciate others that are different from yours.

James Joyce wrote "For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal" Through our Jewish particularism we can contain the universal.

Let us conclude with these words of Elie Wiesel as he wrote about what it meant to him to be a Jew: I still believe that to be Jewish today means what it meant yesterday and a thousand years ago. It means for the Jew in me to seek fulfillment both as a Jew and as a human being. For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together. To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God.

Naturally, I claim total kinship with my people and its destiny. Judaism integrates particularist aspirations with universal values, fervor with rigor, legend with law... The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

On this Rosh HaShanah, this day on which we commemorate the birth of humanity, let us redouble our efforts to be better Jews in order that we make the world more human.