Sermon: Being part of a People

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 15 December 2012

I had never heard of Aaron Smadja, Itsik Emsalem or Mira Sharf before four weeks ago.
I doubt any of us had.
They were not famous, not rich, not powerful.
I knew, I still know, nothing of their life stories, of their religious lives, of their politics.
But on Friday 16th of November, I found myself reading their names before Kaddish, as Maurice would also do the next day in the Shabbat morning service.
Residents of a small city in the South of Israel, Kiriat Malachi, the three had been killed the day before in a rocket attack from Gaza.

And that Shabbat, our kaddish, along with that in many other synagogues around the world, honoured their memory along with the memories of our own loved ones.

I have to confess, I didn’t give this addition a great deal of thought.
I remember thinking about how to introduce them, wanting to frame it right.
I actually have a note of what I said.  ‘We remember all those caught up in the violence in the Middle East”, I said, “and especially the three Israelis who were killed in rocket fire in the South of Israel”. And then I read their names.

But I can’t recall spending much time, any time, dwelling on whether to include them at all.
It was, as I believe it would now be called, a no-brainer.
But early the following week I received an email.  Why did I mention those three?  Why did I not recall by name those innocent Palestinians who had been killed in the violence?  Why single out three Israelis as if they were more important, more human than others?
In other words – rabbi, justify that “and especially”.
Why, “especially”?
So, it turned out, not a no-brainer after all.  Rather, a real question that needs reflection and thought before, as alas it will, it comes up again.

So, let me start by explaining what this was not.
It was not in anyway an attempt to downplay the suffering of innocent Gazans caught up in a terrible conflict.

Acknowledging one loss does not in itself make a statement about the rights or wrongs of a conflict or the behaviours of the parties involved.  Mourning is not necessarily a political statement.

Acknowledging the pain of one person or one group does not automatically imply rejecting or ignoring the pain of another.

And, acknowledging that we are somehow connected more to one party than to another is not to deny that the other also suffers.

But, like it or not, and sometimes it is certainly very challenging, we, as Jews, are connected to one party more than to the other.  That “especially” is real – not as a political statement, but as a religious concept – one that is deep within the bones of our practice and our identity.
As Jews we are essentially bound to one another and thereby also to the Jews of the Land of Israel.  To try to live Judaism without particularism of this sort, I would suggest, is to lose something in the essence of Judaism.

This morning, as every Shabbat morning we read from our people’s story.
If we were interested in Judaism only as a faith, we would start and stop with law and ethic.
There would be no need to hear about Joseph, as we did this morning, or about any of our ancestors.  They are certainly not exemplars of religious or ethical living – unlike the New Testament, that is not the function of our readings.  When we read Genesis, the oldest of our formative texts, when we read and study and grapple with the patriarchal narratives, what we do is to connect ourselves to every other Jew who is engaged with Torah, everyone else who reads this family history.

And this Shabbat, perhaps more than any other in the Jewish calendar, we especially acknowledge this Jewish historical and national particularism.  It is deep within our celebration of Chanukah.  Anyone who lights a Chanukiah is saying that we as Jews have a distinctive history and identity – an identity as a people, as a sovereign nation.

What does Jewish peoplehood mean?  In the formative texts of our tradition it has two aspects – Kol Yisrael Aravim zeh ba’zeh – all Jews are surety for each other: all Jews are bound to one another, whether we like it or not – responsible for each other.
And not merely a bond of responsibility – the rabbis had an ideal of Ahavat Yisrael – the love of fellow Jews – not always the easiest thing to feel, but a recurrent idea in our literature.  For lack of it, we are told, the Temple was destroyed.  This does not preclude us from loving the other – but we are bound to one another – like it or not.

Now, particularism of this sort is remarkably unfashionable these days – peoplehood is no longer a vogue concept, perhaps driven by discomfort about Israel – discomfort about some of the others who make up the people.  The American Rabbi and thinker Daniel Gordis has written extensively about a universalism that has affected American Jewry – Young Jews embarrassed to acknowledge that being Jewish is about being distinct, embarrassed to be one of a people, embarrassed by the thought that Jews might have a special place in their hearts for other Jews.

At his most strident Gordis issues this challenge:
“Do we not care about our own children more than we care about other people’s children? And shouldn’t we? Are our own parents not our responsibility in a way that other people’s parents are not?…
The French care about the French more than they do about others. So do the Italians. So do the Spanish.
It’s only this new, reimagined Jew who is constantly seeking to transcend origins which actually make us who we are and enable us to leave our distinct fingerprints on the world.”

There is a great deal in Gordis’ writings to argue about.  But on one level he is right – to try, as some have, to rewrite Judaism as a universalist ideal, is impossible.  Particularism is there as an essential part of being Jewish – and, is no cause for shame.

Now, none of this is to say that we should be uncritical, that a devotion to the Jewish people demands that we ignore the failings of the Jewish people.  If anything, we might say that peoplehood demands that level of engagement, demands that we challenge the failings of the Jewish state, challenge the prejudices of parts of the Jewish world.

Nor is this to say that no Jew can place themselves outside of legitimate peoplehood through their own actions.  We can all think of circumstance in which someone might place themselves outside of the boundary of the Jewish people, beyond tolerance, outside the obligation of Ahavat Yisrael.  Outside, where the “especially” might not apply.

It is also worth stressing that peoplehood – that saying “we remember especially” does not imply ignoring the other.  In fact, from within our Jewish particularism comes concern for the other.  There is a parallel ideal to ahavat yisrael, kavod ha-briyot – respect for all God’s creatures, which demands that all people are treated with honour and respect. But, to the extent that Judaism contains universalist ideals, we come to them from within a particular context – from an understanding of a distinctive set of obligations that fall upon a distinctive people through a distinctive relationship with God.

Aaron Smadja, Itsik Emsalem and Mira Sharf.  The reading of their names at Kaddish four weeks ago was not a political statement.  There was no hidden agenda about politics, occupation, security.
What there was, was a recognition that as Jews we are necessarily in relation with one another – that this is a fundamental aspect of Jewish identity.
It is there in our reading of Torah, in Chanukah, in our formative texts.
Judaism contains universalist ideals, of course, but the concept of peoplehood binds us one to another.

It is in the essence of Jewish life
When a Jew suffers, we feel her pain
When Jews laugh, we share their joy
When a Jew misbehaves – yes, we share the shame
And when a Jew dies, we mourn.