The Blessings of Diversity within the Jewish Community

This is a d’var (sermon) I gave 11 years ago at my first High Holy Days at the congregation I served for 8 years.

Yom Kippur Sermon 2003 / 5764 – Rabbi Maurice Harris

I would like to begin by saying thank you so very much to everyone in this community for welcoming Melissa and me so warmly. Our first weeks here have been wonderful, and we have quickly realized how fortunate we are to be a part of Temple Beth Israel and part of the Eugene community. We especially feel blessed to have made our way to a place that offers such joyful prayer and music, as well as such rich Torah study and conversation. One of the things that drew us to this congregation was our sense that it was a Jewishly diverse place — a place where we would find many varieties of Jewish life and practice interwoven into a single congregation. We have found that here and we love it.

A rabbi I admire very much, Margaret Holub, teaches that building community is great spiritual work. Committing to be part of a community, approaching differences with appreciation and conflicts with love is at times not easy, but the rewards are great. I feel blessed to be part of a congregation that takes this holy work so seriously and that can teach me so much.

Temple Beth Israel is one of the most Jewishly diverse congregations I’ve ever been a part of, and this ties directly into what I’d like to talk about tonight. The people who make up this congregation come from many different backgrounds, embrace a wide range of religious approaches and practices of Judaism, and include Jews — and many non-Jews — who contribute a wide range of talents and ideas to this community. It is this kind of diversity — the astonishing diversity that is internal to the Jewish community — that I think can be one of our people’s greatest strengths when it is embraced with care and faith by all of us. However, despite its potential blessings, our diversity also causes many Jewish leaders to worry about our future. Let me say a little more about what I mean.who is wise

It has become a cliché to say that the diversity of the United States is what gives it its strength. But you don’t often hear Jews celebrating the growing diversity of the Jewish people. True, sometimes we marvel at the many different countries, languages, and cultures that Jews have lived in, but by and large you don’t hear American and Israeli Jewish leaders saying that what Judaism really needs right now is more divergent opinions, more diverse families, and a greater variety of religious practices. Rather, there is a great fear of how diverse we have become, and on an institutional level Jewish leadership has often responded by establishing organizations or programs that are intended to function like fences – holding back the threat of an imagined great migration of Judaism into a thousand different directions, never to be whole again. The prospect of Jewish religious schisms or of mass assimilation haunt many of our leaders.

I agree that there are reasons to feel anxious about some of the potential costs of our diversity, yet I feel that in general we may be so fixated on the costs of this phenomenon that we fail to assess what the potential benefits of Jewish diversity are. And as a result, we may be giving ourselves the wrong advice about how to respond to our present situation.

My theory is that whenever there is a new, complex phenomenon taking place in the Jewish world, it comes with both costs and benefits, and that the first response we should usually have as a community is to observe what is going on with an open mind, so that we can accurately assess what those costs and benefits are. Fear of change, difference, and conflict is understandable, but that is precisely the time to resist sounding the alarm out of fear of the unknown.

I’ll give you a classic example of an incorrect prediction that embracing Jewish diversity would result in terrible costs, with almost no benefits. When the first woman rabbi was ordained a little over 30 years ago, part of the argument made by those opposing women’s ordination was that even if this was the right thing to do morally, the community couldn’t afford the cost of establishing yet another difference between the religious practices of the different movements. This would damage Jewish cohesion, lead to more internal tension, and make Judaism a less viable enterprise.

Thirty years later, let’s assess what has happened from a costs and benefits standpoint. True, there has been some increase in the dissonance between those branches of Judaism that do not accept women rabbis and those that do. Some of that cost has been painful. But what about the enormous benefits? In addition to finally giving the rabbinate access to the wisdom of half the population, the emergence of women rabbis has served to rekindle the interest of countless Jewish women and men who had previously felt alienated from Judaism. Furthermore, hundreds of male rabbis, including the one standing before you now, have been mentored by women rabbis and have studied with them as classmates, and this has helped form the consciousness of men who go into the field. I would never suggest that the main goal of feminism is the improvement of men, but for what it’s worth, men are better rabbis because women are rabbis.

Moreover, there has been a renaissance of Jewish women’s research, fiction, art, biography, and liturgy in the past quarter-century, all due in part to this widening of the boundaries of our communal leadership. The predictors of high costs did not anticipate these benefits. To put it differently, removing the boundary keeping women out of the rabbinate, far from damaging a struggling Judaism, released a flood of untapped Jewish energy and allowed it to flow into the well of the people. Today we know that the real question 30 years ago should probably have been, would North American Judaism have survived the refusal to ordain women rabbis?

So too with the many ways that synagogues all over the country are becoming more diverse today. More of us who belong to synagogues are in families that include non-Jews. More of us who join shuls are gay and lesbian Jews who are “out” and who rightfully expect to be appreciated and welcomed in the community. More of us are part of single-parent families. More of us who live with disabilities are advocating for our congregations to commit themselves to be not only accessible, but also to celebrate this part of the community’s contributions along with everyone else’s.

Many Jewish communities work hard to embrace our diversity, and often we make progress faster than some of our fellow religious communities. But much of what I read and hear about some of the ways we are becoming more diverse is anxious and fearful. Especially when the topic is Jewish political diversity regarding Israel, or differing religious practices, or intermarriage, or gay and lesbian inclusion, it seems like the conversation is often about costs, not benefits. It’s true, there are some costs to our current patterns. Our population numbers are stagnant or even shrinking a bit, and that frightens a lot of us. Many Jewish leaders have analyzed population survey data and are telling us that, from a strictly numbers point of view, we need more Jews, and they argue that the main causes of our flat population growth are intermarriage and low Jewish birth rates.

It’s true, there’s a reasonable concern to look into here. But I worry that in getting scared about a period of stagnant Jewish population growth, some of our leaders are failing to ask the all important question — are there benefits of these new phenomena within the community? What do various configurations within our community’s households add to Judaism? How are the millions of Jewish households with only one or two children — or no children — adding to Jewish life? Shouldn’t a researcher go out and try to see if maybe Jewish families with fewer children are actually giving more time and money to synagogues? Maybe they are raising better educated Jewish adults who can earn better livings and more easily support Jewish institutions and Israel. We don’t know, because, as far as I’m aware, nobody has thought to ask.

Similarly, shouldn’t a researcher try to find out what benefits the Jewish community may gain from the fact that intermarriage has resulted in a dramatic incresae in the number of American families that now have at least one Jewish member? Could this have been a factor in the milestone we experienced only 3 years ago, when tens of millions of Americans voted for a Presidential ticket with a Jew on it? We can’t know what diversity and change will offer in terms of benefits if we don’t ask these questions.

*     *     *

          One of the reasons I am a fan of diversity within Judaism is that Judaism has been internally diverse as long as it has existed. Just look at our history. What was going on in the Jewish world a hundred years ago? Well, among other things, Jews were arguing about Israel and about the different modern movements of Judaism that were emerging in Europe. With the emergence of Zionism in the late 1800s came the emergence of Jewish anti-Zionism. Alongside the followers of Theodore Herzl were Jewish Bundists and Communists, as well as Orthodox Jews who opposed the creation of the state. Just like today, Jews have never been of one mind about Israel. A hundred years ago, they vigorously debated whether or not there should be a Jewish state, and if there was one, what it should be like.

What about a hundred or so years before that? Diversity again. In the 1700s Hasidism emerged in Europe, and — surprise surprise — it spawned a counter-movement. Many Jews in Eastern Europe became known either as Hasidim or as Mitnagdim. The Mitnagdim bitterly opposed Hasidism and warned of its dangers to Jewish life. What does the name of this opposition group, Mitnagdim, mean? It means “those who are against it.”

In the Midieval period Judaism was also rich and varied. Beginning in the 1200s, Jewish mystics began circulating texts that formed the foundation of The Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. Their beliefs and practices were met by some Jews with joy and immediate acceptance, but other Jewish authorities called their ideas idolatrous. About that same time, there were boiling controversies over the great physician and rabbi, Moses Maimonides. Maimonides’ philosophy and approach to Judaism were the subject of intense debate, with many in the Jewish world of his time calling him a heretic.

And going back in time a little more, we find still more difference. We know that rabbis emerged as the new leaders of Judaism in the centuries following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, but we should remember that Jews divided themselves religiously into at least two different sects in the centuries that followed. Rabbinite Jews followed the authority of the rabbis and of their Talmud. But Karaite Jews rejected the Talmud’s authority and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the rabbis. Karaism and Rabbinism co-existed, sometimes relatively amicably, and sometimes with great acrimony, for about a thousand years. Karaites made up a large percentage of the Jewish population for centuries, and might have survived in large numbers to this day had they not been the victims of war and political conflicts in some of their host countries.

And even in Biblical times, the record shows us more and more Jewish diversity. Towards the end of the Biblical period, about twenty-one hundred years ago, we know that there were different sub-groups within the Jewish people in the ancient land of Israel. There were Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, as well as anti-Roman nationlists and accommodationists. There were Jews who supported the Judean government, and there were Jews who criticized it heavily.

In fact, from our people’s earliest moments, we were a conglomoration of a dozen tribes and countless marginal individuals. When the Israelites first came out of Egypt, the Torah describes them as erev rav, a mixed multitude. And how diverse was our leadership at that time? When the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for forty years, they were led by Moses, whose wife Tzipporah was not an Israelite. Another non-Israelite, Moses’s father-in-law, Yitro, a Midianite priest, served as a non-Jewish consultant, if you will. Yitro designed the Israelites’ system of courts of law, which the community desperately needed at a moment when they were just building their group identity. And the list of biblical figures with “non-standard” Jewish identities goes on.

Where Jews have been concerned, diversity has reigned, and our genius has been our ability to adapt and receive the benefits that each new paradigm, each new set of differences within the community has had to offer. This is reflected in the very design of the Talmud, in which differing opinions, explanations, and viewpoints are carefully preserved and beautifully arranged on each page. This thought reminds me of something Rabbi Yitzhak spoke about on Rosh Hashanah eve. He mentioned one of the most beautiful names of God in the Torah, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Will Be What I Will Be.”

I think there’s a lesson here about God’s nature and also about our people’s. There is a teaching that the names of God describe attributes of the Eternal One, and that we should strive to try to be like our maker. As God is generous, so too we should strive to be generous. As God is forgiving, so too we should strive to be forgiving (especially at this time of year.) I’d like to suggest that this teaching also applies to the divine name, “I Will Be What I Will Be.” Just as it is God’s nature to expand and encompass whatever God will be, so too it has been with the people Israel. If God has said, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, perhaps Israel has also said the same, only in the plural form. Nihyeh Asher Nihyeh. “We Will Be What We Will Be.” We will grow and be diverse and expand and shift and at times divide, we will scatter and come back together, we will change through the eras and be magnificent in our diversity.

Let me tell you a true story that I think illustrates what a privilege it is to live in our diverse Jewish world. The story primarily emphasizes one type of diversity that is being slowly welcomed into our communities, but I share it with you as but a single example of a more general celebration of what embracing diversity can do for Jewish life.

While I was a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, or RRC, the College admitted a new student who I’ll call Estephan. Estephan was a very Jewishly learned Spanish national in his 30s. A fairly observant Jew, Estephan was also gay, and he and his partner, Carlos, moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 2000.

One night, Melissa and I were invited to Shabbat dinner at a friend’s, and we were delighted to find Estephan and Carlos among the guests. Eager to learn more about their lives in Spain, we bombarded them with questions. We learned that Carlos’s ancestors were Conversos who had practice Judaism in secret for centuries. At one point, one of us asked them if they feel a strong sense of Spanish identity.

“We are not Spanish,” Carlos stated flatly.

“You’re not?” I asked.

“No,” said Estephan. “We are Catalonian.”

Estephen and Carlos proceeded to tell us about their lives in Catalon, their activism in the peaceful, non-violent Catalonian independence movement, and Carlos’s experience running for political office on a pro-independence platform.

We were quite surprised by all of this. In addition to having learned a lot about an ethnic conflict we weren’t very aware of, we had just discovered an entirely new side to these two newcomers, who were proudly Catalonian nationalists and Jews. We hadn’t met Jews like this before.

catalonian flag

Catalonian nationalist rally

As time went by, Estephan and Carlos became just two more members of the RRC community. As is human nature, I think I started taking the unique things they added to our community for granted. But then something reawakened my appreciation of everything they added to the community.

A wedding. Not an ordinary wedding, but a lesbian wedding between a rabbinical student, Monica, and her partner, Natalie. Most same-sex weddings are not big news at RRC. There have been many. What was significant about this wedding was where it was taking place.

The wedding was being held at the Germantown Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue in the heart of Mount Airy, the Philadelphia neighborhood that is home to most RRC students and faculty. The senior rabbi, the board and the congregation had struggled for a decade about whether the shul should differ with the Conservative movement’s policy and celebrate same-sex unions. After years of discussion and processing, the Germantown Jewish Centre decided to allow gay weddings to take place in the synagogue. Our friends, Monica and Natalie, were to be the first gay couple married at Germantown.

The day of the wedding was incredibly festive. The brides showed up in two magnificent wedding dresses. When the time came to enter the sanctuary for the wedding ceremony, the synagogue was packed. Melissa and I found seats near the front. In the back of the sanctuary, I could see Monica standing in the doorway, waiting for the processional music to start. Then, the music began. It was beautiful. Had they hired a professional pianist?

I looked to the piano, and to my surprise, I saw Carlos sitting there in a tux, playing like a concert pianist. And at that moment I was overcome by the sheer joy of the occasion. So many people in the Jewish community who might otherwise have been dismissed or marginalized had come here today to celebrate this occasion with hundreds of friends and loved ones, and they were getting to be exactly who they are. The incredible depth and vitality of the contributions that these Jewish “others” were making added so much to Judaism that I was overwhelmed by the moment. The diversity was building Judaism, not pulling it apart, and I was in awe of the moment.

I turned to Melissa and whispered into her ear, “Ho hum… Just another lesbian Jewish wedding at a Conservative synagogue with a gay Jewish Catalonian nationalist playing the piano.”

What a blessing that day was. What strength and vitality came from the diversity of the Jewish community. I will never forget it.

The hour is growing late and it is time for me to conclude this talk. I’d like to leave you with some thoughts about the connection between the theme of my talk and the spiritual work of building community. As I mentioned earlier, the work of building a healthy, diverse community is spiritual, holy work. This congregation may not realize how much it already excels at welcoming so many different kinds of Jews, as well as non-Jews, into its vibrant web of spiritual and communal connection. As a newcomer who has come from other Jewish communities, I can reflect back to you how extraordinary this welcoming and trusting congregation is. My hope is that we will continue to embrace our diversity and trust that it is a source of deep energy and strength.

Embracing diversity sometimes means friction, but without friction there are no sparks to light holy fires. The skill is learning to be warmed, not burned, by these fires. And the key to that is approaching our differences with love and appreciation.

May we carry with us into the year ahead a commitment to embrace one another and strive to be patient when we deal with difference within our community, and as we do that, may we be able to remember that every small action is spiritual work that contributes to this community. May we continue to weave our multi-colored tapestry of Jewish life, and may we even explore ways in which Temple Beth Israel might take some leadership in the larger Jewish world, modeling how diversity within our community builds strength.

Then we will come to know even better the words of the psalm, Hiney mah tov u-mah naim, shevet achim gam yachad. “How good it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity.”

Our diversity is our strength, and if we are skillful we can trust it to serve us all. There is room for everyone here in this wonderful community. As the sage Ben Azzi taught in the Mishnah:

Do not disdain any person;

Do not underrate the importance of anything —

For there is no person who does not have his or her hour,

And there is no thing without its place in the sun.

Gmar hatimah tovah — may we all be sealed for a good year.

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3 thoughts on “The Blessings of Diversity within the Jewish Community

  1. I’m a combo of Egyptian Mizrahi aand French Sephardic and one quarter Catholic. Never found my way to the Jewish faith, though I am a jew, who supports jews. Evertime I tried to go toward the faith side I was repelled. Life is strange.

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    • Hi and thank you for the comment. I am sorry for the very slow reply – we have had a crazy month in my family. I appreciate your comment and believe that there are a lot of people out there with backgrounds that have a similar degree of internal diversity or complexity as what you’ve described. I’m interested to hear more about how those pieces fit together for you personally, if you are open to a conversation along those lines. Blessings!

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      • Blessings to you. When you come from Jewish riots but are fragmented then there’s a choice; ignore them or embrace them. I tried the latter never the former, but without those roots the community can be quite closed. What convinced me to keep trying (even if I felt some ostracism) was the hatred I saw from those who are anti Israel. I lost nearly all my secular friends who were uniformly pro Palestine and very, very anti Israel. It wasn’t good because i didn’t have the Jewish community to rely on but my consolation is; there is right and there is wrong.

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