Boundaries and Borders | Kol Nidre Sermon 5779
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
One Yom Kippur many years ago, a rabbi stood in front of his congregation to speak about animosity and forgiveness. He asked those present to raise their hands if they had enemies among the Jewish people. Only a few hands went up. “Be honest,” he said. “Is there someone for whom you wish ill?” More hands reluctantly went up. “Someone you deeply dislike?” More hands. “Are there those among your fellow Jews you would like to see defeated, whom you wish didn’t even exist?” At this point, almost every hand was raised. The rabbi told his congregation that having an enemy was bad for them, that holding bitterness in their hearts would shorten their lives, that pursuing peace led to longer lives. And then he noticed an old, frail man in the very back of the sanctuary whose hand was not in the air. “You sir,” he said, “you have no enemy among the Jewish people?” The old man took a great effort to stand up and even greater effort to speak. “I have no enemies,” he said. “That’s incredible,” the rabbi responded. “You see?” he turned to the congregation, “Look, this man has lived such a long life. How old are you, sir?” “105” came back the answer. “105 years old. How have you come to have no enemies?” The man replied, “They’re all dead.”.
You see, ein chadash tachat hashemesh, there’s nothing new under the sun. Animosity among the Jewish people was not invented in our generation, though we have seen a lot of it in recent years. Just a few months ago, Jerry Nadler, the liberal Jewish member of Congress representing Brooklyn and Manhattan, received this letter from a Jewish constituent: “Nadler. You are the worst kind of anti-Semite. You cause hatred of Jews by your stinking, rotten behavior. Deliberate obstruction of the probe of the Snake Strzok!! May all the curses of the Tochecho both in Vayikra and Ki Savo, [these are graphic and terrifying curses in the Torah] be on you and your children, and your grandchildren for all the generations to come. You know of course that Nadler means Bastard, Turncoat, Apostate!! Exactly what you are!!! I am comforted by the knowledge that according to Halacha you are not Jewish!!! Die! Die! Die! Soon but slowly.” Apparently Rep. Nadler receives something like this from his Jewish constituents almost every week.
Three years ago, Rabbi Susan Talve, who leads a congregation in St. Louis, MO, was attacked by Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that supports the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and opposes Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Rabbi Talve is a social justice rabbi who has stood for 25 years as a deeply trusted ally to the black community in St. Louis, as a key supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and one who speaks out strongly against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. But because she opposes BDS and believes that Israel should exist as a Jewish state, she was targeted by Jewish Voice for Peace. Their social media campaign featured a large photograph of Rabbi Talve with the words: Susan Talve: Real Terrorist Supporter of Genocide and International Apartheid. The smear campaign was accompanied by a cartoon by the notoriously anti-Semitic Carlos Latuff, showing Talve with two heads. One head is telling a white police officer that it’s wrong to kill black people. The other head is smiling and giving a thumbs up to an Israeli police officer who is shooting a Palestinian man in the head. This campaign led to real death threats against Talve, her children, and her grandchildren.
We know that there is a divide in the Jewish world, with extremists on both sides hurling curses at each other. But I fear it’s more systemic than that. I think that two distinct Jewish people are emerging. And the dividing line is the way that we regard self and other.
This June, the Orthodox Union held its annual Advocacy Convention in Washington, DC, just weeks after the Trump Administration began to take children away from their parents at the border. The OU decided to give Attorney General Jeff Sessions a justice award at their convention in gratitude for his support for yeshiva funding. Alarmed that a major leadership body of the Jewish people would honor Jeff Sessions in that way at that moment, I wrote an open letter for T’ruah, the Rabbinic coalition for human rights, calling upon the OU not to give Sessions the award. The letter was signed by thousands of Jews and hundreds of rabbis across all denominations, but the award was given anyway, and a photo of smiling Orthodox rabbis giving a big plaque with the words Tzedek Justice to Jeff Sessions was plastered all over social media.
Meanwhile, here at CBE, you were distraught over the cruel separation of families, and our Refugee Task Force found a way to raise bond money for a woman named Rosayra Cruz, to release her from detention in Arizona and reunite her with her two children, Yordy and Fernando, who were held here in New York. A member of the Refugee Task Force lent her home for the summer, and Rosy and her two boys lived in our neighborhood, while volunteers helped them with every need. They are now resettled awaiting their asylum hearing. Rosayra and her boys fled Guatemala after her husband was killed and their lives were threatened. When I put out the call to this congregation, hundreds of you gave. It took less than 24 hours to raise $25,000. We now are leaders in a national coalition working to match congregations all across the country with separated families, to reunite and support them.
So while one group of Jews was giving an award to Jeff Sessions, other groups of Jews were doing everything they could to mitigate the harm of his policies.
The vast majority of the Jewish people live in two countries, and both, at the moment, are defined by a wall: the separation barrier dividing Israel from the West Bank and the much-discussed wall, real and imagined, at the US Southern border. Walls, borders, us and them, self and other –this is dividing Jews into two distinct peoples. It was a Jew, after all, Stephen Miller, who designed the family separation policy that has so shaken our country. A central question of the Jewish people throughout time has been: How as a people do we deal with our borders, our boundaries?
In Kabbalah there is a spiritual system called the Sephirot. Each Sephirah represents a quality of being, and some of these qualities are in tension with each other. Chesed and Gevurah are seen as two ends of a spectrum. Chesed means lovingkindness. Gevurah means might, discipline. Chesed is yes. Gevurah is no. Chesed is open, soft, inclusive, boundless. Gevurah is stringent, powerful, closed, protected. Chesed draws near. Gevurah pushes away.
Let’s imagine that we call one group of Jews the Chesed Jews and the second group the Gevurah Jews. Both groups can find their claim in Torah. The Chesed Jews are guided by Torah verses like et ha ger lo toneh/ do not oppress the stranger and Veahavta et hager ki gerim hayitem be’eretz mitzrayim/love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Efes ki lo yihiyeh b’cha evyon/there should be no needy among you. Im tzaok yitzak eli, shamoa eshma tsa’akoto/If they cry out to me, I will hear their cry.
The Gevurah Jews are guided by Torah verses like: heyitem li segula mi kol ha’amim/You will be a treasured possession to me from among all the people. U’vcha, bachar Adonai Liiyot lo l’am segula mikol ha’amim asher al pnei ha’adamah/Adonai chose you to be his treasured people from all the people on the earth. V’lo telchu bechukat hagoy/Do not take on the practices of the [other] nations. Yitein Adonai et oyvecha hakamim alecha nigafim lefanecha/Adonai will put to rout before you the enemies that attack you.
For the Chesed Jews, to be a good Jew means to stand with the oppressed, whoever they are. To hear the cry of the poor, the suffering. To attend to the marginalized, the excluded. To welcome diverse peoples. For Chesed Jews, this is Judaism. Failure to do this is abdication of Jewish responsibility, a breach of covenant. For Gevurah Jews, what it means to be a good Jew is to keep the Jewish people strong, separate from and even against other peoples. To marry a Jew, raise Jewish children, support Jewish causes, belong to a Jewish community, for some to fund and arm the Jewish state, to stand with Jews against all others, for some to maintain Jewish practices against the pressures of modernity and foreign influences. Failure to do these things is an abdication of Jewish responsibility, a breach of covenant.
Either extreme of the spectrum is inadvisable. If we go too far toward Chesed, if we give up all boundaries or rights to self-protection, we risk losing ourselves. We could endanger our lives and our future. If I care more about the other than myself—if I believe that Palestinians have a right to self-determination and a state, but Jews do not, if I care about racism in this country but not anti-Semitism—in Hillel’s words, If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
On the other hand, if we go too far toward Gevurah, if we give up empathy and concern for the other, if we forget our immigrant past and care nothing for the immigrants of today, if we dehumanize Palestinians and ignore their living hell, we lose our claim to justice, righteousness, goodness. In Hillel’s words, if I am only for myself, what am I?
Wrapped up in this is the question: What does it mean to be safe? The Chesed group thinks that the way to be safe is to be on the right side of history. It is clearly wrong to subjugate entire populations. It is clearly wrong to whip up hatred to cultivate power. It may be safer in the long run to care about others, to build bonds across difference. But there’s danger here too if taken too far, if we do whatever it takes to be liked by others, befriending the other even if the other is not a friend back. We must stand up for ourselves, call out anti-Semitism on the Left, insist that movements for freedom and justice will lose their integrity if they countenance anti-Semitism.
The Gevurah group thinks that the way to be safe is to be pure. To wall off the other – literally and figuratively. Some in this group have embraced Jewish supremacy. We see intense racism against Arabs in Israel, most recently with the Nation State bill. We see pamphlets from the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate advising Jewish women on modesty and purity, with detailed instructions about how to cover their wrists, necks, and ankles—warning women against Arabs who would want to violate their purity, replete with cartoons of dirty, lusting Arab men.
The Steven Millers are banking on the idea that Jews can become white, and that white supremacy will keep us safe. Beyond all the obvious moral concerns, aligning ourselves with white supremacy is not safe. It is only a matter of time before white people will have lost their dominance in the world. Though white-skinned Jews benefit from white privilege here and in Israel, it is also true that white supremacists are adamant that Jews are not white. In fact, they see Jews as the primary villains in the fall of the white man. If they succeed in their quest for power, we will be the first in their crosshairs. If freedom and justice always win in the end, which is clearly the message of our Torah, then it’s not safe to be on the side of oppression, even if that’s where the power is.
There has never been such a thing as Jewish purity. From our founding we were border crossers. Abraham crossed the great rivers to come into Canaan and start our people. That is how we got our name, Ivrim, Hebrews. Do you know what Ivrim means? Border crossers.
Moses was raised as an Egyptian. He was a foreigner both in Pharaoh’s palace and to his own people. He then went to live in a foreign land, Midian. And he married a Midianite woman, Tzipora. Moses, who was decidedly from two cultures, was then intermarried. He led our people, the Ivrim, the border crossers, out of Egypt by crossing the sea. When we crossed out of Egypt, the Torah says that we were a mixed multitude, an erev rav. All kinds of people became Ivrim, joined the Hebrew people in that moment. Why do you think the Torah commands 36 times not to oppress the stranger? Why so many times does the Torah proclaim that the law is the same for you and for the stranger who lives among you? There were a lot of strangers around. Generations later, the Moabites were an enemy people to the Israelites, but if Ruth the Moabite hadn’t married an Israelite, King David would never have been born.
In every stage of our people’s history we lived amongst others. In Israel we took on Canaanite names for God — El became Elohim. In Babylonia, Zoroastrianism shaped Biblical and Rabbinic theology. The word synagogue is Greek. Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, was the lingua franca of the region. The Passover seder is a Roman banquet infused with our narrative of liberation. The custom of wearing costumes on Purim probably comes from Roman carnival. The braided loaves we know as challah were a non-Jewish Eastern European recipe, whereas Sephardic challah used to be more like pita. Latkes were peasant food in Europe. We sing piyyutim, liturgical poems, and niggunim, wordless melodies, with sounds and rhythms from every culture in which we’ve ever lived, from every continent on the globe except Antarctica. We are blond and black and brown and beautiful. We are a people who has intermarried all throughout time, all around the world. There is no such thing as Jewish purity.
We are cosmopolitan. Everywhere, always, throughout our history we have taken in the host country, metabolized it, intermingled it with Jewish flavors from other continents, creatively combined it with our Torah and our messianic longings, and produced new culture, ritual, teaching and expressions of the heart. And that is what makes Judaism.
I love Hasidism. I am inspired by the psychological acuity, emotional sensitivity and spiritual light found in the teaching of the Hasidic masters. In fact, I would call myself a neo-Hasid. But wearing a black hat does not make you more Jewish. So when you think someone looks Jewish, or has a Jewish name, or conversely is only Jew-ish because they are Asian or Black or Latinx or Scandinavian or pierced or tattooed or have a Texan drawl or are a California surfer dude, or when you tell me that you’re only half Jewish, you misunderstand who and what the Jewish people are.
Now, this notion can get distorted. In May, Michael Chabon gave a speech criticizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and arguing that the walls we’re putting up between the us’s and the them’s are morally bankrupting. In the spirit of taking down walls, Chabon spoke not just in favor of inter-marriage but against in-marriage, saying that a marriage between a Jew and another Jew is “a two person ghetto.” Regarding the concern that widespread intermarriage will lead to the extinction of the Jewish people, Chabon argued: “On the day that the last Jewish couple dies, after watching their children marry Hindus, Lutherans, atheists, Sunnis, Buddhists—the fault for that extinction will lie squarely with Judaism itself… Any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings.” Chabon continues, “If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time … that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, one exogamous marriage at a time, into the surrounding population. We will grieve that loss, you and I, if we’re still around to witness it. But we probably won’t be, and anyway the history of the Jews, like the history of humanity and every individual human who has ever lived, is just one long story of grief, loss and fading away.”
I should point out that many religions and cultures encourage members to marry and raise their children within their group. But here’s the big problem with Chabon’s message: imagine if someone blithely described the disappearance of the Navajo people, or the Cherokee or Lakota, and their culture, language, religion and identity – with a shrug of the shoulders and an equanimous statement about everything fading away. We would call that racist, as if their culture, history, existence didn’t matter. We can see that their uniqueness adds to the diversity of human life and their extinction would be a devastating loss for the world. It is anti-Semitic to propose that it doesn’t matter if there’s a future for Judaism and the Jewish people, to suggest that we’re expendable but others aren’t. Blending in and disappearing is an unacceptable outcome.
The Pew study conducted five years ago showed that only 24% of intermarried couples are raising their children with Judaism, and only 5% of their grandchildren are being raised as Jews. But it also showed that almost 60% of millennials who were raised by one Jewish parent identify with Judaism and as Jews, a major increase over previous generations. What I see here is that as we create a Jewish world that is truly diverse and truly embracing of all kinds of border crossers, all kinds of Ivrim, more diverse Jewish families will find a home in Judaism.
Intermarriage doesn’t have to mean we disappear. Many of you are living proof that it can make us stronger. The interfaith couples I marry are excited to create Jewish homes, to live Jewish lives, to educate their kids about Judaism, and to raise the next generation of the Jewish people. Many of you have converted to Judaism, enriching our people with your heritage, whether it’s Chinese, Saskatchewan, or African-American.
How about if, instead of fearing that we’re disappearing into a melting pot, we use the metaphor of a tossed salad, where each ingredient retains its identity, but its flavor is enhanced by mixing with others: we all know that tomatoes taste better when they’re alongside avocados and cucumbers. And we also know that heirloom tomatoes are the best of all, precisely because of their unique heritage.
We must know our unique heritage. We must learn –deeply — our history, our traditions, our language. And we must explore: who am I as a Jew? We must claim our place among the Jewish people exactly as we are. So that the faces representing our people reflect who we are and who we are becoming; so that we reshape Judaism, make it ours, and never, ever give it up. No person is universal. Every person comes from a particular story, a particular background. You, like every other person on this earth, have an obligation to bring your particularity into the world.
Positive psychology teaches that healthy boundaries are essential for establishing one’s identity, as well as what one is responsible for. Having clarity about where you end and another begins is how you take care of yourself. And healthy boundaries should be somewhere between rigid and loose. Not a wall, but a border.
Borders used to demarcate language, culture, media, influence, business, relationships. They don’t anymore. What are borders going to become? Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican-American poet, novelist and essayist, was born at the U.S. Mexico border. He said: “A border is… that place of crossing, that place of pressure of two things meeting…. That’s where the plankton wells up where the currents [join]. [The] fraternal space where two cultures [come together]. [In] a place like Nogales [or] Yuma … kids play volleyball with each other across the fence.”
The Jewish people are a tiny minority people. We’ve barely recovered from attempted genocide only 70 years ago. We continue to be threatened by global anti-Semitism on both the Left and the Right. It’s probably unwise for us to become enemies to one another, or to split ourselves in two.
Can we imagine a coming together between Gevurah and Chesed? Heart and skin, core and extremities? The stronger our core, the more flexible we become. The more confident we are in ourselves, the more room we can make for others. Can we imagine a strength that welcomes difference? Can we imagine a kindness that includes self-protection? Can we imagine love that’s accountable? Can we imagine power used for kindness?
We are witnessing a flowering of Jewish creativity and renewal. Jews are reclaiming our culture, language, spiritual practices, texts. We see more Jewish social justice organizations than any time since the height of the labor movement in the 1930s. We see music, art, literature, blogs, podcasts, food networks, film, playlists and Jews curious about what it means to be Jews and Jews having fun with being Jewish and Jews wanting to hang out with other Jews. And people with one Jewish grandparent looking for their roots and people raised Methodist and Hindu and Catholic and atheist wanting to join the tribe. And a celebration of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, Sephardi, Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, Ladino, Yiddish, global, queer, feminist, tribal, post-modern Judaisms. Judaisms in the plural, flowering forth in a million colors.
We are owning, reinventing, shaping, stretching and pluralizing Judaism all at once. Dancing, imagining, studying, laughing, eating and playing a Jewish rhythm of life. CBE is a place where that happens. A new and renewed center of Jewish living and learning where Jews fall in love with being Jews. Making Shabbat on Friday nights in a way that says welcome home. You made it. Your week is over and you’ve arrived. Celebrating our holidays with panache, living in Jewish time. Not to be like everyone else, but to be us, proudly, creatively, exuberantly, wholly, us.
Atah Gibor l’olam Adonai. Mechalkel Chayim b’chesed. You are mighty, Adonai, you who balances gevurah and chesed, you who use your power and strength to value life with lovingkindness and compassion. May we be like You.