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To Be a Jew Today

I have been thinking a lot this last year about what it means to be a Jew today. In our ever-changing world, the priorities keep evolving. To better understand it, I have been spending the better part of a year talking to people. I’ve talked to rabbinic colleagues. I have been speaking with people at shul and over coffee. I even put up questions on Facebook and Instagram to see what my friends and followers have to say. The answers are fascinating, deliciously diverse. And they are all over the spectrum.

I can agree with so many of them. I tried to figure out how do I teach you all what being a Jew could be. So I took ideas I learned from others and I mixed in some of my own understanding, and now share them with you so we can listen and learn from each other.

Now although I focus on what I think it means to be a Jew, I celebrate that our community embraces so many non-Jewish spouses, partners and friends. You particularly are among those who ensure that Torah is passed down l’dor vador, from generation to generation. I wholeheartedly honor and embrace you and your gifts, which are also integral to building caring community and transmitting cherished values. So thank you!

Now remember, we are here on Yom Kippur, in part, to think. Because open-minded intellectual examination is also at the root of what it means to be a Jew. Because in our millennia of Jewish living, ever since Abraham argued with God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, we Jews seem to consistently agree upon one thing, and one thing only: that we reserve the right to disagree. I hope these ideas shared today, many of them your ideas, will spark carpool conversations and energetic exchanges at break-the-fast, and then inspire you to compile your own list – your own definition – of what it means to be a Jew today. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all shared ours, so we could learn from each other what it means to be a Jew, or part of a Jewish family or Jewish community. I hope you will send them to me. I would love to learn from you too!

So buckle up, and hang on. Because here we go.

To be a Jew is to recognize that we are a people first, a religion second, and a series of gastronomic identities third.

To be a Jew is to be the inheritor of an age old tradition of stories and rituals, values and visions, mitzvot of good deeds and commandments to guide our lives, all designed to keep us a mamlechet kohanim and a goy kadosh, a community of priests and a holy nation.

To be a Jew is to embrace l’dor vador, that idea of passing something sacred down from one generation to another.

To be a Jew is to dive into the smorgasbord of sacred pathways to holy living – those 613 mitzvot – ritual commandments, and ethical ones, communal and individual, holy day and food-based rites – to mine the Jewish ways of living for sacred opportunities – as we say, Asher kiddishanu b’mitzvotav (who makes us holy through these sacred acts) – to discover time-tested pathways to spiritual grounding.

To be a Jew is to show up at synagogue, to be with your community, to sit with your family or the memory of your family, and to stand before the Holy One – whether you believe He/She/It exists, completely don’t, or aren’t sure – because you know that something significant may happen here for your soul, body or mind.

To be a Jew is to enjoy bagels and lox, or tsimmis and brisket, or Persian Ub-goosht and Moroccan mufleta, or ham-less breakfasts, or waiting 6 hours between meat and milk, or perhaps for some, eating that bacon-wrapped scallop because you find no meaning in Judaism’s food prohibitions but you totally embrace Jewish ethical values which you will stand up for until the day you die.

To be a Jew is to wonder where God is when bad things happen to good people, and, where God was when bad things happened to our people – like the Holocaust, and the Inquisition and the pogroms, and the recent death of Lisa, a 51 year old congregant, mother of 4 … and the Holocaust – Why did that Holocaust happen, God? 6 million of our people, murdered, 1.5 million of them children, and another 5 million others. Really? God, where were You? – and to wonder where God was when bad things happened to other people too, like the 1.5 million murdered in the Armenian genocide, and the almost 3 million in the Cambodian genocide, and the 1.2 million in the Rwandan genocide, and the many Sudanese Darfurans during the first genocide of this century, and that mom… who just died… too young… God, where are you?

To be a Jew is to cry Never Again!, because our moral compass points at the dangers for our people and also shines a light on the dangers for all people, because when we take our eye off the ball – the ball being equality and equity for all people – regardless of their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, country of origin, immigration status, age or religion – we are forgetting that the same ball thrown at others ultimately will come flying back at a Yiddishe kop, a Jewish head.

Yes, to be a Jew is sometimes to bob and weave, to exist in a world of increasing extremes – religious, political, ideological – to live in that increasingly uncomfortably narrow space between those extremes.

So to be a Jew is to be a champion for democracy in its most pervasive forms – embracing freedom of speech, because Abraham argued with God; freedom of assembly, because Jews had to gather in secret during the Inquisition; freedom of religion, fought for so bravely by Chanukah’s Judah Maccabee and those Russian refuseniks; and freedom of the press, because what is the Talmud if not a journal of intellectual challenges to the status quo?! – and because we know that throughout history when the majority begins to infringe on the rights of the minority, eventually the Jew becomes a target.

To be a Jew is to be like that plant, the wandering Jew, ever prepared to wander and set down new roots, because no matter how cozy we are with the people in power, our place is never eternally protected, even when we are in the inner circle as the doctors of kings or the financiers of fiefdoms or the daughters and sons-in-laws of presidents.

Because to be a Jew means remembering our Jewish ancestors who were wandering Jews, who were forced to immigrate, break laws, forge papers, lie and illegally cross borders, to save their lives and thankfully to save a lot of our lives in this room too.

To be a Jew is to show up in shul on Yom Kippur, to be excited, prayerful or doubtful, irritated by some of your rabbi’s ideas, yet wondering just a bit about whether he might be onto something, even in the words that make you uncomfortable or even angry.

To be a Jew is to point out the anti-Semitism of the extreme left, rejecting its deceptive claims that it is not anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist and opposed to Israel’s policies, because if one studies the origin, current leadership, and the effects of their teachings, one discovers that their anti-Israel words and actions mask a virulent form of Jew-hatred that is dangerous to Jews and endangers the pursuit of democracy championed by our beloved America.

To be a Jew is to point out the anti-Semitism of the extreme right, that underlies the white supremacist movement and its sister nationalist movement, that claim to not be anti-Semitic, even though they speak with code words, and not so coded words, used throughout history by pogrom instigators, genocidal maniacs, and other Jew haters, words that are repeated by their leaders and ours, and are dangerous to Jews and endanger the pursuit of democracy championed by our beloved America.

To be a Jew is to remember that when – here or abroad – the far left and the far right each absolving themselves of charges of anti-Semitism still get back to the same place – namely, that Jews are the root of the world’s evils – we find ourselves in a terrifying, dangerous chapter that doesn’t end well for any of us. And if you really think today’s thugs are inherently different, or the left’s are worse than the right’s, or the right’s are worse then the left’s, then go reread your history. Both are dangerous.

Yes, to be a Jew is to talk about tough issues like – corned beef or pastrami, or matzah balls: fluffy or firm, or – what’s the best direction for American public policy – and knowing that we will argue, but we do so with respect, because even when we want to throttle those who disagree with us, we recognize within our conversational partner tzelem Elohim (a shared humanity).

To be a Jew is lo taamod al dam reiacha (not to stand idly by while our neighbors bleed), be that the bleeding of our Jewish or Sikh neighbors, or the Muslim doctor down the street or the Asian accountant with the balance sheet, or the Hispanic woman who works in the store, or the African American social worker who helps the homeless poor, or the trans youth who are at the edge of killing themselves because though he was born looking one way, she knows she really is another. We all bleed red.

To be a Jew is to be radically inclusive, because we are a mosaic of Moses’ people. So we embrace children with learning differences and adults with mental illness. We embrace interfaith families, multiethnic couples, and Jews of color, and the divorced woman and single man, the widow and the widower, the gender fluid and the gender queer, older couples and younger families, and the teens, oh those amazing teens, deliciously on the edge of their identity search, who call Judaism and Congregation Or Ami their second home because here, they – like so many of you – feel uniquely welcome, valued, and loved unconditionally.

To be a Jew is to be concerned about Jews everywhere – Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (every Jew is responsible for every other Jew) – and to act on their behalf – through the Joint Distribution Committee, AIPAC and JStreet and ARZA, and Hillel and Reform College groups, Jewish Family Service and Federation’s Jewish Survivors Project, and all the other Jewish-focused organizations that strengthen our people.

To be a Jew is to form coalitions with righteous gentiles to help other people too, and thus we kvell about the work of IsraAID that Israeli organization which partners to help people caught in disasters anywhere including the Syrian refugees, or Jewish World Watch that stands up against genocide everywhere, or New Israel Fund which is fostering coexistence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

And speaking of Israel, to be a Jew is to have a heart ever turning to the eretz zavat chalav ud’vash (that land flowing with milk and honey), to celebrate our people’s continuous, unbroken connection to that holy land and to the modern Jewish state.

To be a Jew is to be inspired when walking on stones in Jerusalem laid down 2000 years ago by our ancestors, and then to head over to a beachside café in Tel Aviv for something to eat, then digging in an archeological dig to rediscover our people’s historic connections to the land, or learning to cook Mizrachi food in Beersheva, or wherever we are in the world, turning and praying toward the Holy Land, our land.

To be a Jew is to recognize that the land is also claimed by another people, the Palestinians, who have also lived there for generations, under the rule of successive occupiers, and that that people’s downtrodden status – for whatever the reason – whether because of their corrupt murderous leadership, or their uncaring Arab state brethren, or the immoral unending occupation, or more likely a combination of all three – nonetheless should bother us and eat away at our souls and even as it is so hard to figure out how to move forward, it should propel us always to dream of, hope for, and work toward peace.

To be a Jew is to be part of that continuous age-old longing for Zion, the ancient land and the modern state – to critique Israel’s policies when they fail the ethics test but to celebrate the Jewish state nonetheless, because when we see Judaism flourish there it ignites passion for Judaism here, within our hearts and souls.

Yes, you have all taught me that to be a Jew is to live and struggle with all those layers and complexity, decrying the simple binaries of rights and wrongs, rejecting the so-called blacks and whites of today.

To be a Jew is to strive for holiness, that refuge from the tyranny of things we try to collect and own, senselessly believing as our Facebook and Instagram facades suggest that these things bring us happiness. They don’t. They won’t. But Shabbat rest just might bring our souls… peace.

To be a Jew is to light Shabbat candles, make kiddush, eat challah, bless our families and bask in the holiness of time, even if afterward we put the candlesticks in the sink and go out to a movie or dinner or to watch your beloved Dodgers strive to win… or my Red Sox definitely win – again and again.

To be a Jew is never to become complacent, never to trust the whims of the majority, and never forget that while its medical properties are still up for debate, you know that after a really bad day or when you are not feeling good, a bowl of your Bubbie’s chicken soup will definitely heal your soul.

To be a Jew is to smell the spices of Havdala, and throw arms around each other for Hashkiveinu, and dip twice on Passover, and pack comfort bags for foster kids on Mitzvah Day, because these actions can transmit values that we deeply cherish.

To be a Jew is to stand together seeking forgiveness, praying for healing, requesting protection for our loved ones and begging that the New Year will be a little bit better.

To be a Jew is to hope without end that Torah, the foundational text of our people, can give us insight into our souls. And while most of us never got to choose if we wanted Torah’s values passed down to us, with Torah’s help, we will transform ourselves and our world into beacons of emet/truth, and tzedek/justice, filled with ahava/love, so each and everyone will enjoy shalom/wholeness and peace.

To be a Jew is complex, frustrating, enervating and energizing, and nuanced. And sometimes it is hard. And yet, to be a Jew is inspiring, meaningful, and hopeful.

My friends, it’s Yom Kippur. It’s a time to look inward, venture outward, to create a world of holiness through the work of holiness. May being a Jew, or part of a Jewish community or part of this Jewish community inspire you to do just that: to open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart, to say Hineni (I am here), and I am ready to get to work. Let’s go out and fill this world with holiness and love.

G’mar chatima tova – May you be sealed for a blessing in the book of life. Amen.

This sermon is the result of an editing collaboration anchored by my wife Michelle November, with the help of Rabbis Ron Stern and Julia Weisz, and Congregation Or Ami’s current and former interns Meir Bargeron, Tammy Cohen, Elana Nemitoff, and Sarah Rosenbaum Jones. It also included wisdom shared by Facebook friends and Instagram followers.

Additionally, this sermon, when delivered before Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), opened with these words:

Among the things I do in my spare time, and in my work time, and at nighttime, and after the lights go out, is I get on social media. You think that I’m just posting to Facebook and Instagram. But what I’m really doing is learning from others. My colleagues post their sermons, and I read them and then try to pick the best one to download and deliver as my own… I’m kidding. I like to raise questions and see how people respond, to gain understanding and wisdom. When people share from their hearts and minds, my learning is incredible.


  1. Lisa Colton says:

    I love how your sermons are representations of your listening and conversations! Thanks for sharing the final product with those of us who couldn’t be with you and your congregation for the live version! Kol hakavod!

    • Paul says:

      Thanks. I believe it was you who taught me about the concept of the social sermon, reaching out to social media friends/followers to create a sermon together.

      (Hey, what’s the next online thing I should be thinking about?).

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