Saturday, July 24, 2010

Jews for Jews

NOTES:  I delivered this d'var Torah (sermon, or literally "words of Torah") this Shabbat morning, July 24, 2010, at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA.  My learned friend Steve Carpey commented after that we should spend time studying the word "ger" (stranger) in our texts, and I think this is an excellent idea.  I welcome contributions to such a conversation either through comments on this blog or at the readers' discussion forum on my book's website.  And most important, I dedicate this entry to my daughter, Audrey, who celebrates her 23rd birthday today.

Six people are in a conference room. Four are Jewish, two are not.
This may sound like the opening line of a joke, but I know my oratory limitations well enough to avoid that tack.

I’m actually describing a meeting I attended Wednesday morning. The group was discussing a new concept for providing much-needed social services in the greater Philadelphia area, with a focus on making them readily available to the Jewish community. The funders (who were not in the room) had expressed interest in providing the services, at least initially, only to Jews and only through Jewish agencies.

How do you think this went over with the non-Jews in the room?  And how do you think the Jews reacted?


The two non-Jews barely seemed to register the issue. They focused on the need and how best to respond through the expertise each of us brought to the table.

Each of the four Jews, however, exhibited discomfort, one quite frankly and the others more subtly.

Later, in private, one of them said to me, “I hate the culture of Jews for Jews.” He was not suggesting that Jews should not support Jews, but that we best do so by supporting the broader community from the outset. In the case at hand, the established Jewish organizations in Philadelphia fail to provide the full scope of relevant and critical social services. We would deny our fellow Jews critical resources by limiting our program to Jewish agencies. In addition, the Jewish people needing these services seek, in part, socialization with others who have similar issues. By limiting them to the Jewish community, we would dramatically decrease their opportunity for developing a strong and extensive peer group.

Parashah Va-ethannan, however, with its frequent references to the chosen status of the Israelites, easily could suggest that we are to keep among ourselves as a community apart. We may understand this from D’varim 4:3-4, with the words “Adonai your God wiped out from among you every person who followed Baal-peor; while you, who held fast to Adonai your God, are all alive today.” And from verse 20:  “you Adonai took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be God’s very own people....”  We read in verses 37 and 38, “God loved your fathers, God chose their heirs after them; … God led you out of Egypt, to drive from your path nations greater and more populous than you, to take you into their land and assign it to you as a heritage….”  Certainly, chapter 7 seems to reinforce the message:

When Adonai your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and dislodges many nations before you…and Adonai your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter. You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. … Instead … you shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire. …[O]f all the peoples on earth Adonai your God chose you to be God’s treasured people.

How can we not read this parashah as an injunction to live apart?  Jews among Jews. Jews for Jews.

But let’s read it again.

Chapter 4 verse 6 tells us to “observe [the laws and rules] faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”  Within the Decalogue, which we read in this parashah, the commandment to observe the sabbath includes “the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do,” adding “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” And the v’ahavta (which also appears in this parashah in case the shema just before it and the Decalogue weren’t enough to make this a heavy hitter) instructs us to “bind [the laws] as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

These passages remind us that we are in no way a nation apart. Rather, we live very much among the world at large, and our chosenness confers a responsibility to set an example, not a privilege to remain separate. If social construct allows us what society defines as privilege, our own experience as slaves in Egypt must put this in perspective, teaching us to be inclusive of strangers and of those who serve us. Finally, we bear responsibility not only to keep the laws within our community and teach them to our own children, but to post them where all people can benefit.

Chapter 4 opens by stating why we observe the law: so we may enter the land. Chapter 5 begins with an explanation of why we study the law: so we may observe it. On our individual journey with the law, we travel in a closed system. Yet when we teach the law, the world opens up. From the passage that models the wise child’s question in the Passover Haggadah, we learn that when our children ask what the laws mean we are to invoke our slavery in Egypt…the very reference that we’ve just connected, in the Decalogue, with including the strangers among us.

Rachel Barenblat, a rabbinic student in the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program, holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and provides Torah commentary, in part through Torah poems, on her blog that she calls Velveteen Rabbi. This is Image, her 2008 Torah poem for Va-ethannan:

We're made in the image
and the likeness
which means we're
chips off the God block.

Damut, likeness, sounds
related to dam, blood
as though God's DNA
inhered in our bodies

though the etymology
doesn't hold up. Still
maybe it's the God in us
that lets us form

clay into vessels, wood
into houses, words
into language—
but we need to take care

not to worship
the structures we build
not to confuse
our various capabilities

with the real source
of creative power, lest
the land spit us out
and our God consign us

to never remembering
there's something out there
greater than the work
of our limited hands.

Barenblat goes on to say:

It's a paradox that we're made in the image and likeness of God …and yet [w]e're made in the form of something which has no visible form. So then what does it mean for us to be in God's likeness?

The answer that most satisfies me is that we're in God's likeness because we too are able to create. In Biblical Hebrew there are two verbs which denote creation: one which means forming or making (this is an act in which we can easily engage) and one which means creating ex nihilo (this one is God's purview alone.) The verses in this week's portion which caution against making sculptured images are there, I think, to remind us that even our most sublime creations are formed out of building-blocks we didn't create ourselves. That our power is necessarily limited. That we should be mindful of the Source from whence our creativity flows.

This lesson in humility—and thus in humanity—must inform our understanding of chosenness. Our creative force is but one aspect of a larger creation. We belong to a greater whole. We are not above. We are not apart, but a part.

Jews for Jews. To me, this means that we uphold our values and beliefs by sharing our creative force—the good we can bring—with the world at large. As Va-ethannan teaches, this “will be proof of [our] wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’” With our modern sensibilities, we also recognize that this journey takes place on a two-way street where we can equally benefit from the wisdom of others. In fact, Moshe himself understood this, as he took the advice of his father-in-law—an outsider—to set up the Israelites’ system of governance. When we are an asset to and humble member of the community at large, we protect our own place in the world and, as the parashah instructs, “do what is right and good.”


  1. Thank you so much for sharing my poem in your d'var Torah; I appreciate it! And I look forward to exploring your blog more as time goes by.

  2. It's a great lesson -- I especially like the line "If social construct allows us what society defines as privilege, our own experience as slaves in Egypt must put this in perspective, teaching us to be inclusive of strangers and of those who serve us."

    However, I feel like the Torah portions you cite DO frame Jews as patriarchally "above" and "apart"... First, of course, with the "destroy the other nations" bit, and then even in the line you cite as saving grace, about treating slaves well, because we once were slaves, too, and of course we have this ultimate "wisdom and discernment" to share. This MEANS we are, according to the text, above and apart! Despite having been through the ordeal of being enslaved, as a people, we enslave individuals, and consider them not equals but slaves. Jews are so "discerning" as to distinguish the chosen people from the rest, thereby claiming god-given sovereignty as so many oppressive peoples have done throughout history, forcefully and/or rhetorically, and as Jews among others do today strapped with weapons in staunch allegiance to a piece of land. Get over yourself, Jews. If we truly are "chosen" to serve a "higher" social purpose, then exercise the highest form of mitzvot, and give of yourselves to the world without pinning a national/ethnic/religious badge on your own lapel or that of your worthy recipient.