Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jewish Exceptionalism

Bein Kodesh L’Chol - Jewish Exceptionalism
Shabbos, September 1st, Parshas Ki Seitzei
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg - Boca Raton Synagogue

Perhaps the most repeated phrase at the Republican National Convention this past week, one uttered by almost every speaker who addressed the audience was “American exceptionalism.”  Indeed, the idea of America as a unique, special and exceptional country was a theme of the convention and part of the republican platform itself.   American exceptionalism was the centerpiece of Senator Marco Rubio’s introduction of Republican candidate Mitt Romney and it was an idea and principle that Romney himself touched on as well.

What is exceptionailism?  Is it by definition arrogant and racist to see oneself as exceptional?  These questions are particularly poignant and relevant for us as Torah Jews who remain loyal to a tradition of Jewish exceptionalism.  As uncomfortable as it may make us, and as awkward as it may be, we cannot hide or deny the concept of our chosen-ness.   Indeed, every single day of our lives, one of the first things we do when we wake in the morning is to remind ourselves that we are different, we are exceptional, we are chosen – “asher bachar banu mi’kol ha’amim, blessed are you Hashem, who has selected us from among all of the nations of the world.”

As western democratically minded people, we are naturally uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish chosen-ness or exceptionalism.  After all, isn’t it racist, bigoted, discriminatory and doesn’t it engender a sense of superiority and conceit, attributes that are supposed to be anathemas to the Jewish people?

It is somewhat comforting and reassuring to know that we are not the first to struggle with our Jewish identities, particularly as they compete and complement our secular ones.   The great Avraham Avinu, the founder of ethical monotheism and the father of our people, when purchasing a grave for his wife described himself as “ger v’toshav anochi imachem, I am a stranger and a resident together with you.”

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that in this introduction, Avraham captured the tension that ever Jew is destined to live with forever.  On the one hand, we are toshavim, residents and inhabitants of the great countries in which we have lived.  We function as active citizens participating in the fullness of the society around us.  And yet, at the same time we must remain geirim, strangers, different, apart, distinct and dissimilar.

Ger v’toshav - we are to simultaneously be part of, and apart from the general world around us.  Striking the proper balance and equilibrium between our dual identities and roles is the mission of the Jew in every place and at every time that he or she has lived.

There have been periods in our history in which we didn’t need to work hard to remember that we were different.  Through their anti Semitism, persecution and oppression, our hosts have often reminded us that we were geirim, we were different.  As badly as we tried to blend in, as hard as we tried to assimilate and much as we sought to merge with those around us, we were denied the opportunity to be toshavim, equal residents and citizens.  Indeed, I would say that the imbalance towards being geirim, towards being different, was our status for the bulk of our history, particularly in exile.

And yet, here we are in 2012, blessed to live in the greatest country in the history of mankind, a truly exceptional place that has afforded us extraordinary opportunity.  I would like to suggest to you this morning that once again our balance is off, our equilibrium between ger v’toshav, stranger and resident is out of alignment, but this time it is in the opposite direction.

For the next four weeks I would like to speak to you about how in my opinion, we are placing too much emphasis on our status of toshavim, full participants in society and we have neglected and overlooked our status as geirim, as different and distinct.   In my opinion, the challenge of assimilation is one that not only confronts those who don’t identify strongly as Jews or who are open to intermarriage.  I submit to you that many of us, particularly our children, are struggling with being assimilated Jews who happen to observe Torah and Mitzvos rather than being Torah Jews who happen to assimilate the best of contemporary society into our lives.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, once stood before a Torah U’Mesorah convention, a gathering of Jewish educators from across the country.  He suggested to them that he could summarize their entire duty, their task in five words.  If nothing else, their job, their role and their mission of inspiring the Jewish future came down to their ability to communicate to the next generation “asher bachar banu mi’kol ha’amim, we are to be exceptional.”   If a Jewish child walks away with nothing else from their Jewish education, minimally they must be made to feel that we are exceptional, chosen and destined to be different.

Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Levi, the great medieval Spanish philosopher and poet, saw an allegiance to the principle of Jewish exceptionalism as fundamental and foundational to our faith.  Why?  Why did Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Levi, author of the Kuzari, see it as so critical and in what way is it the sum total of what Jewish education is all about?

Ki seitzeh lamilchama al oyvecha…our parsha is a perfect example of what it means to be an am ha’nivchar, a chosen, exceptional people.  Exceptionalism, at least in the Jewish sense, does not include arrogance, racism or superiority.  Jewish exceptionalism is not a right, a license, or a privilege, and it doesn’t entitle us to anything.  Rather, Jewish exceptionalism is a duty, an obligation and an awesome responsibility.  Our parsha contains the most mitzvos of any in the Torah.  Among the seventy-four commandments in Ki Seitzei are laws that could only be expected of a people charged with being exceptional.

Lo sir’eh es shor achicha - This morning’s parsha contains the obligation and duty to perform ha’shavas aveidah, return a lost item.  It is not simply virtuous or meritorious to pick up a lost item and seek its rightful owner. Instead, we are warned lo suchal l’hisaleim, we are not allowed to close our eyes, look the other way or pretend we didn’t see the lost item.  In Judaism, stopping, picking up a lost article, seeking its owner and going to the trouble to return it, is the law, no different than the obligation to observe Shabbos or keep kosher.  Caring to that extent about the property of others is nothing short of exceptional.

Ki yikarei kan tzipor - When you want to take eggs from a nest, you must first send away the mother bird.  Most commentators see as the root of this mitzvah the obligation to be sensitive to the mother bird.  Other legal systems restrict animal cruelty in the physical sense.  Only the Torah restricts hurting the animal’s feelings.  Legislation demanding that we care about the impact of our actions on the feelings of animals is nothing short of exceptional.

Zachor es asher asah Hashem Elokecha l’Miriam - Remember what happened to Miriam and recall the Torah prohibition against speaking ill of others.  Refraining from sharing unkind stories, information or opinions, is not just nice or ethical in Judaism, it is the law and our obligation.  Mandating that we guard our tongue and be as careful about what comes out of our mouths as what goes in them, is exceptional.

Our parsha is replete with commandments and laws that define and obligate an exceptional society.  We must maintain the dignity of debtors by allowing them to use their collateral, even after their loan has come due.  We must pay our workers on time and cannot withhold their payment, even for a moment after they have earned it.  We must show particular care, concern and sensitivity for the widow, the orphan and the convert.  When we harvest our field, we must leave something for the poor and indigent.  In Judaism, charity is not supposed to be exceptional; it is the expected norm of each of us and that is truly exceptional.  We must never embarrass someone and instead treat people with the dignity and honor they deserve.  We must use only honest weights and measures.  Indeed, the Torah describes cheating in business as to’eivah, a repulsive abomination.

Our status as an exceptional people is not intended to make us feel superior.  Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, has pointed out that we don’t recite asher bachar banu al kol ha’amim, he has chosen us above all other nations.  Rather, we say mikol ha’amim, he has chosen us from among all the nations of the world.

Being exceptional is about feeling obligated and bound to live more ethically, act more sensitively, conduct ourselves more honestly, and proclaim our faith in the Almighty with pride and distinction, and never with shame or embarrassment.

While it may sound politically incorrect or feel awkward, the plain truth is that Judaism demands that we be different, not superior, but different.  Tragically, too often, religious Jews do stand out for being different, but not in an exceptional sense.  We must overcompensate for how their conduct sabotages our mission and undermines our mandate by striving harder to live up to the ideals, values and standards the Torah expects of us.

Jews shouldn’t be known for being cheap; we should be known for being generous.  We shouldn’t have a reputation for being rude; we should have a name for being respectful.  We must not be thought of as feeling entitled; we must be admired for acting selflessly.

It takes courage to be different.  Jewish exceptionalism demands that we dress according to the principles of modesty, not according to the fashion of the times.  Jewish exceptionalism means that we speak in a way that is distinguished, never employing the slang or profanities of the street.  Jewish exceptionalism means we have values that are unequivocal and non negotiable in our lives like honesty, integrity and honor.  Jewish exceptionalism means never wavering in our commitment to Shabbos, kashrus or halacha, no matter how we may stand out or be made to feel different as a result.

Jewish exceptionalism means we work hard to maintain a Jewish home striving for holiness and sanctity.  It means we apply a Jewish filter to all that enters the threshold of our houses.  Even though we are toshavim, participants in society, not every magazine, website, book, newspaper or TV show belongs in a Jewish home.   We must be geireim, strangers, to many aspects and elements of pop culture and of secular society.

Jewish exceptionalism means having the strength of character to do things even though there is nothing in it for me.  It means we value every moment as precious and never seek to kill time.  It means we are eager to be charitable, we are the first to volunteer, we fight against injustice, we defend the underprivileged and we answer the call of those in need.

Over the next few weeks we will develop this theme more and discuss important applications of it in our lives.  But my friends, you must understand that it is precisely this struggle, this critical balance between ger v’toshav, being a stranger and a resident simultaneously, that is at the core of inspiring the next generation.  If our children see that in truth we would prefer to be exclusively toshavim, fully immersed in the country clubs, the pop culture, the secular lifestyle that surrounds us, if they sense that we long to eat in any restaurant we want, go to the beach club on Saturdays and be unencumbered in our lifestyle, we have little chance of making Judaism exciting for them.   If they see that our yarmulkas literally and figuratively spend as much time in our pockets as they do on our heads, should we be surprised if Judaism doesn’t speak to them in meaningful ways?  If they perceive that we are prepared to observe mitzvos and keep halacha, but in truth, we wish we didn’t have to be different, we have little chance to inspire them to aspire to Jewish exceptionalism.  If they sense the difficulty, the burden and the strain of living Jewishly, why would they choose it for themselves?

Rav Hutner was correct.  The single most important value we can and must teach our children is that they are and can be exceptional.   We must tell them to stand tall, to be chashuv, to strive for kedusha, and to embrace the responsibility and satisfaction of being exceptional in all that they do.

My friends, the time has come for us to stop being assimilated, secular Americans who happen to observe mitzvos.  Beginning now, let’s commit to be observant, Torah Jews who are also proud Americans.

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