Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jewish [dis]unity

Achdus.  Jewish Unity.  These days, it's all the rage in the Orthodox Jewish world.  Countless events, publications, and more, are all named with the goal of Jewish unity in mind.  Earlier this year, an Orthodox Union magazine was titled, "Jewish Unity - It Begins With You" and contained a mirror on the front cover.  I cite this merely as an example of the prominence of the movement.  It's become a catchphrase, a buzzword, in the Jewish world.  Since assuming a position as a pulpit Rabbi, people frequently ask me, "[a]re you for Jewish unity?", as if such a complex question and topic can be answered in one word.  What exactly does unity mean, I wonder.  Unity of opinion? Purpose? Dress?  That we can all get along on some level?  Does serious disagreement run counter to Jewish unity?   

My post this morning is not really about Jewish unity, but is tangentially related.  When people praise the ever sought after Jewish unity, the praise often goes as follows:  "There were so many people doing 'x' together; some were wearing knitted kippot, some velvet kippot, black hats, straw hats, streimelach, bare heads, all in the same room at the same time."  Invariably, the mark of unity is that people wearing different styles of clothes, now used to identify people with a specific stream or subculture within the Jewish world, have come together for a particular event or cause.  But why the focus on dress?

More and more, it seems that dress has become the marker of how identify, judge, and relate to others within our community.  Now, it's obviously true that the clothes a person chooses to wear reflect something about their choices and preferences.  Wearing the garb associated with a particular subgroup within the Jewish community no doubt does tell us something.  But increasingly, it seems we no longer allow for slight variance or individuality, but prefer the superficial prejudice of costume as a near absolute.  

When determining the religious preferences of individuals, the focus (for men and women) is almost entirely on dress.  "They look like a frumme yid (serious Jew in Yiddish)."  Rather than focusing primarily and mainly on the character of individuals as markers of quality, the focus is primarily on dress.  People can abuse, steal rob, etc., but as long as they dress in the costume, their status is affirmed.  If someone, for whatever reasons, chooses to forego the costume (think Mattisyahu, who recently shaved the beard and abandoned much of the classic Chassidic dress), they are likely no longer to be trusted.  People who choose not to wear kippot or yarmulkes, as they're popularly known, are not considered serious.  No matter the charity work they do, that they are always there for those in need, or that they pray and study with diligence on a daily basis.  

I myself have witnessed such things on multiple occasions in my short time in the Rabbinate.  Person 'x' will be specifically banned from performing certain functions (for example, a Kosher food supervisor or other role) merely because we "don't trust someone who dresses like that."  There's something toxic out there, and we're so deep in I'm afraid we're totally blinded.

It's now the month of Av, when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temples that twice stood there, the idolatry that preceded the Babylonian invasion and communal discord and fracture that preceded the Roman version, and the resulting exiles.  Today, dress has become our idol, borne from superficiality, prejudice, and a desire to feel included and exclude the other.  Praising an event for its unity based on the variety of dress is paradoxical and perplexing.  Time for us all to engage in some serious reflection this year.   

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

George Washington's Letter . . .

Here in the United States, today is the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our independence from Great Britain.  Really, though, it's the day we celebrate our freedoms, liberties, and the important principles of respect and tolerance that make those liberties a reality for all of us.  These were the bedrock principles of our great nation, and continue to remain alive and well today.  In fact, the scope of our allegiance to these principles has grown larger, in some sense, to include blacks, women, and other groups that couldn't fairly have joined in celebration back in 1776.  

In August of 1790, George Washington issued a brief yet profound letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, commenting on our great then-nascent nation and the promise of tolerance for all people, Jews included.  So simple and straightforward, yet this idea has been so elusive in the history of our people.  I'm proud to say that George Washington's promise has absolutely been fulfilled; there is indeed a historical example of a politician making grand promises and having those promises completely fulfilled.  Today, in commemoration of July 4th, the highly acclaimed National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia is displaying the original copy of George Washington's letter for free from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm. In that spirit, I've decided to post the letter here, and urge everyone to read it carefully, and take some time today to reflect on the great accomplishments of the United States.  We owe our thanks to God, the founders, and all of the men and women who have fought,served, and sacrificed (militarily and otherwise) to preserve the liberty so precious to us all.  

George Washington's Letter

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.
If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy--a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants--while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington       

(letter copied from

Happy 4th!!!