A Sense of Self


Today’s two parashiyot, Vayakhel-Pekudei seem to be two of the most boring parashyiot in the Torah. It’s pages of highly detailed descriptions of the exact measurements of the building of the Mishkan, the first house of worship of the Jewish people.

It’s all the more painful to get through because we’ve already had two full parishiyot before this, teruman and tetzaveh which say exactly the same thing. The only saving grace is that this is a double parasha, so we pile all of this detail into one week and we get it over with. At least we don’t have to read this material two weeks in a row.

Well, that’s what it would seem on a first reading. But, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe there is value here. After all, this is about the building of the first national house of the Jewish people. And, I can’t think of anything that says more about who we are than the way we choose to build our house.

Our house can be one of two things. A home can be a refuge. A home can be a place where we retreat from the world. Or, a home can be just the opposite. A house can be a social center, a place where we welcome the world into our lives, a place where people from all walks of life come together and connect. And, how we choose to define our home has implications for how we live and who we are.

Last Friday, the NY Times ran a front page story that shocked me. Rachel Beyda is a second year economics major at UCLA. She had applied to the Judicial Board of the student council, the campus equivalent of the Supreme Court. Her nomination seemed pretty routine. Until it came time for questioning.

One of her fellow students asked this: “Give that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” For the next 40 minutes, Ms.Beda was dispatched from the room, and the council debated whether her faith and her affiliation with Hillel meant that she would be biased in dealing with sensitive governance questions that come before the board. The council voted to reject her four to three.

Then at the prodding of a faculty advisor, the students revisited the question, and unanimously voted her in. The four students who voted against Ms. Beda later wrote a public apology to her in the university newspaper. And the chancellor of UCLA Gene Block issued a strong statement denouncing the attacks on Ms. Beyda.

But, the damage had been done. When I read this story, I was stunned. And, I was angry. And, I was angry for two reasons. I was angry first of all because I knew exactly where this was coming from. It’s a direct outgrowth of the poisonous anti-Israel atmosphere that has been nurtured for a long time on university campuses across the country. This is just the latest salvo.

And, in the same way, the attacks on Jews in France and all over Europe are a direct outgrow of decades of vilification of Israel and poisonous vitriol spilled out against Israel in the European media and in polite European social circles. The level of hatred of a progressive country like Israel in progressive countries and in the world media is hard to fathom. It defies all reason.

And, I’m angry because we were supposed to be done with this. No country has ever been as good to the Jews as America. And, Europe was supposed to have learned its lesson. But, after all the Holocaust education, and after all the diversity training, anti-semitism is still a very powerful force in Europe and on the university campuses of America.

So, I’m sure it’s pretty obvious why I would be upset by this. But, I’m upset by it for another reason to. I’m angry because this resurgence of anti-semitism threatens my world view. Let me explain what I mean.

There was a time not long ago, that we defined ourselves by our enemies. We are the victims of the world. The world hates us. And, there are two ways of responding to that. One is to shut out the world, and to say “We have to take care of the Jewish people, and not worry about anyone else.” We have to keep Shabbat, and build day schools, and support Israel, and not worry about world poverty or racism or the environment. The goyim who hate us will take care of their own problems.

The other response is to continue to engage with the world, but to define our Jewishness exclusively through the lens of anti-semitism. “Don’t talk to me about Jewish learning, or Jewish spirituality, or even Jewish history, except when it reminds me that we are hated. I am a Jew means ‘they wanted to kill me’—and they still want to kill me – and nothing more.”

Beginning in the 1990’s, this us vs. them way of defining Jewish identity was challenged in a big way. It was a time of great optimism. Oslo meant that Israelis and Palestinians were going to make peace. Anti-semitism was already a relic in America. Soon anti-Israel sentiment would be a relic, too.

Jewish Federations poured money into Jewish education, and pj libraries and the teaching of Judaism became a source of pride. We re-discovered the idea that we have a mission to the world, to do tikkun olam, not just to defend ourselves from attack. And, Jewish leaders, myself including, both in Israel and America, spoke of rejecting victimology, and seeing ourselves as agents of our own destiny and change agents in the world.

Jews are not the only victims of victimology. It’s a common psychological trap for all nations and communities. President Obama went to Kenya and said: “Stop blaming all your problems on colonialism.” Arab and Muslim leaders have said to their community: “Stop blaming America and Israel for your own deficiencies.” So, this victimology is a human problem. We all suffer from it.

But, as Woody Allen said, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean people aren’t following you.” As a Jew, I may not want to see myself as a victim. But, the evidence of anti-semitism in the world today, and in our own country is inescapable. I have to admit, many of us have pulled our punches. We haven’t spoken out forcefully enough against anti-semitism. And, it’s because we are afraid of going back to the days of victimology. We don’t want ‘they hate us’ to define us again.

But, it doesn’t have to be either/or. Acknowledging anti-semitism and anti-Israel feeling doesn’t mean we have to be defined by it. And, it doesn’t mean we have to batten down the hatches and shut out the world. It does mean that we have to recover a healthy sense of self.

When you have a healthy sense of self, it doesn’t mean you are self absorbed. day. But, it does mean that you defend yourself vigorously when you are attacked. What happened at UCLA last week should be a wake up call. We’ve been too quiet.

I’m not saying we should be violent, God forbid. But, we Jews need to erupt a little more. We need to rampage a little more. We’ve been too polite about our anger. Israel has been abused by the nations of the world for decades. The hatred of Israel on our campuses is a moral outrage. We should let the world know that we are sick of it.

Victims of abuse too often blame themselves. “Maybe I said something to set him off.” We do this far too often both as Jews and as Americans when the world is abusive. And, we need to stop it. We need to call abuse by its name, without becoming arrogant, without defining ourselves as victims, and without claiming that we are perfect and have nothing to fix in ourselves.

And, having a sense of self means looking at the content of our identity. We say we’re proud Jews, but our actions don’t always reflect it. Far more of our kids are fluent in Spanish than they are in Hebrew. We travel the world, but not to Israel.

Today’s parasha offers us a model of balanced selfhood. The mishkan was a house with clear borders. It defined our personal space. But, it was a tent, not a fortress. It had lots of open spaces to let the world in. And, when we set up a permanent Temple in Jerusalem, God called it a house for all the nations to gather, not a place to retreat from the world.

It’s time to reassert our pride in who we are. We can be proud without being arrogant. We can be proud without closing ourselves off from the world. The world will respect us more if we stand up for ourselves. And, most of all, we will respect ourselves.