Let’s take hold of our song sheets. We’re going to sing a slightly abridged version of this song. I think we all know the melody:
The most beautiful sound I ever heard
(Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria)
All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word
(Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria
I just met a girl named Maria
And suddenly that name
Will never be the same
I just kissed a girl named Maria
And suddenly I found
How wonderful a sound
Say it loud and there’s music playing
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying
I’ll never stop saying
Cantor:….The most beautiful sound I ever heard…
I love this song. I love the music. I love the lyrics. And, I especially love this song because it celebrates the power of a name. That really resonates with me as a Jew. Shakespeare has Juliette deliver that famous line: “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But, I don’t think that Juliette was right about that.
A name is very powerful. It draws a boundary around us and says ‘we are this and not that.’ When God began to create the world, God drew a boundary around the light and gave it a name.
A name creates an identity. That’s why it was so important for the Romans to change the name of Judea to Palestine. They were trying to destroy the identity of the Jewish people. They didn’t succeed, thank God, but that’s what they were trying to do.
Robert Wilkes was in the airport in Serbia recently, and the official behind the counter announced that the plane was going to Palestine. It was in fact going to Israel. When Robert complained, the official still refused to say the name “Israel.” Eventually, under pressure, he was willing to say ‘Tel Aviv.’ He was fired by the way, and rightfully so, because those who refuse to say our name, are saying that as far as they are concerned, we don’t exist. And, that’s not right.
Our name is our identity. Like many American Jews, I grew up with two names, my English name, Jay, and my Hebrew name, Yoel. I really felt like I had two identities. For three hours in the morning at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County my teachers called me Yoel. The rest of the day I was Jay.
I wasn’t schizophrenic. But, in some ways I really felt like a different person when I was Yoel. Now, my parents could have named me Joel. That would have eased the dissonance. But, Jay sounded more American. And, besides there was a kid down the hall named Joel who was really annoying.
But, what’s implied in this double naming is that identities are rigid. You can’t mesh the American and the Jew into one name—they can’t both be part of the same identity. So you need two names.
But, the song Maria suggests there is another way to look at it—Tony’s way. When Tony sings: ‘suddenly that name will never be the same to me”—that means a name can expand in meaning. And, if a name is an identity, then an identity can also expand. The boundaries of our identity can expand without changing the essence of who we are. We can be ourselves, and yet bigger–more than we have been.
The issue of boundaries and identity has really come to a head this year. There is a lot of anxiety out there about who should be allowed permeate our boundaries and who should not be allowed. I want us in our heads to answer the following multiple choice question:
Consider the following scenario. A minority population grows in size and influence. The majority population is alarmed. They fear being taken over. They fear the loss of their beloved way of life. They fight back. They pass legislation to restrict the minority. They attack the minority verbally and physically.
Whom does this refer to?
- The growth of the Israelite population in Egypt at the time of Moses?
- Blacks moving into white neighborhoods?
- The increase of the Charedi/Ultra-Orthodox population in the city of Jerusalem?
- The growth of the Muslim population in France?
- The growth of the Hispanic population vis a vis the white population in America?
- The reaction of the Nazis to Jewish population growth and influence in Germany?
- All of the above?
I think the right answer to that question is ‘g’/all of the above. If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that have been on both sides of the equation. We have been the ones threatening someone else’s identity. And, we have been the ones whose own identity is being threatened.
I saw a very sweet movie a few weeks ago called East Side Sushi. (By the way, before I go any further, I know that I am going to get complaints about my mentioning food on Yom Kippur. I just want to point out that most of these references will be to non-kosher food).
East Side Sushi is about a Hispanic woman named Juana who wants to become a sushi chef. Now, becoming a sushi chef takes an enormous amount of skill. There are rules about how the sushi should look and even about how quickly the chef is able to put the sushi together.
There is also an element of Tradition. The art is handed down from generation to generation. There is a great deal of pride in passing on this Tradition. And, the boundaries of what constitutes true sushi go beyond what the sushi looks like and tastes like. It also includes who makes the sushi.
So, for example, women are not allowed to make sushi. The excuse is that the perfume on their hands interferes with the taste. And, it goes without saying that a non-Japanese woman certainly may not be a sushi chef.
But, it turns out there is also an element of innovation that is permitted within the sushi tradition. As long as you follow certain basic sushi rules, you are allowed and even encouraged to add an ingredient that is purely your own idea. So, Juana is a Hispanic woman and a gifted chef. She innovates by adding jalepeno peppers from her Hispanic cooking tradition into her sushi, with fantastic results.
Everyone agrees that Juana’s jalepeno sushi is delicious and that it is still sushi, even though it has this Hispanic flavor to it. So, the word ‘sushi’ has now expanded. The identity of sushi has become bigger, more inclusive, without losing itself.
I think there is a model for us, here. The Rabbis tell us there is a fundamental tension built into the world. We cannot live without boundaries, and we can’t live with them either. God creates life by dividing things. Without these boundaries there is no identity. Yet, we yearn to overcome the loneliness and the conflict that boundaries create. We cannot eliminate this tension. But, how we manage it is the art of living a worthy life.
All around the world today, people are wrestling with this question. A majority of British citizens voted to leave the European Union. This is not just about economics. It’s about identity. It’s about people standing up, rightly or wrongly, and saying, ‘we don’t want to lose ourselves in a global culture.’
To those standing on the outside, the anxiety about losing identity can sometimes look absurd, even comical. This past January, a day care center in Denmark stopped serving meatballs since its Muslim students would not eat them. The Town Council of the city of Randers then passed a measure requiring that pork be served “on equal terms with other kinds of food.”
The councilman who pushed the measure said he was incensed that “pork could be abandoned in Denmark.” And he added, “If you give in on pork, what’s next?” Indeed, what’s next?
It sounds crazy! But, while the expression of this anxiety may at times be silly, at times paranoid, and at times downright dangerous, we shouldn’t dismiss the core concern. We should certainly be alarmed when America First becomes a campaign slogan of a major political party. In the 1930’s, America First was the slogan of Nazi sympathizers.
But, even though we have so often been victims of xenophobia, we shouldn’t think that we are only on one side of this issue. We have always had deep concerns about preserving our own identity, especially when we have been confronted with a successful, attractive majority culture.
And, we, too, have been tempted to put up walls. This past summer when I was in Israel, I got up very early one morning because there was a special shacharit service being held by Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall has been fighting for the right to hold religious services with a Torah at the kotel. This right has so far been denied them. (smuggle in)
So, I asked myself: “why this obsession with the wall? Why do the ultra-Orthodox authorities care so much?” And, I think that for some people, this fragment of a wall is the last piece of a fragile boundary protecting us from assimilation. It’s ironic to think that this wall could still protect us from the outside world—because it’s a mere fragment of what used to be the whole wall. So, there is a kind of desperation in battling to defend a boundary that was breached a long time ago.
And yet, if we look a little more carefully at the Kotel and how it has been dealt with in our Tradition, we might just have a model for how to deal with this very valid fear of losing our identity, yet without becoming hateful.
I heard a great story over the summer from my friend and roommate in Israel, Rabbi Dan Alexander who is here tonight with his wife, Dela. Both Dan and Dela have been long time friends of Janine and mine. And, Dan has a niece, Maya, who lives in Israel. And, Maya has a four year old daughter, Eleanor.
Eleanor goes to a modern Orthodox gan, a pre-school. And, recently Eleanor came home and told her mother that they were learning about Bayit Shlishi, the Third Temple, the Temple which we have yet to rebuild. So Maya asked Eleanor: “What will the Third Temple be like?” And, Eleanor said: “It will be filled with candy. And, it will have pictures of Hello Kitty all over the walls.
Now, generally, when I hear people talking about building the Third Temple, I get nervous. Usually, people who talk about this are part of a radical fringe. And, in fact, a number of years ago, the Israeli government actually foiled a plot of Jewish radicals to blow up the Dome of the Rock as a way to make way for the Third Temple.
But, if the Third Temple were filled with candy and had pictures of Hello Kitty all over the walls, I could support that. I think Eleanor is on to something. Many people make the mistake of assuming that identity is a zero-sum game. For some Jews, identity is fixed. If we are going to rebuild the Temple, we have to rebuild it exactly as it was. We have to go back to sacrificing goats and sheep and cows.
But, I think Eleanor’s way of maintaining our identity is actually more authentically Jewish. She has put chalepeno into the sushi, and still called it sushi. She took the words ‘bayit shlishi’ and made them mean something more than they meant before—-I think better.
And, this is the way our Tradition has always maintained our identity. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Rabbis knew they had a choice. They could eat sushi with jalepeno, or they could bravely hold on to an unbending sushi tradition and watch is slowly disapppear. They chose the jalapeno.
The Rabbis preserved the Temple not by holding on to a vision of the Temple as it was. They did it by transforming the Temple into a chuppah. A chuppah is not a literal duplication of the Temple. The chuppah is a Temple with chalepeno. The chuppah has a space where the wall should be. And, what that space says to the young Jewish couple is this: There are boundaries to our tradition. We want you to create a home that is traditionally Jewish. But, we also want you to bring something of yourselves to this tradition. We want you to fill in that empty space in your own way. That’s what Eleanor did.
I’ve mentioned before my experience at the Israel Museum where I encountered a work of art called The Jewish Wedding. It was just red sand on a white floor. That’s all you saw. What the artist had done was stage a mock wedding, with chuppah, couple, and guests, and even a faux rabbi.
Then, the artist sprinkled red sand everywhere the people were not. And, finally, he had the people leave by walking over benches to leave the outline of the wedding intact. Our job as viewers was to re-construct in our own minds the wedding that was.
That’s the way all Jewish weddings work. Judaism provides the outline—the structure that has been with us for centuries. But, there are empty spaces in the chuppah, so that new meaning can be supplied by the couple. Every family has its own set of memories. Every couple has its own set of dreams for the future. It’s that personal dimension that make every Jewish life cycle experience both completely original and authentically Jewish at the same time.
We have something to say to the world about this issue of identity. We are the experts! We have 3000 years of experience of fighting to keep our identity. But, we didn’t do it by building a wall. We did it by building a chuppah, which is a boundary, but a very unique and ingenious kind of a boundary.
And, we did it by singing Maria. Before I began studying at Hartman in July, I had some free time, so I took the bus into downtown Tel Aviv. I hired an Israeli street artist to give me a tour of Israeli street art on the South Side of Tel Aviv, which is kind of a seedy neighborhood. This is a new thing. There are several Israeli artists who give this kind of tour.
I met up with a 31 year old Bezalel-trained hipster by the name of Niro Taub was recommended to me. I called him on the phone. At first he didn’t want to do it. He said he only gives tours to groups. But, I told him I was a famous rabbi from America, and I’d bring him lots of business, and he was very nice to me; he cut his fee in half.
We spent about two hours together. He was fabulous. The last piece he showed me appears in your handouts. I’d like for us to take a look at it together. We know this piece was done by a charedi artist, because in the bottom left corner, it says ‘ometz la’charedim’/power to the ultra orthodox.
But, the art is more complicated than we might expect. The letters that are glued to the wall read ‘katuv b’m’forash’ (missing resh!) That means “it is written explicitly”. These Hebrew words always refers to something in the Torah that is so unambiguous that it is not open to interpretation or questioning of any kind. It would be like our saying “it’s written in stone.”
However, these words are written in scrabble tiles. And, scrabble tiles are the very opposite of ‘written in stone.’ It’s true, there are rules to scrabble. There is a structure and a framework. You can’t just do anything you want. But, within that framework, there is a lot of room for personal creativity. We decide how to combine the letters and we come up with our own words. And, when we are done with the game, we scramble the letters and we start all over again.
So, let’s play out this metaphor. What if the letters of the Bible are more like scrabble tiles than letters carved into stone? This work of art on the wall embodies the tension that everyone in the world is feeling: “how can we preserve traditional structures, but allow for personal expression?” “Is there a way to maintain our identity, but still leave room for growth and change?”
As it turns out, we the Jewish people have a world class tool for dealing with this very issue. It’s called the Bible/Tanach. As many of you know, this year our congregation is taking on the challenge of reading the entire Bible, one chapter a day, starting the day after Yom Kippur. A Biblical chapter is only one or two pages, so it’s about ten minutes of reading a day. And, at our pace, we’ll finish the whole Bible in a mere 929 days. And, in fact, in Israel right now, there is a project called 929. Tens of thousands of Israelis across the country are doing this chapter a day Bible study. And, there is a fabulous website that prints great resource material every day. So, we’re doing something together at HNT that Israel is also doing as we speak.
Now, I want you to know, that already, more people have signed up for this one course than anything else we’ve offered in the past ten years. So, it’s clearly touched a nerve. I think it’s because we have the feeling that the way we read the Bible is not just learning in the usual sense. It’s about something more. It’s about identity.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. We had two introductory classes in September. On the first class, we spent an hour and a half on the first letter of the Torah. That’s because the first letter of the Torah is a bet, and it stands for the number two, and this letter contains the tension we talked about earlier, namely, ‘we want to be the star, but we also want to join the club’—and we all have to figure out how to reconcile those two opposing tendencies in ourselves. And, there is a lot to say about that. On the second class, we spent over an hour on the third word of the Torah because that word is the key to understanding Jewish mysticism and there are whole encylopedias written about that.
So, we spent three hours in class and we didn’t even get to the end of the first verse of the Bible. What is that about? That’s the Bible as Maria. When Tony heard the name Maria, he thought of all the wonderful things about her. How could so much meaning be crammed into a single word? But it can.
Why did we go back in droves to see the seventh Rocky movie, Creed? Because it satisfies our need for the new and the old at the same time. Sylvester Stallone has figured out a way to use the same name to deliver a new message. And, it’s a great message. Anyone who has grown up with Rocky and grown older with Rocky can identify with the question an aging fighter is asking himself: “Am I still relevant? How do I adapt to the changes in myself? My family has changed. My physical skills are diminished. Can I still find renewal?” That’s the same question we are asking ourselves every time we try to find new meaning in an ancient text.
The Bible has great content. It’s spicier than Game of Thrones. But, it’s so much more. The Bible is the ultimate change management tool. The way we have always studied the Bible is intended to answer the question that everyone in the world is struggling to answer: How can we be ourselves, yet more? How can we remain inside of our own tradition, yet be free to roam, to innovate, to be part of the greater world out there? (satisfy need in our life f/continuity-change) That’s what the study of Bible is about.
Pick your metaphor. The Bible is our sushi, and, it’s up to us to add the jalepeno. The Bible is our chuppah, and it’s up to us to fill in the empty spaces with our own lives. The Bible is our Maria, and, the openness of its words to new meanings suggests an identity that can be enriched without losing itself.
This is the challenge of our times. The face of America is different than it was a hundred years ago. It is a more generous America. It’s a more inclusive America. Yet, it is still America. Can we adjust to that? Can we construct an American identity that is more like a chuppah than a wall?
The face of the Jewish people is different than it has ever been before. We’re white and black. We’re Asian and Ethiopian, Sefardi and Ashkenazi. We’re straight and gay. And we’re intra-married and intermarried. How can we embrace our diversity and still remain ourselves? How can we construct a Jewish identity that is more like a scrabble game than a stone monument?
Identity is essential. We can’t live without it. If we allow it to dissipate, we invite the extreme reactions we are getting to this year’s election: the Alt-Right, the extreme xenophobia. The best way to fight that is not to deny the need for boundaries. It’s not to tear down the walls, but to make the boundaries more humane. That’s what’s missing from the conversation about boundaries today.
There is a more than one way to construct a boundary. Each time we take the Torah out of the Ark, we say to God, ‘tivneh chomot yerushalayim’ God, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. But, in the bircat ha’mazon which we say after eating, we say of God: boneh b’rachamav yerushalayim. The usual translation is: God, in His compassion, will rebuild Jerusalem.
But, a modern thinker has given this verse a novel interpretation. She reads it as follows: “God builds Jerusalem out of God’s compassion.” Compassion is the raw material out of which God re-builds Jerusalem.
This is Eleanor’s vision—Bayit Shlishit as Hello Kitty. The question is not: boundaries or no boundaries? The question is: do we need to build boundaries of stone, or can we find a way to create our boundaries out of rachamim, out of compassion?
So, I want to invite you to join this conversation—with us and thousands of Israelis. Let’s learn together. Let’s wrestle with what it means to be Jewish together. Human together. That’s what Jews do. That’s what Jews have always done. And, as we do, may we embrace a Jewish identity that is true to our past, yet open and expansive. May we discover in the words of our sacred texts how wonderful a sound can be. May we never stop saying “Maria”. And, when we think about what it means to be a Jew this year, may we say that ‘suddenly that name will never be the same to me.”