Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780 - Owning Our Identities
Our Declaration of Independence reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and I would include women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (and women), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Our Constitution picks up from there:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
These words have never been lived up to in the history of our country. We continue to try and find leaders that can unite us all in the ideals of the founders of our great nation. We continue to try and educate every citizen, new and old, towards what our founders wanted us to achieve. Since the founding of our country the majority of our citizens have had to fight to be included in the truth written in those two historical documents. Only we, the governed, can control how we identify ourselves so that those who govern cannot sway our emotions and beliefs against our nation’s own best interests. Only United can we insure freedom and equality for all. Only united by our identities can we work together to form a more perfect union. Together we must always be striving towards a union filled with unity, acceptance and respect.
Modern governments fail us daily despite how far we’ve come in this modern world. They do their best to keep us divided and arguing amongst ourselves rather than fix what we can fix. They use the politics of identity to prove how different we are and cast us against each other based on our differences so that we forget all of our similarities.
In the United States we are supposed to be United in our understanding of what we stand for as a nation. We are supposed to be United in our understanding of what it means to be a United States Citizen. This is supposed to mean that we are all equal and must all work together to create and share that equality with every citizen. Identity politics and identity politicians have been working too hard for too long to divide all citizens on all sides by withholding full equality for the majority and creating great distrust amongst all of us so much so that in 2016 41.9% of eligible voters didn’t vote.
As Jews we’ve seen the largest rise in antisemitism and antisemitic attacks in over forty years. For the first time in decades our houses of worship are no longer safe from bloodshed and violence. As Jews we’ve all paid attention to the rise in antisemitic attacks against us simply because we identify ourselves and our institutions as Jews.
Anger and hatred has lived in the heart of humanity for too long. As Jews we understand being identified as other, being ostracized, and driven out just for our identity. We’ve tried to teach the world that there is no reason for violence or war in this world of ours. In humanity’s failure to understand this, we will either be the cause of the end of war or the cause of the end of ourselves.
Humanity has battled at all times due to differences in our identities. These identity wars threaten us all with the end of all we know and love. As each of us seeks to discover the meaning of our identities in our lifetimes, our governments, factions, religions, nations, schools, peer groups all pull at us to make choices that not only isolate us from each other, but often turn us against one another. Renowned writer, Maria Popova in her blog, Brain Pickings, recently explored the Genes of the Soul, analyzing Amin Maalouf’s book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong
She writes “What emerges is a reminder that only by acknowledging the multiplicity of our identity can we begin to simultaneously own our uniqueness and fully inhabit our ties to our fellow human beings.
Amin Maalouf, who carries a number of such clamoring belongings within himself — born in Lebanon to Christian parents and raised with Arabic as his mother tongue, he emigrated to France in his twenties — Maalouf writes:”
Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality — sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited.
It can happen that some incident, a fortunate or unfortunate accident, even a chance encounter, influences our sense of identity more strongly than any ancient affiliation.
In fact, he admonishes, adhering to a static and absolute framework of identity is the seedbed of trouble:”
As individuals we would like to believe that internally all humans want the same thing, peace, love, safety, support, enough to eat, to just live while being surrounded by the people we love most in the world. As Jews we know all too well that this isn’t true for every human being in the world. Our suffering stems from greater outside forces always trying to pull at our identities and allegiances in order to shape how we think, how we react, how we love and how we hate.
Maalouf also writes:
"Identity isn’t given once and for all: it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime… Not many of the elements that go to make up our identity are already in us at birth. A few physical characteristics of course — sex, color and so on. And even at this point not everything is innate. Although, obviously, social environment doesn’t determine sex, it does determine its significance. To be born a girl is not the same in Kabul as it is in Oslo; the condition of being a woman, like every other factor in a person’s identity, is experienced differently in the two places.
The same could be said of color. To be born black is a different matter according to whether you come in to the world in New York, Lagos, Pretoria or Luanda… For an infant who first sees the light of day in Nigeria, the operative factor as regards his identity is not whether he is black rather than white, but whether he is Yoruba, say, rather than Hausa… In the United States it’s of no consequence whether you have a Yoruba rather than a Hausa ancestor: it’s chiefly among the whites — the Italians, the English, the Irish and the rest — that ethnic origin has a determining effect on identity.”
From the Romans, to Christians to government after government after government as Jews we’ve been forced to flee, defend ourselves or die trying for over 2000 years because the world refuses to accept our Jewish identity.
As Jews we’ve always been taught how important that aspect of our identity is. It includes our history, our countries of origin, our culture, our values and so much more. We’ve spent centuries trying to embrace all the different elements of our identities we’ve picked up on our forced march through the nations of the world. We’ve been taught who to trust, who not to trust, who to let in who to keep out, who to like and who to hate all based on our identities.
So many of us have Russian heritage, but history has taught us, don’t trust the Russians. Many of us have European heritages, but after the Holocaust we know better than to trust the Germans, the French, the Poles, the Czeks, the Austrians, pretty much most of Europe. After the SS St. Louis was turned away from our American Shores we couldn’t even trust our own American Government to serve our best interest as a people. As Jews we’ve been taught to trust no one, while being told that we must learn to be more trusting.
Over the last several years the issues of identity and identity politics have only gotten worse. In the news, over the last several months, our loyalty to the United States and our loyalty to the existence of Israel has been called into question in hopes of dividing all of us more. Both the US and Israeli governments pit us against each other with their horrific politicking, holding the lives of millions in the balance just to prop themselves up or get themselves reelected. Most of us have found ourselves divided along strict lines because our leaders want us divided, want us angry, want us fighting. They want us fighting in America, in Israel, in Europe. They don’t want us to wake up and remember that we are actually angry at all of them for dividing us. They only have their jobs in mind while all of us are somewhat worried about the fate of the world, about the fate of humanity.
Most politicians only want to be reelected. Most humans worry about family, security, having enough, gainful employment, doing some small part in taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Governments don’t want us focused on how poor a job they are doing.
Our world has gotten so much better in the last 75 years and yet nations continue to fail their own citizens. Nations continue to destroy their own citizens, to fight against other nations, to blame everyone except themselves for their own problems. Rather than build bridges and end human strife more humans suffer from neglect and the failed systems meant to help them build meaningful lives. So many humans have had their attention focused on the identities of the people they’ve been told are causing all the problems rather than forcing their governments to actually fix the systemic problems.
There wouldn’t be an immigration problem if America had established, efficient systems to naturalize everyone who wishes to be part of our shared United dream. Of course if South American leaders and Syrian leaders among others actually took care of their citizens and ended the violence and poverty in their countries their citizens would most likely stay and raise their families there. Who has ever wished to be driven out of their own home, country and place of origin?
Their wouldn’t be an Israeli-Palestinian issue if the Palestinian people had actually welcomed the offer to create the land of Israel in 1948 after they lost the war they helped start. If Palestinian officials did their jobs, if Hamas removed the written desire for complete destruction of Israel from their charter, and if all hostilities ended in Palestine against Israel then both sides could sit down to honestly talk about peace. Our Israeli leaders have worked tirelessly since Oslo to create peace, but now they too have sunk to new lows just to try and keep their jobs. After the recent elections we just might begin to see healthy change within Israel, but we still have no partners in peace from Palestinian Leaders thus making the outlook for peace remain bleak.
In Judaism we’ve always been used as the scapegoat. For thousands of years we’ve felt the outside pressures pushing us to be something else at the risk of losing our lives, losing our families, losing our community, losing our identity, losing our ancient traditions. We’ve spent all those years trying to prove we are good loyal citizens just to be exiled, attacked, abused, murdered and lied about. It is 2019. It is 5780. Isn’t it time the rest of the world should put away all the identity lies they tell themselves about everyone let alone the Jews?
Professor Deborah Lipstadt in her new book, Antisemitism wrote
“What should alarm us is that human beings continue to believe in a conspiracy that demonizes Jews and sees them as responsible for evil. The historical consequences of this nefarious passion have been so disastrous that to ignore its contemporary manifestations would be irresponsible. But the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic, and multicultural society. Antisemitism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial and religious minorities. But even if the antisemites were to confine their venom to Jews, the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss. No healthy society harbors extensive antisemitism—or any other form of hatred.
The Roman Empire wanted to be able to put their statues of gods in our Temple. They destroyed the Temple when some Jewish leaders of Jerusalem revolted. The Romans scattered us as a people to the farthest regions of our planet. Later the Spanish Christian empire forced many Jews to convert to their new religion and yet the thousand years of the Spanish Inquisition was about former Jews they didn’t trust as new sworn Catholics.
Nation after nation, even after we assimilated, never truly accepted us as citizens no matter what we did. Even today, in America, individual government leaders and a percentage of United States citizens question our loyalty as American Jews and question our support of Israel’s right to exist. They confuse our support for Israel’s existence with unswerving loyalty and support for Israel’s government. And Identity politics of course serves to divide us even on that as some of us support the Israeli government unfailingly while others see the flaws in all governments, Israel’s, America’s, Russia’s, and governments throughout the world.
As Jews many of us have come to terms with our identity of being Jewish, yet many of us struggle with what it means to embrace our Jewish identity and what it means to be Jewish. We struggle with our place within our own lives, struggle with our own doubts and dreams, let alone our place in the world and all the hatred directed against Jews even if not directed directly at us. We feel it. In our hearts, in our bones, in our very souls. We feel this senseless hatred striking at our religion, our person and our identity. We know that even if we all changed and abandoned our historical and religious identity it would never be enough for those who hold onto the irrational, baseless hatred, the desire to hate us simply for being us.
When my heart weeps, and my spirit is overwhelmed with the size of this irrational battle, I find that I must revert to the Golden Rule to just be nice. This seems simplistic, yet so obvious. How hard is it to be nice? We must own that we create our own identity and control what our identity means to us. We cannot allow others to control how we behave or think about ourselves and about the world. Our goodness, and desire to improve the world must be a central component of our identity at our core. I am Jewish. I am American. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a rabbi. I am a teacher. I am a cisgender heteronormative male, I am a white, European caucasian, I am a friend. I am a helper, I care about the world. I care about humanity. I am working every day to love more and hate less. I don’t want to hate. I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to destroy or see others destroyed. I want to win, but I don’t want to win if it means the senseless death of millions, but I won’t allow myself to be destroyed simply because others choose to remain ignorant and irrational. I am a Jew. I live as a Jew. I love being Jewish. I love the world as a Jew who sees the true potential of what humans can accomplish if we all work together.
What is your identity? How do you see yourself? What do you love? What do you hate? How are you making the world better? How are you making the world worse? What is helping you be your best self? What is holding you back?
I know I can’t fix everything. Heck, according to my wife, I have to call and pay a lot of professionals to fix many of the things that break in our lives. I know I can only fix myself and how I view my own identity. I can change what I hate. I can change how I love and how I express that love. I know I can only change how I view my identity towards creating more action that helps break down the barriers others have built before me.
Our famous Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel the Elder, said long ago "If I am not for myself who is for me? And if I’m only for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"
It is always now. It is always time to do a little more work to make the world better, to hate less and love more, and use our identity for good and not for evil.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in The Gentle Weapon, wrote “Let the good in me connect with the good in others, until all the world is transformed through the compelling power of love.” In Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of our Ancestors,our rabbis teach that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”
We have a lot of work ahead of us. It has always been so, today just feels as if the weight of the world rests heavy upon us all. Individually we feel as if we are just one voice, one opinion, one set of hands that can’t possible lift the weight by ourselves. But we all know that only if we work together towards the singular goal of peace and understanding can we create the world the majority want to live in while accepting each individual identity within us as beautiful and whole the way it was always meant to be.
The world was created for all of us. It isn’t for one of us to fix it all, but rather for all of us to take each other by the hands and work together towards repairing the world, towards reminding our leaders that only if we work together can we show the world what enlightenment really looks like, what acceptance, love and understanding of what being human really means.
May all our individual identities bring us close to each other and add to the richness of our lives. May our differences allow us to work better together towards mending the world and creating a more perfect society. May our goals align to create a world in which we make it better for those still struggling to reach the heights our ancestor’s striving has allowed us to reach. May we all see a day when all humans put down their tools of destruction and pick up only tools for building a better existence with room for everyone where we only see the colors of rainbows shining over all of us in universal peace.
Cayn yehi ratzon - May this be God’s will and may you all be written for a sweet and healthy new year.