On Being a Jew-U

Sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner

I'm not "officially" Jewish because I'm only Jewish on my father's side. He grew up orthodox Jewish in Dorchester, MA, while my mother's family is Polish and Italian Catholic. Jewish tradition has dictated for thousands of years that lineage be traced through the mother, in that way ensuring that descent is clear and more discernably legitimate.

But through my father, I am Ashkenazic, which means that I am of the Eastern European branch of Jews, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews who hail from places like Spain and Morocco. My father's family came from Russia. Some of my great grandparents and grandparents took all their possessions, sold them, left their shtetl near Kiev, bribed the border guards, got on a boat and came to America. For anyone who's seen "Fiddler on the Roof," the last scene of the village is a good illustration.

I grew up with a strong sense of being Jewish, for a few reasons. One was that Judaism is very much a faith celebrated in home and so holidays and rituals like those of Hannukah and Passover were a big deal to us. The celebration of holidays in the home was originally a response to the Jewish Temple's destruction in 70 CE. Because so much ritual could not happen at the temple's altar table after the Romans razed it, the rabbis translated many of the ritual and sacral elements to the family table in the home.

Because Unitarian-Universalism is so religiously open and multifaceted, growing up in a bi-religious household never felt like a conflict. I was very comfortable moving from Hannukah to Christmas - more presents! In fact, in the spring, Easter was totally overshadowed by Passover which was much more fun and a much bigger deal in my family's house. We were closer to our Jewish relatives than to the Catholic side, and so we had over lots of relatives and cooked special food and read the Haggadah and did the four questions and the whole deal, while Easter was basically a time to wear a nice hat and have dinner at 3 pm.

Another reason was that my family lived in a very Jewish neighborhood, where most people celebrated these holidays too, and wore Jewish charms on necklaces and had names like Goldberg, Goldenberg, Schwartz, Grossman, and Kaplan. And my mother really embraced many elements of Judaism; much as she loves the pagan greenery of Christmas and decorations and gifts, she really worked just as hard on Jewish holidays. We had hamentaschen at Purim, and celebrated the Jewish New Year with challah and honey, and cooked and cleaned and learned and sang for every holiday. I never learned Hebrew, but I knew the basic blessings and could translate the briefer ones word for word into English.

Another very important element in my connection to Judaism is my ancestors. My heritage is that I am descended from about 16 direct generations of rebbes going back to my great, great uncle, Yisrael Rudnick, the Kuchurov Rebbe, whose nickname was Sroleck the Reb. Rebbes are something like super-rabbis, who fulfill all the usual rabbinic responsibilities, but who are also considered to be slightly supernatural or mystical, with spiritual and healing powers. Rabbinic dynasties were often named after towns in Russia; Kuchurov was somewhere in what is now the Ukraine. My great, great uncle Yisrael was crucified by Christian Russians during the Russian revolution during a pogrom to break up the shtetl (village). It was his murder that motivated my relatives to sell everything and leave for America.

Probably the last factor sealing my sense of Jewish identity grew out of learning about the Holocaust, learning that while Jewish law considered that I wasn't officially Jewish, Hitler's dictates would easily have placed me on the trains, in the labor and death camps, behind the fences, with the other Jews. There is an enduring sense of profound vulnerability that came to me with that knowledge. This sense was underlined for me by learning the story of the rest of my Jewish family. Those that survived pogroms and attacks during the Russian Revolution and Civil War were dead by the end of the Second World War, killed in in mass executions of Russian Jewish shtetls and buried in unmarked mass graves. My sense of vulnerability has never left me and I believe I share this sense with almost all Jews everywhere since the Holocaust.

As I grew up, Judaism was a constant but small part of my identity. I never went to temple except for friends' or relatives' bar and bat mitzvahs, and didn't feel comfortable in temple when I was there. My father had not ever gone back to synagogue after leaving Orthodox Judaism as a teenager. I didn't join the Jewish group at college.

It was really only when I started studying religion at Harvard to prepare for UU ministry that I began to think more deeply about where the Jewish part of my identity fit in. My ministerial internship was at the UU society in Carlisle, MA. They had an essentially Christocentric liturgical year, complete with Maundy Thursday services, although they were consciously not a Christian UU congregation. During my time there I offered a sermon on Hannukah, taught them Hannukah songs, compiled a Haggadah for celebrating the Passover seder, and led the first seder. I simply felt called to do this as part of the ministry I had to offer, and I hoped the congregants would respond, both the part-Jews and the gentiles, and they did with enthusiasm and interest, and a few faux pas and lasting commitment. My last year there, as we were concluding the seder with the traditional exclamations: "Next year in Jerusalem! Next year may all be free!" the 50 people around the long table spontaneously added "Next year in Carlisle!" And they do still hold the seder, though it's been quite a while since I was there to lead it.

The real turning point came for me in a class at Harvard Divinity School called The Jewish Liturgical Year. I took to would learn about the Hebrew Bible in the context of J'ism and religious practice and beliefs, so that it would not be just dry text or merely the Old Testament, precursor to the New Testament.

The professor was a funny, unique, brilliant teacher; he makes for a very vital Jewish presence at dry, academic Harvard. He recounts anecdotes about great Jews in Sports, and the Bible - who knew that in Numbers 11, during the forty years in the wilderness the chosen people had had it and cried out in their anguish: "Enough with the manna - we want garlic!" (Numbers 11). I learned more substantive information too. I learned how central the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was for Judaism. The priests were replaced with with rabbis, temple ritual changed to much observance in the home, and temples themselves were replaced by synagogues, which though often loosely called temples, is really a meeting house or gathering places - not consecrated ground as the Temple was, but instead, 'temporary', allusive to the Temple which Jews forever hope will one day be rebuilt.

I learned about famous rabbis like Akiva and Hillel who led those who rebuilt J'ism after the destruction of the temple, and Maimonides who revitalized Jewish theology and learning in 12th century Spain. I learned that oral law, which is the compiled rabbinic commentary on the Bible contained in the Midrash, and Talmuds, is as important to Jewish worship and belief as written law of the Torah and the other books in the Bible

Most of all, I learned that Judaism is filled with morality and visions of justice that are moving and profound. The Hebrew Bible mandates that not only Jews should rest on Shabbat (Sabbath) but also their servants, Jewish or not, and not only the servants but also the farm animals should not be made to work on Shabbat, and not only the animals but also the land. Once every seven days, and for an entire year once every seven years comes the sabbatical year when you do not work the land.

Nothing is perfect - there are also provisions for slavery and treatment of slaves in the Bible, but there is much to admire and strive for. The famed good Samaritan of the Christian parable was acting in accord with the Jewish law in Torah which Samaritans follow to this day.

My ministerial studies made Judaism live for me, and made me want to honor it and incorporate it into my life. Even the scholarly model of rabbinic life - Jewish clergy place the highest value on learning and study as the foundation of religious life and living, spoke to my heart - or perhaps to the long overlooked vestiges of all the Kuchurov rebbes in my soul.

But being a UU Jew, or a Jew-U, is hard in many ways. The sensitivity of we UU's to inclusive language, gender equality, justice and moving beyond patriarchal or parochial traditions does make some aspects of Judaism very hard for me at times. There is the sexism: the traditional daily blessing wherein Jewish men thank god for not making them a woman, the small and largely unhonored role of women in the bible. We learn of the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but there is no mention of the long-suffering and venerable Sarah, Rachel and Leah. Likewise, yarmulkes (skull caps) are for men to wear, as are tallises (prayer shawls). Even today, a special group of liberal, observant Jewish women is waging a mighty struggle for the right to worship on an equal basis with Jewish men at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. They call themselves the "Women of the Wall" and they want they right to wear yarmulkes and tallises and to carry the Tanakh at the wall for prayers and holidays. In previous attempts to do this ultra-orthodox men and women have spat at them, attacked them, hit them with furniture, and lain hands on them to curse them.

There is also the exclusivity of the Jewish self-conception as chosen people with a sense of uniquely close relationship to God and the divine, as a bride to a groom, possessing a special, ultimate truth. (Of course this religious dynamic is not limited to Judaism, but Judaism is the religion I am personally concerned with, so...). This is the justification for the Jews' biblical invasion of Middle East's fertile crescent and killing or driving out of native peoples. This has changed some more recently; in fact some modern Jewish theology no longer holds that only Jews are saved, but that Jews are chosen by their observance to redeem all the peoples of the earth - this is even an explanation for the strangely consistent suffering of Jews throughout history and the world for the last 3-4,000 years. But participants in Passover and other holidays know that this exclusivity and sense of chosenness or superiority are still celebrated and lifted up throughout the liturgical year. We see it even in the debates around domestic policy in Israel with the Israeli and Palestinian people.

What makes my difficulties with such traditional elements of Judaism especially difficult is that tradition, and adherence to tradition, is all that has kept the Jews and Jewish culture intact over all the centuries. It is hard to know how to respect tradition without ending up stuck with ideas, beliefs, and behavior that is no longer possible or acceptable to me.

I wonder sometimes what my rebbe ancestors would think of me. Would they be glad that I am rekindling my Jewish heritage? Would they think it shameful that a woman is working as a scholar and religious leader? Would they feel that my loyalty to Unitarian-Universalism and its messages, nebulous as they sometimes are, is selling out the very heritage so many Jews have suffered and even died for? Would they be glad for me, proud of me or shocked at me, to hear me recite a b'racha, a blessing at the Passover seder, and then see me in a church building on Sunday in my robes and stole which has on it a Jewish star and also crosses, symbols of Greek paganism and of nature, a depiction of a deity and a goddess no less?

I doubt they would be pleased or even accepting, but I was raised UU and I was raised Jewish. I cannot be other than I am. And I see such power and opportunity in the intersection of these faiths.

There are pamphlets from the turn of the last century which reveal that there was at the time a great dialogue between Unitarians and Jews regarding a great question: were the two faiths the same? Is this a truth revealed by the similitude of Unitarian Francis David's words: "We must accept God's truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on earth. God is indivisible. God is one." and the central statement of Jewish faith, the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

There are no guidelines about how to make my life as a Jew and a Unitarian-Universalist meaningful and right. But I know that it feels right to be engaged in this work of reconciliation and exploring and deepening and to share my journey with others. I take time off each year to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays, the time in the Jewish year when individuals are judged by God and each other, and forgiven or not. People ask each other to forgive them for any wrong or hurtful thing they did during the past year, and ultimate, divine forgiveness is contingent upon receiving human forgiveness. Each year I know that I have made mistakes and done wrong in the past year, and there are people I must ask for forgiveness. But something I am increasingly sure that I have done right is to listen to my heritage and to the aspirations of my soul, and tried my best to live by them.

We all need to heed the depth of our roots and and the height of our visions. It was James Luther Adams, a UU theologian, who articulated the great truth that revelation is ongoing, continuous. Remembering this is essential if we are to be true to our deepest and best selves. From my own treks, I can say the path is rarely clear, especially when approaching what matters most, but no one ever said the most direct path is the best. There seems to me to be endless meaning to be found in life, as much meaning as we can stand to seek. Choices are not always clear, life is not always as we want it, but by God it is life. L'CHIYEM!

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