This sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur 2007 at Chicago Sinai Congregation.
I am not sure whether my remarks today should be described as a sermon. The High Holy Days especially are a time for considering the meaning of Jewish identity. My objective, this morning, is to provoke discussion. I fully expect that there will be some, perhaps even many, who will disagree and that’s good. Optimistically, I would hope that my remarks with give you something to talk about, and even to debate among yourselves. That would be terrific. My purpose is to challenge and to provoke discussion. What I intend to explore is the nature of Jewish identity today which, I believe, is undergoing a dramatic transformation, one which challenges some of most basic assumptions.
That having been said, I would like to begin by telling you about a most intriguing person who died this past August. A funeral Mass was held for him at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, prior to which friends and members of his family recited the Kaddish and other Jewish prayers for him. And this was according to this man’s specific request. The juxtaposition of the Kaddish and the Catholic funeral mass, at Notre Dame de Paris was extraordinary in and of itself.
Who was this person? Originally named Aharon Lustiger, he converted to Catholicism when his Jewish Polish parents sent him to live with a French Catholic family during the Holocaust. At the time of the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, Aaron was sent with his sister, to live with a Catholic woman in Orleans, and where Aaron, at 13, against the wishes of his parents, decided to convert. He was baptized in August 19^0, adding the name Jean-Marie to Aharon and thereafter entered the priesthood. He was ultimately promoted to senior positions in the Catholic Church’s and served as archbishop of Paris from 1981 until 2005. Pope John Paul II made him a Cardinal, and for many years he was among the Pope’s closest confidantsand advisors.
Cardinal Lustiger mostly kept silent on the death of his mother, Gisele. But during France’s National Day of Remembrance to commemorate the deportation and death of French Jews during World War II, Lustiger, taking part in the reading of names in 1999, came to his mother’s: “Gisele Lustiger,” he said, then added, “my mother,” before continuing. I should also say that every year, on his mother’s yahrzeit, he would dress in a business suit and go to the synagogue to recite the Kaddish.
On the day he was appointed archbishop by the Pope, Lustiger declared that he considered himself both a Jew and a Christian. In his mind, he believed that he had realized his Judaism by being a devout Christian. Essentially, he saw himself as a Jewish Christian, like the first disciples of Jesus, who were all Jews. In a 1987 collection of his writings, he stated: “Christianity is the fruit of Judaism. For me it was never for an instant a question of denying my Jewish identity.”
He also wrote: “”I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the nations. That is my hope, and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”
As you might imagine, these assertions were not well received by the official Jewish community. Although admiring his personal qualities and contribution to interfaith understanding, they rejected his claim that he was still a Jew.
In response, the cardinal said: “To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps.”
Before his appointment in France, Cardinal Lustiger visited Israel and even had contemplated taking a church position here. He knew Hebrew and studied Judaism in depth. He did much to strengthen ties between the church and Jewish leaders by accompanying John Paul II on his landmark trip to Israel in 2000. He also was involved in efforts to end the dispute between Jews and Catholics over the presence of a convent at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and ultimately he helped the Pope to resolve that difficult and emotional controversy.
As a final note, he retired as archbishop in 2005, but with the Pope’s death that year, the cardinal frequently was mentioned as a potential successor. Could you imagine that: a Jewish Pope? He responded to this speculation with a little characteristic humor. Asked by a Jewish friend over dinner whether he thought he might become pope, the cardinal responded in French-accented Yiddish, “From your mouth to God’s ear.”
Cardinal Lustiger’s lifelong insistence that he was still a Jew is what makes his story especially perplexing. In fact, it was a source of considerable consternation and anger among the rabbis of France. The conventional wisdom is that he was no longer entitled to say that he was a Jew, notwithstanding the facts that he lost his mother and Auschwitz and that, as a young man, he was required the wear the yellow star of] David on his clothes, as were all Jews living under the oppression of the Nazis.
Clearly, he could no longer be considered a member of the Jewish religion. His conversion, which incidentally was never a matter of saving his own skin, is to be respected, as we must respect the decision of anyone who chooses to convert to another religion, even if we do not especially approve of that decision. Jewish law is unanimous on that point. But, the more difficult question is: Was Lustiger still a member of the Jewish people? This is a question not only concerning this particular individual. It has much broader implications, particularly in these times in which interfaith and intercultural marriage has become commonplace.
By long standing tradition, one born of a Jewish mother is a Jew. The Reform movement expanded this definition and for quite some time now has asserted that a Jewish may be a person either of whose parents are Jewish. And, of course, one who converts to Judaism definitely is included as a member of the Jewish religion and people.
But there are several significant challenges to this definition: The expanded definition that allows for patrilinear descent is itself defective. Clearly there are some people who have one or even two Jewish parents who deny that they are Jewish at all. And to them, I would say: “Gey gesulterheit.” Let them go. We can get by without them.
We also have the so-called Messianic Jews, also known as Jews for Jesus, who contend that they are still Jews in spite of practicing fundamentalist Christianity. They even mimic many Jewish traditions, which they have incorporated into their own rituals, a practice that we find especially offensive. Are the Jews for Jesus still Jewish? Not a chance.
Then we have the intriguing story of the Ethiopian Jews, also referred to as the Falashas, who were airlifted to Israel in the 1980’s following many centuries of isolation from all other Jews. Their religion was a far cry from anything we would normally think of as Judaism. It had many of the elements of an African tribal religion. It is something of a mystery as to how they became Jewish in the first place. They believe that they are the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but that is not likely. Were they Jewish or not? Absolutely, they are Jewish, and their enthusiastic embrace of Israel is one of the most heart-warming stories of our generation.
Or how about the thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel after the fall of Communism? Many of them were only vaguely Jewish, some with only one Jewish parent, and others possibly not even that. Hardly any of them had any knowledge of Judaism, nor had they ever observed any of the traditions of our faith. Are they Jewish? I would say the jury is still out on this one.
Closer to home, we have today in America a very large portion of our Jewish population who are just secular people, who do not affiliate with synagogues or other Jewish institutions, who do not contribute to Jewish causes, and who basically have no connection to our faith. It is of interest that in recent population studies, when asked what their religion is, nearly half of all Jews respond: “None.” Are they still Jewish? I would have to say yes, but with their profound disinterest in almost all things Jewish, I am not sure that their inclusion counts for much.
Then, from a very different perspective, we have many thousands of men and women who have married Jews and who are raising their children as Jews, yet they do not formally convert to Judaism. Some of them continue to identify themselves as members of the faith in which they were raised; others do not. You may recall that I like to call these people “Jewish green card holders.” Here at Sinai, as in many Reform congregations, we have many such people, and many of you are here with us today. You may not be technically Jewish, but you have become functionally Jewish. We are both delighted and honored to have you as part of our community. And, of course, I must add that we are especially gratified when some have converted to Judaism, although we would never pressure anyone to do so.
It really runs the gamut, doesn’t it? And I have hardly even scratched the surface. What about Jews who do not believe in God? What about those who reject the most basic precepts of the Torah? Are they still Jewish? Of course, they are. We do not have a theological litmus test. What about those who do not support the State of Israel and who may even sympathize more with the Palestinians, such as the now former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein? We may despise what he says, but I don’t believe that anyone would say that he is not Jewish.
So, the question before us, which I hope you will spend time talking about, is: Who and what is a Jew? I believe that it is helpful to make a distinction between the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. Clearly, the two are not synonymous; there are two somewhat different sets of considerations. There is believing and there is belonging, and the two are not the same. I contend that it is indeed possible to belong to the Jewish people, without being of the Jewish religion, but I do not believe it is possible to belong to the Jewish religion without also belonging the Jewish people.
The Jews for Jesus seem to practice a hyphenated form of the Jewish religion, and many of them are of Jewish descent, but they are definitely not Jewish. Why? Because they identify themselves with neither the ideals nor the aspirations of the Jewish people. There are a few simple tests for this. What are the children of Jews for Jesus? They are invariably being raised as Christians. Do the Jews for Jesus support Jewish causes or connect themselves in any way with the Jewish community? Not in the least. In fact, they are aggressively proselytizing, using deceptive advertising, to undermine the very religion of which they falsely claim to be a part.
So how are they different from Cardinal Lustiger? The difference is that Cardinal Lustiger was an “Ohev Yisrael,” one who demonstrated his concern for the well being of the Jewish people long after he had left the Jewish religion. To the best of my knowledge, he never attempted to influence anyone to convert away from Judaism. And despite all those who rejected his contention, he insisted that he had remained a Jew at heart. Parenthetically, I want to add that, even though I am not completely sanguine about this, had I been in Paris, I would have joined in reciting the Kaddish in his memory.
Perhaps we should simply stop trying to say who qualifies and who does not. Instead we should be asking: who can we count on and whether they identify with the aspirations and values of the Jewish people. In this way, we could go a long way in helping to bring about a greater Judaism in the making, one based not on lineage or DNA, or ethnic chauvinism but rather on a sharing of Jewish destiny. We are a very small people, getting smaller all the time according to demographers and also synagogue affiliation numbers. I would say it is about time we stop disqualifying people and start embracing those on the periphery, even if we are sometimes have great difficulty in accepting the way their conduct themselves.
Here in America, particularly in these increasingly secular times, religious identity is a matter of choice. It is a voluntary commitment one either makes or does not make. I believe it is incumbent upon us, as liberal Jews, to be as inclusive as we possibly can be. If someone wishes to identify with the Jewish people, then why should we say: “No, you do not belong here.” Chicago Sinai Congregation has always accepted, as worshipers and as members, people from a wide variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. This inclusive practice has only added to our vitality. The slogan on the facade of our building says it all: It does not say: “Only Jews welcome here.” It does not say: “Only enter here if you agree with us.” Rather it proclaims: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” This is a slogan and a commitment that has served us well for nearly a century and a half. I believe it offers the possibility of an expanded and more dynamic Jewish people. We are a community bound together by our history and heritage, by our cultural and ethnic ties. That is true. But more than all of this, we must be a community of ideals, of conscience and of principles. And I say: let us welcome all who are willing to connect their lives to the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. And furthermore, we must treat them as equals, whether they are formally Jewish or not.
This is what I would like to believe is what Moses intended when he addressed his people in a tone so momentous that it is read to this very day in synagogues everywhere on Yom Kippur in synagogues everywhere
“You are standing this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your heads of tribes, your elders and leaders, every one in Israel, men women and children, and also the others (i.e. strangers) in your camp…”
In speaking of that which he hoped would come to pass, Moses drew a very large circle, including within the future covenantal community of our people Israelites and non-Israelites alike. There is no evidence that Moses asked the non-Israelites of the Exodus to swear a loyalty oath. I would say that Moses’ vision for the future Jewish people was considerably broader than what has come to be over the centuries. Perhaps it is time to return to the original blueprint.
All those who identify with the aspirations of the Jewish people should be welcome in every Jewish congregation and community. Would that should be true of the entire household of the People of Israel.