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Rosh Hashanah 5778 – September 21, 2017

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

L’ Shana Tova U’metuka – May we be blessed with a happy and sweet New Year.

In the movie and play, Le Misarables, Jean Valjean escapes his prison and creates a new identity for himself. He establishes a factory that employs many people and becomes a well-respected man in town. His secret identity suddenly is in danger when an innocent man is arrested, accused of being Jean Valjean. What should he do? Let the stranger go to prison on false charges or abandon his assumed identity to free the poor man even if he is condemned to return to prison himself.  Alone in his room he sings…

He thinks that man is me
He knew him at a glance!
That stranger he has found
This man could be my chance!

Why should I save his hide?
Why should I right this wrong
When I have come so far
And struggled for so long?

If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!

I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
How can I abandon them?
How would they live If I am not free?

Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place

Who am I?

Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?

Must I lie?

How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on

In the end, he rescues the innocent man and must escape again into the unknown.

Who am I? That is the question that has been asked by human beings since the beginning of recorded history and perhaps beyond. Who am I? We are created, says the Torah, in the image of God. Does that define who we are? Moses, at the burning bush asks the question to God, “Who are you? What is your name?” as if knowing the name of God would reveal God’s essence. God replies, “I will be what I will be” or as some say, “I am being”. Only God could make a name into a verb! Who are we? What is our name? Are we just our English names? What does our Hebrew name say about us? What does it say about the hopes and dreams of our parents who gave us our names? What does it mean that our Hebrew names were after beloved relatives? What part of their lives are incorporated into our names?

And what about our children? We gave them names so they could answer the question, “Who am I?” Who are they named after and what values did we pass on to them with the names that they carry?

Maybe who we are is not about our names as much as it is about our actions. God’s name, after all, describes the things that God does. We are created in God’s image. Does this mean that we are defined by the sum of all of our actions? Are we to be blessed by our actions? Are we to be condemned by our actions? Are we to be praised by our actions? Are we damned by our actions? Is this how we answer the question “Who am I?”

Jerry Lewis, the actor and comedian, died just last month. As part of the reflections on his life and work, Jeremy Dauber wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times noting that the Martin/Lewis team spoke to Jews all over the country in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lewis was how they saw themselves and Dean Martin was what they aspired to be. Lewis was nerdy and funny, Martin was cool. Jerry Lewis’s most famous movie was “The Nutty Professor” where he got to play the nerdy professor (with a Jewish name) who was transformed by a potion into a cool nightclub singer. The singer was supposed to be the bad guy, Lewis once said; he was trying to teach people to like themselves as they are, but the Jewish audience preferred the singer in a big way. It was a time when Jews were not comfortable with who they were.  Our identity has come a long way since then.

Jean Valjean could not bear to live if he condemned another man to be worked to death in prison. The stain on his soul would be greater than a return to prison. Do we have the courage to stand before all of humanity and declare “This is who I am?” I am a liberal or I am a conservative; I am a capitalist or I am a socialist; I am straight or I am gender expansive; I am a proponent of fossil fuels or I am a proponent of renewable energy; I am religious or I am secular; I am Apple interface or I am Android interface; I am a Red Sox fan or I am a Yankees fan; Who am I?

The designations may sound silly or inconsequential but they are not. In this age of instant communication and the eternity of the Internet, how we define ourselves becomes part of a permanent record. Just Google your name and see what the Internet has to say about you. Every stand we take, every word we say, every side we profess will now dog our lives forever.

Who am I? Can we stand up and answer that question by saying, “I am a Jew”? Who here remembers Daniel Pearl? He was a journalist in Pakistan and was kidnapped and executed by Islamic terrorists. It is not clear if he was forced to say or if he chose to say as his last words, “I am Jewish”. He never really practiced his Judaism but his identity just before he was publicly beheaded, was “Jew”. He was, at the time, just the last of a long list of famous and brilliant people who were executed because of their connection to Judaism.

Daniel Pearl’s parents edited a book after their son died. The book was called, “I am Jewish” and dozens of modern Jews from all walks of life sent in essays to affirm what Daniel Pearl affirmed; that being a Jew is an important part of their identity. 

Sometimes, when I get a chance, I ask students going off to college, what items they will take with them to their first dorm. This is the first inkling of what they want their identity to be. If they don’t bring it up, I always ask, “What Jewish items will you bring? Will you bring a siddur or a bible? Will you bring a mezuzah for your door or some Jewish jewelry to wear? Will you put up a poster for Israel or Jerusalem? Will you announce your Jewish identity in your new home?” Sometimes I ask teenagers, “If an alien were to appear in your room, (in spite of the mess) what would that alien learn about you from the things in your room? Is there anything Jewish in your room? By looking at your room, would anyone know you are a Jew?”

Who are we?

Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, a friend of mine who is one of the chaplains at Brown University, breaks down why Jewish identity is so complicated today. She speaks in a voice I have found in my children and in other thoughtful voices of her generation. She writes “I cannot be my brother’s keeper in any authentic or sustainable way without knowing who and where I am and what it is that I especially keep – the particularly Jewish observances I practice. Particularism is the best guarantor we have for a healthy universalism; but for Jews today, it is dangerously thin. … American Jewish identity is currently dominated by two values: tikun olam, repair of the world, reflecting commitments to ethics and justice, and Zionism – which is viewed as the ultimate response to and safeguard against antisemitism, embodying remembering the Holocaust. But here is the rub: Today’s Jews are finding these two values – the only two of substance, so many have been taught – in conflict with one another. …The depiction of Judaism as animated by either suffering or social justice results in a specious choice between reaching in and reaching out that is damaging to both Jews and Judaism.”

Is this the choice that we are given to make? Either be a Jew or be a human being? If we stand for Israel or our faith we are insular, particularistic and by extension, selfish? If we care about the world, if we care about social justice, we will have to give up our Judaism so we can affirm the rights of others, the rights of the oppressed. We read far too often of Jews excluded from Gay Pride marches, from Black Lives Matter rallies and all manner of leftist causes because we don’t believe in the rights of Palestinians, we don’t believe that Zionism is racism, because we believe that Judaism has something to say to the world.

If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!

Professor Vanessa Ochs of the Religious Studies department of the University of Virginia writes in Sh’ma magazine, “the sensibility of difference-making is critically and essentially Jewish. And yet it has a powerfully destructive potential … It can turn from a lively debate of opinions to hate speech. It can turn from a stance that there are several differing forms of Judaism to a fundamental challenge of the notion that we are all part of the same Jewish people even though we express ourselves in distinctive ways.”

Who am I? Am I a Zionist or a Universalist? Do I believe in Social Justice or do I practice my faith? If I am one I am condemned, if the other I am damned.

Who am I? I am not just a Jew, I am a Conservative Jew. This does not mean that I am a Jew who follows the ideas of the late William F. Buckley, it means that I wish to conserve a Judaism that is NOT BINARY. I reject the idea that there is only one choice in the world. I reject the Black and White notion of how to decide. I refuse to take sides when there are so many facets to life.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in NY was the winner of the NY Federation SYNERGY award for Synagogue Change. In his acceptance speech last May he said, “Our identity comes layered. Our surface identity is what we answer to officially: our name, address, and social security number. Deeper than that is our list of passwords, the things people hack to “steal our identity”. Deeper still are the roles we play: mother, friend, professor, volunteer, feminist, and runner. Young men and women today face the question that never would have occurred to me: how important in all this is being Jewish? And what exactly does Jewish identity do? The answer accesses the deepest level of human consciousness: our identity as a self.  Strip yourself of job, marital status, and all the rest, and what is left when you gaze into the mirror? … What is left when we age and find slowly that all else is gone?  In this age of anxious identity everything stands or falls with these centers of moral and of narrative gravity – something that synagogues alone can provide. Spirituality is more than just yoga, quietude, and self-care. It is the deepest satisfaction we get from the discovery that we do indeed have a core identity; that we are part of an eternal story that began before our birth and will continue after our death. The search of spirituality is, therefore, centrally bound up with the search for core identity; again something synagogues alone are naturally outfitted to deliver – because core identity comes not in isolation, but through a community that connects us to something larger than ourselves; a set of ultimate principles; a master narrative in which we are a character; and a language with which to speak the deepest truths about them both.”

I am a Jew because I don’t fit neatly into the pigeon holes of modern life. I can say that in any century, my people have never been neatly in one camp or the other. As a Jew, my world is not one of choices between opposing camps. My world is one in which many camps co-exist in harmony; that justice and compassion are required in life; that I can take the best of all social movements knowing that none of them are perfect. I don’t answer to any label except the label of “Jew” which means I answer only to God.

At the end of the song “Who am I” Jean Valjean arrives in court and declares that the man in the dock is innocent. He knows this because, as he tears open his shirt to reveal the prisoner number tattooed on his chest, “I am Jean Valjean,” he sings, “number 24601”

I am a Jew. I have earned the right to speak up for Justice and for the oppressed. I have the right to speak up for the homeless and the hungry. I have the right to speak for the widow and for the orphan, for the sick and for the stranger. I have the right to worship my own God in my own way. To eat the foods God commands me, to rest on the day God commands me, to celebrate my holidays in the seasons God commands me and to observe my New Year in the fall with reflection and self-examination not champagne and noisemakers. I have these rights because my ancestors were slaves in Egypt and we left there to travel to Sinai to bind ourselves to God. I am a Jew, commanded to love the stranger because we were once strangers in Egypt. I have this right because in every generation we strive to make humanity better, and in return we have known only pain, suffering and wandering. We have a right to our own State, as flawed as it may be because we earned it through the death of millions of our people, not in battle, but because a western nation came to consider my people little more than vermin. I have this right because in the face of unspeakable suffering we have only wanted justice and peace, not just for ourselves but for all humanity. We are Jews. We are every Jew who ever lived and died honoring God and faith. We are Jews and we are proud of all we have accomplished in theology, science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, engineering, architecture, literature, painting, sculpture and music. We are Jews and we are proud of our accomplishments in law and diplomacy, in statecraft and in politics.

I am a Jew. And though many have died I wear my identity proudly. I wear my identity with the yellow star that was pinned to our chests, by the silly hats we were forced to wear. I wear my identity in the ghettos where we were forced to live and the crematoriums where we were gassed to death. I am a Jew because of all we have accomplished and all that we have suffered. I am a Jew and I am proud to be here, at this season with all other Jews to pronounce our identity to those who would march in torchlight parades and chant some anti-Semitic nonsense. We earned our place on this planet with the numbers tattooed on our arms.  A6895472 and we earned our place because in spite of it all, we never gave up on God, we never gave up on each other, we never gave up on our faith and we never gave up on humanity. We are all Jews and we continue to work for a better world, a more understanding world and a more Just world. And if that bothers somebody, then that is just too bad.

I am a Jew. Just let someone try and hack my identity. You want my Password, you can have it – Shema Yisrael H’ Elohainu H’ Echad.


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B'nai Israel on Thursday, September 21, 2017.

Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780