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Jewish Nationalism, Antisemitism & Us Part 2 - Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning

09/20/2021 02:40:21 PM


Rabbi Bruce Alpert

Judaism is not a religion. It’s a nationality.

That statement will come as a shock to many of you. On all those forms we fill out, Jewish is the word we write in the blank next to the word “Religion.” And in the blank next to “Nationality,” we write American. Even if you were Israeli, you wouldn't write “Jewish” as your nationality, would you? And if you did, what would you write in the Religion blank?

And yet, I suspect we all know an atheist who is, nevertheless, totally Jewish. And I for one know of any number of practicing Jews whose beliefs I consider antisemitic. So clearly there is something about Judaism that reaches beyond religious practice, or lack thereof.

In saying that Judaism is a nationality, I am not denying that it possesses all the aspects of a religion: beliefs about creation and humanity's purpose; a sense of the holy and a means of sanctifying time, space and behavior. Rather I am saying that these religious aspects of Judaism are actually the foundational part of something much bigger. When God called Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, his father’s house, he didn’t do so to start a religion. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל - I will make you a great nation, was God’s promise; a nation through which all others would receive God’s blessing. To practice Judaism is ultimately to discover that it's significance does not lie in the way we live as individuals, but how we as a people - a nation - relate to the rest of God's creation. We are witness to God's presence in the world. And we act as that witness by being the nation God first created in Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham.

For nearly two millennia - from the Roman Conquest of Judea in the first century of the common era to the rise of modern Zionism at the end of the nineteenth - Judaism as a nationality was nothing more than a dream - or better yet, The Hope. The State of Israel changed all that. And it changed something else. It changed the locus of antisemitism from Judaism as a religion or Judaism as a race to Judaism as a nationality. I will talk more about this on Yom Kippur. I will also talk on that holiday about how this change in the nature of antisemitism presents every Jew - whether living inside or outside the State of Israel - with a stark choice: surrender to it, or embrace Jewish nationalism. It’s a choice most of us want to ignore by insisting that Judaism is just a religion. But, I believe, it is a choice that - for those of us who see Judaism as central to their identity - we will not be able to ignore much longer. Thus, the reason behind all this year's sermons.

But to get there, we must begin with what I mean when I say that Judaism is not a religion but rather a nationality. What makes this statement so hard to understand is that we Western Jews - once liberated from the ghetto - have been trying to deny its truth for more than 200 years. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte convoked his Assembly of Jewish Notables, a gathering of rabbis and Jewish communal leaders to answer questions about the relationship between Jews and the State. To the question as to whether Jews born and raised in France consider France to be their country, the Assembly responded that “The love of country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful and so consonant to their religious opinions that a French Jew considers himself in England as among strangers, although he may be among Jews.” They pointed out that in their last war “French Jews have been fighting desperately against other Jews, the subjects of countries then at war with France.” French Jews, then, were Frenchman first; their Jewish religion posing no threat to their French nationality.

Eighty-one years later, the Reform Movement here in the United States adopted a statement of principles known as the Pittsburgh Platform. Among those principles is the following:

We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.

What we see in both the Pittsburgh Platform and the responses of the Assembly of Jewish Notables is a commitment to conceiving of Judaism solely as a religion. Moreover, as a religion, Judaism is seen as universal, preaching values that are completely consonant with the modern, liberal state in which Jews find themselves. Maybe we go to synagogue on Saturday rather than church on Sunday. Maybe we celebrate Passover rather than Easter. Still, we speak the same language, share the same values and, if necessary, would fight under the same flag as our Christian brethren. We belong to the nation in which we were born and raised and our Jewish religion offers no obstacle to our loyalty.

And yet, there is something in Judaism that chafes against the borders our modern world wants to place on religion. Take as an example Benjamin Disraeli, the great 19th century British prime minister. When he was twelve, his father, Isaac, converted his entire family to the Church of England. Yet Isaac did nothing about the family name. Nor could he do anything about his son's strongly semitic features: the curly hair, the dark complexion, the long nose. So it will come as no surprise that, in a parliamentary debate in 1835, Disraeli was subject to a vicious attack by the Irish Catholic leader Daniel O'Connell for being, among many other horrible things, a Jew. To which the Christian Disraeli replied "Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon."

We all, as the good Americans we are, know and honor the history of this country: the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War. And yet, even as we claim that history as our own, some voice inside is reminding us that our ancestors were in some long forgotten sheytle during the days of Washington and Lincoln. But the words spoken at our Seder tables, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt," strike us as being profoundly true. Indeed, Judaism pushes its own history on us at every opportunity. Every Jewish festival is tied to an historical event: Passover to the Exodus, Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai, Sukkot to the wandering in the desert, Purim to our survival in the Persian court, Hanukkah to our victory over the Greeks, Tisha B'Av to the destruction of the Temples. To practice Judaism as a religion is to engage in Judaism as the history of a nation.

And then there is language. By Jewish law, one is supposed to recite the Shema twice a day. And one is supposed to recite it in any language one understands. That law can be found in the Shulkhan Arukh, the great 16th century code of Jewish law - where it is written in Hebrew. Hebrew is the great unifier of the Jewish nation. Simply by mastering three simple Hebrew sentences - which one need not even understand - any Jew can receive Judaism’s greatest honor - being called to the Torah - in any synagogue, anywhere in the world. And excepting the sexism practiced in Orthodox shuls, that universalism has always been and will always be true.

But beyond acting as a bridge uniting all Jews, Hebrew is one of the great languages of the world. It is the language of the Bible - of the Torah, of the Psalms, of Ecclesiastes, of the Song of Songs. It is the language of the rabbis, who found in its unrecorded vocalization every nuance, every shade of meaning that could stretch the mind to all of life’s subtleties and ambiguities. It is the language of the poets who used its natural rhythms to create a liturgy that expresses the desires and the despairs, and the agonies and the awes of a creature that lives in mortality's shadow. And now it is the language of Israelis who inflect their everyday speech with the linguistic traces of a four thousand year history. Hebrew is the language of the nation in whose words that nation’s history, law, philosophy, pathos and humor are all recorded. One can say the Shema in any language one understands. But only in Hebrew is the identity of the Jewish nation recorded.

And Judaism expresses it's nationality as a culture: a culture obsessed with the notion of sanctity, of holiness - of that ineffable quality that strives for the highest that can be achieved. So naturally Jewish culture most fully expresses itself in excellence and exceptionalism. Jews, who make up 0.2% of the world's population have won a quarter of the Nobel prizes, dominating the fields of physics, chemistry, economics and medicine. How many of the great violinists, pianists, conductors have been Jewish? How many of the great comedians? What would Broadway or Hollywood be if not for the Jews who created and built those coastal pillars of Americana? Sports might only be the only realm of modern culture where Jewish exceptionalism is not the rule. To the extent that culture measures a society's striving for transcendence, Judaism has shaped and built that culture in its own image.

And then there is land. Identification with a specific land is a key element of nationality. From the time of Abraham, Jewish hope and aspiration has been bound to one particular plot of land; a land which the Romans renamed Palestine in a vain effort to erase its identity as Judea. Our scripture scrupulously tells the story of this land: from divine promise, to political glory, to decline, devastation and ultimately rebirth. Our liturgy teems with prayers for Zion and Jerusalem. And there is this: since the time of Joshua, only one people has exercised national sovereignty over this land. Others, notably the Romans, the Arabs, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, have possessed it as a territory in an empire. It is the Jews who first claimed it as the historical possession of a unique people.

These, then the elements on which nations are built: religion, history, language, culture, land. Jews possess all of that. To think of us as merely a religion, then, is to miss the very essence of who we are.

We learn in Exodus

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be for Me a סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכׇּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים a treasure from among all the nations, for indeed, all the earth is Mine.

And further in Deuteronomy we learn

For עַ֤ם קָדוֹשׁ֙ אַתָּ֔ה לַיהֹוָ֖ה you are a holy people to the Lord your God: the LORD your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth לִֽהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה to be His treasured nation.

As these passages make clear, what we think of as religion - the fulfillment of commandments, the pursuit of holiness - is actually performed in the pursuit of something greater: the creation of an עַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה, a treasured people, a holy nation. Our heritage is not a religion of personal salvation but a nationality of global purpose. And that purpose is to bear witness to the rest of creation of God’s existence.


It is this global purpose behind Judaism’s national existence that now fuels so much of today’s antisemitism. And it is this antisemitism - which every day grows stronger by its seeming moral quality - that threatens not only the Jews of the Jewish State, but we diaspora Jews as well. I will explore this more deeply in my two sermons on Yom Kippur.

For now, though, let me close by reminding you of the promise God made to Abraham when He swore to make of him a great nation

וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה:

And in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

A noble and transcendent purpose for a noble and transcendent nation.

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784