What Does It Mean to be a Jew?
Rosh Hashanah 5778/2017
Rabbi Daniel Pressman
These High Holy Days are about new beginnings—repentance and renewal. We return to first principles, to basic questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What are my values? Are my deeds and values aligned?
One of those basic questions concerns me today: What does it mean to be Jewish? Not, what does it mean to me to be Jewish? But what is the essence of Judaism and Jewish life and values—the standard to which we aspire? Our Rabbis and teachers gave many answers to this question. These days, one Talmudic text calls to me:
“The nation of Israel is known by three characteristics: They are merciful, they are humble, able to feel shame, and they act with lovingkindness.”
The Jerusalem Talmud calls these three traits matanot tovot—good gifts that God gave us. They are the essence of what it means to be a Jew.
Remarkably, Maimonides codified them in the Mishnah Torah section dealing with forbidden relations. He wrote;
We operate under the presumption that all families are of acceptable lineage and it is permitted to marry their descendants…Nevertheless, if you see two families continuously quarreling with each other, you see one family that is always involved with strife and controversy, or you see a person who frequently quarrels with people at large and is very insolent, we suspect [their lineage]. It is fitting to distance oneself from such people for these are disqualifying characteristics…Similarly, whenever a person is characterized by insolence and cruelty, hating people and not showing kindness to them, we seriously suspect that he is a Gibeonite [that is, not really Jewish]. For the distinguishing signs of the holy nation of Israel is that they are humble, merciful, and kind.
That’s astonishing. Determining a person’s Jewish status depends not only on their lineage, but on their nature and conduct. And that isn’t in a sermon by Maimonides, it’s in his code of law. Focusing on these three traits doesn’t mean that non-Jews lack them, or that they aren’t valued by other religions. It simply means that they are essential to Jews and Judaism. So let’s examine them more closely.
Raḥamim translates as mercy or compassion. We call God Haraḥaman, the Merciful One. Alan Morinis, the Mussar teacher, writes, “As God is compassionate, so should we be compassionate. That means that a person who seeks to realize their spiritual potential ought to be able to feel another person’s sorrows and joys as if they were his or her own experience, to join with them in those feelings, and then to go beyond that emotional fellowship to take action on behalf of the other.”
Baishanim is a little harder to translate. It means someone who is able to feel ashamed when they do something wrong. We’re not talking about toxic shame, a general feeling of worthlessness and self-loathing. We’re talking about recognizing that one has done something wrong. Call it conscience.
One rabbi defined baishan as “morally sensitive.” I like that, because someone who is self-centered and shameless will be morally insensitive and will live a destructive life. As Rabbi Emanuel Feldman writes, “Shame operates as a force of self-restraint. It reminds us of behavioral limits, of boundaries which we will not cross.”
The third trait is gomlei ḥasadim, acting with lovingkindness. Ḥesed is not just a feeling — it is a way of acting in the world. It means we take the initiative to help others. It reminds us that being a good person is not just about not doing wrong, it is about being a force for good.
These three salient, essential Jewish traits interact: compassion is the sense of fellow-feeling, of empathy and sympathy. Moral sensitivity means that we are alert to the quality of our deeds. And gemilut ḥasadim means that we act on these feelings and discernments.
You can trace your genealogy back a hundred generations, but if you aren’t compassionate, ethical and kind, you are not acting like a Jew. There are two Yiddish phrases that capture this, and that show how deeply imbedded these values are in Jewish consciousness: One is zei a mench, which translates literally as “be a man,” but really means, “act like a decent person; don’t be a jerk.”
The other is Es passt nicht – “that’s not the way a person should go”—it’s not becoming. It’s not the proper thing for a Jew to do.
I think of these values often when I am overwhelmed by human cruelty rampant in the world: great cruelties like bigotry, violence and oppression, slavery, and human trafficking, and petty, but corrosive cruelties like the degradations of reality television and the excremental tide of verbal abuse on the internet. Our modern media pour out an endless stream of callousness and insult. The Torah within me cries out es past nicht, this is unseemly. I want to shake the world and say zei a mench—be human. As Jews, we are called to resist desensitization, to oppose meanness and rage. As Jews, we are called to hold our leaders and ourselves to the standard of kindness, conscience, and lovingkindness.
We have seen what the culture’s loss of basic social norms has wrought: Charlottesville and its shocking pictures of racists and anti-Semites crawling out from the rock where public opinion kept them for so long. If you would know from where they came, just google “Jews truth” or “Talmud truth” and see how fast you find hateful postings.
Sadly, this venom of cruelty and abuse has also poisoned discourse in the Jewish community. I bet that everyone here knows someone that they can no longer talk to about American politics, or Israel, not because you disagree—disagreement is a venerable Jewish tradition—but because civil conversation is no longer possible. Where did that come from? — Not from the Talmud, or millennia of respectful Jewish debate. It came from the debasement of discourse in America. It came from the influence of the prevalent culture of nastiness and arrogant insistence that my truth is the truth.
An authentic Jew who lives by the traits of compassion, conscience and good deeds should shake off these non-Jewish influences, because we have been taught a better way. We should meet those with whom he disagrees with compassion and empathy, should seek common ground and shared values. We are called to resist the tide of abuse, selfishness and cruelty which floods our culture. We are chosen to be kind and caring.
Let me give you two examples of Jews living these values. One is the Israel Defense Forces Mobile Field Hospital, a model of compassion and kindness. It can set up a full field hospital including a maternity ward, anywhere in the world, within 24 hours. It began in 1953 when Israel sent medical help to Greece, which had suffered a devastating earthquake. Think about it: Israel was a poor country, absorbing thousands of refugees from the Holocaust and Arab lands. Yet it sent a team of physicians to help another country.
Today, Israel has the only response team given the highest rating by the World Health Organization. Its director, Dr. Ofer Merin, told the AIPAC Policy Conference,
What makes our team special is more than speed and logistics. We approach every patient as though they’re a member of our family. To be sure, we treat the injury, but we also treat the husband who just lost his wife, the child who just lost his mother, and the members of the community whose world has been turned upside down in a matter of seconds. The “who” does not matter, nor does the “where.” The only thing that matters is treating a patient, any patient, with the highest quality care we can provide, with the highest moral values while respecting the dignity of those in need.
And lest anyone doubt that Jewish values inform this extraordinary effort, Dr. Merin concluded, “Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to close with a quote from the Bible from the Prophet Isaiah, ‘I will appoint you as my promise to the people as a light unto the nations.’ My team and I hope that in a small way, our work in the world is helping to make that light shine just a little brighter.”
This ethic doesn’t only apply to distant lands. Hospitals in the Galilee treat wounded people from the Syrian civil war, who make their way to Israel because they know its values. Even though Syrians have been taught all their lives to hate Israel and Jews, a mother with a wounded child knows that she can come to the border and be met with compassion and help. As Dr. Masad Barhoum, director-general of the Nahariya hospital, said. “It is Israel’s nature to help whoever can be helped. I’m proud to be a part of this healthcare system that acts without hesitation to provide humanitarian aid internationally when we are able. This is an all-embracing mitzvah.”
My other example of menschlichkieit comes from the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a spokesperson for the Westboro Baptist Church. You remember them, they are the repulsive group that pickets soldiers’ funerals, blaming their deaths on America’s tolerance of homosexuality. They are just as vehement in their antisemitism. They stand outside Jewish events with signs like “The Jews killed Jesus.” Last March they protested outside Yeshiva University, singing, “Wrath will soon pour on you, for your harmful sins, your great affliction, it will soon begin” to the melody of Hatikvah.
Megan was active in the Church’s twitter feed, following their hateful party line. One day she read that David Abitbol, founder of the web site Jewlicious was the second most followed Jew on twitter. So, as described in an article in the New Yorker:
Phelps-Roper tagged David in a post so that he would see it. She wrote, “Atlanta: radio guy says, ‘Finish this sentence: the only good Jew is a…’ Ma says ‘repentant Jew!’ The only answer that suffices, @jewlicious.” Obviously, by repentant, she meant converting to Christianity. David played dumb, and responded, “Thanks Megan! That’s handy what with Yom Kippur coming up!”
Thus began a back and forth that went on for a long time. David said, that he wanted to humanize Jews to Westboro. “I wanted to be really nice so that they would have a hard time hating me.”
He kept questioning her beliefs until she found she had no answers to some of his questions about the cruelty of her church’s teaching. His warm outreach culminated when Megan left the church along with her sister Grace. Previously, Megan had picketed a Jewlicious sponsored conference with her church with their usual hateful signs. Now, David invited Megan and Grace to speak at a Jewlicious festival in Long Beach. David said, “People, before they met them, were, like, ‘So, now they’re not crazy gay haters and we’re supposed to love them?” He added, “And then they heard them speak, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
David Abitbol acted with compassion, conscience and lovingkindness to reach out to someone most people doubtless dismissed as irredeemably wicked, and through compassionate listening, kindness, humor, and patience, helped her to see his humanity and to understand Jews and Judaism. He supported her in her wrenching decision to leave her church, which also meant leaving her family.
The IDF Field Hospital and David Abitbol embody what it means to be a Jew: to heal the sick and befriend the adversary. And these are just two of countless contemporary exemplars that I could have cited, including some people who are in this room.
The High Holy Days are a time to recommit to these three traits. We have to transcend our political philosophies, our habits, and even sometimes our self-interest in order to be a force for good in the world. We can block out the exploitation that masquerades as entertainment and the enraged screaming that passes for political discourse. We can find comfort and encouragement in seeking out the positive examples of kindness and compassion that are underreported but I believe are still the norm. It will make us not just better people, but also happier.
Maybe we can’t stem the tide of humiliation, bigotry and rage that surges around us, but we can resist it, individually and as a synagogue community. Beth David must be a “haven in a heartless world,” a place where mutual concern, and caring support are the norm; a place where differences are resolved with understanding and respect; in short, a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. Because an authentic caring community is holy. And perhaps through our example we can bring a measure of redemption not only to ourselves, but also to the world: a light to the nations.
I believe that these essential Jewish traits—compassion, conscience, and active kindness—are how we transcended our history of suffering and persecution, preserving our dignity and our decency. As the poet Charles Reznikoff wrote, out of the greatly wronged a people teaching and doing justice; out of the plundered a generous people; out of the wounded a people of physicians; and out of those who met only with hate, a people of love, a compassionate people.
May this be our guide as we begin a new year.
 Yevamot 79a.
 Mishnah Torah, Isurei Bi·ah 19:17
Let the Old Year with its Curses End…
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778
Rabbi Daniel Pressman
There are many reasons to spend the maximum amount of time in shul over these High Holy Days:
- the liturgy is beautiful, challenging and complex
- reflection and repentance are hard, and deserve extended focus
- being with the community is inspiring and comforting
But this year, I have another reason: every minute I spend here is another minute I can’t listen to the news!
Surely you know what I mean: hurricanes, earthquakes, political polarization, anger, North Korea, Iran, endless conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, constant threats against Israel. And the news is 24 hours, pushing to our phones, tempting us to turn our car radios to see what new bad thing has happened.
So I have two ideas to share with you. The first is lighthearted, the second is serious.
Lighthearted: Earlier this year I came home to find my fiancé Helen sitting in front of cable news, upset by whatever bad things had happened that day. I said to her, “Let me do you a favor.” I turned off the news, switched to the Roku, and searched on Youtube for “babies and puppies.” Trust me, there are plenty of these. A few minutes of extreme cuteness, and she slept better that night.
Serious: I looked back and saw that in 1996 and 2005 I opened with a greeting: “Tikhleh shanah v’kil’loteha, tahel shanah uvirchoteha. May the old year with its curses end, and may the New Year with its blessings begin.” I didn’t realize then that these words are actually a part of Sephardic prayer for the High Holy Days, a 13th century piyyut that uses these words as its refrain. The verses are a litany of pleas to God to look after God’s “little sister,” the people of Israel, who are suffering in exile. Each stanza but the last ends with “May the old year with its curses end.”
Isn’t that what we all wish? A new year is an arbitrary date in some ways, but it is useful both for our specific tasks of personal reflection and repentance, and for looking back and looking forward. The piyyut reminds us that hope is embedded in the High Holy Days. Why have this elaborate process of reflection, remorse, reconciliation, repentance and atonement if we considered change and improvement to be hopeless? Yes, there is constant pleading with God for forgiveness, of asking to be inscribed in the Book of Life. But there is also the firm belief that our future is not predetermined, that we can change for the better.
It’s challenging. One of my favorite teachings from Rabbi Israel Salanter is, “It is easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change one character trait.” But the same Rabbi Salanter created the Mussar movement, with its profound methodology of character and ethical improvement. Rabbi Salanter would tell us: “It’s hard but not hopeless.”
Judaism’s emphasis on human resilience and capacity to change is in some ways unusual. There are many religions that are far more deterministic, and some of today’s psychological and economic theories are equally skeptical about free will. Judaism presents us with a system of Torah and mitzvot, which are both commandments and a sacred discipline for overcoming our worst impulses. It affirms the possibility of teshuvah. Which also means that human beings are not hopelessly depraved.
Judaism has been a religion of hope for the future. That prayer is one example. After five stanzas of lament over the persecutions and indignities of exile, the last verse lifts up the worshippers. “Be strong and rejoice for the plunder is ended; place hope in the Rock and keep His covenant. You will ascend to Zion and God will say: Pave! Pave her paths. May the new year and its blessings begin!”
In the depths of Exile, we expressed hope for the new year, for better times, for redemption, for return to the Land of Israel.
My second example is the Partizaner Lid, the Song of the Jewish partisans in World War II. It is a song of defiance and hope against impossible odds.
Never say this is the final road for you,
When leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
That is the Jewish spirit defying the machinery of oppression and death—it seemed hopeless, but they chose to fight. And some of those partisans and ghetto fighters survived. They went to Israel after the war. They fought in Israel’s war of Independence, and some of them founded kibbutz Loḥamei Hagetta·ot, the Ghetto Fighters’ kibbutz.
So, may the old year with its curses end. There has been much to disturb and depress us. But now let us draw on the encouragement of our tradition to find hope for our personal progress as human beings, and hope for our battered world to summon the resources to move forward, to diminish hatred, war, and suffering. May the new year and its blessings begin.
Finally, there is a variant of this new year wish: “Tikhleh shanah uk’laloteha, aval birkhoseha yimshakhu. May the old year with its curses end, but may its blessings continue.” In our personal growth, and in the world at large, the landscape is never entirely bleak. There are personal moments of goodness and kindness, and there are rays of hope and human kindness in the world—we saw it with the response to Hurricane Irma—a curse if there ever was one.
I spent the past year as an interim Rabbi in Dallas, Texas. That community was exemplary in its outreach to the Houston Jewish and general community. 70% of the Houston Jewish community live in areas that were flooded. In all, the Dallas community collected seven big rigs of food. Under Dallas Jewish Federation auspices, the Dallas area Kosher supervision agency, coordinated the services of Dallas-area kosher caterers to provide meals on a daily basis for one week and through two Shabbatot. About 1,000 meals a day were provided. Two Jewish summer camps opened their facilities for those who had fled Houston. The congregation I served, Shearith Israel, is opening its doors to Houston Jews for the High Holy Days. And these are just a few examples of people being a blessing to others.
That 13th century prayer reminds us that every year has its curses and blessings. And every Rosh Hashanah is an occasion for faith in the future. And we are here today because our ancestors never gave up hope.
Both versions of the new year wish acknowledge the hurt and brokenness of the world while affirming the good and the promise of life, but the second version adds something precious. Tikhleh shanah uk’laloteha, aval birkhoteha yimshakhu. May the old year with its curses end, but may its blessings continue. If curses end, but blessings continue, then blessings accumulate from year to year—each year more blessed than the last. And so, may God grant us the year we yearn for, a year of enhanced blessing, of healing and renewal, of peace and peace of mind, in our own lives, and for the world. And join me in saying: Amen.