In response to antisemitism in the news, R’Steven Philp delivered the following sermon encouraging us to push back by being proudly, joyously Jewish, at our October 28th, 2022 Friday Night Shabbat service. You can listen to the service, which includes songs by Musician-in-Residence R’Micah Shapiro, on the latest Contact Chai.
Over the past few weeks, I have been meeting with people interested in taking Exploring Judaism (we still have a few spots open, if you’re interested). The course is – as the name suggests – an opportunity for people to do just that: explore where Judaism fits into their lives, and where they fit into Judaism. It is one of our requirements for conversion, although not all people who take the class are potential converts. We have folks who are certain that they want to become part of the Jewish people and others who aren’t sure if that’s the right decision for them. We have people from various backgrounds who are in relationships with Jews or are raising Jewish children. And every year, we have a few students who were born into Judaism but were never given the tools to build a foundational knowledge of our people and our tradition.
Part of the reason I meet with folks before they enroll in the course is to hear about what has brought them to this moment. While no two stories are alike, the common thread that ties them together is curiosity and courage. On one hand, an openness to learning and exploration; on the other, the bravery to admit that you don’t know something. These are both qualities that we fully inhabit as children, but (more often than not) have allowed to atrophy as adults. As adults we’re supposed to “know things.” And so it takes a particular kind of fortitude to call or email a rabbi, and say: there’s a lot I don’t know, but I want to learn. This is why, even though I try to keep each cohort of Exploring Judaism small enough to build a sense of safety and intimacy, I have such a hard time turning people away – and so while I set a cap of 20 people per class, inevitably there are 23 or 24 folks enrolled in the course.
Some of you may be familiar with the episode in Sex and the City when Charlotte decides that she is going to convert to Judaism. In one of the early scenes, Charlotte makes her way to a local synagogue, knocks on the rabbi’s doors and – when he opens it – says, “Hi, my name is Charlotte York and I am here today because I would like to consider joining the Jewish faith.” To which the rabbi responds, “We’re not interested” and slams the door in her face. She persists, eventually visiting the rabbi at his home on erev Shabbat – and in the end, having been rejected three times, is accepted as a student. (I can’t tell you how many folks who reach out about Exploring Judaism expect me to slam the door in their face, at least once or twice, before letting them join the course).
The thing is – as many problematic tropes as there are in Sex and the City – there is some truth to the exchange between Charlotte and her rabbi. The custom of turning away a potential convert three times comes from the story of Ruth, when Naomi attempts to dissuade her daughters-in-law – both recently widowed – from journeying with her to the land of Israel. “Turn back, return to your mother’s house,” she says, but they refuse. “Turn back, my daughters,” Naomi implores. “Why should you go with me?” In response one of her daughters-in-law leaves, but Ruth stays. “See, your sister-in-law has returned to her people,” Naomi begs. “Go with her.” But Ruth clings to her and says: “Your people shall be my people, your God my God.”
While turning away the convert three times is derived from their exchange, the rationale behind this rejection is outlined in the Talmud. The rabbis teach that when someone presents themself for conversion, we say to them: “Why do you wish to convert? Look around you! Aren’t you aware that our people are worn down, distressed, despised, harassed, and persecuted?” And if the person responds, “I know – and I am humbled to share in those troubles” we accept them immediately. Clearly, their desire to become a Jew comes from a place of integrity, a love of our tradition, and a deep connection to our people. So the question arises: what would we do if the Jewish people are not worn down, distressed, despised, harassed, and persecuted? The rabbis respond, at such a time when we enjoy that kind of power, privilege, and peace we may not be able to accept converts because we cannot be sure if their heart is in the right place.
This is a week where that possible future seems far, far away. Last night I gave into the temptation of doomscrolling, reading post after post about Adidas’ decision to terminate its relationship with Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, after his (most recent) bigoted tirade – this one antisemitic in character. And while these posts were depressing, the comments were the worst – ranging from the worryingly ignorant to the unapologetically hateful. People really do hate us, with a bitterness and a fury that is hard to comprehend. And while antisemitism has found its way back into the news again (and as much as I appreciate our friends and allies condemning this most recent appreance) the reality is that – alongside the unprecedented privileges we enjoy at this moment in history – we as Jews are still worn down, distressed, despised, harassed, and persecuted 24/7, 365 days a year. I know each of us has our stories: ways in which we have been forced to confront the existence of antisemitism, both explicit and implicit. And so many of us have been fighting in so many ways for so long to rid the world of its existence. It’s important to share these stories, to know that none of us are carrying this burden alone. But it is still a burden, and today is a day when it feels a bit heavier, a bit harder, a bit more difficult to shoulder.
Meeting with my potential students, I want to slam the door in their face – not for our sake, but for theirs. “Why do you wish to convert?” I would yell at them, as I lock the door behind me. “Look around you!” We are accused of being the shadow behind every conspiracy, simultaneously responsible for dismantling democracy in the name of socialism and running the exploitative engine of the capitalist machine. We are named as the source of illness and the vaccines created to combat it, both manufactured to control the masses. We are the alleged masterminds behind the “Great Replacement” of white people with People of Color while also blamed for safeguarding the structures of systemic racism, both supposedly to our benefit.
Someone recently described fighting antisemitism as a round of whack-a-mole, a frantic guessing game of where it might pop up next: on the left or on the right; from this public figure or from that one; at school, or at work, or at the bar. It is a pernicious and disturbingly malleable form of hatred, easy to see in Ye’s twitter thread or the neo-Nazi banner that appeared shortly after above the 405 in Los Angeles – but harder to parse out within communities we have called home, communities where our voices belong, where antisemitism has found ways to masquerade behind the important (and very Jewish) work of anti-racism, queer liberation, and the legitimate criticism of Israel’s government, military policies, and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Fighting antisemitism wherever it appears is a desperate, frustrating, sometimes isolating but deeply necessary task commanded by the painful understanding of what happens when we allow this kind of hatred to fester unchecked. Four years ago yesterday, a terrorist walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA and murdered eleven Jews because he believed that we were conspiring to use Black and brown refugees to eradicate the white population of this country. May the memories of those eleven people be for a blessing. While some might wonder why we can’t simply dismiss the hateful ramblings of someone like Ye, we know that there is a direct line between his statements, neo-Nazis hanging a banner above the 405, and someone who has the means and the will to harm us. Drop by drop, each seemingly innocuous action accumulates into a flood – one that threatens to drown us all.
“Aren’t you aware that our people are worn down, distressed, despised, harassed, and persecuted?”
“I know,” the potential convert responds. “And I am humbled to share in those troubles”
This past summer, we had the incredible privilege of welcoming thirty-six (36!) brand new Jews into our community as they finished the process of conversion with immersion in the mikvah. Each of them, in their own way, understood the burden of what it means to share in the troubles of our people. And yet each of them, as they came out of the waters of Lake Michigan into the warm towels and waiting arms of their loved ones, were only filled with joy. The greatest blessing that my students have given me is a reminder that the most powerful response to those who would erase us is to lean more fully into who we are: to meet shame with pride, to meet hate with love – love of ourselves and of each other, and to meet despair with joy.
A few days ago, we entered the month of Cheshvan – also called Marcheshvan. Because the rabbis can’t leave anything alone, they ask: what’s up with this difference in names? One proposal is that the mar in Marcheshvan means bitter (think maror, the bitter herb we eat on Passover), because after the holiday-rich month of Tishrei the lack of celebrations during the 29 or 30 days of Cheshvan can feel sad by comparison. Yet others explain that mar can mean a drop of water, as attested in Isaiah: hein goyim k’mar mid’li – the nations of the world are, to God, like a drop in a bucket. Cheshvan is the month we pray for rain. It is also the month when, according to the rabbis, the flood (of Noah’s ark fame, and which we read about this Shabbat) began.
What we do, especially in the face of forces larger than ourselves, can seem so insignificant – just a drop in a bucket. After Noah and his family entered the ark, the flood rose around them and remade the world anew. Imagine sitting on that vessel, watching everything you know being swept away in the rising water. How small they must have felt. Despite all that God had promised them, I can imagine them asking themselves: are we truly the last hope for humankind? Will what we do matter? Yet the efforts of Noah and his family would change history – for if they hadn’t heeded God’s warning, if they hadn’t built that ark plank by plank and nail by nail, no one would have survived. Humanity would have ended. We wouldn’t be here today.
How do we combat a hatred as old and pervasive as antisemitism? With small acts, that celebrate and affirm our Judaism. By gathering here, on Shabbat, to sing words spoken by our people for thousands of years. By proudly wearing a magen David, a Star of David, or a hamsah, or a chai around our necks. By filling our shelves and our minds with the writings of our rabbis and scholars, poets and storytellers. By annoying our friends whenever they mention a Jewish celebrity, or activist, or athlete – “oh yeah, they’re a member of the tribe.” By celebrating our holidays. By cooking our foods. By speaking our languages, Hebrew and Yiddish and Ladino. By being Jews, living out our Judaism in ways both big and small, until drop by drop the bucket fills. Until drop by drop, rivers flow and lakes form. Until drop by drop, our actions become a flood: powerful enough to transform the world.
Let our flood be one of pride, of love, of joy.