In 1964, Look magazine ran an article on the “Vanishing American Jew,” predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in the United States. Y2K came and went with somewhere between 5.2 and 6.7 million Jews in the US population. Look magazine didn’t fare so well, vanishing in 1971. With delicious irony, Alan Dershowitz titled his 1996 book on Jewish identity The Vanishing American Jew.
So here we are, 10 years on from the publication of Dershowitz’s book, a full generation removed from the Look article, and still feeling insecure about our future, uncertain about our purpose. No surprise. Since Abraham walked Isaac to the mountaintop, each generation of Jews has supposed itself to be the last, and each generation of Jewish leaders has fretted aloud about what one historian called “the ever-dying people.”
Not me…at least not this morning. I would like to posit, for the sake of argument, that Jewishness in America is not in danger of disappearing, and that the more interesting question is the one that Rabbi Daniel Gordis chose as the title for his 1997 book: Does the World Need the Jews? In other words, what does the fact of our continuing existence bring to the world?
As a starting point, let’s begin with Abraham. Before he brought Isaac to the mountaintop, before Isaac or Ishamael were born, before Sodom and Gomorrah, back when he hadn’t had his name enlarged and was just little old Abram…he was Abram the Ivri. Our Tradition looks at the very first occurrence of the word ivri – “Hebrew” in the Torah, and asks, what does it mean? What is Torah saying about Abram when it calls him an Ivri? What is it saying about us, his children?
Three opinions are preserved in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 42. They offer us three ways of understanding just what Jews bring to the world. Let’s study them together:
and the Rabbis each explained the word ivri differently. Rabbi Judah taught:
All the world stands on one eyver, (“bank”)
And he stands on the other eyver.
Rabbi Nehemiah taught:
He was a grandson of Eber.
The Rabbis taught:
He was from eyver — from across — the river,
And he spoke Ivrit — Hebrew.
I’d like to consider each of these opinions…but in reverse order. As we make our way back through the paragraph, we’ll see that the children of Abraham do indeed have something to say to the world.
Ivrit – The Language of Hope
We begin with “The Rabbis.” That’s the way the Tradition refers to an acknowledged opinion that isn’t associated with any one particular scholar. In their second observation, they offer the most practical, and seemingly least interesting view. He was called an ivri because he spoke the language called Ivrit. “Duh!” The Torah calls Abram an Ivri because it recognizes that identity is bound up with language. As a speaker of Ivrit, Abram was recognizably different from those around him who spoke different languages.
Does our status as children of the Ivri, the “Hebrew speaker,” teach us anything about how we might offer something to the world? It’s a stretch, but let me suggest that there’s a message about hope in the fact that we are still ivrim who can read ivrit. When we pray in Hebrew we are connecting ourselves to that very first ivri, bearing witness to the fact that an everdying people has in fact never died. Hebrew does not have the status of other “classic” languages such as Greek or Latin, which bear little resemblance to their modern counterparts. The ancient Hebrew of this morning’s Torah reading, the medieval Hebrew of our prayerbook, and Haim Gouri’s modern Hebrew are links in a continuous chain of literary output. An Israeli schoolchild who can read one can read them all.
And Israeli schoolchildren can read them! For two millennia, Hebrew was primarily a language of prayer and literature, but just over a century ago it was revived as a spoken language. Millions of Israelis – Jews, Christians and Muslims – go to school and work, order their lunch, and ask how to find the bathroom in the language of Abraham. We Jews don’t talk very much about resurrections, but in the rebirth of the Hebrew language we have performed one.
On Sunday mornings, I teach Adult Hebrew from 8 to 9 am. I’m not fishing for new students, though all are welcome. I do hold up that class as an example of the power of the language to unite us and transform us. Students with no ulterior motive – meaning, no Bar Mitzvah party on the horizon – choose to learn the language of Abraham the ivri. In reading that language, however haltingly, they connect themselves to their brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel and to their ancestors across the generations.
That the children of Abram the Ivri are still speakers of Ivrit teaches hope.
Ever – The Man from Across the River
The Rabbis’ first observation and that of Rabbi Nehemiah are related, so we’ll think about them together. Relating the word ivri both to the biblical personality Eber – Noah’s great-grandson – and to the word meaning “across,” This teaching suggests that the children of Abraham are an ancient people who come from somewhere else. In other words, perennial immigrants. Wandering Jews.
It’s an apt observation, of course. We have lived everywhere, and that has been the key to our survival. My teacher Jacob Rader Marcus called it “omniterritoriality,” and delighted in the fact that the word had eighteen letters. The Talmud teaches, “God showed his goodness to the Jews by scattering them among the nations.” And Rashi comments, “If they are scattered, they cannot be annihilated at one fell stroke.” And Marcus concludes, “There must be no land without some Jews.”
By always being from across the way, we have never been able to forget our roots as wanderers. The Haggadah bids us to recite each year, “My Father was a wandering Aramean.” Tevye the milkman reminds us why Jews always wear their hats. We’ve maintained our distinctiveness even in the midst of the civilizations that have, with varying degrees of success, sought to assimilate us or annihilate us.
I sat in on a fantastic discussion a couple of weeks ago in our religious school. As part of a child/parent day for the fifth grade, Temple member Chris Ponsford led a creative writing exercise which began with a free-association on “what being Jewish feels like.” I was amazed at how viscerally our students keyed in on that sense of “otherness;” greater still than my amazement was my pride in the fact that the students embraced that otherness so fully. “Being Jewish is cool because it’s different.” These young men and women – perhaps more so than their parents, almost certainly than their grandparents – are comfortable shouting vive la difference from the rooftops of home, school and synagogue, and wearing their otherness proudly.
Our world seems to be rushing toward homogenization at a breakneck pace. Every mall is the same, every town has the same chain restaurants, and cultural differences are for growing out of, not for hanging onto. That the children of Abraham the Ivri, the man from across the river,
are still recognizable, and still different, reminds the world of the beauty of diversity.
Me’ever Achad – Abraham the Contrarian
That the children of Abraham still speak Ivrit reminds the world of the power of hope. That the children of Abraham are still on the move and still distinct reminds the world of the beauty of the diversity. And for Rabbi Judah, Abraham the Ivri is the bearer of the prophetic message.
“Rabbi Judah taught: ‘All the world stands on one eyver, one bank of the river, while Abraham stands on the other.'” Abrahan, in other words, is the consummate contrarian, a questioner of authority, unwilling to accept “because I said so” as an answer, never afraid to stand for what he cherishes, even if it means he must stand alone. Sound like a tribe you know?
We are the heirs of that contrarian spirit. Among our ancestors is the prophet Amos, who cried out, “Let justice roll down like a mighty river.” More recently, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stepped out of the comfortable, go-along-get-along mold that was expected of a seminary professor to remind us that “in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.”
As children of Abraham, and Amos, and that other Abraham, is there a prophetic role for us to play as Jews when we see not justice rolling down like a mighty river, but torrents of water washing away our neighbors’ homes? Can we step in and do the world-repair of which we spoke last night, bringing a measure of relief and wholeness to a broken situation? Can we stand in solidarity with our neighbors who face these waters not once every five hundred years, but five times a summer? Something is rolling down on the residents of Westway and Canutillo, but it sure isn’t justice.
As most of us aren’t residents of Canutillo, the easy path is to say that the problem isn’t ours. But Abraham didn’t choose the easy path. That the children of Abraham the Ivri, the Contrarian, are here to stand for what is right even when it’s not popular or expedient, is ultimately the answer to Gordis’s question, “does the world need the Jews.”
I usually do the “social justice” sermon on Yom Kippur morning, where the prophetic reading – “is this the fast I have chosen!?” – is so well-suited to this sort of message. The texts spoke to me a bit differently this year, and I’m glad they did, because it has given me the chance to offer this sermon in the presence of some friends of our congregation from San Judas Catholic Church, near the corner of Sunland Park and Doniphan. The church’s Confirmation class is helping out downstairs with child care, and some of their parents are with us here this morning. Accompanying them is Alicia Franco, who has been a tireless worker and great partner in getting Border Interfaith up and running. We are grateful to the students for their help, and to San Judas and the rest of the institutions that are our partners in being public – never partisan, but public – with our values and our roots.
You received a blue pamphlet this morning, with information about the candidates’ forum Border Interfaith is conducting on October eleventh at Western Hills United Methodist Church. I hope you will be there. One of the things we do at Border Interfaith events it have an institutional roll call, where each congregation stands in turn. Temple Mount Sinai’s strong felt presence that night will speak volumes about hopefulness and diversity; attending in our numbers, we will bear witness to the fact that the children of Abraham the Ivri are hardly vanishing, and are needed now, more than ever.