This past summer my son and I drove to Connecticut to spend a Shabbat at the Isabella Freidman Spiritual Retreat Centre. The theme of the retreat was Jews and Baseball. As this was a Jewish retreat there was no actual physical activity on the schedule. There were Shabbat services and loads of talking. The faculty consisted of a Pulitzer Prize winning writer from the New York Times, a columnist from the Philadelphia Daily News, the Director of the award winning documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, a real live Jewish professional baseball player who I had never heard of and quite a few baseball fanatics who write books, blogs and host websites about Jews and Baseball. There were even two Rabbis on the faculty who have written books on the subject.
I have learned in 17 years that most of you get glassy eyed when I speak of baseball, but I ask you this morning to hang in for another few minutes.
The last session on Saturday evening just before Havdalah was entitled “Who is a Jew?” It was an exploration of how the “experts” determine who counts and who doesn’t for purposes of inclusion in the tomes of material written about Jews who have played professional baseball. If you have a Jewish mother, no problem you’re in. If you have a Jewish father, in or out? If you have a Jewish mother but you are a Jew for Jesus, in or out? If you have a Jewish mother and a Jewish father and are a Jew for Jesus and want to be included as a Jew, in or out. If you have a Jewish parent but don’t call yourself a Jew, in or out? If you convert through a non-Orthodox procedure, in or out? Stupid, silly questions you say. Maybe you are correct. What does it matter if a few fanatics argue about who is a Jew? But you and I live in a world where blogs, websites, Facebook, and twitter easily determine truth. If one or two of these mediums determine the definition of a Jew, for purposes of baseball cards and Jewish fantasy baseball leagues, it becomes a truth regardless of how big or small the following. I’m not sure I want the Talmud of Jewish baseball players determining who is a Jew. By the way if you think this is just narishkeit, soon the state of Israel will field a baseball team in hopes of qualifying for the World cup of Baseball next spring. Israeli citizens and any Jew can represent the state. You and I know both know that once a person puts on a jersey that says “Israel” on his chest the debate as to who is a Jew is over. The question of who was a Jew for purposes of a children’s game had morphed into a much more existential question, what it means to bear the identity of a Jew.
As we struggle with issues of Jewish continuity, Intermarriage, the future of the Jewish people in North America, our own survival as a spiritual community clarity about Jewish identity is no small matter.
In a few moments we will once again read of our first ancestor, Abraham, and his tortured plight in choosing to follow God’s command to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. But as many of you know the story of Abraham and God did not begin in Chapter 22 of Genesis. It started ten chapters earlier. Perhaps if we go back to the beginning and don’t start in the middle of the story we can discern the nature of this relationship, its content, its contours and its implications to us for defining what it means to be a Jew.
God said to Abram,
“Go forth from your native land
and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
I will make your name great
You shall be a blessing
I will bless those who bless you
Those who curse you shall be cursed
All the families on earth shall bless themselves by you.”
In these verses we learn that to be a Jew, to self-identify as a Jew, to inherit the legacy of our ascribed heritage is “to be a blessing”, to act so as to bring blessings into the world, to live so that others may be blessed by you, this is the heart of what it means to be a Jew. Please note not a word about lineage or genealogy, barely a whisper about the kinds of definitional arguments that permeate the Jewish world. Abraham was going to identify himself as a Jew because as a Jew he would accrue blessings that would enrich his life.
One of my contemporaries who now teaches at Hebrew Union College recently wrote about Jewish identity;” We sort of want a Jewish identity and we do not want it; we want our children to have it but not too much of it. Such is the tortuous and convoluted situation of modern Jewish identity.
We are a funny breed. We come out in droves two days a week for the two longest services of the year, but skip the joy of Simchat Torah and the merriment of Purim, not to mention the drinking. We want our kids to be Jewish, if possible to marry Jewish, but are ambivalent at best concerning Jewish education after Bar Mitzvah therein robbing them of having a fighting chance of having a mature understanding of their Jewish heritage.
We want our grandchildren to be Jewish, to continue the heritage but often give generously to almost every other worthwhile causes except for the very institutions which can help insure a future for our progeny. We Kvel at the wonderful contributions members of our community have made to the humane society building campaign, cancer centers, Telethons for CHEO and the Heart Institute and so many vital secular institutions. Worthy causes all and the contributions, both large and small, deserve to be loudly praised. Yet the UJA annual campaign has been struggling for years to exceed even cost of living increases, even though more than 65% stays in Ottawa.
We want the synagogue and its clergy to be available to us when it’s time to marry our children, bury our parents, and visit us at home or in the hospital, counsel us at times of need, but show meager emotional support and grudging financial support on the days in between. Esau was ready to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. How much would it take to trade ours?
Some of you know the famous story of Nathan Birnbaum, who later changed his name to George Burns. When he was seven he and three buddies on the lower east side formed a singing group called the Pee Wee Quartet. Once when George, Nathan, was seven he and his group were cajoled by a Presbyterian church to enter an amateur talent contest on behalf of the church. They won what else. The church received a purple velvet cloth and each of the children received an Ingersoll watch worth 85 cents.
George was so excited about his prize he ran home and told his mother that he wanted to be Presbyterian. When she asked why he said excitedly;” I have been Jewish for seven years and never got anything. I was Christian for one hour and got a watch. He held out his arm to show his mother. His mother looked at the watch and said; Nathan help me hang up the wash and then you can be Presbyterian.” The story concludes with George now seventy odd saying: “While I was hanging up the wash, some water dripped from the clothes onto my watch. It stopped working, so I decided to become a Jew again.” Easy come easy go.
The question for us is the same one that George Burns capricious behavior reflects in his arbitrary and cavalier relation to the watch. Is there something compelling and profound in our attachment to our Jewish identity, is it timeless and timely or is it transitory and outdated.
By identity I am speaking about our own authentic and personal beliefs and convictions, based on experience of oneself as a person. Identity means having a belief one stands by; it means having certain definite ways of responding to life, of meeting life’s demands, of loving other people and in the last analysis, of serving God. Boiled down to its essence identity is our personal witness to the truth in our life.” Those words were written by a Christian monk named Thomas Merton. Yet they certainly apply to Jews as well as Christians. I’ll put his elegant words into my own; A Jew is someone who voluntarily chooses to identify him or herself as a Jew and is willing to do the work of a Jew.
One who is willing to do the work of a Jew is one who is ready to express his/her identity via meaningful choices. Those who sacrifice of their means with gracious belief and of their precious time to maintain synagogues and other institutions of the Jewish community have made a choice to affirm their Jewish identity. Those who support the right of the state of Israel to exist as a Jewish State have made a Jewish choice. Those who open an ancient Jewish text and attempt to make sense of its writings have made a choice to root their life decisions in something enduringly Jewish. Those who shlep their children to a Jewish school and insist that it is more important than secular pursuits choose a Jewish identity above all others. Meaningful purpose and actionable commitment this is the anvil upon which Jewish identity is forged. Not your parents DNA, nor the womb from which you entered the world, not the signatures on your conversion certificate.
So now comes the pitch, pun intended. It is Rosh Hashanah. We enter the sanctuary with high hopes. Some of us here today are players in the game of Jewish life, but not nearly enough. All of us enter the sanctuary with a nagging sense of resolve. If you are here today there is something in your being that wants to be connected. You may not be able to articulate it easily or clearly. You may even fight against that very urge to be connected, but deep down within each and every one of us there is an attraction, a yearning to be a player in the game of Jewish life.
So I ask you this morning to be a player. I ask you to make a Jewish choice and step up to the plate. Do not remain indifferent sitting on the bench of Jewish life, hoping that one quick at bat today will give you a spiritual fix. Do not let the usual excuses sideline you. You have the power to make an assertive choice to integrate a Jewish life within the context of a very busy existence.
Today Abraham hears God’s call, it is the Torah’s equivalent of the umpires call to “Play Ball.” Before you today is a sacred calling to become involved, to nourish your soul, and connect to the glory, majesty, and grandeur of being a Jew.
Maybe it is time that we all got in the game.