Friday, November 5, 2010

Only in America


This week's Torah portion - Parshat Toldot - continues the narrative of our ancestors' origins.  Isaac and Rebekah welcome twins: Jacob and Esau.

The Torah goes out of its way to indicate that Rebekah's pregnancy wasn't an easy one: "But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, "If so, why do I exist?"" (Gen. 25:22).  You can almost feel Rebekah's  existential anguish.  She is convinced that her (unborn) children won't get along at all.

Our rabbis pick up on this anxiety and - following the Torah itself - the Midrash establishes the Jewish belief that Jacob and Esau aren't just two brothers that don't get along.  They are also a metaphor for the ongoing conflict between Jews and non-Jews.  (In Biblical times, Esau character represented the evil Edomites.  To the early rabbis, Esau represented the Roman Empire. Later, that association morphed into Christianity.)

For thousands of years, then, we had rabbis living in Eastern Europe (in Christian countries), where they often witnessed terrible and demeaning acts of anti-Semitism.  And every year, as they read through this week's Torah portion, there was validation for them: that this is (unfortunately) how the world is destined to be.  According to their reading of the Torah, Jews and Christians are not supposed to get along with one another.

And, by and large, that held up until about 200 years ago.  Then, the Enlightenment happened.  The Enlightenment brought us the philosophical ideas of rationalism, and of equality among humanity.  And although the Enlightenment began as a European phenomenon, I think it's safe to say that the movement found its fullest expression here....on our side of the the United States.

The 350 year story of Jews in America is remarkable: precisely because it defies the fatalism of this week's Torah portion.  The Biblical Author, and the rabbis of 1000 years ago might never have been able to imagine a society in which Jews were able to become fully integrated and equal (with a relatively few minor exceptions).  But we certainly can.  All we have to do is wake up every morning, and celebrate the great success story that we Jews have found/made for ourselves here in this unique land.

One "proof" of that is a significant milestone that will be taking place next weekend in Philadelphia.  Dignitaries - including Vice President Biden - will be joining together to mark the grand opening of the National Museum of American Jewish History.  Located on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, the museum is a concretized expression of our pride: at the achievements of American Jews, and of the contributions that we have made to American life in general.

I strongly recommend that you take a few minutes to watch this lovely film that was made to mark the museum's opening:

Speaking of notable should also check this next one out too.  It's a promotional video for the charity American Jewish World Service made by American Jewish filmmaker Judd Apatow:

Besides the fact that I'm a huge fan of AJWS, I love the video because it highlights this wonderful convergence of Jewish and non-Jewish Hollywood stars who are all proudly standing behind a great Jewish cause.  More importantly: they're all standing behind a core Jewish value: the idea that, no matter who we are, or where we come from...everyone deserves the right to live in dignity, free of poverty, and to be free in general.

Incidentally, that's the reason that Jews came to this country in the first place.

It's also the reason America was founded in the first place.  So that people of diverse backgrounds would have a haven and a homeland: to live together, respecting one another no matter what their differences, in order to be free.

You's worth calling your attention to the speech that Joe Lieberman gave back in the summer of 2000, when he accepted the Democratic nomination to be Al Gore's Vice President.  (He's the first - and only - Jew to ever receive a major party nomination for VP or Prez.)  In the speech, in which he reflects on his family's biography, he keeps returning to the refrain "Only in America."

It was such a fitting sentiment then, and it still is today.

With the possible exception of the modern State of Israel, "only in America" have Jews been able to blossom: religiously, culturally, academically, ethnically, etc. etc. etc.  And we've been able to fully come into our own because - contrary to this week's Torah portion - we have been blessed to live in a society that believes that people of different backgrounds do not have to be in conflict.  That it is entirely possible, and preferable, for all of us to get along with one another.  And to do it in such a way that it doesn't just benefit ourselves - but the rest of the country as well.

As we celebrated the honored place that our community has within America today, may we also reflect on what we owe in return: what obligations do we have - as Jews - to better America, because of all that America has given us?  I'd love to hear your thoughts about this important question.

Shabbat Shalom.