The following remarks were delivered at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia on Monday, January 31, 2022.
Good morning, Trinity. It’s such an honor to be with you today, and I’m deeply grateful for the invitation and opportunity to speak with you today.
I am a rabbi, which is the Hebrew word for “teacher.” Rabbis like me have long been recognized as Jewish religious leaders because we have expertise in and teach the tradition of beliefs and practices that have been cherished by Jewish people all over the world for more than three thousand years. Today, there are between 15-20 million Jews in the world – which is less than half a percent of the global population. About half of the world’s Jewish population lives here in the U.S., and most, but not all, the rest live in Israel, which is a small country in the Middle East, established in 1948 as an independent Jewish state. Jews come from virtually every racial, ethnic, and national background you can imagine (as some like to say, there are Jews in all hues), and there is a lot of diversity in how different Jews think about and practice our tradition, including many Jews who don’t think about or practice our tradition much at all.
As a matter of fact, our diversity means that there isn’t much we Jews have in common, other than a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, meaning that in one way, shape, or form we all identify as Jews. So, as I like to say, if you hate organized religion, you’ll love Judaism; we’re a very disorganized religion! We Jews disagree with each other all the time; asking tough questions, discussing and debating big ideas, even protesting and arguing with one another is not just allowed, it’s encouraged!
But there is one thing we Jews do share – a recognition that the most fundamental Jewish idea of Jewish faith is this: God is One. That doesn’t mean every Jew believes in God. One can in fact be Jewish even if they don’t believe in God. But it does mean basically every Jew would agree, even if they don’t personally believe in God, that if there is one core belief in the Jewish religious tradition, it’s this belief, that God is One.
That belief is probably most famously expressed in the holiest text in the Jewish religious tradition, the Torah, which is what we call the first five books of the Bible. We read in the book of Deuteronomy: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad, Jewish people, listen: The Infinite is our God, the Infinite is One.” Many Jews recite these words each and every day in morning and evening prayers. Some even try to make sure that these are the last words they say before they die. What does this idea mean, and why has it been so central to Jewish faith for millennia?
Saying that God is One is more than a mere mathematical statement about how many gods there are. Yes, it does mean that Judaism believes there is only one God; or, as a good friend of mine likes to put it, since one can still be Jewish even if they don’t believe in God at all, that Judaism believes there is at most one God. More importantly, saying that God is One is a statement about reality itself, a way of looking at the world. If God is One, then all is one. Everyone and everything in existence, all of us, all that is, is one. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We are all connected to each other, and indeed to everything in existence.
According to Jewish tradition, this belief has moral implications. If all is one, then you and me, us and them, ours and theirs is all ultimately an illusion. We may appear separate and different on the surface, but on the deepest level of reality, we are totally interconnected, manifestations of the same basic oneness, part of the same whole; all of us, brothers and sisters.
As a result, Jewish tradition demands that we live in such a way that supports, sustains, and benefits everyone and everything. We are therefore called to detest injustice, abhor cruelty, stand against oppression, and love all our neighbors, whoever and wherever they are, as ourselves, fashioning communities of inclusion and equity, pursuing justice and peace, and protecting the planet and all its living creatures. Virtually every traditional Jewish practice is designed, as the Jewish mystical tradition puts it, l’shem yihud Kudsha b’rikh hu u-sh’khintei, for the sake of unifying all existence. Traditional Jewish observance as I understand it exists primarily to sensitize us to this calling and to help us fulfill it.
As a Jewish religious leader, as a teacher of my tradition’s values, I try to impart these ideas to my fellow Jews whenever and wherever I can. I say to my fellow Jews that, of course, we must take care of ourselves and each other. We must be concerned with the wellbeing of, and provide support to, our fellow Jews everywhere. This is particularly important as violent antisemitism, which the Jewish people have experienced over and over again throughout history, once again rises in the U.S. and around the world. Just the other week, we were reminded once again of this grim reality when Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX was the target of an act of antisemitic terror. We Jews must continue to speak out, remain vigilant, and defend ourselves and each other against acts of hate-fueled violence.
But I also strive to teach my fellow Jews that we must broaden our sphere of concern to include all people, not just other Jews, and indeed the entire planet and all it contains. Jewish tradition calls on us to pursue justice and peace, for all people, in all places, and at all times, and that we must be uniquely concerned with the most vulnerable – those who live on the margins of society and thus are at special risk of exploitation and oppression, like immigrants, whom the Torah singles out for special protection 36 times.
And I try to remind my fellow Jews that pursuing this calling is in our self-interest. Antisemitism historically rises when the broader society is experiencing widespread instability and injustice, and it often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry like racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia. We can’t defeat antisemitism without addressing the conditions that allow it to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place.
We Jews can’t be safe, prosperous, and free unless everyone is safe, prosperous, and free. It’s just as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We Jews ultimately can’t take care of ourselves unless we also care for others. In eras of upheaval and great peril like this one, it is always tempting to retreat inward, circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and care exclusively for our own. But relationships, friendships, love and concern for others – across boundaries, beyond borders – are in fact the pathway to a better world for us all.
The same, of course, is true for the more than 99% of people around the world who are not Jewish, which I assume includes pretty much all of you. None of us can be safe, prosperous, and free unless all of us are safe, prosperous, and free. That means your wellbeing is bound up in the Jewish people’s wellbeing; your liberation is bound up in mine. If all is one, then we rise and fall together.
As King T’Challa said in Black Panther, “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth. More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one, single tribe.”
Building bridges with and looking out for one another as a single tribe means that just as my fellow Jews must forge friendships and concern ourselves with others across boundaries and beyond borders, it is incumbent on each and every one of you to reach out to and build relationships with your Jewish neighbors. Connect with the local Jewish community in Richmond and learn more about our tradition and rich culture. You all have an open invitation to come to my synagogue any time – to sit in on a class about Judaism, to observe a Shabbat service, or simply to chat. Our doors are always open to you. Open your doors to us, too. Invite us to break bread with you, to get to know you better, and to learn more about your heritage and culture, whatever it may be; not to convert us, but to befriend us.
As we befriend one another, we will come to better understand how to stand in solidarity with one another, to become better allies for one another, and to work hand in hand for our collective liberation. In practice, that means just as Jewish people must strive to understand how racism and white supremacy manifest in our society and commit to partnering with communities of color to dismantle those oppressive structures, so too must you seek to understand antisemitism and commit to partnering with my people to recognize, call out, and combat antisemitism, as well as working with us to repair the world.
I want to conclude by sharing one of my favorite Jewish stories. It’s attributed to the 19th century hasidic master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:
A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,“ he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked, “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.” Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. Instead, let us look for a new way out – together.”
So it is with us. These are difficult times. Our world is broken. I don’t know about you, but to me it sometimes feels like each of us is lost in some forest, wandering about alone and afraid, desperately looking for a way out. I don’t know how to escape. But here’s what I do know: what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked; and alone, we are lost. Our only hope is to find our way together.
Thank you so much for allowing me to share this space with you today. May we be blessed with friendship and peace. Shalom.