Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, October 19, 2023
In This Moment: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Jew
More than 50 joined us at last night's Israel Zoom Meet-Up and it was helpful and comforting. Thank you to all who participated, people of all ages, for your honesty. There's so much anguish out there, so much vulnerability. There was consensus that we should do this again. Let's pencil in next Wed at 7 PM for our second meet-up. Once again, the link will be available from Mindy in our office or from me. But you should feel free to email me to set up a more private one-on-one conversation if you prefer. And also mark your calendars for next Friday evening, Oct. 27, as we recall the fifth anniversary of the Tree of Life terror attack with a special service co-sponsored by TBE and the AJC, featuring special guest speakers Senator Richard Blumenthal and Attorney General William Tong.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jewish
President Biden hugging all of Israel on the front page.
The novelist Milan Kundera, who died this past July, asked in his classic novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “What shall we choose, weight or lightness?”
From time immemorial, the Jewish people have cast their lot with meaning over comfort, weight over lightness. Israelis have always lived a life saturated with significance, and at times great risk, where every trip to the corner market becomes an affirmation of faith. For them, we have often wished more lightness, a simple inconsequential spat with a partner or a flawless dance recital, or a good, crispy boureka. God, just a trip to the mall without having to consider the security implications of taking route 1 vs. the 443.
Things are very heavy now, over there.
But over here, in our understandable desire to shield our children from all the horrors, we have often mistakenly not enlisted them fully into the battles that will determine their future. We dealt with some heavy topics during the Trump years, but it somehow felt surreal enough for kids not to bear the full brunt of how consequential that moment was (and could well be again).
If we failed to guide them before, they are being given a crash course now, in how unbearably weighty it is to be a Jew. And it is hitting them very hard.
In speaking with some of our young adults this week, including those who attended our Zoom session last night, several have commented that they've never felt this way before as a Jew: isolated, conspicuous, confused, with a crying need for companionship and support - and especially, intense. Being Jewish has never felt with such intensity before.
This has been true for older folks too. That's why there has been such disappointment when friends, bosses, school administrators and cultural icons have failed to recognize the pain of this moment.
Here's a perfect example of how everyone around us should have responded:
Ah, if only every non-Jewish organization, school, business or politician could just have said that. Personally, I'd have added some more about caring for the fate of innocent Palestinians, but I quibble. The SBL wrote precisely what I needed to see. And what you needed to see, too.
No one was prepared for this; nor should we have been, for this.
But aside from that abject horror, in a more general sense, none of us was fully prepared for the Jewish-part-of-us to become so all consuming, so demanding, so heavy, so consequential - so dense.
People have come to me to relieve that burden, but there is very little relief that I can offer. Religion is the "Opiate of the Masses," according to Marx, the great numbing agent of civilization. But Marx got it wrong. While life can be unbearable, Judaism exists - thrives, really - in our ability to take consequentiality and use it to heighten awareness, not deaden it behind comforting cure-alls and pastoral balm. My role as rabbi is to be present and comfort people, but not to deaden their pain.
“Life isn’t meant to be easy," writes James Michener at the end of The Source, summing up the Jewish experience. "It’s meant to be life.” There is a lot of pain that comes with being a Jew. A rabbi’s job, I’ve learned, is not to numb that pain, but to heighten awareness of life’s tragic nature and the inherent beauty of survival.
Lightness, then, is unbearable and consequence is meaningful. And, as surveys have shown, Israelis are among the happiest people on earth - number four on this year's scale.
Come again? It's true, and it can't just be because of the weather, the food and the taxis. Let's assume that the country may have slipped a few notches this year. Or maybe not. Every time they are knocked down they keep getting back up. They are so happy because given the choice between a Birkenstocks and Barbie Land, they choose the shoes, they opt for a meaningful life, a life of struggle, of weightiness and ultimately, a life of triumph and love.
Fear is all around us and often within us. But if we can respond with a clarion prayer and an extended hand - to our loved ones, to all Jews and all Israelis - we're going to get through this.
And it's a good thing we have such moral strength in our DNA, because this thing is just beginning and it's going to be a very rough ride for us all.
"We are all human beings created in the image of God with dignity, humanity, and purpose. In the darkness, to be the light unto the world is what we’re about. You inspire hope and light for so many around the world. That’s what the terrorists seek to destroy. That’s what they seek to destroy but — because they live in darkness — but not you, not Israel."
Hamas Leadership and America’s Extradition Option - If Washington really wants to help Israel, and score victories without putting civilian lives at risk, it should demand that these countries turn over these masters of terror. David Levy explains how: The United States designated Hamas as a terrorist organization in 1995. If extradited, U.S. federal charges against Hamas leaders could include conspiracy to murder Americans overseas. This charge was brought against Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Adam Harun, who was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to murder American military personnel in Afghanistan. Also possible is conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Israel's war against Hamas is just – Yehuda Kurtzer, The Forward - I fear, however, that what is coming will be substantially harder for our community and especially for our leaders, and I fear that we will misunderstand our responsibility. If North American Jews cannot figure out how to stand with Israelis right now — to determine the right balance between solidarity and criticism amid a dangerous and polarizing war — I fear that we will pave the way for the deterioration of the long-term relationship between North American Jews and Israel to a point beyond repair. The challenge we face is that the dominant moral instincts and biases that define liberal North American Jewry, including an abiding commitment to kindness, compassion, and peace, make it difficult to confront the sad and painful truth that Israel is fighting a just war based on a just cause, and that solidarity with both our fellow Jews and with our values means supporting this war against Hamas, as awful as it will be. To argue for the moral necessity of war right now is not a betrayal of our core commitments. Instead, it makes our commitments coherent in an imperfect world.