March 3, 2024 -
Below is the Sermon from Rabbi Joshua Caruso at Erev Rosh Hashanah in the Contemporary Service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, Sunday, September 16, 2012. We invite you to share your responses, forward and share these remarks with others, as we seek to engender discussion and dialogue on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. G’mar Chatimah Tovah! May you be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life!
This past April, well-known Hollywood actor and comedian Jack Black appeared as a guest on the Conan O-Brien late night talk show on the TBS network. When Conan politely asked Mr. Black how he was doing, the actor – a Jew- shared his anxieties about enrolling his child into Hebrew school. In an odd moment of personal revelation, Black set out to justify his cause. He talked about his insecurities when he met with the religious school principal – he said, “I am a Jew…I’mallowed to take my kids there”. He insisted to Conan that he was a “legit” Jew, even though he had not been active, saying “I haven’t been to synagogue in years and I’m an atheist”.
He even recalled the Passover Seders of his childhood, launching into a detailed explanation of the Chad Gadya refrain, and calling it “the original Heavy Metal song”, referencing how the song featured the “Angel of Death”). Black even sang Chad Gadya’s refrain – on national TV! While Conan O’Brien was somewhat startled by Jack Black’s Jewish ramblings, he was not alone. In a world where you would think that Jack Black – a big, Hollywood star – had nothing to prove, here he was looking to show his legitimacy in the court of Jewish opinion. He confessed the following, “I was kinda feeling the pressure to show that I am a good Jew”).
The themes of these High Holy Days – particularly the one of critical judgment – moves us during this holiday season, much like it moved Jack Black. Are we “legit” enough to stand before God, our community, our family, our friends, and ultimately, ourselves? Being an authentic and legitimate Jew is one of the ultimate questions that face each of us. Do we measure up in the court of Jewish opinion? And more importantly, how do we measure our own Jewish authenticity? These are not small questions, but reaching our Jewish potential is dependent on the identity that is woven inside each of us. I believe it all goes back to a spark that lives within and is forever tethered to our Jewish distinctiveness.
In the Yiddish language, “the Jewish spark” is a phrase rendered as, “Das Pintele Yid”. Like many expressions in Yiddish, a literal translation into the vernacular is often wanting. However, this particular expression – the Pintele Yid – begs examination for it sheds light into the nature of who we are as Jews. More importantly, it may explain the way we approach these High Holy Days. While the Pinetele Yid – the Jewish Spark – is said to dwell inside the soul of every Jew, its essence remains a mystery. And yet, the Pintele Yid’s presence is palpable.
How do we interpret the Pintele Yid? We know how to translate it, but what does it mean? One periodical rendered the following, “[the pintele yid means] that all Jews, even if they are unaware of it or have been raised so un-Jewishly that they do not know they are Jewish, have within them a Jewish essence that can be activated under certain circumstances.”  Rabbi Adam Frank describes the Pintele Yid as “the fiber in each Jew that resists the darkness of the complacent and the ordinary.” He continues, “Like the menorah in the time of the Maccabees, the spark of each Jewish soul refuses to be extinguished”. One linguist opined, “If I had to explain [the] Pintele Yid myself, I would say that it’s a way of referring to an indestructible core of Jewishness that supposedly exists within every Jew and that always has the potential, even in totally assimilated or uneducated Jews, to return every Jew to the Jewish fold by making its presence felt at the most unexpected and unpredictable moments”.
Commentary aside, there may be times when we don’t feel in harmony with the Pintele Yid – the Jewish Spark. In that spirit, I bring you the true story of what might be described as a Jewish “Dear Abby” question (think, “Dear Avi”) posed to a rabbi who fields inquiries about Judaism on his website:
Although I was raised in a traditional home, was brissed and barmitzvad…I have never had any faith or “religious” belief. I am now aged 34, and would describe myself as an atheist. I have no wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery (and my Will has also made this clear) and have married a non-Jew in a civil ceremony.
My question is, can I consider myself officially non-Jewish, by my effective opting-out, or do I need some sort of form or dispensation to be officially no longer Jewish?
Many thanks for your help with what is perhaps an unusual question.
AND HERE IS THE RABBI’S RESPONSE:
I would like to help you, but I feel there’s nothing I can do.
According to your question, you have done everything possible to negate your Jewishness: in practice you do not keep Jewish tradition; in belief you are an atheist…and even in death you are determined not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
One would think that all this would be enough to confirm your un-Jewishness. But no. for some reason, you are still unsatisfied: you still feel Jewish. So much so, you feel you need official dispensation.
And so, being an atheist, to whom do you turn to solve this problem? A doctor?A psychiatrist?The civil celebrant that married you? No…….You turn to a rabbi!!!
I’m reminded of the child who ran away from home, but ended up just going round and round the block because his parents told him never to cross the road by himself.
I’m sorry, Edward. There is nothing more you can do. You are as Jewish as Moses, Woody Allen and the Chief Rabbi of Wales. And you always will be. There is nothing you can do to change it.
In fact, it seems that being Jewish is the most dominant facet of your personality. It is even influencing the place you want to be buried. (Why would an atheist care about where they are buried?)
Edward, Jewishness is not a belief, a feeling, a conviction or a lifestyle. It is a state of being. You have a beautiful Jewish soul.
You can either celebrate it or fight against it. But it will always be there. So why not celebrate it?
After reading the rabbi’s thoughtful response, I wished I would have thought of it myself.
If all of this is true – and we suppose that the Pintele Yid is a state of being that resides in every Jew-by-birth, Jew-by-choice, and even within those who stand in support of their Jewish loved ones – then there is a distinctive and communal Jewish cognizance that is independent (and transcendent) of our own individual consciousness. Carrying the idea forward, the Pintele Yid drives us to be Jewish, to feel Jewish, and ultimately to do Jewish? Carl Jung, the noted psychologist derived the theory that the collective unconscious is “inherited” and can be linked to events that occurred long before we were born, like the moment when we (the Israelites) received the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. This is where we get the phrase, “we were all at Sinai”. Many interpret the Jewish link to Sinai to the idea of Chosen-ness. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, recoiled at the notion that the Jewish people are Chosen. However, he did acknowledge that “every nation should discover its vocation or calling, as a source of religious experience, and as a medium of salvation to those who share its life.”
As a nation; as a people, we may not be “The” Chosen ones – for those of different faith traditions are Chosen to pursue their calling which is as valid and binding as Judaism is to the Jew. I will also declare that the Pintele Yid – the Jewish Spark – is not implanted with through genetic pedigree, and there is no “Master Jewish Race”. But, through our “historical circumstances and our social institutions” we Jews are suited to fill a vocation and calling, as Rabbi Kaplan points out in his writings. Our calling is to be Good Jews, and to use our Pintele Yid – that Jewish Spark – in hopes of fulfilling our uniquely suited Jewish potential. Even so, we lose our way. Like the “Dear Rabbi” questioner, we get confused as to how we fit and how we identify our piece of the Jewish puzzle- and its purpose in our lives (sometimes even rejecting it). Still, we often find ourselves circling back again, facing those Jack Black moments of discernment, wondering if we have done enough; if we are a good enough Jew.
And how do we define the good Jew? Does he vote for a particular political party? Will she side with the presidential candidate who is best for Israel? Is the good Jew mindful of what he eats? Can he tell a perfectly delivered Jewish joke? Can she quote a piece of Torah text? Can he summon up just the right amount of vocal thrust in the back of one’s throat to declare, “L’Chaim”? Is the good Jew aware of current social issues, and is she able to speak intelligently about them? Would it be reasonable to say that he would know how to stack a bagel with just the right ratio of cream cheese to lox? Must she believe in God? Maybe the good Jew is the one who knows all the tunes we sing or worship. Does she get “God- points” for coming to synagogue to hear her parents’ names read before Kaddish at their yahrtzeit every year?
In his book, “How Good Do We Have To Be”, Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be good, or to be the perfect person.
Some of us believe that God demands perfection from each one of us – and sometimes we don’t need God to do the critique; weably fulfill that role ourselves. Perfection is what is demanded in the Torah, with emphasis on purity and in bringing the prefect animal without blemish and staying wholly pure. Yet scratch beneath the surface and we find that Torah’s leading men and women are far from perfect human beings or perfect Jews.Rabbi Kushner suggests that while our Torah emphasizes perfection in the animals brought to the cultic sacrifice, the individuals (we, the people) are “hopelessly flawed”. That is why it is no easy task to live up to be the perfect Jew – or even good. Rabbi Kushner suggests that God wants not perfection, but integrity. In reference to the biblical patriarch, Abraham, Kushner suggest that “God wants Abraham to strive to be true to the core of who he is, even if he strays from th[at] core occasionally”This is what the Pintele Yid does – it seeks to draw on our historical and social consciousness as Jews to actualize our individual integrity. So what makes us “legit” in the eyes of the Jewish people, in the eyes of God, and even in the eyes of your rabbi?
It begins with hearing the call. This is the rationale for sounding the Shofar. In Jewish law we are commanded to hear the cry of the Shofar. But hearing the call is one thing; heeding the call is quite another. And here’s the beautiful part – the nature of that call is within you. It is not across the seas or up in the heavens. No, it is within you. For some of you, the call is clear. For others the message is muddied with the guilt we experience and the expectations we have yet to live up to. The call is muddled with our insecurities of what we think we should be rather than who we really are. It’s blurred because of an individual who made you feel alienated from your Judaism or something that is precious to you. Our personal Judaism is more than one interaction or a bad experience. No one can take it away, and it is our Jewish duty to discern the direction to which our Pintele Yid points.
I offer a closing story that illustrates the Pintele Yid, and how it comes alive even in the most unexpected of places.
Just recently, USA gymnast AlyRaisman made her country proud by helping her team win the gold medal in the Summer Olympics in London, England. As Jews, we beamed with pride for Aly, a Jew who belongs to a Reform synagogue in Boston. As Jews, we lived vicariously through her, celebrated her successes and even wincing along with her parents as she strived to nail her routines. For my money, though, AlyRaisman’s greatest achievement was during the floor routine where she danced with abandon to HavaNagila (meaning, “come, let us rejoice”; an affirmation of Judaism’s indomitable spirit). The song had been chosen by her coaches prior to the Olympics, but Raisman had not prepared for the convergence of her performance with the 40th anniversary of the tragic deaths of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. After her flawless performance (and before the Olympic flame was extinguished), the 18 year-old Raisman said she would have supported the politicized issue of having a moment of silence to commemorate the deaths of the Munich 11. In my mind, this Olympic moment was crowned byRaisman’sPintele Yid – timeless and transcendent as ever – appearing at a time when it was not planned or scripted. Rabbi Keith Stern, Raisman’s rabbi in Newton, Massachusetts (the same synagogue where my colleague and graduate of Fairmount Temple, Rabbi Lisa Eiduson serves) praised Raisman, saying how “She’s very proud and upfront about being Jewish. Neither she nor her family explicitly sought to send a message. But it shows how very integrated her Jewish heritage is in everything that she does.”
Aly used the Pintele Yid to reach beyond her own individual achievements,regarding her Jewishness not as a burden but as a blessing in memory of the Israelis who suffered the tragedy of the 1972 terrorist attack. In our actions and in our outreach we can lift up our Jewish spark and realize the potential to go beyond our individual consciousness and engage the transcendence of the Jewish spirit. This is what it means to hear (and heed) the sound of the shofar. We are called to stand with integrity for the Jew we are meant to be,however we are moved to express it – nothing more, but certainly nothing less.
Hear the call of the Shofar, AND heed its message. These days of Awe remind us that we don’t have loads of time to work this through. That means that we must get up and get moving. Now is the time. What is the shofar calling you to do, and how will you heed its message? When we heed the call, the burden of the Pintele Yid – the ageless Jewish Spark – is transformed from burden into blessing. In the process, the impossibleoverflows with opportunity, and the spark will never be consumed.
Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, P. 195
How Good Do We Have To Be, Rabbi Harold Kushner, p. 170