September 28, 2023 -
This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, includes the Yom Kippur sermon for Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Yom Kippur 5774, shared on September 13 and 14, 2013. We encourage you to share, post, or comment below on these remarks, in hopes of continuing the conversations raised in these remarks in our community.
“Rabbi, I have been soooo bad…” I heard these words when I was doing some family shopping at Trader Joe’s, and then a congregant approached me by the Fuji Apples. She said, “Rabbi, I have been so bad”. “Excuse me?” I replied. “No, really rabbi”, she persisted. I then shuddered, and said, “I…I don’t know if I’m prepared to have this conversation in the produce aisle.” She went on, “Rabbi, let me tell you why I have been bad –it’s because I have not been to services in so long; I am SUCH a bad Jew”. To disarm the tension of the moment, I kiddingly told her that I have been keeping a notepad, which includes the names of all those congregants who have been naughty and nice, and that she was on the top of the list! While I view myself as neither judge nor jury in this respect, such an encounter is not unusual for me – or any rabbi for that matter. Guilt-ridden Jews are running around town only to be reminded of their perceived ritual deficiencies when they run into rabbis at the supermarket, the car wash, and at your local restaurant. Sometimes being a Jew feels quite burdensome; we wonder if we are good enough; if we measure up.
Last year I discussed the Pintele Yid, that Jewish spark or essence that lives within each one of us, waiting to be activated, and never to be extinguished. It was my intention to point out that regardless of how “Jew-ish” you feel, or the extent of your Jewish knowledge, or what you do as a Jew, once a Jew you are always a Jew – no one can take that away (even if you’d like it to be so!). I suggest that after coming to terms with our undeniable Jewishness, we can take it to the next level and ask, what should be expected of us as Jews, or to put it more simply, what makes someone a good Jew? Is there such a thing? And should there be some basic requirements of the Jew? Should a Jew, at the very least, know that pastrami should never be served on white bread, or that a cinnamon raisin bagel should never be topped with lox, or that you should never attempt to translate a good Yiddish joke into English??? Seems like a pretty low threshold to me!
I do set the bar higher for the conversion students who work with me. Not only do we study together, but I encourage regular worship attendance, along with involvement in the community through our social justice and outreach programming. I even require my students to learn the Hebrew alphabet, which instigates the process of Hebrew reading proficiency. I will tell you, though, that while these expectations may seem high, I have never added, “What makes a good Jew” to the curriculum schedule.
Jewish sages and teachers of the past two thousand years have developed criteria for what makes a good Jew. Probably the most famous passage of what it means to be a good Jew comes from none other than the 1st Century sages, Hillel and Shammai. First Shammai was approached by a would-be-convert. The prospective Jew boldly instructed the great sage to “teach me the whole Torah on one foot”. Shammai, frustrated and impatient with such an absurd question, shoos the man away. The gentile seeker then found his way to Shammai’s counterpart, Hillel, and gives the same directive, “teach me the whole Torah on one foot”. Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, go and learn”.
Later on, others weighed in. Micah famously asked the following about what God would want from us:
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Then, he answers his own questions and replies:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
A couple of years ago, the Jewish community in Southern California hosted what they called a “Torah Slam” – a kind of colloquium featuring rabbis across the denominational spectrum. They gathered together to determine the big question, “What is a Good Jew?” One rabbi opined that the good Jew must balance “both sides of the Ten Commandments”: ritual observance and quality of character. Another underlined the importance of supporting Israel, the Eternal homeland of the Jews. A third, Rabbi Sharon Brous, “recounted the enslavement and degradation that befell the Jews in the Exodus story as a reminder to dream, even through dark times.” She stated, “The Jewish dream is that all human beings can and should live in dignity, in a world of peace and justice. A good Jew is someone who dreams despite the fact that reality belies those dreams.” She said, “The measure of a good Jew is, do you fundamentally believe, either by faith or sheer force of will, that the world can look better than it does, and that you must take responsibility to make it so? You’re a good Jew if you know that you were put into the world to fight like hell to narrow the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.”
All of these rabbis are very wise, but as evidenced by the discourse, determining who is a good Jew is something quite subjective. I would agree with all of those bright rabbis in California, and I imagine my colleagues in the other 49 states have important metrics to offer as well. I certainly have my own ideas and expectations of what it means to be a good Jew, which involve the three important legs upon which Judaism stands: the study of Torah, the importance of worship, and doing acts of justice and kindness. These would have been my standard answers before I embarked on my sabbatical, but my family’s journey throughout this great country challenged me to rethink what it means to be a “good Jew”. In fact, the trip broadened my outlook and even reorganized notions upon which I had relied for the past 15 years of my rabbinate.
I was continually struck by the many people I met on my sabbatical who in some way, shape, or form chose to bind themselves to the community. There is a longing, a clinging, and even a cleaving that many Jews feel with regards to their Jewishness. It often has little to do with one’s connections to Jewish text, to fervent prayer, or to continual acts of social justice in the community. In fact, for many Jews in this big country, there are few resources for communal worship and continued study. Nevertheless, the pull towards being Jewish—the Pintele Yid—is there – and those pangs were palpable to me. I met Jews who feel Jewish, but cannot articulate why. I met Jews who wear Jewish-themed tattoos or symbols, but didn’t know anything about the Five Books of Moses. Importantly, though, these Jews passionately conveyed the sentiment, “Count me in.”
And my journeys were not relegated to conventional Jewish communities…
In anticipation of traveling to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I contacted a local Reform rabbi there to see if we could get together to discuss his life and work there. Rabbi Tom Gardner replied immediately, and mentioned that the day he and I were available to meet happened to be the day he was making his once a month visit to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women; “Would I like to come?” Always up for an adventure, I told the good rabbi of Baton Rouge, “of course”. Rabbi Gardner had been working with a conversion student there named, Leiponi. We made our way through the swamps of Louisiana; about a 45 minute drive. I had never been to a correctional facility of any sort, and was curious. After going through a number of security channels, we sat down with Leiponi. I had no idea what to expect, but discovered that she was an intentional and poised woman in her late 30s who admitted to “making mistakes”, but never revealed what she was “in for” (and I never asked). In any event, there was little that Leiponi desired more than to be part of the Jewish community. She said that she was to be released in 38 days, and that she was looking forward to going to synagogue and learning more about Judaism. She has since been released, and I recently contacted her, interested in hearing more about her Jewish connection now that she had been released.
She wrote back to me:
“I have found no better answers to my questions of life, than with Judaism. I have a better understanding of my existence on this planet, although at times it may have been unbearable. I understand that I have a contract with G-d, that I have a purpose beyond my… selfish purpose. I have G-d to consider now. I am no longer alone, Rabbi Caruso. …
“I understand the Pharaoh in me now….I also understand that part of my contract with G-d is the ability to know good from evil. And how it is my responsibility to be good. The concept of Teshuva (repentance) spoke out to me the greatest while incarcerated…. With the concept of Teshuva, I was able to understand and appreciate freewill and to take responsibility for my failures. I stopped blaming others and the world for my behavior. I am responsible for my conduct, as part of my contract with G-d. And with my true repentance came self-forgiveness. Guilt was replaced with hope and a new way of thinking.”
It was meeting such people that I understood the power of what it means to be a Jew, and its timeless message of redemption. I understood that for Leiponi, her journey was the journey of all those Jews who came before her, and struggled for freedom. All Leiponi was really saying was “Count me in”.
In Jackson, Wyoming, Judd and Mary Grossman see to it that the Jackson Hole Jewish Community continues to be vibrant for the couple of hundred Jews who reside in the area. Mary is the executive director, and Judd is the cantorial soloist and musician. The community no longer has a rabbi (although there is a separate Chabad group, which does), and Judd is effectively the spiritual leader (he calls himself the chazzan). I asked Judd to share why he belongs to this community personally, and how his public role impacts his life. He wrote:
It is both an honor and a puzzlement that I have become the spiritual leader of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community. My friends remember me as the kid who skipped out of every Jewish event. When they bussed us out to camp for the weekend for confirmation retreats my friend and I would get off the bus, and head the other direction. Only returning to camp for dinner, and then high tailing it out of the dining room before the singing started. Frankly, I’ve never been the sort of person who liked to belong to clubs, and that’s where I struggle with religion.
I do believe in a higher power that we all play a part in, and I do believe that feeling close to that higher power can be a great comfort to us. My job as the Chazzan is to help my congregation feel that presence. I’m grateful for the fellowship of our congregation, and for the beautiful, ancient and odd traditions of Judaism. I’m humbled by my role as leader of the congregation.
I attended the community’s Seder on the second night of Passover, and it was clear that even though he is not a professional Jew or clergyman, the community gives much respect to Judd because they know he leads from the heart. When Judd shepherds this community, he conveys the feeling of “Count me in”, and the people he leads follow suit. He follows the age-old dictum from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, “Do not separate yourself from the community”.
In our Jewish faith, the one consistent festival of community connection – more than Yom Kippur – is Passover. As so many of us know, one of the most popular parts of the Haggadah, the prayer book we read during the Seder, is the story of the Four Children. We learn about the Wise Child, the Wicked Child, the Simple Child, and the Child Who Does Not Know How To Ask. Of these four children featured in the service around the Passover table, it is the Wicked Child who is most dangerous to the survival of Judaism. It is the Wicked Child who says, “What is this service to YOU?” By stating “you” instead of “us” the Wicked Child is stepping outside of the Jewish conversation, and effectively saying, “Count me OUT”. Yet, for Judaism to thrive, and for our people to thrive, it is dependent on each one of us saying, “Count me in”.
By being here today, each of you with a unique story, you are all proclaiming, “Count me in.” You may be a disaffected Jew-by-Birth, or a newly minted Jew-by-Choice. You may have sat in these seats every Yom Kippur for the past fifty years but not known how to connect during the months between the High Holy Days. You may be the spouse of a Jew, or the one Jew in your family. You may be here because Judaism is important to your parents and grandparents and to you, too, even though you don’t understand why.
“Count me in”, God, even though I may not know who you are and how you work in the world, or even whether you exist. “Count me in”—for while I have never felt part of Jewish communal life, the spark of my Jewish soul pulls at me. “Count me in”—I am moved by the Jewishness of the State of Israel and care about what happens there. “Count me in”—I feel pride whenever a Jew wins the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Peace Prize! “Count me in”—I love the sense of community I share when I study Torah with members of our temple, even though I still have so much to learn. “Count me in”—there is something comforting to me about eating matzoh ball soup at Corky and Lenny’s, or working out with other Jews at the JCC. “Count me in”—when I read about the Holocaust or hear of an act of anti-Semitism I hurt as if for my own family. “Count me in”—the smells of the Passover Seder transport me back to a simpler time. “Count me in”—I felt a sudden urge to say the Scheheyanu blessing when my child was born, and when she celebrated a milestone.
We are a congregation of many different stories, many different reasons to be here. But today we are one—woven together into a community by the simple act of declaring “Count me in.” And that is what I have come to understand about what makes a good Jew—a good Jew feels himself or herself to be part of the Jewish community. Everything about Judaism is collective. When an individual Jew celebrates, the whole community rejoices; when he weeps, the community shares his grief. On Yom Kippur we express our sins in the plural—“WE have sinned, WE have transgressed”—not because all of us have committed every sin, but because when one Jew sins, it is as if the whole community has sinned. “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh—All Jews are responsible for one another”. We are bound together. We share the same fate.
By saying “Count me in,” we are pledging to be part of the Jewish people. But is that enough? In a way, we are all Jews-by-choice. We all have choices to make about how we will express our Jewishness, how we will activate our Pintele Yid. What kind of member of the Jewish community will you strive to be? Do you find ritual observance or worship meaningful? Do you want to commit yourself to learning more about Judaism than you now know? Do you want to deepen your personal relationship with God in an effort to understand your place in the world and your relationships? Do you look for ways to perform acts of loving-kindness? Do you want to work to strengthen the State of Israel? Do you, as Rabbi Brous suggested, believe that we were put into the world to “fight like hell to narrow the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be”?
Despite my experiences at Trader Joe’s, at the JCC, and other places where people confess to me that they have not been “good Jews,” I don’t pass judgment on what it takes for each individual Jew to be a “good Jew.” I do, however, pray that in the year to come, every Jew will take very seriously what being a good Jew means to him and actively, intentionally, pursue that goal. Count ME in. Count YOU in. Let’s make our membership in this wonderful people of ours COUNT!