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What is holding us together?

01/24/2022 02:09:17 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

I've had a lot on my mind this week. As you know, last week, at around this time at a suburb outside of Dallas, Texas, the horrible situation took place as five people were taken hostage at a Congregation Beth Israel during a Shabbat service. As I mentioned in the letter I wrote to this community, while anything that affects the Jewish community or a place of worship feels especially difficult as a rabbi, this one hit very close to home. Not only did I know the rabbi from a program in which I was a part, where he was my roommate and colleague, the synagogue felt very much like ours.  Here was a liberal, open minded, inclusive community with a rabbi around my age, and people who shared our values and outlook.  It just all seemed too familiar.

But what was especially hard to make sense of was how the kindness and welcoming nature of the community and the rabbi was part of what allowed the situation to take place. As we know now, before the service, a man knocked on the door of the synagogue looking a little lost and possibly disheveled, and was invited in by the rabbi for a cup of tea and some conversation. At the time, the rabbi just wanted to learn a little bit about who this man was, and while some things did seem a little bit off, nothing gave him any signals that the man was dangerous. They were a hospitable and welcoming place, and how could you say no to a stranger who knocks on the door needing some support?  

Of course what we learned was it was this man that the rabbi let in, in this compassionate gesture of hospitality, that literally opened the door to the rabbi and the other congregants being taken hostage. I can't even imagine what those 11 hours must have felt like, and although it ended with the hostages escaping and the rabbi and others acting heroically because of their training, it left us with so many questions. Should the rabbi have let the man in?  What fed the anti-Semitic act, fueled by a twisted belief, the ancient trope that Jews were people in power that held the key to get his demands realized?   And how can Jewish communities continue to be welcoming places, with real and symbolic open doors, yet maintain a sense of safety and security for their members?

These are not easy questions to answer, and I am sure over the next few weeks we will be exploring how we can make sense of the world that we live as Jews today, and also work out the details of how we can keep our individual communities safe. 

But here's something else that has been interesting. When the Jewish community confronts a crisis or tragedy like what happened in Texas last Shabbat, there are times when it brings the community together, and there are times when it tears us apart.   After the situation happened, and when the news started to spread around the Jewish world (even among those who didn't turn on their computers and televisions until after Shabbat ended) for the most part there was universal condemnation of the hostage taker and support for the rabbi and the synagogue from within and outside the Jewish community. I personally received email support from Christian and Muslim colleagues, in addition to messages from other rabbis.  

The clear message was that this was something that affected not just Jews but all people of faith and all people in United States and in the world. Everyone from the governor of Texas to the President of the United States and even the Prime Minister of Israel reached out to the rabbi in the community to offer support.

But then there were the outliers. Certain right wing leaders and Republicans in the United States, while recognizing the suffering of the community, said very clearly that if gun laws were weaker and that if more people had weapons in the congregation, none of this would have happened. There were the anti-Muslims who said “See this is what Muslims do” or this is why you should never let someone like that into a synagogue. Or from the Jewish community, there were quite a few Orthodox, and especially Haredi Jews who pointed out that it happened at a Reform synagogue not a “real” Jewish community, and put the blame on their practices and beliefs, not on the evil of the hostage-taker.  And of course among those high up in the Haredi world,  their response was…absolutely nothing.  (Thankfully, I must say that Chabad offered a very compassionate response to the situation, both in Texas and on the updated news on their website.)

Is there anything that can bring us together as a Jewish Community anymore? We disagree on Israel, and we disagree on what will help the Jewish community survive into the future. We disagree on the details of Jewish ritual and practice and how they should fit the needs of a changing Jewish community.  What is it that holds us together?

As we read this week about the revelation on Mount Sinai, we are reminded about the power of this unbelievable communal moment of connecting with each other and connecting with the mystery beyond us. Deuteronomy 29 tells us that the revelation took place with “who are standing here with us today in the presence of God but also with those who are not here today.”

We were all at Sinai, as the midrash explains, not only the people who were present at that time, but all generations who came after. We take this to mean not only those born into the faith, but also Jews by choice, and in some way even those who connect with and support the Jewish community in other ways.  There is something deep and powerful that connects us all with each other, with our past, and helps create a shared future.

Of course there are many ways to understand this idea, but the reality of this mysterious force that connects all Jews around the world has held strong for generations. It is how we survived through pogroms and the Holocaust and so many other tragedies, and still maintain the sense of identity and will power to move forward. This is why no matter where you go in the world you can find a place to go for Shabbat dinner, and why when you meet another Jew, there's that wonderful moment of recognition and connection, where no matter where you are, you truly are family. “We were all at Sinai” can and should be a message that there is something that connects us in ways we are only beginning to understand. (Conveniently I might say, Saw You at Sinai, is also a wonderfully creative name of an online Jewish dating service--Google it!)

We were all at Sinai. What a wonderful uniting concept, which we would have hoped would have continued to unite us so easily for all these generations. Yet how long did it take after this revelatory moment for the people to begin to break apart?  In the story, people didn't even wait for Moses to come down the mountain before they decided to split into factions. Aaron and his followers build a golden calf in part as a rebellion against Moses, his leadership, and in some way, the idea that there can even be something that holds the entire Jewish community together. The people began to complain, and things are not so clear from that point on.

Of course, in the generations that followed the moment of revelation on Mount Sinai, we maintained an impressive sense of community cohesion, even through our disagreements. But the past few centuries have not been so easy.  After the creation of the Reform and Orthodox movements in the 1800's, the Jewish community split in very real ways based on beliefs, practices and ideology about the future of Jewish community and continuity. Some people did more, some people did less.  The idea of God changed, and more importantly there were now many different ways to identify as a Jews.  I believe that this was necessary in the changing world to give people different choices on how they connect to Judaism, and without the split we wouldn't be where we are today. But the challenge of having different denominations and different ways of practicing Judaism is that we have to work extra hard to maintain a sense of connection and unity with each other.  

When something happens to another Jew, another Jewish community, or even another community of faith for that matter, how do we respond?  When there has been violence against Ultra-Orthodox synagogues or individuals, as has happened in the past few years, do we feel a deep sense of connection and support as we would someone more like us?   When there was a tragedy at the mosque in Quebec City not too long ago, how much did we share their pain as fellow children of Abraham, even through our religious differences?  Across the table from a fellow Jew in our very own community who might have different views about Israel, religion, or any other idea that might seem antithetical to our values, that might even make us seethe with frustration or anger, can we look them in the eyes and see them as a brother or a sister or someone who was standing along with us at Mount Sinai? 

We can always disagree and we can always be unsure how to move forward in a conversation or an interaction with someone who is most different than us. But we cannot stop supporting each other, we cannot stop remembering the connection we have with each other as a Jewish community.  And we still can't stop welcoming in and honouring the strangers 

We were all at Sinai is reminder that it is our obligation to look beyond our differences as a Jewish community,  as communities of faith, and as a global community to do what we can to reach out and support each other in times of need.  As Jews, we are obligated to always do what we can to help a fellow Jew, but we also can't forget that according to our tradition, there's no greater reward than reaching out to help those not like us, the stranger and those in need. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we need each other, we need to support each other, we need to look forward to better times, no questions asked.

I remember many years ago I was studying Hebrew in Israel, in Jerusalem, when the Sbarro bombing  took place in downtown Jerusalem.   I just happened to be headed downtown, when I saw all the commotion from my bus.  Curious what was happening, I got off and realized that I was experiencing the aftermath of one of the worst suicide bombings in many years.  Especially as an outsider, I was scared and shocked, but looking around I also saw something unbelievably beautiful. Standing next to the broken windows and the scattered tables and chairs, people had gathered. I saw a Haredi Jew with his payyes and black hat reciting psalms. I saw teenage girls in skirts and tank tops holding hands and crying, and elderly men looking up to the heavens and offering prayers from their heart.

Around me, I saw diversity, I saw difference, and I saw strength. People came together, and while maybe not looking each other in the eyes, everyone clearly knew that there was something beyond themselves that held them together as Jews and as people. 

What I wish, oh what I wish, is it does not take tragedies, it does not take loss, to bring us together, anymore then they should tear us apart.  We have a chance to remember why we have community in the first place, and it is up to us to work to keep that community strong. 

We were all at Sinai, so let's look around and do what we can to keep it that way. 

Sun, May 28 2023 8 Sivan 5783