Rabbinic Reflections: Losing my religion

The world makes it hard enough to be a Jew. Lately, though, Jews are making it hard to be a Jew.

On July 30, an ultra-orthodox Jewish man stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, killing teenage LGBT ally Shira Banki. On July 31, Jewish extremist settlers firebombed a Palestinian home and killed 18 month-old Ali Dawabsha while severely injuring his brother and parents.

These horrific crimes occurred days after the Jewish commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the latter due to senseless hatred within Jewish society. Senseless hatred by Jews turned into violent terror not only made me ashamed to be Jewish; it made me question whether identifying myself as Jew, let alone a rabbi, is something I could seriously continue. If these extremists could commit terror in the name of Judaism, I was ready to lose my religion.

Growing up, I learned quickly that my Jewishness set me apart in our largely Christian society. Jews are a minority in the world, in the United States, and certainly where I grew up in the South. I was fortunate, though, to grow up surrounded by an appreciation for faith commitments. Somehow, I understood that my difference could be a point of pride; I could see being Jewish as something special.

My faith in Judaism and Jewish wisdom is not faith in the Judaism and Jewish hatred displayed in the events mentioned above. Judaism was for me always about ethical living. Jewish wisdom was for me about a technology to navigate life’s intricacies, transitions, and challenges. This challenge, though, seems too much.

Until, that is, I look in the Torah, the recording of the encounter between God and the Jewish people as a whole. In the portion for this week, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, blessings and curses are given physical extremes on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. These extremes are overcome, though, by the concept towards the end where pilgrimage festivals are named as the opportunity to see and be seen.

The 20th century Jewish French philosopher Emanuel Levinas wrote extensively of the power of seeing another human fully. That seeing, for him, was an introduction to respons-ibility. To know that there is another like oneself is to understand oneself entirely differently than if the world alone was yours.

Seeing, done properly, creates mutuality. Mutuality creates responsibility. Responsible action illuminates the divine within each and the wholly Otherness of the divine. In other words, we should find friends and begin to glimpse God’s difference from our whimsical nature by seeing others.

We should not find enemies. We should not find human lives disposable or abominable.

What is more, we should be changed not only by seeing, but by being seen. Many synagogues have the words “know before Whom you stand” over the holy ark, reminding us to see ourselves as God sees us. We are both infinitesimal and grandiose. When we are truly seen, though, we understand ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our faults and virtues. Being truly seen, we can better be our best selves.

In fact, Palestinian commentator Bassam Tawil saw what Jewish leaders and citizens did in response to the firebombing on July 31 and realized how Palestinian leaders and citizens are seen. He wrote about it in a way that did not remove my horror but instead restored my faith in humanity.

Being Jewish may be hard, especially so when Jews disgrace Judaism, but Jewish wisdom still teaches responsibility, ethics, and improvement. It will take work, and I expect we will all be better for it. I guess I did not lose my religion after all; I hope we all lose the religion of those who do not and will not see and be seen.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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