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Kol Nidre Sermon 5767: A People Apart or A Part of the People?

Last spring I went to Dachau, the infamous Concentration Camp, in Germany. For many years, I have felt compelled to visit a concentration camp. I had heard from others who made the pilgrimage, that it was a life transforming experience. I was born in 1941, and each birthday I contemplate the fact that had I been born in Eastern Europe, like my father and grandparents, I would not have seen my third birthday. I have always felt that I was a child of the Holocaust.

So, this spring, when my friend Murriam invited me to visit her in Germany, where she was working for the year, I gladly accepted her invitation. Together with another mutual friend, I made plans to visit Murriam, tour southern Germany, and visit the concentration camp at Dachau. Neither of the two friends I traveled with is Jewish, but they are both very knowledgeable and sensitive to Holocaust issues. I had discussed the subject with them many times. They felt honored to accompany me on this personal pilgrimage.

My eyes started to well up as we drove through the town of Dachau, and very sympathetically, they said, "we know this is going to be hard for you, but don't forget, you couldn’t be going with two people who support you more." We decided to separate when we got to the entrance, and agreed to meet two hours later at an appointed location. My friends bought "touring earphones" and set off for the museum. I set off for the barracks.

The sun was shining brilliantly on this early spring day, but there were few visitors. As I wandered around the seemingly unending rows of barracks and work quarters, it was eerily quiet. If I heard anything, it was the voices of the murdered prisoners, crying "Don’t forget me." For weeks I couldn’t get that refrain out of my head, "Don’t forget me."

At one point during my visit, I sat alone on the back steps of one of the barracks, gazing into a stark, empty alleyway. There was no one within seeing or hearing distance. That’s when a faucet of tears started streaming down my face, and I spontaneously screamed into the nothingness: "You killed my people." "You killed my people." Over and over again the same words, "You killed my people." And then, pouring out of my mouth just as spontaneously came the names of my four grandchildren, Jacob, Gabriel, Chloe, Alana. Oh the anguish I felt for them. And what was that anguish about? That they may some day be in danger? That they would have been in danger had they been born in a different time and place? Or, even, that they will have to grow up to learn about, and somehow integrate into their lives, the horror that befell millions of Jews who were born just 60 years before them, and who were murdered simply for the fact that they were Jews.

As the time to meet my friends approached, I gathered myself together, best I could, and spent the last hour with them visiting the crematoria, gas chambers, and memorials. As we drove to our hotel, my friends were discussing their disappointment with the visit. Perhaps if it had been a dreary day, instead of a sunny one, they would have felt the experience more. Perhaps if there had been displays of shoes and hair, they would have been able to relate to the victims more. Somehow, they complained, the experience just "didn’t do it for them." What they did find fascinating, was the fact that some of the survivors came back to the place where so many of their loved ones were murdered, and where they, themselves, were tortured to the point of death. How could they return, my friends wondered?

And that's where I realized, that I, too, in some surreal way had come back. That's when I realized that to be a Jew is to have been at Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz.

The Torah tells us that all Jews, for all future generations, were there at Sinai, to receive the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were given not to our ancestors alone, but to each and every one of us individually. In the Passover Haggadah we read that in every generation every Jew must see himself or herself as though he or she was liberated from slavery. The Exodus did not happen to our ancestors, it happened to us. And, in the same vein, I believe that every Jew was at Auschwitz. We were changed as Jews forever by the horror of Auschwitz. It did not happen to our ancestors, alone.

And that, I believe was the difference between my experience and that of my two friends at Dachau. It wasn’t the sunny sky, or the lack of visual aids, or even the intrusive head sets that prevented my friends from fully embracing the experience They were visiting for the first time, I was returning. I wasn’t just visiting a concentration camp, I was reliving the horror.

Judaism is one of the world's liberal religions. Yes, there are conservative and Orthodox elements of Judaism, but Judaism, unlike the world’s conservative religions, never believed that it has a monopoly on truth. Jews never tried to convert others to Judaism. Jews never wanted to conquer other countries to impose Judaism upon them. Jews have always believed that Judaism is one road to righteous living; not the only road. Or, as an Atlantic magazine article put it a few years ago, Judaism is not one of the religions who say: "I'm right; you're wrong go to hell". And, not only is Judaism a liberal religion, but among the streams of Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism is one of the most liberal.

I guess that's why I was kind of surprised at my reaction at Dachau. As a liberal Jew, I thought my reaction would be more Universalistic. More along the vein of we have to be sure this doesn't happen to any other people ever again. We must work harder to fight prejudice. Indeed, that was my position, before my visit to Dachau, and it is my intellectual position today. But on a deeply emotional, visceral level, my visit to Dachau was about Jews, it was about my people past, present, and future. It was about the preservation of Judaism as well as the preservation of world humanity. It was about Jews as a people apart as well as a part of humanity.

In a similar vein, many liberal Jews who support Israel are often found in an uncomfortable position. In the Vietnam era we were accused of being "Doves for Vietnam, Hawks for Israel." Today, we are often painted as supporting a regime that is insensitive to human suffering. The liberal position is to support the impoverished Palestinian people. Support for Israel is relegated, primarily, to conservative think tanks.

On Israel, as on other positions that I take, I continue to be a liberal. I support the movements in Israel like "Peace Now – Shalom Achshav" where consideration and support for the legitimate claims of Arabs is always key. I hold every human life to be equally precious. Arab lives are not worth less than Jewish lives. Killing ten Arabs for every Jew is not conscionable. It is flatly untenable to hold that Arabs value life less than Jews. The fact that some Arabs are driven to suicide is not a measure of how little they love life, but rather a sign of how desperate and trapped they feel, and how cleverly they are manipulated by religious fanatics.

I have long supported a Palestinian state, and on trips to Israel over the past 40 years I have fought vigorously for my position. But in the first few days of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Shalom Achshav, Peace Now, was virtually shut sown. There were no voices raised for peace. To a person, every Israeli Jew felt that the war against Hezbollah was justified. To a person when they felt their country to be under attack, they supported Israel's right to fight, her mandate to protect herself. Once the war was over, many Israelis protested the fact that war was poorly run. This resulted in inquiries and resignations, but only because the war did not achieve its goals, not because it was unjustified. When our homeland is threatened, we become Jews first, and part of humanity second. Just as in Dachau I had the overwhelming sense of being a Jew first and a citizen of the world second, so, too, when Israel is threatened, I become a Zionist first, and a peace activist second. We Jews are a part of humanity, but also a people apart.

In addition to Dachau and Israel, the third time this year that I realized that we are a people apart was during my counseling with interfaith couples. Many of you probably know that a significant portion of my rabbinic work is with interfaith couples who are preparing for marriage. I counsel them through the ins and outs of an interfaith marriage. When the non-Jewish partner belongs to a conservative denomination, or is born-again, I know that we have a lot of work to do. In these cases, the Christians generally want to make sure that their offspring, and hopefully their spouse, as well, accept Jesus as their Lord and savior, or they won’t be together in heaven.

I am certainly prepared for the difficult issues that inevitably arise when the non-Jewish partner is very conservative, but I was unprepared for the thorny situations that can arise when the non Jewish partner is too liberal. Until recently, when I discovered that the non-Jewish partner was a liberal, I secretly emitted a sigh of relief, thinking, "This will be a breeze." But this year I met two couples where the non-Jewish partner was too liberal to make for a smooth union. In both cases, the objection was that the Jewish people are too particularistic, they don't embrace universal values; they have too much of a tribal mentality, they are too much a people apart.

Jews often refer to themselves somewhat facetiously as "members of the tribe." But this allusion is not really flip, at all. Indeed, anthropologists point that that of all the categories that Jews fall into, religion, culture, people, nationality, ethnicity, etc, a tribe probably suits us best. A tribe is a group of people with a religion that no other people have. Tribes stay together because of their common interests. We started as a tribe, and in many ways, we remain a tribe to this day. In the case of one couple I counseled, the prospective groom objected to the fact that his fiancée would walk into a room, and the first thing she would try to ascertain, was who, in the room, is Jewish. In the second case, the prospective bride, who was studying to be a Unitarian minister, objected to any use of Hebrew in the ceremony, as it smacked to her of exclusivity, and might make her family and guests feel awkward.

That's when I put my three experiences together: Dachau, the war with Hezbollah, and my intermarrying couples. That's when I realized that as liberal as I am, as a Jew, my liberalism does have boundaries. As liberal as we Jews can be, we must acknowledge that we are in certain ways a people apart; that liberal interests don't always coincide with our interests.

I am certainly not ready to turn in my ACLU card, but I am rethinking what being a Jew means to me. I knew that Dachau would be a transforming experience. I hope that in addition to making me more aware of the particularistic aspects of being a Jew, it also keeps me in touch with the very universal values that so attracted me to Judaism as a child, and continue to mold my life as a Jew and as a person.

On this holiest night of the Jewish year, as we start our 24 hour period of fasting, prayer, and contemplation, I hope that we all, Jew and non-Jew alike will reflect on what it means to us or our loved ones to be part of the Jewish people, a people apart, but a very integral part of all humanity.

Other sermons from Rabbi Judy
Kol Nidre: 5767A People Apart or a Part of the People?
Reconstructionist Judaism: So Much More than "Cultural"
Cultural Jew - 5765 Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon
Doing Teshuvah in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina