Friday, September 25, 2015

Kol Nidre Sermon: Israel Mensch To the Rescue

Right now, we are living in a new golden age of comic books. True the popularity and sales of comic books has never recovered from the bust in the late 80s, but with new movies and television shows seemingly coming out almost every week, it is a great time for us comic book nerds to be alive. As a matter of fact, I will be teaching once again at the Adult Institute beginning on October 13th at the Park Heights JCC on the very topic of Jews and the Comic Book. It is a continuation of my previous course where we delve into the medium that so many young Jewish men and even some women helped to invent.
So many of their early creations like Superman, Batman, and Captain America fought for truth, justice and the American way. Many of their creations were the embodiment of what these young men aspired to be. The most well known of these creations is of course Superman which was created by two Cleveland boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933. As one blogger goes on to explain, “Originally Superman was a villain based on Nietzsche’s idea – or rather, more accurately based on the Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche’s idea. The Nazis viewed the Ubermensch as a kind of superior physical entity, rather than a morally transcendent entity, that by right of its mechanical superiority should rule over lesser men. Anyway, Joe Shuster redesigns him, he becomes a hero, and eventually a paragon of morality. A super-moral character,”[1] the Superman we know today.
As an aside, “Nietzsche’s view of the ubermensch or overman is one who is willing to risk all for the sake of enhancement of humanity … an overman is someone who can establish his own values as the world in which others live their lives, often unaware that they are not pregiven. This means an overman can affect and influence the lives of others …. An overman is then someone who has a life … with the purpose for humanity.”[2] In this sense, Nietzsche’s vision of the ubermensch is more in line with Siegel and Shuster’s creation.
This ubermensch is in stark contradiction to another genre emerging in British culture at the same time, which has had as equal a profound impact on our culture as well, the dystopian novel. Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley was first published in England in 1932. Huxley, who may or may not have borrowed heavily from the novel We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, envisioned a world where a benevolent dictatorship used conditioning to force its citizens to accept their station in life.[3] In his novel, Huxley anticipated such developments as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning.[4]
It is a fascinating juxtaposition to see the interplay between these visions of the present and the future. In one you have superheroes conquering evil and injustice. In the other there is the expression of the fear of the loss of individualism and humanity to the growing forces of an overwhelming world of the future. The narratives of the strong, dynamic, powerful individual versus the nameless, faceless, all-powerful bureaucracy have continued to capture the imaginations of writers and filmmakers alike to this very day. However one of the greatest of this genre has to be Kurt Vonnegut.
In his collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut tells us of a dystopian vision of the future in his story Harrison Bergeron. It begins, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else.”[5]
It goes on to tell the sad story of how for one brief moment Harrison, the son of George and Hazel Bergeron broke out of the societal imposed handicaps on television by proclaiming himself emperor and dancing with a ballerina. The story ends very suddenly, very disturbingly, and very profoundly.
A similar lesson is recounted in one of my favorite Pixar Movies, the Incredibles where the evil character Syndrome speaks to Mr. Incredible, “I'll give them the most spectacular heroics anyone's ever seen. And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super. And when everyone's super, no one will be.”
One of the great fears expressed in both Harrison Bergeron and The Incredibles is the idea that society is becoming so focused on the idea that each of us is unique and special, but we are all equal to the point that none of us will end up being unique and special. This concern is part of a larger debate which is where are the boundaries between the individual and the communal? Or to put it another way, where are the boundaries between the particular and the universal?
In order to flesh out this debate we should first define our terms: Universalism searches for what is systematic and tries to impose the rules, laws, and norms on all of its members so that things can run more efficiently. Particularism searches for what is different, unique, or exceptional in order to create something that is incomparable or of special quality.
But what does Judaism have to say about universalism versus particularism we wonder? We come from a particular people, a particular tribe, a particular religious tradition. However we often ask ourselves: are we Jewish-Americans or are we American Jews? And is there a way to reconcile these two competing notions?
As Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove wrote about one of his favorite rabbis, “Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who in 1836 at the age of 28 years old, wrote a slim volume entitled The Nineteen Letters. Hirsch was a dynamic and charismatic speaker, teacher, and leader, who eventually went on to become the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. The letters document a fictional correspondence between Naftali, a young rabbi, and Benjamin, a youthful intellectual. Naftali seeks to explain to Benjamin how a modern Jew may remain steadfast in his or her commitments to both Judaism and modern society, in other words, to explain how one can embrace a very particularistic notion of Jewish identity and also embrace all the universalism of Enlightenment Europe.
Hirsch’s answer, still powerful today, is that it is not an either/or proposition. One does not have to choose between a particular and universal conception of Jewish identity. Hirsch coined the phrase “Israel-Mensch” as the ideal expression of a Jew. The Israel-Mensch is a Jew who serves humankind best by living as a Jew. To be an Israel-Mensch does not mean, as others argued, to be a Jew in the home and a secular citizen in the street. To be an Israel-Mensch means that you know how to apply the principles of your Jewish identity to the concerns of all of humanity. Neither Judaism nor humanity, Hirsch reasoned, is served by a Jew shedding his or her particular identity. Rather, humanity and Judaism are both enriched by the Jew who leverages his or her Jewishness towards the universal concerns of all of humankind.
The tragedy of the Jewish community today is that we have not internalized this notion of the Israel-Mensch. We find ourselves either entirely consumed with our own concerns or believing that we must shed our Jewishness, lest it interfere with the secular commitments we hold sacred. The philosopher Renan didn’t realize the truth he had hit upon when he wrote “He who is 100% British or 100% American or 100% Russian is only half a man – the universal part of his personality, equally essential to becoming human, is still unborn.” As Jews we walk a tightrope between our two identities, or more precisely, we believe that universalism and particularism are two sides of the same coin. This balancing act is perhaps best expressed at the intersection of Hillel’s two classic questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” The point is not one question or the other, but in their juxtaposition, in the breath that we take between the two.
To be part of the chosen people means that we are chosen to serve the world by means of expressing our Jewish faith. We are a chosen people, not because we are better than others, nor because we must stand on the sidelines. We are a chosen people because within us lies a unique and particular message and mission that cries out to all people. As Zwi Werblowsky, Professor Emeritus of Religion at the Hebrew University, advised, to be Jewish is to adopt a stance exhibiting a “commitment to humanity… an openness to the world and all men.” There is no greater credit to a particular religion, Judaism or other, than to place the needs of humanity at the forefront of its communal agenda. Over 100 years after Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us that “no religion is an island,” we are all involved with one another. “A religious man,” Heschel wrote, “is a person who holds God and man in thought at one time, at all times, who suffers in himself harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 289) Like the Sukkah itself, our Jewish communal institutions must be built in a way that provides shelter to the Jewish community, but always leaves open the ability to appreciate and express concern for the outside world.
My favorite story about Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch took place towards the end of his life. He was a deeply religious man, severe in his beliefs and punctilious in his observance, the father of German Orthodoxy if not Orthodoxy as a whole. The story is that at the end of his life, when already in frail health, Hirsch went to visit the Swiss Alps. Many people found this a strange and impulsive thing for such a learned rabbi to do. Wouldn’t it be more fitting for him in his the final days to turn his attention to the people and the Torah that had sustained him throughout? So his disciples asked why he was making such a trip. He responded, “I have a feeling that after I die, and I am called in before God, one of the questions that the Almighty will ask me is: So Shimshon, you lived so close to my Alps, did you ever get a chance to see them?”
As Jews, we are a community with concerns and needs unique to us that ultimately only we will protect. But there is also a bigger world in which we exist; and as Jews, we are obligated to appreciate its beauty, to serve its needs, and not be afraid of its occupying our agenda. This is what it means to be an Israel-Mensch, to serve humanity by serving Judaism, to serve Judaism by serving humanity. This is the key to our Jewish identity, the essence of who we are, and it is towards this bar that we strive, here today and every day of the Jewish year.[6]
This is further emphasized by Rabbi Elliot Niles Goldstein who takes a more particular approach as he goes on to explain in his book Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith. “Modernity gives tribalism a very bad rap. Part of why most of us look down on tribal religions or religiously motivated groups is the result of what we see around us, events that we associate with more primitive mind-sets and cultures: the violence in the Balkans; the bloodshed in Chechnya and Sudan; the terrorism of the radical Islamists. To most of us tribalism means feuding and fighting, ethnocentricity and triumphalism, ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ closed-mindedness.
But it doesn’t have to. It is usually only when political or personal agendas (or vendettas) get mixed up with social or spiritual ones that such horrific problems occur. If we look deeper – and see tribalism at its best and most authentic rather than at its worst and most distorted – it has much to teach us.”[7]
As Rabbi Goldstein goes on to explain, “When it works, tribalism breaks down barriers that separate people from one another. In this technological age, when so many of us feel estranged, detached, and guarded, it has never been more necessary. Reconnecting with our most basic selves will allow us to reconnect with other human beings. But in genuine tribalism, the external rituals must serve internal core values – values such as interdependence, compassion, commitment, generosity, and spiritual largesse.”[8]
Now before you think this is too academic a topic, keep in mind one of the great debates raging today: the #blacklivesmatter movement versus the #alllivesmatter. This debate at its core is about particularism versus universalism.
Those who support #blacklivesmatter would argue they are working to “broaden the conversation” around race with an emphasis on the disparity the justice system metes out when it comes to issues of color.
This disagreement over their perceptions along with a response to the violence in places like Ferguson and Baltimore City and the violence against law enforcement has led to the rise of a counter movement called the #alllivesmatter movement.
Right now there are two battle lines being drawn, each not truly understanding the other.
We Jews have an important role that we can play in this ongoing debate. As a people we can help to translate the thoughts and expressions of the particular to the universal and visa versa.
For example, as professor Judith Butler wrote in an op-ed, “we cannot have a race-blind approach to the questions: which lives matter? Or which lives are worth valuing? If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ That said, it is true that all lives matter …  but to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it.”[9]
Or another way to look at it, if there was social media in the 1930s and 40s would we have not also stormed this country proclaiming #Jewishlivesmatter?! The ultimate goal is to bring about one day when #alllivesmatter because all lives are viewed and treated as equal.
There is value to the individual. There is value to the community. These are not contradictory terms in opposition to one another. As Jews we have and we continue to straddle these two worlds. We should be engaged in these conversations. We can help to heal the wounds.
This summer the NAACP, fifty years after the march in Selma, coordinated a 860 mile ‘Journey for Justice’ March from Selma to Washington DC. During every step of the journey, there were rabbis. Over 200 rabbis ultimately participated in this march while carrying a Torah, the symbol of our tradition. It reminded us of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching beside Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes it was symbolic, but symbols as we know can be powerful.
We started by talking about the symbol and symbolism of Superheroes. In the initial vision of their young Jewish creators, these heroes stood up when no one else could or would to fight injustice. Both Batman and Superman used their particular skill set not fighting grand supervillians, but instead they took on petty thugs, abusers, and low-lifes.
Our Jewish heritage gives us tremendous insight as both insiders and outsiders to continue to fight for what is good, just and honorable. Helping to combat racism is just one of many examples .As a nomadic people, we have a lot to say about immigration and the immigration experience. As a people who have been refuges more times than we care to think about, we have a lot to offer in the debate about the current Syrian refugee crises. And the list goes on and o
This is the particular skill set of our tradition. We have the power of our words and our deeds to be more Israel-mensch. We can change the universal for the better by helping to lift others up by listening to the very particular teachings of our tradition. This is our superpower. So lets use it for good.
L’shana Tova

[3] Wikipedia
[4] Ibid.
[5] Vonnegut, Kurt, Welcome to the Monkey House, New York, Bantam DoubleDay, 1988, pg. 7
[6] Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove
[7] Goldstein, Rabbi Niles Elliot, Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, Boston, Trumpeter, 2010, pg. 91.
[8] Ibid. pg. 108

No comments: