In 5772, I tried a sermon experiment: I wrote four High Holy Day sermons looking at a single theme. The theme I selected was "What does it mean to be Jewish and American?" I delivered these sermons at a High Holy Day pulpit at Temple Agudath Sholom in Lynchburg, Virginia. I chose the following progression:
1. Being Jewish locally (in Lynchburg, Virginia)
2. Being Jewish nationally
3. Being Jewish in an international context (in conversation with Zionism)
4. Being Jewish in America as allies to Muslims in America
In this sermon, I consider what life is like for a Jewish Virginian in the context of a Christian majority.
Turning to Dance
The High Holidays are about t’shuvah.
We usually translate this word to mean “repentance” — Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur call us to atone for the mistakes we’ve committed over the past year.
But t’shuvah also has another meaning: “Answer.” In Hebrew, one responds to a question (sh’eilah) with an answer (t’shuvah).
The High Holidays are about repentance, and they are also about answering.
What, then, shall we answer?
This is a time to look at big questions, questions that require deep thought, questions that have no simple solution, and to try our best to summon up an answer. This year, which follows the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which precedes the 2012 election season, and which perhaps balances at a pivotal moment in the history of the state of Israel, I pose the question: “What does it mean to be Jewish and American?”
As we ponder this huge question, throughout the High Holy Days it will be helpful to start small here tonight: “What does it mean to be Jewish and live in Lynchburg, Virginia?”
The president of my seminary, Rabbi David Ellenson, has much to teach us on this topic. He was raised not far from here, in Newport News, VA, and he is fond of telling the story of his parents’ engagement. Rabbi Ellenson’s Bostonian grandmother refused to agree to her daughter’s engagement to someone from Newport News who claimed to be Jewish. She had never even heard of a Jew from Virginia. Rabbi Ellenson writes that his mother protested,
“His name is Sam, he has an eastern-European Jewish face, he speaks Yiddish, and I met him at Hillel.” Nevertheless, [his] maternal grandmother remained steadfast in her determination not to permit the engagement, saying that none of these facts were conclusive in any way. After all, she reasoned, Harvard boys are quite smart, and he may have simply learned Yiddish and gone to Hillel for the express purpose of meeting a Jewish girl. Until she met his mother there would be no engagement.
I can’t tell you how many times in my own travels I’ve found myself in this position, interacting with someone who’s mystified by my very existence.
“Where are you from?” someone will ask.
“Virginia,” I reply.
“Oh, like around DC?”
“No, I’m from Roanoke. In southwest Virginia.”
“Oh. [pause] What’s the Jewish community like there?” Behind the question often lurks another: “Are there really Jews down there? And are they real Jews?”
Responses such as these naturally make us feel uncomfortable, partly because they question our authentic Jewishness and partly because they cut a little too close to home. It’s easy for us to understand the reasons why most people would be surprised to meet a Jew from the rural south, and one of them is only a 15-minute drive from here.
Most Americans who know anything at all about Lynchburg probably know only one thing about this town, and what they know seems to confirm their suspicions about the entire region.
Jerry Falwell, founder of the so-called Moral Majority, and hometown hero of Lynchburg, Virginia — whose conservative and apocalyptic beliefs grabbed national attention time and again — has given a face to a brand of evangelical Christianity that has become synonymous with the South.
It’s no wonder that folks would be surprised to hear that a Jew hailed from Lynchburg. After all, there are twice as many students at Liberty University as there are Jews in the entire state of Virginia outside of the DC area. “That’s no place for a Jew to live,” many would say. And sometimes, we are tempted to agree with them.
How do we understand our life here? How do we contextualize our Jewish experience here in the rural south?
We may begin by remembering that Jews of European descent have been living in Christian-majority environments for well over a thousand years. The history of Jewish life in a Christian context is a long one, and we can turn to this history for guidance.
So, where better to start than at the beginning?
It may be surprising to us today that the earliest Christian invectives against Jews come from a time when Christians were in the minority.
Christianity began as a part of Judaism in the first centuries of the Common Era during a time of extreme Jewish diversity. Jewish sects such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes were joined by newer groups such as the ultra-literalist Karaites and the Jesus-following Christians. In a world of tense Jewish competition, each group struggled for supremacy, fighting for the support of the entire Jewish people.
By the end of the first century CE, Jewish Christians had been ejected from some synagogues because of their increasingly non-normative beliefs. The Gospel of John was composed in this environment, and it is clear that John is responding to this contentious atmosphere in his writings. John’s is far-and-away the most anti-Jewish of the four Gospels, and much of this sentiment can be traced to the religious power struggle in which this leader was embroiled.
The anti-Jewish themes highlighted in the Gospel of John were carried forward by early Christian commentators. As Christianity and Judaism became more and more theologically distinct, their respective leaders worked harder and harder to attract followers. The average Jew during the first few centuries of the Common Era would likely have been equally comfortable in a church or a synagogue because, compared to the polytheistic religion of the Romans, these two traditions seemed pretty much the same. Christian leaders had to fight an uphill battle against the Jewish establishment that was solidifying under the control of the rabbis.
It is in this context that Church fathers such as Augustine and John Chrysostom gave birth to an entire genre of literature known as Adversus Judaeos, or “Against the Jews.” Since aggressive polemic was a common characteristic of Greek rhetoric at the time, these anti-Jewish homilies were forceful statements of supercessionism and Christian triumphalism. Early Christians employed these powerful and persuasive sermons in order to bolster their own claims to religious legitimacy and to establish credibility in the eyes of the Jews and the Jewish Christians of the Roman Empire.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see who eventually won the upper hand in that PR battle.
Partly because Christianity was easily accessible to the gentile world, the young religion grew steadily during its first few centuries. Christianity’s greatest early victory came in the year 312, when the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity and shortly thereafter converted the entire Empire to his new faith. In the ensuing centuries, Christianity became established as a permanent world religion, no longer a struggling sect of Judaism, and it began to assert its authority over the entire western world.
One might have hoped that the Christians, no longer threatened by the Jewish community, would have eased their antagonism of Judaism and the Jews. Tragically, though, the early foundations of anti-Judaism laid down by the Gospel of John and the sermons of early Church Fathers became a central pillar of Christian dogma and an accepted part of normative Christian belief.
This sad history contributed, in greater or lesser degrees, to so many tragedies committed against the Jewish people. The Crusades. The Inquisition. The expulsion from Spain. Even the Holocaust.
A fear of Jews is ingrained in European Christian culture and has plagued Jewish communities for centuries.
As we look to this historical reality for inspiration in our own lives, we ask, “How did the Jews respond to the antagonism of their neighbors?”
Sometimes, they mirrored Christians’ fear of them with their own fear of Christians. Take for example birkat haminim, the ancient “blessing regarding heretics.” A version of this prayer dating from the early Middle Ages, asks of God:
May there be no hope for apostates,
And may You quickly uproot the insolent reign in our day,
And may the Christians and heretics instantly perish.
“May they be erased from the book of life, and may they not be written with the righteous.”
Blessed are You, Adonai, who humbles the insolent.
This liturgy, recited day after day, was an example of Jewish intolerance directed at Christians. It’s easy to understand why the Jews, so threatened by a potentially-hostile Church, would lash out in this way. But, this reactionary pose couldn’t be sustained.
While birkat haminim remained and remains part of the Jewish liturgy, specific mention of Christians was removed from this blessing by, at latest, the 15th century. This liturgical change occurred in order to protect the physical health of the community. Jewish converts to Christianity were known to share troubling texts with their new brethren, and the Jews feared retribution.
But I also believe that birkat haminim had to change in order to preserve the spiritual health of the community. Even in the face of religious persecution, Jews could not stand repeating such pointedly hateful supplications day after day. This ancient curse against Christians, rooted in the 3rd century, no longer spoke to Jews of the Middle Ages.
I say this not out of a rosy view of medieval Jewish sensibilities. Rather, I draw my conclusion that Jews changed their perspective on Christians from the historical reality that life in Christian Europe was, by and large, fairly peaceful and productive.
Yes, the Middle Ages were the years of the Crusades and the Inquisition and expulsion after expulsion; but the years between these horrific episodes, the years that defined the average contour of Jewish life in Europe, were relatively stable. In fact, in the 1200s, it was not uncommon for Jews to be found in Christian universities, studying the Bible side-by-side with Christian scholars and teaching them classical Hebrew. Jewish communities were often invited en masse to settle in a newly-established city, for they would bring with them considerable business contacts that were envied by start-up kings.
Thus, the common image of a Jew in the Middle Ages as either a victim of the Crusades or an unfairly mistreated Shylock does not do justice to reality. Certainly, relations were often difficult, but in what society do different groups not face strife with one another? Indeed, some of our greatest intellectual giants, including the commentator Rashi, his grandson Rashbam, and the scholarly group of rabbis known as the Tosafists, flourished in this environment. Two centuries after Rashi, a group of pietists known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz gave birth to a new movement of Jewish moral instruction.
Truly, medieval European Jews successfully nourished the Jewish culture that has traveled through the centuries to be handed down to us today.
So, how can we Virginians relate?
Like our Jewish forebears, we sometimes have to deal with Christians who want nothing more than to see us converted to Christianity. Also like our Jewish forebears, we generally live our lives with good relations with these people, only occasionally made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. And like our Jewish forebears, we have the option to rise above the challenges of living as a minority and to build the kind of accepting community that we always dreamed for ourselves.
Even here in Lynchburg, in a haven of evangelical Christianity, we need not default to the ethnic separatism envisioned in the old version of birkat haminim. Our ancestors have taught us that we always have a choice in how to shape our community, and that message is prominent for us today. We can shape what Christians see when they look at our community, and we can shape how we Jews feel as members of it.
Allow me to paint a picture of the possible community that we can build.
At almost every Jewish wedding reception, at almost every Bar or Bat Mitzvah party, there will come that time when the DJ puts on a track of klezmer music and the assembled guests dance the hora. We’re familiar with this iconic circle dance not only because many of us have glided (or stumbled!) through the steps countless times but also because the hora is one of the stock images of Jewish life in America.
The community that we build together can resemble this circle of dancing Jews.
Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague, known as the Maharal, wrote in the 16th century that the circle dance was an ideal image for the Jewish community.  He writes that the circle dance has “[the] ability to stretch and expand to accommodate more people without losing its essential shape. The circle, like the Jewish people, is an unbroken image no matter how large or small it gets. The circle is expansive and, at the same time, promotes and sustains equality.”
But those of us here, Jews and non-Jews alike, who have actually participated in a hora know that the ideal doesn’t always match up with reality.
At almost every hora, there are those who stand on the outside, unwilling or unable to join the dance. There are those who join in only because someone invites them in; once there, they may or may not feel fully accepted. In a crowded room, there will often form multiple circles, and the inner circles will be populated by those who are already most comfortable with the dance. Often, one single individual is lifted in a chair above the heads of everyone else, drawing attention away from the community and attracting it to himself. Sure, almost everyone may be having a good time, but the model of equal partnership that the Maharal envisioned isn’t upheld in most actual hora dances.
If we want our community to be a place of full welcoming and open celebration for all who wish to join it, we need to take a look at the makeup of the circle that we’ve come together to dance in.
Even though I’m new to the Agudath Sholom community, I feel that this hora metaphor speaks to our current situation.
I understand, based on the conversations I’ve had and the congregational bulletins I’ve read, that this community is currently trying to tighten up its circle. Until recently, there has always been a rabbi here to draw communal attention and to have the community rally around him. Now, that rabbi, the metaphorical Bar Mitzvah boy on a chair, no longer exists to demand attention and direct the dancing.
The circle must continue to spin on its own.
Some people who have been content standing on the sidelines find that now, they must move closer into the circle in order to shore things up. The music keeps playing, of course, and Jewish life goes on, and members of this community learn to become ever more comfortable with each other because they need to rely on one another more than they have in the past.
As an outsider to this process, I have been able only to observe your communal transformation. As your visiting rabbi, I hope to offer you words of encouragement in this time of transition.
The 27th Psalm is traditionally recited during the month leading up to Rosh Hashannah, and I pray that its closing words may inspire this community in the weeks and months ahead.
חֲזַק וְיֲאַמֵץ לִבֶּךָ
“Look with hope to Adonai,
be strong and of good courage,
O look to Adonai!”
The Psalmist reminds us that, in times of difficult change, we may always fall back on the enduring values that hold us together. Metaphorically speaking, God is at the center of this dancing community, and we may look to God as the source of our hope.
But of course, God is invisible.
So if you take the advice of the Psalmist, if you “look to Adonai,” turning your eyes in hope to the spiritual center of your community, you won’t be able to help seeing the dancer on the opposite side of the circle, perhaps the one who has always remained farthest away from you.
Focusing on the fundamental principles around which we all revolve will naturally draw us closer to one another, and remembering the spiritual values of this community will help bind all of its members together.
What does it mean to be Jewish and American in Lynchburg, VA?
Today, as the year 5772 gets underway, it means drawing closer together especially during times of change. The prevailing Christian culture of this city is always going to be there; and so, too, is the Jewish community.
Let us be strong in our resolve to dance, even if the outside music is distancing or distracting.
Let us take courage in finding new ways of engaging with old friends and familiar neighbors, even as the leadership structure of this community continues to change.
And let us always look to Adonai, our Rock and the Source of our strength.
 In Jews and Judaism in the 2st Century, pp. 24-26.
 Statistics taken from Sheskin, Ira M. Dashefsky, Arnold. Jewish Population in the United States, 2010. Current Jewish Population Reports. North American Jewish Data Bank. 2010: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=10190.
 Cf. Reddish, Mitchell. An Introduction to the Gospels, 181 and John 9:22, 34; 16:2.
 Hoffman, My People’s Prayerbook, Volume 2: The Amidah. p. 134.
 Brown, Erica. Inspired Jewish Leadership. 104-5.
 Psalm 27:14, JPS translation.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”