Accepting Judaism as a Privilege
One Sunday morning, many years ago, as parentscame to pick up their kids from the Hebrew school where I taught, Ioverheard a conversation. “How was class?” A father asked his son.The child began to whine. “I hate Hebrew school,” he said. “It’sboring and stupid, the teachers are mean, and the kids aren’t nice. Idon’t want to go any more.” The father stopped, turned to the kid,and said: “Listen, when I was your age, I went to Hebrew school and Ihated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren’tnice, but they made me go, and, now, you’re going to go too!”
What a tragedy. What a catastrophe. To have raiseda generation of children who associate Judaism with coercion, boredomand emptiness.
When my grandparents described the painfulcondition of the Jewish people, they would shake their heads andsigh, “Shver tsu zein a Yid” — “It’s hard to be a Jew.” To them,being a Jew was a privilege, but the world made it so difficult, sopainful. Somehow, we’ve turned this around. No longer description, ithas become prescription: Shver tsu zein a Yid. For anything to beauthentically Jewish, so many seem to feel, it must be hard, painful,difficult: “No chrain, no gain.”
A friend of mine, a Jew by choice, was invited toaddress a community commission that was researching outreach toconverts. After her statement, a prominent community leaderquestioned her: “You say that you keep a kosher home. Don’t you findthat very difficult these days?”
“No,” she replied. “With new labeling of packages,it’s actually getting easier.”
“Well, certainly, you find it veryexpensive.”
“No, not really. You just shop wisely.”
“Well, doesn’t it severely restrict what you caneat?”
Catching his direction, she explained pointedly,”Kashrut brings to my kitchen and to my home a level of sanctity andgodliness that is precious to me and to my family.”
“Well, obviously,” the chairman concluded, “youdon’t keep strictly kosher!”
Shver tsu zein a Yid. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s notreally Jewish. I once gave a sermon in a synagogue on a Shabbatmorning. A woman came over afterward and said, “Rabbi, I enjoyed yourtalk so much, I had such a good time, I forgot I was in shul!”Oy.
Mordechai Kaplan’s classic text, “Judaism as aCivilization,” opens with a sad observation: Once, Jews acceptedJudaism as a privilege; now, they regard it as a burden.
This is a twisted, tortured, contorted form ofJudaism. In the face of such an attitude, it is no wonder that whenasked in a national study of the Jewish population, “What is yourreligion?” 1.8 million Jews answered, “None.” After all, if Judaismis only a painful burden, who needs it?
It is time we recover Jewish joy. And this holidayof Sukkot, called by the tradition, z’mansimchateynu — our season of joy — is agood place to begin. It is a mitzvah, a divine imperative, toknow Jewish joy. It is a sin to have twisted Judaism into a dry,joyless, morbid burden. Jews must learn to say to their children andgrandchildren, in the most unequivocal of terms: “I do Judaismbecause it brings my life purpose, beauty and depth. I do Judaismbecause it makes me happy.”
As we will read this week: “You shall rejoice inyour festival with your son and your daughter…and have nothing butjoy” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).
My greatest triumph as a rabbi came one Sukkot,when a little kid came and whispered in my ear:
“Rabbi, I feel sorry for my neighbors.”
“You feel sorry for your neighbors? Why?” I askedhim.
“Look what we get to do today, Rabbi,” he said.”We get to eat in the sukkah, sing the prayers and march with thelulav and etrog. We’re together as a family and with all our friends.Rabbi, for us, today is Yontif, but for them, it’s justThursday!”
May all Jewish children feel the same. HagSameach.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.