December 3, 2014

By Rabbi Paul Steinberg

“‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar…
‘I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’
‘I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid Sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’”

This exchange in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (ch. 5) is my favorite moment of the book.  And although Alice is a kid trapped in wonderland, we can all relate to the stunning power of the Caterpillar’s question: Who are you? 

“Who are you” is, of course, essentially a question of personal identity and last week, during Thanksgiving, we celebrated one part of identity – certainly part of my identity and who I am.  Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday and I am an American.  But, we must pause— what on earth does it mean to be an American?  For me it certainly has nothing to do with pilgrims crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower.  It also has nothing to do with white settlers relocating and exterminating the natives who occupied the country.  And it doesn’t mean being a world power or living with a certain level of wealth.

For me, what Thanksgiving celebrates and what being an American means is living in a place that doesn’t merely tolerate, but actually loves differences in people.  My American identity, and what distinguishes America from other countries, is the founding principle that we can all live differently and still live together in equality – each of us is welcome to be unique and different, and yet, we are equal.  (So, from my humble understanding, I see a lot of Americans not acting very American.)

Notice, however, that my identity as an American is not guided by anything external, such as the clothes I wear, the color of my skin, the music I listen to, the religion I practice, or the team I cheer.  My American identity is rooted in a spiritual principle of brotherly love and acceptance that is both expansive enough to integrate into all I do and also limited enough to keep me from transgressing other principles that make up who I am, such as compassion and kindness.  The core of my internal spiritual identity ultimately informs my external identity as an American.  That’s how I know who I am.

In the Jewish world, identity is a highly charged term.  We ask: How Jewish are you?  We talk of it in our blood or by how much money we give to the synagogue or by the quantity of our ritual practice or by how we support Israel. In Jewish schools, we talk about educating toward Jewish identity so that kids know what being Jewish means and value it.  But, for me, this talk of Jewish identity is confusing.  After all: what is Jewish identity?  What does being Jewish mean? Or, as the Caterpillar might ask: Who are YOU as a Jew?

I know that for me, just as with my American identity, my Jewish identity needs to be informed by an internal spiritual disposition as a human being in order for it to be of any value.  That is, each identity I assume – and I have many (e.g., male, Jew, white, father, husband, American, recovering alcoholic, rabbi, friend) – must eventually be bound and integrated into who I am as a simple, imperfect human being. 

I worry though, that in the Jewish world of synagogues and schools, we have assumed too much about our Judaism.  We’ve assumed that it is self-evident as to how Judaism informs our basic humanity.  Consequently, we still teach ABOUT Judaism as an external value that we can utilize, instead of teaching a Judaism OF our own humanity.  Of course, it doesn’t take much to see that one can be content and good without being or doing anything Jewish, and so we advertise and market Jewish values and identity as if to convince people ( or perhaps to convince ourselves)?  What we avoid, however, is authentically expressing WHO WE ARE as Jews and letting our humanity speak for itself.

Soon we will celebrate Hanukkah, which is all about Jewish identity.  We commemorate a war, not merely between Greeks and Jews, but between Jews and Jews.  The Maccabees saw themselves as loyal to a particular understanding of Jewish identity and fought against the Jews who thought that speaking and living Greek were taking Judaism astray.  It is a holiday that asks: Who are YOU as a Jew? 

My answer: I am just a man walking the world in wonder.  I know fear and I know love; I know that a life inclined toward love is way better than a life inclined toward fear.  I am a loyal Jew because Judaism’s fundamental premise is not to be afraid, but to love the self and to love the world, as imperfect as they might be; we are to love this life as a gift.  And if we dedicate our love to what we do in our relationships and our work, we can transform curse into blessing in both our own lives and the world around us—we can be redeemed, ever-growing toward more peace and wholeness.

Therefore, for me, my internal spiritual disposition as a human being integrates my external identity as a Jew.  And that’s the point: who we really are – our identity – is known by how we align our internal spiritual core with our external personal expression. And, although our external personal expression may change and shift throughout the journey of our life in “wonderland,” we can return to our spiritual core to lead us and tell us who we are.

So, the question remains: what makes up your spiritual core? Or, as the Caterpillar would ask: Who are YOU?

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