Monday, May 6, 2013

In Your Tents and on the Streets (portion B'Midbar)

“Be a human being on the streets and a Jew in your tents.”

With these words, from his 1863 poem “Hakitsah Ami” (Awake, My People!), Yehudah Leib Gordon urged his Russian Jewish readers to enter modernity.

The poem captures the spirit of its time, the era of Jewish Emancipation, when we began to emerge from our ghettos and shtetls into the mainstream of European culture.  For the first time in centuries, Jews had an opportunity to become citizens of the nations within whose borders they had long lived as strangers.

But citizenship came with a price: assimilation.  As a liberal French philosopher and politician of the time put it, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”  In other words, Jews who wanted access to European culture shouldn’t be “too Jewish” in public.  Yehudah Leib Gordon, our leading Enlightenment poet, sought to accommodate this offer.  He proposed that we, essentially, privatize our Judaism, living our Jewish lives behind the closed doors of our homes.

One hundred and fifty years later and an ocean away, times have changed.  The notion that one can be some sort of generic, universal human being in the public sphere is archaic.  We are who we are, complicated amalgamations of identities, wherever we go.  This is what makes life and culture interesting, diverse, and vital.

Yet vestiges of Gordon’s vision remain with us.  We still make this kind of false division between our public and private selves, for instance, when we keep kosher at home but eat bacon in restaurants, or when we take off our kipot the moment we leave the synagogue.  Even here in America, where our constitution guarantees religious freedom, we may still be afraid of acting “too Jewish” in public, essentially closeting ourselves.  This is neurotic and shameful.

It is true that we, as liberal Jews, have multiple identities.  We don’t dwell in a shtetl; we live with our feet planted in many different worlds.  But if Judaism is to thrive, it can’t be something that we compartmentalize, or turn off whenever we enter the public sphere.  To be Jewish is to stand proud as a Jew, everywhere and always.  To be Jewish today is to prove Yehudah Leib Gordon wrong, to be a Jew in our tents and on the streets.

Our Torah portion, B’midbar, which opens the book of Numbers, recognizes this.  In a description of the Israelite encampments in the wilderness, it notes: “As they camp, so they shall march, each in position by their standards” (Numbers 2:17).  Upon which the Midrash comments: “This teaches that one should be the same person at home as away from home, in private as in public.”

This is the meaning of integrity: to be whole, and true to one’s self and one’s people.  Jewish integrity means Jewish pride.  Let’s embrace who we are, proudly, wherever we go.

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