You Shall Pursue

December 4, 2013

Sermon Slam

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 1:01 pm

I recently delivered a sermon about Hanukkah for Sermon Slam Philadelphia, an event like a poetry reading or a storytelling contest, but for sermons and other religious works. You can find a podcast of the event here. There were a lot of amazing, creative, and diverse works shared at this event, so please check it out. So many thanks to you guys for letting me share my preaching! And here’s the text of the sermon:

I’d like to start with a Hanukkah story, and one that you have probably never heard. In the days of Jason the High Priest, the days just before Antiochus the tyrant’s merciless attack on Judaism, several Jewish men were sent as representatives of Judea to the Herculean games at Tyre. They were sent with a hefty sum of money to fund sacrifices at the games, sacrifices to the god Hercules.

Imagine being those men. The honor and the privilege of representing Judea to the rest of the Greek world! The thrill of traveling to a new place, seeing the empire, and coming home as heroes, as champions. And yet, they have money in their pockets to sacrifice to Hercules. And so what do they do? What can they do? They can participate in foreign games, but they cannot bring themselves to worship foreign gods. The money never goes to sacrifices. Instead, it goes into the Greek war chest, to fund several new battleships.

I feel very close to the Jewish athletes from this story. Because I know what it means to feel the seductive pull of a broader culture. Those men most certainly spoke Greek, were gymnasia educated, and likely studied Plato and Aristotle. My native language is English, I was educated at Barnard, a secular college, where I majored in anthropology. I watch American TV, I listen to American music. My life, all of our lives, are deeply, strongly, American.

And that pull goes deeper for me than for many, especially future clergy. In this time of year, the time of light in the dark months, is hard for me. Because on Christmas, I’m going to be sitting in a church pew with my Presbyterian grandparents. I’m from an interfaith family, an overlooked but not uncommon occurrence among a new generation of American Jewish leaders.

The Maccabees did not like Jews like me. Their books rail against the Hellenization of their fellow Jews, calling them “evil” and “lawless” and claiming that they “abandoned the holy covenant.” Let alone marrying out.

The war of the Maccabees is not only a war against religious oppression. It is also a culture war, a strong statement against the forces of Hellenization. The Maccabees not only want to remain a free people, they also want to remain a people apart.

Given that, what does it mean to celebrate Hanukkah? How do I keep celebrating a holiday that commemorates a group that would have gladly driven my parents and me out on a rail?

For the answer, I wish to turn to this week’s Torah portion, to a man with many brothers, Joseph. Joseph who lives most of his life in Egypt. Joseph who takes on high positions of political power in court. Joseph who marries and Egyptian woman and has sons by her. And Joseph who, when the time comes, saves his brothers and welcomes them into his home with open arms.

Joseph is a master of “both/ and” thinking. He is a high ranking Egyptian official AND anxious to receive his father’s blessing. He is married to an Egyptian woman AND an interpreter of God’s visions. He straddles both worlds, and through the stretch and the straddling, he manages to save both the Egyptian people and his own family.

And so it is for me. I make one grandmother’s Christmas cookies and the other’s Jewish apple cake. I read Talmud, and then talk to my grandmother about how well I’m doing at my student “church.” I discuss atheism with my Jewish father, and kabbalah with my agnostic mother, and Aramaic with my atheist housemate who once wanted to be a priest. I study the historical context of the Lord’s Prayer, marvel at its similarity to the kaddish, and I can reel it off from memory because I learned it at a church Bible camp with my best friend when I was ten years old. And I am not alone. My Judaism filters down through both sides of my family, and all of my community, both Jewish and not, and it is the stronger for that.

What does this mean for us, we who come together to celebrate the great miracle that happened there? What is the miracle? I would argue that Hanukkah, is not yet another case of “they tried to kill us, we survived let’s eat” (although latkes are delicious). Rather, it is a powerfully complicated story about lines in the sand, and how those lines shift and move as the landscape also shifts, and how we ride that wave to lives rededicated to Judaism.

How do we know when to adapt, and when to stand firm? When can we act as the Jewish athletes, and go forth to the games, and when must we act as the Maccabees, and keep our Temple pure? Both are legitimate Jewish reactions to the same set of circumstances.

As actors in the broader world, we face these challenges every day.

Can we live out the Jewish value of Shabbat, in a world that favors being plugged in 24/7?

Can we live out the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, when our society remains jingoistic and committed to deporting undocumented teenagers?

Can we live out the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, in one of the few nations in the developed world that still executes prisoners, and bombs clinics in the name of saving babies?

Can we live out the Jewish value of communal responsibility, when so often our lives drag us away from one another, and make it so very difficult to commit to building a supportive and vibrant Jewish community?

And when should broader human values intercede; the value to protect the poor of all religions, the value to promote peace between all people, the value of honoring family and friends and loved ones, no matter what their religious background?

We must remember that we have tremendous power; the power to include and the power to exclude, the power to celebrate diversity and ecumenicalism and the power to celebrate our unique heritage. We are blessed, and cursed, to live in a world where the choice of where to draw our lines is truly our own. And while our lines in the sand may not be in the same place as the Maccabees, or the Jewish athletes, may we all have the power to stand firm in our convictions, knowing that we do so under the authority and blessing of God.

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