The Danger of a Single Story

Rosh HaShanah I, 5776

This past spring Ilyssa and I began to feed our daughter Raia solids.  As the responsible parent, Ilyssa was concerned with the how.  Do we buy the kind baby food we grew up on?  Do we make our own organic baby food?  Do we try baby-led weaning, which is a British philosophy of allowing your baby to feed themselves solid foods.  But for my part, I was concerned with the what—what will she will eat?  I wanted Raia to have a sophisticated palette from day one.

When you are done laughing, think what would happen if we substituted the limp carrots and overly steamed peas for a caramelized carrot puree with pea ice cream?  Both are prepared with just about the same nutritional value, give or take a calorie or two, and almost no new ingredients have been introduced.

Does this idea seem far-fetched because it is ill-conceived or simply because we have never thought of it before?  If we had that puree and ice cream, would those of us who have an aversion to certain vegetables feel differently about them?  Would we be more adventurous eaters?  Or is it simply not worth all that effort?  We eat what we know, and that is satisfying enough.

I want to let these ideas marinate for a few minutes.  While you are thinking about just what an English pea ice cream tastes like, I want you to close your eyes and envision about what a good Jew looks like.  Me, too:  an old man with a beard.

Since becoming a rabbi, people often confess to me, with a less than earnest smile, “Oh, I am bad Jew,” or “Rabbi, you would not want me in your shul.”  There is a lot of mining to do here, but what this person is saying is, "I am not a halachic Jew (I do not observe most or many Jewish laws).”  I know that by telling me this it is, in some sense, a confession, an attempt to alleviate the guilt that this individual feels for not being a Jew like their orthodox cousins in Rogers Park or Teaneck, NJ.

We have all been at a Passover Seder, visited a synagogue somewhere else, or had that same relative tell us we are doing it wrong or criticize our observance of a given custom, or be overly anxious to correct our Hebrew.  Whether these people were old men with a beard or not, we all can recognize those experiences.  We have all had them, good and bad Jews alike.

But the question we need to be asking is, "Why is this still a relevant image?"  Why do we privilege a singular, and often rigid, understanding of Judaism?  Why, if so many of us have one image of what a good Jew looks like, do we actively choose not to look like that!?!  We need to rid ourselves of the narrative of what it means or meant to be Jewish—of what a good Jew does or does not do, and we must abandon the erroneous idea that any form of Judaism was handed to Moses by God at Mt. Sinai.

The “I am a bad Jew” is, as the author Chimanda Ngozi Adichie would say, the Danger of Having a Single Story.  Adichie, the author of several novels, tells the story of when she left Nigeria and went to college in America.  Her white roommate was amazed by how well she spoke English, not knowing that it was the country’s vernacular; and when she asked Adichie to put on her “tribal music”, she was shocked that it revealed itself to be Mariah Carey.  It is hard to blame this young woman for the patronizing attitude that she held because so many of us have also inherited the single story of Africa and Africans.  And, likewise, so many of us have inherited the single story on what it means to be Jewish, or more broadly, what Judaism is—never what it can be.

To find the textual basis for this now-maligned bearded man, we must go back to one of the most famous Midrashim/rabbinic Tales in the Talmud.  In it we find Moses waiting to receive the Torah from God, but God is delaying the revelation in order to adorn each letter with a crown or a thorn.  The impatient leader asked God, “for whom was this delayed revelation for?”  God tells Moses that in several generations a man named Akiva will decipher the meaning of each and every one of the thorns.  Moses is then transported into the Beit Midrash/classroom of Rabbi Akiva; and while sitting in the back, he is completely lost in their discussion on the Torah.  During the lesson, a student asks Rabbi Akiva where can the law that is being discussed be learned or derived from?  Rabbi Akiva pauses, thinks and says, Moses received it on Mt. Sinai.  Rather than being frustrated by their baffling discussion on a subject, he assumed he knew it all—Moses sits up in his seat, pumps his chest, and relishes in his legacy, even though he knows that he and Rabbi Akiva were sharing a legal and textual wink.

Rabbi Akiva, and the Talmud itself, was saying that our tradition evolves, that it develops from Mt. Sinai rather than merely originating from it.  We all have the ability to impact our tradition.  The tradition demands that we move the needle, that we progress it past the Ancient Israelites awaiting Moses to return down the mountain with the written Word.

We can understand this phenomenon more broadly in the relationship of Halacha—strictly speaking, law—and aggada—lore, or more broadly, narrative.  Halacha keeps us grounded; it ties us to each other and our past.  A Judaism without Halacha, without laws guiding our communities and shaping our ritual norms, is as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “like a tree cut off at its roots.”  But a Judaism without Agadda, without our ability to shape it through story and personal exploration, is like a body without a heart.  As the poet Chayim Nachman Bialik said, “Aggada is our tradition's smile to halacha’s frown.”

The legal scholar, Robert Cover, dissected this issue in his essay Nomos and Narrative.  Cover found that, within the transition from Torah to modern legal codes, our personal and communal practices and experiences of being Jewish figured prominently into the creation of law—not only customs or liberal reforms but actual law.  That you and I had as much to do with our understanding, relation to, and practice of Judaism as any of the modern day students in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom.

The tradition is smarter than we give it credit, for we render the tradition’s genius obsolete by keeping it stagnate.  The tradition asks that we engage with it.  We need to learn and lean into it while knowing that it trusts us, and we misunderstand this demand to engage for a demand of compliance or conformity.

We need to return to privileging our experiences.  We need to return to elevating our personal and communal narratives; we must not allow a narrow understanding of “The Law” to diminish how we experience a given tradition.  We need to find common ground with our neighbors while knowing that their story does not have to be our story.  Reevaluating and retelling our story is how we realize Judaism’s potential for us as individuals.

Now that the flavors have been marinating and you can fully taste that pea ice cream, I want to tell you about Edward Lee.  You may have heard of him or seen him on PBS; but if not, he is a prominent Korean-American chef from New York City with a restaurant in Louisville.  Lee talks about how he adopted Louisville as his new home.  He speaks about the impact its history and people have had on him while using those influences to further its progress.  And he illustrates this transformation through a single dish he makes:  hasenpfeffer.

Hasenpfeffer, for those who do not know, of which I was one, is a German stew made with rabbit.  Lee put himself on the culinary landscape of the city by substituting the sauerkraut and traditional German spices for the Korean cabbage dish called Kimchi.  Making hasenpfeffer with kimchi and Korean chiles is not a bastardization of the dish, nor should it be seen as some radical food trend.  It is not demonstrating that chefs like Edward Lee have a disregard for the rules—it is the represents the exact opposite; it demonstrates that Tradition can only survive if we place ourselves on its continuum.  And it can only thrive if there is room within it for our story.

There is a time and a place for a traditional kugel and roast chicken.  But there is also a time and place for lemongrass matzo balls in a ginger broth.  There is a time to read Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac as a heroic act, just as there is a time, and need, to read it as a misunderstanding of what God wanted.  When we are steeped in the tradition, when we are comfortable with how we look in the moving portrait of our community and within our own faith, we can better recognize our right to tell a different version of the story we had previously been told.

This is not a sermon where I offer you anything tangible.  I not asking you to come to shul more, to observe Shabbat, or to take the cheese off your burger.  Those are your decisions. I am asking you to feel comfortable being in the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Akiva—not lost in the back like Moses, but at the front: arguing with of our tradition, with the finger wagging of various communities we find ourselves in.  And, when we find ourselves being that old man with a beard, that we dig deep and recognize the narrative's others.  I want you to be disabused of the idea that Judaism is just a bunch laws, relieved of the notion that our tradition, our Torah, and our Judaism are to be narrated by one voice.  I want you to feel empowered by the tradition rather than being muted by it.

Now with your eyes wide open, spend time over the next few weeks (and hopefully much longer) recognizing that the Jewish narrative is not fixed because it is unfolding in front of us.  The Israelites had a single story and it was called the Torah.  As Jews we have many stories, and it is up to each us to continue writing them.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf