Our Identity, Our Politics

Rosh HaShanah Day 5780

There is no question it has been a bewildering week, a manic month, a disorienting year.  We gather this first morning of our New Year in turbulent times, when the metaphorical waters of our world seem rockier than the waves raging on our lakefront.  In uncertain seasons as these, we turn to our Jewish heritage in hopes it might provide us a steadying anchor.  We are filled with questions; we turn to tradition for answers.  This morning, I do want to get to those answers about how our Jewish identity moors us in unsteadying times.  But, first, like the rest of you, I am filled with questions.  I focus today on three: one biblical, one talmudic, one modern.  In considering these questions, I hope to address how we can overcome the uncertainties of our new year with a greater sense of self and purpose. My questions are:

If two leaders of an important march for women’s rights are apparent antisemites, should a Jew participate in the protest?

If two people are stranded in the desert with only enough water for one of them to survive, what should they do with the water?

If God asks you to sacrifice your child on a remote desert mountain, do you heed the Divine call?

Well, at least the last question is an easy one to answer.  NO!  None of us would take our child and sacrifice them atop any mountain in the name of our God.  That goes against everything we believe.  In fact, our real question is: why do we read this story each and every Rosh HaShanah? We are not only troubled by Abraham’s ability to forsake his own family, we wonder: how God could ask him to choose between doing a divine deed and saving his own son?

We know that even as Judaism demands we take care of our world, it charges us to build for the future, to pass on our tradition from generation to generation.  Abraham’s selflessness is problematic for that reason: his willingness to slaughter his son is too selfless!  It is as if Abraham is unaware of the central tenet of our Jewish identity: Love your neighbor as yourself.[1]  Love your neighbor as yourself has two parts.  Yes, we need to love our neighbors, to take care of our neighbors, to see to the needs of our neighbors.  But that obligation is balanced: we can only love our neighbors as we love ourselves, if we love ourselves, when we take care of ourselves and see to our own needs.  We hardly demonstrate love for ourselves when we sacrifice our children. Our love for ourselves, our sense of self-worth, our care and concern for our family and our community, are literally the predicate of our capacity to help our neighbors, to work for those in need, to love others as we love ourselves.

Loving our neighbors is easy sometimes.   Over a decade ago at Sinai, long before I arrived, we learned many members were concerned about mental health; they got together to look into solutions.  I’ll move quickly through the wonky details: basically, we discovered communities could self-impose a small tax to fund mental health centers, and realized the North River neighborhood was a prime candidate to do so.[2]  We worked on a referendum, walked the neighborhood to turn out votes, and saw 74% of North River residents vote in favor.  Thus the Kedzie Center was born, and Sinai members have sat on its board and helped sustain it ever since.[3]  Even in brief outline, it’s an incredible story.[4]   It’s an incredible expression of our congregational commitments, of our Jewish identity, of how we love our neighbor.

Sometimes loving our neighbors is easier than others.  We are rightfully proud of our role in creating the Kedzie Center, even though not a single Sinai member lives in the neighborhood or can access its services.[5]  We were worried about healthcare, and we created something for our neighbors.  But it was far less easy to love our neighbors this year, when members wanted to join the Women’s March, but learned that two of its principal spokespeople—both of whom have since resigned—showed signs of being antisemitic.[6]  People wanted to march, but feared their participation would legitimize antisemitism. A tough question: should we take to the streets to stand up for women’s rights, or do we stay home so as not to encourage those who, in this age of increasing hate crimes, might hate us?  For Jewish women, the question was doubly vexing: do I stand up for my rights as a woman, even if it entails sacrificing my security as a Jew?  Or does my Jewish identity lead me to walk away from a March that is trying to secure my rights as a woman? We might almost ask: which part of my identity gets to make this decision?

All too often, explosive questions like these are settled in the modern minefield called “identity politics”.  I cannot recall the first time I heard the phrase “identity politics”, but in the last few years I’ve seen it explaining everything from the political success of Barack Obama to the rise of white nationalism.[7]  It seems to me that the one thing on which everyone in America agrees is that identity politics are to blame for all our troubles.  Three recent headlines capture this obsession: “It Comes as no Shock that the Powerful Hate Identity Politics,”  “The Obsession with Identity Politics Sinks to a Sad, New Low,” and “Identity Politics Proves Lethal.”[8]

I have no problem admitting that, just even a year ago, I had absolutely no idea what ‘identity politics’ really meant. But I was hearing that phrase everywhere.  I started searching for articles and buying books, but the best explanation was, of course, right there on Wikipedia: identity politics refers to a tendency of people sharing a racial, religious, or ethnic identity to promote their particular interests without regard for the interests of wider society.[9]  Identity Politics originate in the black feminist movement of the 1970s, when the term became a rallying cry for collective action.  Identity politics, this early statement expresses, allows the oppressed to redeem themselves:

We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us… focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end someone else’s oppression.[10]


In Identity Politics, love for ourselves comes first, “focusing upon our own oppression.”  And, for many engaged in Identity Politics, love for ourselves is not just the primary goal, but the only goal: the idea is to work to better one’s own situation, as opposed to working to bring an end to someone else’s suffering.[11]  This focusing upon one’s own oppression, on one’s self-interest, I understood. It connects to the classic question of community organizing: What keeps you up at night?  This is the question Saul Alinsky asked in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, as he organized his community by learning what troubles kept them from sleeping soundly. Community organizing is built on the premise that neighbors care about similar problems, and that—by hearing and then harnessing their concerns—communities can come together to effect real change.  At Sinai, we asked, “What keeps you up at night?,” and, as a result, built the Kedzie Center!

But here is where it all falls apart.  Here is where identity politics, the politics of self-interest, comes into conflict with a higher value: Judaism.  This is no ethical abstraction.  Think about it: when, years ago, members of Sinai were asked what keeps them up at night, answers included: a dearth of mental health resources, the poor state of public education, the gun violence plaguing Chicago.  These were our concerns, even though only a segment of our congregation has school-aged children; few members live in the violence-riddled South and West sides; and not a single member can use the mental health services of the Kedzie Center.  What kept us up at night were not our personal problems, but society’s ills.  Our self-interest was to see to the interests of people in greater distress than we were.  Our identity politics move us to work for people whose identities are different from our own.

Long before I heard the phrase “identity politics,” I used to argue endlessly about these kinds of questions with an old, dear friend.  This friend would claim that family came first, and Jews were family.  Now, this friend was also the first to volunteer in CPS schools, to work as a mentor for young men without father figures, to speak out loudly against every injustice.  But, apropos of identity politics, for this friend of mine, Judaism came first.  He once sent me a book he was infatuated with called John Lennon and the Jews.  Ironically for a book about the author of “Imagine,” John Lennon and the Jews argues Jews should imagine taking care of only fellow Jews.  The book is centered on a Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Akiba: if two people travel in the desert with only enough water for one to stay alive, then the one with the water should drink it; better you should live then die like your neighbor.[12]

Self-interest and self-preservation personified: in this Talmudic passage, Akiba creates Jewish identity politics.  But as great as sage as Akiba was, he wasn’t always right.  We can see this from his failure in actual politics, where he identified with a false Messiah and inspired a doomed, deadly uprising against Rome.  In our case of the desert and not enough water, Akiba’s shortsighted siding with self-love doesn’t even find the approval of his peers: two Talmudic sages disagree with his self-preserving instinct.  One, named Ben Petora, teaches that in the case of one jug of water in the wilderness, the two traveling companions should share the water and both die, rather than either of them witness, or either of them cause, the death of the other.[13]  What a powerful insight: focusing on our own self-preservation can destroy us in different ways.  Perhaps this is why Ben Petora’s answer finds favor with the great Sage Rabbi Yohanan, who explains that this answer, that we need to share the water, fulfills Torah’s command: your kin shall live with you.[14]  Rabbi Yohanan knows we cannot only be in it for ourselves.  We must love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our love for ourselves is intrinsically connected to our love for others.  Even though we need to take care of ourselves, self-love cannot stand as our highest value. That is not the Jewish way.

We all experience tension between preserving ourselves and taking care of others.  Should we impoverish ourselves so others aren’t poor?  Should we dedicate so much time to volunteer efforts that our families never see us?  Do we work ourselves to the point of exhaustion so that others aren’t tired?  How much life-giving water can we give away before we die of thirst?  Akiba’s teaching, the privileging of self-preference, the mantra of identity politics, is “take care of ourselves first”: only if ourselves, our people, our group is secure can we can look to the needs of others.  But that argument doesn’t square with Rabbi Yohanan or with Ben Petorah or with me; it doesn’t square with the Torah, either.  For while it’s true that one famous verse in Leviticus commands us to balance our commitments to others with our own self-concern, that is where any sense of Jewish balance ends.  Only in the 19th chapter of Leviticus are we commanded to love ourselves.  Thirty-six times in our Torah we are asked to love the stranger, to work for the stranger, to end other’s oppression.[15]  In the balance of Torah, the statistics are overwhelming: our obligation to care for the other outweighs self-preservation thirty-six to one. 

Since I’ve come to Sinai, there are those who criticize me, who criticize us: why don’t we focus on the Jewish poor instead of helping the hungry at a Church?  Why do we stand up for rights of Palestinians instead of only defending Israelis?  If the Odgen School is thriving, why work to merge it with the underperforming Jenner Academy for the Arts?  If Linda Sarsour supports BDS against Israel, and Tamika Mallory stands by Louis Farrakhan without criticism, how can we participate in a Women’s March which places these people on the podium?  These questions are not new.  We can see them in almost every generation of American history.  We have answered these either/or, us-or-them questions in every generation of Jewish history.  And very few of our answers have been satisfying.  It is not our fault; the problem is the questions themselves.  That is why it is time for us to stop answering these questions. Instead, we need to reject them.

We need to reject these questions. I explain by way of Talmudic commentary.  Remember the scenario:  If two are walking in the wilderness, with only one jug of water, and if they both drink, both will die.  One commentator, the Netziv, was fascinated by the majority opinion—that the two should share the water—but had a hard time accepting the outcome of a dual death.[16]  He explains away any difficulty with sharing the water, saying: the two should both drink, as the water will help them survive for a short time.  And it is possible that, soonafter, they will find more water, or some other source of deliverance.[17]  Amazing: the Netziv rejects, reframes the question.  If originally we wonder what to do when there is not enough water, the Jewish answer is: there is always enough water!  It’s not the sharing the water that is wrong; it’s wrong to ask such a misguided and binary question in the first place!  Perhaps this is why a different commentator explains that Yohanon’s answer fulfills the injunction, love your neighbor as yourself: your job is to keep both you and your neighbor alive and well.[18]  Anyone who suggests that that doing so is impossible, or that you need to choose between yourself and a stranger, is asking the wrong question. 

It is not that we need to choose between ourselves and our neighbors, between ourselves and rank strangers.  Our choices are about how to insure we stand up for ourselves and also act for others.  Jewish identity is about balance: we cannot keep all our resources to ourselves, but neither can we give all the figurative water away so that we die of thirst.  Judaism teaches us to reject binary questions that would polarize us; when we are asked about “either/or”, Judaism would have us respond with “both/and”.  Both/and is delicate: if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we need to take care of ourselves and our neighbors, if not in equal measure, then in some commensurate ratio.  This means that our ability to work for others is premised upon our foundation in self-care, self-protection, our own dignity and honor.  This also means that our care for ourselves will be limited—impaired, even—by the work we do on behalf of others.  It is not a question of if we sacrifice ourselves or cease to do for others; whether we care only for the other or only for ourselves.  To be a Jew is to sacrifice: even when taking care of ourselves, we need to give the best of ourselves to others at the same time.  That is the reciprocal nature of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves: we create a circle of sacrifice and love. 

We do need to work together with other people.  Even when it is messy.  Getting ourselves a little dirty isn’t always fun, but our Jewish identities commit us to improving our world, even if it hurts.  For the Jew, since the time of Abraham, our real self-interest is the interest of all humanity.  We cannot separate out what we need from what others need.  That is a Jewish impossibility.  This is why our Jewish Identity does not fit neatly into contemporary categories of American politics.  America today is divided into different camps, each absolving itself of any responsibility towards the other.  The Jew stands in defiance of this divide.[19] 

Jewish identity entails sacrifice.  So maybe I was wrong about Abraham.  Maybe there are times we need to make sacrifices in the name of all that we believe.  If I want to be like the Abraham who stood up for the righteous of Sodom, maybe I need to be like Abraham and be willing to sacrifice not only the benefits I enjoy, but also the resources I hope to provide to my children and grandchildren.  I need to love myself and my neighbors.  If the ultimate lesson of the binding of Isaac is that God does not want us to offer up our children in fire on the altar, maybe part of its teaching is that we need to sacrifice a lot more than we think.  Maybe we need to March for Women’s Rights even with people who hate us. Maybe, even on a desperate day, we need to share our water.  Maybe the true meaning of our Jewish commitment to a better world is that we have to pay the price, the real price, of its creation.

If god asks you to sacrifice your child, do you do so?  Maybe more than we imagine.  For if we only exist for ourselves and our families, we fail to heed the Divine call. If two March leaders are apparent antisemites, should we participate?  Yes, but that should not stop us from countering antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head. If two people travel with only enough water for one, what should they do? Well, they should share the water.  More importantly, they should believe there is enough water, that there is always enough.  Because the real problem isn’t answering these questions, it is the existence of these questions.  Just because we live in a broken world that seems to be fracturing people into factions, does not mean we need to be so divided.  We know our job as Jews—especially in a time of deep division—is to stay united, to take care of ourselves even as we work to see to the needs of the wider world.  We need to love ourselves even as we sacrifice ourselves.  Those goals are hardly in opposition.  The Jew simply cannot do one without working on the other.

Our Jewish vision of a world repaired is just that: an entire world repaired, for everyone.  Our Jewish values are in keeping with what Dr. King famously taught: Our redemption is tied up with everyone’s redemption in a single garment of human destiny.[20]  Even in these most turbulent times, we know that when people pose questions that seek to divide us, to separate us from all that we value, we should not answer them, but reject them outright.  We do need to sacrifice some of what we have to live up to Divine expectations.  We cannot work for liberation only with people who agree with us about everything.  And, with very rare exception that I believe none of us will ever personally experience, there is always enough water. Let us share it and all live.

Let us share what we have, live together with others, thrive together with all, and all make the most of this incredible gift of this New Year we are given.

May it be our will.

[1] Leviticus 19:18.  This teaching is so central to life at Chicago Sinai Congregation that we inscribed it in Hebrew and English on the walls of our sanctuary.

[2] Just .4%!  For more background information, including the levy and the ultimate vote, on the formation of the Kedzie Center, see: https://news.wttw.com/2016/12/05/west-side-residents-approve-higher-taxes-mental-health.

[4] I thank Sinai leader Ellyn Daniels for the statistics of this paragraph.  As she explains:

So the first binding referendum that created the Kedzie Center passed with 74% support. (Subsequent referenda for the West Side and for Logan Square passed at 85% and 86% support.)

The law states that .004 or $4 per $1000 of the Real Estate Tax Bill is assessed for mental health if the referendum passed. Then services are provided to any resident regardless of ability to pay.

[5] This, according to a Sinai database check of  the zip codes served by the Kedzie Center, 60618, 60625, and 60630.

[6] Linda Sarsour has been labeled anti-Semitic by many because of her advocacy for BDS against Israel.  However, she says she supports Israel’s right to exist. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linda_Sarsour

Tamika Mallory has remained obstinate in refusing to renounce the clearly anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan.  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/nation-of-islam/555332/

[7] For the former, see Howard J. Wiarda, Political Culture, Political Science, and Identity Politics, p. 32.  For the latter, see Paul Waldman, “How white identity politics will share the GOP’s future,” The Washington Post, Macrh 15, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/03/15/how-white-identity-politics-will-shape-gops-future/?utm_term=.346ede178271

[8] One of these headlines maligned Liberals, the other Conservatives; so as not to distract in the sermon, I removed both references. For the full headlines, and many more, see: https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1GCEA_enUS793US793&ei=7-xJXf7RBOie0gK2maCYCQ&q=identity+politics+in+the+headlines&oq=identity+politics+in+the+headlines&gs_l=psy-ab.3...75802.76389..77492...0.0..0.79.496.7......0....1..gws-wiz.x6t_zZLAqc4&ved=&uact=5

[9] Wikipedia, “Identity Politics,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_politics, emphasis added.  I edited the definition for the purposes of the sermon; the full lede paragraph reads:

The term identity politics in common usage refers to a tendency of people sharing a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity to form exclusive political alliances, instead of engaging in traditional broad-based party politics,[1] or promote their particular interests without regard for interests of a larger political group.[2] In academic usage, the term has been used to refer to a wide range of political activities and theoretical analysis rooted in experiences of injustice shared by different social groups. In this usage, identity politics typically aim to reclaim greater self-determination and political freedom for marginalized groups through understanding their distinctive nature and challenging externally imposed characterizations, instead of organizing solely around belief systems or party affiliations.[3] Identity is used "as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition."[4]

[10] "The Combahee River Collective Statement"Archived from the original on 24 February 2017. Retrieved 4 April 2016.

[11] As one wonky academic describes it,

As one theorist put it: Identity politics are political arguments emanating from the self-interested perspectives of self-identified social interest groups in ways that people’s politics are shaped by narrow aspects of their identity.

Howard J. Wiarda, Political Culture, Political Science, and Identity Politics, p. 33.

[12] BT Baba Metzia 62a.

[13] BT Baba Metzia 62a.

[14] Leviticus 25:26.

[15] This is according to our Sages of Blessed Memory, who noted that the Torah repeats this commandment 36 times [or perhaps 46!] during their discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metsia 59b.  There, the 36 citations are not listed, which made me skeptical about the actual number being accurate.  However, having done a database search of the term “Ger/Stranger” in the Bible, I amazingly came up with precisely that number of citations that speak of our obligation to the stranger.  Although these commands are not exclusively found in the Five Books of Moses, this skeptic is nonetheless surprised that the number totaled the legendary 36.  Here is mylist:

Exodus 12:49, 22:20, 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 19:33, 19:34, 23:22, 24:22, 25:35, 25:47; Numbers 9:14, 14:14, 14:15, 14:29, 25:14; Deuteronomy 1:15, 10:18, 10:19, 24:14, 24:17, 24:19, 24:20, 24:21, 26:12, 26:13, 27:19, 29:10, 31:12; Isaiah 14:1; Jeremiah 7:6, 2:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 22:29; Zecheriah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; Pslam 146:9.  Admittedly, there are a few of these that are less cohortative than others, or simply define the ger as equal to the citizen.  But they are all pretty explicit as to our consideration for the stranger.  

[16] Naphtali Zevi Yehudah Berlin, 1816-1893.

[17] See commentariy of the Netziv BT Baba Metsia 62a, “if they both drink, they will die”.

[18] Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham of Seville, 1260-1330.

[19] I want to add that this Jewish rejection of identity politics is not just the privilege invoked by a white male whose personal oppression is relatively limited.  Scholar Marla Brettschneider, who spoke at Sinai just this past Spring, identifies as LGBTQ and has been an incredible thought leader on matters of contemporary politics and Jewish life.  When confronting the gap between her devotion to Jewish feminist work and her commitments to antiracism, she explains, “My being in the world, among other excruciatingly important things, is hindered by racism, and if Jewish feminism can’t help me with that, then Jewish feminism is failing me.”  [Jewish Feminism and Intersectionality, p. 130.]

All of us, all of our being in the world, is concerned with countless excruciatingly important things.  And if Judaism cannot help us with those, then Judaism is failing us.  Foruntately for us, Judaism calls us to work on all those countlessly excruciatingly important things for one simple reason: because we are Jewish.

 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It should be noted that among the addressees of this famed letter was Rabbi Milton Grafman, who justified his disengagement from the struggle for civil rights along the lines of Rabbi Akiba,  The full quotation reads:

 Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.[20]

This teaching of Dr. King, which speaks against identity politics, lines up nicely with what artist and activist Lilla Watson taught, “If you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Lilla Watson, as quoted in Geoffrey B. Nelson and Isaac Prilleltensky, Community Psychology: In Pursuit of Liberation and Well-Being.

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