Monday, October 25, 2004

Native to Where? Judaism, Politics And The Search For A Home

It is said that where you have two Jews, there are three opinions, and this is not an exaggeration. Even in the one thing we can (pretty much) all agree on, God, there are a gazillion opinions on the matter—put two Jews, even two of the same denomination (Orthodox, Conservative, etc.) to talk about the subject of God and Torah, and you'll be amazed at the amount of points in which they differ, even they agree on the underlying principle. There is one major exception: politics. Here, if you have two Jews, you're bound to have either two similar opinions, or two contradictory opinions; there's no middle ground on the matter. You are either for Bush or for Kerry, and all those on the other side are just WRONG!

At prayers this morning—much like it has happened every day in the last few weeks—the topic of politics came up, and as you can probably expect in an Orthodox synagogue, a lot of the people are voting for Bush, mainly because they somehow have gotten the idea that Bush is the best friend Israel has in this elections, which I think is total crap. (In my opinion, Bush has been a chickenshit idiot who has not dared to stand up to the international community to keep the fuck out of Israel's internal business, and has bent backwards for Arafat more times than I care to remember. How dare you condemn Israel for defending itself against terrorist acts, when you send a whole friggin nation to war halfway across the world on similar charges? If this is the best friend Israel has in these elections then we are truly screwed beyond belief. But I digress…)

This little tête-à-tête this morning, coupled with Rabbi Harlig's (of
Chabad of Kendall) speech this past Shabbat (Saturday) at the synagogue, and with a lecture I heard from Rabbi Shaul Maleh of Mexico City a couple of months back, has gotten me thinking about our position in the nation. Rabbi Maleh mentioned in his lecture (and I have heard this from other Orthodox rabbis) that optimally (and this is important) a Jew’s position should always be to simply be thankful to the government for allowing us to practice in peace, and to leave all issues of politics to the goyim, to the gentiles who are truly part of the nation. The principle is that, while we are residents in the nations of the world, we are citizens of Israel (not necessarily the political nation, but more the spiritual nation, though certainly the political nation does apply). Throughout history, it has been evident time and time again that, whenever the Jews started taking too much interest in the affairs of the nation, the goyim became angry and sought to put us back in our place, usually in a violent manner. If we are to learn anything from the past, it must be that the goyim take care of the affairs of the nation while we take care of the affairs of Israel while thanking our host nation for their hospitality. In fact, that's actually the best way to describe our situation: we are guests in our various hosts nations; just like you wouldn't want a houseguest to start meddling in family affairs, so should us Jews know what to mind and what to leave alone.

Rabbi Harlig spoke this week about the fact that we should be natives to Judaism, that is, Judaism should be our homeland, not necessarily the country in which we live. While this may sound like a strong statement, it makes an incredible amount of sense. So many times, starting with the
Assyrian dispersion of the (now Lost) Ten Tribes in roughly 555 BCE, or perhaps even with the Exodus from Egypt, we have been forced to move from our homes, leaving all we have known behind with only God's mercy and promise to carry us forth, that you think by now we'd be used to the idea of being a nationless people. And perhaps for a while, for a couple of centuries, this was the case, but it is certainly not anymore. Between the relative peace we enjoy in the US, and the establishment of the state of Israel, more and more Jews see themselves as citizens of the nation first, Jews second, when in truth it should be the other way around.

Judaism has always been our home; in Egypt, in the desert, in Israel, in Babylon, in Spain, in Turkey, in Russia, in Germany, in the US and in modern Israel, the one thread that unites us all is that unbroken chain of tradition we call Judaism. It is Judaism that defines our times of joy and sadness, which defines our holidays and our traditions. Yeah, we spice it up with regional touches (kugel for the Ashkenazim, burekas for the Sephardim), but we all pray the same Shacharit (the morning prayer), we all rejoice on Purim, we all submit to All-mighty God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and we all read, treasure and love the same Torah, the Torah that was given to Moses and has been handed down with
incredible accuracy for the last 3000+ years. Thank God, we in the US live in the most tolerant nation in the world, a nation where our right to practice Judaism is protected by the very document that defines the nation, something for which we must be thankful every day. But just keep this in mind: some 60-70 years ago, Germany had the same level of tolerance for Jews; some 200 years ago, France was the center of the Jewish diaspora, and some 500 years ago Spain was the worldwide center of Jewish thought, where we experienced a Golden Age of cooperation between us and our Muslim and Christian kin. All those eras ended in expulsion, in disaster, in genocide, and we are still feeling the aftereffects of these events (in the plight of the anusim, in the current atmosphere in France, in the intermarried grandchildren of Holocaust survivors). It is because history tends to repeat itself, and because those who do not learn from it are bound to repeat it, that we must always be vigilant, and like the generation of the Exodus, be ready to leave at the drop of a pin. This does not necessarily mean that we must always be paranoid, but it does mean that we must make Judaism our home, because it is the one thing we can always take with us, the one thing that, regardless where we set up a tent, will be constant.

So how does this all relate to the upcoming election? Well, are we American Jews duty-bound to participate in these elections, especially because they promise to be incredibly close? Are we duty-bound to mingle in the affairs of the nation to the point where we may be a deciding factor (especially here in Florida)? Are we overstepping the boundaries of a houseguest, though the host is asking us to cast our opinion? These are questions that every American Jew must answer for him/herself. As a convert I have my own particular can of worms I need to deal with: am I, immediately upon completing my conversion, no longer a native of my old country (in terms of what I discuss above)? Do I have a different status because I entered Judaism, and thus the nation of Israel, instead of having been born into it? Do I get dual citizenship?

I have grappled with these issues and reached a decision that is right for me. I WILL vote, because I accept that I am not at such a spiritual level where I can fully feel detached from the nation where I dwell and fully attached to the nation of my spirit. Life is a constant struggle to achieve a balance between the physical and spiritual, trying to infuse the material with a measure of spirituality, a measure of holiness. I don't know that my vote will be imbued with holiness, but the decision I am making when I cast my vote is one I have reached after filtering my thoughts through the lenses of all the lessons of Torah I have learned. Superficially, my vote and that of any other person is exactly the same, carrying the same weight, but internally, it makes a huge difference. I choose to involve myself in the affairs of my host nation because while my spirit strives to reside in Heaven, my body must live in the United State of America, and I cannot, in good conscience, allow my voice not to be heard. I fully respect those people who are spiritual enough to have shed their dual citizenship with the nations; I am not one of them (yet?), thus I must do my part.

I deeply and sincerely thank President Bush for having maintained this nation's commitment to freedom of religion, thus allowing me to, under his presidency, convert from the Catholicism in which I was raised in, to the Judaism in which my soul feels at home, and to practice it openly and proudly. Now I feel that it is his time to step down and to give way to someone who, I think, will do a better job of leading the nation.

I guess in the end I am still a native to the nation of the United States of America, though I also strive to become a native to Judaism (where perhaps I now have the status of recent immigrant). For now, that dual citizenship does the job.

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