Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5775 • 04 October 2014
Aliens and Islands
The year is 2050, and an unidentified vessel lands in Washington, D.C. A humanoid figure emerges, who can only be described as what you’d expect an alien to look like. He’s taken to a secret bunker under the White House where they question him.
“What are you?” they say.
“A Martian, of course.”
“Do all Martians look like you?” they say.
“Are you all green?”
“Yes we are.”
“Do you all have those antennae coming out of your heads?
“And do you all have those little round hats?”
“Well, no, not the goyim.”
Like an onion, this joke has layers. On one level, there’s Jewish anxiety about fitting in: Jewish Martians are just like other Martians…almost.
On another level, this joke also speaks to Jewish pluralism. It pokes fun at the idea that “wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish” (Rabbi Larry Milder). In reality, we know how few Jews there are and that there aren’t any on Mars. Unlike a missionizing faith that seeks to convert others, Jewish theology makes room for other faiths, other paths to God. We don’t believe that salvation awaits only the Jews, nor do we expect everyone to be Jewish. The practice of other religions is not an insult to ours. So if we discovered aliens, we wouldn’t need to throw out our tradition. We would likely be compelled to learn about their culture, and maybe ask if you can get a good bagel on Mars.
It’s ironic that we might be less threatened by aliens than we are sometimes by our fellow Jews who look, worship, or believe differently than we do. But we Jews have a history of getting in our own way. The rabbis explained the destruction of the Second Temple by way of a story involving two Jews who snub each other while the sages stand idly by (Talmud Gittin 55b-56a). The insulted Jew goes to the Roman authorities to rat out the offending Jew, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to Rome’s siege of Jerusalem. For the rabbis, this is a cautionary tale against the danger of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, among Jews.
On the lighter side, there’s the old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island. When rescuers arrive, they find he’s built two synagogues, and they ask him why. “Well, this is the one where I daven,” he says, “and that’s the one I’d never set foot in.” ‘The synagogue I’d never set foot in’ has become a trope, a lens through which we process Jewish communal dysfunction. (As I said at our Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar event last February: In Aspen, the Jews have not one, but two synagogues we’d never set foot in — that’s how Jewish it is here!)
Joking aside, this morning I’d like to address some of the dynamics in the Jewish community of Aspen and the valley.
I think it will help to begin with the past. Historically, the Aspen Jewish Congregation (or Aspen Jewish Center, as it was known) was the only Jewish game in town, so to speak. Since the mid-1970s, it was the destination for Jewish gathering here in the valley. A Hebrew School of more than 120 students at its peak offered a fun and engaging Jewish education. I myself remember attending Shabbat evening services led by Gideon Kaufman during the summers my family spent in Aspen in my childhood. It was and is a special community, and I never imagined I’d be blessed with the privilege of leading it and living here.
As the population of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley grew and demographics shifted, the demands changed. As in every Jewish community, the congregation didn’t please everyone — an impossible task, in any case. For the last decade and a half, Chabad and later Neshamah have offered other Jewish options. In most communities, that’s normal, even healthy.
But the response of some, a minority, to be sure — and I confess that I include myself here — has been competitive and territorial. This way of thinking leads to anxiety about market share, “losing” kids to other Hebrew Schools, and big givers and big buildings that aren’t “ours.”
I think I get it. It’s hard to go from being the unified gathering place of the Jewish community to being one of three options. It is a loss, and it deserves to be mourned. If people in this community are still hurting from the fragmentation, let’s address it directly so there can be healing.
I think I also get how I, a young rabbi right out of school, felt like I had to prove myself, stake my ground, assert authority and credibility and individuality within this community. It’s harder to cooperate and share when you’re insecure about who you are. I know that now, from experience. I regret any role I played in driving our communities apart, or not doing enough to bring us together.
The rabbis have warned us about the dangers of competition, especially among those with a spiritual calling. In the Talmud (Yoma 22a-23a), they tell the story of what happened when the priests on duty in the Temple vied for the privilege of removing the ashes from the altar. They would race up the ramp to the altar, and the first one there got to do the job. One time, two priests were running neck-and-neck up the ramp. One of them pushed the other, who fell and broke his leg. The High Court saw that rivalry between priests resulted in bodily harm, so they instituted a lottery system for the removal of ashes from the altar.
The authorities had to step in because the priests lost sight of their mission. They were supposed to devote themselves to the holy work of the Temple, where the Israelites met the presence of God. Instead, they sought their own personal victories, at the expense of their fellow priests and their holy purpose. As a result, people got hurt.
A common pitfall, for individuals and organizations, is to focus too much on whether we’re doing better than the next guy. We start to see our neighbors as rivals, a standard against which to measure ourselves. Synagogues are not immune. We ask: Are we raising as much money, getting as good attendance, feeling as much momentum? Is our marketing as sharp, our Hebrew School as much fun, our b’nei mitzvah program as engaging, our community as welcoming?
It is human nature to compare ourselves to our fellow Jews; to take a zero-sum approach to our Jewish community; to view one group’s success as necessarily tied to another’s failure; to fight over slices of a shrinking pie, rather than to try to grow the pie together.
Of course, we want to be a thriving, successful congregation. Of course, we should hold ourselves to high standards, evaluate ourselves critically, and continue improving. Of course, we should continue to deepen relationships, reach out to the less connected, bring more meaning to more people’s lives.
But the success of our neighbor congregations does not mean we’re failing at these goals. If a family chooses to send their kids to a different Hebrew School, or choose a different option for bar mitzvah or High Holidays or Shabbat, what if our first response were, “Thank God they’re choosing a Jewish life!”? Let’s not forget, the real challenge we face is not “losing” people to Chabad or Neshamah, but rather a shared reality confronting all of us: waning interest in living a Jewish life at all, and indifference to there being a Jewish community. In the service of addressing that challenge, we are allies, and never rivals.
In the final reckoning, we don’t win by elbowing others out of the way. A midrash (Talmud Sota 36b-37a) recounts a tale of Jewish rivalry that took place at the Red Sea. The tribes vied with one another saying, “I will be first to go down into the sea!” — “No, I will be first!” As they stood there wrangling, the Benjamin tribe jumped ahead of the others and raced down to the sea. Out of jealousy and anger, the tribe of Judah started throwing stones at them.
Needless to say, that’s not the kind of Jewish community we want. In their threshold moment of redemption, on the verge of the miraculous parting of the sea, the Israelites were consumed by competition. Rivalry blinded them to their miraculous role in history. So they sought to tear each other down.
We, too, stand at a threshold of redemption, every day. We have much work still to do in this community: simchas to celebrate, losses to mourn, care to provide, learning to do, justice to achieve. We stand today in a position of strength, ready to undertake this holy work. Craig Navias spoke so beautifully, so perfectly, already this morning about what the Aspen Jewish Congregation is, and what we strive to be. We don’t have the time or the need to keep looking over our shoulder. We “win” by being good at what we do. We “win” by staying true to our mission: building relationships and enriching lives, bringing Jewish tradition and learning to life. And the community wins when Chabad and Neshamah are good at what they do. We win when we all win.
Consider the Hasidic tale of the rabbi named Zusya who died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous, thinking that his life didn’t measure up. He worried that God would ask him, “Why weren't you Moses?” or “Why weren’t you Solomon?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren't you Zusya?”
Even as we shift our posture from rivals to neighbors, we needn’t shy away from discussing the beliefs and practices that delineate us. Pluralism means that our differences can enrich the greater whole, not that we pretend we’re all the same. We hold different views on theology, liturgy, halachah, egalitarianism — these are all real pillars of belief and worthy of mature engagement and study. But the lines that separate us needn’t be the whole substance of our interactions. With trust and respect, we can learn from our differences and be enriched together. We can, God willing, start seeing allies where we might have seen rivals. We can reframe how we think about our community, from fragmented to vibrant and thriving with choices. Pope Francis gave an interview this summer in which he offered 10 rules for finding happiness. He included the Roman saying, “Campa e lascia campà.” It means something like “live and let live,” or maybe better yet, “Move forward and let others move forward.” It’s good advice.
I want to close with the words of a local family, Lysa and Tim Reed, that appeared in the program for their daughter Taylor’s recent bat mitzvah. First, they thanked each of the three sets of Jewish leaders in the valley — Rabbi Mendel and Lieba Mintz, Cantor Rollin and me, and Rabbi Itzhak and Dalia Vardy — for being part of their family’s Jewish journey. Then they said, “We are so lucky to live in a Valley with so many fabulous Jewish organizations and feel so blessed to have been touched by all of them.”
What a beautiful vision for what our community can be, for what it already is in our best moments. This is not a naive call to ignore our differences; we should explore them and learn from each other. This is, rather, a reminder that no Jewish community is an island, and that our fellow Jews are not aliens. It’s an invitation to recognize what makes each of us unique as we all share in building a brighter Jewish future.
G’mar hatima tova, may our entire community be inscribed for a good year.
Special thanks to Rabbi Jennifer Gertman, whose senior sermon at HUC-JIR (NY) provided the inspiration and some of the source texts for this sermon.