“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Thus said Hillel the Elder in Ethics of our Fathers 1:14, and his words could not be more resonant.
As my friends and I drove home from the protest outside of the Brooklyn courthouse, advocating for the detained nationals of Muslim-majority countries, our car stopped suddenly and startled the driver behind us. “F**k you, Jews!,” the man in the passenger seat screamed at us as he stuck his head out the window. It is, as the refrain of the dystopian Michael Chabon novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union puts it, “a strange time to be a Jew;” and that strangeness comes from all directions.
Just a week ago, as I marched miles in my tallis to join my fellow Americans in support of women’s rights, I was approached by a secular Jewish woman. “I’m glad to see you here,” she says to me. “Thank you!,” I reply. She walks away. Fifteen seconds later, I am re-approached. “What brings you here?” she asks. “I am here to support the empowering of as many people as possible,” I respond. She nods. Yet another 15 seconds pass. “But what is good for the Jews?” she asks. “I am concerned with what is good for everyone!” I say. With condescending approval, she says, “Good, that’s what I was looking to hear.”
This past week in a local synagogue, as I tutored a young student from a decidedly secular family, I asked him what he thought about the Genesis story of creation. He shared his thoughts about the Big Bang and evolution, so we read the first chapter of the Torah and discussed the possible alignment of the two approaches. Overhearing our conversation, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man sitting nearby begins to intervene. “You are teaching him heresy!” he exclaims. “Don’t listen to your teacher. He is lying to you!” he directs towards my student. I reply, “Sir, we are learning Torah, please let us be.” “Heresy! Impossible! Don’t listen to him,” he insists. I approach him privately saying, “Friend, I appreciate your passion, but you are frightening this young boy. I am trying to help cultivate a relationship to Torah with someone who has already declared that he does not believe.” My appeal does not work. “That’s not Judaism and you should leave” he says.
From my experiences, it seems really simple: a Jew is damned if he does and damned if she doesn’t.
As a religious Jew in a liberal space, I am suspect. In a march about solidarity and diversity, I am thought to be there only for my insular self interest. As a liberal Jew in a religious space, I am also suspect — accused of being inauthentic and antithetical, superimposing new and foreign ideas on an inherited and ancient tradition.
I’ve found that my Zionism disqualifies my liberalism, that my liberalism disqualifies my religiosity, and that my religiosity disqualifies my humanity. I remind myself that anti-Semitism has many forms — internalized, structural, and overt. But even so, if they do not think I am who I say I am, then who am I?
I recount Hillel’s wise words and affirm:
I am a person who does not only do for himself. I am also a person who does not give up on himself. I realize that this is the role of the Jew in this very strange time to be a Jew.
This strange time is when two Orthodox Jews have the ear of a corrupt and bigoted president, but say nothing; when the majority of the traditional Jewish community voted for the corrupt and bigoted president; and when the leader of the only Jewish state stands behind the insidious behavior of that corrupt and bigoted president. This is a time where anti-Semites are pro-Israel and Semites are anti-Israel, and where Jews hand over their narrative of past oppression as a tool to give voice to others, while simultaneously neglecting to give voice to their own continued oppression. It is a time where Jews are too white for solidarity and intersectionality with other minorities, but far too distinct for those to whom white identity matters.
In this past week’s Torah portion, Exodus 6:12, Moses calls out to God; “the Israelites have not listened to me; how then will Pharaoh listen to me?” God does not address the question. The following verse only responds, “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, and gave them a charge to go to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt.” In other words, “Just do it!” It does not matter what this person says or that person thinks; there is a right thing to do, and you must do it.
In this very strange time to be Jews, we must continue to be Jews. We must continue to stand with what is right and against what is wrong. In this strange time, let us not fall prey to the false prize of recognition. Recognition is sweet, but it must not be the source of our empowerment; being seen and heard is delightful, but its absence must not stand in the way of our action.
In this time, and all times, we must be for ourselves and for others without any expectation of reciprocity. We will never prove ourselves, and we do not need to. All we need to do is what is right, good and just. And we must start now, because “if not now, when?”