Can we talk?
Saturday, Yom Kippur, marks thirty days since Joan Rivers’ passing. She may not have been a rabbi (her rendition of the blessing over the Shabbat candles went like this: “Baruch atoh Ado-noy Elo-henu—what’s the rest?”), but she had a thing or two to teach us about Jewishness. And so, as we mark her shloshim in the midst of the High Holy Days, I’d like to share something I learned from Joan Rivers about being Jewish.
(Like all High Holy Day sermons, it’s a bit lengthy; unlike most others, you can grab a snack while you take it in.)
For most of her 81 years, Rivers was hard to ignore: she made her mark as a comedienne, a television personality, a fashion icon, and — in her later years — a champion of Israel.
Rivers delighted many (and infuriated some) by coming to Israel’s defense in several recent television appearances. In January, she went on the Israeli satire show Matzav HaUmah to share ten (NSFW) ways to say “I love Israel.” In July, she was approached by a TMZ reporter who asked her to comment on the escalation in Gaza and southern Israel. Rivers let loose: “Let me just tell you,” she said, raising her hand for effect, “if New Jersey were firing rockets into New York, we would wipe ’em out. If we heard they were digging tunnels from New Jersey to New York, we would get rid of Jersey.” In a less-noticed video taken a few days later, she was even more emphatic. Asked when she was planning on visiting Israel, she said, “I called the embassy. Sooner the better. I’m outta here. I plan to get a gun and stand next to anyone that throws a rocket near my cousins’ house.”
Later that month, Rivers took to Israel’s Channel 10 to blast Israel’s public relations effort and offer some advice on how to bring peace to the Middle East (spoiler: it involves Jewish plastic surgeons).
But what struck me as I watched her speak out was not so much how passionately (and amusingly) she did so, but rather how she related to the country she was defending:
On U.S.-Israel relations: “We are the only sane nation in that part of the world.”
On Israeli airstrikes in Gaza: “Don’t you dare put weapons stashes in private homes, and then we say ‘get out’ — of course we’re gonna do it.”
On the lopsided death count: “We’re smarter. We’re smarter. The Israelis are smarter.”
On Israel’s image: “We are doing something very wrong in Israel and we are not doing public relations work.”
On her impression of Israel: “They gave us the worst possible land and we have made it into Eden.”
On how some view Israel: “No matter what Israel does, and we are so right and so honorable, the world does not want to listen, and you want to shake people and say, ‘Have you lost your minds?'”
I’ve had a tough time trying to figure out just how much time Joan Rivers spent in Israel, but it doesn’t seem to have been a great deal. In 2012, she told the Israeli news website Ynet that she’d visited with philanthropist Lily Safra (“And let me tell you, that’s the right way to visit Israel”) and wondered why she’d never been asked to perform in a country she said she “loved.” I couldn’t find anything about any additional visits. And I certainly haven’t seen anything to suggest she ever took Israeli citizenship.
And yet, to Rivers, Israel was “we.”
Joan Rivers understood something profound about Jewish identity and, consciously or not, she taught us all a valuable — and timely — lesson.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Kruspedai — a third century sage who lived in the Land of Israel and is buried near Safed — famously delineates three categories of people who are judged on Rosh Hashanah: the wholly righteous; the utterly wicked; and those in the middle, who are “held in the balance” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is followed by an explanation of these three groups, with a detailed (and rather disturbing) discussion of the wicked, who are divided into several subgroups.
Amongst the most despicable, according to the text, are those “who separate themselves from the the community.” They, along with several others, are condemned to Gehenna, and “even when Gehenna will be destroyed, they will not be consumed.” (Tractate Rosh Hashanah pp. 17a and 16b)
One who separates himself from the community, even if he does not commit a transgression but only holds aloof from the congregation of Israel, does not fulfill religious precepts in common with his people, shows himself indifferent when they are in distress, and does not observe their fasts, but rather goes his own way as if he were one of the nations and did not belong to the Jewish people — such a person has no share in the world to come.
In his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks quotes Maimonides’ explanation to preface his discussion of the wicked son, one of the proverbial “four sons” mentioned during the Seder.
The Haggadah’s description of the wicked son is telling: “What is this service to you?” he says mockingly. The text continues: “‘To you’, and not to him. By removing himself from the community, he has denied a fundamental principle [of Judaism].”
Citing Maimonides above, Sacks explains (p. 21):
The mere fact that an individual fails to identify with the collective fate of the Jewish people… is a denial of one of the principles of Judaism, namely that ours is a collective faith. Martin Buber was wrong when he called his great work on faith I and Thou. In Judaism the primary relationship is We and Thou. […] Long before Moses encountered God, he ‘went out to his own people and watched them at their hard labour.’ This was the birth of his active identity as a Jew. Though many Jews in the modern age found it difficult to believe, they identified with the Jewish people, fought its cause, and gave it their support. Belonging is the first step to believing. What makes the wicked son wicked, according to the Haggadah, is not that he fails to believe, but that he fails to identify with the people of whom he is a part.
In other words, a normative Jew is one who views him- or herself as part of the Jewish collective, who is lifted up by the Jewish people’s triumphs and is cast down by its losses, who feels at one with the global Jewish family and has a stake in its future. Being a part of the Jewish “we” is essential to Jewish identity. It is central to what makes us Jews.
Conversely, an individual who defines him- or herself in opposition to the broader Jewish whole is not only a non-normative Jew — he or she is in denial of what makes a Jew a Jew.
Happily, most Jews get it. According to the famed 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, 75% say they have a strong sense of attachment to the Jewish people, and 89% say that caring about Israel is either an important (44%) or essential (43%) part of being Jewish. Similarly, the Israel Democracy Institute and the AVI CHAI Foundation have found that a striking 93% of Israeli Jews feel that they are a part of the Jewish people, and 73% believe Jews in Israel and around the world have a shared destiny. In the last century, Jews lobbied their governments on behalf of their brethren in Nazi-controlled Europe. They rallied around the nascent State of Israel. They marched for Soviet Jewry. Today, Jews around the world continue to stand with Israel while working to keep their fellow Jews safe in Western Europe, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
But some Jews don’t get it at all. In previous centuries, they included those who, out of embarrassment or apathy, failed to come to come to other Jews’ aid, or — worse — actively agitated against them. Today, this indifference to the Jewish collective tends to manifest itself in hostility toward the Jewish state. Some exploit their Jewish surnames to lend a patina of legitimacy to hatred of Israel and efforts to eradicate Jewish national sovereignty. Though some shamelessly claim to draw upon Jewish values for their noxious views, their hostility often extends well beyond the Jewish state — many minimize anti-Semitism, mock Jewish appeals for protection, ridicule Jewish religious practice, and engage in Holocaust inversion and denial. Some employ classic anti-Semitic tropes. Their occasional claims of concern for Jews’ well-being are generally belied by a failure to engage in any serious discussion of the fate of the Israeli Jews whose sovereign existence they wish to eliminate, or indeed of any endangered Jewish community anywhere in the world. One imagines them jeering, “What is this Jewish state to you?”
Yet while these modern incarnations of the Haggadah’s wicked son are disturbing to behold, they are a small minority. Of greater concern than those who separate themselves from the community are those who aren’t aware of the community at all — those for whom Israel and the Jewish people aren’t “we” or “you,” but rather “them.”
Cultivating a sense of identification with the Jewish people is the order of the day. Thankfully, Jewish communities, organizations, and philanthropic groups have risen to the task, investing heavily in developing a sense of collective identity and shared responsibility amongst Jews around the world — particularly amongst young people, where the need is arguably (and, according to the Pew survey, empirically) most acute.
And it’s working.
If you’ve ever staffed a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, you may know the feeling: A few days in, a participant will raise his or her hand and ask, “But if we knew they were going to attack in ’73, why didn’t we hit them first?” or “Shouldn’t we be doing more for peace?”. And a small smile will appear on your face, because the experience has done its job. Israel has become a part of this young person’s identity.
To Rivers, feeling a part of a broader Jewish “we” involved vocally supporting Israel’s policies and actions. But it doesn’t have to be so. Participating in groups critical of Israeli policies but committed to its prosperous existence as a Jewish and democratic state is an equally valid expression of one’s identification with the Jewish collective. What’s important isn’t the precise manner in which one’s engagement with Israel and the Jewish people is manifested. It’s the engagement itself that matters. And a commitment to making Israel a better place may be one of the highest forms that engagement can take.
My boss, Natan Sharansky, has noted that participating in Masa Israel Journey — often viewed as the “next step” after Birthright — tends not to change participants’ views on Israel, but rather to intensify them. Spending an extended period of time in Israel enables young people to see the country’s challenges up close, and as they do, they become more devoted to Israeli society and more invested in improving it. They come to realize that they are among family.
And that, ultimately, is what Joan Rivers taught us all. She was the very antithesis of the wicked son, the one who separates himself from the community. Her identification with the fate of her people and its homeland was so complete that it was probably unconscious, though its expressions were as loud and as colorful as she was.
As the High Holy Days draw to their climactic close, let us learn from Joan Rivers’ example by internalizing, as she did, that Judaism is a collective experience. When Jews anywhere hurt, we all hurt. When Jews rejoice, that joy is ours. There is no “you” or “they” amongst Jews — there is only “we.”
“Ben Zoma said, ‘Who is wise? He who learns from every person.'” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1)
Thank you, Joan.
G’mar hatimah tovah.