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September 27, 2022

Hineini: Citizen-ing Jewishly (Rosh HaShanah 5783)

Sarah Berman

Hineini: Citizen-ing Jewishly
Rabbi Sarah Berman, Rosh HaShanah 5783

The Talmud tells us a story:[1]
A man came before Hillel the Elder. He asked the wise man to teach him all of Torah while standing on one foot. If Hillel could do so, the man would convert to Judaism. 
Hillel said to him, that which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, now go and learn.          

If you think this story is familiar, good catch--Rabbi Buchdahl related it yesterday!
Torah is the heart of the Jewish people.[2]
And according to this story, the heart of Torah is empathy. 
It is being aware of those around you, and treating them kindly.
Empathy, awareness, and kindness are the very elements that allow for community to be built.
This story is teaching that the Torah--the instructions and rules and laws that govern Jewish life--has one goal:
To bring us together.
Judaism exists to foster community.
And it comes with its own instruction manual.

Jewish wisdom, Jewish tradition, Halacha, Torah.
Whatever term you use for it, we have a body of teachings that we both inherit and continue to shape.
Torah and Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud, codes and commentaries, songs and legends--they all add up a set of instructions on how to be Jewish, and how to act Jewishly in the world.

This body includes many obligations--which serve a purpose. 
They show us the ways, large and small, that we become a community. 
They tell us how to focus on the “we” and not just the “I.”[3]
They instruct us on how to be good citizens of Judaism.

But for most of us, the influence of our civil society is at least as strong as the influence of Judaism on us. 
American society focuses on creating a sense of liberty (doing whatever the law doesn’t say you can’t do).
America and other modern democratic states, with our laws and enumerated rights, focus on the “I” more than the “we” in our societies.
Our civil laws have codified “our regard and respect for the individual,”[4] in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. 

Our individual rights are important.
But equally important are our obligations to one another.
When American citizenship focuses on the “I,” I wonder: 
What place is there, here, for “we” values? Can our Jewish “we” traditions help us be better citizens of an “I” society? 

What does it even mean, to be a citizen in this time and place?
Voting, paying taxes, carrying a passport--yes, these are ways to be a citizen.

But the humorist, writer, and political commentator Baratunde Thurston[5] suggests a different--and far wider-reaching--notion of citizenship. 
One that does not require any exclusive legal status in a country.
Citizen-ing, he calls it. 
Thurston wants us all to believe that citizen is a verb not just a noun: Citizen-ing is something we do.
This definition turns American citizenship from an “I” project into a “we” endeavor. 

So, how do we citizen?
Thurston suggests three principles that underlie “citizen-ing”:[6]

  • Showing up and participating
  • Valuing the collective, seeking outcomes that benefit the many
  • …and fostering our interconnectedness by investing in relationships

(These are satisfyingly Jewish concepts--I think Hillel would approve.)

Thurston encourages us, as citizens, to embrace both agency and imagination[7] -- agency by actively participating in our world; and imagination by teaching ourselves to see past what exists to what might become.

But we have to leave behind the focus on “I” in order to citizen. 
Because we can’t do it alone. 
We Jews know that we are more effective when we act together--when we see the “we” and not just the “I.”
That is the first step to citizen-ing. 

Citizenship is of immediate importance to us all.
Not just because of an imminent midterm election, but because of a looming authoritarian crisis around the world. (And around the corner.)
Representative Jamie Raskin acknowledged this when he was here on this bimah with us last winter. 
When asked by a member of our community about the current state of democracy, he said:[8]
… the problem is there’s a bag of tricks that are being used against us, like the gerrymandering of our districts; like the use of the filibuster to stop voting rights legislation; like the voter suppression statutes. We’ve got to deal with that. 

Representative Raskin is right.
There is an undeniable rise of suppressive and reactionary political parties around the world. 
These would-be despots would like nothing better than to silence their citizens. 

But they can still be stopped. 

 Representative Raskin finished his answer about democracy by saying:[9]
But I’m with John Dewey who said, ‘the only solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy.’ Because… the will of the majority is in favor of democracy and human rights--here and in Ukraine and all over the world. I’ve got no doubt about that. And that’s vindicated every single day by the people I encounter.

The people he encounters… are us. 
We must all be the ones who stand vigilantly in favor of democracy and human rights. 

The question today is, can Jewish wisdom help shape us into the active citizens that the world needs now? 
How can our body of tradition make us more informed, engaged, and perhaps even hopeful? 

One of the things that defines us as Reform Jews is how we see tradition as an invitation rather than an obligation.
As Reform Jews, we aren’t obligated to follow every mitzvah, but instead to discern and choose our spiritual and civil path through this world, using the “values infrastructure”[10] tradition gives us. 
But we must understand our tradition in order to choose the pieces that are most inspirational to us. 

In Judaism, we learn that the most important thing we can do in life is learn. 
A famous sugiya, a section of Talmud, lists the good deeds we can do in the world (a list familiar to us from our Eilu D’varim prayer this very morning, and from Rabbi Buchdahl’s sermon yesterday).
They include honoring our parents, visiting the sick, and offering hospitality to guests.
But then the passage concludes that, “The study of Torah is equal to them all.”[11]
Rabbi Buchdahl and I come to different conclusions about this passage.
While it may be teaching us about pride in our Jewish lives, this text is showing us the value of study.
Engaging with Torah is equal in value to the sum of all the other good things we can do in the world. 
So learning is of the utmost value to us--as Jews, and as citizens.

But this is not the only lesson of our tradition.
Rabbi Shimon ben Rabbi Gamliel taught, “Study is not the most important thing, but actions.”[12] So, we also learn that the most important thing we can do… is do!
Another important lesson for us as citizens.

But wait.
If learning is the most important thing, and if doing is also the most important thing--which is the MOST most important thing? 
Trick question! It’s both.

Rabbi Shimon ha Tzaddik (Rabbi Simon the Just) said, “Al shlosha d’varim ha olam omed--al haTorah v’al ha’avodah v’al g’milut chasadim.” 
“The world stands upon three things: on Torah, on worship, and on deeds of lovingkindness.”[13]
The world stands on study, on faith, and on deeds.
In addition to faith, we need both study and deeds. 
Because learning and doing both build our faith in the world.

Learning is important because it leads to action. 
The study of Torah is equal to good deeds because it leads to them! 
But the good deeds only matter when they result from intention--the intention that learning imparts.

The modern Reform values of learning and questioning and discerning turn out to be also our most precious ancient values.

We know what Jewish tradition asks of us.
The answer is in our ancient ancestors’ response to God at Sinai: 
They declared “Na’aseh v’nishma,” “we will do and we will listen.”

As Jews and as citizens, we are called to learn.
But we can’t just sit and listen and discuss endlessly: We have to go out and act.
Because as Jews and as citizens, we are commanded to act.
But we can’t just jump up at every provocation, and go and act rashly: We have to listen and learn. 
We have to embrace all of it: Na’aseh v’nishma, Torah and g’milut chasadim.

Learning and doing. Acting and listening.[15]
This is how to live the best possible life together in community.[16]
I can’t think of a better definition of being an active Jew.
And I can’t think of a better definition of being an activated citizen.

Jewish traditions and laws were once described by the American legal scholar Robert M. Cover as a Bridge. 
They link the reality we exist within now “to an imagined alternative” -- connecting what is to what might be.[17]
Jewish wisdom and our mitzvot, in other words, are a bridge to the world that we hope will exist.
Which can only come into being if we believe in it--a bridge that only exists when we choose to walk across it. 
That means that Jewish tradition must rely on its faith in us, and in our optimism for a better future, for its activation. 

It’s when we learn about our traditions, when we seek counsel from our received wisdom, that we can begin to envision a more perfect future.

A Bridge to a better future - that’s also what citizenship is, at its core. 
To be a citizen, according to the British writer Jon Alexander, “…it is not about doing something for people, but about inspiring something in us… to be participants in [a] purpose….”[18]
In other words, it is a bridge we build together. 

The beauty of communities, societies and nations is that they need not be static--with the right vision and the right bridge, they can become something more. 

So this year, I invite you to add to your Jewish understanding, to hone your Jewish lens, and in so doing to fully engage in both your Jewish and your civic life. 
This year, I invite you to become an active citizen of your Jewishness and of your nation. 
Because we can also become something more.

Remember Baratunde Thurston’s three aspects of “Citizen-ing”? 
Participating, valuing the collective, and investing in relationships
We’ll be glad to help you springboard into all three, this year at Central!

  • Participating—I invite you to show up at Central in person or virtually for Torah study, for speakers, and for performances; beyond these walls, you can choose to learn about issues facing your neighborhood and city; you can ask questions and seek answers from a variety of sources; and if you see something you want to change, figure out how we can help you change it.
  • Valuing the collective—You can join a Central social justice initiative that benefits many; outside our congregation, if you’ve noticed places or spaces where certain people are kept out, find ways to invite them in; or follow former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s advice and join a school board, a parks committee, or form a social group in your neighborhood.[19]
  • …Investing in relationships—If you’re a member, join or start a Central core group[20]; have Shabbat dinner or lunch with someone you love (or might learn to love); but most importantly, here and elsewhere in the world, we can all forge relationships with people who are different from us-- in their age, gender identity, culture, religion, economic status, immigration status, or political affiliation--and we must really listen to them. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes, we all benefit from “…the Talmudic tradition of dialogue, in which various questioners and commentators engage in an often-messy conversation that eventually leads to a fuller understanding….”[21]

Disagreement is uncomfortable, but it’s also crucial to engage with if we want to live in community.[22]

Participating, valuing the collective, and investing in relationships. 
We have a word for this in Judaism: Hineini

As we just heard Cantor Pearsall chant, Hineini is Abraham’s response to God’s call. 
It is the word in our tradition that indicates full-hearted presence and commitment.

As Jews we are instructed, we are commanded, to be active in our world.
And we are also instructed and commanded to learn about our world.
Learning and acting: The two things tradition tells us we must do as Jews.

Jewish wisdom can teach us to actively “Citizen” in every aspect of our lives.
By bringing the values of our Jewish “we” society into our American “I” lives, we might build a bridge to an America that values the community as much as the individual.

By learning and doing this year, we can show up for our Jewish lives and our civic lives with one word on our lips: Hineini.


1 BT Shabbat 31a, 6
שׁוּב מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי. אָמַר לוֹ: גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ כְּשֶׁאֲנִי עוֹמֵד עַל רֶגֶל אַחַת! דְּחָפוֹ בְּאַמַּת הַבִּנְיָן שֶׁבְּיָדוֹ. בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, גַּיְירֵיהּ. אָמַר לוֹ: דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד — זוֹ הִיא כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ, וְאִידַּךְ פֵּירוּשַׁהּ הוּא, זִיל גְּמוֹר.
There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.
3 Esther Perel in conversation with Baratunde Thurston, How to Citizen with Baratunde Thurston podcast, season 1 episode 16 (“To be less polarized, we must humanize”)
4 Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, 2004, chapter 26
5 How to Citizen with Baratunde Thurston podcast: This podcast “reimagines the word ‘citizen’ as a verb and reminds us how to wield our collective power. So many of us want to do more in response to the problems we hear about constantly, but where and how to participate can leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Voting, while critically important, simply isn’t enough. It takes more to make this experiment in self-governance work.”
6 How to Citizen with Baratunde Thurston, season 1, episode 2 (“Democracy means people power, literally”)
Also encouraged in Jon Alexander with Ariane Conrad, Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us, 2002 pp. 40, 52
8 Jamie Raskin in conversation with Abigail Pogrebin at Central Synagogue on 24 February 2022. This answer was given in response to the audience question: “Has your faith in our democracy been impacted by your recent experiences?”
​​​​​​​9 Ibid.
10 Rabbi Jackie Koch Ellenson, conversation on 8 September 2022
11 BT Shabbat 127a: “Rav Yehuda bar Sheila said that Rabbi Asi said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: There are six matters a person enjoys the profits of in this world, and nevertheless the principal exists for him for the World-to-Come, and they are: Hospitality toward guests, and visiting the sick, and consideration during prayer, and rising early to the study hall, and one who raises his sons to engage in Torah study, and one who judges another favorably, giving him the benefit of the doubt.

The Gemara asks: Is that so? And did we not learn in a mishna: These are the matters that a person does them and enjoys their profits in this world, and nevertheless the principal exists for him for the World-to-Come, and they are: Honoring one’s father and mother, and acts of loving kindness, and bringing peace between a person and another, and Torah study is equal to all of them.
12 Mishnah Pirkei Avot 1:17
13 Mishnah Pirkei Avot 1:2
14 Parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 24:7
15 Inspired by chapter in Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, Liberal Judaism, 1984, “Freedom to Do as Well as to Desist,” pp. 324ff: We have a responsibility to commit ourselves to listening, and to take responsibility for action.
16 Chaim Saiman, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, p. 90-100 - halacha is not just what one does, but how one acts toward others. Case study from BT Bava Metzia 92a, in which an employer feeds his workers. This is care he is required to extend  “by law,” but he goes beyond the minimum requirement to feed employees the same quality and quantity as he feeds himself. This is an example of the ethical execution of a legal instruction.
17 Robert M. Cover, “Foreword: Nomos and Narrative,” in Harvard Law Review, vol. 97, iss. 4 (The Supreme Court Term, 1983-1984) - “Law may be viewed as a system of tension or a bridge linking a concept of a reality to an imagined alternative - that is, as a connective between two states of affairs….” (p. 9) 
Ibid.: “Redemption takes place within an eschatological schema that postulates: (1) the unredeemed character of reality as we know it, (2) the fundamentally different reality that should take its place, and (3) the replacement of the one with the other” (p. 34)
Cover on the distance between reality and vision (two sides of the bridge): “If law reflects a tension between what is and what might be, law can be maintained only as long as the two are close enough to reveal a line of human endeavor that brings them into temporary or partial reconciliation: (Ibid., p. 39)
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, “The Sayings of the Wise are Like Goads: An Appreciation of the Works of Robert Cover,” in Torah for Its Intended Purpose: Selected Writings, 1988-2013, 2014: Law can be redemptive (p. 188 ff), as in the way Frederick Douglass imagined it not protecting the institution of slavery (p. 190). Tucker is reacting/responding to Cover’s own description of Douglass “...embracing a vision… of an alternative world in which the entire order of American slavery would be without foundation in law” (Cover, p. 38).
Tucker on Cover and multivocality: “...we must always take the risk of hearing all of the voices that aspire to make law. He knew that in a deep sense all members of society are lawmakers.” (Tucker, p. 197)
Cover’s redemptive vision of the law came from his experience in Albany, GA, where he was arrested in the course of SNCC activities. There he met black civil rights attorney C.B. King, “ a lawyer who viewed law as a moral force for achieving a just world.” (Stephen Wizner’s eulogy of Cover, published in Yale Law Review, Vol. 96, 1699, 1987, p. 1708)
​​​​​​​18 Alexander with Conrad, p. 216
​​​​​​​19 Justice Stephen Breyer, The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics, 2021, chapter 3
​​​​​​20 Eric Liu in conversation with Baratunde Thurston, How to Citizen with Baratunde Thurston, season 1 episode 2 (“Democracy means people power, literally”)
​​​​​​​21 Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, in booklet “There shall be no needy”
​​​​​​​​​​​​​​22Discord is a sign that progress is afoot; unease is an indication that a society has let go of what it knows, and is working out something better and new” (O’Connor, Epilogue).

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.