A Secular Sermon at Beth Tfiloh

I had the honor two weeks ago to be the scholar-in-residence at Beth Tfiloh–House of Prayer–in Baltimore, the largest Orthodox synagogue in America. I was welcomed with what seemed to me remarkable tolerance, given the differences in our beliefs and opinions, Their interest in having me visit stemmed from the publication, last year, of my book The Jewish Body, and

was arranged by Sandy Vogel, their director of adult educational programs.


But I discovered in Beth Tfiloh’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, a man of great warmth, energy, and wisdom, an unlikely kindred spirit. He had read and admired both Unsettled and The Jewish Body, resonating to their embrace and defense of the Jewish people and Jewish civilization.


He and I also had a revered and beloved elder in common; he was delighted to find that in both those books I had described and thanked Rabbi Bernard Berzon, the pastor of my childhood and adolescence. Rabbi Wohlberg had known and warmly admired Rabbi Berzon, who was a close friend of his father, also a rabbi. Both of us were deeply touched by the connection and by the thought that two such different defenders and interpreters of Jewish life could have been, as children, inspired by one and the same man.


Speaking of children, I began my visit by addressing the assembly at Beth Tfiloh’s co-ed high school, where a moving presentation before mine made it clear that kids there were starting a campaign to combat sexual exploitation of girls in Asia. They had also been active in raising money for earthquake relief in both Haiti and Chile. There was no mention of Jewish charities, nor anything that seemed out of the ordinary in these young people’s interpretation of the mitzvah of tzedakah, which led them to reach out to victims of misfortune throughout the world.


I also addressed a group on Saturday afternoon, before mincha, when I presented a series of controversies about the Jewish body. A pretty lively discussion followed, which included two younger rabbis at Beth Tfiloh. They were Daniel Lerner and Ross Singer, each deeply thoughtful and spiritual in his own way. They led the service in the twilight, and we had the Third Meal, Seudah Shlishit in Hebrew, Shalosh Seudos in Yiddish—often morphed in my childhood to Shaleshudes.


I sat beside Rabbi Lerner, who also has a doctorate in neuropsychology, and we talked about many things–among others, his wise advice about how I should approach a young couple I know intending to raise their son Jewish but wavering on whether to circumcise him. Rabbi Singer gave a memorable drash on the dual role of Shabbat, both as a rest from the week past and a spiritual preparation for the week to come.


But the high point of my visit was standing in the pulpit of Beth Tfiloh’s imposing sanctuary-in-the-round, surrounded by a huge semi-circle of worshippers—women on my left, men on my right*—with the brightness of a clear, cold day flowing in through the skylights. Behind me a couple of small visitors, Rabbi Wohlberg’s granddaughters, one with a bright red lollipop, played around his chair on the bima. The blessings of a first-born child to a young couple, and of another couple soon to be married, had already graced the gathering.


All this testimony to continuity, renewal, and the Jewish future touched and energized me as—after congratulating the two young couples, joking that the young parents were showing the way for the soon-to-be-marrieds and reminding them that the first commandment is p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply–I delivered this sermon:

It’s a great honor for me to stand before you today, and my presence is a tribute to the open-mindedness and wide-ranging interests of Rabbi Wohlberg, Sandy Vogel, and others in your synagogue leadership. It is also fitting that my presence honors Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt; among his many accomplishments translated and interpreted Saadia Gaon, who believed there is no contradiction between reason and faith.


One anthropologist reasoned that we Jews should be called not the people of the book but the people of the body, so intensely have we been concerned with our physicality. I favor a compromise: the people of the book about the body. Of course, that’s not all it’s about, but taking today’s parsha, Ki Tissa, alone we have so many physical references I can barely mention them all. We begin by counting the people, body by body. Next we find out that Aaron and his sons must wash their hands and feet before offering animal bodies for sacrifice, and be anointed with oil that must not be poured on human flesh. We read of the garments they must wear and of the fragrance of the incense they must burn.

We are reminded that we must rest our bodies one day a week, even on pain of death. Sadly, we see that the abstract Jewish G-d, the god without a body, is not enough for the Israelites; they yearn for the kind of embodied god others worship. Moses is already pleading for them, reminding G-d of the promise to make Avraham’s seed like the stars, arbeh et zarachem k’kochavei ha-Shamayim, and that it cannot have been for nought that G-d brought freed them from Egypt b’yad chazakah, with a strong hand. Yet Moses’ rage is kindled, and he flings the sacred tablets from his own hands. He burns the golden calf, grinds it to dust, and makes the people drink it mixed with water. He orders intimate killings of the faithless by the faithful, and even after that a plague strikes many down. For the first of countless times they are called am k’shey oref, a stiff-necked people, even as G-d promises again, eretz zavat chalav u’dvash, a land flowing with milk and honey. They shed their fine clothing in repentance.


Moses sees G-d’s back, but not G-d’s face, and only with the protection of G-d’s hand. He lowers his head to the ground, and begs G-d for another chance for the people. We are told, not for the first time, that whatever opens the womb belongs to G-d, and that we must not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. And when the “stiff-necked” people do get another chance, Moses descends from the mountain with radiance rising from his face, so intense that he has to cover it to protect them. In the additional reading, Parah, we encounter the enduring mystery of the red heifer with the perfect body, and we learn how to purify ourselves after touching a corpse or a human bone. In these readings as in so much of the Torah, the body is everywhere, and this reflects the fact that Jews never renounced the body, they only tried to control its many dangers.


Let me now focus on just one dimension, that of weakness and strength. At Beth Tfiloh, you will find this theme familiar. If you heard Rabbi Wohlberg’s sermon last week, about the assault on Purim, you will not be surprised by what I have to say. If you agreed with him about Jimmy Carter’s Al Chet—and both those sermons were in part about the same thing, the Jewish right to self-defense—then you will likely agree with me.


I grew up as a pudgy, nerdy little boy in a small modern Orthodox shul in Brooklyn. Our rabbi, Bernard L. Berzon of blessed memory—a wise and broadly erudite man who for a time served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America— spoke passionately about Jewish faith, observance, and learning. But some of his most deeply felt words were reserved for the rebirth of the Jewish people. The Jewish state was only a few years old when I first listened to him, and I can still close my eyes and hear his passionate voice.


I can’t reproduce that voice, but I can tell you that I stopped the presses on my book, because I came across a quote from one of his sermons–which, I belatedly realized, had been one of my hidden inspirations. The passage was in a published collection of his sermons that he had given my father during an illness. It was on Shabbat Shemot, and I was probably there to hear it since I was in the shul almost every Shabbat—back then, it was “Shabbes”–from age 8 to 17. Certainly I keenly recall the sentiment. His drash that Shabbes was on another instance of Moses’ anger—the first—when he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave–va-yakh et ha-mitzri—and he struck the Egyptian down–according to the Midrash, with his fist, and with the help of G-d. Here is the passage I quoted from Rabbi Berzon:


“Through the centuries of dispersion and exile, the Jew developed a galut psychology of fear, and, like his ancestors in Egypt, yielded to the onslaughts and insults of vicious men in a degrading and humiliating manner. He bent to receive the kicks and blows of every murderous charlatan without fighting back. He practiced the policy of non-resistance long before Ghandi and Nehru. He became spineless and frail—afraid to strike back. Those who spent their early youth in Europe will bear me out that this was generally the case. When an anti-Semitic scoundrel threatened one of our people, the Jew would either run for his life, beg for mercy, or cover his face with his hands to ward off the blows.”


Many in our synagogue, including him, could speak with authority, having grown up in the Diaspora, and I often heard their stories. But he had more to say:


“We in our generation have lived to witness the rebirth of Jewish courage. Thank God that our sons and daughters in Israel have learned to use their fists against their foes… Blessed be the fist of each one of our heroes! May they continue to use their hands against the would-be annihilators of Israel.”


Recall that this was the 1950s, and the shadow of the Shoah lay across our lives, even as the brightness of not just Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel] but Medinat Yisroel [the State of Israel] broke through with a new dawn. If there was a hint of something almost anti-Semitic in Rabbi Berzon’s words about the Diaspora Jew, let me assure you that no one ever loved the Jewish people more. It’s not for nothing our shul was called Ahavath Israel [Love of Israel]. But those were heady times, the future was full of hazard, and it was many years before the Zionist dream began to detach itself from condemnation of the galut.


When Moses raised his fist against the Egyptian, he had not yet become Moshe Rabbeinu—our teacher—or had he? Certainly he did not cease to be an avenger of his people; at times in their wandering he had to be a warrior. So did Joshua after him, and Deborah and David after them. There were many victories, and ultimately defeat. But the fists of the Jews were raised again and again against their enemies. Saul slew thousands, David tens of thousands.


After the second Jewish revolt against Rome, the time of Bar Kochba and Akiva, this would not be the case for seventeen centuries. There were exceptions, of course. Shmuel Ha-Nagid, Samuel the Prince, was the mid-eleventh century Defender of Granada, entrusted with the command of a Muslim army, yet writing great Hebrew poems invoking the G-d of Jacob in his battles. Jews fought for whatever nation they were exiled to, as much as they were allowed. The story is told about the Battle of Waterloo, that a Dutch Jewish artillery man yelled Shema Yisroel at the top of his lungs whenever he fired his cannon; if he should, God forbid, kill a Jew on the other side, he did not want the man to leave this world without the Shema. Jews fought valiantly in the American Revolution and on both sides in the Civil War.


Yet the Jews in their millennial exile did not in general make martial or even physical prowess their métier; they focused in the main on the life of the mind, and to great effect. But in the year 1882 it was possible for a well-known author to write in a popular magazine, American Hebrew,


“What we need to-day, second only to the necessity of closer union and warmer patriotism, is the building up of our national, physical force. If the new Ezra rose to lead our people to a secure house of refuge, whence would he recruit the farmers, masons, carpenters, artisans, competent to perform the arduous, practical pioneer work of founding a new nation?”


This author recalls a passage in the Tanakh:


“We read of the Jews who attempted to rebuild the Temple using the trowel with one hand, while with the other they warded off the blows of the molesting enemy. Where are the warrior-mechanics to-day equal to either feat?…For nineteen hundred years we have been living on an idea; our spirit has been abundantly fed, but our body has been starved…


“Let our first care to-day be the re-establishment of our physical strength, the reconstruction of our national organism, so that in future, where the respect due to us cannot be won by entreaty, it may be commanded, and where it cannot be commanded, it may be enforced.”


    Can you guess who this author was? She was Emma Lazarus, whose words of welcome to the world’s suffering masses are emblazoned in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty. This young Sephardic woman in New York was calling for nothing less than a rebirth of the Jewish body. Not incidentally, it was a time when Jews who could not defend themselves were being murdered in Russian pogroms. And at that exact moment, the first modern Jewish settlement in Israel–Zikhron Ya’akov--was being founded, to be followed a few years later by Yemin Moshe. The Memorial of Jacob, and The Right Hand of Moses.


The rebirth of the body became inseparable from the dream of Tzion, Zion. When the great Spanish rabbi and poet Yehuda Halevi sang centuries earlier, “I am in the west, but my heart is in the east,” he did not see himself as one of Emma’s warrior-builders. He dreamed instead of the pilgrimage of a lifetime, to mourn and pray at the Kotel in far-off Yerushalayim. Without such devout yearning, there would have been no Israel, but more was needed.


Max Nordau, a German-Jewish physician, picked up Emma’s banner. In 1903 he wrote the famous article “Muskeljudentums”—“Muscle-Jewry”–a blend of theory and advocacy, calling for a re-creation of Jewish bodies and explaining how to make it happen. Dr. Nordau’s diagnosis?


“For too long, all too long have we been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh.


“Or rather, to put it more precisely—others did the killing for us. Their extraordinary success is measured by hundreds of thousands of Jewish corpses in the ghettos, in the churchyards, along the highways of medieval Europe …We would have preferred to develop our bodies rather than to kill them or to have them—figuratively and literally–killed by others…”


    For Nordau, the conditions Jews lived in had worn their bodies down for centuries:


“All the elements of Aristotelian physics—light, air, water, and earth—were measured out to us very sparingly. In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners. But now, all coercion has become a memory of the past, and at least we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again. Let us take up or oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”


    With this rallying cry, he founded the Maccabee and Bar Kochba Clubs, to strengthen young Jews throughout Europe.


For years he had been Theodor Herzl’s ally, but they disagreed on one key point. Nordau the doctor thought it would take three centuries for the Jews to prepare for nationhood. He literally believed that biological evolution would be needed first, to revive the lost Jewish bodily health and strength. Herzl the visionary begged to differ. In a famous diary entry in 1897, back from the First Zionist Congress, he wrote, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.” Exactly fifty years and eighty-seven days later the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. So it was revolution, not evolution–a tremendous triumph of mind over body.


A stunning poster announced the Fifth Zionist Congress. At the lower left, an aged, yarmulka-ed Jew in a long robe is holding his head and sighing into his beard. His eyes are closed, so he doesn’t see the angel standing behind him, doesn’t even feel the divine hand on his shoulder. With his other hand, the angel points up and across to where a young chalutz, a pioneer walking behind an ox, plows toward the sun. The galut Jew, though shielded by the Angel’s wing, sits in darkness, but the pioneer is bathed in radiant light. Below, the legend says, “V’sekhezena eyneynu b’shuvcha l’Tzion b’rachamim”—“And may our eyes behold your return to Zion in mercy.”


Every Jew who knew the Sh’moneh Esrei and read the poster would mentally complete the prayer, blessing G-d, ha-makhazir Shekinaso l’Tzion—who restores His Shekhina, his divine presence, to Zion. Even at the dawn of the dream, the Zionists understood: not without G-d, but not with God alone. Not without the depths of tradition and faith, but also not without radical new thinking that could make a revolution in the body. Not without the books, but not without the land. Not without the pen, but also not without the plow, the trowel, and the sword.


The late, great Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, in his book, Patuach, Sagur, Patuach—Open, Closed, Open—praised the pioneers. In the graceful translation by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld,


    I want to sing for those who had the voice of Jacob

      and the hands of Esau,

    the color of Jacob’s eyes and Esau’s smell of a field.


This, perhaps, is the miracle of the rebirth of the Jewish body: the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau, Jacob’s eyes and Esau’s smell of a field—not through a forgivable subterfuge this time, but through sheer force of will.


Another Midrash quoted by Rabbi Berzon, on Shabbat Ki Tissa itself, says that when Moses finished writing the Torah there was something he was puzzled about; he touched his pen to his head, and the remaining ink caused the radiance. Thus humility in the quest for great knowledge lights the world—and yet the light itself is dangerous.


We know about the ancient achievements of the Jews, and the gifts they gave humanity, but that was just the beginning. Today the voice of Jacob has been raised to the level of the Nobel Prize for Literature in eight different languages. The eyes of Jacob have seen the secrets of the universe and found out the cures for dread diseases. And the radiant faces of the children of Moses light the paths of invention and commerce, theory and practice, poetry and mathematics, economy and science. Despite our stumbling in the darkness, our many and serious blunders, our stiff-necked straying from the right even as we ourselves understand it, the dream of a Jewish people that is a light unto the nations becomes more real every year. We are not the only people with great gifts, or the only people with great historical vulnerabilities. But we do have an almost unique combination of the two. So unfortunately, to keep the dream real, it has been and will be imperative for Jews to raise their hands, their fists, in self-defense.


Blessed be the eyes, the voice, and the hands of the Jewish people in Israel, in America, and throughout the world. And we say, Amen.

*A not-very-imposing mechitza, not shown in the photo, was added a few years ago. It’s a low, translucent structure which, as Rabbi Wohlberg put it to me, is meant as a reminder of separation more than a barrier. For the non-Orthodox who believe that a mechitza is always a sign of women’s lesser status, objections remain.