How Lovely are Your Tents, O Jacob!
July 1, 2011
Cantor Solomon and I are delighted to officiate at this year’s first Union Summer Service. This combined service between Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Har Sinai, and Temple Oheb Shalom may be the oldest cooperative venture between synagogues in the United States. I once read an Oheb Shalom Temple Topics from the early 1920’s that listed the schedule for Union summer services. It is reasonable to assume that we have held these joint summer services for about one hundred years. Now, with the success of BEIT-RJ, our combined high school program, we are poised to engage in more cooperative ventures. That subject, dear friends, is a sermon for another time.
On this Shabbat before the observance of Independence Day, we celebrate this great country in which we live. Never before have the Jewish people known such freedom as we do today in the United States. Never have we known such acceptance. Never have we been so integrated into the very fabric of a society. Never has the synthesis between Jewish values and the values of our host country been so complete. Never have Jews been so influential in culture, politics, and business. America has been good for the Jews and the Jews have been good to America. It has not always been so.
The story of the United States is one of increasing tolerance and acceptance of the disparate groups who make up our population. Originally, only white male property owners had the vote. Over time and after great struggle, this franchise was extended to women and African-Americans. Discrimination against sub-groups has been pervasive. The Irish who immigrated here in the mid-19th century suffered exceedingly from religious and ethnic prejudice. Anti-Semitism was ubiquitous from the 1870’s through the 1970’s when it finally became unacceptable to publicly engage in Jew hatred. We have reached the point when racial hatred is condemned in all respectable quarters. We are approaching the point when all that will count towards a person’s social acceptance and economic success is his or her character and ability. We will not reach that point until LGBTs have the same legal rights and privileges as everyone else. We applaud the State of New York for approving legal equality for the disenfranchised LGBT community. We will work even harder in the next months to ensure that these same rights are extended to our LGBT partners, siblings, children, parents and friends in Maryland.
Over the last 170 years, Reform Judaism has synthesized the best American values and made them Jewish. Egalitarianism is not an intrinsic Jewish value, yet in the last thirty years it has become one of our core values. The idea of treating women differently than men is repugnant in our community. We want our daughters to have the same opportunities as our sons. As the United States has opened up its tent to be more inclusive, so have we. This does not mean, however, that all Jewish values and American values coincide. Let me spend the next few minutes speaking about one very important Jewish value that no longer seems present in American society.
Allow me to begin with a personal note. Sally and I are very pleased that our twenty-something daughter, Miriam, is living at home this summer for the first time in twenty years. She is half way done with her MPA at NYU and is working as a summer associate at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, doing very important work. While she is home, Miriam is educating us about some prevalent cultural trends among her peers, foremost of which is a devotion to reality television. I am now familiar with the current state of relations between the Housewives of New Jersey. I have also become quite intimate with the Kardashian family, having listened to the replay of the entire six seasons of the show in the last two weeks. If you are not a devote of reality television or do not read the tabloid press, the Kardashians are among the leading celebrities in the United States today, made famous by their reality television show which closely follows every single detail in their individual and family life. The deceased founder of the family was the noted Los Angeles attorney, Robert Kardashian, famous for his representation of O.J. Simpson. Robert fathered three girls, Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, and one son, Robert, with his wife Kris before their divorce. Kris has been married for almost twenty years to the former Olympic athlete, Bruce Jenner, with whom she has two more daughters. Over the course of six seasons, we see everything, and I mean everything, that occurs within this family. We see them fight, make up, and love each other. We literally see the girls give birth and Bruce preparing for his colonoscopy. We see them in every stage of undress. We hear every foul word that comes out of their mouths. We see the good deeds they do and the mistakes they make. The Kardashians have made the proverbial “deal with the devil.” The price of their fame is the complete and total lack of privacy. Privacy, my friends, is a core Jewish value.
The assault on privacy is pervasive throughout American life. Face Book allows the entire world to peek into our private lives. Companies retrieve all kinds of information about us, the government monitors our e-mails and phone calls, and some choose to reveal all on prime time television. I emphasize that this does not coincide with the values of our Tradition. “A biblical story tells how the soothsayer Balaam went out to curse the Israelites, but when he saw their encampment he blessed them instead. The scholar’s interpretation of this is that when Balaam looked up he saw that the doors of the Israelite’s tents were not directly opposite one another, and he blessed them for respecting one another’s privacy. Jewish law legislates this high regard for privacy into prohibitions against even the most subtle forms of privacy.” A Talmudic source (Bava Batra 2b) offers this admonition: “Come and hear: If a man’s roof overlooks his neighbor’s courtyard, he must build a railing around his roof that is four cubits high (six feet). There is a special reason for this rule. The owner of the courtyard can say to the owner of the roof, “I use my courtyard only at fixed times, but you have no fixed times for using your roof. I have no way of knowing when you might go up on your roof so I can keep out of your sight and maintain my privacy.”
It is quite clear to us from these two sources that one’s privacy should be guarded and cherished. We should treasure our personal lives and information. What we do and say, especially in intimate matters, should be kept to ourselves. In this way, American culture and Jewish values separate one from the other. While we are wholly American, our Jewish values are still distinct from mainstream American culture. You know, every once in a while, I am really glad to be part of the counter-culture.
Enjoy your Fourth of July!
Amen and Shabbat shalom