Friday, February 24, 2012

Ich bin a Yid

Parshat Terumah
1 Adar 5772
February 24th, 2012

Yesterday might have contained my greatest moment of 5772. A 78 year-old African-American preacher grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye, and said with considerable charm, “Ich bin a Yid in my heart.”*

I must admit, it was awesome.

The irony of my pleasure in this moment is that I get quite touchy when non-Jews claim Jewish identity or affinity. I have seen some very strange appropriations of Judaism over the years: non-Jews at Krakow’s klezmer music festival, wearing hassidische clothing, quoting stories of the rebbes, with interest only in Jews long dead; Christian biblical fundamentalists who mistakenly believe that they share our essence because they are Old Testament focused (they’ve never heard of the Talmud); Messianics claiming ownership over Torah, including the disgraceful “coronation” of Bishop Eddie Long with a Torahscroll. 

At issue is the nature of identity, and the question of how people relate to identities that they partially share, but do not wholly inhabit.

In our time, each of us is an amalgamation of identities. It’s true: our global culture exposes us, quite felicitously, to external identities in such a way that they take residence in our soul. There is a part of me that is an American at the founding of this country, a part in a yeshiva in Lithuania. There is a part of me that is black, a part that is gay, a part Latino, Asian, Eastern European, Southern, East Coast, and so on. The nature of our era is that we exist as hybrids.

But I am nonetheless conscious of my central identity: a Jew in America. And though I may inhabit others in a partial way, it is only as an American Jew that I am an arbiter and influencer – only in that realm where I can speak to the destiny of my identity.

With the contemporary sharing of identities has come arrogance: the fallacy that because I am influenced by another culture, I have a right to define that culture. This is why Jews get uncomfortable with outpourings of Evangelical love – it comes with a definition about us and our future (eventually coming to love Christ) that we reject. We do not want to be known as future converts. It is invasive.

Therefore, the response to the identities shared with us must be humility. When others share their identities with us they give us a gift, not a commodity to be consumed and controlled.  Ultimately this is why I loved my preacher friend, for in his eyes was kindness, not ownership.

“Words of Torah can only exist in one of humble mind.”
-Talmud, Masekeht Ta’anit

* Yiddish for “I am a Jew.” It loses something in the translation.

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