This week’s Torah portion is called “Re’eh” which means “see” in the imperative form.
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse,” the text says G-d will bless you if you obey him, and curse you if you turn away from YOUR God and follow other gods. Here, it is telling the Israelites how to go about destroying the holy sites and idols of the Canaanites.
“and you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.”(end of quote)
Pretty awful stuff. We know G-d of the Bible to be harsh at times, but here, he is advocating violence. I am vehemently against all violence, regardless of who commits these violent acts. Left or Right. Christians or Jews. Black or Japanese. The ordering of destruction of other people’s idols makes God look really petty and immature. But I have an idea as to why Moses of all people found the idols of the Canaanites to be such a threat. Remember the Golden Calf after his recent stint on Mount Sinai? He must have been really disappointed by the Israelites who were allured to the hedonistic majority culture and built an idol for themselves. I think these harsh commands were his overreaction to the Golden Calf, a god Israelites could see and touch.
However, it is one thing to prohibit graven images of other gods, but to ban all graven images of living things is quite another. Even at Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in New York City, none of the stained glasses contains any images of people or animals, not even a fish. Why can’t we just have some representation of OUR G-d? Doesn’t G-d realize that it is hard enough to sell a currently non-intervening God, like ours? They say “seeing believing”. What could be a harm to have a nice little painting of OUR G-d?
In fact, seeing is very powerful. Some people fall in love at first sight. When someone says “she is beautiful”, he is not talking about her personality. We are heavily influenced by our sight and rely on it to make many important decisions.
By the same token, many people “see” my daughter and I together, and often assume that I am her nanny. And every time I see an Asian person here at Temple Israel, my first instinct is to assume that she is not Jewish. And let me ask you. When you hear the word, “mentsch”, who comes to your mind? I, immediately think about my husband, Sam. He is truly a man of integrity and virtue. I chose to marry him based on our shared values. Yet, people cannot get over the fact that he is a black man and they have expressed that I was “brave” because I married him “despite” his race. And some thought I married him BECAUSE of his race, referring to a “fever”. And those who did not make either of these comments still made assumptions about him: his upbringing, political views, athletic abilities, and even his choice of entertainment or preference of food that are stereo typical to his race. And these assumptions about him were outright false, or grievously incomplete to say the least.
Growing up in Japan, I never even had to think about race. I was always a Christian first and a violinist second. I was raised with Protestant values alone, and never participated in any traditional Japanese holiday celebrations or rituals. My musical aesthetic was 19th Century European. As a child, I grew up listening to Heifetz, Auer, Gingold, Goldberg, Joachim, Kogan, Menuhin, Milstein, Mintz, Oistrakh, Perlman, Stern, Szigeti, and Szerying. Nobody in Japan has ever questioned my identity as a Christian and a classical violinist, and they respected me. In fact, I used to be celebrated as a Christian violinist. However, when I came to the US, all of the sudden, I became an “Asian” violinist as if Mendelssohn violin concerto would suddenly sound Asian when I played it.
So is it safe to say “seeing is misleading”, or at least it can be in some cases? Would it be possible that G-d would want us to use senses other than sight? What about listening, “sh’ma” instead of “re’eh”? I personally feel that listening is superior to seeing as it takes more work of contemplation.
It turns out that the famous Bible commentator Rashi also had a similar thought. He interpreted “see (re’eh) on the condition that you listen (and obey)”.
And in my Haftarah portion (Isaiah chapter 55, verses 2 and 3), the root of the word sh’ma, (shin, mem, and eyen) appears three times!!
(“Listen well to Me, and you shall eat what is good, and your souls shall delight in abundance. Open your ears and come to me; hearken and you shall live.”)
We say “a picture is worth a thousand words”. As Jewish people, we get no pictures but we have certainly compensated our lack of imageries with not a thousand, but millions of words. We love our texts despite what’s in them. We listen to the written texts so we may wrestle with, question, deny, interpret, and teach them to our children. And we certainly don’t teach our children to destroy anyone else’s properties, but we encourage them to question anything in the Bible. Nothing is off limit.
In fact, I was delighted when our daughter questioned the origin story while attending JCC Nursery School. Yes, she maybe agnostic at best, but she is a proud Jew who loves to share her Jewish knowledge and ethics with her friends at Spence. She cares about the poor and the sick, and constantly reminds me of being kind “chesed” to everyone.
She loves her family, her extended families, family friends and our families by choice who are all represented here this morning. I teach her to respect her Protestant roots and get along with people of all ethnic backgrounds. We expose her to all cultures and encourage her to think critically and independently, and not be afraid of discussing biological and cultural differences among us humans. I remember when she was three years old, she came home and told me that one of her classmates had told her she was “very tanned”. “What did you say to him?” I asked. “I said ‘thank you’” she said.
When Naomi was first conceived, we realized that our lofty ideal of multiculturalism was not going to work as a family unit. We foresaw obstacles in our daughter’s future, being raised in a society filled with identity politics, which uses our skin colors to determine, categorize and judge people as groups. We wanted our child to be an individual, free from groupthink, and societal pressure of camaraderie only with one side of her racial makeup while vilifying the rest. Both my husband and I grew up with cultural pressures and religious beliefs that were harmful to us. For many decades, my husband has been very different from his family, and I, too, have had very little in common with my family, even though we love our family very deeply. Therefore, we as a nuclear family, needed to find a new identifiable community that held OUR values in order to help our child succeed in life, instead of viewing herself as a victim. And more importantly, we wanted a community with a strong infrastructure to support our values. We had considered many things. I looked for a church for atheists, or some call it, Unitarian while Sam suggested that we raise our daughter “jazz” to which I said, “definitely NOT”.
So we chose Reform Judaism as it fit the bill at the time. I subsequently went through the whole process of becoming Jewish, which many of you know it to be an extremely arduous process, just so it would be good for our daughter.
And it has been incrediblly good for her. At her religious school here at Temple Israel, not only is she learning holiday rituals, Bible stories and Hebrew prayers, but she is also learning human values that will guide her for the rest of her life. I often attend the religious service for the kindergarteners, and I am constantly blown away even as an adult. Our new knowledge of the Jewish values, customs, culture, humor, recipes, songs, Yiddish words and Hebrew prayers allow us to connect with other Jewish people in all walks of life. You have no idea how many people have come up to me and asked me questions about my Jewish identity: on the train, at parties, or at our daughter’s school. From an Orthodox mother of six to, a young Israeli girl backpacking, to even Jared Kushner who wanted to know my life story, saying “my wife is also a Jew by choice”. Yeah, me and Ivanka. Becoming Jewish turned out to be so much more than just “good for our daughter”.
But you know what else I was wrong about? I was wrong about not raising our daughter “jazz”. After all, jazz is all about “sh’ma”, listening to the other players, respecting and supporting one another. We communicate using the principles of harmony and traditions. In jazz, excellence trumps legacy. Traditions are respected and studied rigorously. There is no limitation for creativities and innovations. On the bandstand, there is no identity politics. Nobody cares what we look like or what religion or culture one adheres to. We support each other on the bandstand no matter what. I call jazz “meritocracy with compassion”. I think this is the only way people of all cultures and backgrounds can achieve great success and not get their credentials and achievements questioned everyday. So today, I believe we must all raise our children “jazz”.
Unfortunately, it is exactly the opposite in our society. The society lowers standards for people of a certain race while brazenly punishing extremely hard-working high achieving children of other minority groups. My daughter’s achievements are constantly questioned by people outside of Spence School, only because of her skin tone, or 40% of her race to be exact. And I only wish someday in her lifetime, people will stop categorizing her into a group based on her skin tone alone, and rather start accepting her as a fully able individual, judging her only by the contents of her character as Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed for his four little children 54 years ago. Shabbat Shalom.