A new Rabbi comes to the synagogue and leads Shabbat services for the first time. Everything is going well. But just before the Sh'ma, half of the congregation stands up while the other half remains seated.
During the Oneg following the service, the rabbi asks some congregants about this interesting happenstance. The congregation is split. Each half argues vehemently - some for standing - and some for sitting.
The following week, the rabbi goes to visit the Rabbi Emeritus, and asks, At this congregation, is it custom to stand for Sh'ma?
No, that is not our custom.
Oh, so you stay seated for Sh'ma!
No, that is not our custom either.
Well now I'm really confused, because when we said Sh'ma, half of the community stood and half stayed And then they argued over which way was correct!
"Ahh...THAT is our custom."
I've spoken before about the nature and importance of Jewish argument and debate. I've talked about disputes between Rabbi Hillel & Rabbi Shammai. We've looked at sections of the Torah in which husbands and wives don't always get along, brothers aren't at peace among one another, and at one point or another along the 40 year journey from Egypt to Israel, everyone complains to Moses. I've talked about the dialectical nature of the Talmud, with its and such-and-such rabbi said this, and then this rabbi said that...
But I don't think that I have ever talked about an argument in which two conflicting perspectives vie for a winning position within just one individual.
The quintessential example of this is not in the Torah, Talmud, or Midrash ... To find it, we look for a milkman that lives in the small little village of Anatevka; Tevya.
Yes, I'm talking about Tevya, and Fiddler on the Roof. Whichever Tevye you prefer (I'm a Topol man myself), almost all Jews agree that Fiddler on the Roof is so ... Jewish! Fiddler on the Roof is peppered with beautiful Jewish values and customs. But out of all of them, I think the most powerful is the arguing.
Tevye argues with his wife, his daughters, he argues with the butcher Lazar Wolf. He antagonizes the entire village to revisit an old argument that started years ago when one villager sold another a horse - or was it a mule? Tevye even argues with God, as he daydreams about being rich: Would it disrupt some vast eternal plan?
Tevye seems like a man that is completely sure of himself. When speaking with Perchik, an outsider to Anatekva who has his eye on Tevye's 2nd oldest daughter, Hodel, he says, Our traditions! Nothing must change. Everything is perfect as it is! We like our ways.
And throughout Fiddler, Tevye argues against change: Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. For instance, we always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition.
It seems that Tevye isn't able to accept new ideas or perspectives. But as Fiddler progresses, Tevye has several arguments in which he does change his mind. And in these arguments, Tevye argues with himself.
His oldest daughter Tzeitel has been secretly in love with one of her friends from childhood, Motel. They tell Tevye that they gave each other a pledge for marriage. Tevye is outraged - They gave each other a pledge ... Unthinkable! Unheard of! It's not the place of a daughter to choose her husband. Marriages must be arranged by the papa!
But then without provocation, Tevye questions his stern decision:
Motel's beginning to talk like a man. On the other hand, what kind of a match would that be with a poor tailor? On the other hand, he is an honest, hard worker. But on the other hand, he has absolutely nothing. On the other hand, things could never get worse for him, only better.
On the other hand ... These are four powerful words.
This year, each of us needs to say these words more. We need to listen - really listen - to the thoughts of others who have different experiences than us, who disagree with us, who believe differently than us. Jewish tradition teaches us to have arguments b'shem shamayiim, for the sake of heaven. Instead of trying to win an argument, we should try to learn.
On the other hand is an opening to understanding and growth, new experiences and t'shuvah. This is what our High Holidays are all about! On this first day of the year, Tevye reminds us of a powerful lesson.
Later in Fiddler, Perchik & Hodel tell Tevye that they are going to marry. Tevye argues with himself again.
What's happening to the tradition? A man tells me he's getting married! He doesn't ask me, he tells me. On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren't they? On the other hand, they decided without parents. Without a matchmaker! On the other hand, did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? Oh, yes, they did. And it seems these two have the same matchmaker.
Each of us feel strongly about all manner of things - politics, religion, Israel ... But even when we feel strongly bout something, perhaps especially when we feel strongly about something, each of us should have a touch of humility and say to ourselves, on the other hand...
And as we examine the dialectical nature of Tevye's arguments a little deeper, there's another lesson. In both cases, after Tevye went back and forth, arguing this way and that, Tevye decided on the 'other hand' that made others happy, even though it went against his own self-interest. After deliberating, he chose the decision that was more empathetic, selfless and kind.
Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, teaches us that we always have to balance Din - judgement, with Heded - lovingkindness and mercy. But as Tevye shows us, the balance should be weighted toward mercy.
Tonight, as we begin the new year of 5777, our world seems more divided than ever, and we need to invigorate ourselves with an audacious sense of kindness and empathy. In creating a better world and a better life, we must acknowledge the validity of 'the other hand'
But even this isn't so simple.
Toward the end of Fiddler, Tevye learns that his 3rd eldest daughter, Chava, has gone and married Fyedka, a non-Jewish Russian soldier.
Chava begs Tevya to accept their marriage. In struggling with this shocking turn of events, Tevye has one final argument with himself. Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I'll break. On the other hand... No. There is no other hand.
Sometimes, there is just no other hand.
Reform Judaism is often considered relativistic. You can do what you want, and I can do what I want. No one is necessarily wrong and no one is necessarily right. Recalling the story of the half-sitting and half-standing congregation during the Sh'ma, there's no definite correct choice, there's only preference.
Here at CCI, This is also true. Some of you wear a kippah and some don't. Some wear a tallis and some don't. Some like services and some like adult ed. Some like the Oneg and some ... oh wait, everyone likes the Oneg. Our diversity of custom, thought and expression makes us a vibrant congregation.
Our smorgasbord of Jewish life has lots to choose from, but some things are just not on the table.
For example, we will never enforce any kind of mechitzah, or barrier, that separates men from women. We will not treat people differently based on gender identity or sexual or orientation. I have problems accepting the theology of Jews that also claim belief in Jesus as the messiah. Reform Judaism is not synonymous with "anything goes."
And some issues cause debate and strife amongst us here at CCI. I'm not trying to add anxiety to our High Holiday celebration, but for just a moment think about the upcoming presidential election. I'm guessing that like me, you are bothered that some of your friends or family refuse to vote for insert-name-of-your-preferred-candidate-here. In the last few weeks and months, Relationships have been strained over this. So too with hot-button topics like the black lives matter movement, the treatment of the millions of Muslims that live in our country, and Israel
I look backward on the year that passed, there are issues for me which have 'no other hand.' There is no other hand when it comes to the importance of of recognizing white privilege and institutional racism. The same is true with regard to the treatment of Muslims. American Muslims today are treated similarly to the way that Jews were treated in the 50's and 60's, and I am proud of our growing partnerships with our Muslim friends and neighbors at the Al Huda Islamic Center. Lastly, I am having a harder and harder time supporting some of the realities in Israel, a place I deeply love, but a place where liberal Jews are not able to express their authentic Jewish lives.
Each of us should take a principled stand for the cases where they may not be another hand. Your position may not be popular, it may not make others happy, and in fact, it may drive some away. But if we take the concept of Tikkun Olam seriously, if we do believe that it is our right and responsibility to continue in the creation and repair of the world, each of us has to name the issues for which there is no other hand.
Our religion reiterates this message over and over. Justice, justice you shall pursue. Choose life. These foundational teachings push us. reminding us that we aren't meant to be the Jewish version of tofu, blending easily and blandly into everything around us. We must take impassioned actions of selflessness and empathy, yes, but also of integrity. Hillel captured both of these sentiments perfectly: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But on the other hand, If I am only for myself, what am I?
So what's the takeaway of all of this?
First, please watch Fiddler on the Roof.
And as this sweet beginning of the new year continues on, try to catch yourself arguing passionately for something. Ask yourself if there is another perspective to see. Continue to argue, but argue so that you can learn, so that you empathize. It doesn't mean that you will change your mind, or that you even should change your mind. But if the options are close, choose the one that is weighted toward hesed, mercy and loving kindness.
And after thinking on it, if there is indeed no other hand, stand for what you believe in. Tevye would have wanted it that way. Our religion certainly wants it that way.
This balance is not unlike the precarious position of ... a Fiddler on the Roof. The ability to choose the other hand along with the decision that sometimes there is no other hand, is one of the most important things that make us human. Navigating this fine balance will bring upon a sweet, blessed and holy new year On this first day of 5777, let us recognize that this balance makes our lives more meaningful and joyous. This year,as we continue to choose life, we join Tevye and all of our ancestors, To life, to life, L'chaiim. L'chaiim, l'chaiim, to life.