Our Jewish Membrane

Our Jewish Membrane – Yom Kippur 5761 (2000)

Our bodies are made up of cells, tiny structures that are mostly water surrounded by a thin membrane. This membrane, which allows some things to pass through but not others, is what defines the cell as an entity: it sets the limits of what is inside and what is outside; what is cell, and what is not.

Different kinds of cells have different shapes: some are flat, some are round, some are narrow. But they all have a membrane that both conforms to their shape and creates their shape — a part of what they are.

A cell’s membrane must remain permeable — must allow things to pass into and out of it — in just the right balance if it is to remain alive. Too permeable, and the contents of the cell are lost, and it dies, spilling itself out into the world. Too rigid, and the cell can neither obtain nourishment nor discard what is toxic, leading to an equally fatal outcome.

Groups of people are like cells: they have boundaries that define who is in, and who is out. These boundaries can be constructed of any variety of behaviors or signs: the secret handshake of a fraternity, the tattoo of a gang, the language one speaks. Within the group, there is a level of camaraderie between individuals not found across that boundary: watch a group of adolescents, and you will see this principal taken to extremes.

Some of the most difficult struggles between people revolve around boundaries: who is inside, who is outside? From political boundaries — like those of Israel — to social boundaries — like, who is a Jew? — we struggle passionately to create and maintain the boundaries that help us define who we are. Like the cell, our boundaries are vital to our survival, for if they are lost, who are we?

Social boundaries are maintained with laws, rules of conduct that define what is acceptable and what is not. As Jews, we build our religious and cultural identity around laws: laws that we study, laws that we observe, laws that we break, and laws that we ignore. As liberal Jews, we create the most difficult of all scenarios for ourselves by declaring that the laws of Judaism are neither mandatory nor fixed: it is up to us as individuals to determine which laws we shall observe, and how we shall observe them.

How, then, do we know that we are Jewish? By doing things that seem Jewish to us. For example, by attending this service, every Jew here is saying, I am doing this thing because I am Jewish, and each of us feels a bit more Jewish as a result.

It’s as if each of us has a religious membrane with the world. When it is working properly, it gives us rules for interacting with the world in just the right balance — not so many rules that we feel stifled, and yet not so few that it vanishes. When it is working properly, it can be a source of vitality in our daily lives, in any number of different ways. It enables our Judaism to be a source of guidance when we face ethical dilemmas; a source of community when we encounter loneliness; a source of comfort in difficult times; a source of joy at unexpected times.

But it cannot give us strength if we do not maintain it. It cannot be part of us if we do not embrace it. It can not help us if we deny it. It cannot add shape to our lives if we do not define it.

So, how do we maintain this membrane? For many of us, attending these services will be the most public Jewish thing we do all year. Most of us exercise our Jewishness in less public ways: the Passover Seder we attend, for example, or the menorah we light at Chanukah.

Many of us feel our Jewishness to be alive in the good deeds we do, whether it be helping in a soup kitchen, donating food to the hungry, or simply choosing to do the right thing when faced with a difficult choice. But these acts are only particularly Jewish if we have our Judaism in mind at the time.

Put in cellular terms, the most effective way of vitalizing our Jewish selves is by caring for our Jewish membrane — paying attention to the moments in our lives that are particularly Jewish, and distinguishing them from moments that are not. It’s as if we build gateways between moments that are Jewish and moments that are not.

We have many such “e;gates”e; available to us in Judaism, the most obvious being that of a mezuzah. Mezuzot serve as reminders that we are about to leave one world and enter another — leaving our home, and entering the world. There is even a little ritual to mark the moment, that of touching the mezuzah when making the transition. And it is through rituals — behaviors we repeat for their symbolic meaning — that we grow comfortable and practiced at making transitions, of being aware of who we are, and where our boundaries lie.

When we are aware of our boundaries, when we pause at those transition moments in our lives, we give shape and definition to our lives. And, to the extent that we notice our Jewish boundaries, and give pause at the Jewish moments of transition, we can be infused with the special power, shelter and meaning that Judaism has to give. How can we do this?

The key is to do little things that are easily accomplished and yet remind us of our Judaism — to practice Jewish rituals.

Now, I know that the founders of Reform had a lot of criticism of ritual, and in many ways, they were correct. Ritual that is practiced without thoughtfulness, without the proper “kavanah,” is at best meaningless and at worst destructive. It can make that Jewish membrane too rigid, cutting us off from sustenance, rather than providing us with nourishment.

However, a ritual thoughtfully practiced, no matter how small, can bring many benefits. By defining that boundary, we nourish the Jewish part of ourselves, and allow it to be a contributor to our lives. That revitalized Judaism can be a source of guidance, comfort, community and joy.

Take for example the Sabbath, a day that is separated from the rest of the week. A day for which a boundary exists, if we notice it. A boundary which, if we find a way to maintain the right balance, can help nourish and sustain that larger Jewish membrane of ours.

So, if we choose to strengthen our membrane in this way, we could add a little bit of Jewishness to Shabbat, by reviving a ritual element that we do not currently practice. Which element? That’s easy: any one that we are not doing, however simple, just so long as it sets the Sabbath apart, if only for a moment. For example, do you have challah on Friday night? No? Then you could make this single change: buy a loaf on your way home from work on Friday. When you do, you will remember that you are doing this because you are Jewish, because there is value in feeding that Jewish part of your life. Take the challah home, and when you sit down to dinner, eat a piece before anything else. Suddenly, the moment will be enhanced with a little Jewish spice.

Or how about a different ritual? Perhaps pausing for a moment after your meal to say a brief prayer of thanks? one need not recite the entire Birkat Hamazon, even a short prayer of thanksgiving will do. It will certainly be noticeable to you, and after the initial awkwardness passes, it can become a comfortable part of your life — a Jewish part of your life.

It may seem trivial, even corny. But it is powerful, this practice of establishing boundaries. It is using ritual the way that ritual was always intended: to enlighten rather than to limit, to open up a different world to us, rather than lock us up.

May we each find new ways in this coming year to recognize and exercise our Jewish sense of self, and so be blessed with the joy, the comfort, and the peace that Judaism has to offer us all.


L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2000-2007 James F. Brulé