Rabbi Fred Morgan AM YK Shacharit

Two types of courage

I don’t watch many YouTubes but recently I came across a brief documentary which caught my attention.  It’s called “A Jew Walks into a Bar”, and it’s about an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, a yeshiva bocher – a student at a yeshiva – who moonlights as a stand-up comedian.  His name is David F.  Some of the documentary shows the young man at his yeshiva with his Rav (whose face is pixelated) and his chaverim, his study partners.  Most of it focuses on him in bars, delivering his routine or chatting with other comedians, or reflecting on what he’s doing.  You can imagine the tensions that David is experiencing.  The producers clearly made the documentary because they recognised the anomaly of an Orthodox Jew who does stand-up comedy and thought it would make a catchy story to relate.  They’re right, it does.

At the start of the documentary David is going to the yeshiva with his cameraman to film some footage and he tells the cameraman that they have to have a cover story – the people at the yeshiva can’t know what he’s doing.  So, he says, if they ask tell them we’re making a video for a fundraiser at the yeshiva.  Already, we feel how confronting this is for David.

The first routine they film is of David at a comedy bar somewhere in New York.  He’s dressed in his black suit and shoes, with a white shirt, a fedora on his head and tsitsit hanging over his waistband –standard yeshiva costume.  He stands with a deadpan expression looking out over the expectant audience and then, with perfect comedic timing, says, “Ever feel like you’re in the wrong place?”  He explains, “I’m fully Jewish, I’m an Orthodox Jew.”  A pause.  Then, “I feel like you guys don’t appreciate how cool I am.  Take my hat for example.   The brim is supposed to be bent down but I wear it bent up. (Another pause).  I fight the system.”

David grew up, he tells us, without television, movies or computers.  His first deviation from the rule was when he went on the internet and came across a YouTube of a comedian.  He was fascinated by the man’s truth-telling; the comic named things as he saw them; he shared his innermost thoughts with people he didn’t know.  David thought this would be a great way to overcome his social anxiety.

When I listened to David’s story I thought, this is an amazingly courageous person.  Imagine the courage it takes to step away from everything you’ve ever known and put yourself into a totally unknown and vulnerable position, as David did.  From our progressive point of view this might not seem so radical.   We’ve long since stepped away from the strictures of the yeshiva world.  Taking risks in our Jewish life choices is what we’re encouraged to do.  But given David’s background, the step he’s taken is huge.  From the perspective of his Rav and the others in his community, there’s no bigger averah or transgression than baring his soul in front of a bunch of strangers, and non-Jews at that!  And David knows it.  He also knows that one averah leads to another, just as it says in Pirkei Avot.  Further on in the documentary, he replaces his yeshiva uniform with jeans, a cap and a pullover (he doesn’t know the name for the pullover, never having worn one before!).  I think that shows huge courage.

But there are limits to how far David will go.  He has no intention of leaving his Orthodox Judaism, his family simchas or his Talmudic studies.  They define who he is.  When a fellow comedian offers him a major gig at a comedy festival, but it’s on Friday night (apparently a prime time for stand-up comedy), David explains that he can’t take the gig because it’s Shabbat; “but,” he adds, “thanks for rubbing it in”.  The comedians try to reason him out of his refusal, just as we would  – you’re just telling jokes, they say.  But David is adamant.  Shabbat is his “red line”, the limit beyond which he is not willing to go.  That also takes huge courage, in my opinion.

These two kinds of courage are not the same: the first is the courage to assert his will and go in a direction that’s different from the one he’s inherited, and the second is the courage to know when giving up his traditions will somehow harm his soul.  I’d like to spend the next few moments exploring these two kinds of courage and what’s actually at stake in them.

We progressive-thinking folk are supportive when people demonstrate the first kind of courage, when they seek to assert their independence from past conventions and find their own road through life.  But sometimes it’s not so easy to accept, especially when it is our own children, or grandchildren, who are pursuing a destiny very different from our own.  That can be difficult for the children, too.  It’s not uncommon for otherwise open and tolerant families to suffer serious ructions when a child in early adulthood tries to stake out their own path.  These can be radical acts of courage, as in declaring a gender preference, pursuing a career or choosing a life style totally at odds with what the parents expect.  Or it can be a more subtle but equally courageous expression of self-determination.

Let me share a story from long ago in my career.  This was in England.  I was approached by a young man and his fiancée.  They wanted to get married.  The woman wasn’t Jewish and she was seeking to convert.  So far, no problem.  But the groom’s father was insistent that he would not accept her conversion, however performed, and he demanded (sic!) that his son give her up.  In this he was supported by his wife.  The son’s courage was in following his heart and remaining loyal to the young woman.  But at the same time he did everything in his power to “honour his father and his mother”. 

Though the parents weren’t congregants of mine, and they belonged to an orthodox shul, the young man asked me if I would meet with them and I agreed.  They came to my home for the meeting.  I explained the situation from the young couple’s point of view: the bride was happy to convert and they would be accepted in the Jewish world.  But the father insisted that his son would not marry someone who wasn’t born Jewish; otherwise, he would disown him, or in Jewish terms, say kaddish over him.  I’d heard this being done by ultra-Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill, the London equivalent of Rippon Lea.  But in this case the parents were cultured, professional people who were living in a non-Jewish area south of London.  They belonged to a synagogue but rarely attended.  There was nothing about them to suggest fanaticism of any kind.   Yet they could not see the courage in their son and in the way he was handling the situation.  Instead, they saw their son as somehow betraying them by acting against their wishes. 

For me, this was a deeply distressing situation.  As a rabbi I found it so difficult to understand why the parents would not accept his son’s partner if she converted.  As a human being I couldn’t grasp how the parents could not acknowledge and respect the courage that their son was displaying in determining his own course through life.  Yet I do know how difficult it can be to accept our children’s and grandchildren’s decisions as meaningful and weighty, even if they are from our perspective impractical or simply odd.  It’s hard to keep in mind that it shows great courage for someone to adopt a path that is completely different from that of their parents, a path that is uncertain and untested.

But it also shows courage to know what the limits are to experimentation, and to hold to those limits.  Our yeshiva-bocher David shows this when he refuses to perform his stand-up comedy on Shabbat.   He honours his tradition and what it gave him through his years of childhood and young adulthood.  His Judaism, his family, his community resonate deeply within him, and he won’t give them up. 

So often in my career I’ve seen people deliberately give up a Yiddishkeit which gives them pleasure and a sense of belonging, almost to spite themselves. I imagine it’s because they feel that if they’ve followed their hearts into new areas of life, that act of courage requires them to turn their backs on their Jewish heritage in its entirety.  It’s black or white, all or nothing.  But that’s not the case.  It takes a certain kind of courage to resist thinking in this way, and it takes courage to draw a line and say, Beyond this line I shall not pass. 

Congregational rabbis, especially Progressive rabbis, have to show this courage continually.  Our job is to support our congregants insofar as we are able, but we also have to be clear about where we draw the “red lines” that define for us authentic Jewish tradition.  I believe that is what’s expected of us by our communities, and rightly so.  Not long ago I was approached by someone in the community to perform a mixed faith wedding for their child.  This has happened many times over my career.  The rabbis of the UPJ have long seen mixed faith weddings as a red line that we will not cross.   It’s like David, remaining Shomer Shabbat, Shabbat observant, even while pursuing his comedy career.  So, we have courageously accepted many changes in our approach to Jewish practice, including most notably same-sex marriages, because in our view these changes are true to who we are as human beings.   But we have also, courageously in my opinion, remained true to our faith and identity as Jews by requiring both partners in a marriage to be Jewish. 

We expect the non-Jewish partner to convert.  If they decide not to convert, we are fine with that decision and of course we are completely welcoming to the couple.  But there are consequences that follow on from their decision, one of which is that we cannot perform the wedding.   In the United States the Reform movement has not maintained this “red line”, and I believe this has contributed to the state of crisis in which they find themselves.  But in almost all other communities in the World Union for Progressive Judaism, that red line has been maintained. 

In this regard, I can really relate to David, our comedian.  He lives with a tension that is there because he is doubly courageous.  On the one hand, he has been courageous in pursuing his dream of being a stand-up comic, which requires him to enter into uncharted territory unapproved of by his family and colleagues; and on the other hand, he has been courageous in remaining Shomer Shabbat, which maintains his links to his community and strengthens his soul.  Some would see this as being hypocritical.  He should choose one or the other.  That is the black-and-white, all or nothing attitude that I described earlier. 

I disagree.  I think David is living life as it is, not black or white but made up of innumerable shades of grey.  Life is filled with tensions and paradoxes and clashes of values.  We show courage by grappling with them and so expressing all the many dimensions of our personalities.  Yom Kippur gives us an invaluable opportunity to explore the multiple dimensions of our personality and so come to appreciate the courage we display in living them out.  It’s not easy, but this is what it means to live a life that is true to itself. 

G’mar chatima tova.

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