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Is a Love of Blazing Saddles, Brisket and the Frozen Soundtrack Enough to Make You Jewish?

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What follows is the text of an address I shared with the members of my Conservative synagogue on January 18th, 2014 during a weekend family retreat.

Above, a brisket from a recent Hotchkiss family meal.

The torah portion this week is from the book of Exodus 18:1 to 20:23... And it's called "Yitro." "Yitro" is the Hebrew name of Moses' father-in-law.

For anyone who might not remember, when Moses was an infant, Egypt's Pharaoh ordered the death of all Jewish babies for fear that they would rise up against him. To save his life, Moses' mother hid him... and he was eventually found and adopted by the Pharoah's daughter and raised in the Egyptian Royal Family.

Many years later, Moses rose up against the Pharaoh and lead the Jews to the promised land. No. Not Palm Beach. Current-day, Israel.

When the story begins, Yitro shows up in the Promised Land at the community Moses has presided over near the base of Mt. Sinai. It's a typical Jewish community. Gated. Everyone eats dinner at 5pm and all the wives complain that their aren't enough gluten free options.

Anyway, Yitro finds Moses exhausted and overwhelmed and encourages him to delegate some of his authority to trusted priests in the community. That way:

  • Disputes can be resolved on a local level
  • More localized religious figures would make it easier to deliver the word of god to everyone.
  • Plus: Moses could focus on the big picture - after all, he was the one in touch with god. Also, he could never seem to find time to play that game, "Angry Bedouins" on his i-Rock.

The lessons the Torah teaches in just the first few paragraphs of this week's portion are just a few of the ideas embraced by modern Judaism.

  • That in order for a community to be vital and legitimate, there must not be a remote institutionalized hierarchy... but rather a decentralized system that makes access, information, comfort and support... local.
  • We learn that sometimes we need the input of someone else - in Moses' case, it was his father-in-law -- to help light the way in order for us to reach our fullest potential.
  • We learn that leaders and priests should seek out constituents where they are.
  • And, we learn that we must empower others by sharing responsibilities. While baring in mind to delegate authority wisely to those who are committed and responsible.

Of course, there are many more components, ideas and philosophies that modern Jews embrace as we attempt to live a "Jewish Life." To the kids in the room: who knows the famous thing that Moses did? Just shout out your answer. No. He was not a finalist on The Voice.

And he's not the cute guy with the hair in One Direction.

Moses is the man who speaks with god... and he delivers to the Jewish people the 10 Commandments. To the kids: anyone know any of the 10 commandments? They are:

  1. I am god. Your God. Who took you out of Egypt.
  2. You shall not possess an idol of another god.
  3. You shall not take my name in vein.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day, and Keep in holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother. Little known story, kids. This was actually #1 for a long time... but was knocked out of the #1 spot. I think there was a steroid scandal. I might be wrong about that.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not bare false witness.
  10. Do not covet your neighbor's house.

And it's our belief in these 10 commandments which ALSO bind the modern Jewish community.

And yet -- the 10 commandments, the shared values and morality spoken of earlier, along with various other notions - these are still NOT all that binds us as a community.

So, what else do Jews share?

  • The long, ugly, brutal and shameful history of persecution suffered by our parents and ancestors.
  • Love! That wonderful - magical - mysterious - overwhelming cacophony of emotions and chemical responses which bind us to our partners, our children and our tribes for the preservation of our species, that acts as the foundation for the formation of families and the creation of that company that prints pithy emotional slogans on tiny candy hearts at Valentine's Day.
  • Culture. From Gerswhin, to Saul Bellow, Isaac Beshevis Singer, the shared affection for Yiddish curse words. My favorite? Alter kockers! The Marx Brothers, Fiddler on the Roof, Blazing Saddles, Woody Allen... and Alicia Silverstone. OK, Alicia Silverstone might just be the fellas.
  • Tradition. Friday night dinners with family, Passover, Chanukah, et al. Plus, the passion and pride felt when these traditions are passed along to our children.
  • Jews are typically progressive. Modern Judiasm is malleable and has a mechanism to adapt and adopt modernity. Of the major religions -- Judiasm is the only one that historically has welcomed women and gays into leadership positions.
  • Philanthropy.
  • We are bound together by a shared love of Jewish food. Brisket, matzo ball soup, black and white cookies, kuggle, brisket, matzoh ball soup, pastrami, black and white cookies, black and white cookies...

So: that's a LOT of things that bind us together - the sum total of which -- combine to make us "Jewish."

Now, you may have noticed there is one thing I did not mention. Judaism offers 613 commandments and at no point -- not anywhere -- does it say that in order to be Jewish.... that you believe in God.

I do not.

And I've been Jewish since birth.

This is not a joke. I am on very solid ground when I say that to be Jewish does not require you to believe in God. If you take the Torah at its word, in the 10 Commandments, god tells Moses that there is just one God, and that he is him. He adds that you also shouldn't take his name in vein or make any craven images of him, either.

OK. So there's one god. No blasphemy. And don't make an idol of him and worship it.

Yup. I'm still on solid ground.

My point? For those of you struggling with your spirituality, it is OK. Take your time. Figure it out. There's no hurry. And when and if there are times in your life you decide to believe, great. Hopefully that faith will bring you comfort and help you make sense of the world.

And, if there comes a time in your life where you decide there is no god, that's OK, too. You'll still have "Blazing Saddles" and "Brisket", too.

As for you kids who've never seen "Mongo" punch a horse, Cleevon Little say to a group of KKK members, "Where the white women at?" or a group of farting cowboys sitting around a campfire, well, you still have Black and White Cookies and now, the Snow Queen from Frozen who sings: "The cold never bothered me anyway..." Idina Menzel is the actress who sings that song. And she's Jewish.

Jon Hotchkiss is the creator of the new 6-hour science series, This vs That, which you can like on Facebook, here.

(Note: a few of the pop culture references have been altered from the original synagogue presentation)