Are You Lonely?

Janet Sternfeld Davis
Janet Sternfeld Davis
Janet Sternfeld Davis

Janet Sternfeld Davis is a Lecturer in Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. She teaches Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Introduction to Talmud for AJU’s  Graduate Center for Education. Davis has also served as coordinator of the Bet Midrash since 2000.

posted on April 14, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Recently a Rabbi told our students that addressing loneliness was the most important part of his job. I was struck because he was saying an emotion rather than an issue like Israel, Anti-Semitism, or Jewish literacy was the key Jewish problem in his community. I recalled hearing many stories of Jewish loneliness over the past several months: a shomer Shabbat young person who couldn't find friends to share Shabbat in his Conservative Jewish community, another young person attending an Orthodox day school who felt shunned by her more observant fellow students and different from the less observant, the end of a marriage because they couldn't share their Judaism in a meaningful way, the many who feel out of step with the politics in our community (however defined), the Rabbi coming home from an Israel that didn't seem to have a place for him. Creating a place for everyone is a challenge for individuals and institutions in our Jewish community.  Somehow we don't know how to accommodate each other while honoring our own sense of Jewish integrity.

Our Torah portion commands "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2). The commandments which follow are varied: parental respect, Shabbat, idolatry, sacrifice, tzedakah, and then many ethical rules about how to behave towards your fellow. Over and over these laws are punctuated with some version of the words, "I the Lord am your God." We also are told that the one who does not uphold the laws will be cut off from the community (19:8; 20:6). Amidst these laws are a few that touch on our challenge (19:17 - 18):

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur not guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.

Tell your truth so you get it off your chest in a way your fellow Jew can hear, and perhaps act on. Be careful about how you do this so the reproof is out of love and concern, and neither hateful nor insincere. The God who ordained these rules is the God who created and covenanted with the Jewish people - all of us.

The commandments in Kedoshim are demanding and comprehensive. The attempt to live a holy life, a life observing the commandments of the Torah and the laws of the Rabbis, may place us outside the orbit of folks who share our label but not our practice or theology/ideology. It seems we are destined for loneliness whether we act within the commandment system or not. Holiness can connote otherness, and keeping separate. It is possible to understand why the more observant keep boundaries between themselves and others: "we can't eat your food, we can't share your Shabbat, and sometimes we choose not to allow parts of (your) contemporary culture to enter our homes and social lives." It is also possible to understand how their co-religionists feel, "you won't eat our food, you look down on our lives, and don't recognize what we in fact do observe, and how we base our lives on the Torah's demand for just behavior."

But surely living a holy life calls us to examine the shared meaning under these commandments and laws. Can we find a way to celebrate Shabbat so that the observant are not lonely, and the less observant get a beautiful experience? Do we really want to cut off friendships which could be kindled among fellow Jews? More congregations are providing lunch after Shabbat morning services so that people extend the Shabbat experience without expecting standardized in-home practice.  The result is a boon for all. Can we find ways to embrace folks who don't practice like we do, but must share something in common to want to attend the same schools, congregations, or community events? This is not easy, but is the Torah asking us to be lonely among our own?

Originally, I was thinking about the Aleynu. The prayer begins:                                       

We must praise the master of all, and render greatness to the creator of the universe, who did not make us like the nations of the lands, who did not place us like the families of the earth, who did not make our lot like theirs, or our destiny like all of them. (My People's Prayerbook, Vol 6, p.133)

I was going to focus on the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, and how lonely I thought the words made us. Now I choose to ask - can we find ways to see our fellow Jews as part of the same nation/people, the same family, sharing the same lot and destiny?

Can we make holy alliances between Jews who practice and understand Judaism differently?  Within a family, one sibling may be ultra-Orthodox where his beliefs and actions are guided by his Rabbis, the second bases his actions on devotion to family and his sense of right and wrong, and the third lives in both the religious world and the secular world. They have the responsibility to care for their parents and uphold their family name. Their challenge is the same one our Jewish family has - they/we have to fulfill our responsibilities and obligations as discussed in our Torah portion.

I was at an interreligious conference where a young Christian responded to a call for "tolerance" by saying, "sometimes the stories don't match - there really are differences between how we understand God, life and meaning - and yet we do care about each other." Coming out of his tradition he suggested love as the binding force. The Torah does ask us to love our fellow. I want to at least acknowledge other Jews as people of integrity and members of our family who have something to teach me. I want to see them as upholding some part of our responsibility to be holy. Let us find ways to help each other to deepen our Jewish experience and our belonging to the same people. Let us not cut people off from one another. Let us not be lonely.

Shabbat Shalom.