Erring on the Side of Love

Kol Nidrei 5780 Sermon

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Toronto, 1990. I’m seven, in grade 2 at Bialik Hebrew Day School. My favourite class at school is art. Outside of school, I do gymnastics, which I mostly don’t like because I’m not good at it, and pottery, which I do like, because I am.

I’m not very outdoorsy but I like playing in our neighbourhood park. At the park I make a new friend, a Jewish girl my age, and we play together every few days.

One day I get to the park expecting to play and my new friend says to me: ‘Tatte says I can’t play with you anymore.’ Tatte is Yiddish for father – my friend is Orthodox and speaks Yiddish at home. She says: ‘I can’t play with you anymore because Tatte says you’re not Jewish.’

Not Jewish. My seven-year-old self found this so confusing. Didn’t my family go to shul every Shabbes? Didn’t we keep kosher? Didn’t we put our menorah in the front window on Chanukah, just like every other Jewish family on our street? 

I felt Jewish. And yet according to my friend’s father, I was not. 

That was the first time in my life I was told I wasn’t Jewish. But it wasn’t the last. Over the years other people said similar things to me — neighbors in Toronto, shopkeepers in New York, rabbis in Jerusalem. 

Thus far, in my life it’s been mostly Orthodox Jews who have questioned my Jewishness. But the Orthodox are certainly not the only Jews who invest energy in deciding who does and does not belong in Jewish community. 

Over the years I’ve heard many stories from friends, colleagues, congregants who have been told in ways subtle and unsubtle that they are not Jewish, or not Jewish enough, or are Jewishly suspect. My Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Emily Cohen, who was raised in a committed Jewish household by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, was told by more traditional rabbinical schools that she’d have to convert before applying. My colleague Rabbi Shais Rishon, a black Orthodox Jew in New York, has been asked in Jewish spaces ‘how are you Jewish?’ so many times that he’s developed the response, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you, Jewish?” I’ve talked to converts whose decision to convert was met by suspicion and a profound lack of welcome. I’ve talked to off-the-derech Jews whose community cut them off after they stopped living an Orthodox lifestyle. I’ve talked to engaged couples – straight interfaith couples and queer Jewish couples – who had other rabbis tell them they were making a mistake in their choice of partner, and refused to marry them. 

If you’ve ever experienced this kind of scrutiny or rejection, you know how deeply wounding it is. 

Even if it’s not done out of malice, it hurts. It hurts to have someone deny that you belong. It hurts to be told you’re not welcome in a place that should feel like home. It can make it so that afterwards, even when you walk into a welcoming space, part of you is always expecting to be told: ‘You shouldn’t really be here.’ And maybe most damaging of all, this kind of scrutiny and rejection can plant seeds of doubt. It can make a person say to themselves: ‘Maybe I’m not really who I think I am. Maybe my home isn’t here.’

Unfortunately, this kind of boundary-policing has been going on in Jewish communities for millennia.

In part, it’s because Judaism began as a religion of otherness. Abraham, the first Jew, had a radical idea – that God was one, not many. It took Abraham smashing his father’s idols to get the point across: I’m different. I believe in a different God than you do.

Mitzvot – commandedness – helped ensure a connection to this different God. Mitzvot also ensured that Jews would behave like one another and unlike their non-Jewish neighbors. And to further assist in this project of radical religious otherness, Judaism’s religious leaders did their best to ensure that Jews would have limited contact with the non-Jewish world. 

The Torah largely forbade intermarriage with non-Israelite nations. Kashrut limited our dining options, and certain Talmudic rabbis forbade Jews from eating and drinking with non-Jews entirely. Medieval rabbis prohibited their community members from even entering non-Jewish houses of worship. And even into the 20th century, speaking primarily in Yiddish, Ladino, or Hebrew prevented Jews from developing close personal or business ties with their non-Jewish neighbors. 

As Jews, we have a long tradition of being different and keeping ourselves separate. This has required a strict policing of boundaries, done in the name of God and community. For those in the in-group who’ve refused to toe the party line – for those who have acted not-properly-Jewish – there’s a long tradition of excommunication, known as ‘karet’ – exiling transgressive Jews from their communities.

We can’t deny that one of the reasons Judaism has lasted so long is because historically, it has strongly policed the in-group’s borders. 

But this policing is always in service to the collective. In focusing on the whole, rather than its parts, Judaism hasn’t always taken as seriously the individual’s need for exploration, self-expression, or curiosity within a given religious community. 

Prioritizing the needs of the individual can mean making existing members temporarily uncomfortable, or even eventually shifting the group’s core identity. This can be expansive – it can have the effect of bringing in fresh, enlivening perspectives and shifting stagnant values or beliefs. But it’s also challenging to do and do well. 

So how does any Jewish community make these key decisions around belonging? In the tension between maintaining strict borders and being radically expansive; in the tension between keeping our identity intact and minimizing the individual wounds of scrutiny and rejection, what values might serve as our guide?  

In considering this question, I thought about various theories of group dynamics and social identity. But ultimately, I found inspiration in the centuries-old mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. 

Kabalah promotes the idea of ten sefirot, ten divine traits that manifest in different ways in God and our world.

Gevurah, one of these ten sefirot, is the emanation associated with judgment and limitation, law and strict justice. Gevurah in divine form appears many times in the bible – a God filled with anger, a God quick to punish. In individuals, gevurah is associated with the power to restrain one’s innate urge to bestow goodness on others when the recipient is judged to be unworthy of it. Naturally, communities that strongly self-police rely heavily on gevurah. And you may be unsurprised to hear that the emotional state that corresponds with gevurah is yirah, or fear.

The sefira of gevurah exists opposite the sefira of chesed. In people, chesed is associated with unconditional love and a willingness to stretch to accommodate the needs of the other. Chesed is what undergirded Abraham’s practice of welcoming strangers into his tent. Like Abraham reaching out, chesed is thought to be proactive – an expansive force that impels the soul to connect with what it outside itself. In cosmological terms, chesed is associated with the very first day of creation – with God’s need to create a world, filled with light.

The emotional state that corresponds with chesed is ahavah, love.

In classical Kabbalah, gevurah and chesed are meant to balance each other out in equal measure. And that makes sense to me. Our world needs love to temper justice, and boundaries to offer a container for love. 

But later Kabbalists came to believe that too much gevurah was actually the source of the world’s evil. They taught that the Sitra Achra, the evil inclination, is actually based in gevurah. That too much judgment is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man. 

So they proposed that we always aim for more chesed than gevurah. That we should err on the side of abundant love, rather than on the side of limits.

As modern-day professionals, parents, colleagues, friends, we know the value of setting limits. But I want you to consider with me, this evening, the value of community erring on the side of love. 

But why this evening? Why am I choosing Kol Nidrei to talk about this? 

Because at no other time is the Jewish belief in the value of love more obvious than during these High Holy Days.

Nine days ago we celebrated Rosh HaShanah. Anticipating Yom Kippur, also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, we called out ‘Adonai Adonai el rachum vechanun erech apayim verav chesed ve’emet’ – we called out to a God of compassion, a God slow to anger, a God full of abundant love. We asked the most loving version of God we know to welcome us back and to remember us for good. We sang ‘aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshiaynu’ — treat us with generosity and love, and save us.

And then we blew the shofar. Why? According to one midrash, on Rosh Hashanah, God sits upon kisei hadin, a throne of strict judgment. But when we blow the shofar, God gets up from this throne of judgment and moves to the kisei rachamim, the seat of compassion. And that is the place from which God welcomes us on Yom Kippur – from a place of love.  (Lev Rabbah 29:3)

During these High Holy Days, we call on God to move towards love because we are absolutely clear that love is what will save us. 

We are clear on that. So why not model our community on that same call? Why not make love the grounding principle of our tradition, opening our metaphorical tents on all sides? And not just during the Yamim Noraim, but throughout the year. Because let’s be real. We’re not only being saved or saving one another on Yom Kippur. It happens in ways large and small in how we reach out to one another or turn away from one another throughout the year.

Many of you have heard by now that this year, our congregation has undertaken to remodel itself in accordance with the values of radical welcoming. This community’s leadership has asked itself, what would it take to ensure that every person feels welcome in this community? Because we’re a community made of human beings, we’ve already missed the mark a couple times. But we’re going to keep at it. We’re going to keep learning and trying. 

And we need your help. If we’re going to create a community based on chesed, we need to hear from you: What would it take to make you feel welcomed? What would it take to help you feel like you fully belonged?

If there are ways that this particular community can grow to serve you better – please let us know. Or if there are ways I can help you strategize about how to make your other Jewish communities more welcoming – come talk to me. And if there are parts of you that are unsure whether you belong here – please let us know how we can build trust with you. So that you feel that you belong, and you know that you are beloved.

I began this sermon talking about my experience of being told as a young person: You’re not Jewish. You don’t belong. 

And now – I’m a rabbi. And rabbis have a long tradition of serving as gatekeepers of Jewish communities.  

And so I want to take the opportunity, this evening, with so many of you gathered here, to make myself clear: As a rabbi and as a human being I place more value on chesed than gevurah. It is more important to me to open the gates wide, to be asked to stretch, to be invited to do better, and to commit to figuring it out, than to tell someone they don’t belong. 

Why? 

Because I want every person here to feel beloved by their community. 

I want you to see yourself as not at the margins, but at the center. 

And I want you to know that this messy enterprise of life is made richer and more complex and more beautiful because of how you choose to engage with your Jewish community.

If you come here this evening bearing an old wound of being told that you didn’t belong in one Jewish community or another: because one or both of your parents weren’t Jewish; because of who you loved or married; because of your family; because you are single; because of your body’s abilities; because of the colour of your skin; because of your gender, because of your age; because of your finances, because of where you were born; because of your politics; because of your views on Israel and Palestine; because of your level of observance or knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish prayer; because of whether or how you believe in God; because of any variety of your uniqueness:

To each of you here ever turned away from Jewish community – that community sinned against you. You deserved better. You deserved a Judaism that centered you and a Jewish community where you felt like you belonged. A community that knew intuitively and immediately how much a part of it you were. And I’m sorry if you were ever made to believe otherwise.

Even on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we know implicitly that more love, more acceptance, more gentleness is what will get us closer to God and to one another. So my blessing for us this Yom Kippur and the year to come: may we be an inspiration to one another and even to the Holy One above by erring on the side of loving and being loved. Ken yehi ratzon.