Friday, October 21, 2011

The Limits of Perfection, Delivered Rosh Hashanah morning, 5772

What if we suddenly found out that we could do anything? It is certainly a compelling plot for both book and movie: what if there was a pill that could give us the ability to maximize our brain’s productivity so that we could accomplish anything, literally anything towards which we directed our mind and attention. Limitless, a movie released this past year based on the sci-fi thriller, The Dark Fields by Irish novelist, Alan Glynn, raises and strives to answer this very question. Now, in order to make it a compelling thriller, the story line of both book and movie portrays this magical drug as being inherently and extremely dangerous, emotionally and physically dangerous; so much so that the characters who take it ultimately suffer greatly and die. The danger is perfect for the movie. It adds tragic conflict and offers a powerful lesson about unmonitored drug use: the attainment of cognitive perfection at an enormous price -- one’s own very well-being and the security and well being of anyone connected with them. The story raises the challenging, yet important, question of what we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel a sense of productivity and perfection. Remove the element of danger, and, though we lose some of the thrill and drama and that all- important lesson regarding the dangers of drugs, a potent question still remains: what if we could always be super-productive? What if we could consistently and constantly work at our absolute fullest potential 100% of the time? What would you choose to accomplish with such increased intellect and energy? (Go ahead…think about it for a minute…we have time; this isn’t a long sermon.)

We who live in our modern achievement-driven world, I fear, too often equate one’s individual productivity with success and perfection. We hail those who seem to get everything done efficiently. Has anyone else been called a “super-mom” or “super-dad?” These common monikers, still used more often for moms, evoke super-hero status for the parents who juggle professional careers with all of the primary tasks of parenting. I get called that, not because I’m necessarily exceptional at anything, but because I am able to balance (more often juggle) many tasks and appear incredibly productive. It is assumed that I’m “super” at it all. Far from it. America is a very achievement-oriented culture. We don’t just equate success with achievement, we demand it. We want, we expect, to succeed, to be the best at everything; and, we are often willing to do or pay, almost anything to get a taste of that sense of success for ourselves and our children. Rarely do we consider the cost of these attempts, and rarely do we consider if the constant striving for success and achievement is anywhere near perfection at all.

Our modern English word perfection comes from the Latin terms, perfectio and perfectus, which refer to concepts associated with “finishing” and “bringing to a conclusion” respectively. These Latin roots to our English word did not have the superlative connotations we commonly associate with perfection today; rather, “perfectus” was all about bringing something to fruition. According to an article about perfection in the journal Dialectics and Humanism, the concept of "perfection" as we understand it today reaches back, beyond its Latin origins, to Aristotle and the Greek term “teleos.” Teleos, like the Latin “perfectus,” indicates a sense of finality and purposeful conclusion. Though human flourishing was indicated by entirely different Greek word, Aristotle, in his work Delta of the Metaphysics, added the abstract and superlative connotations to this Greek concept of teleos, connotations that have become associated with our modern sense of “perfection” but connotations that remained a secondary definition of the Greek “teleos” in Aristotle’s own time.

While I have never formally studied Latin or Greek, it seems to me that the implications of these early concepts of perfection have more to do with the natural journey towards completion of any action than any singular moment of perceived success or accomplishment along the way. Nor is it about being The Best once completion is reached. There is no inherent competition in the origins of perfection. Rather, perfection was about seeing something through to its logical conclusion or helping an action become complete. Sadly, I don’t think we have a decent English equivalent for conveying this original idea of perfection.

The Hebrew concept, however, of Shleimut, which shares the same root as the commonly known word shalom, seems a very useful synonym to these original concepts of perfection. Shleimut: wholeness or completeness. The word engenders a sense of satisfaction, not necessarily one of betterment or superiority, a sense of satisfaction that has become lost in our modern pursuits of perfection. Take for example, the Hebrew phrase refuah sh’leimah, which is used to wish someone well when they are sick. Refuah sh’leimah can literally be translated in English as “a complete healing,” but “a complete healing” isn’t really a satisfactory translation. To say, “a complete healing” in English simply doesn’t convey the phrase’s intent. Unlike our English ‘complete,’ the Hebrew sh’leimah doesn’t mean that the illness will necessarily be fixed or that there will be physical healing, a full recovery. Shleimah, instead, implies a sense of wholeness and coming to terms with the entire journey of healing, even if that healing entails acceptance, emotional healing, in the face of not being able to be physically healed. Perfection isn’t about being the best, it is about being whole even when what we may view as the “best” outcome is impossible.

Aristotle provided three definitions to the concept of “teleos:” that which is complete thus containing all of its requisite parts; that which has attained its purpose; and finally, that which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better. There it is, the definition that has, for better or for worse, struck our fancy and endured as our modern definition of “perfection”: that which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better.

Ironic, isn’t it? That our modern conceptions of “perfection,” a word whose linguistic roots convey a sense of finitude, now implies an endless, limitless, seeking of that which is ultimately un-definable. How can we ever know if something is so good that nothing else could be better? They keeping coming out with the perfect computer and the best phone with the most convenient apps…how could we ever know when nothing else could be better? If the Iphone 4 was ‘perfect’ why do we need the Iphone 4S? We’ve lost five pounds, how do we know that 10 won’t be better? The movie title, Limitless, is apt! The striving becomes constant, and perfection becomes an elusive and unrecognizable endeavor all to its own. There is no completion. We’ve lost the capacity to simply feel “perfectus,” complete.

So back to the original question that initiated this whole, possibly mundane, even boring for many, foray into language: what would we choose to accomplish if indeed our capacity to accomplish was limitless? How many of us thought first of the myriad of items on our “to do” list? Or, in our desire to accomplish and achieve anything or everything, did we think in today’s parlance, of our dream filled “bucket list,” of all of those things we want to do and accomplish in our life times? New York Times contributor, Carina Chocano, noted in her assessment of the movie Limitless that, “in all its pulpy glory, [the movie] represents the logical terminus of a certain pattern of modern thought, endlessly fueled by our culture [namely] if you can theoretically become perfect, then it follows you should at least try.”   The assumption: that perfection comes from limitless strivings.

Indeed, our goals for perfection today tend to be consumed with the ongoing process of self-actualization. We start our new year with resolutions; and, as Jews we take advantage of January 1st to re-set and re-formulate those resolutions. Goals are extremely useful. And, Rosh Hashanah and the entire season ahead of us, all the way through Simchat Torah, is about repentance and renewal, a process which must start with the self, and -- committing, to be and do better. It is not enough to beat our chests and say Al chet shechatanu l'fanecha!  At the same time, The High Holiday season, as it is known in English, is not about actualization solely for the self. It is not about putting ourselves on some higher plane above others. On the contrary, these days of Awe are about strengthening our connection with God and community and about striving for a sense of shleimut, of wholeness, in those relationships.

אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לאצמי מה אני?, Hillel reminds us: If I am not for myself, who am I? The importance of self is evident in Jewish tradition. As Rabbi Reuven Balka, a contemporary commentator on Pirkei Avot, from which Hillel’s lesson is drawn, astutely argues, “No individual can step out into the world with a poor self-image and expect to make important contributions to human betterment. The neglect of self makes the neglectful person a poor choice for helping others.” But, Hillel doesn’t stop there, if I am only for myself, what am I? It is clear that we risk losing our very humanity - מה--What am I? - if all our goals are focused inward on our own potential.

What if we suddenly found out that we could do anything? As Jews, such a question must be followed by: what would we contribute to our world? How would we nurture our relationships and function in such a way as to help make this world a better place for all? Of course, such a question is fodder for the imagination; the reality is we are limited. We are limited by the extraordinary condition of our humanity. Moreover, as my cursory digging into the origins of the word reveals, the very essence of perfection has limits. Too often we seem consumed by the limits of our humanity while forgetting about the limits of perfection. Our brains, generally speaking, function just fine. It is our expectations that could use some tweaking. There is much we have to offer, as individuals and as a community, to our world even without the fantasy of being limitless.

The protagonist in Flynn’s fantasy of limitless potential states at one point, long after discovering his magic elixer, “I finally had my shot!” His failure is that he never quite answers that question, ‘shot to do what?’ Instead, the character is consumed with self-preservation, self preservation that backfires. The pursuit of perfection becomes dangerous when we remain consumed by the betterment of the self while forgetting about taking care of the world around us and the people with whom we share this world. Truth is, we don’t need to be limitless for that. We have our shot to perfect the world and make it a place of Sh’leimut, so let’s get to it!

Atem Nitzavim: Why Bother! Delivered Erev Yom Kippur 5772

Atem Nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem! “Today, you stand here – all of you”, our Yom Kippur morning Torah portion reminds us, to accept the covenant given by God. It is an ancient scene, yet one which our Rabbinic sages understood to be eternal. The Covenant made there that day between God and the people on the border of Canaan was made not only with those who stood there in that moment, our sages teach, but with all of their descendents, and the descendents of their descendents, and the descendants of their descendents – indeed, to every generation yet to follow. This agreement, this brit, was, accordingly, made for us as well.

According to traditional exegesis, the commentary, on this text, we are to abide by Torah’s commandments because of this very deal made generations ago; and the kicker, it ain’t optional. In the simplest sense, our observance is payback. As the Spanish Medieval commentator Abravanel describes, we are obligated to re-pay a debt that was owed by our ancestors for the act of redemption, namely the Exodus from Egypt, that God enacted on their behalf. It is, in his view, no different than making good on an outstanding financial obligation, except in this case, the principle is never entirely fulfilled. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, and now we, in each subsequent generation, must pay God back by abiding by God’s law, Torah. So much for the personal autonomy that I discussed a few years ago.

We are constantly reminded of God’s enacting redemption, and by extension this debt. The first words at Sinai aren’t “I am God who created heaven and earth.” No. God introduces Godself and the laws that follow by reminding us, “I am [the One] who brought you out of Egypt!” Our liturgy, too, repeatedly reminds us of this outstanding obligation. Morning and night, we sing, Mi Chamocha, an excerpt from the very song apparently sung by the Israelites upon their first taste of freedom. We refer to this act of redemption when we bless the wine on the eve of the Sabbath and festivals. Redemption is considered a cornerstone of Jewish history and theology. Without it, our story would have ended in Egypt.

Talk about one hefty and enduring obligation. No wonder so many of us are compelled to opt out. The guilt that arises with not fulfilling the expectations of this inherited covenant can often feel like it is simply too big a burden to bear. Isn’t religion supposed to be a construct that enriches and helps us navigate our lives, as opposed to a burden to shoulder?

I’d argue that the traditional understanding of אתם נצבים היום כלכם as an imposed, eternally binding and non-negotiable covenant may no longer be useful in our modern American culture. I stand by my words of a few years back: personally autonomy is a must. And, I’ll say it again, we all must be Jews-by-choice in order to make the most of our engagement with Jewish life and the world. At the same time, reconnecting to that sense of obligation may not be entirely such a bad idea.

Horace Kallen, in a 1915 study of American Nationalism, wrote, “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent; they cannot change their grandfathers….” Now, Kallen was discussing the challenges of assimilation at a time when large waves of immigrants were coming to join the melting pot of American life as it was understood at the turn of the twentieth century; but, his observation can be instructive for those of us striving to identify fully as Jews in the modern world. What was understood as a challenge at a time when assimilation was a priority can, and perhaps should, be understood as a goal at a time when assimilation has been so fully achieved that too many of us have forgotten, or consciously set aside, the values of our grandparents. When we may have achieved exactly what the Jews of Kaifeng, China, about whom I spoke on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, achieved. We are so well acculturated as Americans that our Jewish identity is barely recognizable.

In past generations, part of what made it so difficult to ‘forget our grandparents’ was, frankly, anti-Semitism. Yes, for all of its horrors, the upshot of anti-Semitism was that it worked to prevent Jews from shaking off the inherited obligations of Torah, of being a Jew. Our distinctiveness was imposed on us by others. The covenant, the responsibility associated with being a Jew, however, is no longer imposed upon us by State or society. Thank God for that. However, one of the ramifications of our full acceptance into society is that it is left up to us to decide. We have to make a conscious decision as to whether we are going to bother opting into the covenant or not.

The successes of assimilation and acceptance into American culture have made it fairly easy for any of us to slip on and off the cloak of our Jewish identity. One Shabbat on, one Shabbat off. Synagogue affiliation for a few years, unaffiliated for too many others. Jewish education a priority until age 13, everything else a priority after. Commitment to Jewish causes, well only if nothing else is more compelling. Brisket and latkes on Chanukah, ham on Christmas. Be clear, Jewish identity isn’t a sweater. It may seem easy to slip in and out of our Jewishness, but that doesn’t mean we should.

So why bother at all? I left the question unanswered a week ago: Is the model offered by the ancient Jews of Kaifeng a success or failure? Is complete assimilation to the point of disappearance a failure worth lamenting? It isn’t an easy question to answer, for any of us including me; and, ultimately while I can stand here and tell you why I think you should bother with Jewish life and observance, the answer for each individual must come from within oneself. The motivation must ultimately come from you, not me. But, since my sermon would be far too short for such an occasion as Erev Yom Kippur if I end here, and since I promised I would ten days ago, I’ll go ahead and preach anyway. Here’s why I think we all should bother!

1) It’s relevent. Despite its ancient history, Judaism remains relevant. Yes, our primary text, the Torah, is old – very old, and one can argue (as so many have) that its language and context are dated – they are; but, contemporary lessons can continually be drawn from it. There is a timeless aspect to Torah and all of Jewish literature. However, that being said, it won’t remain relevant without us. It is up to us to make it timeless. The text requires our engagement. Rituals require our engagement. If we stop studying and interacting with our history, then indeed, Judaism becomes static and archaic, as do all of the traditions that come out of it. But, if we continue to interact with our unique history, then the traditions and rituals can remain beautiful, compelling, and relevant to contemporary life. They can serve to elevate our lives and give our lives meaning.

2) We have a responsibility to Torah. It is our responsibility to keep the text vibrant. As liberal Jews, we have an extra mandate. We must continue to engage with Torah in order to keep it from becoming monopolized by the Orthodox. Torah is ours as much as it is theirs. From the earliest public readings of Torah, the text was open to translation, commentary, and interpretation. Certain opinions, in the form of commentaries and pointings, endured more than others, but there was, and still is, room for a diversity of opinion. This diversity is, however, dependent on us bothering. Once we give it up, it fails to reflect diversity. Torah becomes a monolithic and closed document. Judaism becomes rigid and inflexible.

3) We have a responsibility to God. We may view the obligation of אתם נצבים הוים כלכם as a burdensome obligation, but according to the French Medieval commentator, Rashi, it was no picnic for God either. The Covenant is a contractual agreement between two parties. The redemption of our ancestors from bondage may have put us in a position of eternal debt, but this everlasting burden of the Covenant is placed equally on God. It really isn’t all about us! According to Rashi, the implication of the verse, והוא יהיה לך לאלהים כאשר דבר לך , “that God will be a God to you, as promised,” included just before the extension of the covenant to all forthcoming generations, is that God cannot abandon or disassociate Godself from any of us. Arguably God’s very existence is dependent upon our bothering.

4) We have a responsibility to our world. Simply put, Jewish living makes the world a better place. The mandate of living our lives with an eye towards doing mitzvot and treating our neighbor with derech eretz makes all of our lives sweeter. שמצוה גוררת מצוה.. הוי רץ למצוה , Run to do a Mitzvah, Ben Azzai is recorded as saying in the Mishnah, for one mitzvah leads to another. We often translate mitzvah too simply as “a good deed.” The Hebrew root of the world mitzvah,צוה , is much stronger; it is a command. Doing mitzvot, are not be left to whim or chance. Mitzvot, the righteous deeds that are the cornerstone of Jewish tradition, are mandated and are the responsibility of every Jew. If we don’t bother, mitzvot don’t get done.

In 1492, when the only world this generation of Spanish Jews knew literally kicked them out of their homes, the community developed a theology that mandates all of us to fix the world and make it better. This Lurianic concept of tikkun olam, of fixing the world, that developed in the Northern Israeli town of Sefad in the decades following the 15th century expulsion from Spain compels us to bother - to focus at least part of our energy on working to making the world a better place for us and all peoples.

5) We have a responsibility to each other. Judaism has the remarkable potential for enriching our relationships with each other. Jews worship within the context of a minyan, a community. Jews study in chevruta, in partnership and friendly debate with others. Jews work together and with others in order to do gemilut chasadim, acts of love and kindness. Simply put, Judaism requires community to thrive. Even our most personal confessions, recited together as part of worship on Yom Kippur, are done within the protective embrace of the community. Historically, during periods of persecution, Jews looked out for other Jews. Today, thankfully, there is less need for such hands on protection from outside forces – but the help and support is still present in many forms. Many of the organizations that were set up to step in to help when others turned away still remain and still serve our community. We are a community that takes care of itself and others – that is, if we decide to bother.

6) We do have a responsibility to our ancestors. We may not like Abravanel’s metaphor of eternal debt, but anyone who was in this building on the second session of Sunday school when our students were making their ushpizin/ancestor strips for our “Most Beautiful Sukkah in the World” witnessed first-hand the power of history and the remarkable sense of legacy that comes from remembering those who came before us.

Our history is vital. Atem Nitzvaim hayom kulchem. Our ancestors stood at the foot of Canaan and made a decision to enter into an agreement that would impact us immensely. Of course we have a choice as to whether to accept the mantle of this agreement or not. Our Yom Kippur morning Torah portion makes the choice clear, choose life or curse. We’ve learned that despite the fears of the Deuteronomic writer, complete assimilation is no curse. However, it is no blessing either. To quote my dear friend and local journalist, Dr. Neil Rubin, “Jews have always brought goodness into the world. Jews will continue to do so. We will continue to succeed at doing so without you; but, we need you and want you involved.” I, frankly, am not as confident as Dr. Rubin. There is no question that Jews have brought goodness into the world and can continue to do so, but I don’t believe that we can continue to do it without you. We need you to bother!

The mandate of atem nitzavim, of accepting and forwarding Torah meaningfully in the world in a manner with which all of ancestors would be proud, from which we will be nourished and engaged, and from which our children can learn is vital to our modern expression of Judaism. Atem Nitzavim ha-yom kulchem -- I hope you will all choose to stand with me, as an actively engaged Jew, today and everyday in the year to come.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Assimilation: Success or Failure? The Example of Kaifeng Jewry

[MP3: Aaron Avshalomav: Rebecca at the Well]

An example of assimilation and acculturation at its best, this piece, entitled “Rebecca at the Well” by Aaron Avshalomov, is a remarkable synthesis of Chinese, Jewish, and Russian cultural elements.

A number of years ago, I took a class that explored the broad span of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Specifically, we studied the history of Jewish settlement and life beyond Israel and America, the two geographic areas that serve as home to most of the world’s Jews. Each student in the class had the opportunity to direct their attention to a specific region; I chose China, and in doing so, I discovered an extremely rich yet complicated situation: a situation I discussed in a sermon-in-song presentation at the time I took the class; a situation which bears revisiting as we start this new year of 5772.

Aaron Avshalomov immigrated to China after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 and remained there, save for a few years spent in America, until just before the founding of the People’s Republic and the rise of communism. Though he may seem an anomaly, Avshalomov was far from the first Jew to arrive in China. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Jews first arrived into China, however, it is clear that there was an awareness of its prominent economic position in the ancient world among Jews. Lest we forget, China’s powerful position as a global force today is, in a very real sense, a re-emergence. Prior to a steady decline beginning in the 18th century, China was a leading economic force in its region and beyond. The literature of the Rabbinic period reveals knowledge of China and points to the popularity of its silk no later than the earliest years of the common era. By this time, trade contacts were firmly established between China and the Middle East, and Jews were active participants in that economy, travelling along the silk road and firmly settling themselves into China.

By the mid-10th century, a town now known as Kaifeng (then Bianliang) served as host to one of the first settled Jewish communities in China. Pockets of Jews were scattered throughout China, but Kaifeng appears to have been the strongest and most enduring of those communities. It was a booming urban capital city during the early medieval period, a commercial hub for trade that drew and welcomed Jewish traders. Known by their neighbors not as Jews but as the “scripture teaching” ones “who remove the sinews” from their meat, they were treated like any other Chinese sect and were made to feel fully welcome into Chinese society.
Perhaps too welcome.

By the 17th century, the Jewish presence in China had virtually vanished. Jews assimilated so well into Chinese society that they left little trace of their existence. Of course, the assimilation of the Jews of Kaifeng did not mark the end of Jewish life in China. Soon after this community faded, new groups of Jews entered, Sephardim from Baghdad in the mid-19th century, Ashkenazim, such as our composer Avshalomav, from Russia in the early 20th century, and during WWII, up to 25,000 European Jews found refuge in the then Japanese occupied sector of Shanghai. Most Jews left China soon after the rise of communism leaving behind only remnants in the neighboring Hong Kong.

Since the end of its Cultural Revolution and the re-opening of China’s borders to foreign influence, however, Jews have again sought out economic opportunity in China; and likewise, China has welcomed Jews, among many other foreign groups, into its borders. Modern China’s Jews, virtually all expatriates from N. America, England, Israel, Australia, and S. Africa, have built thriving Jewish communities within this Asian power house. In contrast to the early Jews of Kaifeng, today’s Jews in China are pointed to as foreigners, as Jews, residing in the land. Ironically, while these relatively new settlers are labeled clearly as Jews, a few hundred residents of modern Kaifeng who claim to be Jews, who trace their roots back to those earliest Jewish settlers in China, are not recognized as Jews. No one, particularly not their own government, recognizes them as Jewish. The official response of the Chinese government made in 1953, and reiterated in 1980, to representatives of this community lobbying for recognition states that the Jews of Kaifeng have completely assimilated into the majority Han Chinese culture and have disappeared. In large part, this lack of recognition exposes an internal political issue, for minority status in China entitles a group to valuable economic and social privileges; yet, and perhaps more revealing, is that this lack of recognition extends far beyond China. These residents of Kaifeng are ripe for Jewish outreach, and no one, not one single organization, is biting. Not even Chabad, an organization internationally known for their outreach efforts, has recognized or reached out to the Kaifeng community in order to foster Jewish life there. Chabad continues to grow in China; there are currently 8 Chabad houses in China, 5 in areas with negligible numbers of Jews, but none in Kaifeng. The Jews they serve are clearly identified as foreigners in China. Even with the heightened awareness in America in recent years due to research and publications that have appeared since my first discussion of this community, formal recognition has remained elusive.

Which begs the question: has this community crossed some boundary that exists between acculturation and assimilation – towards a point of no return? Certainly communism and global politics are at the root of the sorry neglect of this community, but this predicament within China was ultimately created by the forces of acculturation. Indeed, Kaifeng Jewry was a model of acculturation into a new society: they designed their synagogue according to Chinese standards; they drew on Confucian values and ideals and accepted Chinese lineage patterns; they even modeled their religious leaders, their rabbis, on the Chinese sect leader whose responsibilities were different and far wider than those traditionally associated with a rabbi’s. Moreover, scholar Irene Eber, an expert on the Jews of Kaifeng, argues that any remnants of Jewish identity that remain among these residents is actually a product of the process of acculturation itself. The emphasis on family and lineage in Chinese culture allowed for the retention of some level of Jewish identity to remain intact despite the disintegration of the Jewish community.

The Kaifeng dilemma should unsettle us. What differentiates us, the liberal American Jewish community, from them? We build our synagogues according to American building patterns. We have adopted the values and social mores of American culture – such as personal autonomy - and have allowed them to infuse our liturgy, rituals, and customs. We’ve modeled the religious leaders of our adopted country by expanding the role of Rabbi far beyond that of teacher and decisor of Jewish law. Could we be heading towards that same boundary which the Kaifeng Jews seem to have crossed, a boundary into complete assimilation?

Bernard Wasserstein in his study of post-World War II Europe, using Kaifeng Jewry as an example, proposes that peoples disappear in history more often by suicide than by murder. Harsh. But, implicit in his remark is that Jews cause their own demise by failing to hold onto whatever crucial elements of distinctiveness we have.

A tremendous paradox exists.
The ability to acculturate, to blend in, is viewed as a sign of success. Being able to adopt the values and symbols of the world in which we live implies that we are accepted – no small feat in the context of Jewish history. It means we’ve made it, and this is home. In America, in particular (as perhaps the Kaifeng Jews felt in their day), we are comforted by our ability to achieve economic prosperity (at least as best as any of us can in this challenging economy), and we cherish the protections afforded us by our country’s democratic values. Few Jews have any desire to live in even the most modern of ghettos, that is in areas populated only by Jews. We desire to be welcomed and to live out in the world; we expect to participate fully in society. Jewish survival, however, is dependent on a level of distinctiveness, and arguably, of remaining uncomfortable -- not so at home despite being at home. The situation of the Jews in China reminds us that the desire to acculturate fully can lead to a gradual disappearance within that same community that so welcomes us, a disappearance which most Jewish leaders would label a failure. I ask you, however, is it? Is our complete and thorough absorption into a culture, so much so that we vanish, a failure? I leave you to consider the question. I will return to it on the eve of Yom Kippur when perhaps I can convince you that indeed it is!