Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a people known as the Khazars. Originally part of Attila the Hun’s horde that swept through Europe from the east in the 5th century, they eventually commanded a huge portion of southern Russia. They were originally worshipers of nature and believers in the power of magic. But some time around the 8th or 9th century, they all converted to Judaism.
How and why that happened isn’t quite clear. But stories circulated for centuries that eventually found their way into a remarkable book written in the 12th century by the poet, philosopher and rabbi, Judah ha-Levi. He called the book The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith. (that’s us)
In The Kuzari, the Khazar king summons a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, and an adherent of Greek philosophy to present the case for his people converting to their belief system. The Rabbi – showing off his intimate knowledge of all the other beliefs, as well as mad debating skills – wins the day, of course. The once-skeptical king is forced to acknowledge that Judaism is far superior to any other faith tradition.
But, like the rabbi in the book, Judah ha-Levi constantly found himself at one great disadvantage when he tried to advocate for the Jewish nation – as he did for his entire life. And that was the fact of exile. The Jews had lost their land and their self-determination. They wandered from place to place, always a despised and oppressed minority. Why should anyone choose to become Jewish? And what would a people perpetually in exile have to teach the world?
Even the rabbi in The Kuzari has to admit this is problematic. After all, the sages teach that Israel was exiled for her sins, and that only when Jews are deemed worthy of redemption will they be gathered back to their land. That obviously hadn’t happened yet – not in a thousand years.
But then Judah ha-Levi hit on a magnificent idea. Think of this: The Jews were scattered around the globe and yet they remained Jews! They could be free anywhere if they only converted, but they didn’t. There must be a reason. And this is the way the rabbi describes it in The Kuzari:
“There is also a hidden wisdom in our exile, akin to the hidden wisdom within a seed that falls into the ground. At first glance, the seed seems to change and decompose into the surrounding soil, water, and manure. To the onlooker, there seems to be nothing tangible left of it. But in reality it is the seed that changes the earth and water to its nature – it converts them step by step, until it refines the elements and transforms them into its own form. As the seed grows, it expels the bark, leaves, and other extraneous portions of the tree to the exterior. Once its core has been purified, it is then ready to receive Divinity.”
To Judah ha-Levi, diaspora was actually a blessing and not a curse. It was an integral part of God’s plan to bring the essence and the lessons of Torah to the world. And even since the creation of the modern State of Israel, we Jews outside of Israel – millions of us – continue to lead rich and full Jewish lives wherever we are.
And that’s because we, too, are part of the mission of Judaism. To be the or le’goyim, as the prophet Isaiah declared: to bring light to an often-dark world.
Last night, I mentioned another part of the speech by columnist Bari Weiss that has been my inspiration for these High Holy Day sermons: her statement that “some of our greatest renewals took place in exile.” I spoke about the internal renewal of our people and how we have survived and thrived. But today, I want to add the insight of Judah ha-Levi:
We took our history of pain and we re-purposed it. But we didn’t do all of this just for us. We also did it for the world.
As Bari Weiss said in her “No Hate, No Fear” speech: “I am a Jew because my ancestors were slaves. And I am a Jew because the story of their Exodus from Egypt, their liberation from slavery, is a story that changed human consciousness forever.”
T’shuvah – the core principle that underpins these Days of Awe — is also a core principle of this changed human consciousness. But t’shuvah doesn’t mean just me or you leaving our prayers today determined to be a better person. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s you and me and all the other Jews of the world leaving our prayers today determined to create a better world.
We are taught that God made sure all people descend from one single human so that no one could say “My heritage is greater than yours!”
Yet we, like so many others, have suffered the devastation wrought by those who shun God and declare themselves as somehow superior to others, based on race or religion or culture.
From the time of Pharaoh’s refusal to repent for his persecution of the Jews to Hitler’s Final Solution, we — who have survived and thrived to live out the moral imperatives that Judaism demands — we understand the toll that hatred and persecution of the “other” takes on our world. And we must use the lessons of our own people’s history to plant those seeds of redemption wherever they are needed.
As Bari Weiss said: “I am a Jew because I refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice.”
We understand that we are commanded to bring people together, under the umbrella of humanity. We know that we must never cease trying to get those who shun God to turn from their destructive ways, to see the good that can come from unity and justice and respect for the dignity of every single person on earth.
We, a tiny sliver of the world’s population, are not destined to be meek. Or quiet. Or compromised. We could not have done so and still survive, and we cannot now. Just as evil finds us — and as Bari Weiss said, “hatred of us has no color or class or politics or language” — so those who are in need of redemption, and whom we can help to be redeemed, have “no color or class or politics or language.” They all are Emma Lazarus’s “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
That’s the essence of what all people want, and what they inherently deserve. Freedom to pursue passions and goals without fear of discrimination. Freedom to pray and speak and vote as their conscience guides them, without fear for retribution. Freedom to raise their children in peace, without fear for their lives. We Jews get that. Because we’ve lived it.
We – all of us sharing these holy days together — have the good fortune to live in a time and a place where doing so is our free choice. Tree of Life and Poway have taught us to be careful. But they also have taught us not to be cowardly. To stand and not to crouch. To shout and not to whisper.
And, after all these hours spent bent before God in supplication, to rise in joy, holding our heads high, looking at the world around us as it exists in all its flaws – and knowing that we are freed from the chains of our own short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness, and self-doubt, to do the work God put us on earth to do.
As I close my final sermon for these High Holy Days, I want to share words that were written, not for a Jewish community as free as ours – but for one condemned to darkness and death.
In his Yom Kippur message to the Jews of Germany in 1935, Rabbi Leo Baeck – who would survive the Holocaust when six million others of us did not – spoke not of death but of life. Not of a grim present but of a brilliant future. Here, in part, is what he said:
“At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. . .
“We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world the secret of the Lord Everlasting, of the Lord Who is One? . . . Who brought the world respect for Man made in the image of God?
“Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? In all these the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, the Revelation of God to the Jewish People had a part. It sprang from our Judaism and continues to grow in it.
“Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity. We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us. The Lord led our fathers from generation to generation . . . . We put our faith in Him in humility and our way ahead is clear, we see our future.”
Ours is a universal and eternal mission, given to us uniquely by God, handed down by us from generation to generation. Sometimes it has been a burden. Sometimes it has been a danger. But always, always, we must see it as Judah ha-Levi did: as a gift and a blessing.
As Bari Weiss taught us:
“The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.
“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.
“We are the lamp-lighters.
“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.
“The people of Israel lives now and forever.
“Am Yisrael Chai.”
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. As we say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Kevin A. Brook, “A Brief History of the Khazars,” The Kuzari: In defense of the Despised Faith,” by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, translated and annotated by N. Daniel Korobkin (New Jersey and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1998), p. xxv.
 Kuzari, p. 231.
 Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/