Imagine: John Lennon and Jewish Universalism
Growing up, John Lennon was a major part of my life. By the time I was 12, I knew most of the Beatles songs — their music, lyrics and all of Ringo’s drum solos. My favorite Beatle was John. Besides his incredible music and raspy voice, my father became his lawyer when I was about 5 years old. The Nixon administration tried deporting John, based on a drug conviction he had in England, but it was much more political. After the Beatles broke up, John became very vocal against the Vietnam War and started a “Dump Nixon Campaign” to prevent Nixon from being reelected. Nixon lashed back by trying to deport John and so the ex-Beatle hired my father to fight the deportation which he did day and night for the next five years. My father and John became friends, and eventually my dad won the case. On the last day of the trial, my father brought me and my brother to court to meet John. It was my ninth birthday and I’ll never forget that day. When I met John, leaned over and said: “Happy birthday Mark, you can have your father back now.”
Since that day, I have continued to listen and revel in the great music of the Beatles, obsessing over every song and lyric. Every song, that is, except “Imagine” — the iconic ballad John Lennon wrote about peace: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky, imagine all the people living for today.”
It’s a tough song for me to reconcile because as a Jew and a rabbi, I do believe in heaven, in “something above us that isn’t just sky” and I don’t believe in just living for today. And the song’s next two lines: “Imagine there are no countries…and no religion too” – this has also produced great conflict for me because Judaism is both a people and a religion. We pride ourselves on being a nation with a country, and we are a religion with specific values and ethics by which we live our lives.
How do we identify ourselves? Are we proud to be part of a specific people – the Jewish people? Do we see value in that and in our connection to the State of Israel? And do we see the values and ethics of our Torah as wisdom by which we live our lives? Or do we see our nationality and religion as something which just separates us from other people and creates unnecessary division and prejudice? And that the world would be a better place if we would all just shed our different nationalities, dispense with our religious values and just all be one and the same?
But what would we be living for then? What would our purpose be in this world? To just get along? I mean it certainly would be a better world if we could all just get along, but why do we have to give up our beliefs and our values to do that? Wouldn’t it be better if we respected each other’s differences, rather than saying we shouldn’t have any differences at all?
Because ultimately it’s those differences which give our lives meaning and purpose. If we were citizens of the world and not of any one country, would we have any loyalty or allegiance to something beyond ourselves? If we didn’t embrace certain values from a particular ideology – like we as Jews do from our Torah – would we have a moral compass to guide our lives? And if we loved everyone the same, we would have any love at all? Because to love everyone is to really to love no-one. Love demands preference. What makes our love special is that it is focused on one person over another. We say this in the blessing recited at a Jewish wedding under the chuppah right before the groom presents the ring to his bride: “God who prohibits us to those who are married to other people and permits us to those we have married through this chuppah and wedding ceremony”.
The very act of marriage means we are committing to one person to the exclusion of others. This doesn’t mean the bride and groom look down on other people, or have license to treat others badly, but if you want to love someone you need to make them yours exclusively. Universal love sounds nice, but no one gets inspired by it. Ze’ev Maghen, who wrote a book called “John Lennon and the Jews” said universal love “doesn’t give you goose bumps or make you feel all warm and tingly inside” because love means preference. The love that changes us, that we sacrifice for and can’t live without, is one that distinguishes and prefers. As Maghen said jokingly: “Show me a guy who tells you he loves your kids as much as he loves his own and I’ll show you someone who should never…be your babysitter!
But besides not having real love, if we shed our national and religious identities, we lose out on two very special things that only Judaism can offer: Our bond with each other and our unique Jewish values and lifestyle.
Let’s start with our Jewish bond. There’s an incredible story told about the late and great Shlomo Carlebach who in the 1960’s would travel to the former Soviet Union and smuggle in Tefilin, Mezuzot and Yarmulkes (all contraband by at the time) to distribute to Russian Jews. At the end of one of his trips, as Shlomo was packing his bags in his hotel room in Moscow, he heard a knock at the door. It was a Jewish boy who came to get a pair of Tefiliin. Shlomo let the boy in but told him he had already given away all the Tefilin. The boy became sad and with a tear in his eye asked: “But how am I going to be Bar-Mitzvaed without Tefilin? Shlomo went into his suitcase and pulled out an old looking velvet bag. He knelt down beside the boy and told him the following: “These Tefilin, he said, “belonged to my grandfather who was a great rabbi in Germany. They were also worn by my father in the concentration camps, and I have worn them every day since I was a Bar-Mitzvah. Promise me you’ll use them and they’re yours”. The boy promised and thanked Reb Shlomo, but before he left, feeling his bear head and said “wait, I also need a Yarmulke, do you have any extra Yarmulkes?” Shlomo answered: “I must have given away hundreds of Yarmulkes, but I have none left. “But how can I wear my Tefilin without a Yarmulke?”, the boy asked. And so sure enough, Reb Shlomo took off his own Yarmulke and handed it to the boy.
I remember hearing this story for the first time wondering to myself, what compels someone to part with something so valuable for a complete stranger? But if your identity flows from your Jewishness – then a fellow Jew is never a stranger. There’s a special bond that we have for one another and so we feel responsible for each other, in a way we may not feel for other people. And that’s OK because love needs to be preferential to be real.
This is why after the dramatic sin of the Golden calf, when Moshe turns to the majority of the Jewish people who did not partake in the sin and he tells them: Atem chatasem chateah gedolah — “you have committed a great transgression”. What transgression is Moshe referring to? Moshe was addressing the Jews that hadn’t sinned, so what sin was Moshe referring to?
My teacher Rabbi Jacob J. Schachter suggested it was for the sin of remaining indifferent. Yes, the majority of the Jewish people did not worship the Golden Calf, but they failed to prevent their fellow Jews from doing so. And so, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, because we are all connected. Whether it’s for the good or for the bad, we are seen by others as one and hopefully we feel that way ourselves. Years ago, I remember before the terrible crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle, feeling such pride that one of the astronauts, aboard the Columbia, Colonel Ilan Ramon, was a Jew. Who was not moved when Colonel Ramon decided to eat Kosher food in space or when he brought up a Torah scroll from a concentration camp? It made us all feel proud because we’re interconnected.
The Jewish sages teach: Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh – all Jews are responsible one for the other. The great Radvaz compared the entire Jewish people to the body of a single person. That just like when one part of the body is in pain, the entire person is impacted, so too each of us feels the pain and the joy of another Jew for we are but different parts of the same organism.
This isn’t just a nice kumbaya idea, but one which is reflected in Jewish practice by a powerful Halacha (Jewish law): When we recite blessings before performing a mitzvah (like Shabbat candles, donning tefillin or putting up a mezuzah), the halacha is that even if you have already fulfilled your own obligation, i.e., you’ve already lit the Shabbat candles or donned your tefillin, you can still make the blessing again for your fellow Jew who be unfamiliar with the blessing. But how is that allowed? Isn’t that taking God’s name in vain since you’ve already fulfilled your own mitzvah?
The Rabbenu Nissim, one of the early commentators on the Talmud, explains that because all Jews are responsible for one another, you can say the blessing again. Because as long as a fellow Jew has not performed their mitzvah, you haven’t performed yours. We’re all connected and if we don’t feel as connected, to all Jews irrespective of their outlook or type of Jew, then that is definitely a goal for the coming year. What can we do to feel that sense of achdus (unity), of preferential love for a fellow Jew?
And not just Jews to whom we are similar. I remember years ago, on one of the MJE trips to Israel, we traveled to a very Hasidic community to meet the sofer, the scribe who was writing our Torah scroll. When we arrived at his home, our group was greeted by the sofer, his wife and their bli ayin hara nine beautiful children, all lined up at the door. It was a bit awkward at first, but then after spending time getting to know each other, learning a little on how to write a Torah scroll, the sofer’s wife said: “You know, when you first walked in here you probably looked at us like we were from another planet, and honestly we also looked at you as being very different, but in truth we’re all brothers and sisters and this place Israel is your home.”
I often feel that Jewish bond at weddings. Weddings are always beautiful and close friends – whether they’re Jewish or not – make the event, but at those weddings when the bride and groom are active in the Jewish community it feels like they’re enveloped not only by friends and loved ones, but by the entire Jewish people. And I feel the same thing when, God forbid, someone from the community passes away. When we visit a mourner during their shiva we say that “God should comfort you amongst all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” We’re telling the person that he or she is not alone. And it’s not just words. Each community has a chevre kadisha — a group of men and women who prepare the body for burial and others who are sent to the home to provide meals for the mourner. I remember when I was in high school, I would occasionally get a call from my synagogue asking if I could volunteer to be a shomer, to be part of rotation to come and sit with the deceased (in an adjacent room) until the burial. I mostly never knew who the person was, but it didn’t matter, that’s what you do for a fellow Jew. And yes of course I would have done it for someone not Jewish too, and I have, but the connection you have to a brother is more intimate than to a cousin, and a cousin to a stranger. If in the name of equality and egalitarianism we lose our sense of peoplehood, we lose out on that special relationship. Let’s make more of our people our family this year and MJE is great place to feel that bond.
And by not embracing our Judaism in the name of universal peace and love, we lose out on something else, equally powerful: A value system reflected in a lifestyle that is uniquely Jewish. What would our lives be like without Shabbat? How, in our social media driven world, could we stay present for even day of the week? How would we stay sane and how would we stay connected to each other and to God? Shabbos is indispensable to building family life, to having meaningful relationships, to raise children. The difference between dinner on a Tuesday night and Shabbat dinner on a Friday night could not be more dramatic. One is pleasant, the other holy. And we need sanctity and holiness on our lives.
And if we shed our religious beliefs, where would we be without the unique value system the Torah provides? The charity it commands us to give, the kindness it expects us to provide for those less fortunate. The holidays which bring to life the different parts of our history and the ethics the Torah offers us to help us navigate complex moral issues. If we lose our religion, we lose our way. And yes, some of those religious beliefs and traditions, may at times, separate us from others, but those practices build us into better people so we can ultimately be a greater help to humankind.
Judaism is in fact universalist in its orientation. It does ultimately seek to make the world a better place, but it does so by first making us into better people. By observing Shabbat and the many other precepts of the Torah, we transform ourselves into our best versions, so our lives can serve as models for other people’s lives. That’s what it means to be a light amongst the nations. How can we be a light if we offer nothing new or different? If we merely mimic what everyone else is saying and doing? That’s why we must first be connected to each other and to our spiritual heritage, so we can live the kind of life that is a model and a blessing to others. We can of be no good to anyone else if we don’t first fix ourselves. And there’s no better way than doing that then getting more involved in Jewish life and in a life of Torah and mitzvot.
And so, with the greatest respect to my favorite Beatle, let’s imagine a different world. Let’s imagine a world transformed for the better because we — the Jewish people made it better by embracing our Judaism in the coming year. In doing so, may we merit to bring about John’s vision for peace and love through our relationship with Hashem and His holy Torah.