On Saturday morning, just two and a half weeks ago, we celebrated Shabbat here at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation at the same moment that others elsewhere honored Senator John McCain at his funeral. I wanted to honor John McCain’s memory during our service, and so I shared an excerpt of his final statement to the American People, which he composed while he was dying and asked to have shared upon his death. Senator McCain said, “I lived and died as a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.”
“We are…a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” There is an enormous amount of meaning encoded in that statement. This evening, as a proud American and as a proud Jew, I want to elaborate on Senator McCain’s words.
“We are a nation of ideals.” America was founded not on blood ties but on an ideal, as Thomas Jefferson penned:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
We can easily forget that our nation was a revolutionary reframing of governance. In this great experiment, no longer would the mass of humans be subject to the whims of monarchs or the dictates of brute force. Blood ties would not be the marker of membership. A new kind of political body was being created, one based on principle, reason, and ideals.
Our founders were students of history and I believe they understood the human lust for power that can so easily degrade any attempt to create a government that truly ensures these unalienable rights. They set about creating a constitution that would be a check against totalitarian backsliding. Could this experiment work? No: American history is a witness to the ongoing struggle to manifest a society that lives up to our founding ideals. And Yes: we have not stopped struggling, and we have progressed.
The struggle has, of course, been made that much more difficult by our Founders’ own limitations and prejudices. Our nation is built on the expropriated lands of native peoples. It is built on the backs of African slaves. It is built on the exclusion of women from power. It is built on a flawed and blinkered version of who truly merits the unalienable rights that our Declaration promised.
But still, we are a nation of ideals, and generations of Americans have fought and often died in order to manifest a more perfect union. We have a complex history: American democracy has coexisted with empire building, and the just exercise of power battles endlessly against the brute desire for wealth and control. But still, the idea of America beckons to us, and to much of the world, like a beacon, insisting that people have the potential to rise above their own venality, blood ties and self-interest. The idea of America is that we can create a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.
The Jewish people are also a nation of ideals. For me, the American and the Jewish experiments have much in common. For each, membership is based on the acceptance of a covenant, a commitment to a code of behavior. The Jewish code of behavior is the Ten Commandments, given at Mt Sinai. We are a people whose code of laws protects the dignity of every person, even the poor and the weak. The Jewish covenant insists that every human being is made in the Divine image and therefore has inherent and incalculable worth.
To be a committed Jew is to enter into this covenantal community. One does not have to be born a Jew in order to become a Jew. By accepting and entering the covenant, one can join the Jewish project. In the same way, one can become an American citizen by swearing to uphold the constitution of the United States of America. This too is a covenant, and is not contingent on the accident of where or to whom you were born. In both cases, Jewish and American, as John McCain said, we are fundamentally nations of ideals, not blood and soil.
But what of blood and soil? Just as our fundamental human nature includes a higher self and calling, so too we are defined by blood ties and by deep and visceral connections to the places we call home. We are a complicated lot. Judaism fully comprehends the complexity of human nature, formed as we are from the soil itself, breathed into life by a transcendent spirit. Hebrew attests to our essential link to these earthy elements: Soil is adamah; blood is dam; and human being is adam. All of this is very good, we learn in Genesis, and God blesses this creation. But blood and soil alone do not make a human being. Blood is good. Soil is good. They are not enough. We become human only when we become animated by the creative spirit and intelligence of the universe. Judaism insists that to become a fully realized human being, to fulfill the Divine potential within each of us, we must be able to take all of our earthiness, all of our physical desires and power, and put this power in
service of a greater good.
If we do not do this – that is, if we live our lives only to satisfy our own needs and desires, if we do not diligently practice expanding our awareness and our behavior to include the needs of others – Judaism makes clear that we then become agents of evil. If we limit our circle of empathy solely to our own blood ties, and never consider the feelings of the stranger, we become agents of evil. To keep us aware of this danger, we tell of how this happened to us: Pharaoh, dedicated solely to his own greatness, never saw us foreigners as human beings. He saw the Hebrew children as possessions, as a means to increase his wealth or, alternatively, as a threat to his power.
We tell this story over and over, in the hopes that we might never recreate that kind of cruelty. But blood is thicker than water, and we do forget to expand our circle of concern. So we must be vigilant, and humble, and constant in facing ourselves and measuring our deeds. This is certainly the core purpose of this holy fast of Yom Kippur. We just confessed a few moments ago. It is our holy challenge as Jews and as human beings to strive to live up to our ideals, despite our constant falling short, despite all our excuses, despite all the “despites”.
But now we must examine in more detail the latter part of Senator McCain’s statement: when he says that we are “a nation of ideals, not blood and soil”, he is choosing his words carefully. In this context “Blood and soil” is not a neutral term. Just a year ago, at the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist marchers chanted “Blood and soil!” along with “Jews will not replace us!” What was going on?
I looked it up: “Blood and soil” was a Nazi rallying cry. “Blut und Boden.” This ideology emerged in Germany in the late 19^th century. It idealized a racially defined national body of “Germanness”, that is white, German speaking Aryans – that was “blood” – and a romanticized picture of rural and farm life, attached to the Fatherland – that was “soil.” And as we know, Jews were, again, made to be the antithesis and the primary threat to this racist fantasy. “Blood and soil” became a key slogan of Nazi ideology.
John McCain was a student of history, and he chose his words with care. We are a nation of ideals, or else we become a nation of “blood and soil.” If we do not fight for the ideals on which this nation was founded, ideals mirrored in the Jewish covenant, then fascism crouches at our door.
Our president refused to condemn the marchers who chanted “blood and soil.” Our president exhibits little or no awareness of a higher purpose. Into this moral vacuum evil will emerge. As Jews, as Americans, as human beings, we ignore this situation and the lessons of history at our peril. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel narrowly escaped the expanding Nazi regime, and came to this country from Poland in 1940. He had a favorite metaphor, crystallized during the Nazi rise to power, which he repeated in many of his writings: “The world is not a vacuum. Either we make it an altar for God or it is invaded by demons. There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil.” (Man’s Quest for God, 1954)
The energy of Blood and Soil is on the rise today, all over the world. We see it in the rise of ultranationalist regimes, here in our country and abroad. And make no mistake, we see it also in Israel, where a racist and ultranationalist governing coalition steadily pulls Israel away from its democratic roots, elevating a Jewish version of Blood and Soil as the be-all and end-all of Jewish aspirations. I passionately disagree with this reductive interpretation of Jewish values. As Jews, we stand for more than Blood and Soil. What are we, and why have we persisted, if not to be a people of ideals, a community in covenant with the Creator to bring justice and righteousness into our world? I stand with the many Israelis who want their country to live up to those ideals.
Part of the sadness of our current moment for me is the elimination of nuance in our discourse. For blood – that is, my connection to my family and my Jewish tribe – and soil – my connection to both of my homelands, Israel and the United States – are precious and sustaining to me, central to my identity, not to be discarded. I never denigrate the need for a nation to defend itself and its citizens. Life is always and necessarily a balancing act between my loyalty to those dearest to me, and to my concern for a human order that is good for everyone. Life is always a negotiation between one’s self-preservation and one’s willingness to expand one’s circle of concern. Rabbi Hillel spoke for all time, when he said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?”
So I do not denigrate bonds of kinship, land and loyalty. I feel incredibly fortunate to be an American citizen, and to live in a society that allows me to live freely as a Jew. As a Jew, I have devoted my life to preserving and strengthening Jewish peoplehood. And I surely understand the tenuousness and difficulty of the Jewish People’s accomplishments as a small and frequently isolated people trying to secure our existence after the Holocaust. But I repeat: we are fools if we align ourselves with today’s proponents of “blood and soil”, rather than the proponents of democracy and the principles of tolerance.
And so I honor the memory of John McCain, a man of principle, a man who measured his life against a high ideal as we do tonight to honor our Jewish covenant of high ideals. I disagreed with him on many issues of policy, but we are allied on the central vision of this American experiment – that it might be possible to create a nation based not on blood and soil, but on a shared vision of liberty and justice for all, and that we have a duty to work for and to manifest this vision. I will do my utmost to walk my talk, put my money where my mouth is, and, however flawed and compromised our entire political system might be, exercise my precious American right – our civic mitzvah – of voting for those whom I hope will have the courage and moral clarity to stand up steadfastly for these sacred principles.
May John McCain’s memory be a blessing.