Kiddush Hashem: Sanctifying God's name in the South - opinion

I was filled with immense pride as a fellow Jew brought unbridled joy to a rowdy redneck crowd that might never before have seen a Jewish performer up close.

 ANDY STATMAN performs at the Grand Ole Opry. (photo credit: SUSIE WEISS)
ANDY STATMAN performs at the Grand Ole Opry.
(photo credit: SUSIE WEISS)

“Truly, God was in this place, and I did not know!” (Genesis 28:16)

“Truly, God was in this place, and I did not know!”

Genesis 28:16

If you look hard enough, you will find God’s fingerprints anywhere and everywhere. It happened to us this past week as we passed through parts of the United States’ southern region. I am a firm believer that the South is truly the soul of America; indeed, the Talmud in Bava Batra quotes Rabbi Yitzhak as saying: “One who wants to have wisdom should turn to the South!” The Southern states are filled with congenial, polite, good-natured down-home folk who greet you with genuine warmth. 

“One who wants to have wisdom should turn to the South!”

Rabbi Yitzhak

We were in Nashville, Tennessee – the “music capital” of the nation – and decided to visit the undeniable home of country music, the Grand Ole Opry House. Founded in 1925 as a one-hour radio “barn dance” show, Grand Ole Opry is the longest-running radio broadcast in US history. Showcasing the top bands and musicians in country, bluegrass, folk and gospel music, it attracts thousands of visitors to its playhouse and reaches millions of radio and Internet listeners; it has led to stardom for innumerable performers. Having lived in Texas for 10 years, we acquired a love of good country music, and we settled in with the boot- and cowboy hat-clad audience for a couple of hours of good entertainment.

Andy Statman

Imagine, then, our amazement, when on to the stage walked the decidedly non-flamboyant Andy Statman in a plain dark suit, wearing a large black kippah! He was introduced by country legend Ricky Skaggs, who described Statman as “my brother,” and “a legendary musical figure who brought klezmer music back to life.” Statman was a child prodigy growing up in New York, whose proficiency as a clarinetist and bluegrass-newgrass mandolinist has earned him a Grammy nomination and huge acclaim. In a celebrated 2012 article, “A Search for God through Bluegrass and Klezmer,” The New York Times called him a “visionary” and a “genius,” and Statman proceeded to wow the Opry crowd of more than 3,000 with a virtuoso mandolin performance. He was given a standing ovation by the howling, cheering, deeply appreciative listeners.

Statman once said his ability to bring music to the world was his contribution to kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name. And as I sat there with my own kippah – the only Orthodox Jew in the audience listening to perhaps the only Orthodox musician ever to grace the Grand Ole Opry stage – I was filled with immense pride as a fellow Jew brought unbridled joy to a rowdy redneck crowd that might never before have seen a Jewish performer up close. As I walked out, my kippah felt as tall as a 10-gallon hat.

A man wearing a kippah listens to speakers during an anti-Semitism protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate (credit: REUTERS)A man wearing a kippah listens to speakers during an anti-Semitism protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate (credit: REUTERS)

Kiddush Hashem

Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) – and its opposite, hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name – is a crucial aspect of Judaism. In fact, while most people know that three cardinal sins – murder, idolatry and gross acts of immorality – may not be committed even under threat of death, the fourth such act is hillul Hashem. One must give up his or her life rather than have God’s name be publicly sullied through them; the most notable of such acts of martyrdom are the stories of Hannah and her seven children on Hanukkah, and the countless Jews who died rather than convert to Christianity during the Inquisition.

Sanctifying the name of God can be accomplished in two ways. It can come through noble acts of kindness or courage that demonstrate what a truly Godly code we follow. When a Jew exhibits before the world the moral excellence or regard for humanity that the Torah espouses, we cause God’s name and standing to be glorified. This can happen in a grand way – as when Jews discover ways to cure the world, enhance global prosperity or when our talents enrich or entertain the world at large through music, literature or the theater. Or it can come in small ways, through a smile or a simple act of hessed; anything that causes others to say, “these people reflect God’s nature and are a blessing for humanity.”

The other avenue of kiddush Hashem is not via acting in a holy fashion, but rather by refraining from doing that which brings shame in our wake. Indeed, much of the Torah and its commandments revolve around the strength to abstain from depraved or immodest behavior, the ability to “hold back” from forbidden relationships or unacceptable behavior. The decision to refrain from answering in kind and perpetuating enmity between parties is exemplified by King David. For many years, he was an outcast, castigated unfairly and branded as a bastard. Yet he would not stoop to the level of his detractors, and this quality of keeping his integrity is equated by the rabbis to “the brilliance of the sun at midday.”

And so, as Israel sadly undergoes yet another crisis of government, I feel it is appropriate to acknowledge and compliment Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – and many of those allied with him – for the way he has conducted himself during his all-too-short tenure. Though he was subjected to the ugliest, most unseemly behavior by ranting members of the opposition, he refused to answer in kind and lose his sense of dignity. I am proud of his steely determination to do what he felt was best for the country, and not be dragged into the shameless name-calling and pettiness of his detractors.

That was truly kiddush Hashem at its best, and a welcome respite from the dog-eat-dog nature that haunts and diminishes Israeli politics. Would that such elevated behavior become the norm, and not the exception, for future leadership. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]