My Rosh Hashanah Sermon
This is the 26th time I have stood on this Bimah as we welcomed the New Year together and I can honestly say that the process of trying to figure out what to say to you has never been more difficult.
I thought about giving the type of sermon that would encourage you to leave here ready to take on the issues we are currently facing. But I know we do not all agree on what the issues are nor how to go about fixing them.
I considered ignoring everything going on in our nation and giving a sermon that would have you walk out of this service feeling hopeful and inspired. But the challenges facing our country and the world are so serious that they are impossible to ignore.
These are challenging times in both our nation and our synagogues. The divisions are great. The rhetoric is harsh. And reasonable people not only disagree on the issues but also on how, when and where to address them.
A few weeks ago Rabbi David Wolpe, one of the great congregational rabbis of our time, penned an article entitled, “Why I keep politics off the pulpit.” In it, he wrote,
“I am endlessly besieged by requests to take on this or that political or social issue. After all, does not Judaism take a stand on virtually every aspect of life? If it is a left-wing cause, I will be rebuked for neglecting prophetic ethics, which is the guardian of the widow and the orphan (and the climate and the transgendered). If it is a right-wing cause, I will be reminded of the primacy of peoplehood, objective moral law (and the sanctity of unborn life and the free market).“
The reactions to Rabbi Wolpe’s article were varied. Many people agreed with him, but many more disagreed… strongly.
One response came from my colleague Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas. In an article entitled, “Rabbis must navigate politics and morality,” Rabbi Farkas wrote,
“Every leader must make a decision for his or her community, and I believe ultimately that the false distinction between religion and politics makes both worse. It makes religion a reverential Polaroid of ancient times. It makes faith static, metaphysics frozen, and theology moribund. If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for? We risk slipping into the great void where all our windows become mirrors.”
He went on to say,
“If we leave all politics at the door when we enter the synagogue, then we lose a crucial nurturing structure that knits together our society… Church and state can and should remain separate. But religion and politics are joint authors of our book of life.”
The day after the election last fall I sent a congregational email addressing some of my concerns. I received numerous private emails back. Some of the responses were supportive, but many were critical. They were, in fact, as diverse as our congregation. There were those among you who thought my perspective was far too aligned with left-of-center politics. There were others who felt that I did not go far enough in my criticisms of the rhetoric that had been employed during the campaign and my expressions of concern with regard to how the policies of the new administration might impact members of our congregation and our country as a whole. There were still others who, like Rabbi Wolpe, expressed their belief that politics, in any form, should be left off the bimah and excluded from any rabbinic discussions. Each perspective had its merits. And whether or not I agreed with the positions that were shared, I appreciated the fact that many of you were engaged enough to take the time to share your views.
But it quickly became clear to me that the partisan divide had widened. And in recent months it has only gotten worse.
Think about it. How many of us felt the need to institute politics-free zones at our Thanksgiving tables and Passover seders last fall and spring to avoid turning our holiday meals into battlefields? And if that is taking place in many of our own families, is it any surprise that the same dynamic is playing out in our synagogues?
Here’s how much things have changed.
16 years ago the Million Moms March against gun violence came to be thanks to the passion and commitment of Donna Dees Thomases, a member of our TSTI community. Our congregation sent a dozen buses to Washington to lobby for gun reform. If we were to do that today, there would be some within our congregation who would perceive such activism as partisan politics.
When news of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, rabbis across the country did not hesitate to address it. But calling out moral failings on the part of our leaders today is now seen as a partisan attack.
During the civil rights movement, rabbis preached from the bimah, marched in demonstrations and were even arrested. They did not hesitate to speak out because they believed the issues they were addressing were ones of morality, not politics.
Like those rabbis, when I demonstrated against the travel ban, when I spoke in South Orange in support of our transgender troops and when I addressed the hundreds of people gathered in Maplewood after Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, I was making a moral statement, not a political one. But in our current environment, that distinction is increasingly difficult to see.
And so I stand here today not to give an urgent call to action nor to offer a profound, spiritual lesson, but to remind all of us, including myself, that the Reform Movement was built on the foundation of the prophetic message. And that message requires action.
When you enter this building, there is a plaque quoting the prophet Micah (6:8)-
Mah Adonai doresh mimecha?
What does the Lord require of you?
Ki im asot mishpat – To do justly
vahavat chesed – To love mercy
vhatznuah lkat im elohechahm- and to walk humbly in God’s way.
I am here this morning to take that cornerstone plaque and symbolically place it right here on our bimah as a reminder in this new year that our tradition teaches us that we have a religious and moral obligation to act justly. It is not enough for us to believe in helping those who are most vulnerable. We have to actually DO something. We need to DO justly, to LOVE mercy and to WALK the path God wants us to walk.
Time and time again the Torah teaches us to be moral activists.
Exodus 22:21- “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan…. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 25:35- “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him…”
Leviticus 19:33- “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself…”
And, Hillel who taught, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.”
Each of these teachings is a statement of morality. Each is an expression of our core religious values. Each makes clear our obligation to speak up when the vulnerable are threatened, to ensure that those in need are cared for. Each calls on us to do our part to help build a community, and a society, that reflect the divinity within each and every one of us, regardless of race, color, sexual orientation or creed.
But even IF we share the same core values, each of us may have a different understanding of how to go about making those morals actionable. That is why sitting next to the plaque with Micah’s words is a second plaque with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. It states,
Ki beiti bait-Tefillah l’kol haamim
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.
This house, Isaiah reminds us, is not simply a place for those who agree with one perspective or another. It is a house of prayer for all people so long as respect is present even as we disagree.
So this morning I am taking that cornerstone plaque and symbolically placing it right here on our bimah next to the statement from Micah. Because, in a community such as ours, both statements matter.
There is an unusual teaching in the Babylonian Talmud that states,
One who sees a gathering of Jews [is required to say] “Blessed is the knower of Secrets” for just as their opinions do not resemble one another, neither do their faces resemble one another.” (BT M. Brachot)
For the rabbis of old, a community of diverse opinions was a blessing. Unfortunately, that is not the case today. As a recent article in Psychology Today notes,
“…since the election… friends have cut off friends; couples have severed ties with in-laws; parents have banished grandparents from their children’s lives— all because of their vote.”
There is something insidious that is taking root in our society and in our municipalities… in our churches and our synagogues. And it is only getting worse.
We have seen this before… And the impact was devastating.
During his life, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (also known as the Rambam) was often attacked by members of the rabbinic community. They were angered because Maimonides was reluctant to acknowledge that everything in the Bible was factually true. After his death, the rabbis of northern France placed a herem – a form of censure or excommunication – on Maimonides’ writings. They banned studying him within their communities. In response, the rabbis of southern France and Spain issued a counter-herem on any opponents of Maimonides.
The Jews of northern and southern France effectively unfriended each other and stopped speaking.
They cared more about taking sides than they did about engaging in debate and learning from one another. They cared more about ideas than about people. They cared more about being right than they did about their connections to one another. And so they took sides and built a wall between one part of the community and the other.
But it was even worse than that.
When the pressure against Maimonides was first gaining steam, three of the leading rabbis in northern France denounced his books to the heads of the French Inquisition. The Inquisitors gladly intervened on their behalf and burned Maimonides’ books. But they didn’t stop there. Eight years later, not satisfied with simply burning Maimonides’ works, those same Inquisitors started burning the Talmud and other Jewish texts. What had begun as an internal attack on Maimonides quickly became an attack on the entire Jewish community. It put everyone, and the future of Judaism, at risk.
I fear that is where we are today.
In our High Holy Day prayerbooks, we read,
Three Books are opened on Rosh Hashanah-
One is for those who are perfectly righteous;
One is for those who are thoroughly evil;
And one is for those somewhere in between.
I suspect the first two books- those for the perfectly righteous and the thoroughly evil- remain all but empty during these holy days. Personally, I have never met anyone who is perfectly righteous. And I have encountered only a few I thought were entirely evil. The vast majority of us? We fall somewhere in between and deserve to be in that third book.
Thanks to our news, our social media, and our politicians, however, we are being pushed to put each other in one of those first two books. If someone shares our perspective, they are righteous. If someone does not share our perspective, they are evil.
And in the process, we are creating a society in which there is no middle ground. And that is a dangerous place to be.
One of the heroes in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey was a man named Jim McIngvale. McIngvale, also known as Mattress Mack, owns a chain of furniture stores. When the flood waters rose, he opened his massive showrooms and told people to make themselves at home. When interviewed by CBS news he said,
“These are my people. Black, white, brown it doesn’t matter. These are my people, and I got to help my people… forget Democrat, Republican, left, right [we] are all coming together in the spirit of solidarity.”
McIngvale is an active member of what was initially called the Tea Party. He has clear, some might say extreme, ideological leanings. But in the midst of this crisis, he didn’t see Democrats and Republicans, liberals or conservatives. All he saw was the humanity of people in need.
We need to do the same if we are to maintain any sense of community and meet the challenges that face us today.
Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of Westboro Baptist Church, spent her childhood picketing military funerals, screaming at women walking into Planned Parenthood, telling Jews they were going to hell and demonstrating against the LGBTQ community. After twenty years she left the church and rejected the judgmental, vitriolic rhetoric with which she had been raised. In a TED talk about her experience in the church, she said,
“…I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than any other time in memory, and still, we grow more and more divided…. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out of touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. [There is] no nuance, no complexity, no humanity… Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line. This path has brought us cruel sniping, deepening polarization and even outbreaks of violence.”
“I remember this path.” she said, “It will not take us where we want to go.”
The division between the traditional Jewish schools of thought known as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is well known. They argued constantly. If Beit Hillel said yes, Beit Shammai said no. If Beit Shammai said something should be permitted,…”, Beit Hillel prohibited it. We usually think of their differences as intellectual arguments. But it is entirely possible that their differences ran far deeper. It is striking then that the Talmud makes a point of telling us that the disciples of Hillel and the disciples of Shammai, “did not refrain from marrying the women [of each other’s families].”
The divide was great, but the Talmud wants us to understand that it did not prevent these people from eating and celebrating with one another. It did not prevent them from building families together. It did not put a wall between one part of the community and the other.
As the new year of 5778 begins we stand at a crossroad.
We can be like the Rabbis of medieval France. We can dismiss one another. We can cut each other off. We can apply labels, call names and completely disengage.
Or, we can be like the disciples of Hillel and Shammai. We can heed the warning of Megan Phelps-Roper. We can see past our differences and celebrate each other’s humanity. It will not be easy to do, but in the long run, we, and our congregation and our country, will be stronger for it.
The prophetic call is clear. “What does the Lord require of you?” Micah asks. “To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly in God’s way.”
But unless we also heed the words of Isaiah and make our house, our synagogue, our community and our nation places where disparate voices are respected, that will not be possible.
These are challenging times. There is no easy way to eliminate the extreme partisanship that exists within our society and our community. We cannot snap our fingers and change the political rhetoric. But we can allow our morals – our humanity – and our Jewish values to guide our actions. For by doing so, we will bring honor to ourselves and to God.