Rabbi Klein's High Holiday Messages at Grosse Pointe Jewish Council
“50 Years Later: Reclaiming Zionism” Erev Rosh Hashana 5778/2017
In recent years there’s been a dramatic change in the meaning and value of “Zionism.” In an important study by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, well-known Jewish social scientists, they reported that in a broad-based survey of American Jews, 82% regarded themselves as “pro-Israel” but only 28% thought of themselves as “Zionists.” While we don’t have figures from a generation ago, I suspect that for those of us who remember the 1967 ‘Six Days War’ on this its 50th anniversary, being “pro-Israel” also meant that we considered ourselves, at least to some extent, “Zionists.” In 1975, when the UN decided that Zionism was racism, our American Jewish community vigorously defended Zionism and the Zionist declaration that Israel is the spiritual, cultural, religious and historic home of Jews and Judaism. In the 40 plus years since 1975, I and many of my colleagues have spent considerable time telling both Jewish and non-Jewish groups that Zionism encompasses a wide variety of religious and national philosophies. I think it’s safe to say that by the 1990’s most of us who supported the State of Israel and her right to a safe and secure existence, would indeed have identified ourselves as “Zionists.” So what has happened in the last 15 or so years?
The answer, I think, has to do with a change not only in our historical perspective, but also in the political reality of the Middle East. In years past, Zionism was identified as the national liberation movement of the Jewish People, especially after the Holocaust. In recent years, however, the romance of ‘our national liberation’ has paled-- in part because that is precisely the plaintive cry of the Palestinians, but also because American Jews no longer identify with liberation movements. And if we deserve the homeland because of “Jewish suffering”, can we then out-of-hand discount the sufferings of the Palestinians these past fifty years? Once, the Western World viewed Middle East politics and policies as white-hatted Jewish “good guys” in righteous and defensive battle against kufiyah wearing Arab “bad guys”-- but that day is gone. Right and wrong are not so clear anymore. And increasingly American Jews, rightly or wrongly, identify “Zionism” with Israel’s political Right Wing whose policies we question, and the Settler movement whose theology we challenge.
In a publication that took many of us by surprise was a 2007 book by Israeli author and politician Avram Burg called Victory Over Hitler. Actually it was not the book itself that made the news, but a long European review of it which was piece-meal reprinted in the American-Jewish press. The headlines from that review proclaimed that Burg rejected the very notion of a Jewish state, saying that Israel had lost its moral core, and had become a brutal regime sliding toward totalitarianism. Serious charges! Understand that Avram Burg’s book is still only printed in Hebrew, and folks like you and me have little more than English translations of the written-in-Hebrew reviews with which to judge it. But for all these purported explosive statements, it appears that Burg’s book is not as radical as the reviewers would have us believe. Avram Burg, former Knesset speaker, former chair of the World Zionist Organization, and son of Yosef Burg, the longtime leader of Israel’s National Religious Party, first gained notoriety in 1982 when he helped lead a soldier’s revolt against the first Lebanese War. And prior to the publication of this book, he wrote that Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was undermining the moral foundations of Israel. In this newest book Burg does have harsh words for the State of Israel. He writes that years of confrontation and fear have created a militaristic spirit and widespread contempt for the human rights of Muslim Israelis. He contends that the democratic and idealistic values of social harmony and universal justice which brought immigrants to Turkish and British Palestine before 1948, and drew Jews to Israel since then, have been eroded by Israel’s national priority of protecting the occupation of the West Bank and (previously) Gaza. Strong words yes, but I’m on his side. The reviews of Burg’s book accused him of abandoning Zionism and rejecting Israel. So of course, they made international headlines! In fact, Avram Burg has not “abandoned” Zionism nor “rejected” Israel. Since the publication he’s said that we can no longer afford to understand Israel as a “Jewish” state, but we need to begin thinking of it as a state of and for the Jewish People. Calling it, and believing it to be, a “Jewish” state, promotes a single-minded, self-centered predisposition for a sectarian morality that allows for the second-class status of non-Jewish Palestinians (my words not his). Burg writes that in identifying Israel as a “Jewish” state, we in effect say that the criteria by which the Nuremberg laws identified us for destruction, are the same criteria set by the Law of Return. Calling his book Victory Over Hitler, means that we should not allow Hitler to define Israel or its people, that Israel must rise above chauvinism and partisan exclusivism, to become a just and ethical model of representative democracy in the Middle East. It is, in my opinion, a far-fetched reach for him to connect the Nuremberg Laws and the Law of Return, but I understand his point that because Israel has defined itself by its exclusionist Jewish character, it tacitly allowed its society to be divided, not only as Israelis and Palestinians, but also as Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. And this summer the legislated disparity between Orthodox and non-Orthodox became most apparent.
Israel’s leadership continues to disappoint as it bows to the power and politics of the Religious Right whose goal is to highjack what it means to be “Jewish” in the Jewish State. The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu has hitched his wagon to the black-hat charedi insistence of Orthodox-or-nothing, infuriates Reform and Conservative, Liberal and Progressive Jews both in Israel and out. I suspect that American Jewish support for Israel, both financial and emotional has taken a severe hit since this summer when the government 1) reneged and withdrew its plan to establish an egalitarian worship space at the Western Wall, the Kotel, where men and women might pray together; and 2) declared that only conversions by approved and registered charedi, ultra-Orthodox rabbis are acceptable. And just yesterday in New York, Prime Minister Netanyahuu doubled-down on these decisions, formalizing the non-recognition of Liberal Judaism. The stranglehold of the charedi black-hat rabbinate in registering and recognizing Jewish births, marriages, deaths and conversions is appalling to those of us who care about the Jewish State but are angered at the way her government has and does treat non-Orthodox Jews, non-Jewish citizens, and non-Jewish residents in the West Bank.
But because we care about and support the State of Israel, and because we want the next generation of American Jews to continue that concern and support, we must redefine what we mean by Zionism, while hoping that Israeli leadership will continue both its pursuit of a just and equitable state for all its citizens, and its support of a self-sustaining, non-belligerent Palestinian state on its borders. We cannot effect or manage or control the policies and the priorities of Israel. But we can promote a healthy and helpful relationship with the State, a mutually beneficial relationship of aid and assistance to our Jewish brothers and sisters there. And the truth is that Israel needs us more than we need Israel.
We don’t need Israel to be Jewish or feel Jewish. We are authentic Jews and live authentic Jewish lives without Israel. Our American Judaism sustains itself. What we have established here is real, meaningful and fulfilling, and what we gain from connecting-with-Israel, enhances who we are as Jews-in-America, and how we understand and give expression to our Jewish identity. I am a Zionist because the State of Israel helps me to appreciate the breadth and depth of my Jewish identity. I am a Zionist because I believe that a state of the Jews is good for the Jews, and is good for the world. I am a Zionist because throughout Jewish history, the Land of Israel has been central to the Jewish experience, because it embodies the concept of Jewish peoplehood, and because I want that land and its people to have a place in my life. And despite my deep and abiding disapproval of Netanyahu’s administration, I am still a Zionist because I support and value and admire what the people of Israel have accomplished these last 70 years. And I walk the land of Israel as a Zionist because beneath my feet is the 4000 year old history of my people and my faith. And because I am a Zionist, I want us to feel more connected to that land, to that history, and to its people. And by experiencing Israel personally, we can enhance our own Jewish identities. And with that, I momentarily digress to promote our Grosse Pointe Jewish Council/Grosse Pointe Congregational Church Interfaith trip to Israel next August (flyers are here and information brochures are available). Next April is the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, and this year is the 50th anniversary of the Six Days War, and in our own way we’ll celebrate Israel’s achievements with Jews world-wide by going there with our Christian friends next summer. And in advance of the trip I will be leading a series of orientation evenings next Spring here in the church, and perhaps a presentation on the 100 year history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict one Sunday morning at Beaumont Hospital. My hope is that these programs will challenge us to explore the many and varied meanings of “Zionism”.
I was really surprised, if not shocked, by the report I mentioned before that only 28% of American Jews think of themselves as “Zionists.” Apparently, many of us have “lost that lovin’ feeling,” that our romance with the pioneer-farmers who built the kibbutzim has all but disappeared into the recesses of pre-1948 history; and that the incredible victory of the 1948 War of Independence has been lost to history books and the memories of our most senior citizens, and that the excited and enthusiastic rush that followed the miraculous Six Days War, has evaporated after 50 years of occupation. But the historical and political and emotional connections that tie us to the Land of Israel and its people and its struggle, are still very strong and vibrant and real. Though tempered by a generation of conflict, our commitment to the future of the Jewish State and its people is secure, as is our confidential hope that Israel will not only find a way to secure a lasting peace with her neighbors, but finally recognize the authenticity of non-Orthodox Judaism. Avram Burg has been telling us for over fifteen years that Zionism has lost its directional bearings. In the summer of 2003, he wrote in an op-ed piece: “The Zionist revolution has always rested on two pillars: a just path and an ethical leadership.” And then he concluded with his hope and plea that “Zionism can again be a revolutionary philosophy that promotes justice and equity for all who inhabit the land that God gave us.” I can only add Ken yehi ratzon, May it be God’s will.
“The New Atheists” Rosh Hashana 5778/2017
For over 10 years I’ve been part of a long-standing Scholar’s Colloquy held at Marygrove College. It’s a group of academics and clergy who meet monthly, presenting papers that engage us in serious religious discussions. Often our exchanges return to the growing phenomenon of individuals identifying as “spiritual but not religious” or SBNR. These generally are Jews and Christians who have moved away from congregations and institutions and religious organizations to find their own path to personal spiritual fulfillment. And it has become a noticeable and recognized sociological reality. It seems to me that this SBNR identity has evolved directly from a phenomenon that began about 10 years ago called “New Atheism.”
In 2007 there appeared, from apparently nowhere, five national bestselling books whose authors began to regularly appear in television interviews and write opinion essays in the national press. They were ‘rebels with a cause’, attacking both religion specifically, and our religious culture generally. I’m referring to the late Christopher Hitchens who wrote God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything; Sam Harris who wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith; Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. What all five of these books had in common was that they were blunt, no-holds-barred, angry attacks on religion, faith and belief. And I found it remarkable then that they became mainstream reading and best-sellers. Some thought that this was a cultural correction to evangelical, right-wing Christianity that had for a generation claimed to be the “Moral Majority” and speak for America. And indeed, the authors of these books said that their success demonstrated that America was finally fed up with the consequences of believing in God. But I’m not so sure that we can or should judge America’s religiosity from the New York Times Bestseller list.
A Newsweek poll a few years ago claimed that 91% of Americans believe in God. Though that number I think is inflated, I do think that most of us are God-believers (one way or another), and every survey shows that Americans identify themselves as “religious” in percentages far higher than most other countries. So if it’s fair to say that most of us are on “God’s side”, how do we explain the popularity of these books which are, as one reviewer said, “devoted, with sledgehammer force and angry urgency, to breaking the spell of religion.”? [Ronald Aronson, The Nation] I did read two of those books--God is Not Great, and Letter to a Christian Nation, and what I found most interesting was the brash self-confidence and angry intellectual bite of both Hitchens and Harris. Hitchens (who died in 2011) spent most of his book cataloguing the crimes and absurdities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Harris (who continues to publish) is so certain of his truth, that he unilaterally declares any faith in God as “stupid.” It seems to me that because they are so angry and upset by our gullible and naïve culture, they read less like intellectual scholars, and more like comic caricatures of critical thinkers. But because both of them see all religion, faith and belief as look-alike versions of a monolithic fundamentalist faith, they clearly don’t understand liberal religion in general, or Judaism in particular.
Christopher Hitchens belittles believing Jews and Christians for not challenging articles of faith. I would have reminded him that on Rosh Hashana mornings we each year read from Genesis the story called “The Binding of Isaac.” And in many congregations the story sparks a rather vehement response from the rabbi, if not whispered challenges from the congregation. In Hitchens’ God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything he chastises Jews and Jewish tradition for not objecting to God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. He apparently is unaware that we have for generations challenged and argued with this text. He writes as if his outrage is somehow revelatory. Hitchens didn’t know that critically thinking Jews have long found this narrative singularly upsetting. He writes: “The connection between religious faith and mental disorder is . . . very obvious and highly unmentionable. If someone murders his children and then says that god ordered him to do it. . . or announces himself to be god's anointed, and begins stockpiling Kool-Aid and weapons and helping himself to the wives and daughters of his acolytes, we [at least] raise a skeptical eyebrow. But if these [very] things can be preached under the protection of an established religion, we are expected to take them at face value. All three monotheisms… praise Abraham for being willing to hear voices and then to take his son Isaac for a long and rather mad and gloomy walk. And when … his murderous hand is finally stayed [it’s] written down as divine mercy! [p. 53]”
I don’t appreciate the smug and self-satisfied sarcasm with which this book and the others are written. It bespeaks an arrogant intellectual superiority that out-of-hand belittles believers, an attitude that can’t imagine that you or I are able to look critically at religious traditions or Biblical texts. Hitchens for instance writes as if his clarity is revolutionary: “Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the [most] radical and … devastating one. Religion is man-made. [p. 10]” Radical? Devastating?—hardly! I’m quite sure that I’m not the only one who understands that of course “religion” is a human construct. It seems obvious to me that any and all religions are affirmed community-created constructs that organize the universe so that “believers” may order the information they experience into an understandable and acceptable conception of reality. Hitchens goes on to speak of the absurdity of a man-made religion whose believers claim “Not just to know that god exists, that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what ‘he’ demands of us—from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. . . Such stupidity, combined with such pride, should be enough on its own to exclude belief from the debate.” [p. 10]
I suppose Hitchens has some excuse in that he’s not Jewish! Because were he to understand Judaism and Jewish theology, he would appreciate that we’ve always said that we can never “know God”, nor even intellectually grasp or linguistically pronounce the name of God, much less “know” anything about who or what is God. The rabbis of 2000 years ago were quick to dismiss the anthropomorphic attributes of God described in Scripture. To the texts that spoke of God’s hands and feet and eyes and ears— the rabbis added ki v’y’chol (“so to speak”). God who is a “he”, a God who walks and talks, is written for the benefit of the human reader who needs that description. The rabbis said that since God is Infinite, the finite human mind can never grasp, understand or appreciate “The Infinite One” because it is by definition beyond our mortal capacity and capability. They wrote that God placed in our hands at Sinai the necessary tools and instruction for us, so that on our own we might follow the right path, do the right thing, live lives of justice, righteousness and mercy. Ever since Sinai it has been our responsibility to make sense of that instruction, to create for ourselves a systematic construct within which we may find meaning and value as Jews in covenant with God. To Hitchens’ charge that “the mildest criticism of religion is also the [most] radical and … devastating one [because] religion is ‘man-made’,” We respond: Of course it is! We have created and continue to fashion this artificial rubric of rite and ritual of “Judaism” that gives us meaning and value, substance and structure as Jews. Anything that we say or do or believe or think about the Infinite God is necessarily the imperfect product of our finite humanity. Using Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s metaphor of standing on the shore of the “known,” we can only gaze out toward the immense expanse of the infinite, forever beyond our reach. We know that that ineffable reality exists, even though from our place on the shore, it cannot be weighed or measured, known or understood. “Between the two,” Heschel wrote, “we set up a system of references, but we can never bridge the gap [between the our finite and the Infinite]. They are as far and as close to each other as calendar and time, as violin and melody.”
We affirm our “system of references”, the rubric we call Judaism because it speaks to us, because it helps bring order and value and meaning to a disordered and increasingly chaotic world. We light candles and sing the blessing on Friday nights not because God told us to, not because God gave us those words and that melody – but because we’ve decided that lighting the candles separates the rest of the week from the Sabbath, separates us from a non-Jewish and increasingly secular community, and reminds us that rest and refreshment of soul are crucial to our personal health and well-being. And in saying or singing the blessing that of course was written by the rabbis, we are intimately and immediately connected to hundreds of generations past and generations future of Jewish families who have sung or recited, and are singing and reciting, those very same words.
Our Jewish Heritage is in every way our response to an ineffable, infinite God that enters our awareness only occasionally with an insistent confirming presence. At those transitory and transcendent moments of connection, I “know” that I am part of something far bigger than me and mine. And in wanting a communal and personal expression that best affords me a tangible connection to the infinite, I choose Judaism as my “system of references” as Heschel called it, because Judaism best meets and satisfies my needs and beliefs. Hitchens and Harris declare that the great and fatal flaw of religions is that since they are man-made, no one religion is better, or truer than any other. “Precisely!”, I respond, and properly so-- for each of us needs to find and celebrate our own meaningful path to the infinite God. And I am not so self-assuredly confident (or religiously arrogant) as to think that there is only one covenant path to an Infinite God.
Both Hitchens and Harris castigate religions as being the source of violence, hate and war. Hitchens writes “It was never that difficult to see that religion was the cause of hatred and conflict, that its maintenance depended on ignorance and superstition. [p. 255]” While it is certainly true that religious wars and warriors are particularly dangerous because they are not only defending God, but their own eternal souls— that doesn’t at all mean that religion is the first-cause of hate, war, and violence. And these authors completely dismiss the prophetic imperative of social justice, so inherently significant to our western religions. And as Jews, who so strongly define our religious identity by “doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God”, this generic tar-and-feathering of faith is offensive and insulting.
But what I found really upsetting (!) is that Hitchens and Harris declare that faith and belief are dangerous to children and other living things. Harris writes: “One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religious faith. [p. 80]” And Hitchens wrote: “How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith? [p. 217]” Religion, they say, teaches vulnerable children to accept everything inside the faith without question, and to distrust, even fear, everyone and everything outside it.
For Hitchens and Harris, Dawkins and Dennett—all religions apparently look alike and sound alike. There appears to be no distinction in their minds between fundamental faiths which declare that they alone speak truth and know God, and communities like ours, which pushes its members to challenge both the traditional texts and the modern context of our Jewish Heritage. To declare that we do our children grave and debilitating harm by indoctrinating them into our faith, is to completely ignore everything that we are and we do. Our children grow up, we hope, with not only a healthy respect for their traditions, rites and rituals, but also with the expectation that we want them to challenge what we say and what we do. If our education programs do anything – they encourage children and adults to take very seriously the responsibility to find and affirm truth for themselves. And though we promote and explore the wealth and richness of our own Jewish history and heritage, we are clear in declaring that there must be many paths to God. For if God is Infinite—there can be no single, finite and exclusive “way” into that covenant.
These books are overbearing in their sarcasm and unrelenting as they beat up and batter faith and belief. And after reading their books, I want only to tell these guys that what they think religion certainly is and always must be, is not at all what lives and grows and blossoms in this community and among our families. On mornings like this, when it is abundantly clear that there is value and meaning and worth in the rites and rituals of our religious community, I am saddened that Hitchens and Harris and the others are so enmeshed in their own mishigas that they are utterly unable to see the power and promise of religion, faith and belief.
“The Assimilation Sermon” Erev Yom Kippur 5778/2017
Some of you may have heard this story. I tell it only because it’s true. My parents weren’t particularly pleased to hear that I had applied to Hebrew Union College, that I was really thinking about becoming a rabbi. My mother joked that this might not be the best career choice for “a nice Jewish boy”, and my father more seriously asked if I had carefully thought it through. But once in rabbinical school, and moving ever closer to the reality of there being a rabbi in the family—they warmed to the idea, and even came to be quite pleased that their son would be “Rabbi Klein.” I remember particularly the summer right after ordination, as Barb and I were preparing to move to St. Louis and our first congregation. My father asked that I let him in on what the High Holiday sermon topics would be. Because his tone implied that I was privy to some secret, I asked him what he meant. “You know,” he said, “the instructions you receive from rabbinic leadership.” My father, it seemed, was under the impression that rabbis are told by their national movements what their sermons should be on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Having now a son in the business, he thought he would find out, before the Holidays, what everyone else would only later be hearing. It didn’t matter that I told him that such a system doesn’t exist-- he only attributed it to my just now becoming a rabbi. And when I pressed him about why he was so convinced that there was a sermon conspiracy in the rabbinate, he said, “After all these years of hearing sermons at the Holidays, and about the sermons at other synagogues, it’s pretty obvious that someone is coordinating the topics.” My Dad paused, and then explained to me how he supposed it works: The sermon topics are standard, year in and year out, and the rabbis are told how to make them different each season. One sermon is pro-Israel, politically supportive, with a plea to buy Israel Bonds and lobby for foreign aid; one sermon warns of assimilation in the American Jewish community; one sermon is to raise money for the temple, and one sermon topic is left up to the rabbi.
I can well understand why my father was convinced that there was some kind of organized effort to direct High Holiday sermons. His informal observations probably reflect what you also may have noticed over the years. My father assumed that our national organization each summer sends out sample sermons that offer helpful material for Holiday messages. And it is true that each year I did receive a mailing from Israel Bonds with a “comprehensive package of helpful material”. I don’t know if that still happens, but I am sure that some folks in national organizations believe that they already know what you ought to hear in here. And since I tend to be very critical of what others say I ought to say, I’m sure I’ve disappointed many over the years. But this year I seem to have conceded: on Erev Rosh Hashana you heard an “Israel sermon”, and tonight it’s about “Assimilation”.
At the beginning of tonight’s Yom Kippur worship we stood before the ark with our Torah Scrolls, and Bryant Frank sang Kol Nidre. The story we’ve been told is that the text of Kol Nidre originated with the Marranos, the secret Jews of Spain during the Inquisition in the beginning of the 16th C. According to the legend, and that is probably what it is, the Jews who publicly professed Catholicism in fear for their lives, and lived secretly as Jews, would come to Yom Kippur each year knowing that they had in the year past, and would in the year ahead, make insincere vows of Christian faith. Kol Nidre was written, the story goes, to release the secret Jews from their public vows. The real history of the Marranos is a bit more complicated, and the true origins of Kol Nidre are in fact Ashkenazic, and predate the Spanish Inquisition by over 600 years. But the power of our collective memory still connects this prayer with the Marranos. Four hundred years ago Spanish Jews did risk their lives if they were public with their Jewish identity. Though the story is that they were driven underground, most in reality fled Spain and Portugal for the Netherlands, Turkey, Ottoman Palestine and Dutch colonies in the New World. To be sure, for hundreds of years Jews feared the power of the Church and the State in Europe and Iberia. And it was only in the early 19th C that Jews began to “come out of the closet”, only then that Jews in Europe became comfortable in their national identities-- proud and publicly conspicuous as Germans of Jewish Origin, or Frenchmen of the Israelite Faith. Unfortunately the Holocaust proved how frail and flimsy that sense of security was for European Jews. It was very different, however, for Jews in America. We have always been part and parcel of American society. Four hundred years ago Jews throughout Europe lived in fear of the Church and the State. But for the most part, American political institutions were never a problem for us. And here, only a year ago, the Democrats offered one Jewish presidential candidate and a second whose son-in-law is Jewish. Today, the President’s daughter and grandchildren are Jewish. How much has changed! Compare the public response to Jews in government now to what happened just over 50 years ago when Catholic John Kennedy ran for president. Kennedy downplayed his faith, assuring the American public that it would not influence his decisions in public office. “The times they are a changin” and I’m thinking ‘Maybe assimilation isn’t such a terrible thing!’
One hundred years ago, the tidal wave of Jews washing onto our shores from Eastern Europe saw their lives in black and white options. Either they remained true to their old world ways and religious heritage, refusing to embrace the bright and beautiful secular attractions of American culture, or they could join the immigrant rush to become “real Americans”, lose their “greenhorn” status, and pursue the “American dream”. One hundred years ago “assimilation” was not a fear, it was an unrealized dream. We wanted to become “just like them.” We knew that as long as we carried the stigma of “old world culture” or wrapped ourselves in the superstitious accouterments of “old world religion”, we could never succeed as “real Americans,” and our children would never reap the benefits and opportunities of this “Promised Land.” My grandparents’ dream has become real, and today a Jew can fully and completely participate in the American scene without fear of one’s faith popping up to spoil the party. And yet, if you read the protestations of much of America’s national Jewish leadership—the assimilation “boogeyman” still looms large and threatens our future.
It seems to me that we can’t have it both ways: either we want to fully join and participate in American culture, or we can be afraid of becoming too much like American culture! Either we choose the path of cultural inclusion or the path of disassociated exclusion. There are obvious risks in either choice— becoming less observant, we might become so marginally Jewish that we are lost as Jews to secular America. On the other hand, retreating into insular Orthodoxy we might become marginalized Americans who no longer have a stake in our public, national future. My grandparents, aware of both dangers, chose to pursue their Jewish identities within a fully American context. For them it meant that symbol and ceremony were to some extent sacrificed so that they might more easily celebrate American-style Shabbas and Holy Days. My parents chose to immerse their children in a full-time secular world, with part-time Jewish experiences, but always celebrating our Judaism without fear of what the “neighbors” might say. And we chose for our children more of a balance between things-secular and things-Jewish, knowing that finally in this generation it might be possible for a Jew even to become President. My mother often told me “you pays your money and you takes your choice.” We can’t very well blame our American Jewish community for drifting away from ritual observance or even synagogue affiliation, for we have pushed ourselves out into the American scene to compete as equals with everyone else. The mindset three generations ago was that a proud and practiced Jewish identity and American acceptance were mutually exclusive ideals. But more and more we have come to realize that one does not have to hinder the other. As identified self-proclaiming Jews we have achieved the American dream.
I remember in 2000 when Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate. It was a memorable success for the Jewish community. We knew of course that Gore didn’t choose Liberman to celebrate the success of American Jews, or for reasons that have anything to do with his being Jewish! Gore chose a running-mate who would appeal to middle and right-leaning independent voters, and who might charm away some of Gore’s own natural stiffness. Liberman was chosen despite his Jewishness, and while we understand the reality of the political process—it is still astounding that in spite of the fact that he wears his Judaism on his sleeve, he was fully accepted in the national political spotlight. That, it seems to me is the ‘assimilation lesson’ that we learned 17 years ago. Our long history is filled with Jews who had to hide their faith, or who abandoned it without a second thought. And then there were the generations who fought and died because they were Jewish, who chose self-defense over obliteration. But this is a new era, not either/or—but both/and. And with any changing of the rules there are new considerations. The assimilation lesson for today is that though we have succeeded in becoming an integral part of the American scene, we must continue to guard against fading into the margins of our Jewish community, or worse-- leaving it altogether.
It is a delicate balancing act that we liberal American Jews have undertaken. Though I admit that it is significantly easier for my children to be “loud and proud” of their Judaism than it was for my parents. And for that we should be very thankful. And in the end, the more prominent our place in the American scene, the more pronounced our comfort in publicly proclaiming ourselves “American Jews”— the more secure our future will be in America. I firmly believe that the American Jewish community will grow and thrive because folks out there see the value and meaning of our Jewish Heritage. My limited anecdotal experience, albeit more than 40 years as a congregational rabbi, convinces me that the number of adult Jews-by-Choice far and away exceeds Jewish adults who choose another religion. So even if we just maintain our current numbers (keep them from drifting to the margins of the Jewish community), and at the same time encourage and invite inter-faith families to participate and hopefully support their local Jewish community, while strengthened by the dedication and energy of the Jews-by-Choice who join us every year—our future is nothing to fear, despite the doomsday predictions that no doubt were punctuated by blasts of the shofar last week.
We have achieved the success of cultural acceptance that my parents and theirs only dreamed of, and there is nothing shameful in that. We do not have to beat our breasts in repentance, to justify to others that we want to be, and in fact are, as ‘American’ as everyone else. And we do not come to the plaintive cry of KolNidre in need of God’s forgiveness for that desire or reality. But neither is this the time for Jews to hide within American culture, we must stand up identified, rise up with pride, purpose and presence—be Jewish in public as well as in our private lives. Very different from the Jews of 15th and 16th C. Spain, we are not faced with an either/or decision. But we must also be aware of the very real possibility that with both/and comes the prospect that American Jews might very well become absorbed into secular culture and disappear. So we come to this Kol Nidre eve, and return again tomorrow, asking forgiveness for those sins we committed inadvertently and unintentionally by taking for granted what we have and who we are.
May we be forgiven for hiding from religious responsibility. May we find the strength and the courage to come back from the margins of the American Jewish community, that we may engage in the struggle to define what American Judaism is to become. May our efforts then distinguish us both as Americans and as Jews, and let us say AMEN.
“God’s Politics” Yom Kippur 5778/2017
Eleven months ago we emerged from one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory. We still reel from the deep societal divisions that have brought our political process to a stand-still. Perhaps you thought, a year ago, during the Holidays, before the election, that I should have delivered a strong political message on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. I resisted the temptation to enter the debate of whether the Democratic or Republican candidate was the better choice for Jews. In fact, I was particularly offended, when national and local leaders on both sides insisted that Jewish priorities should direct our voting for the American President.
I remember in 2004, before Obama, when the Bush/Cheney campaign against Kerry/Edwards declared that they had God on their side, and in fact probably won the election because they were able to defiantly define the moral values debate as “we have them, they don’t”. Those were the waning years of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell and others. By 2008, the presidential campaign was focused less on the religious perspectives of the candidates, and more on their respective personalities and political agendas. And by 2016, the campaigns of personality and political agenda were on steroids! If in 2004 “God’s politics” was what America was debating, in 2016 “God” was nowhere to be found, and though I never thought I’d hear myself say this, “I’m very sorry about that!”
However one subjectively chooses to evaluate the 2004 Bush/Cheney presidential campaign, the objective truth is that the Republicans and the Religious Right succeeded in convincing the American electorate that religion has an important role to play in public life, and the Democrats failed to convince us that religious values ought not influence public policy or public officials’ views. In 2004 I decried the fact that God had become a player in American politics. But in 2017 I’ve come to wish that religion indeed might impact, inform, and frame the enterprise of American Politics.
I highly recommend a book published 8 years ago by Jim Wallis called God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong, and the Left Doesn’t Get It. In it Wallis promises “a new vision for faith and politics in America.” Actually, I recommend just the first third of the book and his solid argument for a renewal of faith-based political action. The last 2/3 of the book is really just a promotion of Wallis’ own Christian political partiality, little of which I found interesting, and much of which I could have done without. But early on he writes “[It’s easy to] recognize the members of Congress [in Washington]. They’re the ones who walk around town with their fingers held high in the air, having just licked them and put them up to see which way the wind is blowing… The great practitioners of real social change [understand] something very important. They [know] that you don’t change a society be merely replacing one wet-fingered politician for another. You change society by changing the wind.” And that’s where faith-based leadership becomes important
A powerful example of such a change took place over 50 years ago. It was one year after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. Martin Luther King, returning from Norway with the Nobel Peace Prize, met with President Johnson to discuss the next step. King told LBJ that without a Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act would be an empty victory. As long as states maintained exclusionary poll taxes and literacy tests, many southern black Americans would be denied access to the voting booth. President Johnson told Dr. King that he had already ‘cashed in all his chits’ in getting the southern senators to ratify the Civil Rights Act, and that he had no political capital left. LBJ told King that it would be five or ten years before a voting rights act could be passed. So King set out to change the wind. He and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a protest in the quiet little town of Selma, Alabama. On Sunday, March 7, 1965 King and representatives from several civil rights groups left Selma to march to the state capital of Montgomery. As they left the city, via the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by Sheriff Jim Clark and Alabama State Troopers who stopped, and then attacked the marchers. ABC news filmed and broadcast the violence of what came to be called “Bloody Sunday”. It took only one week for the marchers in Selma to “change the wind”. On the evening of March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and a national television audience. He insisted that Congress pass a voting right act that would “strike down restrictions to voting in all elections--Federal, State, and local--which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.” And six days after that presidential address, hundreds of clergy from all across America, came to Selma to join King in a successful march to Montgomery. You may have seen the famous photo of King, arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as they and over 3000 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge and were joined by thousands of others for the rally in Montgomery. Jim Wallis writes that people of faith and conscience need to be “wind-changers”, leaders motivated by spiritual values and inspired with a vision for real change. And the truth is that history is most changed by social movements with a spiritual, religious foundation.
There is a role for religion and faith in public life, there is a place for God in politics—but for too long we have allowed others to define that role and place, and to frame the parameters of its national discussion. The struggle ahead of us is not in convincing the American public that people of faith have something important to say about how America is run. The struggle for us is taking ownership of that discussion away from those on the religious right who still believe that God is on their side because they are on God’s side.
The Religious Right is no longer as organized as it once was, but they are still behind the scenes, using their religious and moral convictions not to transform society, not to make America a more caring and compassionate country, not to feed the hungry, protect the innocent, and house the homeless— no, they read religion as a tool to leverage political power. Those on the religious right have highjacked God’s role in politics and American life. They have unilaterally declared that God wants us to fight against abortion, and gay-rights, and for gun-control. They want us to believe that God is more concerned about getting prayer in schools, than in feeding and housing and employing the poor. And they’ve never given up their declaration that God wants us to wage political war against Secularism. And for them: those who line up against their politics, and against their brand of religion, must be on the side of “faithless secular humanism,” and they (we!) must therefore then be against God! Our politics cannot become, should not become, and must not become a yes-or-no, God-is-right and secular-is-wrong debate. Nor, on the other hand, should we say that God, or God’s faith-communities, shouldn’t have something to say about how America ought to be managed. There is a role for religion and faith in public life, there is a place for God in politics-- when faith communities push our political representatives toward beneficent social transformation, toward tikkun olam. All of our great, historical social reformations have risen from within America’s religious communities: abolition of slavery, child labor reform, women’s suffrage, and the civil right movement. It is faith and belief in one’s personal covenant with God that compel us to value compassion, social justice, mercy, peacemaking, tolerance and humility as mitzvot, as commandments that have as much a role in our public lives as our private.
And speaking specifically of our liberal Jewish community, we have been too long too fearful of breaching that wall separating church from state. We seem to be most comfortable when our Jewish politicians are less Jewish and more “American”, and we are particularly uncomfortable publicly promoting our values and beliefs as Jewishly mandated. And so when local or national figures invoke their faith and their Bible and their God in support of their political agenda, we rush to the side of the secularists, afraid that this might become a religious confrontation, that we might have to stand up, in public, and declare our faith! But why should we be afraid to say: “We too believe in God, and we won’t let you make-over God in your own image, we won’t let you corrupt the teaching and the texts of your Christianity and our Judaism.” Liberal Americans, whether Jewish or Christian, make the mistake of believing that God-talk and God-faith should be both personal and private. Yes to the first, no to the second! Of course God is “personal.” If God is not personal, is not an integral part of my identity, then religion becomes an intellectual philosophy at best, and out-dated superstition at worst. Without a personal God, there is nothing to intimately connect me to my religion, my history, my heritage—there is no covenant of faith, no transcendence in worship, no spiritual presence that transforms the reality of Life. And without a personal God that immediately connects me to “all of this,” and commands me to make “all of this” better, for every living thing-- then religion is nothing more than “self-improvement.”
If God must be personal, it does not mean that God ought to be private. Torah and Hebrew Scriptures proclaim a very “public God.” Restricting God to the private space and place of soul or sanctuary is a rejection of the great prophetic message of our Scripture that obligates us to pursue social justice. Jewish God-talk and God-faith must be public because it’s a communal expression. And sadly, we Jews have been historically reticent to proclaim our faith in a public political context. Today, faith and God ought to have a new authenticity in the political process of American governance. Those today who have learned to effectively use religion as means to a political end are, for the most part, Christian fundamentalists who are serious about their religion. In response, we ought not take religion less seriously—but rather be more public and fervent and passionate with what our God and our religion demand from us! And here we have allies in the Christian community. They hear God in the New Testament calling for the same mitzvot we read in Hebrew Scripture: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, protect the weak-- create communities of justice and righteousness and mercy.
It's time for us to be Jewish players promoting a political agenda. We need to take our call for tikkun olam outside the walls of our sanctuaries, to call publicly for the repair the world because of personal faith. Instead of saying that we must do the right thing because it’s the “right thing” to do—we should do the right thing because it’s what God wants us to do--and say so!
Al chet sh’chatanu lifanecha, for the sin we committed before God by letting others claim to have heard God’s voice, as if we have not! Al chet sh’chatanu lifanecha, for the sin we committed before God by being politely and politically correct in keeping our religion out of our politics. Al chet sh’chatanu lifanecha, for the sin we committed before God by being less public about our Judaism than our nationalism. Al chet sh’chatanu lifanecha, for the sin we committed before God by ignoring God’s call for us to stand up for justice and righteousness and mercy as Jews, as Believers, as men and women of faith. V’al kulam elohai s’lichot, For all of these sins, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
Yizkor/Memorial Service Yom Kippur 5778/2017 A few moments ago we read in our Gates of Repentance We are strangers in your sight O God; like all who came before us, our days on earth vanish like shadows. But the speedy flight of life, and the grave that looms on the horizon, should not dismay us; rather let them teach us wisdom... We are children of dust, O God, give us strength and understanding that we may fill our days with good. Though our days are few, help us to make them great. [p. 481]
It is a theme with which we are regularly confronted in both our religious and secular lives: Though we possess but a fleeting presence, it is nevertheless ample opportunity to make a difference.
The comparison of our lives to a “passing shadow” is used often in Scripture-- twice in Psalms [144:4; 102:11], twice in the Book of Job [8: 8-9; 14:1-2], once in both Ecclesiastes [6:12] and I Chronicles [29:15]. If indeed our days on earth are as a shadow, let us at least control what kind of shadow they will be! In our Midrash commentary on this metaphor we find described three kinds of shadows [Genesis Raba 96:2; Kohelet Raba 1:3]. The first is that of a bird in flight-- small, moving quickly overhead, and gone. The second is that cast by a wall: long and full in the morning, but smaller and smaller as the sun climbs overhead. But the third, the most important, the most blessed, is the shadow cast by a tree--broad and leafy, the living, growing tree of life that shelters and protects, shades and provides. No matter where the sun is in the sky, the tree gives shade: in the morning on one side, at noon underneath, and later in the day on the other side.
If we are but passing shadows, what kind of shadow will we be? How will we be remembered?
Let us not be like the shadow of a bird: transitory, here-and-there--a fleeting shadow, disconnected from the ground of our being. How can it be remembered when it is so elusive? These are people whose fluttering shadows have no effect on our lives-- these people are concerned only with their own chirping, they are here and gone so quickly we barely notice their presence. And we remember them only as a passing shadow.
Let us also not be like the wall: a fixed and immovable obstacle, giving shade only under certain conditions--and never when the sun is directly overhead, never when shade is needed the most. Though these people stand firm in our memory, they are passive objects who did more to separate than bring us together. Their protecting shadow would shrink when relief or shelter became most important. Who after all needs shade in the cool of early morning or with the breezes of late afternoon? We know too many people who are more concerned about how tall and broad and strong they are, how firmly set-- as if there was great virtue in the immobility and unconcern of a wall! They are remembered as they lived-- more for what they divided and separated than for what they protected and sheltered.
Let us certainly be like the tree: big enough to be ourselves, and also big enough to extend beyond ourselves to provide shade and comfort. The tree knows that it must be alive and grow and change if it is to adjust itself to new conditions. If we are only passing shadows, let us provide some comfort and protection beneath our branches, ready to give to whomever is in need. Let our arms be spread wide so that whatever the movement of the sun we still offer shade. Those who cast these shadows are loved ones, friends and neighbors we remember well, who though having moved beyond our touch and sight, still continue to provide a protecting presence.
Our Scriptural poetry reminds us again and again that our days here are fleeting, that we have only “moments” to make a place and to be remembered. And even though we are but passing shadows, we may still choose how we will shade. The choice is ours. We cannot help but have some effect upon the world for having been here. But we can decide what kind of shadow we cast.
As we think of those we loved and have lost, what was it about them that we most honor? In that, we can learn from them how best to cast shadows of our own. May we become not birds in flight, nor the rigid and unmoving wall--may we become etzai chaim, trees of life, reaching out to give life, spreading and opening our arms wide while always reaching toward heaven.
May each of us be remembered thus: eitz chaim he, l’machazeekeem ba-- As a Tree of Life to all who reach out to us, whose ways are ways of pleasantness, whose every path is peace.