“Thinking About Sin Anew” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5780 Rabbi Renni S. Altman Vassar Temple

A number of years ago, before there were memes, an email went viral among rabbis right before Rosh Hashanah, as it related to the ritual of Tashlikh, when we throw bread into the water as we symbolically rid ourselves of our sins.  In response to queries from people wondering what kind of bread to use, the following recommendations were offered:

For ordinary sins – white bread

For exotic sins – French or Italian bread

For dark sins – Pumpernickel

For complex sins – Multi-grain

For truly warped sins – Pretzels

For sins of indecision – Waffles

For sins committed in haste – Matzah

For substance abuse – Poppy

For committing arson – Toast

For being ill-tempered – Sourdough

For silliness – Nut Bread

For not giving full value – Short bread

For political chauvinism – Yankee Doodles

For excessive use of irony – Rye Bread

For continual bad jokes – Corn Bread

For hardening our hearts – Jelly Doughnuts

 

It ends with the prayer:  May you not run out of bread.   It is a given that we will never run out of sins!

“Sin.”  Not a very comfortable word for many of us; some say if feels very Christian; Original Sin is not something we believe in.  Sin conveys “bad;” it is laden with guilt.  Can sinners really change?

But sin is a very Jewish concept, as we are reminded each year on Yom Kippur.    The Jewish understanding of sin can be derived from the common Hebrew word for sin, Cheit, which is also the word for arrow, thus conveying the notion that when we sin, when we do something wrong, we have missed the mark.  It is our actions that our wrong, not the essence of our being.  Our challenge is to correct our aim, to strive to be better.

Sin is part of our humanity.    We cannot have Yom Kippur without sinners.  Though Mishkan Hanefesh softens the translation of the introduction to Kol Nidrei by saying “Let none be excluded from our community of prayer,” the literal translation of the Hebrew is “we hold it lawful to pray with those who have transgressed.”  We don’t exclude those who have erred because we, too, are among them; in fact, we need to invite sinners in.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, a leading rabbinic scholar of the 13th century, added these words into the prayer to incorporate the Talmudic teaching that “A public fast that does not include the sinners of Israel is no fast; see, the odor of galbanum is unpleasant and yet it was included in the spices for the incense [in the Temple].” [i]

Judaism teaches us that we are not stuck in our sinful behavior; we can change at any point in time, but we focus on that process and potential during these Days of Awe which now move toward their climactic ending with Yom Kippur.  The urgency is great, for with the setting sun tomorrow, the gates of repentance will close.

The first step in true repentance is to confront the realities of our sins and acknowledge our failings; only then can we move beyond them and make the repairs necessary for teshuvah. 

We are about to begin the section of the Yom Kippur liturgy that engages us in this process:  the Vidui.  When I decided that the Vidui would be the focus of my remarks this evening, I thought it would make the most sense to speak now rather than in the usual sermon spot later on in the service, in the hopes of deepening your experience of this powerful section of the liturgy.  I invite you to follow along in the mahzor, beginning on 82.

Vidui:  The translation here as Confession, though correct, misses an element that is conveyed in the more literal meaning of the term:  Declaration.  Teshuvah demands that one must first articulate one’s sin.  Such declaration has always been part of Judaism.  In ancient days, if one committed a sin, one brought an offering and making a public declaration of one’s sin was part of that offering.  Following the destruction of the second temple and the end of the sacrificial cult, confessional prayers developed to replace these sacrificial offerings.  In time, the practice moved from enumerating aloud – declaring—one’s personal sins to reciting a fixed list of sins as part of the communal liturgy, followed by an opportunity for private confessional where, presumably, one would declare one’s actual sins.

What is the nature of these declarations and what do they teach us about real confession?

If we look at the opening, what is called the Vidui Zuta, the short confessional, the most important phrase of this plea to God is the last three Hebrew words – aval anachnu chatanu, translated here as “We have done wrong.”  The way that the text is translated here, the main point of this phrase is somewhat obscured.  The most important word is aval.  A common word in modern Hebrew, it means “but”.  Aval appears only twice in the Torah where it is understood to mean “in truth.”  Verily, indeed, in other words:  In truth, we admit — we have sinned, we have done wrong.  (In this translation, “In truth” is in the line above.)

A story is told in the Talmud by Samuel’s student, Bar Hamdudi, who reports of his teacher: “I was standing before Samuel, and he was seated. When the prayer leader arrived at the phrase ‘But we have sinned [Aval Anachnua Chatanu] Samuel stood up.  We learn that this is the essence of confession.”[ii]

Aval is the turning point in our teshuvah, when we can admit and recognize our sins, even if that means bringing up things we have buried long ago.  It is only when we own our mistakes, when we stop kidding ourselves, when we no longer blame others, when we recognize what might be some ugly truths, it is only then that the real process of repentance can begin.  Vidui as declaration; we need to hear ourselves say the words:  aval anachnu hatanu; in truth, we have sinned.   These words are so important that some have taught, including Maimonides, that if one says them with sincerity and the commitment not to repeat the sin, no further confessional is necessary.

Nonetheless, the confessional continues with the Ashamnu, or our Alphabet of Woe as it was referred to in the Gates of Repentance.  For non-Hebrew readers—each word of this litany of sins begins with the successive letter of the alphabet, beginning with the aleph and ending with taf (or from A to Z as we would say in English).  Perhaps this was simply a creative exercise by the liturgist; more, it is understood as conveying a sense of completeness regarding our list of sins, encouraging us to try our best to remember all – each and every one—of our sins this past year.

This sense of the need to take responsibility for our sins is further emphasized in the section of the liturgy between the Ashamnu and the Long Vidui, known as the Al Chet.  “What can we say before You, Eternal One” we ask; nothing is concealed from You, You know the secrets of the human heart.”  What point then to our confession if God knows all of our sins?  God does not need our confession, but we do.  Just as when Adam hid after discovering his nakedness and God asks, “Ayeka, Where are you?”  Does God not know?  Rather, it is Adam who must take responsibility for his actions.  By declaring our sins, we begin to take responsibility for them.  And the secrets God knows, well, they may be sins that we are not yet able to own, secrets buried so deep within that we are not yet fully aware of them, but as we open our hearts in this communal confessional, we may be able to begin to explore them.

It is not only the aval that is unusual in the phrase aval anachnu hatanu.  A moment of Hebrew grammar:  the nu at the end of hatanu means we have sinned; anachnu means we.  Why this double emphasis on we?  Dr. Larry Hoffman, Professor of Liturgy at HUC-JIR, teaches that it emphasizes this sense of ownership of our sins: “It is we who have sinned.”[iii]  At the same time, the first person plural sets the tone for the entire public confessional, a tone that has challenged many throughout the ages:  ashamnu, WE are guilty; al heit shechatanu, for the sin that WE have sinned.  Why am I confessing to sins I have never committed?  What kind of confessional is that?

We recite this confessional in the language of “We” because we are part of the Jewish people – past, present and future – and that comes with both responsibilities and with benefits.

The notion of collective responsibility is ancient within Judaism. Time and again in the Torah we are told of the blessings we would receive for doing what’s right and the curses that would befall us if we are not.  Even as Moses speaks to the entire people of this responsibility, his language directs his message to each individual Israelite.  As you will hear in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading:  Moses gathers all the people to reaffirm their entrance into the covenant.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you (plural) this day:  I have put before you (singular) life and death; blessing and curse.  Choose life that you and your offspring will live.”  (Deut. 30:19)  We are held accountable for our own actions and for the actions of the community as a whole.

Tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading from the Holiness Code in Leviticus underscores this responsibility when it commands:  Hocheach tokiach – you shall surely rebuke your fellow.”  Later, the Talmudic sages developed the principle Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh lazeh, all Israel is bound up with/responsible for one another.  They said further, “whoever can stop others within one’s community from sinning, but does not, is held responsible for what those others do.”[iv]  We are culpable if we are witness to others doing wrong and don’t do anything to stop them or counter their behaviors.  As a people, we know too well the ramifications of being silent bystanders to wrongdoing.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Orthodox rabbi of the 20th century, philosopher and social activist, when protesting against the Vietnam war said “in a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.”   Al Cheit she chantanu, for the sin that we have committed.

The way in which we act as individuals does impact our community and all members of that community bear the consequences of those actions, as Dr. Ellen Umansky, professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University teaches:

“… a community that tolerates or condones sexual immorality, financial dishonesty, family violence, indifference to those in need, a disrespect for the rights of others, and so on will not only be cursed but ultimately will be destroyed, if not by God, then by its members.  Indifference breeds indifference, violence breeds violence, and hatred breeds hatred.  When we recite the words of Al Chet, we ask God to forgive us for the sins that we have knowingly committed, individually or communally, recognizing that what we do, and choose not to do, has an impact on others.  In the end, how we think, speak and act shapes not only our life but also the communities and societies of which we are members.”[v]

On the positive side, by standing with community to publicly confess sins, whether we actually committed those sins or not, we offer great support to one another.

 

By joining our voices together, we avoid shaming individuals who may have committed any of the listed sins.  Not only that, by standing in solidarity with them, we say that no one is perfect, and we can give others the strength to take ownership of their sins and undertake the difficult work of repentance.  Hearing others confess may even give us the strength to face those sins that lay buried deep within.

The great Orthodox scholar and thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing about the difference between individual and communal confession taught, “When the individual confesses, he does so from a state of …despair… In contrast, Knesset Israel confesses out of a sense of confidence and even rejoicing for it does so in the presence of a loyal ally.”  “That may explain,” he continues, “why in some Jewish communities it is customary to since the Al Cheit .. in a heartwarming melody.”[vi] There is strength in numbers and in community.

Soloveitchik’s teaching helps to address the disconnect I’ve always felt between the words of the Ashamnu and the upbeat tone of the folk melody that we sing.  Even as we take confession of our sins seriously, our burden feels a little lighter knowing that we are not on this journey alone.

Then we get to the litany of sins that is the Al Chet.  If you are looking in the mahzor, you will note that on the right side of the page is the traditional prayer (though shortened) and, on the left side, are more contemporary interpretations.   But their themes are similar and notable for what they are not about.  Though they are all framed in the language of “For the sin that we have committed against You (God) they do not seem to address what we might think of as sins against God:  ritual infractions, taking God’s name in vain, violating Shabbat, etc. Rather, almost all declarations address our failings in our interactions with other people.  In other words, we wrong God by wronging others.

As we utter these words of confession, the Ashamnu and the Al Chet, some of us will beat our chests with each declaration of sin.  Why?  If you ask three people, you’ll probably get more than three different answers:

Self-flagellation, I’m beating myself up for what I did wrong;

To show that I’m sorry;

To help me focus on each sin;

To knock the bad things out of me so that I can begin anew with a clean slate;

I don’t know – it’s what I grew up with and it feels right.

I found the following interpretations to be helpful in offering new meaning to this ritual:

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a Reform rabbi and disciple of the Hassidic masters, views confessional on Yom Kippur as an opportunity to examine the bad things we have done, not to excise the evil, but to try to discover its deepest motivation and seek out the good that is buried deep within – the good that had initially motivated us, but got lost somewhere in the process.  Losing our temper because we really are impatient for others to do what is right; interfering too much in our children’s lives because we just want them to succeed and to do well; chastising others because we are afraid to confront our own wrongs.  We must take responsibility for the evil, regret what we did, take ownership of and accept the behavior, then we can make amends and move on.  In accepting these failings as part of ourselves, we don’t beat ourselves up during the Al Chet and the Ashamnu, we hold ourselves and cry.[vii]

Dr.Ron Wolfson, renown educator in the Conservative movement, views beating the chest differently. He thinks of it as “percussing the heart” as when a musician beats a drum or a doctor percusses the abdomen during a physical.  “Beating my chest,” writes Wolfson, “reminds me that I cannot reach a state of spiritual cleanliness for the new year without experiencing the most difficult forgiveness of all—forgiving myself.  I beat my chest as a reminder that I must stop beating myself up over the ways I’ve missed the mark.  I have to recognize my mistakes, my shortcomings, but I must forgive myself before I can ever hope to forgive others.  I must forgive myself before I can ask for forgiveness from others – including God.

Percussing the heart is another innovation of the rabbis to awaken us from our spiritual slumber.  Just as the piercing sounds of the shofar are a clarion call to action, the beating of the chest emphasizes the importance, the seriousness, of our confessional prayers.  Percussing the heart is the alarm clock for the soul.”[viii]

With these thoughts in mind, we turn now to the first of our confessional prayers.  We will repeat them in tomorrow morning’s service, in the afternoon and finally in Neilah as the liturgy builds towards the final promises of God’s forgiveness.

I hope that my teaching tonight will deepen your experience of these confessional prayers and bring your intention to different aspects of them in each service, as you direct your heart to your own confessions.  May we each find the strength to take ownership of our failings and shortcomings and make the sincere commitment to strive to be better.  Whether we choose to beat our chests, or hold our hearts, may these prayers help us to us awaken our souls.  May we find strength, comfort and support in standing together.

In its creative approach to this challenging liturgy, Mishkan HaNefesh adds a section called “For Acts of Healing and Repair” to focus on our positive actions in addition to our failings.  Indeed, too much negative (remembering only the “I am but dust and ashes”) is not good for us; it is important to remember the positive, to remember the good that we have done as well as our shortcomings.

At the same time, the process of repentance demands that we take ownership of our sins and failings as a precursor to atoning for them.  While there are times when we should also recognize the good that we have done, sometimes we try to hide behind the good in order to avoid accepting the times that have done wrong, where we have missed the mark.   Tonight, I invite you to focus your attention on the challenging task of addressing our sins, collectively and individually.  Therefore, we will not read aloud the page “For acts of healing and repair,” though you are welcome to do so as part of your private confessional.  Let us begin.

[i]  Babylonian Talmud, K’ritot 6b

[ii]  Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 87b

[iii] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, We have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism (Jewish Lights, 2012), p. 10

[iv]  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b

[v]  Hoffman, p. 234

[vi] Lecture by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, “Five Minutes, Five Questions” at HUC-JIR, Feb. 22, 2012

[vii] Hoffman, p. 195

[viii] Ibid., p. 241

 

“The Leopard in the Temple” A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5780 Rabbi Renni S. Altman Vassar Temple

Imagine the scene:  It is the late 8th century, BCE.  The people of Judah are gathered in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur.  The high priest is officiating at the ancient sacrificial rite,confessing his sins and the sins of the people over the scapegoat and over the goat to be sacrificed to Adonai.

In the midst of this solemnity, in bursts Isaiah ben Amoz, the prophet, who disrupts the worship; his words cry out like the sound of the shofar as in his rage he voices God’s anger with their Israelites:

“Tell My people their transgression, and the House of Jacob their sin.

Yes, they seek Me daily,

As though eager to learn My ways —

as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not abandoned God’s

law…

They say, ‘Why did we fast, and You do not see it?

afflict ourselves, and You do not know it?’

Because even on your fast day you think only of desire,

While oppressing all who work for you…

Is this the fast I desire?

A day to afflict body and soul?…

Do you call this a fast – a day worthy of the favor of Adonai?

Is not this the fast I desire—

to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;

to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the homeless poor into your home,

and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?….

If you remove the chains of oppression,

the menacing hand, the malicious word;

if you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the suffering

then shall your light shine through the darkness

and your night become as bright as noon…”[i]

Isaiah decries the hypocrisy of those who could think that their prayers and fasting on this day would be pleasing to God when on other days they ignore the cause of the poor and the stranger; he chastises the wealthy who prostrate themselves in prayer but commit fraud in the marketplace, and he calls out the corrupt priests, the religious leaders, who defile the holy temple by keeping for themselves the people’s contributions meant for the sanctuary.

“The offerings of those who act in this way are repugnant to the God of Israel who upholds the cause of the orphan, the poor, the widow and the stranger,” cries the prophet; God rejects the offerings of those who do not act with justice towards one another.

Imagine the response of the Israelites sitting in Temple that day!

In a short story, Franz Kafka envisioned the moment: “One day a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later,” Kafka wrote, “it had become part of the liturgy.”[ii]   And, now, we sit passively listening to his words.

Imagine if Isaiah stormed in here today.  What might he say to us?

“Is this the fast I desire, when my earth is in danger?”

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.  We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!  (words of Greta Thunberg, 16-year old Swedish climate activist)[iii]

“Is this the fast I desire, when my children are dying?”

Every day 100 Americans are killed with guns.[iv] There have been more mass shootings in America this year than days of the week; as of Oct 8th, the 281st day of the year, there have been 325 mass shootings.[v]

“When politicians send their thoughts and prayers with no action, we say: No more” (words of David Hogg, student activist from Mary Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL)[vi]

“Is this the fast I desire, when the voice of the stranger cries out to Me?”

“I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours. I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.” (words of a 12-year-old boy)[vii]

The words of Isaiah cry out to us as they did to the Israelites over 2800 years ago:  we sit in here praying and fasting, but what are we doing to alleviate suffering out there?   To protect the earth? To save lives?  To care for the stranger?

Our prayers and fasting this day in synagogue are empty if they are not accompanied by actions that lead toward a more just world outside of these walls.  Rituals are empty if they are not matched by our actions in our secular lives.  One cannot make a separation between ritual and ethical; Judaism demands that we do both.   Furthermore, it is not enough to “do no harm;” a religious Jew must act with compassion to alleviate suffering.

I appreciate that some people may be uncomfortable with my raising social issues like gun control, refugees or climate change on this holy day and would prefer to hear something more “spiritual.”  Yet, that is precisely Isaiah’s message – justice is spiritual.  It is one of the reasons why the Talmud teaches that “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[viii] Yes, we come into a sanctuary for respite from the daily grind, and we seek solace in our prayers, in our music, in moments for private reflection, in community.  But the windows remind us that we are part of the world; through windows we can look to the heavens, but through windows we also allow the outside world in.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.  The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision”[ix]

Heschel, a true disciple of the ancient prophets, lived out his words.  He was a trail blazer, not only within the Orthodox Jewish world but for the larger Jewish community, as he joined hands with other faith leaders and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Reflecting on his participation in the march in Selma, Heschel wrote, “For many of us, the march… was about protest and prayer.  Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling.  And yet our legs uttered songs.  Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”[x]

In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read this afternoon known as the Holiness Code reminds us that holiness is found when we are fair in our business practices and deal honestly with one another, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, when we are responsible for one another, and when we love our neighbor as ourselves.

If we do not address the ways in which we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.

Current demographics of the Jewish community attest to this reality as we learned from the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans.  Two of the top three answers to the question “What does it mean to be Jewish” were leading an ethical and moral life and working for justice/equality. (The top reason was “remembering the Holocaust” which generally translates to a concern to fight against antisemitism, hatred and discrimination.)  While working for a just society was a high priority for the majority of Jews, commitments to synagogue, measured by membership or service attendance was much lower.   22% of the Jewish community falls into the category of “nones” meaning they are either secular, cultural or Jews of no religion.    Among millennials, only 32% see themselves as Jews by religion, though the vast majority have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  And their sense of what means to be a Jew mirrors the average; social justice is essential to millennial’s Jewish identity while prayer and synagogue are virtually meaningless.[xi]

If we want to be relevant to the younger generation, civic engagement and social activism offer a powerful gateway into Jewish life.

This is, indeed, an overwhelming time in our nation and in the world; there are so many issues that call for our attention that we don’t know where to turn first; with so much coming at us, we can be completely paralyzed into inaction.  At such times, let us remember the teaching of R. Tarfon: You are not required to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.[xii]

It reminds me of one of my favorite stories:   a man was walking on the beach one morning and was shocked at how the beach was just filled with starfish, washed up during high tide.  In the distance, he saw another man who kept bending down and standing up.  As he got closer, he saw that the man was bending down to pick up a starfish, standing up to throw it back into the ocean, then repeating his action over and over.  The man walking on the beach caught up to the one throwing in the starfish and said to him: “You can’t possibly think you can return all of the starfish to the ocean; the beach is just riddled with them. What difference can you make?”  The man didn’t stop what he was doing.  As he bent down to pick up a starfish, he looked at the man, threw the starfish into the ocean and replied, “Made a difference to that one!”

Each act of justice we do, makes a difference to “that one.”  As the Talmud teaches, “If you save a life, you save a world.”[xiii]

I had thought about focusing my remarks today on a particular issue, but there are too many from which to choose and no way to raise up one over another.  We all have to act on what it is that we are passionate about.

Instead, I want to talk with you about a process for taking action, a process of civic engagement by which our Social Action committee hopes to galvanize this congregation into deeper and more effective efforts to respond to Isaiah’s call and address inequities and injustice today.  Civic engagement, as defined by Thomas Ehrlich, editor of Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, means “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make the difference.  It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and nonpolitical processes.”[xiv]

Civic engagement, though it may involve political processes to change local, state or federal policies, is non-partisan.

A parable may help explain what I mean:  A villager walking by the river sees a person in the water thrashing about and, without even stopping to think, jumps in and saves that person from drowning.  The incident becomes known in the village and the good citizen is highly praised for her courage and quick action.  It happens again and soon a schedule of lifeguards is established; every few days another villager is hailed as a hero after pulling another stranger from the river.  As more and more resources are devoted to these rescues, someone finally stands up and says, “Maybe we should travel upstream and see why so many people are falling in the river.”

Vassar Temple, as with many synagogues, churches, mosques and other religious institutions, has many good hands on projects run by our Social Action Committee under the leadership of Marian Schwartz that play a vital role in positively impacting the lives of those in this community who are suffering, whether it is providing hot meals to the hungry at Lunch Box, collecting food to fill the shelves of food pantries, supporting underprivileged children by providing school supplies or volunteering to help at the library at the Morse school – and the list goes on.

Our Board recently approved our participation in a community solar project, under the umbrella of DCIC, that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and will promote the development of green infrastructure and jobs in our region. You will be hearing more about this exciting project in future bulletin articles and we will all have the opportunity to participate as residential customers.

Actions like these are important; like the lifeguards in the parable, they save lives.  But until we travel upstream and address the deeper causes of these problems, people will keep falling into the river and some will drown.

I first heard this parable in a course I took through JOIN for Justice, the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network, that applies the principles of community organizing to social justice work.  The Vassar Temple Social Justice Team, under the leadership of Howard Susser, will be introducing this community organizing approach to our congregation this year.  Successful in many synagogues and churches throughout the country, community organizing is a grass roots approach that will enable us to determine where best to focus our energies for civic engagement as a synagogue.

Now, I know that we are accustomed to a different approach.  Generally, Temple leadership through its committees decides on the issues or organizations to support.  And a small, but very dedicated group of people, will step up and get involved.

The community organizing approach is different, more grass roots.  If we are to engage more people in this sacred work of tikun olam, we first need to learn what is important to us, what is it that will motivate our involvement.  So we ask, “What are you worried about?”  A favorite question of community organizing is “what keeps you up at night?”  By listening to one another, sharing our stories, we build relationships around common bonds that will lead us to towards more effective engagement.

Thus, we will begin by conducting listening campaigns.  Note I said: “listening campaigns”.  They involve active listening – really hearing what someone else is saying without jumping to defend your position or offering solutions.  The social just team is reaching out to potential leaders for such an effort who will then facilitate house meetings – gatherings of about a dozen congregants who will engage in one-on-one conversations to learn about one another and each other’s concerns.

This social just team will be trained by the Senior Organizer of RAC-NY, formerly the Reform Jewish Voice, a locally-led network of Reform Jewish communities working together to build a more just and merciful New York State.  This training has nothing to do with any issue; it is training in the community organizing approach to justice work.  The issue or issues that we take on will emerge from these house meetings.  Each of you will have the opportunity to participate and let your voice be heard – and listen to others.

We recognize that we are certainly not of one voice in this congregation on any issue.  Yes, we are democrats, republicans and independents.  We are progressives and we are conservatives.  We are undecideds; and some are not defined by category or label.  This is an opportunity to meet across those divides, to listen to one another and see where the energies and interests coalesce.

Once an issue is decided upon, a program of education will follow:  to learn more about that issue, to seek out partners with whom we can collaborate since there is much greater strength in numbers, and to determine steps for action.

Two examples of Reform congregations that went upstream, to the source of the problems in their communities, conducted listening campaigns and decided on actions that positively impacted their communities:

After Sandy Hook, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA joined with other Boston-area congregations to lobby for a gun violence reduction bill.  Four of the five key provisions they proposed were included in a bill that became Massachusetts law in 2014.  The next year, local police officers pointed to specific cases where lives were saved because of that bill.

Members of Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, NC actively engaged in volunteering with different agencies that served the homeless and poor.  In an effort to help get to the root of the problems, the temple board passed a resolution encouraging the temple, its leaders and members to speak out on homelessness and affordable housing in the community.  This public position led to collaboration with a group of churches that resulted in a $20 million public/private endowment to fund families on a path from homelessness to financial independence.  In its third year, the endowment was subsidizing rent and arranging for supportive services for 99 families.[xv]

We do not enter into this process to promote any particular issue or action; our path will emerge from the process itself, one that will be as broad as is the participation of the temple membership.  We invite you to travel with us upstream as we strive to build a more just world.

Obviously, this will not be a quick or short-term process; effective change takes time and patience.  We are just at the beginning of this effort.  You can read more about it in the November bulletin and announcements about next steps will emerge in the course of the year.  Even as the social justice team is working on this project, our social action committee will continue to guide our civic engagement through the many important on-going projects.  (The next one is the CROP Walk — and if you haven’t yet signed up to walk to help fight hunger in Dutchess County on Oct. 20th, it’s not too late. Or you can support any of the Vassar Temple Team walkers, including your rabbi!)

Judaism has always been a religion of hope with an unwavering belief in the possibility of redemption.  Yes, Isaiah chastised the people for their sins, but he always held before them the promise of God’s forgiveness, if they but change their ways.

There are numerous times in the Bible when people respond to God or to one another with the expression, Hineni, Here I am here.  It was Abraham’s response to God’s call and to his son, Isaac; Hineini is an affirmation of one’s presence, one’s willingness to serve.  There is one time that God responds with that same phrase, and it is in our Haftarah, in the words of Isaiah:

“Is not this the fast I desire—

to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;

to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the homeless poor into your home,

and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?

Then shall your light burst forth like the dawn,

and your wounds shall quickly heal,

your Righteous One leading the way before you

the Presence of Adonai guarding you from behind.

Then when you call, Adonai will answer,

and, when you cry, Adonai will respond, Hineini.”[xvi]

 

May it be so.

[i] Isaiah 58:1-8

[ii] https://theshalomcenter.org/franz-kafka-leopard-yom-kippur

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2019/sep/23/greta-thunberg-to-world-leaders-how-dare-you-you-have-stolen-my-dreams-and-my-childhood-video

[iv] https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america/

[v] https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/

[vi] https://www.bustle.com/p/7-videos-of-parkland-survivors-speeches-that-will-inspire-you-to-keep-up-the-fight-15944443

[vii] “For These Things Do I Weep “Voices of Exiles and Refugees, Past and Present, Tisha B’Av Service, August 10, 2019, Woodstock Jewish Congregation

[viii] BT Berakhot 34b

[ix] Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen, Recharging Judaism, p. 55

[x] Rabbi Seth Limmer and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority, p. 52

[xi] Schindler, p. 56-60

[xii] Pirkei Avot 2:16

[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a

[xiv] Thomas Ehrlich, Ed.,Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, Preface, page vi

[xv] Schindler, pp 7-8

[xvi] Isaiah 58:6-9

“Responding to the New Antisemtism: A sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780″

כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאוד והעקר לא לפחד כלל

 “The whole world is but a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

I have clung to these words of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav many times in recent years, but no more strongly than I did on Oct. 27th of last year, when 11 Jews were gunned down in prayer simply for being Jewish.  Just as the peace of that Shabbat morning was shattered by gunfire, so was any remnant of a sense of security that we Jews have had in the United States.

We’ve witnessed antisemitic attacks in France and we said, “can’t happen here.”  We see the rise of antisemitism among government leaders in Britain, and we say, “can’t happen here.”  Even as we’ve heard about the increase in antisemitic incidents in the US in recent years, we brushed them off as acts of troubled individuals, we painted over swastikas and we moved on.

Then Charlottesville happened and we were awakened to the truth of the growth of White Supremacism here, the Goldeneh Medinah, the land in which many of our grandparents or great grandparents sought refuge from pogroms, from the Czar’s army, from the Nazis.

Then came Pittsburgh and then Poway … and a new reality set in and with it came new synagogue security procedures, locked doors, “run, hide, fight drills,” all part of the brave new world that is America (certainly until our leaders can find a way to control the gun epidemic that plagues us).

Holocaust historian, Deborah Lipstadt concludes the introduction to her latest book, Antisemitism Here and Now, published in 2019 but written before Pittsburgh, with the following prescient statement:  “Sadly, given the unending saga that is antisemitism, I feel comfortable predicting that by the time this book appears there will have been new examples of antisemtism that should have been part of the narrative.[i]

Indeed, antisemitism is an “unending saga,” persisting for thousands of years, morphing in different forms from its religious origins, to race-based prejudice to its social and political manifestations.  Jews have been the scapegoat at various points across the centuries, conspiracy theories abound and resurface, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion will not disappear.

Those of you who are long term Poughkeepsie area residents have witnessed first hand the changes that have taken place since the days when Jews were barred from social clubs and from practicing medicine in certain hospitals.  Today, Jews stand proudly in leadership positions in this community and in our government.  While we have not been immune from antisemitic incidents over the years, thankfully they have not been of a violent nature.

Jews in America now find ourselves in a rather unique situation.  According to a Pew research study from 2017, Americans express warm feelings toward Jews, with half of U.S. adults rating them the highest of all religious groups.[ii]  Unfortunately, Jews also scored highest in hate crimes. According to the research of the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America…. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith… [and] the number of incidents last year remained at near-historic levels.[iii]

Events since last Rosh Hashanah have brought to the surface new dimensions to antisemtisim.  We are being battered by forces on the extreme left as well as on the extreme right such that physically and politically, nowhere feels safe.  Antisemitism on the right emanates from the White Supremacists and all those who would fan their flames of hatred, and has led to horrific loss of life, so it appears to be the greater danger.  But Antisemitism on the left, perhaps more insidious, presents a different kind of danger not only to the Jewish community but to our nation as a whole.

Before Pittsburgh and El Paso shared the common bond of hate crimes, Lipstadt wrote about the fundamental connection between antisemitism and racism:

“.. the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic and multicultural society.  It is axiomatic that if Jews are being targeted with hateful rhetoric and prejudice, other minorities should not feel immune; this is not likely to end with Jews.  And, conversely, if other minority groups are being targeted with hatred and prejudice, Jews should not feel immune… Antisemitism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial and religious minorities…. the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss.  No healthy society harbors extensive antisemitism — or any other form of hatred.”[iv]

There is a hate that is corrupting American society, with rhetoric that only serves to exacerbate the situation while the freedom of the internet fuels the flames.

The racism and antisemitism that have been brought to the surface in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and El Paso have been festering for decades.  In an article entitled, Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism, Eric Ward, a long time civil rights strategist, explains that

White nationalists in the United States perceive the country as having plunged into unending crisis since the social ruptures of the 1960s supposedly dispossessed White people of their very nation. The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology…

Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for antisemites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils….

[Antisemtism is] the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia—as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear.

[it] positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of white dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism. … at the bedrock of the movement is an explicit claim that Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played.[v]

This background helps us to understand the hateful chant of the white supremacists in Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us.” They are motivated by the fear of losing their supremacy to those they see as inferior.

In an ironic twist that is part of this “new” antisemitism, some months after the events in Charlottesville,  the Jewish Leadership Council of UVA was denied membership in the Minority Rights Coalition, an organization formed in the aftermath of the events to support minorities on campus and to fight white supremacy in Charlottesville, because the Council included a Zionist group. In response to protest from students and alumni, the MRC offered the group a couple of options, including joining without the Zionist group, but the JLC stood firm: “We recognize that the Israel-Palestine Conflict is complicated and heavily debated… We deeply understand the need for dialogue surrounding this complex issue, but at the same time we cannot and will not apologize for our right to support a Jewish homeland.”  The two groups pledged to continue the dialogue.

This frustrating experience brings together two dominant themes of antisemitism on the left that are repeated across college campuses, came to a head in the Women’s March in January and have even become political fodder.

The first element is that within many progressive groups, Jews are not viewed as a minority, subject to prejudice and attack. Bari Weiss, a NY Times columnist who grew up at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, explains in her recently released book, How to Fight Antisemitism, that in the progressive camp, victimhood confers a sense of moral purity.  The more one is a victim, the greater is one’s claim to truth and morality.[vi]  In this world, Jews are perceived of as white, privileged and successful (of course this claim disregards the approximately 1 million Jews of color in America, comprising about 12-15% of American Jews).[vii]  In this hierarchy Jews are near the bottom rung of the ladder.  Such thinking blinds progressives to the genuine attacks that have been made against Jews throughout the ages.

Unfortunately, as with the case of the students at UVA, it also limits our participation in the coalition building that is so necessary to counter the forces of hate that are attacking all minorities.  Such was the case this year with the Women’s March in NYC where antisemtism diluted the power and message of the march.   Among various criticisms about the leadership of the march were charges of antisemitism: Jews were not originally included in the list of minority groups; two of the key leaders, Linda Sasour and Tamika Mallory, made numerous antisemitic statements; and Mallory refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan for his virulent antisemitism.  In response, a group broke away and formed an alternative march.

Synagogues and other Jewish groups were torn about what to do.  Just days before the march, two rabbis who had worked with Sasour previously convened a meeting of 13 rabbis with Sasour and Mallory to see if they could reach an understanding.  After some very honest, forthright and painful conversations, most rabbis present signed a letter recognizing the dangers of division between Jews and people of color especially in enabling White Supremacists, appreciating the power and potential in a “multi-racial, multi-faith, women-led movement that is the ideal of the Women’s March,” and calling for on-going dialogue and for attendance at the march to support Jewish women of color who had asked for that support.

Responses varied:  some chose to participate in the official Women’s March, others joined the alternative march, others attended a Unity Rally and some congregations did nothing.  One attendee at that meeting, Rabbi Felicia Sol from Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, was asked if she felt that Sasour and Mallory had really heard their concerns. “Good question,” she answered, but then added, “I’m not willing to walk away. The injustices are too pernicious, the work is too great to break from this inspiring, agitated country of women who are rising up to work toward change…. If I’m not in relationships with Tamika or Linda, then what hope do we have about changing their hearts and minds?”[viii]

Earlier this month, the Women’s March announced that Sasour and Mallory had stepped down from the Board.  One of the new Board members is Ginna Green, chief strategy officer of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group. While charges of antisemitism are already surfacing regarding other new members, one can only hope that Green’s presence will have some ameliorating effect.

There is no one or easy answer when it comes to participation in such partnerships, where the overall mission is positive and aligns with our values and where divisions only undermine our efforts at combating hate.  Even as we must speak out against antisemitism wherever we see it, so too must we strive to engage in honest dialogue that seeks understanding of and appreciation for the other’s pain, through which we can find common ground and optimize the strength that can exist in partnership.

The other element of antisemitism within progressive groups is around Israel.  Progressive ideology that favors victimhood tends to see Israel only as oppressor and Palestinians only as victims, thus Students for Justice in Palestine is welcome in the Minority Rights Coalition at UVA but not the Students for Israel group.  As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues with no end in sight, this victimhood ideology will only get stronger.  Sorely lacking is any nuanced view or discussion that distinguishes between the right of Israel to exist and policies of the Israeli government.   In part, it is hard to blame college students when they don’t see such conversation modeled in society at large – not even within the Jewish community, let alone in the halls of Congress or the White House.  Instead of demonstrating the diversity of views within the Jewish community and the fact that the vast majority support a two-state solution, the loudest voices brand any critique of current policies of the Israeli government as anti-Zionist and antisemitic.

As Lipstadt cautions, “we must carefully differentiate between campaigns that disagree with Israeli policy and those that essentially call for the elimination of the Jewish state.  [such as BDS] There is a vast difference between being opposed to the policies of the Israeli government and being an antisemite.  Those of us who want to fight this scourge do ourselves no favor if we automatically brand ideas with which we disagree “antisemitic.”[ix]

These two manifestations of antisemitism in America, from the extreme right and the extreme left, converged in a rather surreal moment this summer when the President used charges of antisemitism and being anti-Israel against four congresswomen as a political tool for his advancement.  As a Jew I felt used.   It is the worst of chutzpah and the height of hypocrisy for this president who refused to condemn the white supremacists of Charlottesville, or David Duke, the KKK or other avowedly antisemities and racists among his supporters, and even worse who has amplified their messages by tweeting them and posting them on social media, to make such claims.

After the rally in North Carolina and the furor that erupted, Montana Senator Steve Daines, proclaiming his solidarity with the President, tweeted, “Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals.”  In an open letter written in response to Daines, the Montana Association of Rabbis wrote, “We refuse to allow the real threat of anti-Semitism to be weaponized and exploited by those who themselves share a large part of the responsibility for the rise of white nationalist and anti-Semitic violence in this country.”[x]

Thankfully, the President’s outrageous attempt to sow divisions among democrats by charging Jews who vote for a Democrat as being “disloyal to the Jewish people and… very disloyal to Israel,” were roundly condemned.

So here we are — caught in the middle, like a tennis ball going back and forth, each side denying its own prejudice and casting aspersions across the divide.

What do we do about it?

First, we have to be realistic and keep our communities safe.  Under the leadership of our President Alan Kaflowitz, we have expanded our safety procedures.  While it saddens us not to have our doors physically open all the time, we will continue to be an open and welcoming congregation, but we have to smart and safe.  Doors are locked 15 minutes after services or a program begins.  But not to worry, ring the bell and a greeter will come and open the door for you.   Just as we have a security guard here during the holy days, so do we have someone for outdoor events such as Picnic Shabbat.  Other times, our own temple members lend a hand by being a presence, watching the door while an activity goes on.

We have to continue to build and strengthen relationships with others who share our values and believe in preserving the diversity that is America.   Let us hold up all who stood with us after Pittsburgh; let us recognize the good work of the Muslim community there that raised over $200,000 to help.  Let us stand in solidarity with all who suffer attacks of hate, just as many of us went to the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association in Wappingers for prayer after the shooting in New Zealand.

Even more important than standing with others in time of crisis, we need to build bridges of understanding and common purpose at all times.  It is wonderful that we will be strengthening our relationship with the mosque in Wappingers by partnering in preparing and serving food to the hungry at Lunch Box each month.

I would love to see these efforts expanded to include dialogue with African American churches and groups, with Christian groups.  I don’t have a plan yet, but I have had preliminary conversations about how the DCIC can help to foster greater connections between its constituent groups.

We can also fight hate through our American judicial system.  Integrity First America, a non-profit organization, acting on behalf of a diverse coalition of Charlottesville community members who were injured in the protests in 2017, is bringing a civil lawsuit against the two dozen neo-Nazis, white supremacists and hate groups responsible.  Sines v. Kessler is the first such suit to take on the white nationalist leadership responsible for the escalating violence in our country.  It has the potential to bankrupt and dismantle the groups and the individuals responsible.  And, as the IFA materials state, “It sends a clear message:  violent hate has no place here.”   I encourage you to visit the IFA website where you can sign your name in support of the Charlottesville victims and, if you choose, donate to support this landmark lawsuit.

Even as we fight hate in the courts, we need to combat hate in our communities and in our daily encounters.  If you haven’t yet put up a sign that says “Hate has no home here” I urge you to do; it sends an important message about what we value and what we demand in our community and in our country.

Ultimately, in addition to what we do, it is the words that we speak that can incite hate or quell it.  Words matter, especially in our public discourse.  We need words that condemn racism, antisemitism and hatred rather than inflame; words that build up rather than break down; words that unite rather than separate.

We, Jews, have been victims of words that mobilized forces of human evil beyond imagination.  A plaque towards the end of the Auschwitz exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum caught my attention during our recent trip; it is a quote from the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, dated this year:

“…The words of hatred poison the imagination and stupefy consciousness.  Maybe this is why so many remain silent while confronted with evil….The words of hatred create hatred.  The words of dehumanization dehumanize.  The words of menace increase the threat. We have already started paying for this.  Raphael Esrail [a survivor] wrote: “the camp is not just a memory.  For the majority of us, its reality is omnipresent in our everyday life.”  I have never heard a more terrible warning. The warning against our own words.”

The last section of Deborah Lipstadt’s book is entitled “Oy versus Joy:  Rejecting Victimhood.”  This is the final message with which I want to leave you on this Rosh Hashanah.  One can look at Jewish history through the eyes of “oy,” focusing only on the suffering we have endured throughout the ages, seeing enemies everywhere.  If that is the lens through which we continue to live our lives, however, then ultimately Judaism will be lost and devoid of meaning.  Seeing ourselves as perennial victims, says Lipstadt, means we “cede to the oppressor control over one’s destiny.  It leaves many Jews … aware of what it to be against but not what to be for.”[xi]  Our best response to antisemites is to live proudly and with joy as Jews, to strengthen and enrich our communities and congregations, and to be engaged in and engage future generations in a Judaism that is vibrant, relevant and hopeful for tomorrow.

As we begin the year 5780, let us take the necessary measures to keep us safe, let us reach out to others and join in partnerships that will lift up our world and let us celebrate this ancient religion that is ours and through which we can add meaning and purpose to our lives.  Together we can build a better world (lead into song: Olam Hesed Yibaneh).

[i] Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism Here and Now, p. xii

[ii] https://www.pewforum.org/2017/02/15/americans-express-increasingly-warm-feelings-toward-religious-groups/

[iii] https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/anti-semitic-incidents-remained-at-near-historic-levels-in-2018-assaults]

[iv] Lipstadt, p. xi

[v] Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” The Public Eye, Summer 2017, published by Political Research Associates

[vi] Interview with Bari Weiss, The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, Sept. 17, 2019, https://www.wnyc.org/story/anti-semitism-city/

[vii] https://forward.com/news/national/425129/jews-of-color-survey-jewish-population

[viii] https://forward.com/news/national/417618/rabbis-womens-march-secret-meeting-sarsour-mallory/

[ix] Lipstadt, p.205-6

[x] Michelle Goldberg, Defenders of a Racist President Use Jews as Human Shields, New York Times, July 19, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/opinion/trump-ilhan-omar.html

[xi] Lipstadt, p. 240.

“Unpacking Our Boxes” A sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

 

As many of you know, my husband and I moved into a beautiful home this summer.  This is now the 4th move in our 30 year marriage and the most unusual.  Since we haven’t yet sold our house on Long Island yet, we can’t empty it out, so we’re moving in stages.  Brings new meaning to the term “staging a house.”   Each week I pack up more boxes, load up the car and then unpack the boxes here.

 

Spending so much time packing and unpacking boxes has given me the chance to contemplate the nature of all those boxes and the contents they hold.  It occurs to me that they into three categories:

 

The first I’ll call “Attic boxes.”   These are the never used wedding presents, no longer listened to record albums, slightly worn out kitchen items that might possibly be used again or are good as a back up and other paraphernalia that we don’t like and don’t use, but which we certainly wouldn’t throw out because “you never know!”  We promise ourselves that we will go through them one day and get rid of stuff, but we never do and when we do move we don’t have the time and so we often end up moving them from attic to attic.  Attic boxes collect dust, take up space and are worthless to the owner, though they might have value to someone else.  (Temple rummage sales love attic boxes!)

 

Of course, not all boxes are dust collectors. The second kind of boxes are filled with items that are worthless to the outsider but invaluable to the owner.   I’ll call them “Sentimental boxes.”  They contain objects of memorabilia: old school papers, children’s art creations, one-of-a-kind photographs.  I confess:  I have plastic storage boxes of all the birthday and anniversary cards I’ve received ever since my kids could draw.  I never look through them, but I know they’re there.  I can’t throw them away, either.  Such items are among our most precious possessions. They are irreplaceable and serve as a link to and reminder of some of the most wonderful moments of our lives and to people we love.  Yet, as poignant as it can be to look through sentimental boxes, we tend to keep their contents packed away, taking them out only on the rarest of occasions, maybe only when we move.

Eventually, we tear ourselves away from the sentimental boxes and we turn to the majority of our boxes, the ones I’ll call “Basic Boxes” because they are filled with the basics of our lives: our material possessions, items on which both we and the outside world can place a value. Basic boxes tend to get overwhelming because, no matter how much we try to pare down our closets before we pack, we always seem to have more than expected. Maybe you’ve done the Marie Kondone, “keep only what brings you joy,” but I haven’t.  Depending on the size of one’s new home, choices may have to be made.

 

At this season each year, the holy days call us to undergo a spiritual inventory; we call it heshbon hanefesh, literally an accounting of our souls.  We review our lives, reflecting on past deeds as we also look ahead; we consider what we did wrong and, hopefully, what we did right; and we commit ourselves to trying to be better.  We open the contents of our metaphorical “boxes” – decide what to keep, what needs to be discarded, and what should be taken out and reviewed more often.

 

So, let’s see what’s in our boxes.

 

For most of us, the thought of going through attic boxes brings a heavy sigh and an immediate desire to run and do almost anything else. Going through real attic boxes is drudge work, requiring us to go through stuff that we have put off dealing with for years. Going through our metaphorical attic boxes is way more challenging.  Their contents cannot simply be thrown away.  Opening these boxes requires real soul searching and confronting someone or some issue that we have been avoiding, often for a long time.  Ridding ourselves of these boxes demands that we do something quite challenging:  letting go of grudges and forgiving.

 

Forgiveness is such an important value in Judaism that we devote our holiest time of the year to it. The Ten Days of Repentance are meant to be a time of asking and granting forgiveness. One of the basic principles of these Yamim Noraim is that we will not be granted atonement for the sins we have committed against another person unless and until we appease that person. Therefore, when someone does turn to us to make amends, we the wronged party actually hold their destiny in our hands. When we withhold our forgiveness, for the sake of pride, the need to be right or the desire simply to be the victim, we are merciless, say the rabbis, and we become the sinner. In doing so, we don’t punish the other person as much as we punish ourselves.

 

One of the great sages of the second century, Rabbi Gamliel, taught that the human ability to be merciful is so important that God’ s mercy is dependent upon it : “If you are merciful, then God will be merciful towards you and if you are not merciful, God will not be merciful towards you.” (Sifra 89a) Our prayers during these Days of Awe are directed towards gaining God’s mercy. The rabbis envisioned God in the heavenly court as the Divine Judge, sitting on one of two thrones: the Throne of Judgment or the Throne of Mercy.   Sounding the shofar is our plea, urging God to move from Judgment to Mercy when judging us.  Rabbi Gamliel’s words remind us that those prayers are ineffective unless we are first merciful in our judgment of others.

One of the most difficult funerals at which I have officiated was that of a 28 year old woman who committed suicide. This young woman had been troubled since childhood and, despite attempts by loved ones to reach out to her, she could never quite get her life together. It was very sad to listen to the distress of the family as they talked about her life and tried to understand her death. Although most everyone at my meeting with them had something to add, I noticed that her sister was silent and withdrawn. In spending time with their mother, I came to learn that the two sisters often fought and recently had had a major falling out. Shortly before her death, the deceased had tried to reach out to her sister, who, reluctantly, had only just begun to accept her advances when the young woman took her life. No wonder she was so withdrawn. Certainly, everyone who is close to someone who commits suicide feels a sense of guilt and wonders, “Could I have done more to stop her?” In the sister’s case, I imagine that her guilt and sense of loss of what might have been were even more profound.

 

I marvel at how often it seems to take the finite nature of death to teach us important lessons of life. The shofar calls out to us with the same message: now is the time, not only to ask for forgiveness, but to be merciful in granting forgiveness to those who turn to us.  Sometimes, that involves accepting someone’s limitations and recognizing that they may be doing the best that they can.  The rabbinic sages teach this message in the following midrash:  a prince runs away from the palace and doesn’t feel he can go back home.  His father the king sends him a message:  come back as far as you can, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.  That is the message God conveys to us through the prophet Malachi, “Return to Me and I will return to You.”

 

It takes so much energy to hold a grudge, to maintain anger; how much lighter we would feel if we could just let it go.  We can put that energy to much better use in rebuilding a fractured relationship.

 

Having gotten rid of our useless stuff, we can turn to that which is most valuable to us.  While everyone’s sentimental boxes are different, their contents tend to fall into two categories:  those that remind us of people we love, both living and deceased; and those that praise our accomplishments.

Ironically, as important as these items are to us, we rarely look at or use them.  For too many of us, our feelings are like those boxes; we keep them packed away, hesitant to share them with others. As we learned from so much tragedy this year, life is precious, but it could be taken away at any moment. The words “I love you” or “I am proud of you” ought not be reserved for birthdays, graduations or other special moments; they can and should be intertwined with our daily lives. Likewise, feelings of anger or disappointment should be shared and worked through, rather than internalized to fester over time and erupt when least expected or, as in the case of the sister of the woman who committed suicide, never worked through at all.  As we begin a new year, we are reminded not to take our dear ones for granted or to let the knowledge of our love be assumed.

 

Perhaps like many of you, in addition to family memorabilia, I’ve held onto items from my professional career.  Among the most precious are thank you notes expressing ways in which I positively impacted someone’s life (often unknown to me).  Once in a while, when things are particularly overwhelming or when it seems that I’m doing everything wrong, I have turned to those notes and found solace. They have helped me to put those gray days in proper perspective.

 

While we all know people who benefit by some letters of a different nature to deflate an overly enlarged ego, the vast majority of us tend to be far too self-critical and could benefit by some praise on occasion. One of the great early Hassidic Masters, Rabbi Simha Bunam, taught his disciples an important lesson for maintaining a proper perspective: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his need. In his right pocket are to be the words, ‘For my sake was the world created,” and in his left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”  For too many of us, the “dust and ashes” is the easy part; stresses at home, pressures in the office, failures that are part of life – – all these remind us of our limitations. Remembering that “the world was created for my sake” is more difficult. Making those sentimental boxes more accessible, keeping a file of those special thank you notes and commendations on hand, are good sources of affirmation of our strengths and self-worth.

 

Even more important, we can be that affirmation for others.  Why does it seem that words of criticism come more easily from our lips than do words of praise? Positive reinforcement is not only a good means for discipling a child; it is an appropriate way to respond to others at all times. Do we remember to praise a secretary for a job well done or only critique him when something goes wrong? Do we commend our partner for a good meal or for fixing a broken sink or do we only complain when she is late or a chore is forgotten, while taking the rest for granted? We would help those we love and those with whom we work if we remembered the thank you notes in our files and gave them, in word or deed, more often to others.

 

Finally, we get to our basic boxes, the bulk of our material possessions. One of the more common problems with basic boxes is that we generally have more than we think we do. I call it the “How did we get so much stuff?” phenomenon.  A similar process takes place in our lives. We go through each day fulfilling various obligations to home, to work, to community, to others. For so many of us, our days are overflowing with appointments, things we need to do. We calendar in kids’ and grandkids’ soccer games, business trips, visits to aging parents, even making “dates” with our spouses so we’re almost sure to have some quality time together.   We do our best to keep up the juggling act, unaware that we’re even doing it, because if we stopped to think about it, everything might fall apart. Most of us go along fine, until there’s a crisis in our system: a family member becomes seriously ill, an emergency at work, our marriage suddenly feels lost.  Once a year, Jewish tradition offers us the opportunity, without a crisis atmosphere, to regain perspective on our lives, to rethink our priorities and to begin making positive changes.

 

Twenty-three years ago on this day, I gave a sermon to my congregation about the need to be more present for our families — and I shared my own challenges balancing career and family.  I also announced that, after ten years with the congregation, with the strong support of the temple leadership, I was cutting back to three-quarters time to be able to be more present to my family.  It was a compromise that enabled me to continue my work as a rabbi which was and is central to my identity while also being present for and with my family, also central to my identity.

 

Certainly, some progress has been made in the two decades since then in terms of things like family leave, but on a daily basis it doesn’t seem that our society has improved all that much in terms of life balance.   The advent of technology was supposed to help us in this quest, making us far more efficient in using and allocating our time.  Our electronic devices certainly do help to make us more efficient in many ways, but they haven’t given us more free time; in fact, they make us available all the time.  Some companies make it clear that they expect their employees to reply to emails at all hours of the night.   A recent study found that the mere “expectation of availability” during non-working hours can cause anxiety and stress.  A researcher noted: “Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”[1]

 

And yet, even when we have time together, too often we are not really together – we may physically be in the same space, but we’re all on our devices, “together but apart.”

 

Some of you may remember Sen. Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts.  Back in the early 80s, he was a rising star on Capitol Hill, often spoken of as a future presidential candidate.  At the age of 43 he was diagnosed with cancer and forced to undergo deep personal reflection about how wanted to spend his remaining time on this earth.  He chose family over the senate, foregoing the opportunity to try to help shape the nation to more directly help shape the lives of his children and to experience the joy of being with his family for as much time as he could.  A friend sent him a note congratulating him on getting his priorities right and included what has now become a well-known expression (generally attributed to Tsongas himself):  “No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business.”

 

Now is the time to make those hard decisions, to set our priorities, even if it means discarding or temporarily setting aside certain things, creating tech free time zones (in Judaism, we call it Shabbat), or learning when to say “no” – so that we can yes to achieving the balance that will bring the most meaning to our lives.

 

I wish I could say that our boxes are all unpacked, but I know there are more to come.  We are slowing growing into our new home and our new life.  After almost 30 years of marriage, we have begun a new journey together and our hearts are filled with excitement, anticipation and anxiety. It is also the start of a new year, filled with promise.

 

This weekend we finally put up the mezuzot. Now it really feels like a home. After affixing the mezuzah we say the shehechiyanu – We thank you, Source of life, for giving us life, for sustaining us and for enabling us to reach this wonderful moment, this season of renewal; for giving us loved ones who are so dear to our lives; and for the ability that you have implanted within each of us to forgive, to change and to grow. May we make this new year, indeed, a new beginning and create within our lives a sense of balance, a sense of wholeness and a sense of peace. Amen.

 

 

[1] https://www.biospace.com/article/do-you-check-your-email-after-work-hours-new-study-says-simply-thinking-about-it-could-be-harmful/

 

Abortion is My First Amendment Right

“Abortion is My First Amendment Right”
Rabbi Renni Altman
Shabbat Emor
May 17, 2019

Our rights and liberties as Jews are under attack.
I’m not talking about the threat from the White supremacist movement, though that is very real. I’m talking about the anti-abortion legislation signed this week in Georgia and Alabama, and today in Missouri, joining states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi — with more to follow.

Back in January, after our New York State legislature courageously passed a law protecting reproductive rights as codified in the constitution under Roe V. Wade, with protections even surpassing that law, I spoke in support of that law and about Judaism’s views on abortion and when life begins. Given the events of this week and the grave danger these states’ actions pose to women’s health and lives, to constitutionally protected rights and to the separation of church and state in our country, I cannot remain silent – or speak about anything else this week — for this issue is so important to me that to not address it would feel like an abdication of my responsibilities as your rabbi. So, at the risk of repeating myself, I beg your indulgence.

The mages are frightening:

  • protestors dressed in costume from The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s frightening and powerful vision of a dystopian society where one class of women serve as the womb for another;
  • legislators who are making decisions impacting women’s lives but who cannot speak intelligently about reproduction;
  • laws being passed that will undoubtedly impact the poor who will not have the means to travel to get health care that those with financial means will be able to obtain, forced to bear a child that they did not intend to conceive and that may well have been a product of rape or of incest;
  • cases where the pregnancy may put the mother’s health at risk while not necessarily her life;
  • instances where the fetus is diagnosed with some terminal birth defect and enduring a pregnancy that will only end in the death of that fetus will cause unnecessary emotional pain that no one should be forced to endure;
  • or places where doctors will be limited from performing a medical procedure that they believe is in the best interests of their patients – at the risk of being sentenced to 99 years in prison!

I heard an interview from one of the organizers of the anti-choice movement in Alabama who was not at all bothered by the fact that under the new law the doctor who performs an abortion on a 15 year old who was raped could face a longer prison term than the rapist!

Intellectually, I do understand how those who believe that life begins at conception will, therefore, view abortion as murder and, consequently, will not allow an exception for rape or incest as such a termination would still be murder. I can appreciate how such people would be motivated to prevent what they understand to be murder from happening.

However, the notion of when life begins is not a scientifically proven fact; it is a matter of personal belief that, for many of us, is based on our faith.

In the second story of creation in Genesis, we read that God breathed into the first man the breath of life. When do we understand that happening today? When a baby is born and takes that breath? At conception? When a fetus is viable to survive? What is the status of a 6 week old fetus?

My faith guides me in this determination. It teaches quite clearly that a fetus is a life in potential, but that it is not yet a human life. When does life as a full life begin according to Judaism? The answer is codified in the Mishnah, the first of the law codes to follow the Bible, dating back to the year 200 CE: when the largest part of the fetus emerges in birth. Until that point, a fetus is a potential life, but the woman’s life ALWAYS takes precedence.

The basis for this determination is a case of damages recorded in the Book of Exodus. It presents the case of a pregnant woman who is injured accidentally when two men are fighting. If she miscarries, the man who caused the injury must pay the husband damages; if, however, that pregnancy loss would have been considered murder, the penalty would have been lex talions – life for life.

Throughout the development of Jewish law, the woman’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus. We do find differences in the interpretation of that principle as it applies to cases where the woman’s life is not literally at risk, but where the pregnancy or having a baby could lead to various difficulties. These are instances when the pregnancy would cause severe emotional distress to the woman or where that pregnancy would threaten the life of another child (in other words, another existing life).

The rabbis even understood different stages of pregnancy. Back in the 12th century, the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi, taught “in the first forty days, it is mere fluid.”

NONETHELESS, the rabbis recognized that the fetus is a life in development. Thus, in the Talmud they taught that in the case of a pregnant woman who dies on Shabbat, one would violate Shabbat to save the fetus under the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, even though the fetus is not yet a life. “Profane for his sake one Sabbath, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

My faith, my understanding of life, teaches me that ABORTION IS NOT MURDER. The life, health and emotional well-being of the pregnant woman must always take precedence. Yet, as a potential for life, as a human being in process, in development, a fetus is in a different category from an appendix or some other bodily part that can easily be removed. But regarding how the determination of when a pregnancy should be terminated and how the different factors impacting a woman’s life and well-being are to be considered, my faith teaches me that those decisions should be left up to the woman (based upon her faith or moral grounding and understanding of when life begins), in consultation with her medical provider and, if she so desires her religious leader, and, where appropriate, her sexual partner.

It is this right to make this most difficult and personal decision that is currently protected by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as affirmed by the Supreme Court Decision of Roe V. Wade. These new anti-abortion laws are a clear violation of this right.

I also understand these laws to be a violation of my religious freedom as guaranteed by the establishment cause of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Frankly, I’m surprised that this aspect of the abortion debate has not been given much attention in the media. Thus, I was pleased to read this morning in the now only digital version of the Forward a column by Jane Eisner that begins: “In enacting a law that would make performing virtually all abortions a crime, the state of Alabama is impinging on my religious freedom as a Jew.” (https://forward.com/opinion/424456/jews-need-to-stand-up-for-abortion/ )

It is the same principle by which we fight prayer in public schools. For many years now, we have witnessed the wall separating church and state begin to crumble. In the Hobby Lobby case in the Supreme Court, for example, employers were given the right to refuse to include contraception in health insurance coverage for their employees because it violates their religious beliefs, regardless of the beliefs of their employees.

A recent ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services gives health care workers and institutions (such as religiously funded hospitals) the leeway to refuse to provide services if they cite a religious or conscientious objection; that would include abortion, sterilization, and overriding a Do Not Resuscitate order!

The “fetal personhood” movement is another glaring violation of my religious freedom. Again, Judaism teaches that a fetus is not a separate being; it is understood that a fetus is part of the mother. As far back as the 12th century, Rashi said that fetus has no separate legal rights or identity. Thus, when a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.

The supporters of this movement would charge women with murder for having an abortion. In her column in today’s New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Already today, some states have legislated “fetal personhood” and women have been arrested on suspicion of harming or endangering their fetuses by using drugs, attempting suicide or delaying a caesarean section…. In 2014, a woman was arrested under Alabama’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute for taking half a Valium while she was pregnant” (Post-Roe America won’t be like Pre-Roe America. It will be worse. Michelle Goldberg, NYT 5/16/19)

These laws and actions are steps that are tearing down the separation of church and state, a bedrock our democracy. This is not a Christian country! The United States of America is a nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion.

As a religious minority that now thrives in this country (despite rising anti-Semitism), it is incumbent upon us to speak up to protect this fundamental principle upon which our nation was founded – not only for ourselves but for all minorities.

So what can we do?

A week from Wednesday, I will be joining with members of Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany to meet with our lawmakers.

First and foremost, I want to thank them for the swift action they took on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to strengthen support for reproductive rights in our state and to protect the doctors and medical personnel who provide these medical services for women by moving these laws out of the penal code and into the health care laws where they belong. We don’t thank our legislators enough; they need to know that they have our support, especially in such controversial matters.

We will also be asking our legislators to support a renewed initiative to bring sex education to New York State. All sides on this debate can agree that we are in favor of minimizing the number of abortions in our country. One of the best ways to do that is to educate our children about reproduction and contraception. If the energy and funding that is going into the current anti-abortion debate would be directed towards such efforts, we would go a long way to preventing the abortions they are fighting against.

If you believe in supporting reproductive rights and protecting religious rights in our country, I would urge you to support organizations that are now taking on this battle in states where these rights are in danger. They need financial support to carry on the legal battles that will ensue.

For much of the past forty-six years since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, supporters of reproductive rights have breathed a sigh of relief and moved on while the anti-choice movement has never moved away from this cause and has been building up their efforts for a time such as this, with a President who supports them and has changed the balance in the Supreme Court.

For many years now, anti-abortion groups have taken intermediary steps to limit women’s access to abortion, often under the guise of protecting women’s health

Such steps have included

  • creating unnecessary requirements for clinics to be able to perform abortions that have resulted in the closing of clinics:
    o In 2017, in 25 states, more than half of the women lived in a county without an abortion provider
    o In 2014, some 44% of New York counties had no clinics that provided abortions,
    and 10% of New York women live in those counties (Guttmacher Institute)
  • Requiring an additional sonogram close to the date of the abortion that have required women to make additional trips to the clinics.
  • Mandated waiting periods, parental notification for minors, etc
  • Most recently, effective this month, President Trump reinstated the Gag rule withholding Title X funding from organizations (such as Planned Parenthood) that provide counseling or referrals about abortion. This ruling is currently in the courts.

Some of these laws have been struck down on the basis of the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that ruled that abortion restrictions cannot place an undue burden on women.

These latest state rulings in states such as Alabama that effectively ban abortion and make the doctors liable for criminal action, have taken a more dramatic step in their very openly stated goal of overturning Roe. It is not yet clear if that will be achieved, but if these state laws make it to the Supreme Court, the future of Roe is anything but guaranteed. Analysts imagine that the rights guaranteed by Roe may be whittled away piece by piece, rather than overturned all at once.

Either way, the future may be more frightening for women than it was in the pre-Roe days. While medically induced abortions may replace the dark days of back alley abortions, women may be forced to get those medications online without professional guidance or support (or back up in case of any complications). Women who have or attempt abortions may be charged with murder or attempted murder.

The majority of Americans believe that abortion should be a matter of personal choice; we can no longer be a silent majority.

Rabbi Renni Altman

“After Pittsburgh” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

 

“After Pittsburgh”

A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Vassar Temple

November 2, 2018   25 Cheshvan 5779

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

“the whole world is a narrow bridge; the main point is not to be afraid.”

These words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav echoed in my head all afternoon last Saturday.  We sang them at the vigil Tuesday night; we want to believe them and hold onto them.

But how can we not be afraid?

We have seen such attacks elsewhere, but never here.

We hear echoes of the Jews of Germany on the eve of the Holocaust – it cannot happen here.

We should be safe in the synagogue – it is a place of sanctuary, after all.

How could this happen in Squirrel Hill – a vibrant Jewish neighborhood, one that demonstrates unity and not division?

Mr. Rodger’s neighborhood!

 

How can we not be afraid?

Since Pittsburgh, there have been a number of anti-Semitic incidents:

At another Reform congregation, Union Temple in Brooklyn – someone entered the building and defaced the wall with anti- Semitic slurs;

Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the Upper West Side.

 

Well, one way that we can be less afraid is by coming to the synagogue, as we do on this night.

Many of us would have been drawn to the synagogue this Shabbat, even if we aren’t regular attendees, even if we don’t practice Judaism much, even if we aren’t Jewish!   We need to be with community at times such as this.

In response to the shooting and as a demonstration of solidarity and strength, the American Jewish Committee initiated campaign for this Shabbat: “Show up for Shabbat.”

This solidarity is as much for us as it is for the larger world – a reminder, that we are never alone:

Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh b’zehi (all Israel is responsible for one another).

And a statement to those who would attack us:

Am Yisrael Chai (the people Israel lives!)

We will not be defeated by this vicious act of a deranged man, filled with hatred who attacked Jews and Judaism:

In a House of Prayer on our sacred Shabbat

Because there, people were living out the values of Judaism, especially to welcome the stranger.

Our best response is to continue to come to the synagogue, to live proudly as Jews.

 

We can be less afraid because of the knowledge that so many stand with us.

Immediately after the attack, I started to receive emails from leaders of other faiths – people I haven’t even met yet, expressing their deep sorrow, their shock and their anger.  It was especially heartening to receive such notes from members of the Islamic community and those who participate in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue.  As we have supported them when they have been victims of such hateful attacks, so do they stand with us now.

We planned for 125 people at the vigil Tuesday night; the Poughkeepsie Journal estimated attendance to be 500.  It was “standing room only.”  That experience has been repeated at vigils and memorials throughout the country – and around the world.

 

I heard an interesting interview the other morning on a podcast.  They were interviewing people in Squirrel Hill and shared one particularly unusual story:

It involved a Frenchman who, seeing the rise of anti-Semitism there about ten years ago, came to the US, to NY, and lived there for some time with his wife and child.  Because of visa issues, they had to return to France.  After the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and then the kosher supermarket, this family no longer felt safe in France.  The man had a relative in Squirrel Hill, moved there and has been there since.

The interviewer asked him to reflect on his experience in France and now in Squirrel Hill—did he feel safe here?

Yes, he said. The big difference was the support of the larger community.  The world saw the big march in Paris; that was mostly for the journalists who were killed.  Here, he felt the support of the larger community who came out to support them and who spoke out against the anti-Semitism.

 

While this act was perpetrated against Jews, we know that it was not aimed only at us.  It was aimed at all Americans who value the basic principles of democracy upon which this great nation was founded, who respect the rights of all – people of different religious, ethnic, racial backgrounds — to live in peace and security.

In one horrible week:

  • 14 Pipe bombs were sent to democratic political leaders who have spoken out against President Trump – thank goodness they did not go off.
  • a man killed two African Americans in a supermarket in Kentucky, after unsuccessfully trying to enter a black church
  • 11 Jews were murdered in cold blood while praying in their synagogue on Shabbat morning.

 

It is not news to us that Anti-Semitism is here; it has ebbed and flowed over time, varied from community to community, but we have seen it rising in recent years.  According to the research of the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America…. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith. And anti- Semitic incidents [which means harassment, vandalism and assaults] increased by 57% in 2017.  They are increasing most significantly in educational institutions:  For K-12 schools, this is a dramatic increase of 94% over the 235 incidents in 2016. Anti-Semitic incidents on college and university campuses also increased in 2017 to a total of 204, an 89% increase over the 108 incidents in 2016. [1]

Some of you are all too familiar with such incidents.

Just a month or so ago, someone (another lone actor), put up anti-Semitic posters on some of our local college campuses following the Kavanagh hearings implying some Jewish cabal was behind it.  They were immediately taken down, the person was arrested and the presidents of the colleges uniformly condemned the act.

The good news is that the FBI confirms that Bowers was acting alone; he was not part of some larger group planning other attacks.

I share this not to raise the fear level any higher than it already is, but Pittsburgh (and, really, all of these attacks) is a call for greater vigilance, even as we hold onto our principles and values of outreach and welcome.

I’m not an alarmist by my nature.   As I followed the unfolding events on Saturday, my immediate feelings – after overwhelming sadness – was anger.  Anger at the various factors that enabled this massacre to happen, anger at our seeming inability to do much about it, anger at the fear that these attacks are instilling not only in the Jewish community but in so much of our nation.

 

I’m angry

That we cannot pass gun control legislation that would limit a Robert Bowers from stockpiling weapons (legally) and maximizing his killing potential with an assault rifle.

After Newtown, we thought there would be some action;

A year after Las Vegas, and we are not yet at a national ban on bump stocks;

After Parkland, what has changed?

 

I’m angry

That social media, with all of its potential, is a breeding ground for loners such as Bowers and Sayoc to find a community of like-minded people spewing hatred and fanning the flames of their passions that can lead them to take action on their words.

“Social media companies have created, allowed and enabled extremists to move their message from the margins to the mainstream,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, “In the past, they couldn’t find audiences for their poison. Now, with a click or a post or a tweet, they can spread their ideas with a velocity we’ve never seen before.”[2]

Thankfully, GAB,the extremist website where Bowers posted, was shut down, though with great lament by white supremacists who are now seeking out other avenues for their postings – like weeds they keep popping up.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all announced plans to invest heavily in artificial intelligence and other technology aimed at finding and removing unwanted content from their sites, with Facebook and Youtube each hiring tens of thousands more people for security.  But they admit that it’s much easier to find sites with nudity and take them down than it is to find sites that encourage hate crimes.

As challenging as it is to find the balance between protecting freedom of speech and stopping hate speech in the world of flesh and blood interactions, how much the more so is it to try to contain it on the internet.  The genie is out of the bottle and it has a life of its own.  We have to call out to those responsible for these sites to use the brilliant minds that set this all up, to find a way to monitor and control what is posted – or they are also to be held responsible for enabling and inspiring killers.

 

I am angry because “words do matter”.  Yes, I’m quoting Joe Biden, but he did not originate this principle.  It is firmly part of Judaism.  After all, how did God create the world?  Vayomer Elohim y’hi or — and God said, Let there be light…”  We understand that words can create and words can also destroy. We learn in the book of Proverbs, “Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue.” (18:21)

Thus, we too, need to pay attention to the words that we speak and post, lest we contribute – even on a small scale – to the vilification of the other and the divisive, negative tone in our country.

Words do matter – and they matter most from those in leadership positions, most especially from the president of our country.

I found this perspective from Abe Foxman, immediate past director of the ADL, to be most insightful on this troubling matter.  NYTimes op-ed columnist, Brett Stephens, a self-proclaimed conservative, reflects on Foxman’s remarks from an interview that Foxman gave to the Times of Israel:

“Pittsburgh is not Trump,” Foxman says. “It’s also Trump.” Trump, he adds, is not an anti-Semite. But fanning one set of hatred against immigrants has a way of fanning others, as it did for Bowers when he attacked the synagogue because he was enraged by its support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Turning to last year’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Foxman says of Trump, “He didn’t create them. He didn’t write their script. He didn’t give them the brown shirts. But he emboldened them. He gave them the chutzpah, that it’s O.K.

“And when he had an opportunity to put it down,” Foxman adds, “he didn’t.”[3]

228 years ago, the President of this nation, George Washington, calmed the fears of the Jewish community at the Hebrew congregation in Newport, RI, who were very tentative about their status in this new nation.  Would they enjoy the right of religious freedom under this new government?  Washington allayed their fears and guaranteed that right:

…happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it all occasions their effectual support.”[4]

 

 

When our president does not only not condemn the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville and chanted “Jews will not replace us” but says there are good people on both sides – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

When our president uses such loaded terms as Nationalist and Globalists and claims their neutrality, when to the Jewish ear they ring of anti-Semitic tropes of a Jewish cabal running the world – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

Yes, there is rhetoric in all of politics, some we know is worse than others.  And there are demagogues out there spewing all kinds of hatred.  But they are not in the White House, they are not President of this country who needs to be a president for all of the people, protecting all of its citizens.  We have the right to demand more.

 

So what do we do – with our fear and our anger and our anxiety, our sadness?

First we mourn –

In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, Abraham mourns Sarah and he cries for her.  It is the first mention of mourning in the Bible and of the emotions that go with it.  He cries, he mourns.

Vayakom Avraham m’al pinei meito, “then Abraham gets up from before his dead”

After he mourns, Vayakom —  Abraham gets up to take action:

first, he acquires a burial place for Sarah;

then he acts for the future, finding a wife for Isaac.

 

This week we mourn for the senseless deaths in Pittsburgh, 11 lives snuffed out in a moment because of hatred.   We weep for the families of those killed and the heartbreak of such a close-knit community.  We weep for innocence lost.

Almost immediately, Vayakom, we stood up.  We stood supported by hundreds in this community and thousands around the nation, to speak out against hatred and for love and decency and respect.

Vaykom – we stood up:  We opened our doors for religious school Sunday morning as normal.  And we come to synagogue to be together on this Shabbat, and we will continue to send our children to religious school, and we will gather Sunday night for our gala to celebrate Vassar Temple and stand proudly as Jews, and we will celebrate the wonderful efforts in this congregation that the shooter condemned – we will honor Andi Ciminello and her partners who worked on behalf of Syrian refugees who sought the safety of this country, and we will honor Ron Rosen for his efforts to protect our environment which is so endangered, and we will honor with them so many in this congregation who dedicate themselves to social action and repairing our very broken world.  And we will continue to do that sacred work because that is what it means to be Jewish.

Vayakom – As we get up and move forward…

We will take Mr. Rodgers’ advice into account:  we will look for the helpers.

We look to our partners.

The DCIC is a great organization of people of many faiths.  How can we continue to work together to combat ignorance and hatred?

We must take next steps together.

We have to begin with education to counter the hate –for children and adults alike.

 

We are grateful to the most important helpers in Pittsburgh a week ago – the first responders, four of whom were wounded.

We are grateful for our helpers, local law enforcement, and we have their reassurances that they will always do their best to protect us, along with all residents of Poughkeepsie.

They are working with us to help us ensure our security in our building.  How we can have an open door policy even if our door must locked much of the time?

The Tree of Life Synagogue followed security protocols, they had active shooter drills; authorities believe that it could have been much worse had they not done so.  The board will be meeting Sunday morning to review various security options; you will hear more in the future.

Tuesday is election day.   Right now, the most powerful tool in our hands to conquer hate is to act on our sacred rite as citizens and vote; to vote for candidates we believe will be most effective in combating this climate of hate.

While Jews can proudly claim a very strong voting record (studies show Jewish voter turnout averages around 85% in contrast to just 50% of the country overall), turnout is generally much lower in non-presidential years

According to estimates, only 50% of registered young voters actually voted in the 2016 presidential election.   Get your young people out to vote!

Make sure you vote and encourage others to as well.

 

Like Anne Frank who never gave up her ideals that people are really good at heart, I still believe that most people are.  I will never lose that faith or that optimism.

I take strength from the words of a young man, Josh Stepakoff now 25.   In 1999, when he was just six years old, Josh became a shooting victim in the attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.  In a radio interview last year, Josh reflected on that experience and his understanding of being targeted because he was a Jew.

“As I started to reflect on why I was shot,” he says, “I started to think of all of the good things that came from Judaism as opposed to this one terrible thing. I started to remember that it’s my view on life. It’s making sure that I treat everyone with compassion and that was more of what Judaism meant to me rather than a threat to who I was.” [5]

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is not to be afraid.

 

May we draw strength from one another and from our faith, that we will fight hatred with love, bigotry with compassion and fear with faith.

[1] https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents

 

[2]On Instagram, 11,696 Examples of How Hate Thrives on Social Media; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/technology/hate-on-social-media.html

 

[3] Yes, the President Bears Blame for the Terror From the Right, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/opinion/trump-sayoc-bowers-attacks.html

 

[4] George Washington and his Letter to the Jews of Newport; http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter

 

[5] NPR interview from 2017 replied on Morning Edition, Nov. 2, 2018

 

Torah Study Notes 9-29-18

September 29, 2018

The Hebrew Bible is made up of three parts – Torah, Prophets, and Readings. It is called the Tanakh.

Ecclesiastes is one of the Readings – Many authors, probably written around 300 BCE. Traditionally attributed to King Solomon – Song of Songs and some psalms are attributed to him as well. Ecclesiastes is the Greek word for congregation. It is a man looking back over his life and trying to find meaning. Note the different versions and translations. Life is fragile and cyclical. The futility of existence. Materialism. LL This is intelligent, refreshing and provocative. The Hebrew word “Rurah” is translated variously as “wind” or “spirit.”

Enjoyment is a gift of God. This is one of the positive notes. “Do what is good…” Part of the “wisdom literature.”  Like Psalms.

Seems to glorify pleasure. Compare Epicurus.  See Harold Kushner “When all You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Kushner and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_All_You%27ve_Ever_Wanted_Isn%27t_Enough

 

Ecclesiastes is studied during Sukkot – part of the life cycle as is Pesach and Shavuot. We are about to enter a period of dormancy and death. The light is leaving. Withering. The booth is temporary to remind us of the transience of beauty – and life.  Accept impermanence.

Thomas Wolfe wrote:

“[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”[1]

For more see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiastes

“Hugging and Wrestling” A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman

 

Forty-five years ago today, Israel was attacked and successfully defended itself in what became known as the Yom Kippur war.  Like many of you, I remember being in synagogue that day and first hearing the news announced from the pulpit.  The fear was palpable.  Our synagogue was hosting two Israeli high school exchange students for the semester.  Being with them that day brought home the very real fear in which they lived in a way that I had never experienced before.  Thankfully, Israel was victorious, but it was a pyrrhic victory and marked the beginning of the end of an era in Israel’s history.

 

I came of age in the glory of the post-67 war, a zenith of Jewish pride in Israel – David who slew Goliath.  We Jews, overcoming anti-Semitism and quotas in the US, could hold our heads up with pride.  Blue and white JNF boxes were ubiquitous and support for Israel – financial and political—was unquestioned.  Israel was the unifying factor in an increasingly diverse Jewish community.  We taught and imbibed the most idealistic images of Israel – the kibbutz, the great Israeli army where women were equal, the land of Chalutzim (pioneers).  In NFTY and Reform movement summer camps we sang Israeli songs with gusto and danced Israeli dances for hours.  I have vivid memories of being at Kutz camp when the success of Operation Entebbe was announced – the dining hall rocked with shouts of jubilation.

 

I was bitten by the Israel bug.   My first visit was on a NFTY college trip between my sophomore and junior years of college where we spent two of the six weeks on an archaeological dig.   I fell in love- not with a person, but with the country, with the very land of Israel.  I felt a deep spiritual connection with my past — not at the Wall, mind you but with the country as a whole – walking in the footsteps of my spiritual ancestors.  There was a big part of me that felt that I was “home.”

 

I returned to Israel after college as a volunteer on the newly established Reform Kibbutz in the Arava, Kibbutz Yahel.  There I experienced the fullness of Jewish life in this isolated community, planting roots for Reform Judaism.   I returned to the States but longed to go back to Israel.  I went back on a Jewish Agency sponsored year long program and ended up in living in Jerusalem, connected with the Reform movement and ultimately worked for two years in the NFTY in Israel office there.  Though I was in the process of making Aliyah, I decided to apply to the American rabbinical program as an opportunity to return home for a few years.  I had intended to move back to Israel, but life took a different turn and I chose to serve the Jewish community here in America.

 

Living in Israel I came to know the realities and complexities of the modern State of Israel, something quite different from the perspective I had as a teenager in America, enraptured by the idealistic vision to which we were exposed.  I experienced first hand the economic challenges of daily life and the stark divisions in Israeli society between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the latter who felt like and were then treated as second class citizens.  I was living there during Shalom HaGalil, when Israel invaded Lebanon to stop the katusha attacks on Israeli villages in the north and when the horrors of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila came to light (36 years ago this week). I remember watching on my second hand tv in Jerusalem the evacuation of Yamit, the last Israeli settlement in the Sinai, when it was returned to Egypt in exchange for the first peace treaty with an Arab nation.  What a painful moment it was for the country, but how high were the hopes for what it could lead to.  I was so proud of our small but growing Reform movement, but so frustrated by the almost daily incredulity of the average Israeli when I tried to explain that, yes, I was religious, but no I was not orthodox and by the uphill battle for equal rights for liberal Jews that continues to this day.  I marched in rallies with the very new movement for an end to the occupation, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) as Israelis began to speak out against the actions of the government and the growing refugee crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

I returned to the States after my first year in the rabbinical program and sought ways to find my place with this new understanding of Israel.  I supported organizations and efforts that addressed directly the causes in which I believed.  The American Jewish establishment was still very monolithic on Israel:  we must support Israel, right or wrong was the very clear message.  As Diaspora Jews we have no right to speak critically about Israeli policies; unless we are living there and putting our lives on the line, we can have no voice of opposition.  We must defend Israel in public; any criticism is offered only in hush tones, only within “the family.”

 

This attitude has held sway within the Jewish establishment for decades, but not so among the Jews.  My own journey of coming to know the real Israel – with its strengths and its challenges – may have been more unusual because that awareness came from living there for four years, but that has been the journey of much of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community over the last 45 years.  As American Jews have become better acquainted with the realities within Israel and as the euphoria of the post -67 victory came into conflict with the on-going challenges of the occupation that resulted from it, Israel as the symbol began to unravel into the murky realities of nationhood and with it, the code of silence.

 

Despite fears that such criticism would lead Jews to abandon Israel, studies have proven that not to be the case.  It is the nature of the relationship that is changing.  As Dov Waxman writes, in his excellent analysis of these changes, Trouble in the Tribe, “Rather than growing more disconnected from Israel, as many have claimed, American Jews have actually become more actively involved with Israel over the past two decades.  More American Jews are reading about Israel, learning about Israel, and going to Israel than ever before.  They are more engaged with Israel than previous generations whose connection with Israel was largely limited to donating money every year to local Federations to pass on to Israel.  The big change that is taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel is not that American Jews are disengaging from it, but that they are critically engaging with Israel – they are, as many now put, “hugging and wrestling with Israel.”[1]

 

A high percentage of those huggers and wrestlers are young non-Orthodox Jews, ages 18-35.  They did not grow up with any of the romanticized notions about Israel that their parents and grandparents had nor any of memories of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.  They don’t know Israel as David, only as Goliath, with its soldiers standing grimly standing at military checkpoints throughout the West Bank.  Various surveys of young American Jews demonstrate that Israel is less important to their Jewish identity than it was to their parents.   Their support is not automatic but depends upon whether Israel acts in accordance with their beliefs and values.  A 2007 survey by sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman reported that 40% of young Jews believed that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else” and more than 30% reported feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions at times.[2]

 

Young Jews seek an open environment and discourse where all sides of the issues can be discussed and debated freely.  This struggle came to light on college campuses with the Open Hillel Movement that began almost five years and the controversy surrounding students desires not to be limited by Hillel’s restrictions regarding the groups with whom they could engage.  As many will remember, the Vassar Jewish Union was the second group to sign on.  If young people who are struggling with Israel do not feel that their voice is acceptable in the Jewish community, they will abandon it and they will be lost to us – and potentially as supporters of Israel as well.

 

The struggles within the Jewish establishment over what it is means to be pro-Israel and who can claim ownership of the title Zionist came to a head in the summer of 2015 in the incredibly divisive and public battle about the Iranian nuclear Deal.  The vituperative attacks by each side against the other and the disgraceful claims against congressional leaders as being anti-Zionist and far worse, were absolutely appalling.  One good thing that came out of it was that it brought this core issue to the surface.  Some in the Jewish establishment, primarily those opposed to the deal, called for unity and decried the danger of disagreement as being confusing to American governmental leaders who were trying to figure out what it is the Jewish community wants and, therefore, would be detrimental to Israel.   Others, primarily those in support of the deal, saw this multiplicity of views as positive in that it made clear to our political leaders that there is no one Jewish spokesperson, no one Jewish representative, and no Jewish point of view when it comes to Israel and many other issues.

 

It is time to accept that there is no one group or viewpoint that has the monopoly on Zionism, that huggers and wrestlers are very much pro-Israel even if they are critical of policies of the Israeli government.   Enlarging the tent, welcoming a multiplicity of voices, even as we do need to establish some boundaries regarding those whose aim is the destruction of the State of Israel, is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people as a whole.   Ultimately, such healthy debate will strengthen the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel and, perhaps, even improve perceptions of Israel around the world.

 

You will note here a common thread underlying my sermon today and that of Rosh Hashanah.  The polarization of American society in general is a factor for the increasing divide within the Jewish community, not only on matters related to Israel, but certainly impacting that debate.  We face similar challenges of not being able to listen across the divide because so much is at stake for each side.

 

I have a personal stake in this debate; I count myself among the huggers and wrestlers.  I have a deep love for the State of Israel, for my ancient homeland, and for what it can be.  I will defend its right to live in security and to defend itself from all who would attack it and I will defend Israel when, as is too often the case, Israel is treated unfairly by international organizations and other nations.

 

I take tremendous pride in the incredible accomplishments of this young, 70 year-old “start up nation” of worldwide leaders in science and technology responsible for, among other things, drip irrigation, the cherry tomato, and Pill Cam (capsule endoscopy that is now the gold standard for intestinal visualization).  I am among those who are completely reliant on WAZE to get around (did you know that it is an Israeli invention?).  Israel’s humanitarian efforts around the world save countless lives.  Who could not be in awe of their efforts this summer to save thousands of Syrian civilians, innocent victims of that country’s civil war, who were transported in and out of Israel in secrecy so their lives wouldn’t be at risk.

 

Yet, as a Reform Zionist I cannot be silent when I see my beloved homeland acting in ways that are counter to my understanding of Judaism, to the values that we hold dear and to the promises enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”  I share the view of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Reform movement who said, “My love for Israel is unconditional but not uncritical.”

 

We have good precedent for the obligation to offer such critique, from the book of Leviticus, in the portion we will read this afternoon known as the Holiness Code: “Rebuke your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.”  We have an obligation to rebuke those we love when we see them doing wrong.  Incur no guilt – Rashi teaches, “do not shame him in public, in which you case you would bear sin on account of him.”  Thus, we need to be careful how we offer that critique.  The Kli Yakar, 17th century Rabbi of Prague, taught, “if you do not rebuke him then his sin shall be upon you because ‘All Israel is responsible for one another.’”   We, Jews in America and Jews in Israel are responsible for one another and need to hold one another accountable for our actions.  We are partners in this enterprise of Jewish living as part of the Jewish people.  We are family and while we love one another, there are times when we will disagree; healthy families find ways to air those disagreements with love.

 

This summer was one such time for loving critique when the Knesset passed the morally repugnant Nation-State Law, calling into question the very democracy of the State as it favored Jews and Judaism over one-fifth of its inhabitants who are not Jewish, including its Druze citizens who are a very loyal minority, even serving in the IDF.   It does not even mention the word democracy at all!   The law demotes Arabic from a state language to one of special status and has the potential to limit freedom of expression in Israeli schools.  Immediately, numerous organizations in North America, including our Reform movement, issued statements of outrage.  We spoke out against the actions of the Israeli government, but we spoke in solidarity with the center of Israeli society who opposed the law and with the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who stood in protests with Israeli Arabs and Israeli Druz.  This is not the end; law suits have been submitted to the Israeli high court and numerous Israeli organizations that work for the civil rights of minorities will continue to fight against it.  We can help by lending them our support.

 

The Nation-State Bill also has the potential to impact us as Reform Jews as it gives the state the right to “act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.”  This law will further empower the Orthodox hegemony in Israel when it comes to issues of personal status and religious identity.  This challenge to the legitimacy and rights of liberal Jews comes almost a year after the Israeli government reneged on the plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall, a sacred site for all of the Jewish people, not just those who live according to Orthodox Judaism.  For decades now, our movement has been taking root within Israeli society with its more than 50 congregations and communities throughout Israel and institutions such as the Israeli Religious Action Center.  The Progressive Movement in Israel offers an alternative for religious expression to both Orthodoxy and secularism.   We can add our voices to this struggle by supporting our sister institutions in Israel, especially by joining ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.  ARZA’s Campaign for Religious Equality, initiated after the unraveling of the plan for the Wall, is designed to strengthen the Reform Movement on the ground in Israel, to bolster the Israel Progressive movement as they fight for recognition and respect, and to build a Jewish Homeland welcoming of all Jews based on the core tenets of  Equality,  Democracy,  Pluralism and the vision of Israel as articulated by Israel’s founders and Declaration of Independence.    “ARZA is taking back the Z: unapologetic love for Israel, the land-people and the State is at the core of our beliefs,” it proclaims on its website.  “Zionism should not be devisive.  No one faction should be allowed to dictate “ownership” of the Z word.  ‘We are part of a people, of a nation, and we all have a stake in Israel’s future’” writes Rabbi Josh Weinberg, president of ARZA.[3]  I urge you to join me in becoming a member of ARZA and supporting these efforts for religious pluralism in our Jewish homeland.   Make your voice heard!  We make the process very easy for you; the option to join ARZA is on your temple membership bill.  Of course, you can always go to their website directly.

 

I cannot finish speaking about Israel without mentioning the elephant in the room, the 51 year- old occupation of the West Bank.  It continues to erode the moral fiber of Israel, creating a sense of hopelessness among Israelis and a self-perpetuating state of despair for the 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.  But the fires of hope have not yet been completely extinguished on both sides as there are small efforts and organizations that work to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.   They need our support and our commitment not to let go of the hope for a two-state solution that will free both sides of the chains of this occupation.

I would like to invite us as a congregation to get to know the real Israel, with all of its gifts and its challenges.  To engage together in conversation about our hopes and dreams for its future.  There is no better way to understand Israel, however, than by experiencing it in person.  I would love to explore the possibility of putting together a congregational trip, perhaps even for next year, and would invite anyone interested to speak with me about it.  I would love to share with you the Israel that I love, to meet those who are devoting their lives to building an Israel that can live up the promises it holds.

I conclude with the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, composed in honor of the Birth of the State of Israel 70 years ago, expresses the hopes and dreams still within our hearts.  May it be so.

 

Avinu ­ – You who are high above all nation-states and peoples –

Rock of Israel, the One who has saved us and preserved us in life,

Bless the State of Israel, first flowering or our redemption.

Be her loving shield, a shelter of lasting peace.
Guide her leaders and advisors by Your light of truth;

Instruct them with Your good counsel.

Strengthen the hands of those who build and protect our Holy Land.

Deliver them from danger; crown their efforts with success.

Grant peace to the land,

lasting joy to all of her people.

And together we say: Amen.[4]

 

 

[1] Dov Waxman, Trouble in the Tribe:  The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, p. 53

[2] Ibid., 50

[3] http://www.arza.org/homepage

[4] Mishkan Hanefesh, p 288.

“To Err is Human; to Forgive, Divine” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman

About twelve years ago, Chris Williams was taking his family for ice cream one evening, when his car was hit by an underage drunk driver. The crash killed Chris’ nine-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, and his pregnant wife. Though Chris lost his family instantly, his immediate thought before he had even been rescued from his car was forgiveness. “Whoever has done this to us, I forgive them. I don’t care what the circumstances were, I forgive them,” remembers Chris.[1]

 

Three summers ago, a troubled young man named Dylan Roof, with the hope of igniting a race war, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and, after studying Bible with a small group of congregants, opened fire, killing nine people, including their pastor.

 

While we have become numb to such shootings, I still carry with me the responses of the families of the victims to this murderer.  Despite their shock and anger, they overcame any human desire for vengeance and, instead, offered words of forgiveness to Roof, just two days after the murders, at his bond hearing:

 

“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never ever hold her again,” said the daughter of one victim.  “You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you and I forgive you.”[2]

 

“Emanuel does not harbor hate in her heart,” said the sister of another victim.  “That’s not the God we serve. It’s important for us to know that the young man is a mother’s son, a father’s son. If he can earnestly repent, God will hear him.”[3]

 

I am awestruck by such words and thoughts of forgiveness, by the strength of these people whose very faith was at the core of their humanity, and by the comfort that this act of forgiveness brought to them.  These people who lost so much for no reason were able to forgive the one who took their loved ones away and leave the retribution in “God’s hands.”  I can only stand in humble, silent tribute to their grace and to bear witness to the very depths of their faith.  Who could offer forgiveness – without any offer of apology or expression of remorse on the part of Roof or the drunk driver?

 

To be sure, in both cases, their offers of forgiveness did not mean that they absolved either the driver or Roof of their crimes nor does it imply that they did not want them punished to the full extent of the law.  Rather, it means that they were able to open up some small space in their hearts, in the midst of their overwhelming pain, to offer the forgiveness that would enable them to take the first steps in their own healing.

 

The Rev. Norvel Goff, interim pastor succeeding the pastor who was murdered, said that “self-preservation was also a motive in the [families’] offer of forgiveness, that forgiving does more for the person who is hurting than the one who caused the pain.  ‘We’re not in control of those who may commit evil acts,’ he said, ‘but we are in control of how we respond to it.’”[4]
Ten years after the accident, Chris Williams is motivational speaker, sharing his story with others about the power of forgiveness.  He teaches a similar lesson as the pastor: “Forgive for your sake, not the other person’s. Forgive because if you don’t, your bitterness will consume you.”

 

This approach to forgiveness is challenging for me as a Jew; perhaps that is one reason why I found it so overwhelming and unfathomable.

 

Judaism teaches us that someone who commits a sin must go through a process of teshuvah, repentance, in order to be forgiven (hence the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  The steps to true repentance include first regretting one’s actions, then immediately stopping that behavior, committing never to repeat it again, making restitution to the person wronged and, only then, asking for forgiveness.

 

We learn in the Mishnah that “For transgressions that are between a person and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement; but for transgressions that are between one person and another, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only after you have appeased the other person.”[5]

 

In this past year of “me too,” we have seen many public apologies.  Not that public admissions of guilt are easy, but unless they are accompanied by other acts of repentance and, most especially by a direct apology to the person who was wronged (which may well have happened) they are meaningless.  Public Mea Culpas without the rest cheapen the very meaning of an apology.

 

However, when a person comes to us in sincere repentance, meaning that they have at least taken steps to make up for the wrong, then the power rests with us. That person’s soul is in our hands.

 

Thus Maimonides taught in his Mishneh Torah:  When the person who wronged [you] asks for forgiveness, [you] should forgive him with a complete heart and willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged [you] severely, [you] should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.[6] Not only must we forgive, but according to Maimonides, we must be kind and generous of spirit about it.

 

We know that that is not so easy.  For victims of hateful, harmful acts like the families in Charleston or of the senseless loss of life like in the case of Chris, forgiveness, even following sincere repentance, takes great courage and compassion.  For most of us who have been hurt in ways far less significant, forgiveness is still a tremendous challenge.  At first glance it certainly seems as though forgiveness should be more natural.   Wouldn’t we all feel better putting whatever it is behind us?  Yet, the act of forgiving raises so many emotional issues and often brings up hurt and anger that may have even been buried for decades.  We run away from accepting that apology, rather than re-open those wounds and come to terms with that past.

 

And, sometimes, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we actually thrive on being the wronged party and we carry that sense of having been wronged like a badge of honor.  We are wounded:  our pride has been hurt and we are not able to let go of that and move on.

 

No wonder that Alexander Pope’s words, “To err is human; to forgive, divine” have struck such a chord within the human soul and continue to resound some two centuries after he uttered them.  Forgiving is hard; making mistakes is easy.  But is forgiveness really limited to the realm of the Divine and out of our reach?

Judaism teaches us that as beings created in the Divine image, we are, in fact, each a reflection of the Divine and have within us the potential to imitate the Divine.  Imitating the Divine is the basis for Jewish morality, as we learn in the Talmud:  As God clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the sick, visiting Abraham after his circumcision, so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death, so should we comfort mourners … [7] So, too, should we imitate God by acting with compassion and forgiving those who turn to us in teshuvah, as we now turn to God.

Perhaps you might it comforting to know that just as we struggle with forgiveness, so, too, did our sages.  Even more, they envisioned God struggling with forgiveness as well.  Thus, in the Talmudic debates about prayer, they imagined God praying daily, and this is the prayer they imagined God uttering:

 

“May it be My will that My mercy suppress my anger so that it may prevail over My attributes of justice and judgment; and that I may deal with My children according to the attribute of compassion, and that I may not act toward them according to the strict line of justice.”[8]

 

God seeks to overcome Divine anger by acting with Divine compassion.

 

The prophets envisioned a God who wants to forgive.  God offers us every opportunity to change and seek forgiveness.  The words of Isaiah still call out to us:

 

“Seek Adonai while God can be found.

Call to God while God is near.

Let the wicked give up his ways,

The sinful man his plans;

Let him turn back to Adonai,

And God will pardon him;

To our God,

For God freely forgives.  (Is. 55:6-7)

 

God’s offer of forgiveness is guaranteed.

 

Our worship this evening began with the stirring melody of Kol Nidrei.  Its origins are unclear.  Many attribute it to the Morranos who had to live their Judaism in secrecy, pledging their outer lives to the Church; others say it dates to a much earlier time.  Regardless of the timing of its development, Kol Nidrei has a firm place in the heart of the Jewish people, even as its placement in our worship this day has been heavily debated throughout the ages.

 

How can we make this public disclaimer to vows we might offer?  Wouldn’t that make them – and our word – meaningless?  One interpretive translation of Kol Nidrei in our mahzor addresses this question:  we declare our vows null and void, “should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them.”   In response, with words taken from the Book of Numbers when Moses, once again, pleads with God on the Israelites behalf – in this case, when they spurned the call of Joshua and Caleb to enter the Promised Land – God promises, “I have forgiven in response to your plea.”

 

Here we are, admitting our failings, and God promises forgiveness because we have asked.  Would that we could be that generous in our forgiveness of others!   How often do we find ourselves in situations where we are hesitant to apologize, so fearful that the person we wronged will not forgive us? We fear making ourselves vulnerable, lest our outreach be rejected.  But, if we could feel certain that if we do the work of teshuvah, we will be forgiven, wouldn’t we be far more likely to try?

 

God will accept our sincere efforts to change without demanding perfection.  God recognizes our humanity and is more concerned with our desire to change than with our ability to get all the way there.  In that way, God encourages us in this process; “Return unto Me, and I will return to you,” promised the prophet Malachi.  The sages expanded upon this teaching with a parable about a prince who goes far away from his father – a hundred days’ journey away.  His friends said to him: “Return to your father.” He replied, “I cannot; I have not the strength.”  Thereupon his father sent back the following message: “Come back as far as you can, according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.”[9]

 

In his book, How Good Do We have to be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a very helpful perspective on guilt and forgiveness that is premised upon an acceptance of our human limitations which then allows us to take ownership of our mistakes.  At one point, Kushner talks about the number of people he encountered on his book tour who shared their positive experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous or other support groups.  Kushner reflects on his conversation with one man and how accepted that man felt in the program:

 

“The church-sponsored group was not offering forgiveness for his deeds.  It was offering acceptance, forgiveness for his being a flawed, incomplete, imperfect person.   It was offering what the synagogue offers its worshippers on the Day of Atonement:  the reassurance that if you drop your pretensions and excuses and stand before God naked and vulnerable, if you admit your failures as the first step toward doing something about them, God will not reject you as a flawed specimen.  You will still be acceptable in His [sic] site.” [10]

 

What a challenge that is for us. Can we learn to accept another person’s limitations and flaws so that we can then recognize their sincere attempts to change, appreciating whatever steps they take even when they may not make it all the way to where we think they need to be – or even where they may want to be?

 

Acting with compassion, letting go of anger; not demanding perfection, asking only sincere effort; meeting someone halfway.  If we can find it in our hearts to act in these ways, then “forgiveness will, indeed, be Divine,” because we will be emulating the Divine and through our actions inviting God’s presence into our lives and our world.  Moreover, such actions not only enable the wrong doer to move through the process of teshuva and make real change in her life, they also let the one who has been wronged move forward in her life by offering forgiveness and letting go of that past.

 

If we can act that way towards others, how much the more so should we strive to forgive the one who is often the most difficult for us to forgive:  ourselves.  Too often we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards of perfection and we blame ourselves for our failure to reach them.  When we set unrealistic goals for ourselves, we cannot hope to succeed and will most likely fail to reach the potential that we do have within.

 

One of my favorite lessons in this area comes from a Hassidic sage of the 18th century, Rabbi Zusya of Hannipol who taught:  In the world to come, they will not ask me “Why were you not Moses?”  They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?”

 

As we consider the power of and potential for forgiveness, let us turn back to Chris and those gracious people of Charleston and ask, “Are there limits to forgiveness? “As we’ve seen, the Jewish understanding of forgiveness does not seem to be in concert with the gracious acts of these individuals.  The Jewish notion of forgiveness demands some level of repentance on the part of the sinner.   Even if we strive to be compassionate, understanding of limitations, and as open as we can, if the person makes no effort to take steps towards teshuvah, Judaism teaches that we have no obligation to forgive.

 

Having said that, where does that leave us?  This is where the example of the Charleston families is so powerful.   Their faith compelled them to forgive.  And, in doing so, their actions brought them a sense of comfort as well, a lifting of a heavy burden of hate and anger that might have held back their own process of healing.

 

In such cases, perhaps we can think of forgiveness in a different way.  Kushner offers us another view: “Forgiving happens inside us.  It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim.”[11]

 

In How Good Do We Have to Be?, Kushner recounts the story of a young woman who comes to see him, explaining that she just found out her father is dying.   He expects her to talk with him about the funeral; instead, she reveals that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was 9, had numerous affairs during the marriage and had virtually nothing to do with them.  She hadn’t spoken to him or heard from him in the past 10 years.  “Rabbi,” she asks, “can you give me any reason why I should mourn for a man like that, why I should go to the funeral or say kaddish for him?”  Kushner does encourage her to go to the funeral, but to see it as an opportunity to grieve for the father that she never had, to cry for the father that her father could not be and to mourn the loss of the father she certainly deserved to have. In the end, the young woman did attend the funeral, admittedly with very confused feelings, but she later told Rabbi Kushner that much to her surprise she did not feel angry. She attended services for a while to say Kaddish and then moved on.[12]

 

The ability to recognize the limitations of those who disappoint or hurt us, and to grieve the loss of that which couldn’t be, while not exactly forgiveness, may help us achieve the peace that forgiveness provides.

 

Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, of IM Wise Temple in Cincinnati, wrote one of the beautiful mediations that is at the beginning of our mahzor; his words express so beautifully the power of forgiveness:

 

What an extraordinary gift is is—what a blessing, what a miracle

To have been raised by imperfect parents who did their very best;

To share our life with a partner no more flawed than we are;

To count as a friend one who understands and accepts us most of the time.

How brave, how hard it is to be “good enough” in our ties to one another:

To give, even when we’re exhausted; to love faithfully;

To receive with grace the love imperfectly offered to us.

 

Can this night set us free from the tyranny of expectations?

Can this night release us from fantasies impossible to fulfill?

 

We resolve this night to embrace the practice of forgiveness:

To forgive others who fail to be all we hoped they would be;

To forgive ourselves when we fall short of what others hoped we would be.

We declare this night that we will cherish goodness wherever it is found,

And open ourselves to the gifts that are before us.[13]

 

Four months ago we celebrated the Festival of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Soon after hearing the Ten Commandments, the Israelites grew frightened during Moses absence and committed a grievous sin by building a Golden Calf to worship.  Moses came down the mountain bearing the two tablets with the commandments only to encounter the people dancing around the Golden Calf.  Embodying God’s anger, Moses smashed the tablets.  The people were punished and repented; Moses pleased for God to continue to lead this people to the Promised Land.  God agreed and commanded Moses to carve two new tablets and return to the mountain top.  The day on which Moses brought down the newly inscribed second set of tablets was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This was the day on which God’s forgiveness was sealed with the tablets, the covenant affirmed and the relationship renewed.

 

So may this Yom Kippur be for us a day of forgiveness and renewal, a day of promise and hope for a new year of reconciliation and understanding.

 

 

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/m_features/epic-stories-of-forgiveness

[2] New York Times, June 19, 2015

[3] Ibid.

[4] New York Times, July 4, 2015

[5] Mishna Yoma 8:9

[6] Mishnah Torah:  Hilchot Teshuvah 2:10

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a

[8] Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 7a

[9] Pesikta Rabbati 44:9

[10] Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do we Have to Be? P. 52-53

[11] Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, p. 176

[12] Kushner, p. 85-6

[13] Lewis Kamrass,  Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur (CCAR Press), p.6

Torah Study 9-22-18

Page 1400

Biblical poetry.

Jerry Slate joins the group.

Moses is about to die. The Hebrew here is very challenging. This is one of the two major poems in the Torah. Dating is also challenging. See commentary of Jeffery Tigay. Sometimes called the Torah’s lawsuit. There is a treaty and witnesses. This doesn’t mention many of the items covered in Deuteronomy. The focus here is not on exile – which is the focus of Deuteronomy. D was likely written considerably after the Babylonian exile and after the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom. This more likely 12th to 11th C, B.C.E.  . A copy of this poem was found at Kumaran and is mentioned by Josephus as part of ancient Jewish life.  Note the presence of merism – describing two extremes – and parallelism. LL Was this chanted? Consider the Rabbinic Voice. See NYT article.

“…The voice is the intricate product of a multi-pronged historical process.

According to this explanation, the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study. Because neither the Torah nor the Talmud is punctuated, students learn to add intonation with vocal emphasis. Which is why so many rabbis end sentences on a rise.

“Long ago, that phrasing was translated into everyday language by Ashkenazi Jews, then brought into English,” Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, told me. “It’s so common that even newcomers to the community pick it up,” she added, presumably meaning mothers-in-law, converts, Hollywood agents, “sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowingly.”

32:4 The imagery here is of parent and guardian. This describes the relationship between G and Israel.  See the Woman’s Commentary here. There is nurturing here. Possible woman author?

See line 8 which is “divisions of humanity” in a later edition of Plaut. This seems to be more reflective of modern Reform ideas – rather than divisions into race as in this translation. See Dr. Weiss commentary on this section – G allocates lesser deities to other peoples.  See “…no alien god alongside.” In the service there appears the phrase “there is no other god like you…” Monalatry is not pure monotheism as we think of it today.

32:15 We have just heard about the blessing of the land; the people grew fat and course – bloated and engorged. “You neglected the Rock who begot you.”  “I will hide my countenance from them.”

32:19  Gods reaction is punishment. Here are warrior images. Verse 20 – hiding God’s face. Because they have pushed God away. “Let God shine his countenance upon you..” is a phrase at the end of the service. The same word in Hebrew for “face” and “countenance” suggest and intense presence. The word is used by God when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai.

32:26 The other nations gain confidence by virtue of the peoples misconduct. There will be a terrible punishment but the people are not entirely wiped out. The punishment is not forever – it is a cleansing process. There will be redemption. Chastising with love is the traditional explanation.   LL This sounds retrospective. It is a description of what happened to the people and their survival. PC: How does this help us ethically? Rabbi – Not the intended lesson here by the writer at the time. If we were writing this today it would be different. PC: Can we come away that punishment in anger is morally wrong? Rabbi – that is not what it is saying. Anger can be a positive force. AS: There is a common notion that ours is a vengeful God. Christians argue that theirs is a loving God. CL later: Read Bart Ehrman’s  book The Triumph of Christianity – How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/books/review/bart-d-ehrman-the-triumph-of-christianity.html?login=smartlock&auth=login-smartlock and

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart_D._Ehrman#Works  Ehrman points out that Christianity aggressively destroyed the other religions of Rome and there was considerable struggle, as well as anger and violence, within the faith itself as is evidenced by the letters of Paul.

LL: It is also worthwhile to note that a Freudian interpretation may be that the Torah is to some extent a discussion with ourselves and others. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/magazine/09wwln-lede-t.html

“…in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.”

“He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.”

LL/