Rosh ha-Shanah Morning
1 Tishrei 5778 - Thursday, September 21, 2017
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York
Shanah Tovah - a good, and God willing, better New Year for all of us.
Under normal circumstances I would never present something mostly from another source. These are not normal circumstances.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis crafted a united message for us to adapt and offer, to bring to our congregations in One Voice, as a Reform Movement and as Reform Rabbis. The events of the last year demand that we come together as American patriots for the sake of our American Union, and for the sake of the Jewish people.
Here is our “One Voice” message as American Reform Rabbis:
The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One bold medieval commentator taught we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”
Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of our leaders, even when it may be our President, when they fuel hatred and division in our beloved country.
We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar. Its piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.
We sound the shofar with: T’kiah [a single shofar blast]
This is the Sound of Certainty.
As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: we will not tolerate acts of hatred, intimidation, and divisiveness. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets, and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; conservatives and progressives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal. We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance.
We sound the Shofar with Sh’varim [3 separate shofar blasts].
This is the Sound of Brokenness.
Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened when anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, racist, and homophobic graffiti appeared again, and then again, on the grounds of two of our local elementary schools, Windermere and Maple East - even after we had thought such displays done with last fall.
How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles.
Let us never grow numb to the brokenness. Let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests and with public calls for healing, yes, and even more by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options.
Not for us.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Let us fulfill the call of our Psalm, let us strive to:
רֹפְאֵי לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב
“healers of the broken-hearted”
“binders of their wounds.”
[Psalm 147:3 הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֝מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם]
We sound the shofar with T’ruah [9 short staccato blasts].
This is the Sound of Urgency.
The events of the last few months have been a wake-up call.
Racism is wrong whether or not it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, and starkly remind us again: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.
We sound the shofar with T’kiah G’dolah [a long single blast].
This is the sound for the Endless Pursuit of Justice.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity, to fairness for everyone. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our city and in our country -- in this New Year, and in every year.
That was my adaptation of the statement from the CCAR. Not surprisingly, I have a few more things to say.
A few years ago, one of my students attempted to end an argument by saying “That’s just an opinion, not a fact.” He thought that would end any reasonable debate. The rest of the Seventh Grade class supported their peer and lectured me on their rock-solid assertion that there are only two options: “opinions and facts”.
Strange. These were Jewish students - how could any one of them think that merely calling out: “That’s an opinion!” would somehow defeat an argument?
The rest of the class then instructed me about the basic differences between “opinions” and “facts” and the clarification that everything seemed to fall into these two categories and they were quite sure of this because they had all successfully passed the tests on these topics as taught in their schools according to the National Common Core curriculum.
Googling “fact and opinion common core” leads to links and lesson plans, including a summary for Sixth Graders that talks about facts, which can be proven true, opinions, which as they are a person’s feelings or views, cannot be proven true, and reasoned judgments, which are a mix of the two. The students didn’t remember the bit about “reasoned judgments”. It is easier to retain the “either-or” proposition so they got opinion vs. fact, and left out the interesting middle of “reasoned judgments”.
I then asked the students about laws - were they facts of opinions? They thought about it, and then quickly agreed that, since they were made up by people, laws must be opinions.
“What about ‘Thou shall not murder’?” I asked.
This got them talking about the middle ground - the area between facts and opinions, and the students eagerly embraced a more complicated understanding of things.
The really interesting thing about all of this is the way the students forgot all about the alternative to the easier view - the “reasoned judgment” fell away in face of a convincing “fact vs. opinion” alternative.
Psychologically, we have an intuitive preference for an easy answer. If we can find an easier story to explain everything, that’s preferable to a more difficult explanation, even if the easy story ends up being inaccurate, or even wrong.
Our minds have an intuitive preference for easy solutions and will even come up with a false answer to avoid working on the longer, more complicated, question. I am beginning to believe that all of us, all of American society, have fallen into this way of thinking.
I think this may be one of the difficulties of the past year that inspired Reform rabbis to offer today’s message in One Voice.
Here’s a big part of it.
We start with the idea that anything I say is an opinion. If I say it, it’s my perspective, it’s an opinion. Notice how stuck we become here. As soon as I say it, somehow it is no longer a fact. It can be challenged as an opinion.
Even when we admit the middle ground, the reasoned judgement that those Seventh Graders had forgotten, there are still opinions in there. If there’s an opinion we can cast doubt on the whole thing. After all, it’s only an opinion, and everyone has one.
Everyone has an opinion, and there are no facts.
If there are no facts, then what happened to truth?
Think about this.
It is terrifying.
In some ways, this is worse than the big lie.
This undermines the very idea that we have common ground, that there is truth that we can all agree about. If nothing is true, then we can never even have a real conversation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” - Thomas Jefferson understood with these words that only when we agree on certain shared ideals can we then go ahead and discuss the details of how we will put them into place together.
In order to make progress, in order to work together, we have to agree to common ground. We must accept that there is some idea, some assumption, some basic framework that all of us can agree is true.
As Jews we will argue the very nature of truth. What we can often agree about is that when we say “true”, what we may really mean is “too important to ignore”. And that the start of the discussion, the very foundation of why we care about each other’s truths, is that we see each and every one of us as potential speakers of truth. The Talmud teaches that respectful disagreement is useful, even more than that, it is a holy cause, literally, “l’sheim Shamayim”, for the sake of Heaven.
It’s why I reacted so strongly to the idea that an argument could be defeated by calling it “just an opinion”. I am my opinions. The good ones, the well-thought out ones, the less-thought out impassioned wrong ones, all of them. My truth is in my opinions.
We have majority and minority opinions in Judaism, like the U. S. Supreme Court. We know how to share an opinion, argue an opinion, and give ground when a better idea comes along. This is what we have to offer our fellow Americans.
We American Jews have a mission - we must bring our respect for each other’s opinions, for our individual truths, back to the public conversation about who we are as Americans.
We are experts at living with and learning from people with whom we disagree.
In a beautiful collection of stories, Rabbi Goldie Milgram teaches that “we stretch each other with our differences”, and continued:
“Loving our tradition while wrestling with it through changing times is how the Jewish people has continually functioned - as a research and development team on behalf of the Jewish and human future in every generation.” [Mitzvah Stories, page 5]
On of our most important contributions to American civilization must be the reawakening of real discussions about issues. We know how to acknowledge a good idea, and give ground when it comes from someone else, even from someone with whom we have historically disagreed.
On this holy day, on Rosh ha-Shanah, we encounter one a central question of Jewish civilization: the idea of sacrifice. What does it mean to give up something that we value? Whatever we feel about Abraham and Isaac, we learn from Abraham and from the rest of our Torah, the importance of giving something up for our community - to sacrifice for the greater good.
For me this includes a Jewish idea about a most difficult sacrifice - giving up my own belief that I am correct.
The key to progress everywhere may be accepting that we must occasionally, even often, retreat from the place where we are always correct, as one of sages of modern Israeli poetry, Yehuda Amichai wrote [The Place Where We Are Right]:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a courtyard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Some of you may come to me, later today, tomorrow, or next year, and share your concerns with me about what I have said today. Please continue to trust me with your heartfelt and deeply concerned disagreement with me. Please don’t hesitate. I am so honored by your trust, especially when we disagree.
The Talmud says that “Chutzpah is effective, even towards Heaven” (BT Sanhedrin 105a).
We are called to live with chutzpah.
We must be bold in the face of injustice, and bold in the face of authority.
We must even be bolder in the face of our own convictions. When we look inside and with chutzpah say, “You know, they may be right, and I may be wrong?”, then we may plant the seeds for a better year, and a better future, for us all.