As a child growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I believed that racism was largely a problem of the past. My friends in school were from Poland, Trinidad, India, and Sri Lanka. They were immigrants, first, second and third generation Americans. They were Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu. And they loved to tell me about their cultural backgrounds and religions as much as I loved hearing about them.
Last year, when I attended a seminar on race relations in Utica, I recounted how thankful I was to have grown up in Brooklyn, which helped me to appreciate the blessings of diversity. A woman of color soon replied “I grew up in Brooklyn too. Your Brooklyn was not the same as my Brooklyn. We live in two different worlds.”
This summer I had an opportunity to understand what she meant.
I traveled to rural South Carolina to join the NAACP in just one small leg of their 1000 mile Journey for Justice from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC. Between August 1st and September 16th, thousands of people joined the march which celebrated how far our country has come in pursuit of racial justice, and to acknowledge how far we have yet to go.
When Rabbi Jonah Pesner, of the Religious Action Center, asked rabbis to participate in the march, he hoped to receive one volunteer for each day. Walking 20 miles a day, after all, was no small feat. It was his dream that each day another rabbi would proudly walk alongside NAACP leaders, holding a sacred Torah scroll. He was delighted when 200 rabbis signed up. To my delight, I was blessed to share this experience with a member of our community: Cornelia Brown, and two other rabbis from different states.
As we walked down route 1, with fields on either side, most people responded positively to our group. There were smiles, thumbs up, honks of support, fist bumps and cheers. Each of them lifted me, and gave me hope.
Still, racism was very real. Along the road we encountered a man who made a point of circling around us again and again, with a Confederate flag hitched onto the back of his pick-up truck. Another man became so agitated by the sight of the march that he stopped his car, shook his head, looked up, and then floored his car backwards, into a tree. Everyone was okay, thank God, but it was a wake-up call to see how intense racism could be.
I grasped the Torah scroll firmly in my hands, and recalled the words from our morning prayer:
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe who strengthens our steps.
My steps were strong because of the legacy of rabbis who marched before me. Just 50 years earlier Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in pursuit of civil rights. And my steps were stronger because of the people who marched alongside me.
One of those people was Keisha. Keisha was surprisingly energetic for her 23rd day of the march. As soon as she heard about the Journey for Justice, she decided to quit her job so that she could walk all of the 1000 miles.
But this wasn’t her first time forwarding a message of racial justice.
In 1996, Keisha was an 18 year old high school senior in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When the Ku Klux Klan decided to rally in her city, Keisha, who is African American, was one of the protestors. A man with a Nazi SS tattoo and a Confederate Flag t-shirt ended up amidst the protestors and suddenly a peaceful rally became violent. The protestors began to beat him in anger. Keisha threw herself on top of the man to shield him from their blows. Mark Brunner was there that day. He remarked about Keisha, “She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her. Who does that in this world?” But for Keisha there was no other way. “I knew what it was like to be hurt,” she said. “The many times that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”
Months later, she would find herself in a coffee shop standing next to a white male who was thanking and praising her for what she had done. As it turns out, he was the son of the man with the Nazi tattoo. He was thanking her for saving her father’s life.1
I spent much of the march speaking with a white reverend who had three black children.
She recalled that she hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to race before they were born. Slowly, she realized that she and they lived in vastly different worlds.
One clue came the day she took her boys to get some ice cream. The boys were eating their ice cream, when she remembered she had forgotten the milk. She asked her oldest son to get it for her. “Only if you hold my ice cream,” he said. “Why would I need to do that?” She replied. “We just bought it!” “Trust me,” he said. “If I go in there with this ice cream, they’ll call the cops on me for shoplifting.”
Another clue came the day she received a call from her 13 year old son. He had been arrested. As he recalls it, the police had pulled him over for riding his bike while black. He was in the correct lane, obeying the rules of the road. But they pulled him over anyway. When he asked them what he did wrong, they refused to answer, so he got up to walk away. They tackled him. When he fought back, they arrested him and brought him to prison, on $5000 bail. His mother told me that when he got out of jail, he was different kid. He was fearful. He ran away from home, convinced that the police were coming for him. That is how deep his fear was. His white lawyer told him “Well, none of this would have ever happened if you did what you were told.” His words of hatred would later inspire this boy to become the public defender he never had, but wished he did.
The woman from Utica was right. We do live in vastly different worlds.
And I am ashamed that I just recently noticed.
Racism is so universal and so widespread that to me, it was nearly invisible.2
Studies show African Americans are more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. And when stopped, more likely to be frisked. And I didn’t notice.
In 2010, Justice Department filed and won a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the banks had shunted blacks in the predatory loans—subprime loans regardless of their creditworthiness.3 It was not the only bank to maintain such unethical practices. And I didn’t notice.
I didn’t notice that people of color were less likely to be given loans, or to be awarded promotions. I didn’t notice the many poor black communities that fill the US, where students receive inferior educations, and are forced to lower their expectations. And I wasn’t the only one.
In her book Waking up White, Debby Irving recalls the childhood stories she’s swapped with people of color. “I’ve learned the ways in which many parents of color prepare their children for a hostile world,” she said. “Trying to protect children with a worry-free childhood is a privilege of the dominant class—a white privilege. Many parents of color teach their children to keep their hands in plain sight if a police officer is near and to avoid white neighborhoods in order to avoid being questioned for simply being there. In the same way I was trained to make myself visible and seek opportunity, many children of color are trained to stay under the radar.”
When we think of racism we often think of men with Nazi tattoos, or confederate flags. We think of members of the Ku Klux Klan. But most racism doesn’t come from extremists at all. It comes from the fabric of society itself. And since society sends us constant messages about the inferiority of people of color, and about how we should fear the black man, if we don’t go our way to combat these feelings, racism exists in each of us.
At one time slavery and Jim Crow laws offered tangible evidence of racism, but according to Debby Irving “today’s racism lives hidden beneath the surface, in individual hearts and minds. Today’s work to dismantle racism begins in the personal realm. Until I begin to examine how racism has shaped me, I had little to contribute to the movement of righting racial wrongs. My cultural markings, invisible to me, screamed “Caution!” to those outside my culture. It explains why, for so many years, my best efforts stagnated or backfired. Until I examined how racism shaped me, I had little hope that any person of color would want to engage with me around a problem I saw as theirs. Only when I began to explore and share my personal struggle to understand my racialized belief system did people of color start opening up to me, engaging with me in our common struggle.”
Only when we share stories with one another—only when we see the fullness of one another’s struggles can any positive change come to fruition.
The Temple in Israel was a holy structure. Its holiest component was the ark, because it contained the Ten Commandments. Above this ark there were two figures called Cherubim, facing one another.4 It was a great risk to showcase these figures so prominently. After all, the Israelites had been told not to make any idols, especially after the incident of the golden calf. These figures could very easily be mistaken for an idol. So why did God wish to introduce them?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that when God spoke to Moses, God did it between the two cherubim. “The message of this symbol was so significant that it was deemed by God himself to be sufficient to outweigh the risk of misunderstanding. God speaks where two persons turn their face to one another in love, embrace, generosity and care.”5
I went on the march because I wanted to do something about racial injustice, but I knew that first I needed to look into the faces of people who were suffering, so that we could come face to face one another in love, embrace, generosity, and care.
Each service we read the words of the V’ahavta which tell us to place the words of Torah upon our hearts. Our sages ask why we place them ON our hearts. Why not IN our hearts? Because sometimes our hearts are closed. We place the words on top of our hearts, and they stay there until one day our hearts break open and the words fall in.
Just like the Torah, stories of our fellow human beings lay upon our hearts. We must now crack our hearts open so that they can change us for the better.
We must see how our brothers and sisters of color are dying at alarming rates.
We must recognize that we have replaced Jim Crow laws with mass incarceration.
We must acknowledge that although our country is supposed to be the land of the free, until all people can vote, until people of all colors have the same access to education, and jobs, and security, we are not yet the home of the free.
Martin Luther King once said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”6
When we hear the pain of our fellow human being, we no longer have the privilege of standing on the sidelines. As Elie Wiesel taught us “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
So what do can you do?
1. This afternoon, at 1pm you are invited to reflect on this sermon, and to discuss racism with me, in the back of the social hall.
2. You can be an advocate. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in support of the voting rights act, which took away barriers people of color had to overcome in order to vote. Just two years ago, the Supreme Court undermined that bill, when it ruled that areas with disenfranchisement problems could make changes to election procedures without seeking clearance from the Department of Justice. Supreme Court Judges thought that in 2015, we didn’t need such provisions.
But they failed to see just how pervasive racism continues to be. Many communities have tested the limits of the their new power by introducing and sometimes passing restrictive voting laws which have limited citizen’s access to the voting box—especially citizens of color, who are poor, elderly or who are students. Today we are passing out postcards that can be mailed to Congress, in hopes that Voting rights can be reinstated. I encourage you to send them in.
3. We are blessed this year that a student from Hamilton, Lily Wasser, is serving as an intern for the Jewish community. In coordination with leaders in the area, she is helping me to foster productive dialogue between Jews and people of color, so that we face to face one another in love, embrace, generosity, and care. I hope we will have many exciting announcements, and opportunities to participate throughout the year 5776. In this way, we hope to follow the great legacy of Rabbi Bamberger, who worked tirelessly for racial equality in Utica, through the organization Bridge Builders.
4. October 21st is Utica’s Abolition History Day, to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the start of New York State Anti-slavery society. Speakers will include Rev. Robert Williams of Hope Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, Dr. Kathryn Maria Silva, Assistant Professor of African and African-American History at Utica College, and our very own Mary Hayes Gordon, from the Oneida County Freedom Trail Commission. Flyers can be found the lobby, and you are encouraged to attend.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidim, taught “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to find each other find one another, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light pours forth from their united being.”
Today we are separated by the color of our skin. We truly do live in different worlds from one another. But when we meet face to face, our worlds will collide, and all of us will be brighter for it.
In it, Coates points out that Affidavits later found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and their subprime products as “ghetto loans.” “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past, but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
5Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, to Heal a Fractured World, p. 54
For the past month we’ve been self-reflecting, apologizing to people we have wronged, and working to accept the apologies of others. We have beat our chests with remorse, as we’ve considered how much more we’re capable of becoming. And then we began to make vows:
This year I will turn off electronic devices so that I can be fully present with those I love.
This year I will be with my family for all the big and important moments AND this year I will devote myself more fully to my work.
This year I will be less judgmental and more compassionate; less angry and more understanding.
Just as we’re solidifying our vows we come to Kol Nidrei
Kol Nidrei veesare vacharomei v’konamei, v’chinuyei v’kinusei u’shvuot.
“All vows—resolves and commitments…
Sworn promises and oaths of dedication—
That we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves
From this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement…
Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;
They are not valid and they are not binding….”1
If you’re puzzled by the words of Kol Nidrei you’re not alone. How can we nullify our commitments2 before we even have a chance to put them into action? And why would we want to? The Kol Nidrei prayer—the very prayer for which tonight’s service is named—can feel confusing and even counter-intuitive.
For thousands of years rabbis have resisted the Kol Nidre.3 In the 9th century, Rabbi Amram called the prayer foolish, but it was already too much a part of Judaism’s fabric to do away with. Quickly people became attached to the custom, and especially its stirring melody. By the time of Mordecai Kaplan, taking Kol Nidre out of Yom Kippur was sure to upset many people, who like us, are stirred every year by its powerful melody, so he left the melody and took out the words.
Other rabbis came up with a different solution: they changed the language of Kol Nidre, so that it no longer discussed annulling future vows, but rather vows from the past, which may have been made in good faith but proved too difficult to achieve.4 In doing so, Kol Nidre would allow everyone to start the new year with a clean slate.
In many communities this change was accepted and proved meaningful, and yet many Ashkenazi prayer books—including ours—retain the original language of the prayer. How do we make sense of it?
At one time, historians thought that the Kol Nidrei “prayer” was created in the 7th century when the Visigoths forcefully converted Jews, or in the 14th or 15th century when Jews became Conversos—forced to “convert” and hide their true Jewish identity. We could understand in these circumstances why Jews would want to preemptively annul any vows they might be forced to take in order to survive.
These theories are romantic, but they as it turns out, they are inaccurate.
According to Baruch Levine5 and Rabbi Dalia Marx,6Kol Nidre actually derived from the language of magical spells written on bowls between the 4th and 8th centuries, which were believed to protect against demonic powers, and other negative forces outside our control. The two scholars differ on one important point. While Baruch Levine suggests that Kol Nidre was written to ensure that demons didn’t interfere with the sanctity of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Dalia Marx believes that Kol Nidre prayers were meant in another context. Kol Nidre is legal as opposed to magical, oral as opposed to written, and communal as opposed to individualistic. “Kol Nidre does not deal with fear of demonic powers,” Rabbi Marx explains. It deals with “the fear of unfulfilled oaths and vows made by each worshipper.”
In other words we are so scared of not fulfilling our oaths that we begin Yom Kippur with a ritual to preemptively annul them. We are so scared about our imperfections that we are afraid to commit ourselves.
We worry what will happen if we don’t achieve our goals. What happens if we fail a test, make a mistake at work, lose our jobs, or if we occasionally lose patience with our child?
Most of us beat ourselves up about it with “could’ves” and “should’ves”—sometimes about factors entirely outside of our control—not being at the side of a parent who died without warning, not knowing immediately what was wrong with a screaming child, not being able to help a friend in need. We should’ve. We could’ve, if only we’d known. But we didn’t.
The fears that Rabbi Marx cites are real. They can be debilitating. When they are, Rabbi Kook urges us to stop: “When thoughts of fear and penitence occur to a person in a spirit of melancholy, let him distract his mind from them until his mind becomes more settled.”7
Being saddened by our past services no purpose, he explains. Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein agrees: “…when repentance [feelings of guilt and remorse] deepens and turns to grief, robbing of all quietude the heart in which it dwells, it ceases to serve its high function and becomes a destructive tool.”8
I believe that Kol Nidre gives us a powerful tool to overcome this melancholy and grief. That tool is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is extending compassion to ourselves in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Self-compassion requires self-kindness, recognizing how much we have in common with others, and being mindful.
It starts with kindness.
We know what it is to be a good friend. When a friend makes a mistake and apologizes sincerely, we strive to forgive her. When a friend makes a mistake, we offer support and compassion, reminding him that his mistake doesn’t define him, or take away from what makes him so special. When a friend is down, we try to help.
But often we don’t treat ourselves with the same kindness. In fact, according recent research, people who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others don’t offer themselves the same self-compassion. They berate themselves for perceived failures, like being overweight.9 One member of this congregation told me that she has trouble forgiving herself for mistakes she made when we was 6 or 7 years old. Another told me that when he was laid off, even though losing his job was due to the economy and not his failure, he saw his work status as evidence that he was not good enough.
We often criticize ourselves, explains Dr. Neff, because we believe we need that criticism to motivate us to succeed, when in actuality it strips us of our confidence and stalls us in our productivity. We perform far better when we feel supported and appreciated as opposed to when we feel berated and unappreciated.10
There is a debate in the Talmud in which rabbis disagree about the most important teaching in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva argues that the most important verse is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” a verse that inspires us to behave ethically. Except there is one challenge with the verse, explains Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: “it’s relative. If we do not love ourselves then we will never learn to love our neighbor. And if we use that model, then how we treat others will be almost completely dependent on how we treat ourselves.”11
Another rabbi argues that the most important verse states that we are made in the image of God. We are sacred. Each of us as individuals, and all of us, as members of the human race.
Yom Kippur isn’t about tearing us down. It’s about building us up. Just as we show a friend compassion, we have the ability to do that for ourselves. When we fail, the goal is not to beat ourselves up but to understand what factors went into that perceived failure. We must recognize that we are made in the image of God, but we are also made of the dust of the earth.
We offer the words of Kol Nidre because we recognize that we are human. We are imperfect, and we will make mistakes. We don’t annul our vows to get out of them. We do it to forgive ourselves when we aren’t able to achieve them.
Self-compassion sometimes gets a bad reputation for leading to self-indulgence or lower standards. Dr. Kristen Neff explains that is anything but the truth.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught that it is easy to just say we made a few mistakes and promise to never do them again. We do this all the time. On the high holy days we do much more: “We receive whatever evils we have intended and done, back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t just hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.”
We hold ourselves when we recognize that everyone makes mistakes.
We hold ourselves when we recognize that every decision we made we made for a reason.
We hold ourselves when we recognize our capabilities and limitations.
We hold ourselves when we recognize where we excel and where we have room for growth.
And we hold ourselves when we remember that every action and every decision we have made have helped us to become the people we are today.
Rav Kook reminds us that it is important to partake in repentance and not penitence. Penitence focuses us entirely on past mistakes. It opens the door to “should’ves” and “could’ves.” As Rabbi Lichtenstein explains, When we permit repentance to bite too deeply into our soul, we are simply inviting… unhappiness in the name of atonement. We are, in reality, making atonement more distant by making ourselves miserable.”12
Repentance, however, focuses squarely on the future. We look back on the year with one purpose only: to ascertain where we are, and where we are going. When we make a mistake, adds Rabbi Lichtenstein, “We do not need to rebuke our past or punish ourselves for it, we have to transcend it, to live a better life in the present and aspire to an even better one in the future….”13
Now is the time when we consider not the mistakes we’ve made, but why we’ve made them. We work to overcome the root causes for our errors rather than the errors themselves. This is hard work, and we may be unsuccessful at first. Kol Nidre reminds us that it is okay to fail. Annulling our vows means that far more important than the outcome is the effort. All of a sudden making vows isn’t quite so scary. As long as we put our heart into them, succeed or not, we will prevail. Because 5776 will be a year of growth, of improvement, and of increased blessing by virtue of our effort.
“Yom Kippur begins by annulling our vows, but just as significant, it ends with us making a vow: L’maan nechdal meioshek yadeinu—“We vow to withdraw our hands from all that we have taken wrongfully.”
It is one thing to make a vow at the end of Yom Kippur, but our sages question why we end the Holy Day with this particular vow. Is stealing that prevalent of a problem? The Gerer Rebbe says no. The theft refers to that which we steal from God when we do not live up to our true potential.
When we stop trying, when we stop believing in ourselves, when we allow fear of failure to stop us from becoming the people we are capable of becoming, the Gerer Rebbe says we are stealing away our potential.
Alternatively, if we acknowledge our limitations, but try to do our best anyway we will uphold our sacred vow.
We begin Yom Kippur by giving ourselves permission to annul our vows. We end it by vowing to believe in ourselves anyway. That is the true nature of repentance. May all of us attain it.
1Mishkan HaNefesh p18
2Nedarim 23b teaches about an ancient custom allowing people to nullify vows they will make. It does spell out some ground rules, however: they need to have those specific vows they wish to break in mind as they say the prayer, and they cannot teach the rule publically, so that vows aren’t treated lightly.
3Jews were historically called disingenuous many time because of this prayer. Menasse ben Israel tried to convince Oliver Cromwell to readmit Jews to England in the 17th century, saying that Kol Nidre didn’t mean that Jews couldn’t be trusted. Similiarly, in 1910, the Berlin paper Staatzburger-Zeitung called Kol Nidre an insult to civilization: “Like the Talmud, it is a culpable deception of the Aryans by the Jews. A Jew can commit perjury in court; his religious convictions allow him to do it. He may brand truth a lie and ruin his fellow man. These moral dues of Judaism are a criminal assault on humanity and civilization.”
4Sephardic liturgy changed the language to say “from last Yom Kippur to this one.” Ashkenazi Jews, such as Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Samuel (son in law of Rashi), tried to change the tenses as well. They were less successful because at that time everyone was attached to the music and the words.
5Levine, Baruch. “The Language of the Magical Bowls.” In A History of the Jews of Babylonia. Vol. 5 Ed. Jacob Neusner. Leiden, 1970.
6“Marx, Dalia. “What’s in a Bowl?” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Jewish Lights Publishing. Woodstock, VT, 2011, p.26-30.
7Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac; Abraham Isaac Kook; Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, trans.; Paulist Press; p102 (“The Lights of Penitence/Orot HaTeshuva”).
8Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; Society of Jewish Science; p 212.
The past several weeks I have debated whether or not to speak about the Iran nuclear deal on Rosh Hashanah. On one hand, I am acutely aware that I am not an expert in international relations, nuclear physics, or national security. On the other hand, this is an issue of upmost importance for us, both as Jews and as Americans.
Several of us are deeply concerned about the deal. Some of us have lobbied on behalf of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC,) which expresses concern that it might “facilitate rather than prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would further entrench and empower the leading state sponsor of terror.” Rabbi Rick Block,2 a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, explains:
“Under prior legislation, most sanctions on Iran were to sunset only when the president certified to Congress that Iran no longer provides support for acts of international terrorism and has ‘ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of, and verifiably dismantled, its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launch technology.’ The deal accomplishes none of these goals. Rather, Iran receives as much as $150 billion in frozen assets, will reap immense profits from post-sanctions commerce, and can spend as much as it will to promote terrorism. Much of its nuclear infrastructure remains intact and it can continue R&D in weaponization….Administration officials initially promised a deal would include “anytime, anywhere” inspections. This one does no such thing. Instead, a cumbersome, convoluted process to address Iranian violations provides ample time to conceal most kinds of evidence.”3
At the same time, just as many of us believe that while the deal is not perfect, it is the best viable option. Many of us have endorsed the Jewish organization, J-Street, which issued this statement:
“[This] agreement…is the best chance for keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon…. It creates the most rigorous, intrusive inspection regime in history. It opens Iran’s program to the light of day, keeping illicit military uses off the table. It protects the international sanctions regime, allowing them to snap back into place if Iran cheats. It puts a long-term, lasting end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And it cripples Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, blocking every pathway to a bomb.”4
“The agreement prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for 10-15 years,” said Eran Etzion, Former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council, “this agreement is not about trust, it’s about verification.” Former Mossad Director Efraim Halevy added, “Without an agreement, Iran will be free to act as it wishes, whereas the sanctions regime against it will crumble in any case…if the nuclear issue is of cardinal existential importance, what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances it from the bomb?”5
Both sides of the debate have produced thoughtful arguments for their positions, neither having an exclusive claim to the Jewish communal voice. This morning, I do not wish to convince you that one side is more correct than the other. Rather, I’d like to speak to the nature of the debate itself: something about which our Jewish tradition has a lot to say.
I have been incredibly disheartened by the way in which this important discussion has progressed into an outlet of poisonous rhetoric, name-calling and fear-mongering.6 Some supporters of the deal have made terrible accusations about opponents of the deal—particularly Jewish ones, even when their decisions weren’t primarily out of a concern with Israel. Such opponents have been called “Netanyahu’s marionettes,” “warmongers,” or “traitors.” New York Senator Charles Schumer was subjected to many of these accusations. When he came out against the deal, one website posted a cartoon of a news reporter calling a woodchuck version of Charles Schumer “traitor”, as the American flag in the frame was suddenly transformed into an Israeli flag.7 Sadly, many others were also accused of dual-loyalty or of being traitors. A CNN reporter made a different and equally disturbing accusation: that Schumer’s motives were primarily economic. He said, “If [Schumer] were to support this deal, he knows it would create a firestorm of opposition, particularly among…. wealthy supporters.”8 In other words, this reporter didn’t believe that Schumer’s stance on the issue was rooted in careful deliberation or a deep concern for the US, Israel and the world. Rather, he believed that the only possible reason that Schumer could have to oppose the deal is selfish financial gain. It is hard to recover from that accusation with any level of productive civil discourse.
The poisonous rhetoric of this debate has not been one sided, either. President Obama has been accused of effectively declaring war on Israel, or of leading Israel “to the door of the ovens,”9 a startling allusion to the Holocaust. Others have slandered the Obama administration, saying that it had become “the leading financier of terrorism against America in the world,”10 and that John Kerry was an agent of the Iranian government. As one of the 440 rabbis who signed a note in support of the proposal, I have personally been accused of not being a “real rabbi,” of being a traitor, an Israel-hater, an Arab-lover, and my personal favorite: a Nazi fascist.
This use of language is not just unfortunate. It is not just hateful rhetoric spewed without consideration for the people being attacked. It is not just polarizing. It is downright toxic. Whoever said “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” was absolutely wrong. And words don’t just hurt the person they’re used against: they hurt the very fabric of our community, more than we might even realize.
There is a verse in the Talmud—a Jewish book of wisdom, which explains that 24k disciples of Rabbi Akiva died at the same time. The reason? שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה “because they did not behave with respect for one another.”11 Upon hearing this text we might wonder if this was some kind of divine retribution. Was God punishing them for not treating one another with respect?
Prolific writer, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin does not believe it was a punishment at all. Rather, it was a “natural outgrowth” of the mistrust that existed between them. When Rabbi Akiva’s disciples stopped having civil conversations, and stopped treating one another with a basic level of respect, they could no longer work in tandem. They lost the ability to cooperate with each-other even when cooperation was needed for their very survival.
Consider two Jewish communities during the start of World War II. The Nazis had invaded Poland and the Jews of the Lodz ghetto were terrified. Leo Baeck, the leading Reform rabbi in Germany sent Rabbi Frank Rosenthal on a special mission to meet with the Jewish leaders in Lodz. He wished to offer them suggestions as to how some Jews could be saved from the Nazis. To Rosenthal’s dismay, the Jewish leaders in Lodz refused to listen to anything he had to say. According to historian Leonard Baker, “Much of their distrust stemmed from him being a German Jew, not an eastern European Jew, as well as a representative of the leading Berlin Jews. The Lodz Jews could not forget the offensiveness that they and their fellow eastern European Jews had met years earlier when they came to Berlin. Rosenthal’s mission was a failure.”12
In other words, because the Jews from Lodz had once been treated with contempt by their fellow Jews from Berlin, they could not bring themselves to trust a German rabbi, even if doing so could save lives. They were so sure that they were right—so sure that they shouldn’t trust the German Jews—so fixated on what distinguished them from one another that they failed to see how much they had in common, something which feels so obvious to us today. They were all Jews, struggling to survive under the Nazi regime. If only they had seen past their differences, how many more lives could have been saved?
It is hard to believe that anyone could feel so hurt that they would be entirely unwilling to listen to suggestions of someone wishing to help, especially in these circumstances, but it goes to show how damaging rhetoric and polemics can be.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how we naturally align ourselves with groups—be they political, religious, or something else. When we agree with our groups we actually receive a hit of dopamine, which can be addictive. We do this because it is so powerful to be surrounded by others who view the world the way that we do: so powerful in fact that we are sometimes willing to adjust our view of the world for the sake of the group. In some ways, this can be positive. We are not solely concerned about ourselves, but rather for the group as a whole. We work towards forwarding the same mission.
The downside to this, of course, is that we fail to see the merits of those who disagree with us. Researcher David Perkins brought people of various ages and levels of education to a lab, asking them to think about social issues, such as “Would giving more money to schools improve the quality of teaching and learning?” Students were asked to write down their initial judgement. Then they were asked to write down reasons in favor of their initial judgement and reasons why someone might be on “the other side” of the debate. Perkins found that the higher the IQ of the participant, the more reasons they came up with in favor of their initial judgment. The more intelligent, the better the lawyer. But then Perkin’s results become more disturbing. People with higher IQs were no more likely to come up with solid “other-side” arguments than people with lower IQs. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”13
Even the most intelligent among us are unlikely to recognize that there are powerful, legitimate reasons for being on either side of many current debates, the Iran nuclear deal included.
Because we cannot see the world through one another’s eyes, there is a trend to avoid debate altogether—a trend which sparked the saying “In polite company, it’s not proper to talk about politics or religion.”
In order to remain “polite” almost every social justice issue on the Jewish scene now has an organized policy to avoid making any stance about Israel for fear of polarity. Congregations all over the country are fearful about engaging in conversation about Israel, Iran, gun violence, and so many issues which are plaguing our community not just on a political level, but on a human one.
Think of how much we’re losing by following suit: congregants with a point of view different from the majority, who become less active out of fear of uncivil discourse; people who choose not to engage with Jewish life because it’s not addressing the issues that matter to us the most; Opportunities for new initiatives and events.
Even the Stanley Theater refused to host an Israeli-Palestinian band for fear of it sparking outrage, from someone.
Friends, I understand why we might wish to avoid debate in a world in which debate can be uncivil and unfair. But avoiding debate altogether has never ever been the Jewish way. We are Jewish. “Two Jews, three opinions” is our motto. We can do better than this!
As you may know there were two competing rabbinic voices in the Talmud: Hillel and Shammai. One group said “The law is according to our position.” And the other said “The law is according our position.” God answered saying “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim– These words AND those words are the BOTH the words of the living God.”14 Although they are competing beliefs, they are both right. They both contain wisdom. When will we look at two sides in a debate and realize that we can learn so much from one another?
Another Jewish text talks about the nature of controversy. It says “A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korach.15
Korach was a priest, but did not have the social standing he desired. Like a small child he asked “Why does Aaron get to head Priest?” and “Why is Moses our leader?” He sparked outrage amongst the Israelites in hopes of stripping Moses and Aaron of power and claiming it for himself.
Korach created a controversy out of his desire for power. Hillel and Shammai debated over a controversy that already existed, in pursuit of answers. Korach had no desire to debate: his mind was made up. Hillel and Shammai approached the debate wishing to learn from one another, and to grow. They debated for the sake of heaven. Korach did not.
Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai offers a poem entitled “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 yard.
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.
Amichai wrote this poem around the time of Israeli independence, in a world of great controversy and harsh words, even amidst the excitement of a new state.
The poem today can be found near the exit of the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, as if to demonstrate that the country’s foundation, and its road to peace rests on our abilities to see the humanity, even in our opponents.
Amichai underscores the commonalities we all share: the anxieties and concerns we hold, as well as the priorities and loves that matter to us most.
What if we approached the topic of the Iran Nuclear Deal with the acknowledgement that although we might come to different conclusions all of us are forming our opinions centered around our a love of Israel, a love of the United States, and a concern for overall safety? “How might things change if we began our political conversation not from our certainties but from our doubts and loves?”16 How might that have changed our debate? How might that change future debates?
As of today, Congress and the Senate have not yet voted on the Iran nuclear deal, but we know the deal is an inevitability. The votes are there. Now is the time to focus on doubts and the loves we have in common, to ask the questions “What can we do to support our government in enforcing this deal?” and “How can we work to support the strongest possible US-Israel relationships going forward?” But those are not the only questions we must ask. The Iran Nuclear Deal is a huge controversy, but it is not the only controversy of import. We must also ask “How do we wish to participate in the debate next time?”
In the past several weeks I have been approached by a handful of people wishing to have civil discussions about the issues that so deeply affect our lives. I, myself, have been hesitant to say yes, for fear of an uncivil discourse.
And yet, we stand on the backs of giants, like Hillel and Shammai, and Yehuda Amichai. We come from a tradition that upholds the beauty of the individual. Ben Zoma taught “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.”17 Looking out at all of you at this moment I am reminded of the Jewish blessing we say when in the presence of a crowd:
Blessed is the One who knows secrets—Blessed is the One who understands that this crowd is filled with individuals, each of whom have their own secrets, uniqueness and individual needs. Blessed is the one who sees these differences as a blessing. Blessed is the one who understands that truth, itself, is multifaceted.
We come from a tradition which upholds the beauty of civil debate.
And we, too, can choose to model the teachings of Hillel and Shammai, to debate for the sake of heaven.
In the coming weeks ahead, I will be meeting with members of the congregation who wish to build a strong foundation for civil, Jewish debate. If you are interested in joining this task force, please let me know; it would be an honor to include you.
Together we can create an environment in which we can share our views while inviting in curiosity, collaboration and constructive debate.
65 years ago Temple Emanu-El was born. A small group of enthusiastic and dedicated people gathered to form a home for Reform Judaism in Utica in February of 1950. By March the 60 member congregation pledged “to serve the Jewish people by providing a place where they may worship and where the teachings of Judaism may be known, and to advance the welfare of all those who may come under its influence.” Quickly the congregation grew, became members of the reform movement, and even acquired a part-time rabbi. In September of 1950, Temple Emanu-El welcomed in the New Year, Rosh Hashannah, for the very first time as a congregation.
The temple’s 65 year history has been rich, filled with vibrancy and evolution—and some phenomenal rabbis such as Rabbi Waldman and our rabbi emeritis, Rabbi Bamberger. Since 1950, the congregation has gone through a number of changes, as we’ve adapted to changing modernity.
Innovation and adaptation are, after all, so much a part of Jewish history.
It’s hard to believe, but at one time prayer itself was a radical innovation. During Temple times, worship was largely composed of Temple sacrifice: offerings of doves or goats to God.
When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70CE, the Israelites, whose worship centered primarily on the Temple, were struck with a very new reality. At this point, Judaism could easily have ceased to be. But it didn’t.
Rabbis began to develop formal prayer, and worship. This was the beginning of the prayer services that we’ve come to know and love. Though prayer was originally a spontaneous expression from one’s heart, over time worship became more static. It became increasingly hard to edit them.
In the 11th century, poets, called payyetanim decided to innovate. Finding that religious language could at times be a barrier to entry, they used poetry as a bridge between their religious life and the booming creativity of the 11th century Muslim world surrounded them.Including poetry helped people to see the world differently, engaging everyone, in the words of Edward Hirsh, “in something deeper than intellect and emotion.”“That ‘something deeper’ is the spiritual core of our lives,” explains Sheldon Marder, by awakening and refreshing perception, cultivating intimacy, encouraging connections to others as well as to God.1
But that wasn’t the only kind of innovation.
The French revolution rocked the Jewish world. Jews were emancipated. Finally it was okay to assimilate. Jews struggled with how to balance their religious and secular lives, each coming up with their own solutions. Some decided not to keep kosher, to wear modern clothing, or to surround themselves with secular music.
Reform Judaism was born.
Early reformers wanted change. They believed “that the devil most to be feared was tradition,” explains Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. “By modern standards, these pioneer rabbis were not liberal, if by liberal, we mean laissez-faire, anything goes, live and let live. They knew tradition exceptionally well, and valued it; but they knew also how the printed liturgy and its codified regulations had spun out of control to become a liturgical tail wagging the would-be worshipping dog.”2
Reformers craved prayerful music that spoke to them not just as Jews but as people of the modern age. They craved prayer not just in Hebrew but also in the vernacular—the language they understood.
Conservatives, much like the rabbis who emphasized Halacha over minhag, deeply disliked the reformer’s changes. They wanted to uphold tradition as they understood it. To them, that was true Judaism. The invent of the printing press had given them a powerful weapon: codes of law were finalized and printed. Prayer books were codified, and nearly impetitrable.
But the reformers, in their brilliance, decided to use the printing press for their own needs: printing new prayer books that would meet the needs of the modern day Jew, who strived to balance the blessings of modern individuality with the inherence of Jewish community.
Enter the Union Prayer book.
Temple Emanu-El’s first prayer book was the UPB, a small leatherette book put together in the late 19th century3 which fit comfortably and beautifully in the crease of one’s hand, and contained all the services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in one volume.
But the Union Prayer book left out so much. It is true that one of the reform movement’ great innovations was editing—take out prayers deemed repetitious or not in line with modern understandings of theology.
Reform rabbis, such as Jacob Petuchowski believed that every word we say in prayer “demands absolutely honesty.” Prayerbooks, he explained, should “contain only such statements as are factually correct, literally true, and historically verifiable.”4 For this reason, the Union prayer book took out prayers with references to sacrifices, rebuilding the temple, and resurrecting the dead.5 In fact it took out Kol Nidrei—the heart of the evening Yom Kippur services—and most of the Unetaneh Tokef, hiding a shortened version of it in the YK afternoon service, but taking it out of the RH & YK morning services, entirely.
Can you imagine Yom Kippur without Kol Nidrei?
Rosh Hashannah or Yom Kippur morning without Unetaneh Tokef?
“Let us affirm the majesty and holiness of this day, for it is one of awe and dread.”6
These words of Unetaneh Tokef speak to the sanctity and majesty of the day, but the reformers struggled with the words that came next.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to bel
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall perish by fire and who by water
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.”7
Its words are challenging—the reason our early reformers omitted them. They feared these words would lead people to believe that any misfortune to fall upon them was their fault, that loved ones who died were punished for their ill-actions.
Over time, reformers began to wonder if that was the only to look at the prayer. What if instead of omitting it, we were to include it in a prayer book once more—and wrestle with it?
What if instead of seeing in it a painful message of guilt, for example, it inspired us to consider to what extent in this world life is out of our hands, and to what extent we can control our own fate?
As is written in the Gates of Repentance:
“Repentance, prayer and charity temple judgment’s severe decree.” (109)
By the 1970s, the reform movement had grown to be very diverse. Some congregations longed for more Hebrew text. Others wanted contemporary language, which they believed would be make it easier to connect with God. Some loved the personal yet archaic language of the Union Prayer Book, and others wanted prayers that were less personal, and more generic, congregational prayers.
In 1978, the Gates of Repentance came out, with a variety of options for each service—striving to meet the needs of a newly diverse reform movement. It included some personal prayers, and some more generic ones, English readings, and more Hebrew prayers than had appeared in the Union Prayer Book. But because of the embarrassment that many reform Jews didn’t know Hebrew, transliterations were sparse, and even those were hidden in the back of the book—a feeling we’ve thankfully overcome before the creation of our new prayerbook.
When the congregation switched to the Gated of Repentance, immediately there were aspects about it that were celebrated, though many of us also longed for the beautiful, and personal language that was so artistically rendered in the Union Prayer Book.
Today, as we switch from the Gates of Repentance to Mishkan HaNefesh, there is no doubt that there is much to celebrate, but there will perhaps be some things we’ll miss about Gates of Repentance, as well.
Nonetheless we joyfully make this transition because we recognize that the world is vastly different than it was just 40 years ago. Early reformers had certainty about what God was and was not—what God could and could not do. But today we are far less certain. “We are suspect of almost all absolute truth claims, including those that emanate from our own denominational camp,” Rabbi Leon Morris explains. “For many of us, contemporary Jewish theology is less about what we know with certainty to be true and much more about religious ways of organizing and conceiving the world. If medieval and modern Jewish theology were prose, ours is a theology of poetry.” Although once achievable, the expectation that any prayer book could can be in line with our collective contemporary theology is now simply impossible.8
The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh recognized that just as the Torah holds over 100 names for God, each of us relate to God and spirituality a little differently. For that reason the readings and prayers contained within are multifaceted, with something to which hopefully all of us can relate, from personal to communal prayers, traditional renderings of prayers to modern, and creative interpretations.9
In recent decades there has been a tend to delve into lifelong Jewish study, connecting with texts in new and exciting ways, creating a greater appreciation for the Hebrew, and prayer’s origins. Whereas before the reform movement took out many texts that might have caused theological hardship, many of us today wish to delve into these texts so that we can wrestle with their true meaning, and what we can learn from them today. Today we privilege interpretation over revision. We are willing and excited to determine for ourselves the meaning that prayers can offer as, individually, today. We are more comfortable than ever to read texts on multiple levels simultaneously, and to understand the words of our prayer books as ones of poetry and metaphor.10
The word Avodah has been connected to prayer since its inception. Literally Avoda means “work” because connecting to God, and bridging the gap between the words of the classic prayer book and our contemporary lives requires work. When we take on the challenge, we find that our effort is well worthwhile. It is a privilege.11
Just outside of our sanctuary, you may notice a shadow box containing the three machzors of Temple Emanu-El’s history: the Union Prayer Book, the Gates of Repentance, and now Mishkan HaNefesh.
On this 65th anniversary of our congregation, let us rejoice in the power of Jewish prayer in its own time, of our ability to adapt and grow, and see how relevant Judaism was in years past, and how relevant it is today. We rejoice in the gamut of Jewish wisdom, liturgy, and art, which has the power to change our lives for the better, especially in this season of repentance.
These High Holy Days, it is my prayer that we do not just read the words in our new Machzor, that we do just listen to the music, or glance at the art—that we do not just pray—but that we, like our ancestors, take part in avodah: allowing the sacred traditions we hold, and our creative interpretations of them to inspire us, and to transform us so that we end up in a different place—a better place—by the end of Yom Kippur.
1 “What happens when we use poetry in our prayer books—and why?” by Shelden Marder
2 “Doing it right or Doing it well? By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
3 Created in 1895. Interestingly the second edition came out shortly before the first.
4 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
5 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
6 Page 256-7
7 GOR 108
8 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
9 Edwin C Goldberg “The New Reform Machzor is a solution, but what is the Problem?
10 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
11 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris