Friday, September 25, 2015

Yizkor Sermon: In the Land of the Remembered

If you visit Mexico or even some Mexican restaurants in the United States, you will see a lot of decorative skulls and skeletons, often engaged in normal everyday activities. For example, on my desk I keep a little sculpture of a skeleton man wearing a yellow cap, walking a skeleton dog. These sculptures are humorous but they are deeply rooted in a Mexican cultural belief. About a year ago there was a very successful animated film, The Book of Life, which explored this belief. Many Mexicans believe that the line between this world and the next is somewhat porous, and that the souls of the deceased continue to exist as long as they are remembered. In the film The Book of Life, there are two realms in the afterlife: The Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. One of our tasks as human beings, according to this belief, is to keep the souls of our ancestors in the Land of the Remembered, where they continue to commune with us and even enjoy the pleasures that they enjoyed while living, and to make sure they don’t wind up in the Land of the Forgotten. And thus it is that Mexicans observe Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when they spend the night in the cemeteries and play the music that their deceased loved ones enjoyed and bring them offerings of food and drink. And the skeleton folk art is part of this tradition as well.

These beliefs and traditions originated well before Columbus and the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico; the film makes this quite clear in that the spirit who rules the Land of the Forgotten is Xibalba, a Mayan word which means “place of fear” and was the Mayan name for the underworld, ruled over by twelve lords each of which is associated with a different form of human suffering. Although the Maya originally observed their day of the dead in late summer, it is now observed November 1 and 2 which corresponds to the Catholic All Saint’s Day.
At first glance these practices may seem thoroughly pagan and certainly not similar to anything we have in Judaism. And yet . . .

Four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Pesach and the second day of Shavuot, we recite the Yizkor service. The heart of this service is the Yizkor prayer itself, which begins “Yizkor Elohim et nishmat . . .” “May God remember the soul of” whoever it is we are remembering. But if we think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why are we asking God to remember? Does God forget? Does God need our reminder? Yizkor exists not to remind God to remember, it exists to remind us to remember. While in theory we can and should remember our loved ones all the time, we don’t always do so. Yizkor serves the same function in Judaism as Dia de los Muertos serves in Mexico; to give us an occasion where the calendar reminds us to remember, so that our dead won’t be forgotten.

But what does memory mean? What does it do?

David Brooks in his recent book The Road to Character distinguishes between what he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.” He’s certainly not the first person or even the first active Conservative Jew to make this type of distinction; Rabbi Harold Kushner said many years ago that “no one ever said to me on his deathbed, gee, Rabbi, I really wish I had spent more time at the office.” But Brooks captures the distinction nicely. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Why are the eulogy virtues what we speak about after a person’s death? It’s because the purpose of engaging in active memory is to provide us lessons about what it means to live life well and thus give us examples to emulate. I will never have the athletic skills of a Roberto Clemente or the acting skills -- or the looks-- of a Paul Newman, but I can emulate their dedication to using whatever skills I do happen to possess for the benefit of those who are hungry and homeless. A eulogy is not meant simply to make us feel good about the deceased, to bring back memories and raise a tear or a chuckle, or both. It does that, of course; but a eulogy also should tell us something about the deceased that we could emulate and in so doing, perpetuate the person’s legacy and in some way that we can’t really explain or understand, keep them alive.

The halachic/rabbinic tradition places a tremendous emphasis on the obligation of a student to quote his or her teacher accurately and by name. In Pirkei Avot Chapter 6, Mishnah 6, we read that “one who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world.” But there is another citation which is similar albeit not as well-known. In Yevamot 96b we read : Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Whenever someone in this world repeats a teaching in the name of a Torah scholar who has ‘passed’, the lips of that Torah scholar move in the grave.”

At the beginning of July I lost my rebbe. Some of you may remember him -- the black-suited gentleman with the long white beard who gave the benediction at my formal installation as your rabbi almost three years ago. It may be unusual for a Conservative rabbi to claim a Jesuit priest as his rebbe but so much of what I strive to be as a rabbi I learned from Father James Walsh, SJ.

Although a Catholic priest, Father Walsh’s area of expertise was the Hebrew Bible. Most of his teaching and research focused on the concepts of power and politics in the Tanach. One of the things that Jim taught his Georgetown students for four decades was the importance of looking at the Hebrew text of the Bible and not just translations. He reminded us that the Bible didn’t use terms like “righteous” and “wicked,” “mercy” and “justice,” but rather tzadik and rasha, hesed and mishpat. When you hear me remind you during a Shabbat discussion of the Torah portion that the ten commandments say neither “thou shalt not murder” nor “thou shalt not kill” but rather “lo tirtzach,” you are now a student of Father Walsh once removed, and Jim’s lips move in the grave.

For many years Jim was a member of the committee of the U.S. Catholic Church which was in charge of the Bible translations authorized to be used liturgically, and on occasion he would discuss with me an issue the committee was deliberating and ask me how Rashi or some of the other commentators read a particular verse. Through him I learned to understand the two main schools of thought about translation. One school insists that any particular Hebrew word should always be translated by the same English word, so that readers who were familiar with a particular Hebrew concept would understand that a verse was talking about “hesed” or “mishpat.” The other school of thought thinks that slavishly insisting on a one-to-one correspondence can sometimes mislead and often leads to translations that are stilted and awkward, since after all Hebrew and English are two very different languages. Both of these points of view have their plusses and minuses, and by understanding their differences we also come to understand that every translation is in fact a commentary.When I take the time to point out where I think our siddur or chumash has mistranslated a particular verse,  I’m not simply being pedantic. I’m hoping that through a greater understanding of our texts and concepts, we can grow intellectually and spiritually. I’m sharing with you something that I learned from my rebbe, and Jim’s lips move in the grave.

At that installation where Jim gave the benediction, I quoted him in the remarks I gave. Some years back Jim won an excellence in teaching award from Georgetown, and used that occasion to speak about the nature of education. He said “education is a matter of “conversation.” It has to do with listening to and taking part in a conversation that has been going on for four or five thousand years. It tries to bring you into that conversation, with Shakespeare and Aquinas and Freud and Plato and Isaiah and a great many other people. It forms habits of mind that make you capable of being part of that conversation: reverence, a historical sense, a certain critical (and self-critical) awareness, an ability to enter generously, sympathetically, and imaginatively into the lives and feelings of people of other times and cultures. It forms in you the ability to listen; to go out of yourself; to be friends. And what do you need to take part in this conversation? Why, those same qualities: the ability to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. The goal and the way to the goal are the same. In this conversation, there are people who have been at it for some time, who want to bring you into it—to share with you what they love, and to enjoy it with you as friends.”

I went on to say that while we Jews often argue about whether Judaism is a religion, an ethnicity, a nation, or something else, that Judaism really is also a conversation. “And what is the Talmud if not precisely a conversation about "what the Bible means" and how to live our lives according to its teachings? One of the most amazing experiences a new student of Talmud can have is to follow a sugya, a discussion about a law or the interpretation of a text, where two sages are debating back and forth and attempting to refute each other, only to pick up a history book or a guide to Talmud study and realize that these two rabbis lived several hundred years apart and one lived in Palestine while the other lived in Babylonia. Obviously, these two sages were not in direct conversation with one another, but their teachings were known. Each had his disciples, and the rabbis of the Talmud were very careful to attribute teachings properly. And so, the editors of the Talmud some 1500 years ago were able to, as it were, reconstruct the conversion that would have taken place between the two -- a conversation across the generations.”

Jim’s obituary in the campus newspaper noted that he was among the first Jesuits to earn a Harvard Ph.D. But his scholarly output was fairly small -- he published one book and a handful of articles. I am not sure why he didn’t publish more, but I suspect it was because he prioritized relationships over pure scholarship. He served as an often-uncredited editor and mentor to many younger scholars, he sang with the Georgetown Chimes and served as the announcer for the women’s basketball team. For most of his career he served as a “Jesuit In Residence” in one of the dorms and he hosted countless students for meals and other get togethers. He travelled the country performing weddings and baby namings; he came to Cincinnati for my ordination as a rabbi and to Atlanta for Keleigh’s and my wedding. Jim taught me a lot about pedagogy and about the Bible but mostly he taught me how to listen, how to nurture, and how to be a friend.

David Brooks again: “We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”

Resume values show themselves in the newspapers and on television. Eulogy values reveal themselves in the small minutiae of life, in the encounter of parent and child, husband and wife or wife and husband, or, Baruch Ha-Shem, husband and husband or wife and wife. You will rarely see eulogy values highlighted in the newspaper, but they are the stuff which makes life tolerable.

Loss is the toll we pay to cross the bridge of life. As I look out over our kehila, I see so many who have suffered loss. Some of these losses were recent, some long ago. Some of these losses were tragic, others less so -- the loss of a parent to old age after a life well-lived. But all of these losses bring pain; life is not a competition and no one dare compare their pain to that of someone else.

A few days before Rosh Hashanah a gathering was held at the Pearlstone Center outside Baltimore to mark the shloshim, the 30th day after the death, of Neely Snyder, the daughter of our congregants Sheila and Jody Harburger. Neely was a Jewish educator who worked and taught at Pearlstone and as we all know she was killed in a traffic accident on her way to work there at the beginning of August.

The shloshim is the end of formal mourning for any loss except for that of a parent, and it marks the time when one stops reciting Kaddish daily. In Israel and in more traditional communities in the Diaspora, a memorial gathering is often held to mark the shloshim, usually including some Torah study as well as tributes to the deceased, and of course prayer services which facilitate the last recitations of Kaddish.

At the shloshim, we were studying a familiar text which among other things explains that all human beings are of infinite value and all of us are unique. In the discussion, Jody compared the teaching of Torah to the planting of seeds. He noted that among those attending the shloshim was the son of one of his own professors, and that the seeds that professor had planted were nourished by Jody and then transmitted to Neely. Neely then transmitted those seeds to so many others, and on and on it goes.

William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar has Mark Antony say that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Our tradition, however, teaches us that this is not true, or at least, it need not be true. The good that men -- and women - do, can and does live after them if we emulate it and dedicate ourselves to transmitting it. May those we loved and lost always be kept in the Land of the Remembered.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon: Remember That You Were Strangers

Kol Nidre Sermon 5776

You may have noticed that on my desk in my study there is a framed picture of me deeply engrossed in conversation with President Bill Clinton. That picture was taken in President Clinton’s second month in office, after he had given a major foreign policy speech at American University, where I was the Hillel director at the time. I had returned from Haiti shortly before Clinton’s speech, and AU’s then-president Joe Duffy had arranged for me to be part of the platform party so that I might get the opportunity to speak with the President for a minute or so.

During his 1992 campaign, candidate Clinton was critical of the first President Bush’s policy of having the U.S. Coast Guard intercept Haitian refugees on the high seas and return them to Haiti. But once he was elected, he announced that he would keep that policy in place. The Washington office of Haiti’s deposed president Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide asked for a delegation of rabbis to visit Haiti and explore the human rights situation there, and I was invited to be part of that group, which went to Haiti shortly after Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993.

There were ten of us in that group and most of us didn’t know each other before we met at JFK airport. Our first night in Haiti we met at our hotel with some of the Catholic clergy who were our hosts, and they asked us to go around the room, introduce ourselves and tell why we had come. All ten of us cited precisely the same reason: the story of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 with 908 Jewish refugees. The ship docked first in Cuba, where the Jews were denied entry; they then came to New York, were denied entry once again, then sailed to Canada, which also refused to allow them in. The St. Louis went back to Germany and most of its passengers died in the concentration camps. Seeing refugees fleeing persecution and being sent back by the United States to possible death was not something we as Jews could sit by and watch. So we came to Haiti to see what could be done. We spent several days meeting with clergy, educators, labor leaders, journalists, as well as a representative of the U.S. Embassy. We wrote a report which I was able to present to the President and shortly thereafter, the policy was changed -- I do not know what role, if any, our report played in that decision.

“Never Again” is the rallying cry of our generation. We remember the suffering and murder of our people and we vow “Never Again.” But what exactly does “Never Again” mean? Is our mandate as Jews simply to make sure that what happened to us once will never happen to us again? Or is it to make sure that what happened to us, never happens to anyone ever again?

Jews are a people of memory, indeed memory is commanded in the Torah. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, attacking the weak and the stragglers; and 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger, because we are to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is quite clear. The purpose of memory is not simply to enable us to better look out for ourselves. It is to give us guidance in how we are to treat others as well. Otherwise, the commandment not to mistreat a stranger is meaningless.

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913. Although it is often believed that the ADL was founded in response to the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent from New York who was falsely accused of raping and murdering one of the female workers in the factory he managed, the Leo Frank case took place in 1915, two years after the ADL’s founding. Among the cases of “defamation” that the League was a response to was an article published in 1908 by Theodore Bingham, the Police Commissioner of New York City, in which he asserted that over fifty percent of all crimes in New York were committed by Jews. 1908, of course, was at the height of Jewish immigration to this country from Eastern Europe. Bingham and others of his ilk asserted that Jews brought criminality, low moral character, poor sanitation, were taking jobs away from native-born Americans, etc. People objected to the fact that many of the Jewish immigrants were not literate in English and many never learned it. In this, they were right; my father tells me that his grandparents lived in this country for decades and never learned English, which is why he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, since his grandparents lived with them.

While no one would deny that anti-semitism still exists in American society, the kind of virulent hatred that our grandparents and even our parents grew up with is long gone. I mentioned in my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah that Jews are the most highly regarded religious group in the United States, and tonight I want to share with you some of that data. According to a 2014 Pew Forum report , on a scale of 1 to 100, with 50 being a neutral opinion, Jews rated a 63, followed by Catholics with a 62 and evangelicals with a 61. The three groups that Americans view unfavorably are Mormons (48), atheists (41) and Muslims (40). Jews are regarded favorably by every other group surveyed, with evangelical having the highest opinion of Jews of any non-Jewish group. Evangelicals rate Jews at 69 but we do not return the favor, giving Evangelicals a 34.

Anti-semitism is far from the biggest problem we face; indeed, it is the lack of anti-semitism which has made it much easier for Jews to assimilate into general society and give up their unique identity. But as Mordechai said to Esther, “think not that you shall escape just because you are in the palace .. if you are silent, you and your family shall perish while deliverance shall come from some other place.”

Less than a week ago at a rally in New Hampshire, a supporter posed the following question to presidential candidate Donald Trump:
Q: We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one.
A: Right.
Q: You know he’s not even an American.
A: We need this question. This is the first question!
Q: But anyway, we have training camps brewing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of ’em?
A: We're going to be looking at a lot of different things. A lot of people are saying that, and you know, a lot of people are saying bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Trump has been roundly criticized for not “defending” President Obama from the accusation that he is a Muslim. But that criticism misses the point entirely. The questioner wasn’t asking Donald Trump if President Obama is a Muslim. He seemed, rather, to be asking Donald Trump when America will get rid of its Muslims. Trump's response --  “we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
In fairness, that is the kind of answer that, as one columnist put it, a car salesman would give to a potential customer who said something outrageous. And as a rabbi I have on occasion had people say outrageous things to me, or in my presence, and rather than confronting them and getting into an unpleasant argument, I’ve simply smiled and nodded and said “uh-huh, uh-huh.” But here was someone advocating at best mass deportations of citizens and legal immigrants who are Muslims, and at worst genocide.
Conor Friedersdorf writing in The Atlantic gave what would have been the correct answer which should have been given by someone who aspires to lead our country: “Sir, President Obama is not actually a Muslim. He is an American. There are no known terrorist training camps in the United States, and if one was discovered, the Obama Administration would aggressively shut it down. And there is never a time when the United States will get rid of American citizens with inalienable rights to life and liberty, nor would I want to get rid of Muslim Americans even if it was totally legal. They are my friends, neighbors, and business associates. Some put on uniforms and fight for this country. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding patriots.”
I hasten to add that I don’t think Donald Trump actually supports “getting rid of” American Muslims. But he has tapped into a reservoir of nativism and racism in our society and I have no doubt that some of his supporters would endorse those measures. And I know that some of my Muslim friends and acquaintances whom I have met over the years through my interfaith work, are convinced that the time is coming when they are going to be rounded up and put in camps as we did to Japanese-Americans during World War II.
It’s not only Donald Trump. Over the past Dr. Ben Carson, a person I admire, made the statement that Islam and the US Constitution were incompatible and that no Muslim American should ever be allowed to be elected President. Proving, I suppose, that being a person of color and having fought hard to overcome bigotry does not immunize one from oneself being a bigot. And of course, John F. Kennedy went through something similar when he became the first and so far only Catholic to be elected president, and had to address fears from some Protestants that if a Catholic became President he would take his orders from the Pope.
President George W. Bush faced a tremendous challenge after the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, in fighting against Islamist terrorism while respecting American Muslims and their liberties. Here is what he said in a speech in 2002: "America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith. America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we're one country. Race and color should not divide us, because America is one country." Later that same year he spoke at the Islamic Center in Washington DC and said: "Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation's ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace."
President Bush got it right. There are Muslims who are dedicated to our nation’s ideals of liberty and justice and there are Muslims who are not. The same can be true of adherents of any other religion or of no religion at all.
Jews and Muslims in America actually have a lot in common. We are non-Christian religions in a mostly-Christian society. Jews and Muslims follow similar dietary practices and there are a number of colleges and universities which have a dining hall that is certified as both kosher and halal. Neither Judaism nor Islam recognizes a civil divorce as sufficient to end a religious marriage and both religions have their own courts to adjudicate disputes within the community as well as personal status -- so if you support a law making so-called Sharia courts illegal, understand that this makes a criminal of every rabbi who has ever participated in a conversion or overseen delivery of a religious divorce since any such law to be remotely constitutional would also have to criminalize Jewish Batei Din as well as Catholic canon law tribunals.
Muslims do face a challenge in learning how to live in a multicultural, multireligious secular democracy. Jews are used to living as a minority while Muslims on the whole are not. But there are many American Muslims, some immigrants and some native-born, who are aware of the challenge and are working on all kinds of ways to counter any tendency towards extremism and help integrate Muslims into American society. Many European societies have serious problems of home-grown Muslim extremism because they have neither encouraged nor permitted Muslims to integrate. When a society tells the Muslims who live in it that they can never really be full participants, it takes away any incentive for them to do so. We must not repeat that mistake here. The bargain that America has always offered, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is that you learn to live by the same norms as everyone else does and we will treat you like we treat everyone else. It’s got to be a two-way street; we can’t reasonably expect Muslims to be loyal Americans and then tell them that they will never be true Americans, their religion is contrary to the Constitution and no one of their faith should ever be permitted to attain the highest office in our land.
That’s why the case last week of Ahmed Mohammed, the 14 year old science nerd who brought a homemade clock to his suburban Dallas school and was arrested, handcuffed, and held for several hours without being permitted to see a lawyer or his parents is so disturbing.
Let’s be clear -- if the school administration thought there was even the remotest possibility that the young man had a bomb, they absolutely had a duty to investigate. But the administration quickly realized it wasn’t a bomb. If you suspect there is a bomb in the school, you evacuate the school and call the bomb squad. They did neither. You don’t bring the suspected bomb into the school office and take pictures of it, and you don’t transport a suspected bomb in a regular squad car to the police station. What Ahmed was originally charged with was bringing a “hoax bomb” to school, a device which could reasonably fool people into believing it was a bomb and cause panic. Once it was clear that the device was not in fact a bomb, there was no danger, and even if it was necessary to question the young man there was no need to handcuff him, perp walk him out of the school, and violate his legal rights under both Federal and Texas law to see a lawyer and his parents. You will never convince him that this didn’t happen at least in part because he is a Muslim. You cannot tell him that the very fact he is a Muslim makes him perpetually a suspect and then expect him to love this country the way that you or I do.
This is not about Jews in the narrowest sense but rather about what kind of country we aspire to be. Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka had an Orthodox Jewish conversion; she, her husband and their two children are active members of an Orthodox shul in Manhattan and are traditionally observant. Many of Donald Trump’s staff both in his campaign and in business are Jewish. I know less about Ben Carson’s attitude towards Jews but he is strongly pro-Israel and belongs to a denomination, the Seventh Day Adventists, whose members feel a strong affinity with Judaism.
Nevertheless there are two reasons that Jews need to stand up to any manifestation of hate speech and stereotyping. The first reason is that our tradition demands it; we are taught to love the stranger and to respect the tzelem elohim, the divine image, in every person. The second reason is that once unleashed, you never know where the demons of racism are going to go next. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote: “When you gain politically by demonizing ethnic groups, or by pandering to those who do, you go from arguably likable eccentric to villain. You go from having kids who think “my dad’s a bit embarrassing, but he means well” to kids who’ll feel ashamed of what you stirred up for years after you leave politics. Those are the best case scenarios. The worst-case scenario is remote, but horrific: that’s where you’re the careless fool who ends the legacy of mostly responsible behavior on this issue, loses control of the forces you’re enabling, and watches in horror as your actions harm a lot of innocents.”
That’s the reason that the Anti-Defamation League on Monday condemned the words of both Trump and Carson, writing that  “we urge all presidential candidates to avoid innuendo and stereotyping of all sorts, including against people based on their faith, particularly American Muslims and, instead, to confront all forms of prejudice and bigotry. Remarks suggesting that all Muslims follow extremist interpretations of Islam have no basis in fact and fuel bigotry.  Whether directed against Jews, Muslims or others, such baseless comments breed hate and have no place in a presidential campaign or in public discourse.” And that is why the ADL earlier condemned Trump’s demonization of Mexicans and other immigrant groups.
Martin Niemoller was a German Lutheran pastor. He was a political conservative and initially supported Hitler, but by 1934 he had turned against the Nazis and was one of the founders of the Confessing Church, an anti-Nazi Christian group. For his activities he was imprisoned and spent 1937 to 1945 in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, narrowly escaping execution. After his release he wrote a poem which many of you know:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Never again. Never.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writing Our Own Story -- Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

There is an old joke about David Ben Gurion debating with some of his inner circle whether or not to declare the statehood of Israel upon the British pullout in 1948. If the state were declared, five Arab states would immediately attack the nascent Jewish commonwealth, not to mention the Palestinian Arabs who were already fighting against the Jews. How could Israel possibly prevail in such a situation?

Ben Gurion is reported to have said: “either the usual thing will happen, or else a miracle will happen, but either way we shall win.”

He was asked to clarify what he meant, and he is supposed to have said: “either the usual thing will happen, and God will save us; or a real miracle will happen, and our soldiers will win the war on their own.”

I’ve heard this joke a number of times and even used it on occasion, but it occurs to me that there is no way that Ben Gurion could have said what was attributed to him. First of all, Ben Gurion was at best an agnostic if not an atheist; more significantly, the whole point of Zionism was to no longer wait for God to deliver His people but rather for us to take matters into our own hands. Ben Gurion had every confidence that his troops were well-positioned to beat the Arab armies, no matter what others might think. He would not have relied on a God he didn’t believe in to rescue the newly-created Israel Defense Forces.

I suspect rather that this joke was born in the Diaspora, because it reflects a certain mentality of the Jew-as-nebbish, the Jew who can’t fight his own battles, the Jew as Woody Allen or Richard Lewis, that is widespread among many Diaspora Jews.

The semi-official motto of Conservative Judaism is “Tradition and Change,” which like most mottos is a gross oversimplification. And anyway, aren’t “tradition” and “change” opposites? If we uphold tradition we are resistant to change; and every change is a move away from tradition.

But as Conservative Jews, we understand that Judaism has a history, that it did not one day fall intact from the sky but rather was developed over centuries by our ancestors. We see that the tradition itself often contains more than one explanation for the meaning of a certain practice. The Sukkah is said to stand for both the booths in which our ancestors dwelt during their sojourn in the desert, and the ananei kavod, the Clouds of Glory, which accompanied them on that journey. Shabbat is a reminder both of the Exodus and of Creation; Shavuot symbolizes both the beginning of the harvest and the giving of the Torah, Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. The practices tend to remain constant but the meanings attributed to the practices change over time.

Prof. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote about this in his seminal work "Rethinking Modern Judaism." Professor Eisen described certain of our religious observances as "regular performances which lend performers the conviction that they are carrying on the essence of their ancestor's faith and practice even while they alter both belief and observance to suit their new circumstances." Or in less academic prose, we convince ourselves that we are doing precisely what previous generations of Jews did, even while we modify both the practice and the significance we ascribe to it. That is why for Israeli Jews, Chanukah is about the Maccabees and their restoration of Jewish national independence, while for American Jews, Chanukah is about freedom of religion.

A classic example can be found in the Chanukah song which in Hebrew is called "Mi Yimallel". The first verse is "mi yimallel g'vurot yisrael, otan mi yimneh?" which means "who can recount the heroic acts of Israel, who can count them?" The verse is based on a Psalm verse which might be familiar to you as it is part of Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals; Ps. 106:2 -- "mi yimallel g'vurot adonai?" "who can recount the heroic acts of God?"

Do you see what has happened here? A verse from Psalms which talks about God's saving power has been transformed into a secular Zionist paean to Jewish heroism. This is perfectly in keeping with the Zionist ethos which emphasizes, not reliance on God but rather reliance on our own actions.

So the psalm verse has been transformed once by its emended inclusion in a secular Zionist Chanukah song. But coming to America it has been transformed again because in English the song begins "Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?" The emphasis is not on the heroic acts of God nor those of Israel, but rather on "the things that befell us." This is in accordance with what the great historian Salo Baron called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history" which sees Judaism primarily as a series of tragedies and oppressions perpetrated against the Jews by others.

Adherents of Baron’s “lachrymose conception” -- which he simply described but did not himself adhere to -- posit that Jewish history is primarily about what others have done to Jews. This is precisely why for many years the study of history in mainstream Israeli schools essentially skipped everything from the end of the Second Temple period through the rise of Zionism in the late 1800s.  Jewish history for Ben Gurion and the other early Zionist pioneers was most emphatically not supposed to be about what others had done to Jews. It was about what Jews themselves had done, and thus there was basically nothing in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple that was worth studying.

I remember back in 1975 when the UN General Assembly passed its infamous -- and subsequently repealed -- resolution declaring that Zionism is a form of racism. And how in response we all began wearing buttons declaring that we were Zionists. A few years after that I became a board member of one of the constituent organizations of the American Zionist Federation and I’ve served as a delegate to two American Zionist Conventions and one World Zionist Youth Congress (when I was still young enough to qualify!) I was an unsuccessful candidate for the World Zionist Congress ten or fifteen years ago, on a slate headed by the late great Theodor Bikel, and some of you may recall that in one of my Friday morning e-mails to the congregation a few months ago I urged you to vote in the elections for the upcoming Zionist Congress and included the link which would allow you to do that. And, of course, I lived on a border kibbutz for two years and slept most nights with an Uzi under my bed.

Most Jews over the age of 40 or so -- unless they are either Haredi or extreme leftists -- will proudly claim the mantle of Zionist. But what does it mean to be a Zionist? Most Israelis would say that we American Jews are not Zionists because a Zionist makes aliyah. The Likud says that the Israeli Labor Party is not really Zionist because a real Zionist supports Jewish settlement in the entire Land of Israel. The Labor Party says that the Likud is not really Zionist because its policies will lead to a bi-national state whereas Zionism is about creating and maintaining a Jewish state.

The best definition of Zionism I have seen lately comes from an unlikely source. Amna Farooqi is a senior at the University of Maryland and grew up not far from here in Potomac. She is a Muslim of Pakistani descent but had mostly Jewish friends growing up and gravitated to Hillel events from the start of her college career. Taking a course in Israel Studies, she said, she “fell in love with Zionism, because Zionism became about taking ownership over the story of one’s people. If Zionism is about owning your future, how can I not respect that?,” according to an interview published in the Times of Israel. Last year she spent a semester studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

This Muslim woman understands what Zionism is -- taking ownership of our people’s future. As I heard writer Leon Wieseltier say at the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium late last month, “Zionism is a conclusion that we draw from Jewish history.” Because if we don’t write our own story, someone else will write it for us.

The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz has often said that Zionism is a surname, a last name. It can be preceded by many first names -- socialist, religious, revisionist, and so on. This has been the case ever since the Zionist movement was created and no group in Israel or the Diaspora owns a monopoly on the term Zionist. Throughout the history of Zionism there have been those who sought to create a socialist Utopia and those who wanted a nation of respectable intellectuals and shopkeepers; those who wanted a state governed in accordance with halacha and those who had no use for religion; those who wanted a Hebrew republic on both sides of the Jordan River and those who favored a bi-national confederation with the Arabs; those who saw Israel as the only place where Jews should live and those who saw Israel as a center of Hebrew thought and creativity enriching the lives of Jews wherever they lived.

What all of these conflicting visions had in common, however, was the idea that it was time for the Jews to take charge of their own destiny. From now on, Jewish history would no longer be a litany of what other people had done to the Jews; rather, it would be the tale of what the Jewish people, working together, had managed to accomplish.

Over the past two years, our congregation has teamed with our neighbors at Shaare Torah to participate in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s “iEngage Project.” Hartman is an Israeli educational center based in Jerusalem, and it created the iEngage Project to change the nature of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel from one based in a narrative of crisis to one based in shared Jewish values.

To quote at some length: “The Jewish community is largely unprepared for today’s uncertainties about the relationship between Israel and world Jewry. The core feature of the "traditional” Israel narrative was the precariousness of Jewish survival. In this narrative, Jewish existence, both in Israel and around the world, was viewed as threatened by inevitable and sometimes imminent danger. This inspired the creation of a Jewish identity in which the survival and perpetuation of the Jewish people and the defense of Jews in danger became central values. Political, economic, and cultural success among world Jewry, coupled with growth in Jewish vitality and creativity, have diminished the compelling nature of this narrative as has the success story that is Israel. Without denying the dangers that Israel still faces on a daily basis, its military power and prowess along with its economic vitality, render a narrative of crisis less meaningful.”

But it is not only about Israel that Jewish leadership projects a narrative of crisis.  Some of you may know Robert Hyfler, who worked for our local Jewish Federation for many years before going on to work for the national umbrella organization of the federations. In a recent article, he wrote that many Jewish professionals project “a crisis of confidence . . . not in themselves, but in those they seek as clients and supporters. . . They are awash with questions as to our collective viability as a community, our demographic future and the set of historic values, both Jewish and American, that define us.”

I began my rabbinic career as a Hillel director, and I started working for Hillel at the same time that Richard Joel became its International Director. Richard revolutionized the way Hillel operates, and one of the things he did was to transform the way Hillel raised funds. He urged us not to raise money from fear, as many Jewish organizations do, but rather from hope. Tell potential donors about all the good things you already do, and then paint a picture of how much more you could do if you had better funding. No one, he would say, wants to give money to buy new deck chairs for the Titanic.

We worry about whether the Jewish community is engaging the next generation of Jews, but the narrative of crisis and decline is, as the Hartman Institute points out, a major barrier to that engagement. Because the idea that we are constantly under threat does not jive with the lived experience of the Jews we are trying to attract. They have grown up in a society where Jews are the most well-regarded ethnic and religious group in the country, where Jews though around 2% of the population are 10% of the membership of the Senate, where no profession is closed to them, where colleges compete for Jewish students by opening kosher dining halls. They have grown up in a world where Israel is ranked the 4th best place in the world to raise children, where Israel has the 11th strongest military in the world and the 24th highest per capita Gross Domestic Product.

My friend Rabbi Danny Gordis, with whom I once shared an office suite at the University of Judaism, wrote in the Jerusalem Post recently that rabbis should talk about Israel on the high holidays but not about the Iran deal or other political issues. Rather, he said, we should encourage our congregants to think about what Israel means to them and what our lives would be like if there were no Israel. “What would be the impact on American Judaism? on Hebrew language? on Jewish literature and culture? on the sense of pride that so pervades American Jews that they can scarcely imagine a world in which they didn't feel it.
The subject isn't Chicken Little's "the sky is falling," but gratitude. How does that tiny, highly imperfect, always embattled country across the ocean affect our lives, wherever we may live outside Israel?”
In a similar vein, Robert Hyfler urges us to abandon our despair: “despair at the normalcy in people’s lives, despair at the impact of many of their own successes and the future of the vital and still efficacious network of voluntary structures that in times of both crisis and quiet undergird day to day Jewish life.  . . despair at the naturally evolving nature of our relationship with Israel.”

Hyfler continues: “We should be concerned about this unraveling and consciously change the narrative to align our institutional thinking with how large numbers of American Jews live their lives and view their Jewishness within those lives. There is a need for a clear affirmation of an American Jewishness which celebrates our universalism, our Americanism along with our bedrock Jewish rootedness.
After 350 years in America it is time to unpack our bags. Doing so would proclaim that Jewish life in America is, and will continue to be, healthy, dynamic, autonomous, robust and evolving. We must rediscover and reinterpret the humanism that is the legacy of both the New World and important themes in classical Jewish religious practices and thought recurrent in the diversity of communities from whence we came.”
Every morning of the year the liturgy contains Shirat HaYam, the song at the sea which our ancestors sang after crossing through the Red Sea. When they got to the shores of the sea, the people turned against Moses. Moses assured them that God would deliver them, but when he then turned to God, God told Moses simply to tell the Israelites to go forward. It is only when they did so that God split the sea on their behalf. For millennia, we have been at our best when we combined our faith in God with a commitment to action. We cannot depend on God to do everything for us, but neither can we assume that our own resources alone are equal to the task.

At this time of year we conclude our services morning and evening with Psalm 27.  In it, David says “though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.” He concludes with a charge to all of us : “Hope in Adonai; be strong and let your heart take courage, and hope in Adonai.” While our generation faces challenges, they pale in comparison to the much graver challenges which our ancestors faced and over which they triumphed. Hope in Adonai; be strong and let our hearts take courage, and hope in Adonai.