Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why I'm Not Giving a Sermon about Iran on the High Holidays

I’ve never quite understood the expectation that rabbis talk about current issues in the news during their Shabbat and High Holiday sermons. There are occasions when the need to do this is obvious; for example, on the Rosh Hashanah after Hurricane Katrina I gave a sermon exploring the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people and the Jewish response to tragedy. But I can’t recall a single time when I have either endorsed or opposed a specific piece of legislation from the pulpit, let alone urged congregants to contact their representatives to vote a certain way. I certainly think Judaism gives us guidance as to how we should approach the burning issues of our lives; I couldn’t be a rabbi if I didn’t believe that. But that’s a far cry from rabbis having special insights into the details of legislation greater than that of any other educated person.

But I’m beginning to think that my perspective on this question is an idiosyncratic one. I regularly  receive emails from organizations on both sides of the argument about the nuclear agreement with Iran. Some urge me to speak against the deal, others urge me to speak for it; some simply assume that I’m going to be speaking about it and therefore offer me resources to help me in writing my sermons.

I’ve never felt the need before to explain to my congregation why I’m not going to speak about a certain subject but that is exactly what the purpose of this message is -- to explain to you why I’m not going to give a sermon about the Iran nuclear agreement.

First of all, I’m not sure that I have anything to say about it that you don’t already know. We have members who know much more than I about the ins and outs of negotiating international agreements. We have congregants who understand the science better than I and congregants who understand the political dynamics better than I. While I do have a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service degree, I was hired to be your teacher in matters of Jewish thought, law and lore, not political science, international relations, or nuclear physics.

But even if I thought that I had some special insight that only I could give you, I suspect I would still not talk about Iran on the High Holidays. And the reason is simple: the debate over this issue has become so acrimonious that I fear bringing it into our sanctuary will simply be an occasion for sinat hinam (hatred) and lashon hara (evil speech) to infect the atmosphere of our holy place.

To be certain, neither side of this debate is solely responsible for the incredibly poisonous atmosphere that has been created. The liberal website Daily Kos ran a cartoon of Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, one of only two Democratic Senators who has so far said they will vote against the agreement, which called him a “traitor” and gradually changed the American flag in his office to an Israeli one. On the other side, a website lets you know whether your Senator is “standing up for America” (by opposing the deal), “standing up for Iran” (by supporting the deal), or is “on the fence.” Somehow, supporting the policy of the President is “standing up for Iran” while opposing it is “standing up for America.”

The sad irony here is that there is across-the-board agreement that Iran must never under any circumstances be permitted to develop nuclear weapons. The argument is over the best way to make sure that doesn’t happen, and I submit that neither side can say with absolute certainty whether the agreement will in fact make it harder or easier for Iran to go nuclear. Either course of action carries with it risks both known and unknown.

Additionally, despite the millions of dollars being poured into lobbying and advertisements, despite the fact that a significant number of Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils have taken positions against the deal, it is almost certainly going to go into effect. According to the rather bizarre “Corker-Cardin Compromise” which governs the vote on this agreement, the agreement goes into effect unless two thirds of both the Senate and the House vote to disapprove. While it’s quite likely that a resolution of disapproval will get a majority in both houses, it is almost certainly not going to garner the 67 votes it needs in the Senate to override President Obama’s inevitable veto. Whether this is good or bad, whether you or I or AIPAC or anyone else agree or disagree with it is irrelevant, it’s what’s going to happen.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in a discussion of Masada vs. Yavneh, there comes a time when we need to make peace with the inevitable and salvage what we can from a difficult situation. Instead of continuing to fight with each other about the Iran agreement, we ought to concentrate on what truly unites us. That is what I think High Holiday sermons should be about, and that is what I hope to do in a few weeks.


Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Friday, August 7, 2015

Masada or Yavneh?

One of my favorite texts in all of rabbinic literature is Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:21, the tale of a discussion between Rabbi Joshua and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple -- through which they both had lived. Rabbi Joshua is grieved at the sight of the Temple ruins; Rabban Yochanan comforts him, saying that we have another means of atonement which is no less efficacious -- acts of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim.)

Rabban Yochanan is a fascinating figure. He was the head of the Sanhedrin (that is what the title Rabban means) during the revolt against the Romans from 65 to 73 C.E. Shortly before the Temple was destroyed, he had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem and struck a deal with the Roman army, allowing him to relocate the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem to Yavneh on the Mediterranean coast. It was Rabban Yochanan’s pragmatism in realizing that there was no point in fighting the world’s only superpower that allowed Judaism to continue. The Zealots continued to fight, resulting in the destruction of the Temple. Some of those who survived retreated to Masada where they continued to hold out for another three years, eventually committing mass suicide in 73 C.E.

There is something paradoxical in that Masada has become a place of pilgrimage but few American Jews have ever been to Yavneh or know the name of Yochanan ben Zakkai. The Zealots of Masada were certainly brave but their course of action lead to a dead end -- the destruction of Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of Jews slain or enslaved, and ultimately mass suicide (certainly a violation of Torah law). Rabban Yochanan was denounced by the Zealots as a traitor and a sellout but the establishment of the Academy at Yavneh lead to the creation of the Mishnah and the transformation of Judaism from a system of sacrificial worship focused on one geographical location to the “portable homeland” of Torah study, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness. 

We may for whatever reason admire the Zealots of Masada but we are here today because of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and his followers.