Friday, October 13, 2017

When the Student is the Teacher

On Simchat Torah, we read the concluding words in Deuteronomy and without skipping a beat, start all over again with the first chapter in Genesis. With one breath, we read about Moses’ death and with the next, about the creation of the world. It is how we order our year; it is how we order our lives.

Several years ago, a close family friend died. Throughout his long life, Jerry had served as a mentor to me. Recently, his grandson, to whom both my son Ari and I have grown close, shared a surprising discovery: a stack of correspondence between Jerry and me they found when they searched through his library. His grandson scanned the letters and emailed them to me. They remained there, on my computer, unopened.

Until yesterday....


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Simhat Torah's Joy

Many people think that Yom Kippur with its fasting and solemn prayers is emblematic of our Jewish tradition. It is actually exceptional among our holidays. People as well think that the mourner’s kaddish is Judaism’s most important prayer. It is again unique.

Far more typical is the joy of Simhat Torah. Far more commonplace are the blessings associated with food. So important is eating that a mourner is commanded to eat when returning from burying a loved one. So significant is joy that it is a mitzvah to dance with the bride and groom at their wedding.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, writes (and this is among my favorite poems):
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read or write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that—a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
The Jewish tradition attempts to be exacting about joy. It provides us with precise days for our rejoicing.

We are nearing the end of our whirlwind of holidays. Sukkot is called z’man simchateinu, a time of our rejoicing. Nothing is greater than the rejoicing of these precise days. Sukkot comes to a rising conclusion with the holiday of Simhat Torah, the day we begin the Torah reading cycle again. There is no greater blessing than to be able to begin the Torah again. It is therefore a day of great singing and dancing.

There are so many days in our calendar when we are commanded to rejoice. Our happiness is mandated. In the tradition’s eyes, our joy is made precise. Even when mourning brushes up against a festival, the seven days of shiva are abbreviated. Communal joy supersedes personal tragedy. This is the tradition’s view. It is not to say of course that this is how people might feel. Yet Judaism insists, again and again, joy is required, celebration mandated, dancing commanded.

Nowhere is this more evident than at a wedding. Again, it is a mitzvah to dance at a wedding celebration. The sheva brachot, the hallmark of the tradition’s wedding ceremony, echo Amichai’s words: “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who created joy and gladness, bride and groom, pleasure, song, delight, laughter, love and harmony, peace and companionship…”

And then we wrap our arms around each other, circling in a hora until we finally leave the party saying, “It was a great evening. I have no words.”

Is it such a blur?

Or can our joy indeed be made precise?

Let’s see on this Simhat Torah!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Who We Honor is More About Shaping the Future

People memorialize their dead in many different ways. More often than not they etch the names on stones along with a few, selected descriptive traits. I have read, “Loving father, husband, brother and grandfather.” Rarely do I see the individual’s profession listed. “Adoring mother, wife, sister, grandmother and great grandmother.” These memorials are not testimonies to how people saw themselves or even how they defined their lives. Instead they are about how the mourners wish to remember them.

It matters little in fact if the world at large saw them as adoring or loving. It matters little as well if they were on occasion not even so loving and adoring to their own family. These stones are about memory. They are not about history. They are about how we honor our dead. They are about how we fashion the remembrances that help us to tell the stories about what was best in those we love. They are not about telling a child who is named for a beloved grandfather about the occasional struggles with anger her namesake once contended with.

Honoring the memory of a grandfather is not about remembering history. It is much more about the future than the past....

Thursday, October 5, 2017

No Time for Gun Violence

During Sukkot we read the words of Kohelet:
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for killing and a time for healing… (Ecclesiastes 3)
No! This week, I reject these words.

I am old enough to have witnessed monumental cultural shifts that I never imagined would come to pass. In fact I attended high school in the days when people thought drunk driving would forever be a part of our culture. Schools were accustomed to the grim task of comforting students after a teenager was killed when driving under the influence. But then Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded and the world began to shift. By the time my brother graduated from high school, four years later, parents and their teenage children had begun to adopt different attitudes.

Drunk driving was no longer viewed as acceptable. The term designated driver, unknown and even derided during my high school years, became commonplace. Of course people are still killed by drunk drivers. And teenagers still do dangerous things. This problem, and its tragic consequences, can never be completely eradicated. But the number of deaths has declined. More importantly, the culture of acceptance was by and large erased.

I am saddened that 58 people were murdered, and over 500 injured, by a lone gunman in Las Vegas. I am angered that such massacres have become commonplace. I am outraged that I read the papers and watch the news as if such events are to be expected. My acceptance of these massacres is an outrage. Our acceptance is damning.

It is possible to change our culture.

It is possible to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for people to stockpile guns and ammunition as if they are preparing for war. I recognize that many people see gun ownership as a fundamental right, but it should be obvious that no rights are absolute. There can be sensible limits. There can be reasonable controls.

How about this for starters? If the weapon, or the ammunition, is designed for the military then it can only be used by the military and not purchased by an ordinary citizen. How about required safety classes? How about aggressive licensing? Guns are lethal. We should be able to safeguard people’s constitutional rights while better ensuring the safety of all citizens.

When I was in high school we became accustomed to the occasional tragic news story following the weekend of parties. It was all too familiar. That is no longer so commonplace. That is no longer deemed acceptable.

Instead our children are now taught lock down drills. Why is this deemed acceptable?

I am old enough to remember, and still young enough not to be resigned to fate.

The world can change. The world must change.

Long ago the rabbis debated whether Kohelet’s words should be called sacred. They argued about this peculiar biblical book. It is unsettling. It suggests that all our pursuits are futile. It opens with the declaration: “Utter futility! Utter futility! All is futile!” It is depressing in its fatalism.

Today it mirrors the words of countless politicians and pundits.

Why did the rabbis argue about this book? It is because it runs counter to the Jewish ethos still echoing in our ears from the High Holiday prayers. We can change. We can make amends. Our lives are in our hands. Our destiny is for us to shape.

In the aftermath of yet another massacre I will no longer accept what has become all too commonplace. It is not only about the shooter’s psychology. It is also about how many weapons he was so easily able to amass. It is these weapons that transformed his killing into a massacre. The countless attempts to understand his motives undermine the more important efforts to bring about meaningful change.

We can no longer align ourselves with Kohelet’s resignation.
There is a time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing.
This did not have to be such a time! I will not share in the author’s fatalism. I say instead, “A twisted thing can indeed be made straight.”

I am old enough to have witnessed monumental cultural shifts that I never imagined would come to pass. I therefore believe that change is still possible. I am young enough not to place faith in Kohelet’s pessimism. I refuse to be discouraged by his resignation to fate.

We must instead have faith that the world can change. We must believe that we are destined to be the agents of such change.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Meditation on Mourning and Loss

What follows is the meditation I shared at the start of our congregation's Yizkor Memorial Service.

It is often the smallest of things that remind us of those we love. It is often the seemingly insignificant that grab you and create those pangs of loss. More often than not they also provide the spark for the largest of memories.

A little over a year ago my Uncle Bob died. He was my father’s older brother. His death followed a lengthy decline. In the scheme of tragedies that I witness his death could not, and should not, be called an injustice. He lived a long life filled with accomplishment and surrounded by family.

Like many, and most especially those in my family, he had some idiosyncratic habits. Among them was a love of large, leafy hostas. And so I think of my uncle every spring when I see those bluish, green leaves begin to unfurl.

He also only drank tea, never coffee—and never those fruity flavors but what he deemed the more authentic Earl Grey or English Breakfast. The water had to be brought to a boil, not in a microwave, but in a kettle, on the stove. And then after allowing the tea to steep for the required minimum of five minutes, he would take the tea bag out of the cup and wind the string tightly over the bag and around the spoon in order to squeeze every bit of tea out of the bag. And then he would say, “Steven, I need a plate to put my spoon and tea bag on. To this day, I never brew tea in the microwave.

You would never imagine that spying a stranger in a Starbucks taking the tea bag out of his tea and then wrapping a spoon around the bag to likewise squeeze out every ounce of tea could bring one to tears over a year later, but such is the journey of mourning and loss. It is the smallest of things that serve as reminders and that awaken those feelings of longing. You ache for those things that you once might have even found annoying and frustrating. It is those small things that sometimes only you knew but that made the person you loved who they were.

Remembrances are everywhere. Lessons are easily grasped. They can even be seen in a stranger’s cup of tea. Sparks of lives remain with us always.

We hold on to the smallest of things, and the largest of memories.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Searching for Myself—on a Bicycle

What follows is my Yom Kippur Morning sermon about what should truly define our lives.  Hint: it's not my triathlon medals.

Some good news for this Yom Kippur. Perhaps you have already heard this. This coming May the Giro d’Italia, the famous, although unheard of outside the cycling world, three-week Italian cycling race will begin not in Italy but in Israel. Yes, that’s right, in Israel! In fact the first day of the race will finish outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Day two will travel from Haifa to Tel Aviv and then on the third day the riders will race from Beer Sheva to Eilat. And then the teams will board planes to finish out the remaining eighteen days of racing in Italy. There, the finish will be held in Vatican City. I realize that my enthusiasm and excitement about this may not be shared by everyone except a few people or even anyone, so let me offer some background and perspective—and perhaps some justification for my passion.

First of all a number of recent articles have stated that cycling is the new golf. Just look at the Peloton craze if you want some additional evidence. More and more people are taking this sport up. It seems more in keeping with our fast paced technological era than the slow game of golf. Along with triathlons, cycling’s popularity is growing in leaps and bounds each and every year. You must realize by now that your rabbi is a trendsetter. I was gluten free well before it was a thing. 21 years ago no supermarket had gluten free aisles. Back then most restaurants thought gluten free meant the food could have no sugar. And I have set other trends as well. I was bald well before Michael Jordan started shaving his head. And I of course always thought that being Jewish was cool—that is long before Madonna decided red bendles were fashionable and Jewish mysticism was fascinating. So hang on.

The Giro is like the Tour de France and is a twenty-one day race in which approximately 200 cyclists compete, racing over 2,000 miles and climbing mountains whose roads sometimes first need to be cleared of snow. Most significantly, it is watched by over 750 million people throughout the world. That is far more than our signature American event, the Super Bowl. And after this past weekend, and the accumulating evidence about concussions, we may soon be in search of a new American sport.

In addition to the more familiar Tour de France there is also a grand tour held in Spain every year. And although there is a tradition that these events occasionally begin outside of their home countries, no tour has ever started outside of Europe—until now. To be honest I am still holding my breath about what will be the Big Start in Jerusalem. A number of the teams are sponsored by Gulf States. Articles have already appeared in the European press speaking about “sport washing.” I worry that BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) supporters might pressure tour organizers to change their plans, but thankfully I have not read about any such concerted efforts. And I actually subscribe to several cycling magazines. Teams have to start making plans, build their rosters and fashion strategies based on the course. Team Sky could very well be led by Chris Froome who I am sure you know won both this year’s Tour de France and Spain’s grand tour. And the image of him racing on his custom made Pinarello bicycle outside of Jerusalem’s Old City’s walls is almost too exciting for this cycling obsessed rabbi to imagine. Let that image be the counter point to Rosh Hashanah morning’s sermon. And just think; if your rabbi was not such a trendsetter you might not even know about this great news.

But wait, there is more. This year’s race will honor the memory of the Italian cycling legend, Gino Bartali who won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948 and the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946. In addition he won the Giro’s mountain stages a record seven times and stood on the winner’s podium over 170 times. In fact he was one of the pioneers in developing the derailer that so many of us depend on to climb hills. He accomplished these feats despite the fact that he could not compete during the most promising years of his career, those spanning World War II.

Yet it was precisely because of what he did during those years that he is being honored. It was during those years that he helped to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Gino Bartali began working for the underground in September 1943 after the Germans occupied much of Italy. During this time over 10,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps. 7,000 died there. His clandestine job was to smuggle false papers to help Jews hiding from the Nazis. And so Bartali rode from Florence to the outskirts of Assisi and back again, with these smuggled papers hidden in his bicycle’s frame. He convinced the Nazi soldiers guarding the road that he was on a 235-mile training ride. When he was stopped he would protest the soldiers’ efforts to examine his bicycle too closely saying that it was perfectly calibrated for maximum speed and that they should not even touch it. He rode this route at least 40 times. On other occasions he also rode to Genoa, which is 145 miles from Florence, where he would pick up money to distribute to Jewish families. (Those are some really long Strava segments.)

Florence was liberated in August 1944 so by my calculations he rode over 10,000 miles in one year’s time. His efforts helped to save some 800 Jews. It was also recently revealed that Bartali hid a Jewish family in his cellar during that painful year of the German occupation. Giorgio, then a young boy, still remembers the day the British entered Florence and he was able to leave Gino Bartali’s basement and walk the city’s streets. “I went out and saw a British soldier with the word ‘Palestine’ and the Star of David embroidered on his shoulders. (The soldier was a member of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.) I went up to him and started to hum the Hatikvah. He heard me and spoke to me in English. I understood that we were free, thanks to Gino…”

Yad VaShem researched the details of Bartali’s story in order to determine whether the cyclist merited the designation of Hasidei Umot Ha-Olam, Righteous among the Nations, the highest honor given to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. To be honest, some of these more extraordinary details are debated by scholars. Nonetheless, Yad VaShem determined that Bartali deserved the designation of Righteous Among the Nations. His efforts helped to save Jewish lives. Witnesses testified to this fact. In 2013 Yad VaShem planted a tree in his honor among the forest of trees honoring these righteous gentiles. Gino Bartali did not live to see this recognition. He died in 2000. He remained humble and even secretive about his clandestine, and dangerous, wartime efforts. On one occasion, however, he offered a few words about his remarkable deeds. Bartali said, “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."

That phrase sticks with me. Some medals are pinned to your soul. I thought of that phrase the moment I returned home this summer after completing my first triathlon, proudly wearing the finisher’s medal around my neck. My daughter Shira said, “Abba, is that a participation trophy around your neck.” One of the wonders of having children is that they keep you honest. They make sure you stay true to your teachings. They remind you of when you veer. She continued, “I remember once hearing a rabbi’s sermon about how we give out too many participation trophies, about how if we get a trophy for everything we do we never learn how to lose with dignity and grace. How failing and then learning from our failures are even more important parts of life than successes and triumphs.” That rabbi was of course me. My triathlon medals are now in the closet along with all of Shira’s and Ari’s medals and trophies. I was grateful for the reminder. It’s just a race, after all.

The V’Ahavta commands us to teach our children. Lesson learned. Teaching briefly forgotten. It states: “V’shinantam l’vanecha.” This is usually translated as “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” But the Hebrew comes from the word “to repeat.” I have often wondered why it would say we are to repeat these words to our children. Repeating things are often my weakest moments of parenting, when I repeat over and over and over again to my children, “Don’t forget to… Don’t forget to…” My children then get annoyed or frustrated and more often than not the advice gets ignored. But they see what we do repeatedly. They see how we spend our time. They see how we speak to others—most especially how we speak to our own parents. It’s hard to demand respect and love if you don’t speak words of kindness to your own parents and if you don’t wrap your own arms around your own mom and dad. Do our children see their parents speak to each other with tenderness? Children carefully listen to the public pronouncements we make. Those are the greatest, if often unintended, lessons we offer. They study our lives. And they see what kind of examples we proffer. That is what they model themselves after. It is far more important what they see us do and say rather than what we tell them to do, no matter how many times we say it.

Ask this on today’s Yom Kippur. Do we lose our temper with our children, with our parents, with family and friends? I have often thought that anger is a strange thing. People frequently get angry with those they are closest to and care the most about rather than getting angry at the injustices they see in the world around them. We lose our temper with spouses, with children, with friends. We read about the injustices, the atrocities, the tragedies, and the natural disasters in the morning’s paper and then go about our day. Puerto Rico is facing a desperate situation. Rise up and get angry. But I have a schedule to keep and a job to do. And so we get angry not at our teetering world but with those we love. Better to scream at a protest rally than yell at someone we love. This past year I have in fact attended a number of rallies, mostly in support of immigrant rights. I was at JFK airport the day the travel ban was first signed and then again, with a few of my students, in the cold and rain at Battery Park attending another similar rally. I have also traveled to Washington DC in support of the State of Israel when it was under attack and as well in past years to the capital again to speak out against the genocide in Darfur.

There is great value and importance in protest. Religion is meant to fix the world not just repair our souls. Judaism calls to us, “Don’t be silent!” We should do more protesting. We must take action. The world is beset by injustices. We are commanded not to turn away, never to be a bystander. Even better we should get in our car and travel to South Huntington during the frigid days of winter and help feed the hungry and cold people (yes, people!) who are waiting along Route 110 to get picked up for a day of work. That is what Gino Bartali’s example reminds us. You should get angry at injustices. You should get out there and help. Let the world’s injustices serve as goads to action. Get angry less with family and friends. Get indignant about the world’s problems. Rise up! Protest! Direct your anger in the proper direction. And go out there and better the world. Those are the kind of medals we need pinned to our souls.

David Brooks recently authored a book in which he drew a distinction between resume values and eulogy values. Eulogy values are the character traits by which we wish to be remembered. Resume values are those that help us get the next job. They are about the career successes. They are about the added line on a biography, “Triathlete,” that my family insisted I could not add until after I completed my first triathlon. They may appear to be how we spend the better part of our days, but they should not be what define us. What medals do you want pinned to your soul? Sure I want first place. Doesn’t everyone? Does it really matter? Will I instead be thought of as honest? Will we be remembered as kind? Do we remember to say, “Thank you,” for the most ordinary of things? Will we be thought of as giving?

Do we wish to be defined by our individual pursuits and achievements or those that involve others and impact the community and world at large? Are we not only generous with our money, giving tzedakah to the many worthy organizations that uplift our lives but also generous with our time? I have been thinking about this a lot lately. As important as it is to give tzedakah, it is comparatively easier than giving our time. We open our checkbooks and send a check to an organization we support or an organization a friend asks to donate to. Do we give more than was asked of us? Do we give a little more than what we can afford? But giving of our time, this is a more challenging demand. We lead busy lives. We adhere to frenetic schedules. And I am not even talking about our kids. We have to get to the gym in the morning. We have to catch the train. We have dinner plans with friends we have not seen in years. How can we fit volunteering into our demanding days? And yet this is what will be remembered. This is what can define us. Is it our jobs that make us who we are or the time spent laboring on a volunteer board? Is it the time devoted to a synagogue, for example, that gives our lives meaning?

These organizations, which provide our lives with meaning and definition, are dependent on volunteers. I understand that most of us are hesitant to volunteer for something whose time commitment is ill defined and open-ended. How many meetings does it entail? When are the meetings? What is my expected donation? We want to know how we can fit it into our schedules. We are so busy. We have to check emails, text messages and Facebook. We have to shuttle our children to and from this activity and that. We have to work out. And I did not even mention work commitments. How can we schedule volunteering into such a harried paced existence? You should know this. Synagogues are not wholly dependent on the professionals who serve them. So thank you to our president, and our board, and to all those who volunteered before them, and to the many more who will volunteer after them. We could not do any of this without you. And to everyone, sign up to do one task, one volunteer job, in this coming year.

Ask this simple question, how can we construct lives of meaning without giving of our time to others? The time we devote to others, to our community, to our country define our lives. I know it sounds decidedly old fashioned, but I still believe it to be true. We have to figure out how to make more time for others in our busy lives. This is the good we must do. These are the medals pinned to our souls.

There really should be only one question we are asking ourselves on this Yom Kippur. What do we want pinned to our souls? Do we lead lives of honesty and integrity? Do we wish to live a life defined by hobbies and passions or by values and character? There is nothing wrong of course with being an avid cyclist or tennis player or runner or sailor or yogi or even golfer. But our devotion to sports may need some reexamination. These pursuits should not define who we really are.

Judaism demands that we work to bring a measure of good to our fractured world, that we add blessings to the community at large. This is the essence of our New Year greeting, Shanah Tovah. It is a mistranslation to wish each other “Happy New Year” at this time of year. This would imply that our goal for each other is the achievement of personal happiness and individual fulfillment. That is nice but it is not what we most hope for. It is not what the goal of our lives is meant to be. We wish each other Shanah Tovah, a good year. To be good, to lead a life devoted to goodness is a life-long pursuit. It requires as much training and as much hard work as any cycling race or any triathlon.

What are the medals we want pinned to our souls? Ask that question over and over again and then this coming year will indeed be a Shanah Tovah, a good year. It will be a year filled with doing good.

Fashioning the Sacred

What follows is my Yom Kippur Evening sermon about the challenges found at our holy sites.

This past summer I was fortunate to travel to Israel and in particular Jerusalem where I studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute. I remain grateful for my congregation’s recognition of how important it is for its rabbi to renew his learning. During the course of my two weeks I had occasion to visit the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al-Aqsa Mosque. In fact I visited them all in one morning, one right after the other. I continue to reflect on that morning’s visits.

First a bit of history and context. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the silver domed mosque that sits next to the golden domed Dome of the Rock. It figures prominently in virtually every photograph of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to Muslim tradition it is the place where Ishmael was nearly sacrificed by Abraham and to where Mohammed was transported from Mecca on the night journey. In the early days of Mohammed’s life his followers directed their prayers toward Jerusalem. This mosque is therefore the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. This is not meant of course as a discourse on the history of Islam. Instead I wish to convey what I experienced when visiting this site.

It is a vast and expansive complex. When first ascending to this plaza one is stunned by its size. The geometric designs on the outside of the Dome of the Rock are breathtaking. And yet our experience was less than uplifting....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

We Must See Social Activism as a Goal of Religion

I have great admiration for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was a leading American rabbi whose works continue to inspire. He wrote about the spiritual power we can discover in the Sabbath, in setting aside a day for God infused reflection. He spoke about awe and wonder as the starting points for grasping wisdom. I continue to read his books. I continue to discover enlightenment in his words.

And yet I admire Heschel even more because of his social activism. He marched in behalf of civil rights. In fact there is an iconic picture of him marching through the streets of Selma, arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. He castigated his fellow rabbis who he believed were more concerned with the minutia of the Jewish dietary laws than with the blood of innocent Vietnamese. His colleagues wondered how he found time for the required prayers when he was so busy marching.

He famously responded: “I was praying with my feet.”

Jews now find themselves in between the two holiest days in their calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Synagogues are packed with people. Rabbis labor over sermons. This is their great, yearly chance to speak to everyone in their congregations. What is the most important message we wish to convey?

It is this....

Yom Kippur's We

What is the most important word of the many, many words we offer on Yom Kippur? Is it Kol Nidre, whose haunting melody transcends the arcane, legal meaning of its words? Is it the Al Cheyt, in which we tirelessly enumerate the sins we may, or may not, have committed? We beat our chests and say, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…”

Is it the Unatenah Tokef prayer whose words evoke fear and trepidation: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…” but whose mellifluous tune uplifts our spirits? Is it the Avinu Malkeinu that reminds us of God’s awesome power but forgiving nature and whose concluding recitation marks the welcome relief that break fast is only minutes away?

It is far simpler than these lofty prayers suggest. It is not so complicated. It is the word “our.” In Hebrew it is not even a word. It is the “nu” attached to avinu and malkeinu located at the end of many words and found in countless prayers.

Lost in the dense liturgy of Yom Kippur is an affirmation of Judaism’s central tenet. We are bound to one another. We lock arms in the words of our prayers.

Over and over again we emphasize the collective “we.” Even when we recount our sins we offer them in the plural. Ashamnu! We are guilty. No one stands alone. All stand together. On Yom Kippur no one stands as an individual.

We can only approach God—together.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira taught: “The techniques available to a group are qualitatively different than what an individual can hope to attain.”

We approach God—together.

This is our strength. This is our foundation.

And this is what we emphasize over and over again on this, the holiest day of Yom Kippur.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Lines of Hate

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about the rise of antisemitism in America.

The president of the synagogue stood before the small congregation gathered for Shabbat services and issued this warning: “Leave from the back door. And be sure to leave in groups.” Outside neo-Nazis and KKK members gathered for the hate filled rally. Shouts of “There’s the synagogue.” could be heard. And salutes of “Seig Heil.” could be seen. For thirty minutes three men dressed in fatigues and carrying semi-automatic weapons stood across the street from the synagogue. Nazi flags were paraded past its doors. The Charlottesville police refused the synagogue’s request to station at least one officer outside. The congregation hired a private security guard instead. Alan Zimmerman, the president of Charlottesville’s Reform synagogue, worried about the congregants’ safety. Imagine if that had been our president’s worry or her task.

There are many challenges facing our world. I could speak about the hurricanes that continue to batter our cities. We pray that those whose communities were devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and now Maria may recover and rebuild quickly. We pray that this year’s hurricane season ends tomorrow and that those recovering from the earthquake in neighboring Mexico may find strength and solace. I could also speak about the scourge of Islamist terrorism that continues to attack our cities. There are many topics about which I could dwell on this Rosh Hashanah. I could speak about the growing loss of connection between American Jews and their inheritance. That might be fitting on other years, and during different times.

This morning we need to speak about the rise of antisemitism in our midst, in our very own country. Years ago I never would have imagined the need to speak about this. Today, as one commentator remarked, it is as if someone has taken the lid off the sewer. All the hate bubbling beneath the surface has emerged and been given far too much air to breathe. Last month Nazi graffiti was spray-painted on a Syosset school. We can no longer pretend it only happens there, in Europe or the Middle East. In my hometown of St. Louis, after a local synagogue led by a rabbi who is among my teachers, opened its doors to shelter protesters, the hashtag “GasTheSynagogue” began trending on social media. And prior to that there was of course the vandalizing of a St. Louis Jewish cemetery. I cannot avoid talking about this any longer.

To be honest I have not yet figured out if this hate always existed and that all that has changed is people feel freer to express their views, if social media has opened a window to a cesspool that was always present. Here are some sobering statistics. A recent poll determined that 7% of Americans agree with views expressed by white nationalists. 4% agree with those of neo-Nazis. To put that in perspective, less than 2% of Americans are Jewish. What we witnessed in Charlottesville should be a wake up call. For starters can we get one point straight? We should stop using the term neo-Nazi. It is Nazi plain and simple. If people are sympathetic to this evil ideology they are Nazis. There is nothing new about it. This is an old and dangerous hatred.

This is an ideology that believes in racial superiority, that runs counter to the Jewish ethic that all human beings are created in God’s image, that was responsible for the murder of six million of our people, and against whom our country fought a bloody and costly war. I quote from an email from a long-time family friend: “This one hit me very hard. As a veteran of World War II, and a combat soldier, we fought to destroy the Nazis and what they stood for. Hundreds of thousands of American men and women died fighting this ideology. Seeing these young men and women wearing signs of the Nazis and their salute, uttering such hateful statements, made me see red. There is no place in this country for those who parade using the symbols of the very enemy that we fought, died battling against and finally overthrew.”

Social media has provided a forum that the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (yimach shmo—may his name be blotted out) could only have dreamed of. This wonderful network that allows me to reconnect with long lost high school friends or those who now live in far away countries, allows sinister people with hate-filled ideologies to connect with one another. It gives them a sense that their views are more widely held. It provides them with a forum where not only is their speech unchecked but also affirmed. I have come to feel that conversations on the Internet, if we can even call them conversations, are like those moments in eighth grade when we had a substitute teacher. It is as if we are at the moment after the teacher leaves the classroom in exasperation after struggling for an hour to control the rowdy group. We are now in that middle school classroom without a teacher. And our leaders rather than jumping to the front of the room to take charge and offer direction instead sit in the back throwing things at each other.

The efforts to shut down websites and pages are doomed to failure. But we must do a better job of policing ourselves. We must model what our tradition calls right speech. If it cannot be said in person, if it cannot be said face to face, then it should not be said on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter. Don’t text something that really should be said when looking into a friend’s eyes. Anything that might be difficult to say, or painful, or upsetting, should always be said face to face. Sometimes the old fashioned way is the right way.

Let the rise of hate filled speech be a lesson for how we can correct our own speech. It is the High Holidays of course and these are days when we are meant to look inward and better ourselves.

This brings me to the response of our leaders and in particular our president. President Trump continues to equivocate about the violence in Charlottesville. He continues to equate the violent protestors on the left with the Nazis and KKK supporters on the right. They are not the same. We reject the violence of the anti-fascists, and their methods. They are thugs and perhaps should even be labeled gangs. The police should arrest and jail any protestor who resorts to violence. There can be no war on our streets. But theirs is not the ideology that murdered six million of our people. The line does not get any clearer than that. In a country in which we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and in which people are therefore allowed to rally in support of their hate filled ideology we have but one recourse and that is to say loudly and clearly to white nationalists and their ilk, “This is not us. This is not what America is about.” That is what I expect from our leaders. And this is what we should demand of them. That is what we heard from virtually every other politician, both Democratic and Republican.

It begins with knowing history. There is a direct line, and if this sermon is about one thing it is about making such lines crystal clear, between the Nazi venom we saw on full display in Charlottesville and the adulation heaped on the heroes of the Confederacy. Let us remember that the spark for this gathering was the planned removal of a statute of General Robert E. Lee. Again there is a clear difference between those who owned slaves in the 18th century and those who led the fight to defend slavery in the 19th. Slavery is an ideology whose premise is that other human beings are property, a belief again that runs counter to Judaism’s foundational teaching. In May of this past year, New Orleans took down such a statue. Its mayor gave the most remarkable of speeches on this occasion. He said, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity.”

This moment is about standing on the right side of history and humanity. It is about standing for diversity and standing against hate. One side is right and the other wrong. It is that clear. It is about saying “May Heather Heyer’s memory always serve as a blessing.”

But antisemitism is not only on the rise on the far right. It is also found in increasing numbers of the left. There the forum is often the college campus. It is often disguised as hatred of Zionism and the State of Israel. At a growing number of colleges the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement metastasizes into antisemitism. These movements seek to divest from companies that do business with Israel or sometimes more narrowly those who are located in the West Bank. On the surface they seek to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians and the injustices of Israel’s continued rule over the territories. But if you look below the surface you often find views that demonize Israel and see it as illegitimate.

Let me be clear. That does not make all critics of Israel antisemitic. I have many disagreements with Israel. It is not always right. And that should not make others call me an Israel hater or a disloyal Jew. Loyalty, and devotion, is not synonymous with agreement. It is not treason to raise my voice against what I see as the growing anti-democratic tendencies of the State of Israel and the Netanyahu government. I continue to believe that for Israel to more fully realize its founding dream it must adhere to both its Jewish and democratic principles. The less democratic it becomes the more it will lose the devotion of young American Jews. So one can be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and be supportive of the Palestinian people’s aspirations for statehood and remain a lover of Zion. Love is not the same as agreement. (Just ask Susie.)

However too often those who support these BDS movements take on antisemitic tropes. Roger Waters, who will be playing at Nassau Coliseum and who I will not be buying a ticket to see despite the fact that I believe Pink Floyd to be one of the greatest rock bands ever, is an ardent supporter of this BDS movement. He recently compared Israel to Nazi Germany and said, “I’m not sure there are any more harsher regimes around the world.” Such exaggerated demonization of Israel qualifies as antisemitism but it’s also just plain old ignorance, given that in neighboring Syria Assad continues to use chemical weapons against his own people and where 400,000 people have been killed. We have to learn how to draw clear and unmistakable lines.

When someone says that Israel is illegitimate or that there is no Jewish connection to the land of Israel this is clearly antisemitic. The attempt to portray the modern state of Israel as a European colonial implant in the Arab Middle East whose existence is only justified as recompense for the Holocaust is antisemitism because it flouts history. To say Israelis are interlopers and are not in fact Jews who have returned to the place from which they were exiled millennia ago, that we are not bound to Jerusalem because our King David first established a capital there, is to deny the historical legitimacy of Zionism. That does not mean, however, we cannot share Jerusalem with our Palestinian brethren. I will leave that arrangement to what I continue to hope will one day soon be the job of peace negotiators who will figure out how to share a place we both call home and how we each can have safe and secure borders.

Those discussions begin with each of us acknowledging the legitimacy of the other’s claim and for Palestinian leaders and their supporters to affirm the Jewish people’s rightful inheritance. “We have returned.” sums it up. That phrase should constitute the beginning of our discussions. A line can be drawn between those who saw this country’s first African American president as illegitimate and those who call Israel illegitimate. The delegitimization of the other, the portrayal of those with whom I disagree, or those with whom I quarrel, as illegitimate is not how arguments are won or even more importantly how compromises are hammered out.

On the left, and on college campuses, there is a growing tendency to shout down speakers with whom students disagree. I cite an incident involving one of my teachers from Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. Moshe Halbertal’s lecture at the University of Minnesota law school was repeatedly interrupted by the shouts of protestors who called him a war crimes apologist. And what was the title of his lecture? “Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetrical Warfare.” Disagreement does not give one the right to interrupt such a speech. And yet what we are witnessing is the elevation of feelings over thoughtful reflection. My feelings are offended so I will shout and scream. Colleges rush to protect its students’ feelings. They cancel controversial lectures.

Sure students can protest, and they should protest. But everyone gets heard, most especially in the university. There the goal is actually not to affirm my feelings and my convictions but to confront different ideas and have my beliefs challenged and even my feelings unsettled. As American Jews we have placed great faith in the university. Now it seems as if it is abandoning us. In too many instances those who wish Israel be wiped off the face of the earth are given louder voice than those who have spent decades studying history and a lifetime asking challenging questions of ethics and morality. It behooves us to open the dialogue and debate, and listen to those whose views we find unsettling, but whose expertise derives from scholarship.

I fear that that the eighth grade teacher-less classroom so prevalent on social media has found its way into the university. Friendship is not synonymous with like-mindedness. My feelings are offended so I will un-friend her; I will turn my back on her ideas. I will scream at the top of my lungs so that no one else will be offended and only the ideas that affirm my preconceived feelings can be heard.

There is a line between honest debate, between sitting across the table from those who hold diametrically opposed views and those who think that only their truth is legitimate. There is a line between those who support Palestinian’s aspirations for statehood and those who seek Israel’s destruction, whose antipathy towards Israel is tinged with antisemitism and filled with hate, and those who love Israel but are critical of it.

And so what are we to do? What should be our response? I can tell you what I plan to do. I am going to double down on the American dream. I am going to further embrace American pluralism and diversity. I am going to seek out not so much those who say, “Rabbi, I could not agree with you more,” but those who held different ideas and beliefs. I am going to seek out Jews who think my views are leftist, and Muslims who do not share my love and devotion to Israel, and Christians who believe that I am missing out on an even greater part of the Bible.

This place called America is not so much defined by borders and geography. It is not about religion or ethnicity. It is about an idea. It is a sanctuary for all those who wish to embrace this idea, and who come here like my grandparents did, with dreams of a better life for their grandchildren. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I was reminded of this idea when I saw the pictures of the sailors killed on the Navy warships John S. McCain and Fitzgerald. They were a tapestry of immigrants. There I could see the diversity that makes this country great.

And I am reminded of this idea when I recall the ten years I carried church keys in my pocket. What was normal for a good part of my rabbinic career was extraordinary in the history of religions but then again ordinary for the history of America.

I recall this as I remember my son’s long time friendship with Huey O’Connor. I used to look out of my window and see them sitting on the curb after a playing a game of one on one. I would often ask Ari what they were talking about. I assumed sports. He would often say matter-of-factly, “Religion.” And then he would head up to his room as if this was the most typical and ordinary of things, that two young boys would play basketball together and also teach each other about their differences and most importantly never stop calling each other friends. That is what I am going to hold on to. And that is what I will forever defend.

This is what will strengthen this great nation of ours. And this is what will forever safeguard us against hate.