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Bo Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion we read of the final three plagues: locusts, darkness and the killing of the Egyptian first born.  That darkness must have been really terrible after spending all those days covered with swarming locusts.  That darkness was a torture of memories of prior plagues.

Much of the focus of these plagues is obviously about how we respond to our enemies.  The message is clear.  If they don’t do what is right then bring on the plagues.  To reiterate, we have every moral right to battle our enemies, and even if necessary to kill those who threaten us.  Whether it is Pharaoh, Amalek, Haman; bin Laden, Hamas or Iran we have that moral right.  Clearly Israel and America live by this principle in the current clandestine war against Iran, and in particular against its efforts to build nuclear weapons.

We are however limited in this fight.  We can only kill those who threaten us.  When the military is used as a means to mete out swift justice this transgresses basic democratic principles.  Thus we must carefully use the military only against those who threaten our lives.  That is its purpose; it is that purpose alone that the military serves—namely defense.

But what about our enemies within?   These issues and their related moral judgments only apply to our external enemies.  Although we face painful and wrenching choices in confronting these external enemies, the moral lines seem very clear.  Of course you must defend yourself.  As long as we never lose sympathy for other human beings, we can strike out against those who threaten us.  In confronting these enemies we must always remember that even our enemies are deserving of humanity.  Today we see before us many painful choices, but clear answers.

Then again, what about the questions regarding our enemies within?  If you think about it the remainder of the Torah is all about our internal battles and confronting these naysayers and internal enemies.  After the plagues it was all about how we get along with each other.  “Not so well,” is the Torah’s short answer.  Then again that Torah is still being written.  We are still very much wandering through that wilderness.  Today there is a battle going on for the soul of Judaism.  We are nearly at war with each other over the Jewish future.  Clearly military might cannot be used to achieve our desired ends.  Thus how we face the enemies within our own midst is a more difficult and even more wrenching question.

I am not sure if everyone has kept up with some of this news, so let me offer some sobering illustrations.  In Israel especially the struggle for the soul of Judaism, and the definition of what it means to be a Jew, is reaching a fever pitch and perhaps even a breaking point.  A few examples from the news.  Organizers of a conference on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel.  Ultra-Orthodox men spit on an eight-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed.  The chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers performed. Protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.  Vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.  A distinguished professor of pediatrics whose book won an award from the Ministry of Health was instructed that she could not sit with her husband at the ceremony and that a male colleague would accept her prize for her because women were forbidden from the stage.

To be sure Israel is far superior than its neighbors in terms of women’s rights.  This does not mean, however, that this battle should be forgotten, or the struggle avoided.  There are other examples of the increasing Haredization of Judaism in Israel.  Some extremist settler rabbis have begun to speak about the lives of Jews as more precious than that of others, thereby betraying the Torah’s principle that all human beings are created in God’s image.  Still it appears that the greatest fault line exists over women’s rights.

I do not wish to debate who understands the tradition better and who can cite texts to support their position with greater authority.  I can cite Jewish tradition as to why there should not be such limits on women’s rights.  I can quote some of my Orthodox colleagues who are slowly changing things in their own community (see especially Dov Linzer’s New York Times article for evidence of this).  That as well is not my interest.

What makes me a Reform rabbi is that I can stand here and say that thousands of years of Jewish tradition is wrong and it needs to change.   This is the essence of Reform—we must reform the tradition, we must change it.  In a nutshell, Reform places change front and center.  Our first response is to reform what in our judgment is wrong.  As a contrast our Conservative friends place conserving the tradition first.  Their first response is to preserve the tradition.  Change is a last resort and even then it is dressed up as reinterpretation, or the rediscovery of a minority opinion.

Such distinctions are matters of differences between friends.  Reform, Conservative and Orthodox seek to live as Jews in the modern world.  All attempt to make their way both as Jews and moderns.  Our differences should not be with our Conservative and Orthodox friends.  Our differences are instead with the Haredi, the ultra-Orthodox, who shun everything modern.  They wish to live in a world only of yesteryear.

They wish to define Judaism not just for themselves but for all Jews.  They wish to write liberal Jews out of their world, and even out of the Jewish world.  Some years ago one rabbi said, “Only one who believes in the God of Israel and in the Torah of Israel is entitled to be called by the name Jew.”  Another therefore declared, the world’s Jewish population is one million.  There is no room for pluralism or debate in their worldview.  How are we to respond to these battles within our own tradition and people?

First of all I must say, I will not resort to violence even if they do.  I cannot argue or reason with these ultra-Orthodox Jews.  With a fundamentalist of any stripe reason openness to other opinions is not an option.  The values of ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, and am echad, one people, do not extend to Jews who act or believe differently than they do. 

I must therefore support efforts to bring to justice those who use violence to force their views on others.  In Israel I must support efforts to change the political system so that ultra-Orthodox parties no longer have undo influence over Israel’s political decisions.  I must support efforts to bring the ultra-Orthodox into a modern, working society—no more exemptions from the army, no more exemptions from work in favor of study.  Still these are not my most important responses.

Most important I must remain secure in my identity.  I must not look to the right or the left for approval.  No one can say how I am to live my Jewish life.  If I remain secure in my Jewish identity then it does not matter what others say.  I cannot build my Jewish life on the opinions of others—only on my own.

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman’s new book is called The God who Hates Lies.  In it he argues that both God and the self hate lies.  A Jewish identity is first and foremost built on honesty.  He writes: “The tradition itself, compared by the midrash to living waters, contains powerful and plentiful theological resources for responding to the shifting cultural landscapes of our ever-emerging historical drama.  For too long these waters have sat stagnant, awaiting a community of inheritors, a living tzibur, sufficiently confident, willing, and thirsty to tap into them.”

That is our only answer—to be both confident and thirsty.  Confident in our identity.  Thirsty for a better tomorrow.  I must not rest until that thirst is sated.