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.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New Year's Tune Up

Last week I took my car in for its first scheduled 15,000-mile tune up. The tires were rotated. The oil was changed. The brakes were checked, as well as a host of other things that I don’t pretend to understand. Now it was all set for another year. To be honest part of my motivation was that my father would soon be visiting. I was afraid he might notice my inspection sticker was almost out of date. I did not want to hear his reminder, “Steven, you better get your inspection taken care of. You might get a ticket.” I even threw in a car wash for good measure.

The car would now pass father’s inspection, something far more important than New York State’s. After two hours, and couple of hundred dollars, I was all set. The car was tuned up and could pass any inspection. The new sticker was affixed to my windshield.

If only it were that easy for our souls. A few hundred dollars and a few hours in synagogue would be all that was required.

Most people think the High Holidays are like that tune up. They believe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us a time to recharge our spiritual batteries. They look at the rabbi and cantor as mechanics. Bring the soul in for a two-hour tune up at synagogue and you are set for the coming year.

In truth these holidays are more like that inspection. And each of us is our own mechanic. The prayers are meant to awaken our self-examination. Why else do we recite over and over again, “For the sin we have committed…” These days are intended as an opportunity to examine our lives.

The Jewish contention is clear. No one is perfect. Everyone is flawed. All need to inspect their souls. Everyone is in need of repair.

The Jewish faith is emphatic. Everyone can do better. All can improve their lives. Every single person can change and correct their failings.

The inspection is these High Holidays. The tune up lasts a lifetime of effort.

And that is all father really asks of us.

“Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious and answer us, for we have little merit. Treat us generously and with kindness, and be our help.”

We Help More When We Feel Connected

We Help More When We Feel Connected to Tragedy.  Why That's Not Enough.  

Leon Wieseltier once wrote: “Ethical life is the transformation of there into here.”

Recently my congregation helped to ship much needed supplies to those in Houston devastated by Hurricane Harvey. We gathered water bottles, cleaning supplies, diapers and canned food. I was struck by the outpouring of support. We rented one truck, but soon realized that we required two. Strangers showed up at the synagogue with gifts in hand. They had heard that we were gathering supplies and wanted to contribute.

Although it was but a small token of what is required to rebuild and help Houston, and now Florida and the Caribbean islands, I was struck by how many wanted to help and how many jumped to participate. How did a once distant city become so near? For some it was obvious. They are from Houston and had family who was affected by the storm. For others, I imagine, it was their memories of Hurricane Sandy that impelled them to participate.

We still recall the flooded homes. We remember the weeks without power, or heat, or decent cellphone service. We still see the mountains of couches and appliances that waited to be carted away by trash companies. We hear the endless hum of chainsaws clearing downed trees and branches. We recall the parking lots converted into lumberyards filled with trees. There is a direct line between trauma and compassion. The wounds of yesterday make us more caring and even more giving.

If I can remember how it feels my hand might be opened to others....

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Standing Before the Page

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a Hasidic master, was asked: “Why does every tractate of the Talmud begin on the second page? (The first page is not alef, but instead bet.)” He answered: “However much we learn, we should always remember that we have not even reached the first page.”

The greatest lesson our tradition offers is that our learning is never complete. That is why we read the same books year after year. We are always starting again, and again, and again. There are those who read a page of Talmud every day, completing the cycle in seven years. And in synagogue we read the Torah in one year’s time, dividing our study into weekly portions.

There is always more to learn.

This week’s portion states: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant… I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29)

We too stood at Mount Sinai. And each and every time we study Torah we stand again before the Lord our God.

As we approach the High Holidays the question remains, where do we stand? Do we wish to stand before God? Do we wish to renew our commitment to learning? Do we wish to open our people’s book anew?

I understand that it may very well feel daunting that we have not even reached the first page. Why even start a book that I know I can’t complete? Let it instead be inviting. There is no one so wise and of such great learning that they have already reached the first page. Everyone begins for the first time, on page two.

Our books await.

Where do we stand?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Hurricanes and Doing Right

On days such as these when we watch The Weather Channel incessantly we begin to wonder, “What did we do to deserve such calamities and disasters?” Two hurricanes in a matter of weeks, and another one trailing behind! What’s going on with the world?

We begin to think like the ancients, “Are the gods angry with us? Have we unleashed nature’s fury by failing to better care for our precious world?” Our ancestors did not understand the laws of nature. They sought to draw connections between natural disasters and their own behavior. The Torah makes this line crystal clear. Our moral behavior influences whether or not the rain falls and whether or not, for example, the earth will yield food.

Take a few verses from this week’s portion as evidence.
If you do not obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: 
Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. 
Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 
The Lord will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake… The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out. (Deuteronomy 28)
It is a rather unpleasant list. It does not represent my theology.

And yet it is a powerful reminder of our responsibilities to the world at large. How might my behavior improve if I imagine that my actions keep the world in balance? If I act unethically, the world might tip toward chaos. I hold the world in my hands. What we do, and don’t do, affects everyone.

Long before the Internet tied the world together and fashioned an awareness of a global community, the Torah bound us together through our morality. My poor decisions don’t just affect me, and perhaps my family, but the entire world.

The corollary is of course also true. If we behave morally, and ethically, then the world might right itself.

This morning, along with the help of so many of you, I participated in that righting. We packed a truck with supplies bound for Houston and those now rebuilding their lives from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Even though our massive outpouring of support might only be a fraction of what is needed it inspires me to do more. We participated in repairing the world one small step at a time, slowly helping to right our precious home.

And while I do not believe that my inattention to any of the commandments brings on hurricanes I take heart in the Torah’s notion that I can do something even from afar. I take to heart the Torah’s insight that strangers are bound to one another. If that far away person has fallen down I can certainly do my part to help lift them up.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Standing Against Hate

Prior to the High Holidays American rabbis have participated in a conference call with the President of the United States. This year there will be no such call. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis decided to forgo this tradition in an effort to protest President Trump’s handling of the hate rally and violence in Charlottesville and in particular his failure to unequivocally condemn those whose ideology our nation fought bloody wars to defeat. This is a decision I support. On this occasion I am particularly proud of my membership in the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Here is the full statement:
The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come. 
In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holy Day greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year. 
The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels. 
The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuvah for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.

Typically I am given to debating all opinions. I welcome disagreement. There is, however, only one response to antisemitism. It must be categorically and unequivocally rejected.

I expect nothing less from my beloved country and its leaders.

There is no room for hateful ideologies within our nation’s tapestry. There were no fine people among those marchers.


I pray that our President will come to see this important distinction.

What My Bike Accident Taught Me

I am an avid cyclist. Perhaps too much, some would say. Over the years I have ridden some 20,000 miles, much of it on Long Island’s roads. I am very familiar with the roads in and around my home. I know where there are rough roads. I know where there are potholes and most especially speed bumps.

And yet today, I crashed on a familiar road and a well-known speed bump. I am fortunately ok, despite a great many scratches and a few too many bruises. Friends offered reassurance, comradery and even some humor, “It happens to everyone. As long as nothing is broken, you will heal quickly. Is your bike ok?” Family offered love and “Thank God’s.”

After a crash, or an accident, or any mishap one reviews the events and plays the scene over and over and over again. Why did this happen?...

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.