High Holy Day Sermons 5775/2014
Human or Inhumane
Rabbi James Prosnit dddd Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Here’s one of my favorites of his entitled Pedagogical.
In a history paper in college I said the period
between the tsars and Leninism was a period
of transition, and my professor wrote in the margin,
“All periods in history are periods of transition.”
I learned nothingfrom that, except that he was a wise guy,
a show-off, someone I would not take again.
Two years later, In a course focused on Stalin
called the History of Power, I wrote passionately
and I thought persuasively
that much of what ‘he’s done was “in human.”
In the margin, the response that may be the beginning
of my intellectual life: “Stephen, when it comes
to things like that, human will do just fine.”
I’m challenged by this simple, yet very dark poem. Do I really agree that the mark of serious thinking is coming to terms with the idea that inhumane actions are central to being human? We’ve seen some horrifying news stories in recent months, so like Stalin’s brutality, do we categorize them as inhumane or all too human.
The beheading of journalists and aid workers, 200,000 dead in Syria, a passenger plane shot from the sky, kidnapped school girls, murdered Yeshiva students on their way home from class; and then as retaliation the killing of a random Arab youngster on his way to prayers. But let’s not just look overseas for examples of inhumanity. While not of the same proportions and caliber we’ve had our series of troubling headlines: harassment of refugee children, police brutality, gun violence, domestic violence, date rape.
These images from recent months are certainly not ones you wanted to be reminded of as we come together to celebrate and greet the New Year. After troubling, at times barbaric stories you were probably wishing I had started my sermon by showing some pictures of my new grandson; not overwhelming you with the realities we encounter in the news. Perhaps about now you’re saying to yourself – I should have gone to the beach.
But let me suggest this evening that the Holy Days that stand before us temper the realism of the day with an inherently optimistic celebration of the human spirit. Cruelty maybe part of our world and even though as a society and as individuals there may be a proclivity to live out baser instincts, such behaviors are not our destiny. These days are here to remind us that our nature is not pre-determined.
In our daily liturgy each morning we can affirm elohai nishama sh’natata bi, t’horah hi -- “the soul that you have given me is pure” so that each day, and all the more so each year, we can begin anew with an image of our nobility, even as we are forced to acknowledge that all around us neither the world, nor we; has not, has never lived up to what God intended us to be.
From the earliest chapters in Genesis, we learn that God was clearly vexed by Cain. According to the Biblical story, Cain was the first human to be born by natural child birth. Cain was disturbed because God rejected his offering, but had accepted that of his brother Abel. “Why are you distressed and why is your face fallen,” God asks. “Sin is like a wild beast. It couches at your door, but you can master it.”
Cain of course chooses not to. Acting on his jealousy, he invites his brother, Abel out to the field and murders him. As the story unfolds, Cain goes on to compound the crime by his lack of engagement in what he has just done. “Where is your brother Abel?” God asks. And Cain responds in a famous line, reflecting haunting indifference, “How should I know, am I my brother’s keeper.” To this it is important to note – that God does not reply. Either the answer is so self evident that it needs no response or God begins to see and sense the complexity and emerging capacity for evil in this human creation. Some commentators suggest that even worse than the murder, the root of Cain’s evil was his indifference.
Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen doesn’t like the word evil to describe inhumanity and cruelty because it implies a person possessed by some supernatural force. Instead he prefers to focus on indifference and empathy as the continuum by which to consider good and evil. Baron-Cohen defines empathy as the ability to identify what someone else’s thinking or feeling and then to respond to with an appropriate emotion. In other words, are you able to extend concern beyond your immediate circle of self-interest, and consider someone else’s needs, wants and wishes even if they are different from your own. He says that is where empathy begins.
But, if you are indifferent to the concerns of others, if you are unable to allow for the possibility that the needs, thoughts, feelings – the humanity – of another can impact your own behavior, well, that is the erosion of empathy. And when you arrive at the point, where you are so absorbed in your own beliefs and ideology and are so indifferent to the humanity of another, that is where evil (minus all the supernatural stuff) begins to be found.
As the British philosopher Edmund Burke famously explained, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is a rather simple calculus, but it is a remarkably accurate litmus test by which to track man’s inhumanity over the course of human history.
Noble laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel challenges us all: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented… there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Jewish history has other examples of individuals who chose to respond to this kind of evil by asserting empathy. Think of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who narrowly escaped the Shoah, and lost nearly his entire family. His response, significantly, was not to freeze up, not to turn solely to parochial concerns. It was his awareness of humanity’s indifference to the plight of the Jews in the Shoah that drove him to fight against injustice, to march (50 years ago this summer) with Martin Luther King, to rage against what he called the evil of indifference.
In Heschel’s famous terms when he marched in Selma, his feet were praying. My friend and colleague, Susan Talve, a rabbi in St. Louis did the same this summer. Her empathy for the grief of Michael Brown’s mother and her realization that race and class have created two sets of rules for young men in our society led her to join the peaceful protests in Ferguson. But she has a personal connection as well.
She wrote, “I marched with a tall black 16 year old who lives in Ferguson and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and confirmation in our synagogue. As we were marching together, I heard a shout from the side of the road. It was a white ex marine St Louis City police officer who had come to help keep the peace. Rabbi Talve! Don’t you remember me? You did my Bar Mitzvah!
“So there I was marching between two young men who shared common ground in Torah, one a kid of color from Ferguson who just wants to get back to school and the other a police officer whose job it is to keep him safe.” Relationships can do a lot to blur the lines of separation, but even from afar we can move beyond indifference. Our tradition teaches; do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it. You must take it back to your fellow…You shall do the same with anything that your fellow loses and you find: You must not remain indifferent. (Deut. 22:1-4)
These verses aren’t just about accidents and lost property; they are an ethical code of conduct for us all, legislation cautioning us against the willful denial of social responsibility.
These days sins of omission, becoming less empathetic and more indifferent may actually be occurring because of the overload of awful stories we see arrayed before us. It’s so easy to see our world as broken and feel hopeless about fixing it.
24/7 news coverage from every corner of the globe can cause a bit of compassion fatigue. There were many comments early in the year about CNN’s non-stop coverage of the disappearance of the Malaysian air craft. And while not an example of the cruelty in our world about which I’ve been speaking, it was an example of the how compassion fatigue sets in. I found myself waiting hopefully for another tragic event to take place so I wouldn’t have to deal with the details of the search and most poignantly the grieving families. Almost in neurological terms it seems that the more a nerve ending is stretched, the less capable it is to feel. Clicking the remote to a ball game or to comedy central became something I just had to do.
Earlier this year I listened to a podcast of Krista Tippett’s show On Being where she interviewed Nicholas Kristof. Those readers of the Times know that he makes it his business to be in some of the most dangerous, most appalling places on earth to witness and report the worst that humankind can do to itself. He’s also taken a look at the neurology and social psychology research on what makes people care. Scientists have shown that it's the emotional part of the brain that lights up when people are making any kind of moral decision. And what makes the brain light up most is stories about individual people, not numbers and statistics. Large numbers actually turn people off.
He said, " but what the research has shown that is kind of devastating is that the number at which we begin to show fatigue is when the number of victims reaches two." He goes on to tell the story of a psychological experiment in which people were shown a photo of a starving seven-year-old girl from Mali, called Rokia, or a picture of a starving boy named Musa. People would want to donate a lot of money when they heard Rokia's story or Musa's story, but "the moment you put the two of them together, and asked people to help both Rokia and Musa, at that point, donations dropped. By the time you ask people to donate to 21 million starving people
in West Africa, nobody wanted to contribute at all."
At the end of the interview Krista Tippett says, "You know you're a lot less depressing than I thought you'd be," and he just laughed. He said that though he's seen very dreadful things in his life, he always ends up focusing on the people who step forward to help.
We do not have to beat ourselves up for not being Wiesel or Heschel, or Kristof or even Jill Tarlov our amazing congregant committed to so many right causes whose funeral took place this morning, but do we do have to recognize and remember the empathy- indifference continuum. And with our emotions, our check book, our votes and our activism use the ability we have to care and do good in the world.
In the Jewish view, people made in the image of God cannot fundamentally evil. In the psychologists view, evil is not a supernatural force possessing us to do the unspeakable. In both views, within human being there is the capacity for expressions of narrow-mindedness and incredible generosity; cruelty and kindness; hatred and sensitivity – indifference and empathy.
Tonight in keeping with the central message of this day of these days – we consider our responses to a world that so often seems inhuman – but has the capacity for goodness and love. As we consider our own world and the myriad of problems, we shine the spotlight on ourselves, and our sins of commission and omission. Our task has long been even in a year of horrific stories, to light a candle against the darkness. Or at least plug in a nightlight. Anything to keep the monsters at bay.
The Rosh Hashanah message -- even in the wake and embrace of inhuman headlines, the New Year is about hope and never squandering the opportunity to care more and do more -- to change ourselves, to engaging the world with humanity, empathy and love.
Dunn, Stephen, Lines of Defense, W.W Norton and Co., New York, 2014, p.65
Baron-Cohen, Simon, adapted from a Ted Talk, The Erosion of Empathy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXcU8x_xK18
Wiesel, Elie, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/nobelprizespeech.aspx
Kristof, Nicholas being interviewed by Krista Tippett http://www.onbeing.org/program/journalism-and-compassion/114
Again, A Summer of War
Rabbi James Prosnit dddd Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775
Death silenced a number of prominent voices this past year, and for me significant on the list was Leonard Fein the social activist, founder and long-time editor of Moment magazine and inspiration behind Mazon, a Jewish response to world-wide hunger that to this very day ensures food and nutrition for thousands around the world. He was also a progressive Zionist and Ohavei Yisrael, lover of Israel. There was a time early in my rabbinate when Wendy quipped, “what would you do without Leonard Fein it seems that you quote him in just about every other sermon you deliver.”
So in honor and in memory of Leonard or Laibel Fein as he was known to many, let me dedicate these words to him and begin with a story he told in a book he wrote entitled Where are We: The Inner Life of American Jews. It’s his fantasy version of the origins of Zionism. He begins:
The year was 1860 or maybe it was 1870. The town was Minsk – or possibly it was Pinsk. Wherever, whenever, there was a group of Jews who would get together for some good talk.
And what did they talk about? Well it was the same conversation all the time. They spoke of Jerusalem. They imagined the city – its climate its culture – every aspect of its environment. They did this with great detail and delight.
Except of course, for one skeptic in the group, Beryl who every once and while would say, “Can’t we please, just this once change the topic conversation. If we’re really serious about Jerusalem we should move there – and see what it really is like. Enough of all this talk.”
The others respond, “Beryl, don’t be naïve. Life here in Minsk (or Pinsk) is much easier, much safer. Think of how hard it would be for us to start all over living there.” Beryl would drop his suggestion for a short time and join in the conversation.
Now the group of Jews was worldly, sophisticated group – and one way that you knew that in 1860 was the fact that they had non-Jewish friends. And from time to time their non-Jewish friends would join in the conversation.
One evening as their guests were leaving, one of the Jews asked one of the gentiles, “What do people like you think of people like us?” And after responding with gracious praise the non-Jew did admit that there was one problem. He said, “With all due respect, your people seem to believe that you’re morally superior to everyone else. Now I don’t think you’re any worse than average, but your moral conceit is frightfully annoying.”
To their credit the Jews did not deny the accusation, but sought instead to explain it.
And they explained it by way of example. They said, “we do indeed think we are your moral better and the reason we do -- is that Jews don’t hunt! And that make us better than you.”
Their guests laughed and stormed at them. “You silly, trivial people – of course you don’t hunt! We don’t permit you to own guns.”
When the guests left Beryl’s friends turned to him and said, “Tomorrow we pack, then we go up to the land, to Jerusalem where we shall prove that even with guns we will not become hunters.”
Sadly, we know it was an unrealistic, naïve dream of Beryl and his Zionist friends. And as Ari Shavit points out in his book My Promised Land that many of us read and discussed this past year; Beryl and the boys were also somewhat blind to the inhabitants of the land to which they were returning. Still for a long time we lived on the images of the first kibbutzniks tilling the orange groves and then the battered Holocaust refugees making the desert bloom. We were inspired when the citizen soldiers prevailed during the War of Independence and then again, during the Six Day War. And though she probably never said it, we put a quote into Golda’s mouth, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, I can never forgive them for forcing us to kill theirs.”
And I do believe that for a long time Israel tried to keep its moral chutzpah intact. But in a part of the world that condemns your existence and begrudges just about everything you do we have come to understand that you cannot live on milk and honey dreams for ever. Once again, this summer we saw how hard it is to exist in an unstable and hostile region and how challenging it is to live up to the moral standards you may even have set for yourselves.
I assume that for you like for me, there were many, many conversations this past summer in which we spoke of the war in Gaza. We mourned the murders of four teenage boys –three yeshiva students and one Palestinian; we marveled at the technological genius behind the iron dome that protected so many Israelis from indiscriminate rocket fire; we shuddered at the reality of a sophisticated network of tunnels designed not for smuggling goods but for kidnapping and bringing terror inside Israel’s borders; and we expressed sadness at the death of Israeli soldiers and a tremendous number of Palestinians.
Many of us found it perplexing when charges of disproportionality were leveled against Israel – by both Jewish and non-Jewish friends; even as we tried to remind those friends that it was only disproportional because Hamas was not capable of inflicting the death and destruction it sought. Their foundational principle remains the destruction of Israel and their intention to unleash terror on a civilian population was clear from the start. We said, “thank God the protective Iron Dome prevented more proportionality” and we laid the higher numbers of causalities at the door of those who fired weapons from schools, mosques and apartment houses. At the same time in keeping with my remarks from yesterday evening, we couldn’t ignore a sense of empathy for the nightmare that must be Gaza. When cease fires came and went and now have come again, there was relief for the Jews -- and Arabs.
Some of us also winced at the treatment of Israel in the media. Images of suffering Palestinians were lead stories week after week, while far more grievous actions and horrors in other parts of the world were largely ignored. A double standard does exist, but I have long thought that we Jews have done a lot to foster that double standard and in our heart of hearts we are proud of it. After our long, grievous and at times tortuous experience a position of power, a strong army with advanced weaponry is not unappealing. But somehow many of us still have come to expect that our use of power be more compassionate than the next guy. We are called to be a moral light to the nations and as a result know the infliction of pain even in warfare is not a Jewish attribute. In Leonard Fein’s description, “we would rather live by our wits than by our weapons; we would love to live a vegetarian dream and never have to enter the world of the carnivores.”
Jewish tradition in a talmudic discussion understands the difference between two types of wars. The milchemet resheet and the milchemet mitzvah. The former was a discretionary war one entered with very strict parameters because it was to expand boundaries and to build up the prestige of the ancient kingship. This in ancient days was a legitimate reason to go to war, but the criteria as to how the war was fought were very specific and there were significant limitations on how it was to be waged. The milchemet mitzvah was different. It was literally a commanded war, a war to defend oneself against mortal enemies; a war of national self-defense.
Long standing doves in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, me included have come to understand that the war in Gaza was necessary and justified.
To those of you who are about to say ‘Rabbi, I told you so!” -- No I don’t regret past sermons where I have criticized Israel’s settlement building, encouraged territorial compromise and spoken of a two state solution. To me reflective criticism both inside Israel and without has always been done with an eye toward ensuring a secure Israeli future. Yes I hoped that the rejectionist elements in the Arab world would soften and transform a view that the Middle East is a place for Arabs only. But recent reality, the savagery of the Islamic State or ISIS and the very real threat of a nuclear Iran has turned me four square behind Israel’s protective mission.
In an article this summer in the Times David Brooks put the Israeli – Palestinian conflict into a more global context. He writes, “The violence between Israel and Hamas, …, may look superficially like past campaigns, but the surrounding context is transformed. …Big regional convulsions are driving events, including the conflict in Gaza. … Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become just a stage on which the regional clashes in the Arab world are being expressed…. They take shots at Israel … but the rivalry is between Arab authoritarians and Islamists… Hamas is sending rockets at Tel Aviv, while aiming in essence at Cairo.”
In this context the conflict is no longer the age old divide of how to share the limited land and how to bring about some form of mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians. The context is how to respond to terrorist organizations that are trained, organized, funded and equipped like armies and aimed not just at Israel, but at values seen as antithetical to an extreme Islamic world view. Israeli’s rightfully worry about who truly speaks on behalf of the Palestinian people and wonder what they really want. Are there partners for peace or is the voice represented by this radical form of Islam spreading through the neighborhood.
Complex, some would say existential questions. This may not be the way we would have chosen to enter the year 5775, but we Jews have never chosen the circumstances we have confronted throughout our history. We simply continue to be hopeful, embracing the belief that every day provides an opportunity for change and a departure from the events that surround us.
We were sobered by the anti-Semitic incidents that took place throughout Europe this summer and reassured by Angela Merkel’s appearance just last week standing beside Jews and non-Jews at a rally in Berlin. She said, “It is a monstrous scandal that people in Germany today are being abused if they are somehow recognizable as Jews or if they stand up for the state of Israel. I will not accept that and we will not accept that. … It’s our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism. … Anyone who hits someone wearing a skullcap is hitting us all. Anyone who damages a Jewish gravestone is disgracing our culture. Anyone who attacks a synagogue is attacking the foundations of our free society.”
Of course we wish there were more voices throughout Europe saying these things. I was especially heartened that she drew no distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Under the veil of legitimate political commentary, many have sought to draw a distinction between the two. But Merkel’s pointed remarks make it clear that the line between hatred of Israel and that for Jews in general, has long since been erased. That does not meant that Jews and non Jews cannot have legitimate critiques of policies of a particular government or even how the IDF wages war.
Goodness knows I have and continue to have many myself and we all know that the most vibrant disagreements take place among Israelis themselves. But to suggest that there is no eternal linkage between land and people, between our faith and a Jewish State is to fail to grasp a core understanding of something basic to the Jewish experience. God, Torah and Israel is our version of the trinity – and to lose one piece is to lose something vital to the whole.
Many of you have heard me speak before of my love for Israel and for my feelings of being home as soon as I step off the plane at Ben Gurion airport. I won’t replay that sermon now, other than to say, yes Israel remains an ingathering and haven for the persecuted and distressed Jews of the world. When Diaspora life threatens these days we have Israel.
But Israel is also a beacon to those who wish to add meaning and spiritual content to their lives. Even in the midst of the war a number of our High School students experience this this past summer.
You can be ripped off by a rude cab driver, perplexed by the control of the ultra religious over some areas of life and concerned with the treatment of its Arab citizens – but on a Friday afternoon as light sparkles off the Jerusalem stone and you hear the call of the muezzin summoning Muslims to pray, watch Christian pilgrims walk along the via Delarosa, the path Jesus took with his cross and see Jews of all colors and dress scurrying to the Western Wall for Kabbalat Shabbat – you know this is a unique and vital place.
But there is something else vital and that is the continuous search for peace. Daniel Gordis who in some respects has taken the place of Leonard Fein for me in terms of wise thinking about Israel writes, “I was raised by my tradition to “seek peace and pursue it.” As distinct from other commandments which we are only obligated to fulfill when it is possible to do so, in the case of peace, we are mandated to pursue it, to work to shape reality… peace is not merely a value but a need which I am obligated not merely to support , but something whose absence I must mourn….”
He bemoans the reality that these days he is more alone than ever in understanding this value. “Everyone wants peace, but fewer are pursuing it. I was raised in an Israel” he writes, “whose culture was grounded on this aspiration. ..We used to sing about peace, about the end of war and how next year would finally be dramatically different. We have stopped singing these songs, We are not writing new ones.”
But unlike Fein’s friends from Minsk or Pinsk, Gordis is not naïve. “I am obligated to pursue peace, but I am not obligated to make peace….. it is critical that we create space for all of us who know that despite our commitment to peace, there is a time for peace and a time for war. That sometimes, war, with all of its destruction, is not merely an instrument of survival, but also of peace itself.
As we enter the New Year, we are commanded to be honest about whom we are, but at the same time, hopeful about whom we can become. One of my hopes is that we as a congregation never lose sight of that inextricable link between ourselves and the land and people of Israel. Israel is central to our faith, a focus of our prayer and an expression of our yearning. I think we need to work harder in our efforts to support and in our commitment to understand that powerful bond and that crucial connection.
This is not an Israel right or wrong view; or even a left wing or right wing view. I have long contended that our engagement will be more meaningful if we discuss Israel without demonizing those who hold a different position, or without being so entrenched into our own thinking that we fail to listen to the views of others.
Certainly many in a younger generation are grappling mightily with what it means to support a Jewish State. Some have checked out completely. Listening to them, encouraging a form of critical Zionism, may be a better path to engagement than the knee jerk Zionism of the past. A bit of hesbon hanefesh – personal soul searching is warranted at this time of year regarding our views and visions of Israel.
I hope, even for those of us who choose to live here, that the New Year finds us educating ourselves in every way, increasing our philanthropy and making plans to visit Israel so we can respond with renewed determination and to support her vitality and security. (A trip is being planned for next winter).
To love Israel is to stand with it in good times and in bad times. To love Israel is to worry about its safety and to work to protect it. To love Israel is to believe in and work for a different tomorrow. To love Israel is to believe that peace is possible.
Fein, Leonard, Where Are We: The Inner Life of American Jews
, Harper and Row, New York, 198, p. xiii
Brooks, David, No war Is an Island, New York Times, July 28, 2014
Merkel, Angela, quoted in Commentary blog by Jonathan Tobin, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2014/09/15/connecting-the-dots-between-euro-anti-zionism-and-anti-semitism-angela-merkel/
Gordis, Donniel, To Be a Peaceaholic http://hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=1451&Cat_Id=273&Cat_Type=Blogs
Rabbi James Prosnit ddKol Nidrei/Erev Yom Kippur 5775
Let’s start with a little group participation:
At three I started Hebrew School .... Tradition!!!
To life To life ...
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Broadway opening of Fiddler on the Roof. If I can gauge from the responses to my musical quiz – it sounds like many of you – were either there, or saw one of the four revivals, or one of the thousand High School, summer stock or summer camp productions. Some of you I know saw Cantor Gilbert’s portrayal of Tevye here at the Temple – not once but twice. Fiddler remains one of the best known, most widely performed musicals – and another Broadway revival is planned for next fall.
The original show won nine Tonys and was the first Broadway musical to surpass 3000 performances ending its run with 3242 establishing a record that would last for another ten years, until Grease came along. By the way in 1964 the price of an orchestra seat was about $10.
I could argue that the three most influential events of the 1960’s on Jewish culture and the American Jewish psyche – were Paul Newman staring as Ari ben Canaan in Exodus, Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch on Yom Kippur and Zero Mostel opening as Tevye the beloved lead character. (At least 2 ½ were Jewish). While some highbrow critics and some of you no doubt may have found the play overly sentimental, lurking under the 19th century Sholom-Aleichem stories turned musical are some themes that continue to be front and center in Jewish life. Alissa Solomon in her book entitled Wonder of Wonders asserts that, “The show remains a platform on which Jews engage, work out, and argue over the significance and substance of their identity.”
So with the precarious fiddler as the back drop let me reflect tonight on some of those themes – on faith and peoplehood; tradition and change and consider what Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye can teach us and maybe what he would have been surprised to learn about who we’ve become.
At the same time that Fiddler was running on Broadway the philosopher Emil Fackenheim suggested adding a commandment to the traditional view that the Torah contains 613 commandments. Fackenheim stated that Jews had the obligation not to give Hitler a posthumous victory and therefore survival was our 614th commandment. He wrote, “We are commanded, first, to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are forbidden, to deny or despair of God… lest Judaism perish.”
While Sholom Aleichem could not have envisioned the genocide that would become the fate of European Jewry, he, as Jewish generations before and after him, intuited the sacred responsibility to keep the story going. The miracle of miracles remains Jewish survival and a strong belief in the faith that has sustained it. Tevye famously rails at God “We are your chosen people, but for just this once can’t You choose someone else.” It seems that questioning God has long been fair game, especially when life throws its weight at us – but while we can be frustrated and bewildered – Tevye, like the philosopher Fackenheim knows he can’t be without God.
That of course runs counter to what an increasing number of Jews are saying today. A widely circulated study released last fall by the Pew Research Center found overall one in five Jews and one in three millenials describe themselves as having no religion. While overwhelming proud to be Jewish, when it comes to faith in God more and more of us are becoming “nones.”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis describes a conversation he had with a young man he called David. “David sits across my desk. When we get around to talking about his identity, he says that he is Jewish with an explanation. ‘I’m not the religious type … I guess rabbi I’m a cultural Jew.’” But Schulweis’s understanding of what a cultural Jewish is, is different from David’s.
To Shulweis, a highly respected rabbi who is now almost 90, a cultural Jew read Sholom Aleichem stories in Yiddish, sang Yiddish songs and read poetry. David’s cultural Jew grew up on Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart. Schulweis’s cultural Jew knew what the God he didn’t believe in expected of him. David doesn’t have the vocabulary to engage in the conversation. He eats lox and bagels and is considering going on a birthright trip at some point. Shulweis is concerned about David, “He has no language, no poetry, no drama, no Zion and no God.” David is not a cultural Jew he’s a Jew by genes.”
Our challenge of course is not to be dismissive of David or his counterpart Davida. It’s to open pathways to spirituality in an age of anxious identity and superficiality. David and Davida may not have the time to read or study the classic texts but there may be something about the experience of being Jewish that can elevate their thinking. We just have to adapt our approach and find the right place and time to engage them. More on that a little later.
Adaptation of course has been our survival mechanism. And for some the single most powerful proof for the existence of God is that we Jews are still here despite all that has be fallen us. But we can’t define ourselves based on the lachrymose tearful past. The fictional Anatevka, mirrors the reality of Jewish history and focuses us on the changes and interpretations that push us forward and enable us to survive.
We can leave a Temple behind. We can leave a synagogue or shtetyl – we can leave a place behind because even more sacred than the place, is the book that’s easy to carry and the concept of holiness in time that needs no specific space to be observed. When buildings were set on fire or when Jews left voluntarily because the community had grown or economic opportunity awaited – Jews moved on to new places and were able to carry with them a Torah scroll, the Sabbath and the Holy Days. A book was transportable and candles could be lit and children could be blessed at any place along the way.
The lyricists and composers of Fiddler on the Roof, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock and Joe Stein were like a lot of other post war American Jews. “All three … felt comfortable in this era of growing acceptance and integration. Being a Jew was not the governing fact of their lives. (They were cultural Jews as well) … They would never deny that they were Jews, they just responded to the identity with the quintessential Jewish gesture: a shrug.” But as they found themselves immersed and touch by the Sholom Aleichem stories they started asking questions about their own backgrounds. They learned stories of gefillte fish making, relatives who kept separate dishes and never turned on electricity after sundown.
And both Harnick and the director Jerome Robbins (born Rabinowitz) were told not only how the gentile neighbor came in to light the kitchen stove, but how their grandmothers covered their heads and circled their hands to light the Friday night candles. Robbins writes, “I absorbed it, drank it in and let it sink to a place deep within me.” Alissa Solomon writes, “Now he was not only opening the vault but spelunking into its many caverns, hauling up one treasure after another to enliven the world of the play. Such images led to the memorable scene in which all over Anatevka Jewish families joined Golde and Tevye in offering the Sabbath prayer. I’m certain many neglected silver candlesticks were found and polished and used at least for a little while after a visit to the theater.
May the Lord protect and defend you.
May He always shield you from shame.
May you come to be
In Israel a shining name.
May you be like Ruth and like Esther.
May you be deserving of praise.
Strengthen them, Oh Lord,
And keep them from the strangers' ways.
On this Sabbath of Sabbaths perhaps while not romanticizing or wishing to re-create the shtetyl of Eastern Europe we too could take pause and learn something of the power of reclaiming certain traditions. There are quite a number of Jewish things we can do to bring meaning and focus to our lives, but perhaps the most notable would be turning Friday nights and Saturdays into Shabbat. Being a Sabbath observer doesn’t have to be burdensome, with a focus on what not to do. It can mean a pause in an otherwise crazy schedule for some personal or family “rejewvenation.” I have spoken before of how too many of us squander the precious gift that is the Sabbath.
And while there’s much that we could learn from Tevye’s love of his religious life the most controversial scene for those of us you who remember either the original stories or the play is no doubt his rejection of Chava, the third daughter who falls in love and marries the Ukrainian Christian boy Fyedka. If a tradition bends too far Tevye says it will break and until the final scene he refuses to even acknowledge the two of them.
How times have changed. I dare say every family here tonight has as part of its inner circle, someone who is not Jewish. And the fact that many of them, of you have chosen to raise your families as Jews – has changed the conversation. At B’nai Mitzvah celebrations I regularly express my appreciation to the non Jewish parent for making Judaism possible for their child and their family.
Of course if there is a concern for the Jewish future it is not the interfaith families that are here or in some other congregation tonight; the concern is for those who are not here. And that concern extends well beyond the interfaith couples; and beyond the millenials who seem to have little time in their lives for Jewish connections. It extends to those empty nesters that lost interest in communal life after their kids have grown and it extends to both Jews without religion and Jews who have chosen to privatize their spirituality in an a la carte manner that works for them, but has no concept of peoplehood or belonging.
And so tonight as I’ve been speaking about tradition and change -- I wonder if our institutions, our synagogues and federations are responding to the challenges a foot. At the installation of the new rabbi at Temple Israel in Westport a few weeks ago Rabbi Peter Rubenstein reminded that congregation that synagogues who assume new congregants will automatically come to their doors when an oldest child reaches six or seven, as may have been the case in the past, will do so with considerable peril. It’s not that the ideas of Judaism are being rejected – it’s that the established paradigms of whom to marry, how to educate children, where to pay dues, when to stand up and sit down are on increasingly shaky ground – or in keeping with the theme on precarious roof tops.
But it is not all bleak. If I were to say to a somewhat alienated millennial – what would you thing of carving out one day a week to power off and reconnect and just talk to friends and family without a screen being involved, many would say I like that idea.
If I were to say to them, at bed time would you like to have some kind of end of day moment to encourage reflection on what transpired, most folks would welcome such a formula for themselves or to teach their children.
If I were to ask whether we need more civility in our language and our discourse when we engage in conversation most would agree that affirming dignity and showing respect to another is a value to share and embrace.
If I expressed my concern that we need to affirm hope in a world on fire and do our share to repair some aspect of its brokenness most would readily and eagerly ask to take part.
If I were to express wonder at some connective force in the universe greater than any individual alone, they might well say they have felt it too.
When I term those things Shabbat, a bedtime shema, dereck eretz , tikun olam and shechinah– all core to Jewish tradition we understand that none of these values are being rejected by those who say they are Jewish with no religion. For David and Daivida and the many others, we just need to present it, articulate it, live it in a way that resonates.
Why did Fiddler succeed as it did? First, the struggle between tradition and modernity, between the Old World and the New is a universal struggle. These days the Old World traditions that are breaking down were born in 1960 and the New World is now. Secondly by affirming tradition in a creative way it presented a legacy that could be fondly claimed and celebrated.
And finally, Jewish survival is underlined at the conclusion. The tragic ending, the destruction of Anatevka, becomes also triumphant—for the audience knows that what will follow will be the rebirth of Israel and the amazing success of American Jewry. The wandering Jew will once again find a sense of place and stability in the traditional homeland and in the synagogue communities of America. The Chagall image of the rabbi floating in the air above the village will find new roots and even -- new traditions.
My prayer is that here at B’nai Israel we will never be afraid to take the lead in writing the next act of that American Jewish story; That together we’ll endeavor to build a sacred community oriented towards the future, because we, its members know we belong to something that transcends the limits of our own lives. In a changing landscape we will provide meaning and stability to those looking for anchors in an uncertain world. And we’ll talk and think and make the adaptations necessary to ensure that the values we cherish this night will be passed on and on.
That Fiddler provides a good metaphor for the balancing act –between tradition and modernity; faith and culture; community and individuality. To paraphrase Tevye, may we long have the ability to play a meaningful tune -- without breaking our necks!
Solomon Alisa, Wonder of Wonders ,Metropolitan Books Henry Hold and Co.2013, p.229
Fackenheim, Emil, Trancendence in Conemporary Culture, H.W. Richardson,ed., Beacon Books, 1969
“A Portrait of American Jews,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey
reframed from a conversation with Harold Schulweis that appeared in Reform Judaism Magazine
Rabbi James Prosnit ddYizkor Service/Yom Kippur 5775
On Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Sher reminded many of you and me as well, that these are the 25th High Holy Days that I have been here at B’nai Israel. Or in other words it has been 26 years since he has been the active senior rabbi. Somehow Arnie always manages to stay young and it is wonderful to have him on the bimah again this afternoon. Over the past two decades and a half he has been invaluable to me for counsel, encouragement and perspective. When colleagues complain about their emeritus, (and they do) I know how much I have been blessed.
25 years -- time does move quickly. I had hair and no glasses. With what hair I have left – I have grown gray at the Temple.
The boys that Wendy and I brought with us in 1990 are now men. One teaches in an inner city High School in the South Bronx, two are rabbis and married; and as you may have heard one of them became a father a few weeks ago. That means of course that I became a grandfather for the first time. Many of you have already entered the blessed stage of life and have told me that the feeling is beyond description, but that of course hasn’t prevented any of you from trying to describe it!
I cannot say that Ezra Jules will be extraordinary except in the most obvious personal way. He is ours – and for the time being this child will be my link to a time in which I will no longer be alive. In past years when I heard the words of the prayer book, ”Who shall live and who shall die, how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be I thought of my parents and their parents. Now I have reversed the view and am thinking of my children and theirs.
This after all is the time of day when we reflect on our mortality, think about how we will be remembered and of course pause to remember the lives that came before us.
Twenty five years ago the names on the list of those who died in the previous year were in the main anonymous to me. When I officiated back then at a funeral, the person was typically someone aged and infirmed. I depended on the family members to give me a sense of their vitality, their avocations, their personalities. I would tell people at those powerful pre-funeral meetings, my role is to get you talking and to be your editor; to draw together stories and memories so I can weave a fitting tribute based on your recollections.
As the years have gone on, that has changed. While I rely on family for background information, I have a pretty good image of most of those at whose funerals I officiate. I have my own memories and sense of their accomplishments and spirit. It remains one of the most sacred aspects of what a rabbi does, to be able to say special things about righteous people. But I have to admit it’s getting harder and sadder. This year in the list that we will read shortly you’ll notice more names than I ever remember. Our congregation lost a tremendous number of very special folks – some of whose families go back generations at B’nai Israel, some who were congregational leaders and some who were just salt of the earth congregants who were active or inactive –but who were committed to the synagogue.
I played golf and talked science and theology with Jimmy Baum, I admired the intellect of Al Rankell and Jack Zeldis. I learned about the glory days of Bridgeport from Ray Rubens, Bernie Gerber, Sherman Greenwald, Sid Postol, and one of our past presidents Joe Goloff. I marveled at Bobby and Arnold Kaplan’s 73 year love affair. There were some stalwarts of our sisterhood who I remember like Marge Olschan, Irene Correnti, and Ursula Kay. I saw how even in their later years Shirley Winnick and Lee Attenberg never stopped making suggestions as to how we could be a more responsive congregation and how the recent and tragic death of Jill Tarlov made it clear that lives aren’t just measured in quantity but in quality. In her shortened years she was able to make a difference in many, many lives.
I argued constantly with Barbara Levine, but came to appreciate her questioning and her commentary and know that she made me a better rabbi than I might have otherwise been. I saw the love that Mike Rosenberg, our president’s dad, had for his family, but also for the Jewish people everywhere. I respected his steadfast support of so many diverse institutions of Jewish life. From the Europe of his birth to Israel; from Brooklyn to Bridgeport his commitment and philanthropy enhanced the Judaism for many.
And I have fond memories of Carol Engleman, Martin Goldfield, Russ Solorow, Herman Bailer, Claire Breiner, Jack Newman, Mel Silverman, Barbara Haflich and Sylvia Washton.
I didn’t know Florence Nabel until shortly before she died. I have a hunch that very few of you knew her either. She was shy and introverted and as lovely as they come. She never married and lived with her disabled brother until his death a couple of years ago. I met her at that time and made it a point to stay in touch. She came to the Temple only on occasion.
When I received word that Florence had died I was quite concerned that there would be hardly anyone at her graveside funeral. To this day the saddest funeral I have ever officiated at took place many years ago when I was a young rabbi in Canada. The only two people present were me and the man’s executor. I resolved at that point never to allow that to happen again, so I asked some our Temple leaders to come even thought they didn’t know her.
At the funeral what we found – an unexpectedly large number of people who over the years had been touched by Florence’s life; A neighbor, the man who cut her grass, her plumber, her hairdresser, a distant cousin. She was a wonderful baker and made a living making lemon meringue pies and other goodies for some of the local restaurants. Some of the restaurant owners and managers attended too. Each one wanted to be present and share a reflection because this unassuming, sweet woman touched their lives in a very genuine way – as she had touched mine. Sometimes we just never know how we’ll make our mark or what our impact or legacy will be.
Those who have been here at this time of day in years gone by know that from time to time I use these moment that sets the stage for the memorial service that follows to talk about some of the famous personalities who have died in the year that has ended – the celebrities, the authors, politicians, comedians – and we know that there were quite a few that I could have mentioned. But this year as you can see I’ve preferred to keep my thoughts in house.
Because these moments are after all mostly about us! The people of our congregation and the extended circles that emanate out from each and every one of us. These moments of memorial enable us to focus on the sacred aspects of their lives, and also provide us another opportunity during this long extended day to take stock over how we ourselves are living, to recalibrate and remember to make the most of the time we have. There is wisdom in our tradition that bids us throughout the day to take charge of our lives even as at this Memorial Service we come to terms with the ultimate reality that our lives are not forever.
By accepting the teaching that to none of us it is given to complete the work we may find it easier to reconcile to the reality of loss when it comes. By accepting that we have to continue what others have left unfinished and others will continue what we leave undone and we are only a fragment in God’s universe we can see our lives in proper proportion. In so doing we may find it possible to see grief and loss in a larger context. What is not possible for us individually might well be possible collectively. As we received the precious gift from someone and get to hang on to it for a little while, we know eventually we too must relinquish our hold.
May that day for each of us – be in the far distance – but may the work we do and the memories we create in the meantime come to be a blessing for those who carry us forward –even as at these moments we carry forth the works and deeds of our own loved ones.
A poem by Merritt Molloy that’s in our new prayer book I know has touched many of you –and may sum up our feelings at this moment:
When I die if you need to weep
Cry for your brother or sister
walking the street beside you
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
And give them what you need to give me.
I want to leave you something
Something better than words or sounds.
Look for me in the people I've known or loved
And if you cannot give me away
At least let me live in your eyes and not your mind.
You can love me most by letting hands touch hands
By letting bodies touch bodies
And letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn't die, people do
So when all that's left of me is love
Give it away
The Israel I Know
Rabbi Evan Schultzdddd Rosh Hashanah 5775
I remember the exact moment when I realized that there were two Israels in my life. It was April of 2003, Jenny and I were ironically in the city of Cuzco Peru, preparing to hike the famous Inca trail.
We had recently arrived in Peru, embarking on a 2 month long backpacking trip through South America. We check into our hostel in the center of town, and as we are unpacking our things, I hear loud voices in the adjacent room. I listen more closely – these voices are speaking Hebrew!
I say to Jenny, let’s go say hi - their door is open, about 5 young Israelis, sitting and talking, clothes strewn about the room. I feel excited to see them - it was just three years prior I had been on my first Birthright trip to Israel, as a junior in college. I spent four years at Brandeis learning to speak Hebrew, and here were my brothers and sisters from Israel, in of all places, a small city in Peru! We began chatting with them, we introduced ourselves as Jewish from the states – yet fairly quickly I could sense that they did not feel the same connection to me that I felt towards them.
I attempted to speak with them in Hebrew, but they seemed to show no interest in engaging in the conversation. After a few minutes in the room with them, they had gone back to their conversation in Hebrew, and we quietly walked out the door, they barely seemed to notice us leave the room.
For me, it marked a turning point in my relationship to Israel –it felt like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy pulls back the curtain. For the first twenty-two years of my life, the Israel I knew was an idealized version of the story. From a young age I was taught to love Israel – in Religious school our teachers created mock-ups of the Kotel, the Western Wall, so we could imagine one day standing before the real thing. They taught us the geography, the food, about the people, the music, and my family and I attended the annual Israel celebration in downtown Boston, proudly displaying our Israeli flags and celebrating the country we loved so dear.
My summers at Jewish sleep away camp in New Hampshire were filled with happy memories of Israel – raising the Israeli flag every morning, the good-looking, funny, Israeli staff who came every year to put us through a day of Israeli military training, or to teach us Israeli folk dancing. I pictured myself as continuing the tradition with those who danced in the streets of Jerusalem when Ben Gurion declared Israeli independence in May of 1948. In college, I traveled to Israel on Birthright. I recently opened up the photo album from that trip – photos of my tour group climbing Masada, eating hummus, hugging our Israeli guides, riding camels through the desert, and crying with our Israeli guides over the deaths of young soldiers who heroically fell defending the country. Flying back to the United States, our group felt so deeply connected with the Israelis we met on the trip, with the land, a passion and love for Israel burned deep within me as I returned home to America.
Of course, that was exactly how the organizers of Birthright
hoped I would feel – as contemporary sociologist Leonard Saxe writes in his book Ten Days of Birthright Israel, "The Birthright Israel program is aimed at directly linking the heart and soul of the young participant to an ongoing journey. Birthright Israel was created, in part, to give flesh to the idealized, but often bare-bones and emotionally sterile account of Israel that many of the participants had been taught [as children]."Here's just one example of how this plays out on the trip.
In the book, Saxe describes in detail the experience of the Birthright Israel participants. In one scene, he shares an account of the group sitting in the famous cemetery overlooking the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps some of you have been there – it is one of my favorite places in all of Israel. Many famous Israelis, especially poets and writers are buried there, including Rachel the Poet, who emigrated to then Palestine in 1909 and died in 1931. Her poems spoke to the experiences of the early Israeli pioneers who worked and developed the land around the Kinneret.
Saxe writes in his book,
“Here is how the guide presents Rachel's poem to the group:
‘Look across the sea toward the Golan Heights. This may even be the spot where she wrote the poem. The poem is about living for today - here on earth. The Zioniest movment was not just about anti-Semitism. It was also about young romantics and idealist, people who believed in seizing the day, people who believed that by working together they could make a better world. In this cemetery are buried the dreamers of a new and better society who came here to build and be rebuilt. Over there, at Kvutzat Kinneret, lived A.D. Gordon who came to Palestine in his fifties and preached the religion of labor. By working, by touching the soil, by redeeming the land we redeem ourselves. We are now heading north into the living museum of Zionist ideology: Kibbutzim built by Russian and Czech and American Jews who came to create new lives and new societies. Land, simplicity, communal sharing, reshaping material priorities, the holiness of today, living now.
Many died, as Rachel did, of tuberculosis which she had contracted in Russia during World War I; conditions were tough, there were Arab raids, but they persevered. They believed in themselves, they loved every tree and hill here. They were home. Welcome to the home of ideological Zionism. This may be a cemetery, but it's been visited for decades by thousands of young people seeking inspiration for life. As you will see, this area is alive and booming. You have entered the Manhattan of living Zionism. Welcome!"
Looking back, I don’t believe presentations like these were designed to be propaganda, but rather one way of reading Israel's narrative, one way of building that connection between Americans and Israel – he makes sure to note that Americans worked the fields alongside Russian and Czech immigrants – even his phrase the Manhattan of living Zionism, is surely designed to sew another thread between American Jews and Israel.
And that was the narrative I returned home with at the age of 19 - that's the narrative that deepened my love and admiration for the land of Israel and its people, that is the narrative that propelled me to become a staunch Zionist and defender of the land of Israel. Thus you can imagine why that moment in Cuzco hit me like a bag of Jerusalem stones to the stomach – those Israelis had no interest in talking with Jenny and me. Introducing myself as Jewish, trying to speak Hebrew - it barely warranted a glance. Granted, they had just finished their army service, And wanted total freedom, and they had seen things that I will probably never in my life experience or witness.
That moment, however, just three years after my Birthright trip, was my brief yet impactful introduction to the real Israel, the complex and complicated relationship between Israelis and American Jews- it was the first crack in the idealized narrative, and there would be many more to come, when a few years later I spent a year living in Jerusalem, meeting with Israelis - ordinary citizens, writers, activists, and politicians. I rode with Israeli taxi drivers who said that women had no business becoming rabbis.
I volunteered at an Ethiopian immigrant absorption center, learning of the immense challenges and sub-par conditions that Ethiopian Jews face when they arrive in Israel. Religious Jews shouted terrible things at me as I rode my bike through their neighborhood on Shabbat. Through a program called Encounter, I met with Palestinians on the West Bank, hearing their stories, and I walked through an Israeli checkpoint, with armed Israeli soldiers standing above us on the catwalk, trying to imagine what it would be like if my commute every day was exponentially worse than passing through airport security.
I befriended Israelis whose sons were in the army –there when they came home for Shabbat, when mothers hugged their sons with such emotion and gratitude unlike I had ever seen in my life in the States. I prayed alongside Reform rabbis, striving to make Reform Judaism a real option for Israelis, despite the immense pushback from the Orthodox community. I walked the aisles of the Tel Aviv crafts market on Friday morning, surrounded by Hebrew, talking with artists about their stunning crafts, the Israeli sun glistening off of the pottery and Judaica. I left Israel with a much different feeling than I had eight years earlier - I had lost my naiveté, my emotions and intellect, filled to capacity, I had opened myself up to the real stories, I got that there was another side to that Birthright narrative. Yet Israel felt more like home to me than ever.
Cue this past year, when for many of us, wherever we stood on Israel, or whichever was our narrative, the idealized Israel was not only collectively cracked, but it was smashed to pieces. The man with the hammer was an author named Ari Shavit. Many community members this past spring participated in our One Synagogue One Book read of Ari Shavit’s recent book, My Promised Land. Over 90 people sat in the Pavillion with Rabbi Prosnit to reflect, discuss, debate, and ask questions about the stories that Shavit presents in his work. If you haven’t read it yet, I certainly endorse reading it –
Shavit presents about as real an Israel you can find in any book on the topic. Each chapter, in a sense, challenges the idealized narrative, such as the monologue I presented earlier by the Birthright Israel guide. In my conversations with congregants and colleagues about the book, one of the most challenging chapters for many is the chapter entitled, Lydda, in which Shavit shares the story of an Arab city that from 1922 to 1947, sees an economic boom, healthy population growth, modernization, good schools, and peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs. In 1947 that all changed - a civil war between Arabs and Jews erupts, yet both Arabs and Jews regard the Lydda Valley as a zone of restricted warfare. Fast forward a year to 1948 - The Jewish army enters the city of Lydda, and their soldiers are fired upon. The Israeli brigade commander gives the order to open fire on thousands of Arabs gathered in a small mosque, more than two hundred civilians are killed.
As Shavit writes, “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” He continues, “When news of the bloodshed reaches the headquarters, Yigal Allon askes Ben Gurion what to do with the Arabs. Ben Gurion waves his hand” Deport them… By noon, a mass evacution is under way. By evening, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs leave Lydda in a long column, disappearing into the East. Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda.”
Shavit goes on to reflect, “Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be."
"Do I wash my hands of Zionism?", Shavit writes, "Do I turn my back on the Jewish national movement that carried out the deed of Lydda? Like the brigade commander, I am faced with something too immense to deal with. I see a reality I cannot contain. Lydda is an integral and essential part of our story. And when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”
He concludes by saying, “If it wasn’t for them, the Israeli soldiers in Lydda, the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”
Reading Shavit’s book is intense, it’s real, a deep rabbit-hole from which there is really no returning. One cannot read my Promised Land and return to the Israel of hummus and camels, of those dreams and hopes of the early pioneers despite all the odds- for us as American Jews we can no longer view Israel with the proverbial rose-colored glasses, we now know too much.
Even if you have not read Shavit’s book, certainly not one of us could escape the war that took place this summer between Israel and Hamas – rockets fired daily from Gaza as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the network of tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel, clearly to carry out acts of violence and terror towards Israelis.
Israel responded with Operation Protective Edge – carrying out air strikes and a ground operation to eliminate Hamas operatives, the tunnels, rocket launchers, and ammunition posts throughout Gaza.
For the first time in my life, Israel seemed truly vulnerable, to an enemy that clearly is growing strong, more sophisticated, and knows how to pull at the heartstrings of the rest of the world. So much of the world came out against Israel's actions even I, and you now know my story, had to ask myself – "is there something I'm not seeing?" "Is this just anti-Semitism or has Israel somehow lost its way?" It too seemed that many American Jews made the choice to disengage this summer. Yes, the Reform Movement and NFTY proudly continued on with their Israel trips despite the rocket attacks, but overall tourism numbers were way down. And Israeli friend I spoke with said that many Israelis feel completely alone right now.
Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, recently spoke to this point on his blog, reflecting on his most recent trip to Israel, writing, “I worry about American Jewry on this trip more than I ever have. I worry about their increasing alienation from the notion of a Jewish people, each of us inherently obligated to one another despite our difference. I worry about our understandable abhorrence of the killing of innocents that too quickly shifts to blame, guilt and distance from Israel… and I worry about a kind of liberal American Jewish hopelessness toward the Jewish national project, the dystopian other expression of the very spirit that create this improbable, historically miraculous, wildly creative yet weighted, complex, imperfect nation.”
The events of this summer have created a new paradigm for American Jews vis a vis Israel. With Shavit's book and the war this summer, how can we return to the idealized Israel narrative?
Just a few weeks ago Israel tried to return us to the idealized narrative, and the attempt seemed to fall flat on its face. You may have seen the rather humorous Israeli ad campaign encouraging young American
Suburbanites to move to Israel.
The essential message was that life in the American suburbs is boring, (I take offense to that)but life in Israel is super exciting – as writer Allison Kaplan Sommer writes in an article in Haaretz about the video, “Israel is presented as a chaotic and colorful, Birthright-evocative exaggerated scenario on the beach. The young hero's chest is suddenly covered with a carpet of dark hair; he is presented with a slew ofexciting activities - success in hi-tech, stuffing his face with falafel, yelling at strangers in a movie theater." She continues to write, "It's a humorous campaign that might have been just a tiny bit more effective a few months ago, before Israeli beachgoers were splashed all over the international news, running through the sand to escape Hamas rockets."
I watched the video and thought, it's just not going to work to go back to that Israel narrative. We need to create a new paradigm, a new way of both presenting Israel to our kids and connecting with Israel as adults. One that somehow blends the idealized Israel, which brought many of us to love Israel in the first place, with the real Israel that is now in our faces more than ever. One that presents the Israel narrative as complex, beautiful and real. One that will help American Jews reconnect, once again feel passionate towards Israel, from a place of love for who she truly is, not who she perhaps once was or who we want her to be.
Such is Ari Shavit’s ultimate message at the end of his book – for all its challenges, and difficult history, it’s the only Israel he knows, and he deeply loves his country. This too is one of the key themes of the High Holy Days – love with all of the imperfections – this applies to ourselves, our family, friends, and as Jews, we add Israel to that list as well.
Over the past few months, Jewish singer and songwriter Michelle Citrin, who you will recall joined us last year for our BIFTY Shabbat,has been posting pictures of Israel on Facebook under the heading “The Israel I know” She posts pictures from her travels throughout Israel, of people, park benches, landscapes, animals, food, marketplaces and even graffiti - it’s the Israel she loves, the Israel that is so real to her, the Israel that she deeply connects with. It’s pictures like Michelle’s, books like Ari Shavits, that prompt us to each ask, “What is the Israel I know? For me, it’s a blend of the idealized and the real, from the cemetery in the Kinneret to the Israelis I met in Peru, it’s the Israel I know, the one I feel so connected to,the place I love, with all its imperfections, beauty, dreams, and challenges.
May this new year be a time for us to each write a new Israel narrative, one that speaks to the new realities of the world, blends the idealized and the real into “The Israel I know” – may we continue to be engaged, to visit, read books, watch Israeli films, listen to Israeli music,meet the Israeli emissaries, attend public talks, and continue to connect and discover, for each of us to say, “This is the Israel I know” – may our connection to the people and the land remain strong and resolute, and may we too always pray for her and her neighbors to find peace.
The Power of Discomfort
Rabbi Evan Schultzdddd ddd Yom Kippur Morning 5775
Many of you may be familiar with the name Michael Sam. A Defensive Back for the University of Missouri football team, Sam publicly announced in February of this past year that he was gay. Sam received an outpouring of support, as he became one of the most prominent sports figures to date to come out publicly about his sexuality.
Several months later, in May of this past year, Michael Sam, along with hundreds of other hopeful college athletes, sat in anticipation as NFL teams determined their futures at the annual NFL Draft. The draft, over time, has become a major television event, broadcast on ESPN and attracting over 45 million viewers.
One by one executives from NFL teams selected players, with the screen every so often panning to Michael Sam, anxiously awaiting a phone call from one of the 32 NFL teams.
And then, with the 249th pick in the draft, the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam. ESPN broadcast the moment when Sam received the call. His tears upon hearing the news, surrounding by his family, his boyfriend, and his friends, overcome with emotion and happiness for this young man. Sam then turned to his boyfriend, and in front of millions of television viewers, embraced his boyfriend and kissed him on national tv.
The next day, many Americans criticized ESPN for airing the kiss between Sam and his boyfriend, complaining that it made them uncomfortable. Amy Kushnir, a Dallas newscaster, went on the air
and said that she didn’t want Sam’s kiss “in her face” and that Sam and his boyfriend should “get a room” before she walked off the set.
Ok, you might say to yourself, that’s what one might expect from a broadcaster deep in the heart of Texas – no offense to any of our friends here this morning from the great state of Texas.
But even those who support gay marriage spoke about how the kiss made them uncomfortable.
A woman named Lorie Burch, an attorney and LGBT equality advocate, wrote an article on the Huffington Post sharing how watching Michael Sam kiss his boyfriend made her uncomfortable.
Many supported Michael Sam in principle, but there was a discomfort with his sexuality in practice.
Do I think, despite the fact that it made so many Americans uncomfortable, ESPN should have broadcast that moment on national TV? Absolutely.
Moments of discomfort are what enable us to grow as human beings, to learn new things about ourselves – our fears, anxieties, and challenges. There is a true power in discomfort.
In the summer of 1994, I was a quiet, shy, fairly geeky fourteen year old, returning for my second summer at Camp Yavneh, a pluralistic Jewish camp in the deep woods of New Hampshire. I had decided to bring my guitar to camp that year – I figured if anything was going to make me even slightly cool that summer, it would be sitting on the hill on Saturday afternoons strumming my six string to an adoring audience. In actuality, for the first few weeks of the summer, the guitar sat in the case gathering dust in my bunk,as I was too nervous to actually play in front of anyone.
Then came the night of the camp talent show – and my friends encouraged me to perform. I remember the moment so vividly - I chose the Beatles “Here There and Everywhere,” and with its high notes and challenging chords was definitely not written for a fifteen year old’s ever changing screechy voice. I walked up on stage with my guitar, and placed the notes to the song on my lap.The sweat began dripping down my face. My legs started shaking nervously, causing the sheet music to fly from my lap down into the audience.
The ten seconds it took to hand the sheet back to me felt like an hour of eyes staring right through me –it was totally quiet. I’m pretty sure I made it through the entire song, but it may have been the worst rendition of “Here There and Everywhere” known to man. If you think it sounded like an uncomfortable moment, it was. Yet if I hadn’t gotten up there that night to try, filled with anxiety and fear,
I may have never opened up that guitar case. It was surely a turning point in my life. I do, however, to this day really dislike playing that song on guitar!
I ask-How many of you have been in a similar situation- Maybe not one that bad-One which you entered with a sense of doubt,
inadequacy, or fear?
Are you a person who embraces moments of discomfort?
Or do you try to avoid them?
I recently watched a TED talk, TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks, by a man named Marc Chesley. Marc is an attorney and Chief Technology officer at a company called Infusionsoft, which helps small businesses succeed using technology. In his talk, entitled, “The Power of Discomfort,” Chesley argues that being in uncomfortable situations are good for us. Actually, really good for us.
Discomfort helps us to grow and to learn new things about ourselves.
Think about the holiday of Yom Kippur, for example. Today is the ultimate day of discomfort! Yom Uncomfortable! And yet it is the most widely attended day of the Hebrew calendar in synagogues across the world. Think about it - Physically we are uncomfortable.
Many of us are fasting, depriving our body of its normal nutrients, in order to, according to Leviticus chapter 16, afflict our souls over the course of 25 hours. Traditionally Jews are not supposed to wear any clothing that is considered “comfortable,” so many Jews do not wear items considered luxurious, such as leather shoes and belts.
We stand for long stretches of the service, especially during Ne’ilah, the closing service of Yom Kippur, finding that strength to remain upright despite the physical weakness and discomfort. Almost all of our most challenging, complex, and confusing Jewish prayers are found in the High Holy Day Machzor. The Kol Nidre prayer, which Cantor Blum chanted so beautifully last night, poses major moral difficulties, with the underlying message that essentially everything we say from the previous year can be annulled with this ancient legal formula. And the melody itself, it is haunting, dark,and designed to stir us as we enter in to the Day of Atonement.
The prayers we chant today, on Yom Kippur,many of them are challenging and problematic for us. Avinu Malkeinu - our Father, our King, stirs images of a male God sitting high upon a throne, preparing to judge each of us as we plead forgiveness and beat our chests to atone for our actions of the past year.
The Un’taneh Tokef prayer, with the words,“Who shall live and who shall die,” torments many of us, sending uncomfortable chills through our souls, as this poem presents a God who determines the fate of every one of us year after year.
And the blast of the shofar - while for many of us this is the highlight of the High Holy Days, and we here are blessed with unbelievable shofar blowers, the sounds of the blast itself can be quite uncomfortable. As Rabbi Laura Metzger writes about the shofar, “The sounds of the shofar are odd, squawky, uneven. The bleating, blasting, burping shofar gives a most haunting sound.”
And then, to top it all of, we are expected to call all of the people that we wronged over the past year and make amends. If you have done this you know its the ultimate discomfort, to pick up that phone, to dial the number of someone that perhaps you haven’t spoken to in weeks, months, or even years, as each time the phone rings the anxiety builds, and as that person answers,we must muster the courage to speak, to confront our actions, to apologize.
As Rabbi Danny Zemel writes, “On Yom Kippur we stand spiritually naked before our creator, and before ourselves. It is the moment of no hiding.”
And despite all of that, all of the emotional, spiritual, and physical discomfort, more people come to synagogue on Yom Kippur than any other day of the Jewish year!I find it no coincidence - there is a real and deep power in making ourselves uncomfortable for a day.
In discomfort we grow. Today is different from every other service the rest of the year. Weekly Shabbat services, in contrast, are all about comfort, focusing on rest, nourishment, joy – the prayers, the melodies are beautiful, so for an hour a week we feel at peace.
But not today - today we come to be uncomfortable, to look deep into the spiritual mirror, as challenging as that may be, to ask ourselves what we believe and then to challenge it – such is the power and possibility of discomfort. Yom Kippur, however, is just one day a year.
In Chesley’s Ted talk, he advocates that every day we seek out at least one moment of discomfort. He explains that it is good for us to do this because it disrupts our fixed beliefs about things. We have an ego, he says, and that ego tells us to stay safe, that voice speaks all of our fears, our anxieties, and our challenges.
Once we identify what makes us uncomfortable, we can then break free of our comfort zone, embrace moments of discomfort.
As I think about Chesley’s charge in his Ted Talk, to seek out a moment of discomfort each and every day, my initial reaction is, “are you kidding me? That sounds like too an onerous task.”
Pre-kids and pre-full time job maybe, back then I sought out adventure all the time.
The bigger the challenge, the more nervous I felt beforehand, the more I loved it because I did feel that I had learned something about myself and what I was capable of.I’ll never forget, for example, signing up for a bike trip in Bolivia on a stretch of highway that UNESCO deemed the most dangerous road in the world, to challenge what I thought I was physically capable of doing.
Or, just several years ago, marching down Broadway in New York City with fellow Rabbinical students, including Rabbi Prosnit’s son, Jonathan, facing starting at us, people yelling at us, to support the creation of a mosque just blocks from Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan,to act for justice and not just talk about it.
I find it much harder to seek out those kind of moments these days.
Perhaps in one sense, being younger, I was still forming my identity – and each of those moments of discomfort, those challenges that I took on, certainly shaped who I am today.
And now being a little older, perhaps I have gotten comfortable in who I am – those experiences are key pieces of my narrative, but they are growing ever distant.
Life has filled up with a full time job, a family, extended family, friends, birthday parties and housework on the weekends, nights are about cleaning up after dinner, a quick read of the newspaper, making to-do lists, spending some time with my partner, and that’s a pretty full week.
When I do have free time, I now like to fill it with the things I already know I love – going out for a good dinner, playing with the boys, getting out for a run, reading a book, enjoying a real cup of coffee, or attempting to solve the Sunday Crossword.
I have become fairly comfortable if I’m honest with myself – in who I am, in accepting my weaknesses, knowing what I’m pretty good at – it doesnt mean I dont struggle or ask questions, or seek out new opinions, but really challenging myself, really seeking out moments of discomfort each and every day, it is hard and it feels like there is little time for it. I need to seek out the strength to do it.
The task of this holiday, this day of Awe, is to seek out those moments of challenge and anxiety – Individuals of all ages has the potential for growth – it is why we return here to this sanctuary every year for Yom discomfort – we must believe that there is potential for change.
I can’t drop everything and run off to South America for two months,
but I can seek out and recognize opportunities in my daily life. To set up a lunch someone I’ve drifted from, to try something new, to volunteer more, to reach out and strike up a conversation with a stranger, to make my voice heard when the situation demands it, unlock a passion that has been lying dormant.
For each of us that list is different. Such is the power of this day –
Yom Kippur asserts that there is a palpable power in discomfort, it speaks to the deep core of the human condition. If it is so important to us today, then we ask ourselves, how can I find opportunities to challenge myself throughout the year.
Doing anything only once a year yields little result – most of us probably will not walk out of here much different than when we walked in. But seeking out opportunities for growth throughout the year, even just seemingly minor ones, we can walk in here next year different from how we are today.
Moments of discomfort can enable us to “re-create” ourselves year after year. It takes drive, it requires time, it takes strength – which is why when we feel stuck, when we don’t even know how to break free from our comfort, we have our prayerbook to help us get us started. I conclude this morning with a prayer from the Mishkan T’filah Prayerbook.
There are copies for each of you to take with you as you leave –
I invite you to turn to it when you need it.
Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;
Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,
the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,
the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.
Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us
the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;
Wake us, O God, and shake us
from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by
half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears;
Make us know that the border of the sanctuary
is not the border of living
and the walls of Your temples are not shelters
from the winds of truth, justice and reality.
Disturb us, O God, and vex us;
let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber;
let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.