B'nai Sholom

Reform Congregation

Albany, NY

Yom Sheini, 3 Heshvan 5778

Rosh Hashanah Morning

on Wednesday, 27 September 2017. Posted in Rabbi

Summer of Love, Summer of Hate (But It’s Getting Better)
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5778 – September 21, 2017

    Here we sit on this beautiful first day of fall, and outside, America and the world goes on. We are taking time out to observe our holy day in the way that Jews have observed this day for hundreds of years. When we’re done, we’ll return to our workplaces, our schools, and our other activities for what we call “real life.”
    Jews live in two worlds: that outside world, and our own parochial world, where we celebrate different holidays, and practice a whole variety of customs ranging from potato pancakes to placing rocks on gravestones to circumcision. We can enjoy our unique ways, and then go out into the world and enjoy what the world has to offer. Occasionally we encounter a conflict between the religious and other aspects of our lives: when Meet the Teacher night falls on Rosh Hashanah, or a really important meeting is scheduled when you wanted to leave early for the seder.  Sometimes, though, our wider culture is in consonance with our Jewish values, and even helps: so not only is giving money away as tzedakah a mitzvah, a religious obligation that brings merit, but you can get a tax deduction for it, under certain circumstances. Or, both Judaism and American law believe in equality: the Talmud tells us, in its world-view, all people are descended from the same ancestors, so no one’s blood is any better than anyone else’s.
    Sometimes these two worlds we live in seem to be siloed. Separated. Kept apart by a wall. We have our Jewish side, and we have our secular side, and the gate between the two sides of the wall could be small, or closed, or locked, or even non-existent. Very few of us have a big, open archway – not even a gate – between these two facets of our lives.  I like to think that as a modern Reform Jewish professional, these two aspects of my life are pretty well integrated. It therefore came as a shock to me last spring when I realized that two, very different 50th anniversaries were occurring at the same time. Two events of incredible significance.

   Last June was the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, leading to the momentous return of the Old City of Jerusalem to Jewish control after 1900 years. It also gave Israel the burden of possession of territory inhabited by non-Israelis. We remember that after months of threatening actions by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, including the massing of troops on the border and banishing the UN forces, and a naval blockade, Israel staged a pre-emptive strike on the morning of June 5, destroying 90% of the Egyptian Air Force’s planes. In the ensuing days, Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the territory west of the Jordan River including the Old City of Jerusalem. In some of those cases, no accepted international border had existed; only 1949 cease-fire lines.
    There are a couple of other important anniversaries this year of other watershed events in modern Jewish history. November 29th is the 70th anniversary of the UN’s partition of Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State. Had the Arabs accepted that Partition Plan, they would have had their Palestinian State since the day the British lowered the Union Jack in 1948. Also in November there’s the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a British document  from the middle of World War I supporting “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Keep in mind, please, that Palestine was under Ottoman control at this point. Just last month we marked the 120th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s First World Zionist Congress in Basle. And finally, we note the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman victory over the Mamelukes, which began 400 years of Ottoman rule in Palestine, which ended with the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I and the beginning of the British Mandate over Palestine, when Christians would rule Jerusalem for the first time since the Crusaders 700 years ago.
    The rapid victory in 1967 was a transformational event.  Just think: A six day war, so they could rest on the seventh. The enemies, the supporters,  and the world were dumbstruck. Apparently, though, Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion applies here: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The threats were eliminated – even if only for a while –and the Old City of Jerusalem was back in Jewish hands. But now the West Bank of the Jordan was under Israeli control, and that has been a millstone around Israel’s neck now for 50 years.  It divides the country up politically. It is a moral and ethical quagmire challenging the Torah’s command to have “one law alike for citizen and foreigner.” It brings world approbation. And we are afraid of a future where Israel has to choose between being a democratic state, or being a Jewish State; we are afraid of what choices Israelis and their governments will take. It is an untenable situation, one whose solution will not easily be created and implemented.
There was another 50th anniversary last June, the same week as the Six Day War. The other 50th anniversary was the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
    I am certainly not making an equivalence between the significance of the two. Hey, I think even the songs of the Six Day War are better than Sgt Pepper’s: Jerusalem of Gold …or…For the Benefit of Mr.Kite.  Still, these two totally disparate events, unrelated except for their origin in time, continue to influence our world.
    Sgt Pepper’s was the soundtrack during what was called the “Summer of Love.”  We also heard “Somebody to Love,” and “Light My Fire “– the 7 minute long version if we were lucky; the #1 song of the year was “To Sir With Love.” Most of all from that summer I remember, while at camp, hearing “All You Need is Love,” the number 1 song in August, with a background chorus of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, just to name a few. (Interesting to note that 50 years later, they’re all still working: tonight, McCartney’s playing Brooklyn and, Nash is in Pennsylvania; the Stones played Zurich last night, Clapton playing MSG earlier this month, and Ringo has a bunch of dates in Las Vegas next month. They should all live and be well).  
Love was in the air over here, but so was increasing opposition to the Vietnam War.  By 1967, half a million American soldiers were stationed there, and the number was increasing. Nearly 10,000 US soldiers were killed that year, adding to the 6000 who had died already in Vietnam; almost 30,000 more Americans would die before that war was over.
    Many of the ideals of the Summer of Love have stayed with us. For half a century, there’s been a growing social liberalism – towards equality of women and minorities, and a breaking down of social class and religious barriers. Cannabis use, which crept into the middle class during the Summer of Love, albeit its illegality, is now legal for recreational use in 8 states and permitted for medicinal use in 37 states.  So the Summer of Love still lingers over us. But….I read the news today. Oh boy.
We have just come through Summer of Hate.
The haters have come out of the woodwork: the Klan, the neo-Nazis, the White Supremacists. They went out in public and used their right of free speech to tell us they were haters. We thought this sort of idea was hidden in the corners of the night and by the anonymity of the Internet. A couple of hundred bigoted racists, cursing blacks and Jews, gathered in a Virginia college-town. The Jews in the synagogue that Friday night were so scared by the people out front that they felt the need to sneak out the back door. Again: Last month, here in America, Jews in a Reform synagogue were so scared because Nazis with semi-automatic weapons were marching outside chanting “Sieg Heil! Blood and Soil! The Jews will not replace us!” that they had to sneak out the back door after services.
Another White Supremacist rally was scheduled for Boston last month. A few dozen shmendricks came out, and were dwarfed by thousands of counter protesters. A similar event in San Francisco was cancelled, but several thousand came out anyway to protest racism.
Perhaps the Summer of Hate has kindled a new kind of love.
It’s not a “Turn the other cheek” kind of love. That’s not the Jewish narrative. Our narratives are these: דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone.” (Hillel; in TB Shab 31a). That means we should not actively go out and do wrong. We should refrain from improper action. The Torah itself has an active, affirmative command: צדק צדק תרדוף  “Justice, yes justice you shall pursue.” Sitting around waving the peace sign (“Peace, Love”) isn’t enough. The Jewish narrative is activist. The Torah’s narrative is לא תעמוד על דם רעך   “Do not stand around while your neighbor is bleeding.” Don’t just stand there, says the Torah: Do something.
Αt the end of last month, there was a 1000 Ministers March for Justice in Washington DC. It fell on the 54th anniversary (triple chai) of the great March on Washington, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  inspired millions with the tale of his dream. For the 1000 Ministers March, 3000 clergy registered; 400 rabbis, cantors and Reform Jewish lay leaders showed up for a pre-march worship experience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism there in DC. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who organized the march, doesn’t have a smooth history with the Jewish community, but the reality is that no one gets to pick another group’s leaders. The Rev. Sharpton came to the Jewish service, along with Martin Luther King III, and told the Jews that “we could not commemorate this day and face the challenges today without standing together as Dr. King stood 54 years ago. We should never forget that it was Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner that died together — two Jews and a black — to give us the right to vote.” Sharpton spoke of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with King at Selma, and he addressed the more recent ill feelings. “We have had days good and bad, but from this day forward . . . we’re going to make sure we do our part to keep this family together,” he said. “When we can see people in 2017 with torches in their hands, talking about ‘Jews will not replace us,’ it’s time for us to stop praying to the cheap seats and come together.”
The Talmudic imagery of the Book of Life, where our fates are inscribed on Rosh Hashanah , only to have those fates sealed on Yom Kippur, is a treasured piece of this holy season. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that just because we’re here today observing RH, we automatically get into the Book of Life. What have we done since last Yom Kippur?  Have we been מרבים שלום  “those who increase  peace?” (TB Ber. 64a)  Have we engendered love? Have we encouraged good thoughts and feelings? How have we acted to promulgate tolerance, understanding, and acceptance? How have we worked to diminish discrimination, racism, sexism, bigotry, and hatred? The Talmud famously teaches us that to save a single life is equal to saving an entire world. How so? Because we descend, in the Talmudic world view, from a single couple. Humbly, we approach our God on this day, the anniversary of the creation of the world, begging for equality for all of God’s children.
It’s time for integration: integration of our Jewish selves and our secular selves. We have to tear down that wall, those siloes, those divisions we have. We have to take these Jewish values and bring them into our lives.
The Zionist vision was a democratic homeland for Jews. The American vision was built on the premise that all people are created equal. Those are two great visions. They were great ideas when they arose, they were great ideas 50 years ago, and they remain great visions today. We will maintain those ideals as cherished values. We see, though, that these visions are endangered. We cannot let these visions die. We cannot be complacent or passive. We need to commit ourselves to action, so that the day comes when we can say with full confidence, “I have to admit it’s getting better.”

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.