Would You Stand Up and Walk Out On Me?
Yom Kippur Morning 5778 – September 30, 2017
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Jewish founders and heroes are so terribly fallible. Abraham throws out Hagar and Ishmael, and is silent to the command to offer up his son as a sacrifice. Joseph is bratty little brother, who later is vengeful, taunting and playing with his brothers. David is a murderous and lecherous Mafia Godfather; one wonders about the process that later made him the future ideal king who would make Israel great again. And Moses, considered the greatest prophet, the central human character of what is called תורת משה the Torah of Moses, the only one who God speaks with face to face: how does this Moses come to be noticed? What event propels him to the path of leadership? He violated the basic law of all moral civilizations: he killed someone. He saw the slave being mistreated, and he acted out of conscience. He resisted oppression.
Our world is filled with mistreatment. We’ve got dictators, cruel and insane rulers. Rampant greed and exploitation. There are criminal enterprises. There is trafficking of humans. There is hatred and bigotry based on race, ethnicity, and religion, on gender, sexual orientation or identity; and that hatred leads to violence, to threats of violence, and to the growth of fear. There is so much evil in the world: it breaks the heart.
אין חדש תחת השמש – There is nothing new under the sun. (Eccl. 1:9)
Today, we call ourselves in English “Jews.” That was not always the case. “Hebrews” was the accepted 19th century term, but “Jews” is still a very old term. The problem is that the Hebrew word יהודי can mean either “Judean,” i.e. someone from Judea, or “Jew,” meaning someone who practices the religion of Judea, that which developed into Judaism. Mordecai, who you know from the Megillah, the Book of Esther, is called “Mordecai the Jew,” but in context they understood that as “Mordecai the Judean.” The Jewish legal literature, the Mishnah and the Talmud, refer to a member of the group as a ישראל, “an Israelite.” The group is collectively called “Yisrael,” or “Am Yisrael,” the People of Israel. Yisrael is a larger, more encompassing term, since Judah was only one of the tribes, while Israel, i.e. Jacob, was the father of all the tribes.
Ivri, Hebrew, probably derives from “across”: to the Canaanites, they came from across the river. Yehudah, Judah, is a place name that we’re told is derived from his mother’s thanks when he was born. Yisrael is the new name Jacob gets after wrestling with the messenger of God, because, he is told, “You have wrestled beings divine and human, and prevailed.”
As God-wrestlers, we have to wonder “What kind of God would allow, or permit, or tolerate the evils in the world, the genocides, the tortures, the wars and upheavals, the massacres, the hatred of all kinds?” This is a very old question. We look for answers:
- Is it that people have free will to choose what to do, and God either chooses not to get involved, or cannot get involved?
- Are these tests for humanity?
Some have used the evils of the world to say “there is no God.” Modern religious thought has moved away from the personal God, the Being depicted in the Bible, the Midrashim, the Talmud, and the prayer book. We still use that old familiar language, but it is not the God we believe in. The real God, for most of us, is whatever it is that gives us the capacity to learn, to love, to teach, to nurture, to create, to wonder, to hypothesize, and yes —-to determine right from wrong.
What is right, or wrong – meritorious or sinful – is culturally based. To be sure, most ethical systems share a common core of prohibitions. Still, we’ve seen enough to know that some sub-cultures have very different norms. I like to point to the fictitious Klingons, for whom the ideal death is gloriously dying in battle with honor. For Jews, the ideal death, kineahora, comes in the fullness of years, surrounded by one’s family, with the words of the Sh’ma as your final utterance. A world of difference between the two!
My privilege is to teach and promulgate Jewish views of what’s right and wrong; to interpret texts to get us there; and to convince and cajole the community to righteousness, since the language of commands and God’s wrath and punishment never really seemed to work anyhow, going back to the days of Moses. There are constraints that rabbis face when discussing right and wrong. Rabbi David Einhorn came to America from Bavaria in the mid-1850’s. His rabbinate in Baltimore was cut short in 1861 when he gave an anti-slavery sermon, and had to flee a mob that was threatening to tar and feather him. If I were to give that kind of sermon, would you stand up and walk out on me?
A constraint that American clergy face today is the so-called “Johnson Amendment” to Section 501(C)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. That section, of course, pertains to tax-exempt organizations, and allows us to make tax-deductible contributions to them. I know we all treasure the deductibility of our contributions. The Johnson Amendment, 31 words enacted in 1954 after being proposed by the Senator from Texas, prohibits 501(C)(3) organizations from engaging in partisan political activity. In other words, synagogues, churches, universities, symphony orchestras, amateur athletic teams, and so forth – over 1000 entities in Albany alone – cannot campaign for or against candidates or political parties.
Reform rabbis have been extremely scrupulous about following the Johnson Amendment. I, for one, am astounded when candidates get embraced on church pulpits prior to election day, whether by evangelical preachers in the South, or in African-American churches in northern cities. Right or left, we don’t know how they get away with it.
A couple of years back, we rabbis wondered if there was line. David Duke, a member of the American Nazi Party, a Grand Wizard of the KKK, a Holocaust denier, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, ran for office a couple of times: Louisiana State Senate, Louisiana governor, US Senate, US House, President. He actually did win one of those elections in 1989, and served till 1992. We wondered when the obligation under the law to refrain from campaigning against a candidate is superseded by our obligation to speak out against those who hate us, those who promote anti-Semitism, racism, and human equality.
David Duke was largely Louisiana’s problem, but from time to time in various locales, other candidates would surface espousing racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. How should we deal with this? A year ago, in the summer of 2016, rabbis were wondering how we were going to deal with Trump. It really didn’t matter if I was wrong; I’m right where I belong in a true blue state, so I didn’t need to convince anybody of anything. My colleagues in swing states with tight races: Florida, or Ohio and Michigan, or Colorado – they were caught between their urge to speak out, and their urge not to rile too many congregants, even without crossing a line. Let me tell you: congregants got riled in some places.
There’s a difference between a candidate and an incumbent. There’s also a very big difference between disagreeing over policy, and the great fear most of the people I talk to and read share about this President and the government he has installed. There’s a great fear from the newly opened Pandora’s box of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, nativism, and white supremacism; there’s dread about doing away with many of the anti-poverty efforts that have come out of Washington since the New Deal such as Medicaid, Headstart, and food stamps; and there’s amazement at the elevation of ideology above science, endangering our precious environment to a degree that we just cannot believe. There’s the lengthy list of unqualified people working at the highest levels.
Anti-Semitic incidents jumped 86 percent in the first three months of this year, and there’s been a massive increase in the amount of bullying and vandalism in K-12 schools, according to ADL.
We thought we were progressing to a great age for human equality and dignity: Jews had risen to the highest levels in business, government, and society; an African American had become President; Gays and Lesbians could get married; women can serve in any Military Occupational Specialty for which they are qualified. Now, step by step, we are going backward to yesteryear. And we are frightened by what that looks like.
I truly believe we are endangered by this government, and our most fervent prayers will not save us.
And just as clergy are preparing to skirt the Johnson Amendment, psychiatrists are ignoring the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule,” named after Johnson’s 1964 Presidential opponent, which forbids a member from offering a diagnosis of a public figure they haven’t themselves examined.
You know the story – I’ve told it before – of the 18th century Hasidic leader Rabbi Zusya Lipman of Hanipol. His famous saying is “When I stand before the throne of judgment, I will not be asked, ‘Reb Zusya, why were you not like Moses?’ I will be asked , ‘Reb Zusya, why were you not like Zusya?”
Preachers use this saying to teach that we must strive to be who we are. It’s like the US Army recruiting slogan from the 80’s and ‘90’s: “Be all you can be.” That’s what Zusya was saying. But maybe Zusya got it wrong. Maybe, when I stand before the Throne of Judgement, the Holy One will ask “Nattan Meir (God will call me by my Hebrew name), why were you not like Moses, resisting the evil of Pharaoh’s taskmaster? And why were you not like Abraham, who spoke up and challenged Me for the lives of the innocent? And why were you not like Jonah, who schlepped all the way to Nineveh to get the people to change their ways? And why were you not like Esther, who endangered herself to expose and foil an evil plan? Why, Nattan Meir, when I have given you my Holy Writings with these role models, do you and your colleagues and congregants read the words but ignore the lessons?
“Be all you can be” was a slogan crafted at a Philadelphia advertising firm. It was a New York firm that created in 1965 the slogan, “We answer to a higher authority.” Sometimes, our religious imperatives outweigh the customary expectations. There are special tax rules for people who take vows of poverty. You can have religious objections to receiving Social Security, and can be exempted from paying into it. There are religious exemptions from Jury Duty, or from swearing on a Bible. I think when a candidate’s core of support is found in Klansmembers, neo-Nazis, and others who would threaten our very existence, we have a right and a duty to speak out, the Johnson Amendment aside. LBJ had a long history of helping Jews, and along his maternal line, his great-grandparents may have been Jews.
My friends, on Yom Kippur, we focus on what’s wrong, what’s broken, what needs to be fixed. Our tradition and our liturgy focus on the self: each one of us looks at where we fell short. I’m suggesting today that while we may start with “I tried to do the best I could, but after all, I’m only me,” that is not the level for which we should aim in the coming year. It is said that one of the reasons we fast on Yom Kippur is to make us like the angels, who do not eat or drink, or do any of the other things prohibited on fast days. We are, and this would be a good slogan for the coming year, “a little lower than the angels.” We cannot aim for angel-hood, but we can aim to be like Moses. We can resist injustice. We can bring people to freedom. We can gather with others at Sinai as God teaches us what is right. This year, be like Moses.