Monday, October 29, 2012

"Noah Voters and Abraham Voters" (Rosh haShanah 2012)

(Parts of this sermon are adapted from my reflections from July 4, 

It’s time for show and tell.
Let me tell you about this book, which some of you have seen before.
This book has been in the possession of our congregation since it was founded in 1905.
It’s a High Holiday Mahzor -- published in the Lithuanian city of Vilna, today Vilnius, in the year 1914.

But suppose you didn’t know that.  Suppose the title page with the copyright information had been missing.
When you look at an old Jewish prayerbook, how can you figure out when and where it was published?

Let me show you.  I am reading now from page 194-
a page immediately before the Torah is returned to the ark.

May He Who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers,
Whose kingdom is a kingdom spanning all eternity….
May He bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards
With his wife, the honorable CZARINA ALEXANDRA FEODOROVNA
Their son, the crown prince ALEXI NIKOLAIOVICH
And his mother, the honorable CZARINA MARIA FEODORAVNA
And the entire house of our king, may their glory be exalted.
May the King of kings in His mercy give him life, and protect him,
And save him from every trouble, woe and injury.
May nations submit under his feet, and may his enemies fall before him,
And may he succeed in whatever he endeavors.
May the King of kings, in His mercy, grant compassion in his heart
and the heart of all his advisors
To do favors for us and for all Israel, our brethren.
In his days and in our days, may Judah be saved, and may Israel dwell securely,
And may the Redeemer come to Zion. So may it be His will – and we say:  AMEN.

So now you know -- when in Fiddler on the Roof, they ask the Rabbi,
“Is there a blessing for the Czar?”
It’s actually no joke.  There IS a blessing for the Czar.
or the king, or the emperor, or whoever’s dominion Jews were living under at any particular time.

Some of you have heard me read from this or other old prayerbooks
especially on the Shabbat closest to July 4.
It has become for me a meaningful way to celebrate July 4
because it reminds me just how unprecedented
the Jewish experience has been in America.

Listen to how obsequious these words are:
May He bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards.
especially when you think about what the relationship those leaders actually had with the Jewish minorities in their midst.
My favorite part is  וייפול שונאיו לפניו “may their enemies fall before them.”
[Who do you think Czar Nicholas’s enemies were?  US!]
Truly this does not look like a genuine heart-felt prayer.  
This looks like a little moment of public relations in the midst of the prayer service -
just in case anyone should accuse the Jews of being insufficiently loyal and patriotic -
they can say, “What do you mean?  Look at this prayer that we recite for the Czar every Shabbos in the synagogue!”
No matter how cruelly they were mistreated, they still needed to create an illusion of respect for the authorities.

So what happened when Jews came to the United States?
For most Jews, for the very first time, they were confronted with a system of government
in which they had a say.
in which their relationship with the government was not one of ‘us and them,’
or, worse, ‘us vs. them,’
but where members of the Jewish community itself were invited to have a voice in the political process.

Soon it became clear that this new land demanded a new kind of prayer for its new kind of government and new kind of society.
We take it for granted today, but there is virtually no other era in Jewish history
when a diaspora Jewish community felt that it had a measure of political control over its fate.
And as a result, most Jewish communities in the United States, including ours,
recite a completely different version of the prayer for the country
than the one I just read.
Its focus is not on deference and servility to the leadership,
and praying that the leaders will see fit to do favors to the Jewish community.
Because the leaders are US – or the ones WE help to choose.
Rather, this new prayer focuses on the dreams of justice and equity,
dreams that the Jewish community shares with our neighbors.

As I said, I have often described the history of the Jewish prayer for the government        
near July 4,
but this story seems especially relevant at this time of year,
as we approach a presidential election --
the quintessential demonstration of the difference between how our ancestors were governed since time immemorial, and how we are governed today.

Now, you know that there are some congregations, Christian and Jewish,
where shortly before the election,
the spiritual leader gathers the flock together
and basically -- tells them exactly how they should vote.

Now what may be surprising to you -
is that that is exactly what I am going to do for the rest of this sermon:
Speaking on behalf of Jewish tradition as I understand it,
I am going to tell you -- how to vote.

I’m seeing some of you get a little nervous.
Especially the USH board members, who are probably terrified that I am about to say or do something that will jeopardize our 501c3 tax-exempt status.
So let me put your mind at ease.  I of course am not going to communicate who you should vote FOR.
but is there a Jewish way to vote?  Absolutely.
How could there be a Jewish way to eat, a Jewish way to wear clothing,
a Jewish way to engage in business practices, a Jewish way to speak, a Jewish way to rest,
but not a Jewish way to vote?!
If Judaism is a civilization in every sense of the word -
If Jewish law and tradition and values inform and enrich every aspect of our lives -
then certainly there are MORE Jewish ways to vote - and LESS Jewish ways to vote.

Now you may find it surprising that Jewish tradition would have anything to say about voting, considering how new we usually think that democracy is.
But actually, the idea of deciding important matters according to majority vote
has a long history in Jewish tradition.
In the time of the Talmud, we read about how civil and criminal trials were decided by a jury of one’s peers.
It’s described in the Talmud as a panel of 23 judges, but the qualifications of such a judge make it essentially equivalent to a jury trial today -
meaning that each person who was considered a full member of the society
participated actively in the judicial process.

And many medieval Jewish communities were self-governing, and elected their leadership, through community elections that were decided by majority vote,
and those leaders often constituted a municipal council that would govern by majority vote - just like some other city councils with which some of us may be familiar.

Those of you who are on our congregational email list know that before every election,
whether it’s a presidential election, or the election for Hoboken School Board, or anything in between,
I send out a reminder of the poll hours, and I also send a kavvanah - a meditation, in Hebrew and English, that one can say before voting.
There is a Jewish mystical tradition of reciting such a kavvanah, meditation, before performing any mitzvah - any commandment - as an opportunity to pause and take note of the holiness of the moment.
This kavvanah, which I adapted from my colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg, reads in part:
הַרֵינִי מוּכָן וּמְכָוֵון בְּהַצְבָּעָתִי הַיוֹם
לִדְרֹש שָׁלוֹם בַּעָד הַמְדִינָה הַזֹאת

With my vote today, I mindfully intend to seek peace for my city and my nation..... 
ׁתִּתֵן לְבָב חָכְמָה 
לְמִי שֶׁאָנוּ בּוֹחֲרִים הַיוֹם
וְתִשָׂא עַלֵינוּ מֶמְשָלָה לְטוֹבָה וְלִבְרָכָה
May You give a wise heart to whoever we elect today,
   and may You help us to establish a government for goodness and blessing
   to bring justice and well-being to all the inhabitants of this city and this nation.

And truly, that is step 1 of voting Jewishly.
Voting Jewishly means voting with consciousness -
consciousness of our good fortune to live at a time and place where we participate in the shaping of our political fate.
and consciousness that voting is the fulfillment of a mitzvah- a commanded holy act to establish justice and peace in our communities.

But does Judaism have anything to say about how we select our candidates?
again, I answer:  if selecting candidates for public office is a matter of significance,
how could Judaism NOT take a stand on how one is supposed to do it?!

Let me suggest to you that there are two kinds of voters:
we could call them “Noah voters” and “Abraham voters.”

A few weeks from now in our torah reading cycle,
we will read about Noah -- who, as we know, is told by God
that the people in his society are wicked,
and God intends to destroy them,
but God intends to save Noah.     - 
God commands Noah to build an ark,
make it so many cubits by so many cubits, and cover it with pitch, and save his family and an assortment of animals.
And this is exactly what Noah proceeds to do.
And nowhere in the torah is there any indication that Noah hesitates for a moment,
or expresses concern about the people who will be washed away.
Whatever happens, Noah knows that he and his family will be safe

And then, the week after we read about Noah,
we learn about Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, about whom we also read this morning.
But shortly before our torah reading this morning
was another relevant episode in Abraham’s life.
God approaches Abraham and says to him:  the residents of the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah
are exceedingly wicked - and I intend to destroy them.
And how does Abraham react?
This news sends Abraham into a rage.
“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to wipe away the innocent together with the wicked!”
השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט!!
“Won’t the judge of all the earth deal justly?!”

And Abraham issues a demand that if there are even 50 righteous people in the city, that God should relent.
And God does relent.
And then, of course, Abraham enters bargaining mode.  “But God, what if there aren’t 50 righteous people, but only 45?  What about 40?  30? 20?
And Abraham extracts a promise from God that if there are even TEN righteous people in the city,
then God will not destroy the city.
[This is how you can tell that Abraham is the founder of the Jewish people.
He’s the first one in the Torah to demonstrate this degree of chutzpah.]

But why did Abraham care so much about the people of Sodom and Gemorrah?!
The answer is: because they were his neighbors.
Abraham is simply a person who is animated by the mission ושמרו דרך ה’ לעשות צדקה ומשפט -
"to follow the ways of God, to act with righteousness and justice."
And in contrast to Noah, who is thinking about himself,
Abraham makes his decisions based on the fate of his neighbors.

And those are the two kinds of voters.

Some voters are like Noah, making their decisions based exclusively or primarily on their own needs and their own self-interest.
If I’m a Noah voter, I care primarily about me- and those in the same boat as me.

And some voters are like Abraham.  Of course, they need not be oblivious to their own self-interest.  But they have a broader vision, not only thinking of themselves. They truly take seriously their mandate
that the decisions they make about government are holy decisions -
that they are the way that we enact justice in the world -
and so they think not only of themselves, but also of their neighbors – taking a special interest in those who are most vulnerable.

Now I categoricially promise you that this distinction between Noah voters and Abraham voters
is not an endorsement in disguise.
The Democratic Party in the United States has plenty of Abraham voters and plenty of Noah voters.
And the Republican Party in the United States has plenty of Abraham voters and plenty of Noah voters.
And judging from the political advertising, it appears that both political parties are spending much more time and energy going after the Noah voter demographic.

So how can you tell which kind of voter you are?
Someone who votes based primarily on whatever party will be most likely to reduce their own taxes - is a Noah voter.
Someone who votes based primarily on his or her individual answer to the question “Am I better off or worse off than I was four years ago?”  is a Noah voter.
And someone who says, when I vote, I need to bear in mind what policies I think will pave the way for greater success, and greater justice -
not just for me, but for my society;
not just for my country, but for my world;
and not just for my current generation, but also for future generations, even after I am gone - -
that’s an Abraham voter. 

There’s something else we can notice about the contrast between Noah and Abraham.
When God gives them each the news about the fate of their neighbors:
Noah doesn’t speak up.  And Abraham, boy does he speak up.
Abraham is the paradigm of combative engagement with leadership.
And this reminds of another quality of Abraham voters -the model to which I believe that Jewish tradition encourages us to aspire.
And that is:  that political discourse should be vigorous!  It should be passionate, heartfelt!
Ever since the Talmud, which has been described as less a collection of sacred conclusions
and more - a collection of sacred arguments – 
Jewish tradition has never encouraged people to shrink away from disputes.
When we say ‘two Jews, three opinions,’ we’re not kidding.
After all, leaders so often deal with life-and-death issues. Why SHOULDN’T we be passionate!?

But political discourse should also be scrupulously truthful, and scrupulously respectful.
It should remind us that it’s all about a holy process,
that voting, and governing, is a holy act.

No matter what side of the political debate you are on, on one thing we can agree:
this is not a banner year for truth in politics. or for respect in politics.
From demonization and ridicule of opponents -- to shading the truth --
to taking words, innocently stated, out of their context --
We have come to tolerate a level of political discourse that we would NEVER tolerate
in "real life."
if we used techniques like this to talk to our friends, we wouldn’t have any friends left.
The character of our leaders matters -
and I have in the past hesitated to vote for candidates with whom I agreed on the issues
if I felt that they were conducting a campaign  that gave me concerns about their character.

We notice something interesting about Abraham:  In his opening salvo in his debate with God, Abraham nearly loses his cool, saying
חלילה לך - Far be it from you! 
But then, in Abraham’s SECOND approach to God -
he begins
הנה נא הואלתי לדבר אל אדני ואנכי עפר ואפר
Here now, I have taken it upon myself to speak to God, when I am but dust and ashes.
He continues the bargaining with no less passion,
but he has walked back his shrill tone,
he is acknowledging his own fallibility, as he approaches God with humility. 
And in our current political climate, that humility would be useful.

More than 40 years ago, the illustrious Jewish theologian Martin Buber described the political tenor of his times:
The human world is today, as never before, split into two camps, each of which understands the other as the embodiment of falsehood and itself as the embodiment of truth. . . . Each side has assumed monopoly of the sunlight and has plunged its antagonist into night, and each side demands that you decide between day and night. . . . ” [Martin Buber, “Hope for this Hour”]

And sometimes we are drawn into picturing this country in such Manichean terms.
But the overwhelming majority of issues at stake in the current election, 
Or any American election,
Are issues on which reasonable people can disagree.
What should health care look like in a society like ours?
What tax rates are appropriate for people and corporations at various points on the income scale?
What’s the best way to safeguard against threats to our security?
What should be the tenor of the relationship between the United States and Israel?
What’s the best way to ensure that Iran doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons?
On these and other issues, analysts have noted that people on either side of the political divide are often not interested in listening to each other – 
That “questions from one side to the other are prosecutorial,
rather than genuine requests for understanding; 
Complex issues are defined in dichotomous, 'win-lose' ways,
with nuances and intermediate positions suppressed.
There is little genuine listening to perspectives from the 'other side.' "
(Herzig and Chasin, "Fostering Dialogue Across Divides")

We may have our own strongly held answers to these questions, and we may disagree passionately with others’ perspectives, 
But when we are honest with ourselves, we must concede that on each of these issues, there’s a range of positions on which reasonable people disagree. 
For centuries, Judaism has pioneered a style of dialogue between people who disagree that encourages the retention of respect, even when there is no common ground.
We strive to remember that each person is created in the image of God,
Even people with whom we passionately disagree.

One of the outstanding American Orthodox rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, expressed this value, saying:  "I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot,[the honor due to every individual].”
This kind of communication is what Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, describes as a מחלוקת לשם שמים – an argument for the sake of heaven.
And THAT is the paradigm for a Jewish disagreement on any topic.

There are some religious traditions that insist that holiness in this world is inachievable – 
That the only way to live a holy life is to flee from the necessarily mundane, dirty parts of our world.
But Judaism has always insisted that this is a cop-out – 
That it’s our job to BRING holiness to the earth, no matter how challenging a task that may appear.
We can bring holiness to the earth – every time we bring a higher level of consciousness to our act of voting.
Or every time we alleviate the suffering of others.
Or every time we bridge a disagreement, or turn an enemy into a friend.
Or, ideally, every time we engage in the political process.
This is how Hasidic master Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander used to understand the famous verse from the Psalms:
השמים שמים לה'
The heavens are Gods’ heavens, 
are already godly in character.
והארץ נתן לבני אדם.
but God has given the earth to human beings.
God gave it to us so that we could make something godly out of it.
Only when we work together do we have a chance to succeed.
As we read repeatedly in the Mahzor over these holidays,
      ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם

May all of us, of all backgrounds and perspectives

. be bound together, carrying out your will whole-heartedly.” 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Yom Kippur 2012: Getting out of our cages

Adapted from my remarks on Yom Kippur evening 2012.  I learned the Mohini story from a piece by Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz in the amazing collection at   Rabbi Sacks' teachings about Ludwig Guttmann are at

In early 1960, the zoo was presented with a gift - a giant white tiger named Mohini.  At that time, she was one of only seven giant white tigers in the world,
and the only one outside of India.  She was immediately the star attraction at the National Zoo.

In that era before zoos made efforts to imitate animals’ natural habitats, Mohini spent her days walking back and forth in a 12 foot by 12 foot cage.  In the mid-60’s, though, the zoo decided to build a larger habitat for Mohini so she could run and explore and live a life more similar to a tiger in the wild.

But something surprising happened.  Mohini came into her new habitat but started pacing in a 12-by-12 square in the corner of the habitat, a square of the same dimensions as the cage that used to be her home.  And that’s basically where she stayed, until her death in 1979.

Regardless of the fact that as a giant tiger, Mohini was one of the most powerful animals in American captivity, she had learned her place - and her place was a 12x12 cage. And even when she had the opportunity to venture outside of it, she declined.  She literally did not leave her comfort zone.

The Jewish people knows a thing or two about how difficult it is to unlearn the limitations that one has learned.  In fact, it could be said that this actually the reason why the Torah is quite as long as it is.   With the exception of the book of Genesis and the first two chapters of the book of Exodus, the entire remainder of the Torah takes place over approximately a 41-year period.  The next several chapters of the book of Exodus are the account of the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt.  And then the remainder of the book of Exodus, plus the entirety of the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, take place during the forty years of wandering in the desert.

Why forty long years?  Having helped to remove Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God now needs to remove slavery in Egypt out of the Israelites.  Having been treated for so long as chattel,  the people act like chattel.  They are utterly lost without someone to give them specific instructions.  They are terrified of the smallest provocation.  They continually announce, “Let us band together and return to Egypt.”  The cage with which they were familiar was more comforting to them than the challenges with which they were faced.  It is no coincidence that the Divine instruction that appears more frequently in the Torah than any other is ‘al tira’ - don’t be afraid.  Over time, the people mature, they confront their fears, they unlearn their learned helplessness, and with God’s help they leave their cage and become a people that is truly free.

Many of us know the sting of being put in a box or a cage, of being steered to early conclusions about what kind of person we are, or what kind of achievements we are capable of.  I know someone with a beautiful voice who never sings in public because she was told at an early age that she couldn’t sing. I know people of uncommon perceptiveness and intellectual ability who rarely use those abilities because they were not nurtured.  And I know of people with physical or intellectual disabilities whose lives are held back not so much because of their special needs themselves, but because of their self-perceptions.  And this is why one of the greatest gifts that can be nurtured in people with special needs is the opportunity to be confident about themselves and encouraged to be what they can be.

I learned from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, about a German-Jewish doctor named Dr Ludwig Guttman.  By the early-1930’s, he was recognized as the top neurosurgeon in all of Germany.  But when Hitler came to power, Dr Guttmann was fired from all his hospital and academic positions.  As soon as he could, in 1939, he left Germany and came to London,

where he developed a special interest in working with people with spinal cord injuries.  And in 1944, he was invited to be the founding director of the British National Spinal Injuries Centre.

In 1944, the prevailing medical approach to paraplegics - whether in Britain or almost everywhere else in the world - was that they were people whose lives were essentially over.  Since they could not be cured, they tended to be institutionalized, sedated, and kept in bed.  But Dr Guttman believed that there was absolutely no reason why these people could not be treated as the human beings they are, and why they should not have the same full life ahead of them that would be expected of people WITHOUT injuries, including the opportunity to work, to love, to get married, if they choose, and all other joys and life experiences of any other human beings.

To the consternation of much of his staff, and frankly, of many of the patients themselves, Dr Guttmann immediately shook things up.  He started by reducing the patients’ painkillers, and demanding that every patient be moved to be facing the opposite direction every two hours - both to avoid bedsores and to forestall monotony and hopelessness.  He insisted that patients sit up in bed,

Then insisted that they be taken out of bed and put in wheelchairs.  Today we think that nothing could be more natural, but in much of the world in the 1940’s, this was a ludicrous idea.

And when Dr Guttmann realized that the patients needed some motivation
to focus on strengthening their bodies, he began to organize competitive games for the patients in their wheelchairs - sometimes against the staff, also in wheelchairs, and sometimes against each other.

By 1948, when the Olympics were held in London, Guttmann organized a full set of parallel sports competitions for people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities -- which eventually grew into the International Paralympics.  The games played a major role in transforming medical opinion and public opinion of what people with severe physical disabilities could accomplish, much as the Special Olympics has done for people with intellectual disabilities.

Maybe it shouldn’t be coincidental that an actively involved Jew and survivor of Nazi Europe was the one to invent the Paralympics.  The Jewish people knows a thing or two about clipped wings, about untapped potentials.

For Chief Rabbi Sacks, Dr Ludwig Guttmann’s activities are a nearly exact parallel to what we are all trying to accomplish, with God’s help, on these Yamim Nora’im - these days of awe.  With God’s help, we are inspired to adopt a new vision of who we can be and what we are capable of.  And then we are inspired to go through the process of actually getting there - a process that is often painful and uncomfortable but that leads us in the end to a new way to live, enabling us to transcend the barriers that we never thought we could cross.

It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves - and it’s an even greater gift when we can give it to someone else - when we can help someone who feels only limitation after limitation to understand what he or she can actually achieve.

One of the greatest 19th century Lithuanian rabbis, Hayyim of Volozhin,
managed to found a major institution of learning and write several important and enduring books even though, as a child, he had very little interest in Torah study - and he didn’t appear to have much aptitude for it, either.
How did this transformation take place?  Reb Hayyim would tell the story that, at long last, he decided to abandon his Torah studies and go to a trade school.
Tearfully he told his parents of his decision.
But later that night, he had a dream in which he saw an angel holding a stack of beautiful books. "Whose books are those?" he asked.
“They are yours,” answered the angel, “if you have the courage to write them.”

statement RE Nazi imagery in Hoboken politics

Fri., Oct. 19, 2012:  Alas, the time has come to issue a new statement about civility in Hoboken politics.  This is the statement I made to the Hoboken Reporter earlier today.  If you don't know what this issue is about, please consider yourself fortunate..... you can find more information in the local Hoboken press.

Using Nazi imagery in a local Hoboken election, trivializing the cataclysmic events of World War II, is completely inexcusable.  I would urge whoever is responsible for these projected images to follow the example of the local blogger who, two years ago, publicly apologized for her use of such images on her blog and immediately removed them.

Comment added Mon. Oct 22, 2012: Please note that you can find my comment from two years ago at