Rosh Hashanah 5779 - Day 2, Main Sermon
I have to tell you, perfect faith is just the greatest. Man, it is SO easy. You just KNOW, you know? No doubts, no questions, no messiness... no problem. Just perfect, unflinching, impenetrable, rock-solid FAITH. Yesterday, I told you that my theme for this year, for all my main High Holiday sermons, is Radical Honesty. So... I should probably share with you that I, your rabbi, your spiritual leader here at Ohev Shalom, most definitely do NOT have perfect faith. I have FAITH. I feel, deep inside me, that there is a God, and I honestly always have. I distinctly remember being a child, walking along a dirt road at the Jewish summer camp, Glämsta, outside Stockholm, and the question of whether God is real just popped into my head.
I recall, so clearly, asking “Do YOU exist?” Even then, right there on that Swedish island, I knew that because I was in dialogue WITH God, not asking about the existence of a Deity to no one in particular, that I had faith. And that part of my beliefs has remained in tact... but it ain’t perfect. I grapple with it. All the time, in fact. My faith IS “Yisrael.” The verb, not the noun, Yisrael literally means “One who wrestles with God”! It is our very name!! My theology is FILLED with doubt, endless questions, and messiness like you wouldn’t believe. It’s not perfect… but it is TRUE.
Yesterday, I also told you that a key word for us this year is “Emet,” the word for “truth” in Hebrew. I shared with you that Emet features heavily in the Shacharit service, the morning prayers, where it actually functions as a powerful link, joining together the Shema and Amidah prayers. Well, Emet pops up in other places too. A few days ago, I was bouncing sermon ideas off Rabbi Miller, who - by the way - is just a fabulous chevruta, a partner for study, discussion, and all manner of rabbi-nerding-out. (If you haven’t seen us since last High Holidays, you might have missed that she had a second child, Ezra, and was out on maternity leave. But believe me, those of us who with her every day DEFINITELY felt her absence! And it is SO NICE to have her back!!) Anyway, Rabbi Miller reminded me of two terrific instances of Emet that I need to bring in to this sermon, as well as a third that, by virtue of not being Hebrew, I want to “save” for a bit later… but believe me, it adds a significant punch, and hopefully a bit of a shofar-blast-of-a-wake-up to our conversation.
As I mentioned at the start of this sermon, perfect faith is just great. So much so, in fact, that our great ancestor, Maimonides, the Rambam, who lived over 800 years ago, put together a helpful list of THE Principles of Jewish Faith. That list could really help us all hone in on what Jews believe, and what they SHOULD believe. Very practical. And, when Rambam proposed his list, lo those many centuries ago, it was resoundingly rejected! Why? Because we simply are NOT a religion that mandates faith. Even the great Rambam couldn’t force Jews to agree on what we believe; talk about your Yisrael, wrestling not only with God, but with anyone who tries to pin down our thoughts! But in honor of Maimonides’ great stature, his principles WERE included in our prayers… just at the VERY end, preserved as a little ditty with no ritual, halachic status, known as Yigdal. So kind of an honor, but also kind of a slight (or as the millenials would say: the rabbis threw some shade on Maimonides…).
In Yigdal, included in Rambam’s perfect-faith-checklist, our noted ancestor declares, “Torat EMET natan l’amo.” God gave us a Torah of TRUTH. And this same phrase is echoed again in the closing blessing that each of our Torah honorees recited after their aliyah this morning: “Asher natan lanu Torat Emet…” So what is a “Torah of Truth”? Or THE Torah of Truth? And this, I feel, is REALLY a key question: Is truth just a synonym for fact? When we state that ours is a Torah of Truth, do we mean it’s 100% accurate, flawless, Divine, unquestionable, and perfect??? Is that what Torat Emet means? That would be nice, wouldn’t it? So easy. Don’t think; just follow all of it. Gotta love that perfect faith, right? Unfortunately, it most definitely is not. Truth and Fact are NOT synonyms. I am so certain of this, that I want it to be your sound byte for today. Please do not forget this when you leave here today: Truth and Fact are NOT synonyms. Our Torah is True… but it never ACTUALLY purports to be fact, it never claims to present statistics or science, and it most definitely does not represent all-encompassing, all-knowing, and unchangeable firm-and-cold-as-granite decrees.
Why do I say that so confidently? Because my theology won’t allow me to think of it any other way. I’m just speaking for me here; I’m not telling you what to believe. Let me add that second source (of three) that Rabbi Miller contributed; the Haftarah blessings. A few minutes before I began my sermon, Julie Silverstein chanted a beautiful Haftarah for us, as she’s done many, many times, and after the Haftarah text itself was over, Julie recited the traditional blessings that always follow. In there, she sang the phrase, “She-kol devarav EMET va’tzedek.” “ALL of God’s words are true AND just.” Everything we read in the Torah text, as well as in the Tanach, the entire Jewish Bible is BOTH entirely TRUE, AND it is filled with Tzedek, meaning compassion, kindness, justice, and righteousness. Well, if “true” means “fact,” we’ve got a problem.
If you read the text, and you don’t even honestly have to dig that deep, and you examine the commandments pronounced by the Biblical author, you find things like stoning a person to death for gathering sticks on Shabbat, forcing a woman who has been raped to marry her assailant, and killing an underaged child for disobeying his or her parents. If we’re being radically honest, these are the facts. In our Torah reading this morning, God unequivocally demanded that Abraham sacrifice - meaning murder - his own child as a sign of his faith. I’ll step out on a controversial limb here and say, I don’t like that story. That is NOT my faith. So if “true” means “fact,” and these are the facts of our Torah… it is NOT righteous, compassionate, and kind. It simply is NOT.
Now this, this moment right here, is precisely what to me is meant by “Yisrael.” This is us wrestling with God, grappling with our Torah, and kicking and shoving our Tradition and demanding that it stand up to our scrutiny - ‘True’ and ‘Fact’ and ‘Righteous’ simply do NOT all work here. One has got to give. So this is it! We are Yisrael right now, with God proverbially and definitely-not heretically trapped in a headlock!! And if we’re embodying Yisrael, the TRUE meaning of our name, let us also take on modern-day Yisrael, the land, the people, the state, and yes, the government of Israel.
Last year, I laid the groundwork for what I intend to say to you today. I want to double down on a phrase that I used a year ago, which a number of people found hard to hear. I said: “I love Israel… but right now it does NOT love me back.” A few people tried to comfort me, soothe me, and convince me I was wrong. They sent photos and video clips of thousands of people dancing on the Kotel plaza, or standing on the tarmac waiting to greet new immigrants just making aliyah to Israel for the very first time. Thousands upon thousands of smiling faces, singing and dancing. Embracing one another and welcoming new olim, new immigrants with open arms. “See!” my comforters declared. “Tangible proof that Israel does love you!” Indisputable facts…
My friends. My dear Ohev family. My beloved congregation… Israel does not love me back. And I say this as someone who in a matter of weeks will be taking 40 people to Israel! (... and who sincerely hopes no one backs out as a result of this speech; Alan Schapire would kill me!) This will be my third trip as your spiritual leader, and as your tour guide with a silly hat. I LOVE Israel. I need you to know that. Our upcoming trip is going south, to some of my most favorite places in Eretz Yisrael; Sde Boker (Ben Gurion’s kibbutz), Machtesh Ramon (the great crater), Kibbutz Keturah, and the Arava desert. I won’t stop going, I won’t stop loving our homeland… and yet I also need to be radically honest with you, and challenge you to be radically honest with me and with yourselves, and state truly that Israel does NOT currently love us in return.
I NEED you to hear some of the facts. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to these things and still claim to have a genuine - and true - relationship with Israel.
- A year ago, in September, 2017 - After a LONG negotiation, the Israeli government ultimately backed out of a deal regarding the creation of fair and equal prayer spaces by the Kotel, the Western Wall. Every month, women (and men) continue to this day to be attacked for praying. Some radical opponents go so far as to grab and throw the women’s Torah scroll to the ground, because they say it’s unclean in their hands. Instead of challenging the harassers, the police often do nothing to deescalate the violence, and have - on multiple occasions - arrested THE WOMEN for disturbing the peace.
- Last year also, in September, an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz indicated that almost 900 Israelis were added in 2015 and 2016 to the list of “unmarriageable” individuals, according to Israeli rabbinical court. These are people who were Jewish enough to become citizens, to be allowed to escape oppression in their countries of origin, but then, once they arrive, the orthodox courts scrutinized their status. In all cases, these were individuals who were previously registered as Jewish, but whom the courts then hounded and investigated, and ultimately decided to declare ‘unmarriageable,’ meaning they are no longer considered Jewish, possibly years after their arrival. Now, you might stop and think “900 individuals, that doesn’t sound THAT high.” However, from 1954, when the list was created, until 2014, only around 3,000 names had been added. So for 60 years it only grew to 3,000, then it jumped 22 percent in just the last two years!!
- I want to mention a couple of individual cases as well, that I find painful to discuss. In February of this year, it was reported that Israel continues to deny a student visa to a man named Yehuda Kimani, who is seeking to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Kimani, a Kenyan Jewish leader, was converted by the Conservative movement. Last December, he was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport and deported, despite having a valid visa signed personally by the Israeli ambassador to Nairobi. At the time, Amos Arbel, director of the Israeli Population Registry and Status Department reportedly said, "...to us, he is a goy from Kenya."
- I know it’s uncomfortable to discuss, but I need to stay with this unpleasant theme of the intersection of bias against non-orthodox groups and racist undertones. Just a few months ago, in June, Israel’s Interior Ministry rejected the aliyah application of Kibita Yosef, a member of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, currently in Israel as a volunteer on a kibbutz. This decision reverses over two decades of government policy that has conferred Jewish status for purposes of immigration and citizenship on those who convert abroad through a major Jewish movement. It is not only an affront to the Abayudaya, but also to the entire worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.
- Over the summer, this oppression went even further. Two months ago, in July, a colleague of mine was arrested. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun isn’t just a fellow Conservative rabbi, I actually studied with Dubi in Israel in 2006. AND, when our Ohev Israel trip went to Haifa in 2011, we met with Dubi in his synagogue! Well, Rabbi Haiyun was awoken at 5:30 am by police pounding on his door, like some sting operation, and he was subsequently arrested for the "crime" of officiating at a wedding outside the authority of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Haiyun potentially faces two years in prison for officiating at this wedding. The non-orthodox world has loudly voiced its protestations, but the charges against Rabbi Haiyun have not yet been dropped.
- Over the summer, government officials also began stopping people at the airport - such as the journalist Peter Beinart and the philanthropist and activist Meyer Koplow - when their political beliefs did not align with the current government. These are not terrorists or people feared to be potentially aggressive or violent; they simply speak out when they don’t agree with something. They wrestle with injustice, and challenge the status quo… and Israel is saying ‘no more wrestling match. When you enter Ben Gurion airport, you adopt our perfect and flawless faith, or you can turn right around and leave.’
- And finally, I need to grapple briefly with the government’s declaration of a nation-state law, just a few weeks ago. In many ways, it was meant as just a reaffirmation of Zionist ideals: This is a Jewish state. The language is Hebrew. The calendar is the Jewish one. But it left out one crucial, vitally essential detail, namely proclaiming the equality of all citizens. “Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and upholds equal rights for all its citizens” … is what it SHOULD have said. That is NOT the text of the law that ultimately passed. That was the proposal of Benny Begin, a member of Knesset who appealed to Netanyahu to say something - anything - to include the Druze, Arab-Israeli, Christian, Armenian, atheist, and all other groups for whom the designation ‘Jew’ just didn’t apply. To no avail. This new declaration, rammed through by a slim majority, says nothing about Jewish and Democratic values co-existing side by side.
So, those are the facts. These are things that have occurred, and these are issues we cannot ignore. But I know they also do NOT reflect the larger TRUTH of what Israel is, and what she means to us. Again, Yisrael, we need to stay and wrestle with this. I have also come to realize that we can skew too far one way or the other, and both get us in trouble. If you ONLY look at the facts, you may judge Israel to be an oppressive regime, an apartheid state, a threat to world peace. And if you only honor your own truth about Israel, you defend her blindly, unwilling to consider the appalling actions of her government. You decry others who would raise these concerns as “self-hating Jews” and even - God forbid - kapos, referencing the Jews who did the Nazis’ bidding in the concentration camps. Both positions are extremes; both are missing the heart of what Israel stands for. One cannot survive without the other.
When Rabbi Miller and I were discussing our theme, Emet, she also brought in a third example, but this one is particularly interesting. On Saturday morning, we stand before the open Ark and sing together before taking out the Torah scrolls. The song is “Bei Ana Racheitz,” and in that paragraph, just before we sing, we read: “[we rely on] the God of Truth; whose Torah is true, whose prophets are true, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth.” However, what’s so unique about this paragraph is that it’s in Aramaic, an equally old language to Hebrew, that sometimes pops up in our prayers, like the Mourners’ Kaddish. Aramaic is also our language, and yet somehow it also represents otherness, since it’s really not spoken among Jews any longer. It symbolizes our ancient past, but also our reliance and partnership with other peoples around us, a FACT that has always been TRUE.
So in “Bei Ana Racheitz,” the word is not “Emet,” but rather the Aramaic, “Keshot.” My Talmudic dictionary, by Marcus Jastrow, reveals that this word comes from a root meaning “straight” or “to shoot forth,” and it can even mean “righteousness.” This, I think, makes sense to us, like the English expression, “Give it to me straight.”
It’s also a nice combination of two words we mentioned earlier, “Emet va’Tzedek,” truth and righteousness. Here, one word combines them both together. And this is ultimately where I want to end up:
We don’t need perfect faith. It’s not realistic, it’s not reflective of the world we know, or the history our people have lived. And if we hold it up as the ideal to which we must strive, we’re not only setting ourselves up for failure, we’re turning people away who know, deep in their bones, that some things are wrong. So let us instead set our eyes on some straight-talk, some Keshot. The facts of what is going on right now in Israel ARE troubling. But this doesn't have to be our whole truth; remember, Truth and Fact are NOT synonyms. And even when it hurts to hear - and believe me, it hurts even deeper to say - the reality is that Israel’s government and religious courts, through their actions, arrests, and abuses, are telling us loud and clear that they do NOT love us back.
Our wrestling match is not over. If you walk away because you’re too disillusioned or too sick of hearing the criticism, you’re abandoning this relationship that we so desperately need. So let’s instead engage in some radical honesty. Let’s talk about the love AND let’s talk about the pain. It’s not as simple as perfect faith, I’m not gonna lie. It’s harder. But that’s why we’re Yisrael, no? Our honest wrestling match continues, and oddly enough, the longer we wrestle, the more our relationship with Israel grows stronger and more resilient. I don’t have facts to back that up, but I do know one thing. I know it’s true.