Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About High Holiday Sermons--How Do You Jew--Part II

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that people who view Judasim as an important part of their lives today fall into two denominations--Tribalists and Aspirational--with most of us incorporating aspects of each into our own Jewish experience.

For years we have framed Jewish denominations as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform which differed mainly in their levels of ritual observance.  But the new denominations cut across the old lines and focus on their followers' view of what it means to be Jewish.

Tribalists tend to believe that they were born Jewish and have a responsibility to unequivocally support Israel and to remain vigilant in their fight against anti-Semitism, discrimination against Jews and existential threats to the Jewish people here and in Israel--threats which they believe are both real and daunting.

Aspirational Jews tend to view Judaism as a package that includes a Jewish homeland, a rich history, a written and oral tradition of rituals, wisdom, values, and ethics.  It is an option with which they are fully prepared and even anxious to engage if and only if it can provide them tools that enable them to live happier, better, more productive lives.

The very different messaging and views regarding the true meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and how they are being played out in High Holiday sermons provide a dramatic example of this dynamic.

In Jewish tradition, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--called the "Day of Awe--are a time for intense self-examination (heshbon hanefesh) as each of us is commanded to repent for the sins we have committed during the last year.  We are supposed to seek out those who we have hurt or treated badly during the last year and ask them for their forgiveness.  We also are to do repentance (tshuvah) before God and make our case to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. 

But in recent years, even as life for American Jews has become better and Israel has become stronger and more secure, many Jews and  rabbinic leaders have become  increasingly vocal about their existential fears and sense of victimhood--so much so that their Rosh Hashanah sermons have morphed into fearful and demonizing rants against others--both inside and outside the Jewish tent--who are perceived as threats.

A tipping point occurred two years ago when every Jews Inbox suddenly filled up with forwarded emails from friends sharing what they were calling "The Sermon of the Century."

The now-famous sermon was delivered on Rosh Hashanah in 2010 by Rabbi Schlomo Lewis of  Atlanta's Etz Chaim (Conservative) synagogue. It earned him a commendation from both the Georgia legislature and the U.S. Congress.    

On Rosh Hashanah, instead of helping his congregants with their upcoming negotiations with God where their very lives stood in the balance, Rabbi Lewis decided to deliver a  passionate warning about the evil perpetrators of radical Islam--comparing the Islamists to the Nazis and making numerous allusions to the Holocaust.

He concluded by saying:

Our parents and grandparents saw the swastika and recoiled, understood the threat and destroyed the Nazis. We see the banner of Radical Islam and can do no less.

A rabbi was once asked by his students….

“Rebbi. Why are your sermons so stern?” Replied the rabbi, “If a house is on fire and we chose not to wake up our children, for fear of disturbing their sleep, would that be love? Kinderlach, ‘di hoyz brent.’ Children our house is on fire and I must arouse you from your slumber.”

My friends – the world is on fire and we must awake from our slumber. “EHR KUMT.(yiddish for "He--meaning Hitler-is coming)”

Thousands of Jews were so moved by this Rosh Hashanah message that they forwarded it all over the country and it has received hundreds of thousands of views. 

With others like the blogger Gefilte on loonwatch.com it raised some red flags.

Quite simply, it’s nothing but a piece of hate speech by a religious leader. Not only that, it’s a piece of dreck delivered at a pulpit by a rabbi on the first day of Rosh Hashanah — a day for introspection and self-examination, not high political theater.

And the Tribalist approach to the High Holidays continues.

Last week former New York mayor Ed Koch gave his annual "sermon" at the Modern Orthodox Park East Synagogue in New York and reportedly used the opportunity  to deliver a screed blasting President Obama for his policies and actions regarding Iran and his weakness when it comes to dealing with Muslims in general.

This represents the third complete flip for Koch on the subject of Obama and Israel.  Two years ago, he vilified Obama for "throwing Israel under the bus" only to decide months later that Obama was great for Israel.  Now he has apparently flipped again on the subject.  All of that is interesting (or not) but in any event is it what we should be hearing from the bimah during a Rosh Hashanah sermon?

Meanwhile in Israel, two of the most powerful and influential rabbis in the Jewish world sent Rosh Hashanah messages to the their followers.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the politically powerful religious Shas party, sent out a message before the holiday urging all Jews to use the Rosh Hashanah observance as an opportunity to pray for the destruction of Iran.

At the same time,  Rabbi  Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel used the Rosh Hashanah platform to make a single statement--that Reform Jews pose the greatest threat to our people today and that it is better for a Jew not to pray at all than to pray along with Reform Jews.

Most American Jews dismiss the impact of rabbis like Amar and Josef, describing them as fringe elements, fanatics, and worse.  But they are not the least bit fringe.  These rabbis have enormous political power and influence in Israel and elsewhere and their opinions form the basis for policy and law in the Jewish homeland.

Those widely hailed dark and ominous sermons were far different from those delivered  last week here in Aspen.  The sermons on the mount(ain) were the work of Rabbi David Segal, the young spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation--a fast growing center of Jewish life in a community where the congregants range from old and very wealthy to young and middle class and who come from all neighborhoods of the Jewish, economic and political spectrum.

Rabbi Segal is a Reform rabbi who is bright and innovative and would even be called progressive but his sermons seemed far more true to Jewish tradition that those delivered by the more ritually observant religious leaders described above.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Segal  traced the Jewish tradition of reforming the rules and tradition back to Abraham, and suggested that each of us can be true to that tradition by changing it in ways that retain its essence but keeps it relevant.

On Rosh Hashanah morning  he talked about politics.  But instead of promoting or bashing one of the candidates, Rabbi Segal talked about our need to support candidates and promote our political agendas in a way that is consistent with Jewish values and civility.

He closed with the following prayer for the New Year: 

Ribono shel olam, Great One of the World, we’re trying really hard here to put Your will into action through our political affiliations.

Remind us that You are bigger than party and faction, and that some of Your truth always resides in the words of our opponents. Give us the confidence to learn from them, especially the ones who seem so wrong at first... Remind us of the wisdom of our ancestors, who taught,“Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

Teach us that our People’s record of your Revelation is subtle, complex, multi-vocal, at times confusing and troubling, and elsewhere a clarion call for justice. Help us to study it more (perhaps with a local rabbi), and through our learning to know You better, and Your will, for our action in the world.

Then may we fulfill your promise to Abraham, that we shall be a blessing to the community and nation we all call our home.

As Rabbi Segal quotes from the Talmud, a truly wise person is one who learns from all people.  And as we are also advised in the Talmud, we should travel down some part of the middle of the road and not on the far right or the far left.

Today we have new Jewish denominations.  The Tribalists on one extreme who view being Jewish as a real life game of "Survivor" where even today we face enemies and discrimination and existential threats.  And on the other extreme are the Aspirationalists who view Judaism as a value-added set of beliefs, history, rituals, and wisdom traditions that can help us lead happier, better, and more productive lives.

Each side is correct--to a point. There are existential threats to the Jewish democratic state of Israel and to our ability to maintain a vital Jewish community here in the U.S.  But the most daunting of those threats is not a nuclear Iran or radical Islam or intermarriage or anti-Semitism. 

The major threat is that in our efforts to fight each of those very real challenges we lose sight of the Jewish values and ethical guidelines regarding how we treat each other that were the whole point of Judaism in the first place.

Now more than ever before, Jews are in a position where we have the power and standing to implement our tradition and our values more fully and completely than ever before.  Along with that power comes the freedom to make choices--including the choice of simply walking away from a tradition if it loses its meaning and ability to help us be better, happier, more productive human beings.

The key challenge of 5773 is to spend less time demonizing others (even with fair criticism) and to seek out more opportunities for self-examination and linking to our tradition and wisdom in ways that truly make each of us, the world, and the Jewish people better.

That seems like the best New Year's resolution of all.

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