Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
What would happen if I began these remarks today with the familiar preamble: “We need to talk”? If pop psychologists and online bloggers are to be believed, then the majority of this congregation would immediately begin to quiver in their seats. Formerly fearing only the possibilities of a long and potentially boring sermon, these four words would suddenly evoke a sense of impending panic and dread. What’s happened? Is something about to happen? I’m going to lose something or someone I love, aren’t I?
“We need to talk.” Just four little words that, according to today’s Urban Dictionary, are understood to signal the beginning of the end – a relationship; a job; the comfortable, if complacent, status quo. “We need to talk” immediately produces butterflies in our stomachs and sweat on our brows. And what goes for us as individuals, holds true for our congregational community, as well.
I know because I’ve felt it, too. Gun violence, a nuclear Iran, immigration reform, the Confederate flag… as we’ve considered whether and how these timely issues might enter our discourse at KKBE – whether and how we might participate in, or even lead, community action – I’ve felt knots in my stomach tightening. Aren’t the dynamics of synagogue life delicate enough without inviting controversy?
So do we just keep quiet? Put our noses to the ground and go about our business, because surely it’s true, addressing the difficult issues of the day will probably reveal tensions, fissures, moments of discomfort?
Well, consider the intense drama of the Torah portion we just heard chanted so beautifully. The calm of an ordinary, everything-going-along-as-usual biblical day is suddenly disrupted by God’s stunning pronouncement: “Abraham, take your son – that one, the one you love, Isaac – and bring him up on a mountain to sacrifice to me.” If ever some sort of introduction were needed – a “We need to talk,” at the very least – this would be it. “Whoa!” we want to say to God; we want Abraham to say… But Abraham is silent. Not once – not when he hears the command, not when he packs for the trip, not when he binds his son and raises the knife – not once does Abraham tell God, “Just a minute, please – we need to talk.” The only time Abraham speaks, is when his son asks for reassurance. “Everything will be OK,” father says to son – but how can it be, if no one’s talking?
We cringe at this Abraham; will him to find his voice, to be the Abraham of an earlier chapter, who, when God revealed His plans to destroy Sodom and Gemorah, spoke up and said, “Wait a minute, God – before You do anything, we need to talk.” We shudder at Abraham’s silence, Abraham’s avoidance; we want more of that willingness to engage with God and explain how the proposition to destroy two cities opposes the very essence of who God, the Creator, is.
So why does Abraham speak up in this earlier case but not in today’s Torah reading? Is it because the dilemma of today’s portion hits too close to home? Is it because Abraham values relationships over issues, and his relationship with God matters to him more than anything in the world? Is it because the situation feels so tenuous and fraught with danger? Is it because there is just so much at stake?
When it comes to the most pressing issues of our day – race and racism, guns and violence, affluence and opportunity, war and peace – all the same impediments exist. However, as clearly as we see the need for Abraham to overcome his reticence, we know that we too must find the will and the courage to have difficult conversations amongst ourselves. We need to talk.
And we can be strengthened knowing that doing so is a significant part of our American Reform Jewish heritage, a heritage of which we are, deservedly, so proud. In the 1850s, Reform Rabbi David Einhorn spoke out vehemently and courageously against slavery in his southern city of Baltimore. At the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch became known as one of the foremost political and social reformers of his time, tackling sweatshops and the inequities of working conditions amidst strikes and riots. Following the lead of these giants, our movement advocated for the protection of civil liberties during the McCarthy era, was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and “very early [and] sharply condemned the war in Vietnam.”
And we’d be in error if we deduced that the willingness and courage of our forebears to do these things reflected the luxury of agreement and uniformity of opinion unique to their time. Far from it. Rabbi Einhorn was run out of town for his views on slavery. When the CCAR (the central body of Reform rabbis) issued its Declaration of Principles in 1918, the first social justice platform of any Jewish denomination, nearly all of its policies pertaining to social and economic equality – a fair minimum wage, regulation of working hours and industrial conditions, universal health insurance and pension – nearly all “remained the subject of [significant] controversy,” as they do today.
When the Reform rabbinate “called for radical measures to curb poverty,” during the Great Depression, “lay leadership, at that time dominantly conservative, sometimes stood in opposition to [their rabbis].” Following World War II, the tables turned and it was the laity, represented by the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), that took the initiative – conducting social justice activities at the national level, encouraging the formation of social action committees, providing educational materials for the discussion of issues in congregations, and publishing statements in areas of social concern. When the UAHC passed a resolution in 1967 “calling for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam,” it represented a minority view in the country at the time.
So what’s changed? Are we just more squeamish about controversy? Perhaps. Against the backdrop of heightened concern about the future of American synagogues and American Jewry, are we extra wary of doing anything that might further rock the boat, alienate the members and potential members necessary for our institutional survival? Quite possibly. Or is it that the issues of today feel more complex than those of earlier times? As Al Vorspan and Rabbi David Saperstein, key leaders of the Religious Action Center, have written:
“In the days of the historic civil rights struggle, [for instance,] it seemed so easy to make a clear moral judgment on the big issues in American society. It seemed so easy to tell the good guys from the bad, to stand up and be counted. It did not require great moral ethical sophistication to distinguish right from wrong when witnessing black children in Birmingham being killed in church bombings and assaulted by police equipped with attack dogs, fire hoses, and electric cattle prods. It was not difficult to salute those fighting to win the elementary right to vote and to condemn those who sought to frustrate that right.
“On the international scene, it was easy to shout ‘Let My People Go’ on behalf of Soviet Jewry. And although making an initial judgment on the Vietnam War was less clear-cut than the civil rights issue, most Americans [eventually] came to see the war as morally wrong.
“The clear-cut issues of yesteryear have faded into the complex gray of today’s dilemmas. … The certainties of yesterday have become the ambiguities and conflicts of today, especially when one right collides with another right, [as they almost always do]. …
“But the complexity of these issues does not exempt us Jews from facing up to our moral challenges. We may have to walk a moral tightrope, yes, but we cannot escape our Jewish mission. With greater modesty and less certainty than in the past, with more tentativeness and greater tolerance for dissenting views, we still bear our historic burden: to face this world and its pain head-on; to engage in endless study and moral debate; to cherish human life and to pursue justice; to enhance the life of the mind and to struggle to be God’s partner in repairing this broken and incomplete world. It was never easy, even in the old days; it is more difficult today and will be even harder tomorrow. But, if the agenda is more nuanced today, our duty to do the right thing, to engage in tikkun olam, the ‘repair of our broken world,’ is as compelling as ever.”
Sometimes I think we fail to talk about controversial issues because we assume it won’t matter. Abortion, gun violence, racial profiling, Confederate flags… the lines are drawn, opinions are set. Let the national offices of Reform Judaism make their statements and issue their resolutions; let the politicians hash it out. If we’re not going to change minds, why risk division?
I might have drawn the same conclusion, but then, sometime this past school year, when our son was in first grade, Aaron and I were caught off-guard at the dinner table. Eli knows that we support same-sex marriage in our household, and has known it for some time. We talk about treating everyone the same – no matter what they believe, what they look like, or who their heart loves. We showed him the marriage licenses of the first wedding ceremonies at which we officiated after the law changed – where instead of bride and groom, they read “Party A and Party B” – and we celebrated. As grown ups (far more than kids) jokingly ask about girlfriends, we remind him everyone can grow up to love anyone.
Perhaps we talk about it too much; Eli seemed to think so as he rolled his eyes at the table that night when it somehow came up again. “I know, I know,” he said. “Boys can love boys and girls can love girls. But, Mommy, when I talk about it with my classmates at school, nobody really agrees with me.” My initial reaction was surprise that he was talking about it at school, and my first instinct was to tell him he didn’t need to do that, he didn’t need to invite the controversy. But then, what he had said sunk in. How could first graders already disagree with him? How could six and seven year olds already believe that loving someone of the same gender is somehow deviant? How, if not from their parents and houses of worship and other influences. And so, no, he did need to speak up and so do we, because as I told him that night: “I guarantee you that there are boys in your school who are going to grow up to love boys and girls who are going to grow up to love girls, and think how much it will mean – and might already – to know that there was at least one of their classmates who supported and stood up for them. We’re proud of you.”
We need to talk, not only to continue the legacy of those who came before us, but because – whether we accept it or not – the next generation is already talking, and we – as peers, parents, and a place of worship – need to help guide the conversation.
So the question is, How? How do we engage in a meaningful dialogue about hot button issues so that – whether in our homes or our workplaces, with our friends or our congregation – we don’t just deepen divides and might even begin to bridge them? Let me suggest a few strategies:
First, when we talk, we have to do so in a way that demonstrates we want to be heard. “When we think about divisive moral problems, our first instinct is to think of all the ways in which We are right and They are wrong,” as though right is ever the exclusive provenance of one side. We urge people to “be reasonable”, though an issue is usually controversial precisely because “each of us believes that we’re already reasonable.” We appeal to moral authority, forgetting that, “in nearly all moral controversies, there are truly moral considerations on both sides.” Whipping up support by demonizing the opposition may work, but then, understandably, “the opposition becomes much harder to deal with … less willing to listen to what we have to say.”
We would do well to remember the sage Talmudic teaching regarding dispute. When Hillel and Shammai are at a standstill with one another in one of their many disagreements, each claiming that his perspective is the definitive one on the issue, none other than the voice of God calls out to adjudicate the dispute, saying: “These and these are the words of the living God.” These and these. Even statements diametrically opposed to one another can be the words of the living God. But when one side denigrates the other, delegitimizes the other, hurls accusations and personal attacks against the other – these are not the words of the living God. God’s words were the very instrument of creation; those words are the vehicle for wanton destruction.
When we talk, when we write, when we post and forward and press “SEND”, let’s remember that the goal cannot be merely to hear ourselves talk without regard for the consequences. We need to hear one another, and so the first thing we need to do is be mindful of how we sound when we talk about an issue.
The second thing we need to do is pay attention to how we listen. In 2003, social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen conducted an experiment.
“[He] presented self-described conservative and liberal Americans with two different welfare policy proposals: one offering generous welfare benefits, more generous than any existing program, and one offering meager welfare benefits, more meager than any existing program. As you might expect, the liberals tended to like the generous program more than conservatives did and vice versa. In the next part of the experiment, using a new set of liberal and conservative subjects, Cohen presented the same proposals, but this time he labeled the proposals as coming either from Democrats or Republicans. As you would expect, support from Democrats made programs more appealing to liberals and support from Republicans made programs more appealing to conservatives.”
But what was really astounding was the strength of this partisan bias, which completely obliterated the policy itself. Liberals liked extreme conservative policies identified as coming from Democrats better than extreme liberal policies identified as coming from Republicans, and conservatives liked extreme liberal policies identified as coming from Republicans better than extreme conservative policies identified as coming from Democrats. Of course, all of this was happening unconsciously – so we need to raise our consciousness to discourse. We need to listen – really listen – to one another, pay attention to content and acknowledge our biases. We all have them. An official makes a controversial call in a game – how do we respond? Depends on who we’re rooting for. In 2012, groups of Arabs and Israelis were shown news coverage of the 1982 war in Lebanon. Both groups watched the same footage and each concluded the media was biased in favor of the other side. To truly evaluate perspectives other than our own we need to make sure we’re open to hearing them. As the Dalai Lama once said: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, [really listen,] you may learn something new.” So we need to work to listen beyond our biases.
And, finally, let’s recognize that all of this is incredibly difficult. If it were easy to calmly address challenging, controversial topics – to speak gently and listen openly – well, then they wouldn’t be so controversial after all. It’s not easy. So let’s do what we can to set ourselves up for success.
In counseling, one of the best practices taught to couples and families who need to talk about a difficult topic is to set aside a specific time for the conversation. Not so that everyone can come in armed with his/her airtight arguments or defense. As we’ve said, we need to speak in such a way that we acknowledge right and reason exist on multiple sides. Nor do we set a specific time so that we can put up a shield that keeps us from hearing ideas that differ from own, perspectives that might upset us. We set a time so we can prepare ourselves to come with the open minds, ears and hearts that every meaningful dialogue requires. This is the preparation we begin today.
We’ve had an intense and difficult summer. Our community experienced what some might call an unspeakable tragedy. The flowers and prayer shawls that continue to be placed at the steps of Mother Emanuel Church remind us that the wound is still fresh. The unchanging realities of its root causes, however, tell us that of all the things this tragedy may be, “unspeakable” cannot be one of them. We need to talk. When individuals and organizations told us in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that it was time to talk deeply about gun violence and race we, I believe appropriately, told them it was too soon. But, friends, it is no longer too soon. And, though these issues run deep and wide and long, the message of these holy days is that it’s not too late either. We need to talk. Because if – and only if – we do, can we learn and grow and change.
So we’re setting a time. When we reconvene nine days from now, my sermon on Yom Kippur evening will address the important topic of racial inequality, and Rabbi Terkel’s sermon the following morning will discuss the crucial issue of curbing gun violence. And it will be up to all of us to listen with open minds and hearts, to reflect on how we personally can make a difference, and to continue the conversation in our homes, our community, and yes, our synagogue.
In just a few moments we’ll resume our liturgy with the words of Aleinu. The word Aleinu itself means: “It is our duty.”
Ours is the duty to listen and ours the duty to praise.
Ours is the duty to raise questions
And build houses of study in which to ask them.
Ours is the duty to respond to what we hear:
To do justice, to fix the broken, to open doors of hope.
It is not our duty to complete the work,
But neither may we turn away from it.
As we enter a new year, whose moral challenges cry out for the attention and commitment and voices of our community as much as ever, may we prove up to the task. Amen.
Quotations from: The Reform Judaism Reader (Michael Meyer and W. Gunther Plaut); Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (Joshua Greene). Concluding prayer adapted from Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur, p. 430.