Rabbi Cohen’s Yom Kippur 5779 Sermon – Is it Black or is it White?

Kol Nidrei 5779
September 18, 2018
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Is it Black or is it White?


Two old Jewish men were sitting on a park bench, friends for many years. One looks at the other and says, “Oy”. The other looks back and says, “Oy”. The other replies, “Oy”, to which the response is “Oy”. They repeat this exchange a few more times, and then Max says to Irving, “I thought we weren’t going to talk about politics”.

Unfortunately, today, almost every discussion we have is construed as politics. Talk about Israel…politics. Talk about homelessness…politics. Talk about immigration…politics. Talk about poverty….politics. Talk about someone’s health…politics. Talk about grandchildren….politics. We can turn every one of our conversations into politics. This morning, I would like to have us push away the clutter and get down to the real issue – how we talk to one another. Can we have a conversation and not react but rather respond? Can we listen to another and not accuse them of being unpatriotic, unAmerican or even not-Jewish? Can we talk about values and morals and not go straight to, ‘that’s a political discussion?’ I would like to think that yes, we can. We just have to remember and be inspired to do this.

Last year, I shared with you all the our Social Justice work with the beginning of our listening campaign. The purpose of this listening campaign was to do just that, listen! An incredible and very patient team of individuals moderated discussions at TBS and in people’s homes in which the following question was posed: how are you experiencing the brokenness of our world? We recognize that we all come from various backgrounds and experiences that move us to experience the world in very different ways. From the young parents who are worried about their children’s education, to the college student worried about college debt, to the sandwich generation worried about how they are going to care for their children and their aging parents, and to the seniors concerned about pensions and medicare so as not to be a burden on their children. To the individuals concerned about the homeless in our community who might wander into their neighborhoods after their 57 freeway camp was disbanded. Concern expressed about individual rights from the right to own a gun to the fear of violence in our schools; the concern over women’s rights to decide how to care for their own body and sexual abuse. We heard concern over bullying, racism, LGBTQ rights, caring for those with special needs and about elder abuse. Overall, our social justice team met with over 200 individuals, including our teens, and they did exactly what we said we would, we listened. So now what?

Our goal with this listening campaign and with our social justice project of bringing social justice to the center of our congregation is to find an area where we as a congregation can join with other community partners and make a real difference in our world. Unfortunately, the cloud of politics hangs over our heads. No matter how often we say, these issues are about morals and values, the political head continues to come forward and we are left at a stalemate. How can we as a congregation attempt to do something that can make a real difference if we only see things as black or white with no grey?

There is no absolute in life except life and death, that is pretty definitive. There are areas of grey and compromise that sometimes, being the stubborn beings we all can be, we forget about.

Jewish tradition might seem rigid in some ways, but there are numerous compromises and interpretations as well. Let’s talk about Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. The Babylonian Talmud, the enormous document which collects the thoughts, arguments, legal decisions and narrative material describing the rabbis’ thoughts about all kinds of topics, is not a document that shies away from controversy. In it is found not merely the final decisions of what law wins out, but the arguments of not only two parties, but sometimes many views on a particular topic.

The Talmud in a number of places expresses its opinion on the results of suppressing opinions – both positively and negatively. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the two houses of study that follow their namesakes are put at odds with each other in offering opinions. Often, an opinion will follow that of Beit Hillel. In tractate Eruvin (13b) we read a famous passage regarding this conflict:

“For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, with Beit Shammai asserting, ‘The halacha/law is in agreement with our views’ and Beit Hillel contending, ‘The halachah/law is in agreement with our views’. Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) spoke, announcing, ‘Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halachah/law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’. Since, however, both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings? It had to do with the behavior of the students of Beit Hillel. Not only did the students and teachers of Beit Hillel teach their own rulings, but they also taught those of Beit Shammai. For Beit Hillel, it was not enough to only say, ‘this is what we believe,’ but to show that other opinions exist and do so with respect. Beit Shammai only taught their opinions and did not show respect for the other.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, we see the results of excluding the minority voice. There is the story of the Oven of Achnai. The story begins with a group of sages sitting around debating whether an oven, once broken down into pieces, can be restored to a state of wholeness. In the course of this argument, all the rabbis except one – Rabbi Eliezer – argue for a particular outcome. Eliezer calls on miracle after miracle to prove his point. The carob tree uprooting itself and moving if Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is correct. The stream flowing backward if Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is correct. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘If the halakha is according to me, may the walls of the House of Study prove it.’ At that moment, “The walls of the House of Study began to bend inward. Rabbi Joshua then rose up and rebuked the walls of the House of Study saying, ‘If the students of the Wise argue with one another in Jewish law then what right do you have to interfere oh walls?” “In honor of Rabbi Joshua, the walls ceased to bend inward; but in honor of Rabbi Eliezer, they did not straighten up, and they remain bent to this day.” Both opinions stood that day, neither straight nor bent, but in a compromising manner. The story goes on to teach that one cannot exclude one opinion over another. Rather, both should be shared, but respectfully.

How can we meet this challenge to listen to one another, to respond to all of our concerns and thoughts and not react negatively? Perhaps we need to look at how we communicate.

The Ashamnu confessional which we recite during Yom Kippur, alerts us to the dangers of language: “We abuse, we betray, … we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer …, we lie, we mock …, we are unkind, we are violent…, we are xenophobic….” Written many centuries ago, this prayer still remains relevant in our times.

We need to consider the power of language, so perverted by the airwaves, social media, TV, tweets, and slogans. Words are no longer weighed carefully, considered for their consequences. They are not used to start conversation, but to ignite argument. It is often about the provocative actions and aggressive sound bites, rather than pursuing serious diplomacy.

Rabbi Dennis Sasso writes: “The dogmatic stances of the extreme right and the extreme left, the racists, the neo-nazis, the homophobes, the Islamophobes, the anti-Semities, are projected as battle slogans. We used to X out dirty language; now we write it in bold. What once was spoken only behind closed doors, is now blasted all over the internet. What was once deemed unspeakable, is now taken for granted, celebrated.”

He goes on to teach: “We often quote but fail to internalize the core teaching of our religious tradition, the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.” Hillel’s aphorism is a commentary on the biblical teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love of neighbor” requires “love of self,” which is “self-respect.” Both forms of love are in low ration these days.

What if we were to reverse the Vidui and instead of a confession of “sins,” confess our “aspirations,” and say: “We have loved, we have blessed, we have spoken positively, we have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have cultivated truth, we have shown respect, we have forgiven, we have comforted, we have repaired.” (Rabbi Avi Weiss, adapted).

Instead of focusing on what is broken in our world, let’s focus on what is blessed. Instead of seeing that which polarizes, let’s focus on the values that bring us together. We should not say something is either liberal or conservative. An issue is either Republican or Democrat. A view is either left or right.  Rather, we should focus on how is it that we can come together and have open dialogue and still walk out feeling heard and respected? I believe we can and being the optimist I am, I believe it can exist in our country, one person at a time.

Last month, our nation lost a great leader. Senator John McCain was laid to rest amongst the praises of so many people with many differing viewpoints. While we may not all agree with his politics, Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor said of Senator McCain, “he taught: the courage of your convictions but understanding that others might not share them. But that disagreement is not a reason to dismiss another human being.” Senator McCain would bring to the floor of the Senate not only a Republican voice, but a voice of love for our country and for all people. A hope for people to listen to one another and respect the very basic human rights that all people hold. He worked to bridge gaps that sometimes seem too wide to cross but stretch as he might to bring hands together.

President George W. Bush said, “If we are ever tempted to forget who we are, to grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.”

President Barak Obama remembered Senator McCain with: “He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That’s why he was willing to buck his own party at times, occasionally work across the aisle on campaign-finance reform and immigration reform. That’s why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate.”

This year, we along with other congregations and community partners are joining in respectful debate regarding the issues of morality and values behind the ever complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict through our iEngage Course.  This 10 session class will be taught by Jodi Kaufman and myself  and take place over the full year. We are grateful to an anonymous donor who is helping underwrite our course so that we can offer it at a reduced rate of $72 per household. You will have a chance to get a taste of our iEngage class in a breakout session led by Jodi Kaufman after our morning service.

At the end of the year, we will not have a plan to end this multi-generational conflict. Instead, through this course, our hope is for us to work toward how we can come together and wrestle with the complicated issues of this conflict and maybe have a greater understanding and respect for both sides of the conflict. We are going to talk about the moral imperatives of the conflict and how we can have moral respect and not moral contempt of one another. Our hope is to work toward respectful dialogue in order to not alienate the other. Consensus is not the goal of the program, respectful dialogue is. There are five core positions of the conflict that we will explore in the course of iEngage:

First, the two state solution as a moral imperative for the Jewish people and Israel should not control others. Second, the two state solution as a policy imperative: That it’s not about the morals but how to advance Israel’s vision and preserve Israel as a democratic society. Third, the two state solution as an aspiration and worthy goal but there is not practical way to get there right now. Yes, there are moral underpinnings to this but we have to be cautious and is this the right time for this idea to come to fruition. Fourth, a one state outcome which is policy driven because the idea of a Palestinian state could be dangerous and could risk the existence of the State of Israel. And finally, the moral imperative of a one state solution, that the State of Israel exists because of a promise, a Divine right to the land.

In order for us to have this discussion and allow each of us to freely move along the continuum of this broad spectrum, our language must be that of respect and response, not reaction and rhetoric. If you want to learn more about this one year course, please join Jodi Kaufman in the iEngage break out session following our service this morning.

Life is not black and white, it is not left or right, liberal or conservative. Try as one might to say they hold one label, it is not true. For each of us bend in many ways. Each of us interpret and understand based on our life experiences and world influences. So I sit with you and you with me and we say, Oy! Oy! And Oy! And yes, we’re talking about life and all that is happening in our world. It’s not all about politics, it’s about how each of us are experiencing the world and how we can, together, just as our Torah portion from last week, Nitzavim, stated: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God…, your elders and your leaders, men and women, your children, even the stranger and the poor within your camp, to enter into the covenant which the Eternal your God is concluding with you on this day.” We stand together and with words.

At the end of the Amidah, our silent prayer, we say, Elohai Netzor…”Dear God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deception. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You,” to our loved ones and neighbors, to Israel and America, and to a world that yearns for the healing blessings of sweetness, renewal and peace. And together, may we make our world stronger and whole.

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