Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Posted at 09:20 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Elul, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Middot, Midrash, Prayer, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Speech Ethics, Spirituality, Synagogue, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Theology, Torah, Tov! Podcast, USA, Yamim Noraim | Permalink | Comments (0)
These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Hope In An Uncertain World (5777/2016)
What the Chanukkah dreidel can teach us about four kinds of hope.
Who Knows? (5780/2019)
How the story of Esther even more than the Torah can guide us to live in a world of mortal dangers.
How Good Do I Have to Be? (5777/2016)
With assists from the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, Naomi Shemer and Reb Simcha Bunem.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017)
We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Finding Purpose and Direction (5773/2012)
Figuring out your purpose, especially in up in the air times, or transitions in life or work.
Lost and Found (5779/2018)
When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018)
Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014)
Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010)
No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015)
Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011)
Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021)
As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
Being Present in a Digital Age (5774/2013)
How to make people and not devices more central to our daily lives.
Look Up (5780/2019)
In a cynical age, we need to focus more on looking up to people -- the everyday people in our lives, the people who need us, the best leaders we know.
Body Talk (5779/2018)
How to show others we really believe they are the image of God.
Posted at 04:37 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Hope, Justice, Leadership, Middot, Patience, Ritual, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
We're deep into Season 3 of Tov!, my podcast about The Good Place and Jewish ideas related to teshuvah. You can find all the most recent episodes here, or type "Tov!" into your favorite podcast app.
Also, I have been logging in at 12:36pm Eastern time each weekday this Elul to teach and talk about some classic teaching about teshuvah, mostly Maimonides but other things maybe too. You can join here, or you can listen to the ones I've taped:
My D’var Torah from July 30, 2022 * 2 Av 5782
One of my favorite anecdotes about morning davvening (praying) comes from the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Chanina went to shul one day. This was some 1700 years ago, give or take, and at the time there were no siddurim (written prayerbooks). People who led knew the outline of the service, and the theme for each short section and the specific language of the blessing to end each section – Creator of lights, Yotzer hame’orot; Redeemer of Israel, Ga’al Yisrael, etc. A few prayers had been written and were well-known but the leader, the shliach tzibbur, could compose or make up his own prayer on the section’s theme to get to the very few fixed words.
So Rabbi Chanina is in shul and this guy stands up to recite the Amidah, and he starts chanting: Ha’el ha’gadol ha’gibbor v’hanora, v’ha’adir v’ha’izuz v’ha’yarui he-chazak v’ha’amitz v’ha’vadai v’hanichbad. Now you don’t need to know what all the words mean to know that what this prayer leader is doing is adding on top of the familiar prayer more praise adjectives for God. Strong, and courageous, and certain, and honored, and and and….
Anyway, the leader finishes the Amidah and Rabbi Chanina says to him: “Nu, did you get them all? I mean did you use enough words to describe the Divine, you know, better than Moshe Rabbeinu did? Because we’re using Moshe’s own words when we say Ha’el ha’gadol etc. , and some words that other prophetic figures did, and if it weren’t for these ancestors we couldn’t use any words at all to talk about the Divine. But you, you kept on going, but what did you really do? It’s like if there were a king who was known for having so much gold, and a person praised him for how much silver he had.”
So first of all I love that in shul in the Babylonian Talmud, everyone’s a critic and everyone has an evaluation of services while they’re still happening.
But I think about this teaching anytime we get into discussions like last week’s Kiddush program about theology and the Divine. It was really wonderful and thoughtful, and I appreciated everyone’s honesty in the questions you have and the views you expressed. And it did not go unnoticed by your rabbi that the ways our siddur talks about God really do not land for the vast majority of you who were there – the big metaphors of “King” and “Lord”, the importance of praising the Divine as though this was needed on high somewhere.
I just want to say a few things to open this crack more, because a lot of the ideas that you reject about the Divine and that I do not hold either — we feel like we’re breaking something when we say it out loud. And I am really working ahead about the High Holy Days, to make sure that the metaphors we are using to aid us are indeed helpful and true in the moments we need them, and I am concerned that the liturgy as it is will not help us at all unless we do some pre-thinking about it before the holy days. I’m going to say a few things today, and I have started reaching out to the people in our congregation who have been our spiritual teachers because I think we should hear many voices the coming weeks — different voices about what the Divine means to us, what it means to stand in the presence of the Divine with kavvanah, with purpose. There are people here who teach this better and more clear than I do, and you should have a chance to learn from them on Shabbat and other times. If we just walk into Rosh Hashanah without thinking about them, the words of the machzor (prayerbook) will not have depth and will not open a door for us.
So for me, one of the biggest things is maybe a paradox. I do not think of the Divine as a being in some one place, a personality of some kind whom I can address who is completely separate from myself or from us. And at the same time, I find the experience of imagining myself in the presence of a power I had no say in choosing to be very important. Visualizing that, which I do not literally believe, does something important that I won’t give up.
So to the first part of that: I wonder a bit how all of this got started and created, but not knowing doesn’t really affect my day. I take now as a given; we are here and so is the universe. It is permeated with Divinity, and just as every atom and every charge in the universe is affected somehow by every other, so too every spiritual atom and spiritual electron is linked. The totality of it is the Divine; each part of it is; and also each thing made up of it – me and you, the tent and the concrete, the trees and the engines in our cars. We are all spiritual receivers and transmitters. We have that capacity whether we use it or not, and the invisible Divinity is everywhere just as much as the gravitational force we don’t see or the radio waves that are hitting us and going through us whether we choose to tune to them or not, to produce or amplify or play for someone else. That’s my operating picture. That’s where God is for me. And in a way I can’t tell you very well I think that these Divine sparks – atoms and charges – they carry goodness and wisdom and Torah. Like a circuit that can be completed or broken by us, we can tap this goodness, which is a renewable energy and is never consumed, like the burning bush. I and we didn’t create it, but it doesn’t travel unless we extend or complete the circuit.
So I don’t think God sends floods or plagues, or heals from cancer or doesn’t, or decides on 400 years of slavery in Egypt and then its end. I don’t think God is judging or decreeing. There isn’t someone else out there doing those things. Some of the evil and suffering that happens is the fault of humans, and some just a product of nature. That’s the world as created.
Part 2 is that for me it’s good to focus on a particular cluster or manifestation of that everywhere-Divinity, on a regular basis. The metaphor of malchut, of melech or “king”, is made up for me of power and lawgiving and a selection I had no part it. And I need a reminder that there are things outside of me and that won’t disappear when I can’t hold them up, with my incomplete goodness or my incomplete spiritual focus.
Sometimes I look up at the top of the Aron Kodesh (ark) or I look up toward the Ner Tamid (eternal light) or the open sky, because I want to feel smaller than I usually do, humbler, but still present, and aware that this small person is still at the center of my horizons.
Sometimes I talk intimately to the Divine I imagine gathered up that way, atoms and charges concentrated palpably in front of me, and I like to say exactly the words in the book, and to find myself in them. To connect to the thoughts of the many, many people who put them together and sounded them out initially, and the ones who have said them before for important reasons and occasions. I like to say their words, to run them through me, because just as the Divine was not made by me — I had no say in that but I am made up of Divine stuff — so too these words change and recreate me. They make me able to say certain things and they make me into the person who can make those words more real.
I never experience my words as praise of a God “out there”, watching from afar to see what I am saying. I experience my words helping to connect the circuit, making the universe worthy of these praises, reminding me that my intentions help make the words in the siddur true when they don’t seem true in the daily news. Sometimes I’m consciously reconnecting myself to the grid, completing the circuit running through me. Sometimes I’m just noticing that there is more spiritual energy flowing than I remembered since yesterday. Sometimes it’s just cathartic to ask for things, in a chant out loud, speaking directly to the “king” who graces me with an interview. Sometimes it’s good to hear myself say the hopes and yearnings and thank-you’s out loud that I don’t otherwise say to people (but ought to more). Sometimes it’s helpful to let myself ask for things — for help for me, for a better world for you.
It helps me to approach my praying this way, with this kind of cinematography. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t believe my picture is actually there. At least, I do not anymore experience it as any contradiction. In the Kabbalah, the idea of “king” is split in two. If you look at the diagram of the ten sefirot, the ten phase-states of divine energy flowing toward our spiritual consciousness, the farthest away is called Keter, the crown; and the closest is called Malchut or royalty, sovereignty, and is identified with us, with the people of Israel. I like that the Kabbalists are messing with the king metaphor, to make it both so far away and so close by simultaneously.
That’s where I will leave it today. We are in the period leading toward Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two ancient Temples, and then toward Yom Kippur which recalls when we all were united with each other and the Divine name at the Temple in its glory. This is a time of year to experience the breaking of the circuit, the incompleteness of the Divine name, the breaking of ideas that have led us to inner destructions – the Jewish calendar wants us to do that, to see what’s not whole in our theology and to break what needs to be broken. As Rabbi Chanina reminded us in the Talmud, we don’t have to use words about God that don’t do the job, just to look good to others.
If the teachings you think you have heard from Judaism about the Divine cannot hold, let them break. Break them yourself. You will not hurt God; you will not hurt the shul or me, and you will not destroy Judaism or the world. Some of our old names and ideas for God, they are like building materials that are obsolete, or wires frayed from a lot of good use. But we have better stuff with which to understand and imagine and connect to the Divine. Some of it is brand new and some of it has been in spiritual storage for whatever reason. I’m grateful for the many teachers in our community who will help us find it all and take it out and learn how to use it, so we can build sturdy and electric for the new year.
This is my D'var Torah from last Shabbat, Saturday, July 23, 2022.
“It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting.”
That’s a line from a conversation between then-Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her 15-year-old daughter Jane in the film On the Basis of Sex, which is partly the story of how RBG, zichrona livracha, came to win her first major court case for gender equality. Professor Ginsburg has just come back from teaching her newest law students, after walking through an anti-war demonstration to get into the building. Her own students in class are passionate and impatient, and it throws her for a loop. At home that night, RGB brings up a note with her name that Jane forged so she could skip school and attend a Gloria Steinem rally. They argue about which strategy is necessary for women’s equality -- the legal process or the rallies -- and Jane gets in her zinger: “It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting. That’s a support group.”
I think about this argument when I read the story of the five daughters of Tzelophechad in the Torah portion Pinchas. Machlah, Choglah, Milkah, Noah and Tirtzah are sisters who are absolutely the spiritual ancestors of Justice Ginsburg. She a modern icon of equality and the exemplar of a certain approach to change, and the five Torah sisters also icons especially in our age -- but there is a lot of arguing these days against the approach they have in common. So I want to explore how the Torah and the midrash understand the daughters, the B’not Tzelophechad, and to argue why we need more of their approach even though there is truth within Jane Ginsburg’s critique.
The story of B’not Tzelophechad (Numbers 27) is that their father had died in the desert, before the assignment of future land holdings in the Land of Israel to every family. They have no brothers, and according to the law communicated so far, their immediate family will not have any holding of land when the arrive shortly. So the sisters approach Moshe, El’azar the high priest and all the tribal leaders, in front of the whole community.
Vatikrav’na Bnot Tzelophechad -- they “came close.” Which I think we can understand this way: their strategy was to shrink the distance between themselves, and the judges and the men of the community. The best way to read the story in the Torah might be to have in mind the first cases that RGB pressed as a lawyer. Such as the one at the climax of the film, Moritz vs. Commissioner, argued in federal appeals court. There she challenged the constitutionality of a law that denied an unmarried man a tax deduction for the expenses related to care of his mother, even though a woman would have qualified.
So too when the sisters speak, they center not themselves as women but their father. They say avinu, “our father”, three times. Only at the end of their speech do they say give us, t’nu lanu achuza, give us something to hold among our father’s brothers. They mention that their father was not like the other men who had in fact been enemies of Moshe and El’azar’s father Aharon, part of the insurrection against them led by Korach. Those men deserved to be punished by not getting a holding in the land -- but not avinu, our father.
That’s exactly how Attorney Ginsburg started building a set of precedents striking down laws on the basis of sex discrimination: with a series of cases centering men. B’not Tzelophechad, like RBG, did not call into question the whole patriarchical system of property and inheritance. They found a place where the authorities might agree on their own terms to a ruling that benefits women.
And indeed, the five sisters win their case when Moshe takes it to his court of appeals, to God -- and the law is taught that in a case where there is no son then daughters shall inherit. We might say dayenu just at the fact that God seems to respond to this argument from women. That’s suprising all by itself, no? And not only that, but the first words of God’s response put B’not Tzelophechad in the center, and repeat their request as a court order -- naton titen lahem, “give, yes give to them” -- and “their father” isn’t mentioned until last part of that sentence.
But the midrash goes even further in explaining the process of legal response that happens here.
When God hears the sisters’ case, God’s first words to Moshe are: Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot. “The daughters are speaking right.” Also ken means “thus”, as in: the daughters of Tzelophechad are speaking the exact words I God have been instruction you Moshe to say already.
In this interpretation, God is saying: Moshe, you have been teaching the people the law of inheritance but you have left a gap. I have told you about it, but you have had a blind spot. Not me, not I the Divine -- but you are not seeing it. Even I haven’t been able to teach you yet how a law about families without sons is necessary. So now here are five real people -- do you see them? Do you get now the situation I’ve been telling you about?
So according to the midrash, God’s law isn’t being changed at all. It’s just being unblocked. Moshe finally is able to teach this part of the law to the people. And this is what makes him realize that it’s time to get to planning better for his retirement and succession. The rest of the chapter is Moshe saying to God: Let’s find a new leader who can lead around these matters better than I have been doing.
It is a compelling case of influencing leadership from the grassroots for social change. Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot.They speak ken -- they speak honesty, with integrity, with respect. They say ken to the men in charge -- ken means “yes.” Yes to the basic framework of Torah. The sisters have a better understanding of what God wants than even Moshe does.
That’s famously how RBG did it, particularly at the start of her career. She won more than one case on behalf of men, and got male judges to say that legal equality between the sexes was not new but had been in the Constitution all along. Justice Ginsburg spoke again and again about what we might call the vatik’rav’na principle, shrinking the distance, and the ken principle, not losing your integrity in the process. And as for what her daughter Jane said in the film, the Torah describes B’not Tzelophechad as va’taamod’na, they stood up. They absolutely did, and this is how they did it.
I hope so far I’ve made a good case for B’not Tzelophechad. But Jane Ginsberg age 15 and plenty of adult critics still have what to say back. Of course a group of male rabbis in the Talmud 1500-plus years ago are going to approve of this soft-spoken, gradual approach from women. And what did B’not Tzelophechad really achieve -- one fix for one specific case. If they had been five sisters with one brother, they would have gotten nothing. If only Miryam had been alive still, maybe she would have spoken more fundamentally about the bias in the whole system. We need an approach based on wider questioning and more pressure and more discomfort.
Well our own Torah reading presents a version of that approach a couple chapters earlier. It’s Pinchas the son of El’azar the high priest, who was faced in real time with a terrible social injustice -- an insurrection against God in the form of a pagan orgy in concert with the people of Moav. People were about to start dying in the conflict, or some say people were already dying. (I would make the case, though this is a whole other talk, that this particular pagan orgy is offensive to the Torah partly because of how degrading idolatry and its rituals were to women.)
Pinchas sees what is happening, the threat to lives and I will say to women. He sees a particular man and woman together and he skewers them through with a sword, killing them -- and the whole thing stops and the dying stops. And the Torah says that God rewards Pinchas and his descendents that they will be the major lineage for the kohanim (priests) from now on.
This is passion. The Torah has God say: Pinchas is passionate for the things I am passionate for. It’s something like what Professor RBG is afraid of according to the film. If a door is opened to violence as a response to social ills, who knows what happens after and who will be its victims down the road, as bystanders or targets. RGB was afraid that people who meet the violence of the current reality with mass protests that are too broad and too agressive, they might stop a plague but also unleash one.
And that’s why the tradition is skeptical about Pinchas, even though the Torah says he is devoted to the right things and he is rewarded. The midrash trends toward a real concern about him. So one interpretation is that Pinchas was allowed only one of these violent acts in his life. And that’s why the Torah labels his reward brit shalom, a covenant of peace. From now on, Pinchas has to include peacemaking in all of his future work and all of his future activism. Otherwise he will be too dangerous an actor, even for God, even against this kind of pagan insurrection that is a clear affront to the Ten Commandments.
(It’s clear to me that the story of B’not Tzelophechad is told the way it is intentionally as a contrast with Pinchas, through wordplay. Pinchas has passion, kin’ah, but B’not Tzelophechad have integrity and honesty, ken. The sisters draw close, vatikravna, in a twist on the root word karav that labels the offerings so associated with priests like Pinchas, the korbanot. Pinchas is unusually for the Torah introduced as not just son, but also grandson. B’not Tzelophechad are given three more generations of lineage than that. Pinchas jumps up -- vayakom -- but B’not Tzelophechad stand and stand together, vata’amod’na.)
In the past, I might have said that the Torah is giving us two models of activism in B’not Tzelophechad and Pinchas, and we need them at different times or they suit different people. A time for passionate and force and absolutism, and a time for up close engagement and gradualism. A time for Gloria Steinem and a time for RBG.
But today I say: Enough with adding more Pinchas. There is too much of it among the bad folks and even the good folks. Our spiritual and political air is choked with aggressive speech, metaphors of force and fight and violence in our speech and writing, zingers far worse than Jane Ginsburg’s to her mother. Not to mention actual violence.
It can feel so good to tell off, to mock and insult. Enough people do that, in direct speech and on social media. They’re on the wrong side but they’re on your side too. It’s more than covered, the aggressive, the Pinchas. It’s not just masculine either. It’s probaby not possible to change all the Pinchas-style behavior once it’s begun.
But we need more people to learn the ways of Bnot Tzelophechad. I don’t mean to be content with only one change. Or to decenter the people who should be at the center. Jane Ginsburg and the other critics are so right about that. But I don’t think the most important thing about Bnot Tzelophechad, or RBG, was the gradualism, the strategy. It’s believing that there is power that comes with ken dovrot, with speaking correctly and out of integrity, with figuring how to communicate what is eternally true and you know it when that’s still new to someone else. There is power in vatikrav’na, to coming toward someone else’s perspective -- it challenges them but not in a threatening way. It challenges in a charged but still inviting way. There is power in believing that the changes that are needed are ken -- they are already here in the Divine image of the world, they are already more eternal and more permanent than anything else, they just haven’t been seen or spoken aloud enough.
These are powerful moves -- they just might not look as forceful from the outside and they sure are not violent. But powerful are B’not Tzelophechad whenever they appear in our world. Enduring change doesn’t come only from force or only from keen strategy. It comes from affecting how people see alternate leaders, the effect of their integrity. Respect for them transforms enough opponents and enough bystanders. It need not transform them all.
People acting like the five sisters might be a support group, and that isn’t a bad thing. But they are not sitting -- they are standing up together. Without them, without us acting like them, there can never be any movement at all.
This was the D'var Torah I gave for Parashat Behar on May 21, 2022.
Whenever people suggest that Judaism could be separate from politics, I think about this week’s parasha. The Shabbaton and the Yovel (the sabbatical and the jubilee) – these mitzvot are not just personal and spiritual teachings, about what you eat and what you share. They are about the whole system of property and ownership and power, and about our relationship to the land and the ecosystem that provides our food.
Every seven years, it doesn’t matter who owns a field and who has stored up food from the year before. Everyone has access to all of it, and everyone comes side by side to get food from the land and from private storehouses, and maybe they even eat together. Every fifty years, it doesn’t matter who has bought or sold a piece of land and who lives where. All families go back to the land holdings originally given to them in the time of Yehoshua when the people first came into the promised land. Wealthy families give back what they have bought legitimately; poor families are restored to what they needed to sell.
None of this happens individually or one at a time. Both the Shabbaton and the Yovel happen to everyone at the same time, in every region of the land. It is a social experience around property and wealth and power that is shared all at once, by society as a whole.
It occurred to me this week that Shabbaton and Yovel are far more radical than even the Exodus itself, the overturning of Pharaoh, which I have taught often and recently was unlike anything ancient people had ever thought previously about the value of human beings and about power. The Exodus was unprecedented – but it was in response to a situation of actual group suffering, imposed by a specific oppressor. Shabbaton and Yovel are not in response to any specific instance like that. They are pre-programmed responses to the regular things that happen in a society where people work the land and trade food and labor and exchange property. They are for a society that also has good ideas of tzedakah (giving) and chesed (caring acts), which individuals are responsible to carry out.
Without the need for painful suffering on a massive scale, or mobilizing against a tyrant, the Torah in Leviticus 25 mandates the overturning of our relations in the economy and society, making it all change visibly in the open every seven years and every fifty years.
Maybe the end of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the real bookend to the beginning of the Exodus. Exodus begins with our ancestors as slaves building cities for Pharaoh’s regime, and it ends with them building the opposite -- the Mishkan, a spiritual central for the regime of Hashem. “Let them make me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them,” says Exodus. But now, nearly at the end of Leviticus, people imagine building a system for recalibrating their society on the go, making sure no one can permanently accumulate Pharaoh-like wealth and power over the others. “For to Me the Children of Israel are servants,” says the end of Leviticus – and the Talmudic rabbis explain: For to Me they are servants and not servants to other servants, not slaves to each other. Shabbaton and Yovel are the social and political inoculation against more Pharaohs, even a Pharoah among the Israelites themselves.
Political this is – and yet, it’s not. I’m using the word politics a bit fast and loose, because Parashat Behar does not show us politics in action. We know the sabbatical year was implemented in ancient times and still is today, and in Roman times and modern times there has been politics around it. We have no idea whether the jubilee really ever happened exactly the way the Torah stipulates. Our parasha describes an ideal society, and we can think about the moral and spiritual principles the parasha teaches. But the actual outcome could only be ensured through political activity.
Saying the Torah has social visions doesn’t itself prove that there is a Torah of politics and political action. I love to bask in Shabbaton and Yovel, any excuse to do that is dayenu – but I want to say more about the Torah of political action, which in a way only begins with things our parasha.
I want to use a distinction proposed by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, though I will take it in a slightly different direction. You may be starting to recognize the Hartman name and Yehuda’s name in particular from many of my d’rashot. For the past few years Yehuda has been teaching around the idea that American Jews ought to distinguish in our civic activity between the moral, the political, and the partisan. Briefly, Yehuda defines the moral as our core social principles; the political as our collaborative strategy and work in society; and the partisan as the activity we do typically within either of the two teams, the Democrats and the Republicans. Yehuda argues that it is bad for America and particularly bad for Jews when we don’t distinguish between the moral, the political, and the partisan.
The moral refers to the principles and values we hold, which generate our ideas about the good society, and the actions we actually perform toward other people and in groups of people we know. The moral is also about working on ourselves as people in society. It’s about being honest about our own individual gifts and our own individual limits. It’s about asking ourselves why we care about this more than that, looking at our own inconsistencies and hypocrisies. The moral is where we make judgments, often about others though it should also be toward ourselves. The moral is about how we do teshuvah around our action and inaction in society -- how we hold ourselves accountable and recalibrate ourselves, as well as the smaller groups within which we talk about politics or we organize. The moral dimension is very spiritual and obviously very Jewish.
The political – I want to use the word in its Aristotelian sense. Not “yeech, politics”, but the elevating work of defining and creating the polis, the best society that is both aligned with our moral values and also cultivates those values at the same time. We are only real in society, and political activity enlarges us and elevates us and completes us. The political brings people together in purposeful work, helps us each discover our gifts and how they fit together, and shows us new things to admire about each other.
The political magnifies our power to achieve visions, on a scale not possible just by small group projects or even by giving tzedakah. The political is how we find the power to bring a society into alignment with the ideals of Shabbaton and Yovel.
The political is also the level where groups ought to try to understand themselves, and look at their own strengths and weaknesses and hypocrisies. Groups need to do teshuvah as well. This is spiritual work and Jewish work, and indeed the Torah presents the Jewish people as a group trying to learn the detailed social covenant from Mt. Sinai, to internalize it and build a society based on it in the promised land.
Finally, the partisan is working for the party and candidates we believe right now can bring our moral and political visions into being. It’s mobilizing behind the specific leaders and groups we believe can do that. When we use the word “politics”, Yehuda points out, what we usually mean is the partisan – picking sides, zero sum, experiencing outrage and supporting one group and being angry at the other.
The moral, the political, the partisan.
Yehuda argues that we have too often collapsed the distinction between the moral, the political, and the partisan. If all we let ourselves look at is the partisan, that becomes our good and evil and our daily religion. We will lose important parts of our moral compass to the extent that most of what we can think about or desire is that our group or favored leader wins. We need the moral as something separate, Yehuda says – and I would add (in my name if not his) that we need the political as distinct from the partisan as well.
People who object to having politics in Judaism say: Stick to the moral. But the moral alone is too general. Saying Tzelem Elohim (the image of God) does not tell us why we should care about Ukraine in this way and Afghanistan in the same way or perhaps a different way. Talking about Shabbaton and Yovel does not tell us what the tax rates should be on income or wealth. Moral principles frame the questions and suggest directions but don’t give us answers. From the moral we need those directions, and we need to circle back to the moral principles when we are doing political thinking and political work.
We need also all the processes of teshuvah – assessing ourselves and what we are bringing to political action, checking our hypocrisy and self-righteousness, making sure we are rooted more in love for those we responsible for or allies for, and less rooted just in hate of those we are against.
Too much of religious politics is the partisan alone, and that is bad for religion generally and terrible for Jews. The partisan is where work is done and things are accomplished. But it is a realm of constant fighting; it cultivates hate and anger and fear. It discourages nuance and punishes ambiguity, and it asks us to hold up as absolutely true things that are only partially true. When we equate all politics with the partisan, the losses that come inevitably in the partisan make all political work angry and fearful and dispiriting and draining, even when we have won something for the time being.
Yehuda says we rent out our moral sense too often to the partisan; and since the partisan is win-lose, our moral judgments become binary as well. Our fellow citizens are good or evil. Our fellow Jews. Yehuda quotes a Pew study that says as much bias as there is, explicit and implicit, against people of other backgrounds, whether religious or ethnic or racial or educational or economic, the most widespread hate in America is toward people of different partisan affiliation.
The moral is crucial; the partisan is where the rubber hits the road. But neither the moral that supplies our core principles, nor the partisan where we accomplish our goals or we lose -- neither of these should be the center. At the center should be the political. At the center should be the political for each of us spiritually, and for us as a Jewish community learning and acting and reflecting.
The political is where we ask how our principles translate, where we ask it again and again, even while we are strategizing and even as we are executing our strategies. We ask whether we are being true to our principles or just think we are.
The political is where we take time from the practical battles to appreciate and admire others: the leaders who motivate us, the teachers and writers who educate us, the people who bring the signs and the food and crunch the numbers. It’s where we see ourselves in a good light as part of such an organism.
The political is where we try to understand those we are fighting against -- for the principles they might have, for the people they are loving and standing up for. These are aspects of our opponents we might learn from or at least learn to answer, if only to make our own moral arguments stronger.
The political isn’t something you do by yourself. It’s not sermons and it’s not Facebook posts, unless they invite conversation. The political is together, and sometimes it even can be done together by partisans opposing each other. It’s what I hope tomorrow’s panel on reproductive rights will model. It’s what groups a lot of you have been involved in doing in your own political work in the local community.
It's not enough for the synagogue to do the moral, and of course we should not be doing the partisan. It’s not good for religion to stay in a corner, or to make itself indistinguishable from a political party. But the political yes, sometimes all together as us and sometimes when we lift up one issue or sometimes when we’re in a learning posture about ourselves as people engaged in the political. That is very much what a religious group should do, and what Jews should do together.
And in that sense, maybe Shabbaton and Yovel are political. Apart from the practical sharing and resetting around food and property, they were ways to get people talking about the world of years 1-6 and years 1-49, and maybe even working on that politically. Or so I fantasize. Our next half year in this country is going to be intensely partisan, and that will be hard. Let’s do our part to elevate the time, by making it more political as well.
This was the D'var Torah I gave for Parashat B’haalotcha on June 18, 2022.
I always look forward to Parashat B’haalotcha because it’s the start of the frisky Torah, the Torah of complaining. It’s the beginning of the Torah’s textbook on group dynamics once the community of Israel starts moving out from Sinai toward the promised land. It’s easy to see our groups in these next few Torah readings. That’s the lens I usually bring. But I was thinking particularly this week about Pride Month, and I had said that I’d speak related to that on this Shabbat, since I plan to be away next week. And from some Torah e-mails I subscribe to and podcasts and such, about four times I found myself face-to-face with this from the parasha:
It was the first anniversary of the Exodus and Moshe instructed the people to observe Pesach and to offer the Pesach sacrifice. Then this (Numbers 9:6-8):
וַיְהִ֣י אֲנָשִׁ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר הָי֤וּ טְמֵאִים֙ לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֔ם
וְלֹא־יָֽכְל֥וּ לַֽעֲשֹׂת־הַפֶּ֖סַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא
וַֽיִּקְרְב֞וּ לִפְנֵ֥י מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְלִפְנֵ֥י אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן בַּיּ֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:
וַ֠יֹּֽאמְר֠וּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָהֵ֨מָּה֙ אֵלָ֔יו
אֲנַ֥חְנוּ טְמֵאִ֖ים לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם
לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜יב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן יְיָ֙ בְּמֹ֣עֲד֔וֹ בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
ויֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם מֹשֶׁ֑ה עִמְד֣וּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָ֔ה מַה־יְּצַוֶּ֥ה יְיָ֖ לָכֶֽם:
"There were people who were ta’meh [usually translated “impure” but we’ll get back to that] -- ta’meh for the human soul." And they were not able to do the Pesach on that day. So they came up close in front of Moshe and in front of Aharon on that day. And these people say to him: We are ta’meh for the human soul. Why are we held back, why are we subtracted, from bring close the close-up offering of the Divine in its time among the Children of Yisrael? And Moshe said to them: Stand, and I will hear what the Divine will command for you."
Lamah ni’gara. Why are we subtracted. Why are we not included.
We, who are in a state of tum’ah for life of a person. This requires some elaboration. At first blush this group seem to be held away from the Sanctuary because they had recently been in contact with a dead body and need to go through a purification ritual and the passage of a certain amount of time.
Tradition broadens the interpretation to all matters of tohora and tum’ah, which are usually translated as “purity” and “impurity.” Better to understand them, however, in terms of our embodied human experience and our attraction to the Divine.
Tum’ah and tohora are all about cycles and blood and child-birth and intimacy. These are intensely spiritual and we experience them through our bodies, our gender, our sexuality, our relationships. How is it, they ask Moshe, that these would take us away from Pesach. Why should we be the ones deprived of the Pesach offering -- the offering of freedom, the sacrifice whose blood is compared to the blood of the covenant. How could our embodied experience cause us to be held back from the Divine Sanctuary, the holiest place.
We aren’t complaining to you, Moshe, like the others who kvetch about the desert food or challenge your leadership. We’re not complaining about you or your religion or your rituals or your teachings. On the contrary, we want in. We want it all, b’moado b’toch b’nai Yisrael -- at its proper time, in the midst of all the community of Yisrael. Lamah ni’gara. Why should we be substracted. Why should we not be included.
I think we can see something even in their phrasing -- "we are tam’eh to the soul of a person". Move from seeing us as “impure”, toward seeing us as “the soul of a person.”
Moshe according to one commentary says to them: I am over the moon that you asked this question of me, and that you want this question asked of the Divine. And I too want to hear what the Divine has to say.
And the answer that came back at the time of our ancestors is what we call Pesach Sheni, a second Pesach. The message they understood, as recorded in the Torah written at that time, is that one month later, anyone who was ta’meh come and do the Pesach offering one month later, exactly as would have been done at its scheduled time. Not only they, but anyone who was on a journey too far away or someone who is a ger, a person within the community but who has not yet become a full citizen of the community. Each of you can do Pesach Sheni. This is how you will be included.
The Talmud says that being distant doesn’t mean just far, far away. Even someone who at the time of Pesach is just a step outside the area of the Temple where the sacrifice is done is far enough away for Pesach Sheni. If you’re not quite inside, physically. If you’re not let in, or don’t feel let in by the community, or if you’re not quite ready to come in fully -- you still are entitled to Pesach, to the celebration of the covenant.
I have been mulling over whether this Pesach Sheni is the answer to the question lama ni’gara, why are we not included. Part of me hears this as a bit of separate but equal, or as still “we” insiders who celebrate Pesach together on time and you others who will include with us.
So many of our people who are lesbian or gay or bisexual, transgender or intersex or nonbinary or queer, or any truer description that I still strain to know and understand -- so many have asked nothing more or less than to be b’toch b’nai Yisrael, to be part of the community of Israel full stop. Not to have to frame the matter in terms of lama ni’gara, why are we not included, how can we be included. To have to ask that way means we still are incomplete.
And the Torah recognizes this, because at the end of the teaching of Pesach Sheni the Torah says: chukkah achat yih’yeh lachem. One law there will be for all of you. As if to say -- Whatever you have just read, it is not one Torah for all of us yet. There is work yet to do. Keep working on it, now and in future generations.
This Pesach Sheni is a step forward, a step of inclusion, and it is not the final answer. Somehow, our Sanctuary needs to be spacious enough for all our people, for people who experience in all different ways love and intimacy and longing and connection. Who in all different ways understand ourselves as the image of God in our bodies and genders and sexualities and gender identities. Where no one of those is the norm that others have to be compared to and have to ask to be included around, or justified in terms of.
That part of the Torah reading spoke about people coming close, toward the Sanctuary where the altar and the Ark were. A bit later in the parasha, we read how the Ark with the tablets of the covenant would go out into battle with the people, and then come to rest when battle would pause or end.
The Talmud teaches that the biblical ark had both the broken tablets that Moshe had shattered after the Golden Calf, and the new set of whole tablets Moshe had carved on the mountain. Rabbi Yehudah ben Lakish taught that the whole tablets would stay back in the Holy of Holies, while the broken tablets would go out into battle.
It is so important for Torah to go out with us, as we battle to defend the lives of transgender youth, and all LGBTQ+ young people. As we battle for the rights and reputations of caring adults in schools who listen to them and try to be their mentors and advocates. As we battle against those trying to pit parents against teachers. It is so important for us to carry our religion into this battle, because others battle with theirs and claim to speak for God. So we have to speak in the name of our covenant as well.
It is so important as we do so to recognize that we are marching with broken tablets. That our own Judaism is not yet whole, we have not finished doing teshuvah for the ways we have not seen, for the times we have not stood by queer people of all ages and their family members. We have to carry honestly the broken hearts of our own community, the mourning over opportunities to do better and care better that we missed over the decades. When we work on matters of justice and safety and wellbeing for LGBTQ+ people in our lives, when we battle, we have to hold close the broken times, and our own brokenheartedness about times in the past we’ve each fallen short and our community and Judaism have fallen short.
It is so important to think about the ways the traditions of our past need to be creatively broken and rebuilt. The Talmud in one place praises Moshe for breaking the tablets. Because anything we have written down no matter how inspired is incomplete and could be used to shut down our vision, to say that this much progress is all we need. We need to challenge ourselves to see more like the Divine sees, to see every expression of human love and connection as an image of Divine ahavah v’chesed (love).
The broken tablets go out into battle, because it’s by fighting out of Divine love that we learn how to repair them. It’s by going out and learning from other communities that are full of love, religious and secular communities, that we find the light that helps us see better what is hidden in the crevices of the covenant we already have. It’s by going out with our tablets that we bring them and bring ourselves, who have in the past wondered if our covenant was at war with them. To them, we bring what is broken and ask to work together to refashion them and refashion ourselves together.
Our movement of Conservative Judaism has been confronting our brokenness over sexual orientation and gender identity for the past three decades. Every since possibly the lowest point our movement has ever touched in 1992, when I was a rabbinical student and watched the shameful deliberations on stage in the Seminary auditorium -- which slammed the door on lesbian and gay Jews seeking to live openly in our communities. To fifteen years ago last winter, when our Committee on Jewish Law and Standards made it possible for gay and lesbian Jews to become our rabbis, to have intimacy,to marry.
Even then, we only as a movement could talk about the G and the L. We have been trying to catch up since then, including in our shul and including myself. It’s not only ritual and rabbinical status, but relationships and love and intentionality in every realm. From changing the nomenclature on our membership forms to listening to young people we educate to changing our assumptions about people we meet of any age. I am still learning the language, carrying broken tablets, figuring out which ones to break still and refashion. I am proud, and more than that I am grateful, that we have lay leaders who have taken the intiative to make sure we have a Pride Shabbat as a matter of course, and that this year for the first time we will march and have a table at our city’s Pride Festival next weekend. What a way to carry the ark of our covenant where it needs to be seen, where its power is so needed.
I try to look at my own kids with wonder and openness, and to wait for them each to tell me I’m queer or straight, rather than make assumptions. And indeed I try to look at each of you that way too, not to assume what I don’t know.
Each of us carries Divine love, for us, and through us for others. Each of us, young and old, has our own way, spiritual and embodied all at once, to love and connect, to yearn and commit. We are all in the center. We are all part of the same covenant at the same time. We are all blessed.
Posted at 04:52 PM in B'haalotcha, Conservative Judaism, Current Affairs, Education, Equality, Ethics, GLBT, Inclusion, Jewish Education, Justice, LGBTQ+, Parashat Hashavua, Synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (1)
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Here are a couple of things I published through my Times of Israel blog, that jump off from Parashat Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf and the breaking/remaking of the tablets of the Ten Commandments:
"Give Ideas a Chance" -- exploring what it means to be serious about ideas as guides for life
"Wholeness, Not Brokenness: What Simone Biles Actually Taught Us" -- wrote this last summer but it comes back to me this week thinking about the Olympics in general and maybe skier Mikaela Shiffrin in particular