One of the most celebrated rabbinical debates in Jewish tradition comes from the Midrash, as a commentary on the book of Leviticus. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai, two 2nd century rabbinical sages are going at it, each challenging each other to pick the one verse that sums up the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba opens by quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For his part, Rabbi Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5:1: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”
There are many interpretations of this Midrash: one of the more common ones views Akiba’s approach as the more particularistic philosophy: Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community – as we would love ourselves. Ben Azzai’s, one the other hand is more universal: Torah teaches that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not.
Even beyond the content of this debate, however, I find its very premise to be extremely interesting. These two rabbis are doing more than just playing a pedagogical game here: they are challenging each other to offer their own personal take on their spiritual tradition. They are urging each other to take a stand – to go out on a limb and say out loud once and for all what they believe Judaism ultimately stands for.
I believe their challenge is our challenge as well. Jewish tradition is a rich and vast sacred repository – and one that can mean many things to many people. In a sense, I think we all remake Judaism in our own image, depending on our own particular predilections. Another sage, in a famous verse from Pirke Avot says this about Torah: “Turn it over, turn it over, because everything is in it.” In truth, you can find pretty much anything in Jewish tradition to support your worldview. Like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai, each of us must make hard, conscious choices about those aspects of Judaism we will choose to celebrate and carry forward. For those of us who identify as Jews and with Jewish tradition, the question before us is not so much “what is Judaism?” but rather “what is the Judaism we will affirm?”
For this, my final sermon as your rabbi, I’d like to try and answer this question personally; to leave you with a few final thoughts about the kind of Judaism that I choose to affirm. By my count, this will be my 68th sermon as rabbi of JRC – and whether they’ve inspired, enraged or bored you over the years, I will say the High Holidays have given me the amazing, often humbling opportunity to express myself publicly to my community. Of course, like all of us, my Jewish sensibilities have always been a work in progress. I know I wouldn’t have given the sermon I’m giving now before I entered rabbinical school, nor would I have given it precisely this way when I came to Evanston to be your rabbi seventeen years ago.
But this is, I believe, as it should be. After all, as Reconstructionists, we hold that Jewish civilization is an ever-evolving organism from generation to generation. So too, it seems to me, that each of us is developing a sense of Judaism informed by our own growth, our own ongoing experience and changing sense of the world around us.
At the same time, however, it’s fascinating to me to chart the common denominators that remain firm over time, the parts of our vision that remain sacred and unshakable – the essence that Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai were so keen on uncovering together.
So with this in mind, I’d like to start by reading to you an excerpt from a sermon I gave during my first High Holidays at JRC, back in 1998. I’ll confess that I’m not in the habit of re-reading my sermons – and having just done it, I think I now know why. There were more than a few times in which I rolled my eyes at my own wisdom. Thankfully, however, there were also some parts that truly felt as if I had written them yesterday.
Here’s the excerpt:
I would also claim that the power for renewal and rebirth is woven into the fabric of our lives. There are times for all of us where pain is all we know – times when it its impossible to envision the darkness ever truly lifting.
Those who have lost loved ones know this experience well. The first year of bereavement is considered to be a time of intense and sometimes crippling emotional pain. There is a gamut of uncontrollable feelings, from shock to rage; guilt to sadness and despair. It is also a time of isolation, when the mourner feels as if he or she dwells in a different emotional kingdom than the rest of the world.
Still, when we grieve in a healthy way, we eventually discover an eternal, almost miraculous truth: the heart heals. Like a deep physical wound, there is pain and there is trauma, but there is also healing if we manage to recuperate properly. In the case of grieving, this means finding a way or a place to express our emotions honestly. It means finding outlets through ritual. It means attaching ourselves to a community or support system. Most of all, it means allowing ourselves to be mourners, and giving ourselves the time and the permission to heal.
In any kind of healing however – whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual – we need to let go of the expectation that we’ll will end up the exactly the way we were. Pain is transformative in ways that we often don’t fully understand. Though there is healing, the physical and emotional scars will still remain. We have found our way back, but our lives have been transformed. We are not the same people any more.
Still, this transformation is not a wholly negative one. I am often told by people that they never really felt they had a spiritual life until they experienced some kind of pain or loss. To be sure, pain and loss are not certainly not pleasant experiences, and they are not they kind of things we would wish on ourselves. Nevertheless, through our trials we often manage to get in touch with parts of ourselves, parts of our souls that we never knew existed. Pain can offer us a spiritual opening. As we read in the Psalms, “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
Judaism, at its core, is a tradition that affirms meaning in the face of disorder. It affirms our ability to overcome the chaos that often enters our lives. We may not always have faith in our tradition, but our tradition does have faith in us. As surely and inevitably as the cycle of the seasons, we have the power to start anew, to emerge whole from our hurt and our losses and our pain.
As I re-read these words, I believe I can honestly say they reflect a critical aspect of Judaism that I’ve been carrying forward for most of my adult life. I believe Judaism at its core is a tradition that affirms order in the face of chaos; a tradition that affirms, despite all indications to the contrary, we can heal what is broken. I’d like to think that if I was playing the debate game with Akiba and Ben Azzai, I may well have chosen that gorgeous line from the Psalms as my verse: “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
I do believe that this verse has been weaving its way through Jewish tradition and Jewish history, in a sense, for time immemorial. We might date it back to the paradigmatic moment in which Judaism itself was forged, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a mythic moment of brokenness that resonates in so many ways in our collective psyche as Jews and as human beings.
We might well look at the moment known as the Churban as one of those paradigmatic “push/pull” moments I spoke of on Rosh Hashanah. The destruction of the Temple represents a timeless moment of pain and blood and turmoil that sent us out of the land and birthed us into the world as we know it.
It certainly represented the beginnings of Judaism as we now know it. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism became, in a sense, a kind of spiritual road map for charting the reality of exile. But Jewish tradition didn’t only respond to the physical reality of exile – it viewed exile (or “galut”) as a spiritual and existential reality. This, I believe, represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: we took our own unique experience and universalized it into a spiritual statement about the human condition. Because one way or another, we are all wanderers. One way or another, we all know the experience of being strangers in a strange land.
And so, from this moment of tragedy and pain, we grew up. We transformed an ancient cultic civilization into a worldwide spiritual peoplehood. We spiritualized the concepts of Temple and homeland and became a globally based, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home” and sought to perfect it. Our experience of exile became, as it were, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.
In one of my very favorite midrashim, Rabbi Akiba teaches, “Wherever the people of Israel were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.” I find this notion – the concept of “God in exile” to be such a powerful and radical theological image. Again, “Karov adonai l’mishberei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.” Judaism as we know it arose to assert that no matter what happens, God is with us wherever we go. Despite the experience of exile, the Jewish people would always be “home.” God was no longer geographically specific to one building or place. God was the place – HaMakom. Spiritual meaning and fulfillment could now be found throughout the world, wherever the Jewish people might travel and create community.
I also believe that the destruction of the Temple birthed another central Jewish ideal, the idea best summed up by the famous line from Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” In a way, when the Jewish people finally fell victim to the mighty Roman empire, this ironically marked a victory for a central rabbinic precept: there is a Power even greater than the mightiest empire. That in the long run, those who put their faith in the physical might of powerful empires are, if you will, betting on the wrong horse.
This, in fact, is one classical rabbinic interpretation of the story of Jacob’s dream. According to a well-known midrash, the various ascending and descending angels on Jacob’s ladder represent the rising and falling fortunes of the various empires to which the Jewish people would be exiled. First the angel representing Babylonia ascends 70 rungs, (for seventy years of exile) then descends. Next the angel representing the Persian Empire ascends and falls, as does the angel representing the Greek empire. Only the fourth angel, representing the Roman Empire keeps climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Since Rome was represented in the Rabbinic imagination by Jacob’s twin brother Esau, Jacob fears that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination. But God assures Israel that in the end, even the mighty Roman Empire will fall as well. And so it has been – throughout the centuries, many powerful empires have come and gone but the Jewish people still survive. Why? Because we put our faith in a Power yet greater. Greater than Pharoah, greater than Rome, greater than the myriad of empires we’ve seen enter and exit over the centuries.
The rabbis also knew all too well that prior to the destruction of the Temple, the last Jewish dance with empire was a fairly ignoble story in the annals of Jewish history. I’m talking about the Hasmonean kingdom that was established in the wake of the Maccabees victory. The Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family who had fought against the Hellenized Jews of its day, eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when they weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations.
In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. It’s not a coincidence that the rabbis chose Zechariah – and the verse “not by might and not by power” to be read as the Haftarah portion for the Shabbat of Hanukah.
And what is at the core of this Power we speak of? I’ll return to my earlier verse: “Karov Adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the brokenhearted.” I believe this this theological statement, so resonant on a personal and pastoral level, is equally powerful on a political and prophetic level as well. In other words: in every generation, God stands with the oppressed and calls out their oppressor. God is the Power that gives the gives strength to the marginalized and the vulnerable; the Power that causes even the mightiest of persecutors to eventually fall.
I think there is a profound message here for all religious communities. When it comes to the political use of religion, I believe the fusing of religion and empire has historically represented religion at its very worst. Jews historically know this all too well. But when religion is wedded to movements that speak truth to power and make demands upon it – whether it be the civil rights movement in this country, the struggles against the juntas of Latin America, or the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany – this is when we’ve witnessed religion at its very best.
My own thinking in this regard has been influenced significantly in recent years by reading the works of liberation theologians – Christian religious thinkers who promote this theology on behalf of liberation movements throughout the world. Liberation theology has its roots in Latin American Catholic figures of the 1950s and 60s, but it has since expanded to include African-American, feminist and Palestinian Christian theologies as well.
Lately I’ve begun to do some thinking and writing about what a Jewish theology of liberation might somehow look like – and as I’ve considered it, it seems to me that so many of these themes are deeply embedded in Judaism already: the Biblical imperatives to protect the stranger and the poor, the prophetic denunciation of the hypocrisy of the privileged, the rabbinic rejection of the corrupt power of empire, not to mention our historical experience of marginalization – an experience that has influenced our collective Jewish identity in so many profound ways.
This, I would submit, is one of the most central challenges of Judaism in the 21st century – particularly American Judaism. In an era in which we enjoy the benefits of power and privilege in unprecedented ways, will we affirm a Judaism that unabashedly proclaims God is close to the broken hearted and the down-trodden, or will we venerate the God of physical might and power over others?
I know I’ve asked versions of this question in a myriad of ways during the High Holidays – they have certainly been central to my work as a rabbi, both inside and outside the congregation. But in the end, if I was to identify one central sacred value in my work, it has been this: Judaism teaches that there is nothing so broken in our lives or our world that cannot be made whole once again.
Whether you agree with what I’ve said, in whole in part, or not at all, I’m grateful as always for the opportunity to share these words with you. Please accept them with the encouragement, as I said at the outset, to think more consciously about what Judaism you affirm, what Jewish values you consider to be the most sacred and unshakable – and how you will bear witness to them in the world. What is your Torah – and how will you advocate for it in the year and years to come?
I’d to conclude on a note of thanks – for the honor of letting me into your lives and for being allowed to guide this very special community. I’ve spoken many words to you from this podium over the years, but words cannot do justice to the myriad of emotions I’m feeling on this final High Holidays with you all.
I’ll end now with a short poem, my recent reworking of Psalm 66 – which probably says what I’ve been trying to say here today better (and much more briefly):
shout aloud for the one that is mightier
than any human power, soaring farther
than any eye can see, than any mind
can possibly fathom.
close your eyes just for a moment and see
if you are able this plenitude that
never ceases, this grace-filled universe
that gives and gives again but
is never depleted.
give glory to the one that cannot be contained
by any ideology, dogma or creed, greater than
religion, greater than god, do you think
you possibly can?
now empty your mind of judgment and
send up praises for this pain,
for this soul that can be trampled but
never broken, this spirit that endures
through white-hot fire and raging torrents
only to be reborn anew.
Thank you all.
According to legend, the U’netaneh Tokef – the High Holiday prayer in which we publicly ponder “who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year – was originally written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany. As legend would have it, this 11th century sage was pressured to convert to Catholicism by the Archbishop. The rabbi asked for three days to think it over, presumably as a delaying tactic, and later refused to respond to the Archbishop. When he was brought before him, Rabbi Amnon asked that his own tongue be cut off to atone for his sin of even considering conversion.
The Archbishop ordered something even more ghastly: he decreed that Rabbi Amnon’s arms and legs to be amputated limb by limb as punishment for refusing to come when ordered. At each point, he was given the opportunity to convert – and at each point, the Rabbi refused. As this was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue where he composed and recited the U’netaneh Tokef prayer in his dying breath. Three days later, the Rabbi’s spirit appeared to one of his rabbinical colleagues and asked that this prayer be included as part of the High Holiday service. And so, the legend tells us, U’netaneh Tokef became part of the regular liturgy of this season.
It’s not the most heartwarming legend – but then again, U’netaneh Tokef isn’t exactly the most heartwarming of prayers. It’s actually among the most emotionally raw prayers in Jewish tradition: a collective crying out against the randomness of our world and the vulnerability of our lives. It might well be called the quintessential prayer of the High Holiday season.
It also seems to me that this legend is a commentary on the ways that the U’netaneh Tokef is a product of the Jewish communal experience. This prayer might well be viewed as the liturgical expression of a people that has experienced more than its share of randomness and vulnerability over the course its collective history. Indeed, it’s not difficult to read the words “who shall live and who shall die” and not imagine how they must have resonated for Jews living under the very real existential threat of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries.
For the majority of 21st century Jews, this resonance is far less powerful than it has been for previous generations – perhaps than at any other time in Jewish history. Still, I’m sure there are those who would claim that the words “who shall live and who shall die” have been gradually taking on renewed power for the Jewish people in recent years.
I’m speaking in particular about the reports of a significant rise of anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents in Europe. In past year in particular, press reports and polls have been painting an alarming picture. In a recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 66% of the Jewish respondents felt anti-Semitism in Europe was on the rise. 76% said anti-Semitism had increased in their country over the past five years. In the 12 months after the survey, nearly half said they worried about being verbally insulted or attacked in public because they were Jewish.
Much of this ominous news comes from France. According to France’s Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community, totals of anti-Semitic acts in the 2000s are seven times higher than in the 1990s. This past summer, during the war in Gaza, there were disturbing reports that protests against Israel’s actions spilled over from anti-Israel calls into anti-Jewish rhetoric and even violence. Over a two-day period, protesters marched through the streets of the predominantly Jewish suburb of Sarcelles, reportedly chanting “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.” Protestors also firebombed Jewish-owned businesses and two synagogues and one Jewish-owned pharmacy was burned to the ground.
Last May in Belgium, a country with a much smaller Jewish population, a gunman murdered four people in front of the Jewish Museum in Brussels. And this past month, during a Holocaust Memorial dedication on their European Day of Jewish Culture, youths hurled stones and bottles until the police arrived. Three days later, a fire erupted on an upper floor of a Brussels synagogue; the authorities investigated the incident as arson.
In Germany, there have been reports of similar incidents, including the attempted arson of the Bergische synagogue in Wuppertal. In an interview with the Guardian magazine, Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said:
These are the worst times since the Nazi era… On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades. Anyone saying those slogans isn’t criticizing Israeli politics, it’s just pure hatred against Jews: nothing else. And it’s not just a German phenomenon. It’s an outbreak of hatred against Jews so intense that it’s very clear indeed.
There have also been reports of similar incidents in Italy as well as throughout the Netherlands. A few months ago, a Dutch Jewish watchdog group reported a 23 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands since 2012. In Malmo, Sweden, for instance, there has been a rise in anti-Semitic violence over the past several years, causing some members of the Jewish community to emigrate.
My very good friend, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian has lived in Malmo for several years and has reported frankly to me about the impact of anti-Semitism on her adopted hometown. In 2012, the Malmo JCC, where Rebecca lives, was vandalized by heavy rocks and an explosive device that thankfully did little damage. In a recent e-mail to me, she described the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe as a “festering sore,” adding “it’s ugly.”
Rebecca added that the recent upswing of incidents in Malmo, as in the rest of Europe, was mostly in response to the violence in Gaza, which she said “naturally spurred a lot of random, violent hate directed at Jewish people and Jewish places.” She said the Chabad rabbi there was attacked several times, but fortunately was never hurt. Another one of her friends, a modern orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, was so tired of being harassed that he has taken to wearing a baseball cap over it. She wrote to me, “Even I was a bit fearful of, for example, taking a taxi to the JCC where we live. I would ask to be left on the corner, even with luggage.”
What do we make of reports such as these? As Jews, as people of conscience, what should be our response to news of a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe? There is, of course, one answer on which I believe we can all agree: we must call it out. As with any form of racism or prejudice, silence equals assent. When we hear these kinds of reports, it is our sacred duty to speak up – and to act.
Beyond this basic answer, however, it gets more complicated. When confronted with the reality of anti-Semitism in this day and age, what we say and do will depend on our analysis of its causes. I would go even further and suggest that the nature of our analysis may well define what kind of Jews we want to be – and what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm.
Many Jews will look at the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and conclude that this demonstrates the critical importance of the state of Israel. After all, Zionism itself arose in response to European anti-Semitism. Political Zionists dating back to Theodor Herzl have posited that the only thing that could effectively safeguard the collective security of the Jewish people is a Jewish state of their own. And since its founding Israel has become the symbol of Jewish empowerment: a Jewish nation-state with a Jewish army that ensures the security of Jews not only in Israel, but around the world.
It is not uncommon today to hear the claim from some in the Jewish community that Israel is a kind of “Jewish insurance policy” – that if (or when) things invariably go bad for the Jews anywhere in the world they will always have Israel to go to. For many Jews, in fact, the critical importance of a Jewish state is the central lesson of the Holocaust. Never again will we depend upon other nations to keep us safe. For so many in our community, a Jewish state is our island of security in a dangerous world.
While I certainly understand the logic and psychology of this response, particularly living as we do in the post-Holocaust era, I find this narrative to be problematic in many ways – grounded more in ideology than reality. At the end of the day, I simply don’t believe that statehood has provided us with a real or effective answer to the problem of anti-Semitism.
In some ways, it might be claimed that the exact opposite has occurred. While Israel was largely created to ensure Jewish safety and survival, it has become, ironically enough, the one Jewish community in the world that lives in a near-constant state of vulnerability and insecurity. Indeed, for all of the troubling reports of European anti-Semitism this past summer, the most indelible images of Jewish insecurity came from news footage of Israelis traumatized by missiles coming from Gaza, running for bomb shelters at the repeated sounds of air raid sirens. This was not – to put it mildly – the picture of a “safe haven” for Jews.
I believe these images sadly drive home the tragic reality behind the Zionist dream. Israel, the nation that was created to be a safe home for the Jewish people, has been in a perpetual state of war since its’ founding. Israel, the nation founded to normalize Jewish collective existence, routinely characterizes itself as a small country surrounded and besieged on all sides by hostile enemies. Whatever else we might believe about how a nation can achieve safety and security in the 21st century, I would posit that the founding of Israel has not provided the Jewish people with a panacea.
It is certainly true that Israel has historically opened its arms to oppressed Jews around the world – and we certainly should not understate its importance in this regard. More recently it has been reported in the media that European Jews – particularly Jews from France – are starting to immigrate to Israel in response to rising anti-Semitism. The predominant narrative here is that there is now a new European exodus of oppressed Jews to the Jewish state.
Again, however, I believe these reports have more to do with ideology than reality. According to data from the Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, there has indeed been an increase in the number of immigrant from Western Europe in recent years: from 3,339 in 2012 to 4,694 in 2013. What many news reports fail to mention, however, is that Israeli Jews are immigrating to Western Europe at nearly the same rate. In fact, the number of Israeli Jews living abroad has been estimated at 1,000,000 – with most émigrés citing the economy and war-weariness as their main reason for leaving Israel. Berlin alone is home to 17,000 Israelis, according to the German embassy in Tel Aviv. Though it is remarkable to even contemplate just decades after the Holocaust, there is a thriving and growing Israeli expat community in Germany, with its own radio station and cultural arts scene. When we take a close look at what is really going on, then, the reality is much more complex that what the media has been reporting.
When all is said and done, the tragic reality is that Israel was born in conflict and has lived with conflict as its daily reality for its entire existence. Since 1967 Israel has been militarily occupying another people – and I don’t believe it is a stretch to suggest that this ongoing, often brutal occupation impacts attitudes toward Jews not only in Israel but worldwide.
By every indication, whenever violence connected to the Occupation has risen, so too have the incidence of anti-Semitic attitudes and acts around the world. I’ve already mentioned that European anti-Semitism spiked during the Gaza war this summer – as it did during the Gaza wars of 2012 and 2009 as well as the First and Second Intifadas. But it is also worth noting that this linkage works both ways. During periods of peace and diplomacy, particularly during the optimistic days of the peace process under Yitzhak Rabin, in the early 1990s period, global anti-Semitism was at an all time low. As much as violence begets violence, so too, apparently, does tolerance beget tolerance.
What should be our response as we read these reports of rising European anti-Semitism? I would suggest that the answer is not to put our faith in nationalism and militarism to keep the Jewish people safe. I believe our first response should be to understand that anti-Semitism is but one form of racism and prejudice – and as such it is no different than the intolerance that is directed toward any people or group in the world who are perceived as “other.” The appropriate response, it seems to me, is not to recede behind higher walls or build stronger weapons, but rather to find common cause and solidarity with all who are being targeted in this way. To publicly affirm that the well-being of the Jewish people is irrevocably connected to the well-being of every group victimized by racism.
Here’s an concrete example of this response in action: back in 2012, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian wrote that when the Jewish Community Center in Malmo, Sweden was attacked, she was appalled to read quotes by American Jewish leaders proclaiming that Malmo was an unsafe travel destination for Jews and that they should prepare to flee to Israel or another country. In fact, Rebecca pointed out, immediately after the attack, Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding held a solidarity vigil, in which women, men and children gathered in front of the JCC with candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups, and other spiritual and social organizations came together and offered public speeches of support and solidarity.
Indeed, while much attention is paid to the fundamentalist Muslim perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks throughout Europe, relatively little is devoted to the local actions of Jews and Muslims who come together to stand up against the bigotry that ultimately affects both communities. I was heartened to hear from Rebecca that despite the recent uptick in anti-Semitism in Malmo, their interfaith group is “stronger than ever.”
As she wrote to me in her e-mail:
Even during the (Gaza) war, we spoke candidly about the need to work together to fight any type of hate crime. At a panel discussion, I spoke as a Jew for humanitarian aid to Gaza and for an end to the killing and injuring of civilians. The Imam on the Board spoke about the need for Muslim youth to not attack Jewish people and property. We all spoke of co-existence. In the words of my friend who wears the kippah, the answer lies in education. We need to learn about one another. And the good news is that is indeed happening.
When we contemplate our response to this new anti-Semitism, I believe we should also take pains to differentiate between individual anti-Semitic acts and the much more serious phenomenon of state sponsored anti-Semitism. While we should be alarmed and should rightly protest whenever we hear about anti-Semitic incidents and attacks, historically speaking the most insidious and deadly form of anti-Semitism has been the legislated variety. We must not forget that the Holocaust, like all genocides, occurred when a government directed it own state institutions and resources against minorities in its midst.
Thus, as troubling it is to read of shootings and firebombings, I believe we should be far more disturbed when we hear reports of far-right and even neo-Nazi candidates being elected into Parliaments throughout Europe. My friend Rebecca referred to this phenomenon as the “dark underbelly” of Swedish anti-Semitism. She pointed out that in recent elections, “a relatively large percentage of the voters went for Sweden Democrats, a hard-line anti-immigrant group that has roots in neo-Nazism. There is a group of thugs that are equal opportunity haters, who are fans of neither Muslims nor Jews.”
For all of the recent news coming out of Europe, we should be heartened by the knowledge that there are no longer and Jewish communities anywhere in the world that are collectively targeted and oppressed by its government for being Jewish. And we should be likewise heartened when we hear the heads of European governments pledging their support to minority communities plagued with hate crimes. In response to the recent anti-Semitic incidents in his country, for instance, French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has publicly said, “to attack a Jew because he is a Jew is to attack France. To attack a synagogue and a kosher grocery store is quite simply anti-Semitism and racism.” Likewise, at a recent rally, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has called the recent incidents “an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state.”
In the end, this may well be the most important, profound and effective response of all. The answer to anti-Semitism, as with all forms of racism is not to adopt a victim mentality or to circle the wagons, but to demand more democracy, more civil rights, more humans rights for all. As American Jews, we should know this better than anyone. We should understand that our new-found engagement with the world has resulted in freedoms truly unprecedented in our history. Today, in our globally engaged 21st century world, I believe we of all people should be on the forefront of this call.
I’d like to conclude now where I began: with the U’netaneh Tokef prayer. As it happens, the legend of the martyred Rabbi Amnon turns out to be precisely that: merely a legend. Scholars tell us that in fact, this prayer was actually composed several centuries earlier, and was likely an edited product of many different authors, influenced by a variety of early Christian hymns. As always, the reality is more complex than our often fatalistic mythology would have it.
And in the end, I believe it is a more hopeful reality. Yes, as this prayer reminds us, the world can be a dangerous place. No, we do not know what this new year has in store for us. It may be a year of blessing or a year of curse, or more likely something in between. But no matter what emotional or historical baggage what we bring to this prayer, we would to well to remember that we always end with the uplifting words, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeirah” – “Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah lessen the severity of the decree.”
In other words, we must respond to the often harsh nature of our world by engaging with it. Not by hiding from it or fighting against it, but acknowledging all that is good and right and just about it – and then by fighting for these values in no uncertain terms.
In the coming year, in all the years to come, may we do what we can to mitigate the harshness of the decree.
This past year marked an important milestone for our congregation – our 50th anniversary, JRC’s Jubilee Year. During the course of the year, we celebrated in a variety of different ways at events organized by our inspired Jubilee Year Committee. Among the most memorable for me were a series of Friday night services held throughout the year to honor the various generations of our congregation. At each service, we highlighted a different group of members, from longtime to the most recent. And at each service, I invited them to share their memories of JRC with one another: an anecdote, a story, an event that still remained significant to them.
I found these remembrances to be enormously, often unexpectedly powerful. In particular, it was humbling to consider how far our congregation had come since its founding. The cumulative effect of these services drove home for me just how far JRC has traveled in its first 50 years.
Congregants shared about the early days, in which JRC first met, originally as a Reconstructionist study group founded by Anshe Emet members. We heard about the so-called “Shlep-a-Shul” days, when JRC met in members’ homes and later in churches and Chute Middle School. We heard about the hiring of JRC’s first full time rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, and the purchase of our first permanent home at 303 Dodge. Members shared their memories of our fateful decision to start our first Capital Campaign, the construction of our new synagogue facility and the day we learned it had been awarded LEED Platinum status, making it the greenest house of worship in the country.
As I listened to these memories, it occurred to me that one secret to JRC’s success has always been its fearlessness – its culture of openness to change. Not simply change for change’s sake, but rather the kind of change that exemplified the philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism. Change that stems from the understanding that Jewish civilization has always been a dynamic and evolving organism – and that successful congregations are the ones that are willing to make the changes necessary to remain relevant to ever new generations of Jews.
I remember first learning about JRC when I was in rabbinical school in the late 1980s. I actually visited here as a student intern in 1991 to lead programs at JRC’s annual Memorial Day retreat, or Kallah. It was Rabbi Rachlis’ last Kallah as rabbi, and the beginning of a new chapter at JRC. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the beginning of a new one in my own life as well.
I know I’ve shared with some of you that when I was in rabbinical school I consistently swore up and down that I had no intention of being a congregational rabbi. I was pretty cynical about congregations and believed them to be more akin to middle class membership organizations than spiritual communities. But in my final year as a rabbinical student, I had some wonderful experiences with congregations that knocked me right off my cynical high horse – and my weekend at the JRC Kallah was certainly one of them. I was so deeply impressed by the seriousness of its members, its experimental spirit, its openness to embrace new ideas and ways of experiencing Jewish tradition.
As it turned out, I became a congregational rabbi immediately upon graduation from rabbinical school – and to date it’s the only kind of rabbi I’ve ever been. I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC. And while I’m still critical of congregational Judaism in many ways, I also know from first-hand experience that congregations do have the potential be places of spiritual inspiration, of transformation and change.
First and foremost, until I started to serve at congregations, I never fully understood the power of Jewish community and Jewish tradition to change lives. As congregational rabbis, we are let into people’s lives in a way that I can only describe as “spiritually intimate.” We’re invited into our families’ joys and sorrows and everything in between – and in so doing we bear witness to the ways Jewish tradition represents a spiritual roadmap for the most profoundly charged moments in our lives.
Words cannot do justice to the honor I have felt to have shared such moments with you in so many ways over the years. To put it simply, we have been through so much together. When I think back on my years at JRC, I know that my first memories will invariably be these myriad of life moments: B’nai Mitzvah, funerals and shiva calls, weddings and baby namings and the countless simple moments when I was able, in some measure, to be part of your lives on behalf of your spiritual community. It has enriched my life immeasurably and for it all I will be forever grateful.
And when I think of these past seventeen years in the collective sense, I am struck by the numerous ways JRC has shown me how congregations can become Jewish laboratories for the work of Tikkun Olam – for social justice at home and around the world. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times rabbinical colleagues have approached me over the years to tell me how much they admire our congregation in this regard. I’ve been asked by countless rabbis and lay people about the secret of our success, and how they might plant the same kind of passion for Tikkun Olam in their own synagogues.
And while I’d love to claim the credit, the real truth is that this passion has always been an indelible part of JRC’s culture. Here’s a little bit of history from the early days of my tenure here. I do believe it’s a piece of congregational history that deserves to be honored and remembered:
Shortly after I arrived, I heard in no uncertain terms from a number of members that JRC’s social action programming had been languishing in recent years. Other than our participation in the monthly soup kitchen, there was really no ongoing Tikkun Olam activity in our congregation to speak of. From the very beginning of my tenure here, I sensed a deep and palpable desire to revitalize JRC’s involvement in the arena of social justice.
So with the help of some inspired JRC members led by Gail Brodsky and Reggi Marder, of blessed memory, we decided to rebuild JRC’s social action program from scratch. We started by dissolving the social action committee. We did away with the common congregational system that delegates social action priorities to one relatively small group of congregants – and in its place we created a more grassroots approach – one that was grounded in the ideals of community organizing rather than organizational programming.
We designated members as Tikkun Olam coordinators, who then put out a call to the congregation, announcing that JRC would now support any social action initiatives that congregants saw fit to organize. We reached out to members who had passion, experience, or skills in any particular field of social justice work and gave them the wherewithal to do it Jewishly, under the auspices of their congregation. Our members responded to this call almost immediately. And it’s not an exaggeration to say our new system had a transformative effect on our congregation.
Here are two examples: One of JRC’s very first initiatives was our Environmental Task Force. When it began, it concentrated largely on internal policy issues, congregational education, consciousness-raising about JRC’s use of recyclables, etc. However, when JRC started to explore the prospect of building a new facility for our congregation, the Environmental Task Force broadened its vision. It met with our Board and proposed that we build our new home as a green building.
Now this was back around the year 2002 or so, when environmental consciousness was not yet so firmly planted on our national radar screen. Many of us had only the vaguest notion of what a green building even was. But to their credit, our leaders educated themselves and our community about and sustainable construction and energy efficiency – and about the very complicated LEED certification process. Then we took the leap and committed to building a new building at the highest LEED status feasible. At that time, none of us had any notion what that might mean. We certainly didn’t dream we would eventually achieve a Platinum rating – the highest rating possible.
While today JRC has a well-deserved reputation as a green congregation, it’s important to keep in mind that our congregation didn’t have a long history of environmental activism. Our accomplishments were a direct product of our new culture of Tikkun Olam – an approach that invited our members themselves to take ownership of our congregation’s social justice values and priorities.
Here’s another example. Another one of our earliest task forces was our Global AIDS Task Force. When it began, it was also largely educational in orientation – it sponsored an annual World AIDS Day program and helped raise funds and awareness about the efforts to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic at home and abroad. But after a few years of this work within our congregation, the leaders of this task force decided it was time to take things to the next level – and organized a service trip to Africa.
Again, up until this point, JRC did not have a history of organizing international service trips. I certainly never dreamed that as a rabbi, I would some day accompany my congregants to work with NGOs in rural Africa to serve communities ravaged by AIDS. To date, JRC has now visited Uganda and Rwanda three times and has created lasting relationships with courageous important NGOs such as Rwanda’s We-Act and CHABHA. But again, we were only able to accomplish all of this when we made the decision to give Tikkun Olam back to our members themselves.
When I look back over the most recent chapter of JRC’s life, I personally believe this will be its most important legacy: the creation of this new congregational culture for the work of Tikkun Olam. And as JRC enters its next chapter, I encourage you to continue to nurture it – and build upon it. Despite what JRC has already accomplished, I can’t help but think we’ve only just scratched the surface. Learn more about these initiatives and support them. If any of you who may have passions or experience or skills in a particular aspect of Tikkun Olam, please know that this congregation can be your laboratory for doing this sacred work. I can tell you from first-hand experience these initiatives have the potential to make a very real difference in the life of our congregation – and more importantly, in the world around us.
I’d like to address another aspect of JRC’s Tikkun Olam work that I believe has been crucial in its most recent chapter – and it is one I believe will only become even more critical in the years ahead. And that is, namely, the issue of Israel/Palestine. This is, of course, not just any other Tikkun Olam issue; in so many ways it is the issue for the Jewish community. Last night I spoke about the ways I have evolved on this issue – and how my evolution has impacted on our congregation. And while I know it has been painful – and that this issue was eventually instrumental in my decision to leave JRC, I do believe it has also led our congregation to respond and grow in courageous ways.
Another bit of history: several years ago, in response to the growing tensions caused by my Palestinian solidarity activism, the JRC Board reached out to consultants to help us to create a process for civil discourse on this issue; to build a culture of openness to all views and the development of safe spaces for conversation and programming on Israel/Palestine that truly reflected the range of our members’ views and concerns. This work resulted in what we eventually called the “Sicha Project,” in which we trained JRC members to become group facilitators to be used whenever we addressed difficult or potentially controversial aspects of the Israel/Palestine issue together as a community. At the same time, we created an Israel Program Committee charged with the creation of a wide variety of programs on this issue.
The Sicha Project was, I believe, a truly courageous approach to a deeply difficult issue that most congregations generally deal with in one of two ways: monolithically or through abject avoidance. And for a time, at least, I do believe JRC’s approach provided an important model for a new kind of congregational engagement on Israel/Palestine.
I’m sorry to say that this initiative broke down over the last few years. There are many reasons for this. I believe we failed to remain as vigilant as we should have been in bringing new leadership aboard and I believe the work of our first Israel Program Committee became paralyzed and left to languish. But whatever the specific causes of this breakdown, I don’t believe for a second that it was due to anything inherent to the model itself. Now more than ever, our congregation needs to come together to discuss this issue openly and I do have faith that we have the wherewithal to make it succeed.
Over the past year, a new Israel Program Task Force has been hard at work revitalizing and rebooting this process. It has created a new policy for inclusive Israel programming that has been presented to and approved by the Board. And we are now poised to restart the Sicha Project once more. Despite the immense challenges of such an initiative, I believe this is still the model of how congregations can respond to this difficult issue with sensitivity and courage.
I would also suggest that if JRC wants to remain on the leading edge of trends in American Jewish life, it would do well to face this issue head on. There is every indication that attitudes about Israel in the Jewish community are widening. Studies show us over and over that the younger Jewish generation is questioning the role of Israel in their Jewish identity in fundamental ways. We can ignore or fight against this phenomenon – or we can face it head on. This is our Jewish future – and unless congregations create communities in which all views can be included and respected, I believe they will soon find themselves on the road to irrelevancy.
One of the most important bellwethers of this phenomenon is the Open Hillel movement – a grassroots initiative of university students who have organized in response to Hillel International’s very narrow guidelines for what they consider to be appropriate Israel student programming on campus. Over the last few years, this movement has exploded in Jewish student communities across the country. Individual Hillels have been declaring themselves to be “Open Hillels” that allow a wide tent of points of view on Israel – next month it will be holding its first national conference at Harvard.
In its mission statement, Open Hillel says the following (listen to the young people now):
Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.
Our congregations would do well to develop this kind of manifesto. Perhaps it could provide us with the nucleus of a nascent Open Congregations movement, in which Jewish congregations openly declare their willingness to create a safe and wide tent for all points of view on this issue within their congregations.
Although I’ve personally made the decision to leave congregational life professionally, I still do believe in congregations. And I’ll admit, I say this selfishly: quite frankly, Hallie and I would love to find a congregation in which we ourselves can make a comfortable Jewish home. But even more than this, I do know from over 20 years of first-hand experience, that congregations can be exciting, relevant places that don’t just hold on to a Jewish past but mold the Jewish future. I know it can be done.
But we if we do decide to throw our weight behind congregational Judaism, we should have no illusions about the challenges this will entail. To put it bluntly, liberal Jewish congregations are not a growth industry in America. Every Jewish community-sponsored study tells us the same thing over and over: the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not affiliate with congregations. Synagogue membership is shrinking considerably, and increasing numbers of congregations are closing their doors. And while I know that there are many complex reasons for this, I am convinced that the only way we can respond is to take a good hard look at the reality of the Jewish community – and to create congregations of relevance and meaning that will lead us into our Jewish future.
I know for a fact that JRC can be one of those congregations. It’s been doing it for the past 50 years and I’ve seen it with my own eyes for the past 17. I thank you for providing me and my family with such an exciting and vibrant Jewish home. I have no doubt you will go from strength to strength and I look forward to watching it happen.
Shanah Tovah to you all.
Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah goes by many names. We refer to the Jewish New Year as Yom HaDin, “The Day of Judgment;” we call it Yom Teruah “The Day of the Sounding of the Shofar;” or Yom Hazikaron “The Day of Remembrance.” I’d like to suggest another possible name to this list: Yom Yetziat Beiteinu – “The Day of our Leaving Home.”
Just think about it. In its way, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of spiritual farewell. On Rosh Hashanah, we take our leave. We say goodbye to the familiarity of a year that’s past, a year still resonant with memories, and prepare ourselves to head out into the unknown – a year yet to unfold. Indeed, the predominant emotions of this season are consonant with spiritual leave taking. It is a season of hope, of anticipation, of trepidation, of remembrance, of introspection.
You probably know where I’m going with this. This Rosh Hashanah, our JRC family is experiencing these emotions in a very real and immediate way. Tonight I am acutely aware that this is my final Rosh Hashanah with JRC – and that Hallie and I will soon be leaving the community that has been our spiritual home for the past 17 years. I’m also mindful that a new chapter will soon be beginning for JRC.
I’ll have more to say about the latter tomorrow – for tonight, I’d like to try and express a little bit about what this moment means for me – to share some of the spiritual lessons I’ve learned through this process of leave-taking. I offer these remarks with the hope that they might be of some help to us during this transitional season – one that is doubly transitional for our JRC family.
It actually occurs to me that Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about the spiritual practice of “leaving home.” If you stop to think of it, just about every classic story in the Torah involves individuals leaving home. And as a result, they are transformed in important and fundamental ways.
The first example, of course, occurs when Adam and Eve depart from the Garden of Eden. As I read this story, I’m struck that Adam and Eve experience their exit from Eden as the result of both a push and a pull. Yes, they are sent out of the Garden by God as a consequence of their actions, but the story makes it clear that they were compelled to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because they saw the fruit as beautiful and desirable, and they knew that once they ate of it, their eyes would be opened to the world.
So although it is traditional to view their departure in terms of punishment, I prefer to view their exit from the Garden as a moment of transformation. Their leave-taking is borne, yes, out of turmoil and struggle, but these are inevitable and perhaps necessary aspects of their transformation.
In a sense, we might read the Adam and Eve story as a spiritual allegory about leaving childhood behind. In Eden, they lived in the comfort of a naive and childlike existence, a Garden in which they wanted for nothing. Yes, when they ate of the fruit, they experienced pain in leaving the only home they had ever known – but at the same time they also became more fully human. They left Eden, a place where each day was essentially like the one before, for a more dynamic world: a place of potential; where transformation, growth and change are always around the corner.
Another paradigmatic “leaving-home story” occurs when God comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them to leave their native land and head out to a place that God will show them. And in this instance as well, they experience both a push as well as a pull. According to a collection of well-known midrashim, when Abraham leaves his native home of Ur Kasdin, he is fleeing from an angry father and a murderous king who, shall we say, don’t exactly appreciate his way of viewing the world.
At the same time, we read in the Torah how Abraham and Sarah receive an invitation from God, how they were compelled to leave the comforts of their home for a land they do not yet know. And in truth, their final destination isn’t really all that important. It’s the act of leave-taking itself, the painful moment they leave behind the known for nothing more than a promise – this is the moment that defines their spiritual transformation.
The most dramatic and epic leave-taking moment in the Torah of course, occurs when the Israelites leave Egypt. Yet again, they experience both a push and a pull, both the oppression of their enslavement as well as the promise of their liberation. Just like Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah before them, the Israelites leave-taking involves great struggle and turmoil. It is, as we know, story with many casualties. Indeed, we recall them in great detail around the seder table every year: the terror of the 12 Plagues, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea. Once again, we learn, leaving home is not an easy or painless experience.
And yet again, the Israelites leave behind the known for the unknown. They escape into the wilderness, where most of the action of the Torah takes place. Yes, the wilderness is wild and uncharted, but, notably, it is also the place where God is encountered. Interestingly, the word for “wilderness,” “midbar” and the Hebrew verb “to speak,” “l’daber” share a common root. The Torah may be suggesting here an important connection between the wilderness and speech – more precisely divine speech.
In other words, when we leave the comfort and familiarity of home and head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, the voice of God is that much more accessible to us. In this regard, I think the wilderness represents an existential place far from the surface noise of artifice and self. The journey into the wilderness is not only geographic, but experiential: it leads both to the outermost reaches of terrain and the innermost reaches of the human soul. This is the place, in short, where the Divine Presence dwells.
In a very real way, I believe our tradition is teaching us that we must continually leave home if we are to truly live. While we may well yearn for the comforts of home and hearth, home can too often become a place where comfort turns to complacency – a place we use to escape reality rather than truly experience it.
So in a sense, our lives are filled with moments of “home-leavings.” Sooner or later, we all reach a point in which we find we really have no choice. Yes, it’s usually not a particularly pleasurable experience; it generally involves some measure of push and pull, of struggle and turmoil. But when we find the strength and the courage to take a step beyond our front door, when we embrace the unknown terrain outside, when we truly encounter the world – these are the moments in which we come face to face with our most authentic selves.
Whether we prefer to call this “spiritual experience,” “inner growth,” or “personal transformation,” we leave home whenever we listen to a voice from deep within that tells us to depart from our comfort zones, to leave the familiar and the known behind, to head out with no guarantees. To struggle into our future with nothing but a promise beckoning to us from far away. And often, it seems to me, we’re so busy with the struggle we don’t even recognize that we’ve been involved in the process of leaving home for quite some time.
I’m sure you have all had these moments. I’d like to share one of my own with you now.
As many of you know, several years ago my relationship to Israel changed in a very profound and public way. As look back, I realize now that it was not a one-time event, but rather the culmination of a process that I had been experiencing consciously and unconsciously for many years. But when it finally occurred, it was a moment of leave-taking for me. To put it more specifically, I was taking a step out of a comfortable home that had been my Jewish identity for so many years of my life. And while this step came with no small measure of personal struggle and anguish, I knew – and I still know – that it was a step that I had to take.
The politics of all this are really not all that important to my point right now. Whether or not you happen agree with my politics, I think we can all recall those times we experienced a significant transition, usually involving some element of turmoil and struggle, a push and a pull, a process by which we eventually took a step out of the comforts of the known into the wilderness of the unknown.
At the time, it did indeed feel like I was entering a wilderness. And as liberating as it was to be able to speak my truth out loud, I was also terrified. I wasn’t sure I remain a rabbi and say these things. In some very deep place I wondered if I could even be a Jew and say such things. However, I soon found that the waters parted, if you will. I discovered that I could indeed find my way through this radically new terrain – due in no small part to this remarkable congregation.
I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had done and said these things in any other synagogue, I would have been given my walking papers immediately. JRC, however, is not any other synagogue. Our congregation has a long history of heading courageously into areas not typically embraced by the Jewish communal mainstream and together, finding its way through. And in this case, that meant that our leadership continually supported their rabbi’s right to follow his conscience on this most volatile of issues, even when it elicited strong criticism from inside and outside our congregation.
I will be forever grateful that JRC has been willing to accompany me through this difficult and often treacherous wilderness for the past several years. I’ve never underestimated the stress it put on us all, but as we’ve made our way, I’ve consistently heartened by the knowledge that I could continue to do this work as a congregational rabbi – and in particular, as JRC’s rabbi.
Indeed, for the duration of my entire rabbinical career, I’ve fervently believed that the mission of a congregational rabbi is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” In other words, I’ve always viewed both the “pastoral” and the “prophetic” as two essential poles of a rabbi’s job description. That’s not to say that these two poles do not cause tension at times, but I’ve always believed that a good rabbi was one who could combine them to create a creative tension and not a destructive one.
When I started down this new road, I think it was clear to most at JRC that I was not the rabbi they had hired ten years earlier. But it was profoundly heartening for me to know that JRC was able to adjust to the reality of their “new rabbi.” I was immensely proud that the response of our congregation was not to panic or to order me to “cease and desist or else” – but rather to create a method for true congregational conversation; our “Sicha Process” – a framework of civil discourse that would allow our congregation to create a safe space where all points of view could be heard and respected.
I regret deeply that in more recent years, our Sicha Process broke down. There is more to say about what happened, particularly the painful upheaval that has occurred at our congregation over the past year over my ongoing activism. Our board has already provided some opportunities for members to share their thoughts with one another over what has occurred and I know there will be more such opportunities in the future.
For now, I will only say this: I know my activism caused great pain to some of our members. The resulting turmoil was immensely painful and at times, ugly. The resulting upheaval has caused me great anguish as well. And as I’ve written to our members, my decision to leave JRC was in large part a decision I made for my own personal well-being.
However, if I’m going to be fully honest, I must also be ready to admit that my decision to leave JRC is being motivated by both a push and a pull. I must also be ready to admit that for some years now I’ve been going down a path that has slowly been pulling me away from the congregational rabbinate and toward a rabbinate more directly defined by social justice activism.
Now that I’ve made this decision, I can more clearly see how powerful this pull has been for me – and how the tensions it has caused at JRC were inevitable in so many ways. I’ve also come to understand how our recent congregational turmoil, painful though it has been, may well represent the birth pangs of a necessary new chapter for me and for our congregational family.
I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC – and this has unquestionably been a deeply fulfilling period of my life. In recent years, it has been enormously challenging and even frightening for me to acknowledge that my activism might somehow pull me away from work that I love and the congregation that I have cherished for so many years.
But I’m ready to admit now that my journey has been leading me in a new direction. I’m ready to leave home. With hope, and admittedly with no small measure of trepidation, I am looking to this moment as an opportunity for new beginnings and possibilities I might never have imagined for myself. I genuinely wish the same for our JRC family – and know in my heart that this will invariably be the case.
As I said earlier, I will have more to say tomorrow about my hopes and dreams for our congregation as it begins this new chapter, but for now, I’d like to take my cue from the sacred season we’ve just begun. For tonight, I want to address you as individuals and present you with this challenge: How will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? What pushes and pulls are you experiencing in this particular moment in your life? In what ways will you challenge your sense of comfort and complacency and find the strength to venture into unknown territory? To a place that holds out a promise, but no guarantees?
For some of you, this coming year might be a time of a significant life transition. How might you mark this experience so that it offers you real potential for transformation and growth? For others, this year might be not all that different from the last. How will you challenge that comfortable sameness? What might you do to, in a sense, build the doorway that leads you outward?
Now I am well aware – perhaps now more than ever – that going forth is no easy matter. I’d never dare say to someone who has to leave all she’s ever known, “Don’t worry, you’re actually gaining an opportunity for a deeper spiritual life.” I’m also aware that it’s all well and good for me to rhapsodize about the spiritual importance of leaving home when the homelessness is such a very real issue for us around the world and in our own country. Believe me, I know it’s all too easy for those of us who actually have actual homes to wax romantic about the experience of leaving home.
It’s not a simple matter at all to leave that which we know for that which we don’t. Living as we do in a middle class culture that venerates comfort and security, it might seem like a radical suggestion that we should leave it all behind. But what is our alternative? Think about it. At the end of the day, we all have to leave home. Sooner or later, we all will have to leave what it is that we’ve come to know, cross over that threshold and greet the unknown.
After all, the most two basic aspects of life itself – namely, birth and death – are both essentially forms of leave taking. In both cases – when we’re born and when we die – we leave the familiar comfort of the present for the uncomfortable unknown of the future. In both cases, we resist leaving the comfort of our current “home” with everything in our being. But in both cases, staying home is simply not an option.
Our liturgy and rituals over the next ten days will offer us an incredibly precious spiritual gift: the opportunity to wrestle with the deepest, most element truths of our lives and our world. In the coming year we will face a myriad of transitions, large and small. For me and for JRC, this will be a year of significant transition and change, some of it known, most of it unknown. How can we enter a new year with such radical uncertainty?
For now, at least, we will come together. We will offer up prayers that express our most honest confessions and deepest longings. We will pray for a year of blessing. We will look to the future with optimism and hope. Ready and willing to embrace whatever blessings may come.
Baruch atah b’voecha, Baruch atah b’tzeitecha – in our coming home, in our leaving home, may we always travel in God’s presence, and in that presence may we find abundant health, wholeness, peace and Shalom.
While I’m sure that Syria has been on the lips of many a rabbi this High Holiday season, I’ll be honest with you: I’ve struggled with whether or not to give that sermon this year. Not because I don’t consider it to be an issue of critical importance, quite the contrary – no one can deny that the situation in Syria is a tragic and critically important one in our world at the moment. If I’ve been hesitant, it’s only because I’m not really sure I have much to add to the myriad of political analyses we’ve heard in the media these past few weeks.
So while my words to you today are not directly related to Syria, I would like to begin with one small but powerful story out of this crisis. It comes from an article written by my friend Aziz Abu Sarah, a young Palestinian peace activist and educator. At the moment Aziz is the Co-Executive Director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University – and he was recently made a National Geographic Emerging Explorer where he serves as a cultural educator. Several JRC members know Aziz well as he was one of our tour guides of a JRC trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank two years ago.
As the news out of Syria became more and more dire, particularly the news of the growing refugee crisis, Aziz and a colleague put their heads together to explore some kind of action they might possibly take. There are currently more than 2,000,000 Syrian refugees in camps throughout the Middle East – mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population. There are over 1,000,000 children refugees as a result of this crisis.
In the end, Aziz and his colleague decided to establish an educational summer camp for refugee children on Syrian-Turkish border. In a blog post about his experiences in the camp, he wrote, “Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.”
In his post, Aziz wrote movingly about the children he had met and the stories they told him – stories that were at once horrific and at the same time the ordinary everyday stories of children everywhere. At the conclusion of his post, he wrote:
These are the stories that we need to remember when we argue about Syria. These are the people paying the heavy price. When we pass by a news item about Syria, we must remember the millions of children that could become another lost generation without our willingness to engage and help…
Opening our hearts and finding compassion must come before any discussion on military intervention.
When I read Aziz’s post, it reminded me how easily we debate these crises even while knowing so very little about the people who are actually living through them. How we tend to view these kinds of global tragedies in the abstract. It’s understandable, of course – when we read the staggering statistics coming out of these crises zones, it literally staggers our comprehension. How on earth do we grasp numbers such as these, let alone the reality of the suffering behind the statistics?
But while it’s understandable, I do find something profoundly troubling about this phenomenon. Because when we reduce people in crisis zones to abstractions, it invariably creates a kind of emotional callousness in the ways we think and form our opinions about the crises themselves. When we don’t make an effort to understand the human reality behind the headlines, it seems to me, our political ideas emerge in something of a moral and emotional vacuum.
I do believe that Aziz is absolutely right: before we start holding forth on whether or not to bomb, we must first open our hearts and find compassion for the people of Syria. We must make an effort to learn who they are, to learn about their unique experiences, to listen to them. Whatever we believe must be done, the process by which we form our opinions must begin with an effort to get to know the human beings behind the abstractions.
Now I realize that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to pack up and move to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees – but this doesn’t let us off the hook. Because quite frankly, we don’t have to literally go to the Middle East to discover populations at risk. While Syria has been at the center of the headlines of late, in truth there are all too many of communities in crisis in our midst. We don’t have to go all that far to find them.
Indeed, this is another way that our abstractions affect our perception of the world. Crises are things that happen “over there.” To be honest, sometimes it seems to me that we relate to the at-risk populations in our own backyard as if they are as far away as the Middle East. But of course, they’re not. They are right here, right outside our very door. They may not be of the same magnitude of those in places like Syria, but they are all too real nonetheless.
Here’s but one example, from right here in Chicago. Many of you, I know, are familiar with the initiative known as “Safe Passage” a program formed in 2009 as a response to gang and street violence in at risk Chicago neighborhoods. The program places community workers wearing bright fluorescent vests near public schools as a presence that will help create “safe passage” for High Schoolers who were walking to and from school.
The program was expanded significantly this past May, after the Chicago School Board closed almost 50 public elementary and middle schools in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities on the South and West sides. Among the many devastating impacts of this decision was that it forced many children to walk longer routes to their new schools, through additional dangerous neighborhoods and across multiple gang boundaries. Whereas these children had previously walked an average of a few blocks to their neighborhood schools, many of them now have to walk half a mile or more through areas that are, quite literally, battle zones.
To deal with this reality, the school board expanded Safe Passage, hiring an additional 600 workers at $10 an hour to serve 12,000 schoolchildren in at-risk communities on their way to their new schools. While it is still early in the new school year, the preliminary reports are not promising. There have already been reports of violence along Safe Passage routes – not including the myriad of areas where children are not served by the program. We are now hearing reports that overwhelmed workers are quitting or just not showing up for work. One alderman has suggested the use of drones to protect children along Safe Passage routes.
No, we don’t need to look far away to find stories of children in battle zones. They are, in a very real way, right outside our door.
How do we respond to news such as this? Though it pains me to say so, I would suggest most of us who live the relatively safe and secure neighborhoods of greater Chicago respond to this news the same way we respond to the tragic news coming out of Syria, or Somalia or the Congo. Most of us, I think, thank goodness it’s not our reality. We quantify it in the abstract. We respond as if it’s happening “over there.”
Except it’s not. It’s happening right here in our very own community and in communities just like it across our country. These populations may not be terrorized by tyrannical dictators or civil war, but their lives and their families’ lives are at risk in a very real way. As a parent, I cannot fathom how it must feel to raise my children in neighborhoods wracked with violence, to send them off to walk miles to school through gangland battle zones. I cannot begin to fathom it. And maybe that is part of the problem.
This Yom Kippur, the season when our community honestly takes account of itself and how we might collectively atone, I think it is eminently appropriate to ask ourselves: what has been our response to communities in crisis? And are we truly able to see them? Have we truly opened our eyes and our hearts to their realities – particularly those who live right here in our own nation, our own city?
I can’t help but wonder what our communities would look like if our public policy was guided by such an approach. Let’s return to the example of Safe Passage that I gave earlier. There is no doubt that Chicago Public Schools, like all major urban school districts, faces daunting challenges. But unfortunately in my opinion, the Chicago School Board, like so many other urban school boards, now seeks to address these challenges from a corporate, efficiency-focused mindset rather than a community-based one.
I believe this approach to public education is problematic on many levels – but perhaps the most troubling is the way it has utterly blinded us to the critical role neighborhood schools play as the bedrock of our communities – particularly our at-risk communities. In areas that have already been profoundly destabilized by massive cuts to public services, neighborhood schools have served as the only real glue that holds these communities together. By closing these schools, CPS was in many cases literally cutting the final piece of government investment in these communities – and the last remaining institution in which residents can invest in one another.
It is impossible to understate the devastation these kinds of decisions inflict on low-income communities that have long been seriously at-risk. For decades, in fact, urban renewal policies have been decimating neighborhoods, uprooting residents who are largely poor and people of color. Neighborhood assets, like churches, stores, and parks that have been important community centers for generations, have become abandoned or have disappeared. And so residents have been forced out – they have become refugees, in as sense, of a different sort.
The neighborhood school is often the one institution still surviving in low-income neighborhoods and it has historically served as points of pride and community for families. If you had any doubt that these schools are important to their neighborhoods, you had only to listen to the thousands of parents who attended community meetings on school closings over the past few months. Despite their pleas, however, our new “education reformers” have chosen to close schools rather improve them, using the argument that we are in a time of public sector austerity and that we need to orient them to market forces.
This is what happens when leaders view schools using a corporate model rather than a community-based one. When CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools and slashed the budgets of those that remained, Chicago’s non-elected board addressed this issue with a top-down mindset that was ultimately divorced from the real-life reality on the ground. And so now we have it: thousands of students are now leaving their already devastated neighborhoods every day are forced to walk through battle zones in order to get to their schools.
Of course this phenomenon is not only restricted to our schools. In too many ways, our public policy is guided by the corporate goals of efficiency and profit over community and the greater good. While it is certainly true that many of our public institutions are bloated and inefficient and in need of reform, when we destroy them wholesale in this manner, we fail to reckon with the very real human cost of these actions. Even worse, when we privatize our public works, whether it is public housing, our health care system, or our prisons, we do more than simply turn lives into abstractions. We increasingly view human lives – and in some cases, human misery – as commodities to be profited from.
Whether we call this privatization or neo-liberalism whatever we choose to call it, I do believe it represents a very real form of institutional oppression. It may not be as obvious or as brutal as the oppression meted out by the Bashar Al-Assads of the world, but I submit it is a form of oppression nonetheless. Both stem from a view of our neighbors as somehow “other.” Both benefit from a more privileged people’s willingness to turn a blind eye. And most important, both forms of oppression affect the real lives of real people.
So what is there to be done? On an individual level, I think, one answer is very simple: we need to connect. We need to venture out of the hermetically sealed worlds we too often construct for ourselves and learn more about the people with whom we live – particularly those whose day-to-day reality is fundamentally different from our own.
Earlier this month, I read an article by a German journalist who was in Chicago to write about urban gun violence through a grant from the Pulitzer Center. It was fascinating to read the impressions of this European visitor from a Berlin, a city larger than Chicago but with a fraction of the homicides.
Here is how the journalist, Rieke Havertz, ended the article:
It is human nature to ignore Chicago’s gun violence as long as the shooting stays in the “bad” neighborhoods. Don’t take the “L” down south — that was the advice I always heard when I spoke about visiting less-fortunate neighborhoods.
I ignored the advice and nothing happened to me except that I got to know the city. I discovered that it’s not just money that needs to be thrown at these neighborhoods. They need economic opportunity, education, health care. They need a Chicago that is not a segregated city.
They need people who care. Take a different path, reach over the walls.
I know many JRC members who work and volunteer with in at-risk communities in Chicago and right here in Evanston – and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. I think it would behoove us all to not just to learn about these communities, but to create real connections, nurture real relationships. To meet and listen to those who live there. To relate to them as real people, not as charity cases to be helped or problems to be solved. To learn about their reality, their struggles, their needs, from them, not news reports or politicians or pundits.
We need to learn and act on an advocacy level as well. Here in Chicago, there is a remarkable grass-roots coalition that is shaping up and organizing on behalf of the at-risk communities in our city. In fact, polls show that 60% of Chicago’s citizens oppose the school closings and they are starting to make their voices and their presence heard in a major way. After the CPS’s announcement, many of us took to the streets for three straight days of marches in protest – and although the school closings and budget cuts are now a reality, they have galvanized a movement that is attracting a remarkable coalition – including growing numbers of young people.
But this movement has not grown up overnight – and it is not simply focused on the issue of public schools. It has in fact been building steadily over the years; it is the product of many community-based organizations mobilizing and organizing on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the greater Chicago community.
I’m proud to say here at JRC we are becoming increasingly active in this movement. I encourage you to find out more about our efforts and seriously consider lending us your support. Specifically speaking, I encourage to consider getting involved in our Labor Justice Task Force, our Immigrant Justice Task Force and to speak with JRC members who are currently exploring ways we can become active with Northside P.O.W.E.R., an institution-based people’s power organization with members on the Chicago’s North side and in North Shore Communities.
I have also personally been active with the wonderful organization Arise Chicago, an interfaith community organization that does important, critical local work on behalf of worker justice. (And of course, I would be derelict if I did not mention that we have many other active and vital Tikkun Olam Task Forces at JRC – I hope you will speak to JRC’s VP for Tikkun Olam and learn how you can get involved in our ongoing social justice efforts.)
I also want to encourage us all to educate ourselves and find ways to act on a national level as well. Indeed, it is not an understatement to say that the at-risk populations in our country are currently vulnerable in ways we haven’t seen in decades. According to new data from the US Department of Agriculture, more than one in five American children face hunger, this at a time in which our Congress is considering cutting the SNAP program (aka food stamps) for more than 800,000 Americans who currently receive them but still do not get enough to eat or maintain only a barely adequate diet.
The crisis facing our food stamp program is a particularly critical issue at this very moment – and I would be extremely derelict if I devoted a sermon to our at-risk populations without mentioning this. According to a new report released just a few days ago by the Agriculture Department, food insecurity in our nation remains at a stubbornly high 14.5 percent. According to these statistics, one in five American children are currently facing hunger.
Thanks to the stimulus package, we’ve been able to address this issue through the SNAP program, which last year served 47 million Americans to meet their basic nutrition requirements. However next week, House Republicans, in an effort led by Representative Eric Cantor, will vote to cut $40 billion out of the food stamp program – an act that would literally force hundreds of thousands of Americans into food insecurity.
In regard to this bill, Rep. Jim McGovern made this very astute comment:
There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, 17 million are kids. It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse. This is a big deal and my hope is that we’ll treat it as such and not just let it go by without a lot of discussion and debate because we’re all focused on Syria.
Now these cuts are unlikely to become law since the Senate would never pass them and President Obama would certainly never sign them. But the very fact that such a bill could even be voted on in the House is a clear sign that those advocating for the poor and the hungry in our country must remain incredibly vigilant. We simply cannot let our foreign policy discussions, however important, to eclipse these critical issues facing at-risk citizens here at home.
Every Yom Kippur, we recite our prayers in the first person plural. When we seek atonement, hope and healing for the New Year, we don’t do so for our own individual selves – we ask for these things on behalf of our entire community. I would claim that in this day and age it is getting harder and harder for us to connect with this aspect of our Yom Kippur prayers. Increasingly, it feels to me that we liturgical lip service to the concept of community. Too often it seems like we’re all living our parallel lives, without the sense that at the end of the day we’re all somehow in this together.
But in fact, we are. I do believe this sense of living separately from one another is itself the illusion. At the end of the day, our fates are intertwined. We’re very much mistaken if we believe that we’re somehow immune from risk. As we all know too well, the middle class is being squeezed and endangered in ways we haven’t witnessed in decades. Over the years and even now, there have been JRC members living on the verge of hunger and homelessness. These problems are not somewhere “over there” and in truth, they never really were. Perhaps it’s only our individualistic 21st century perspective that has changed.
So this Yom Kippur, I’m suggesting a recalibration of our spiritual perspective. To view the risk to the well-being of some members of our community as a risk to our own well-being. In a very real way, to own the danger and let go of our illusions of invulnerability. Otherwise, what do all of these prayers really mean? What do our lives really amount to if we cannot somehow see them as integrally connected to the lives of others, whether they live in Syria or the Southwest side of Chicago or in Evanston?
May this be the new year we let go of our illusions. May this be the year we decide to share the risks as well as the rewards.
May it be a rewarding year for us all.
(Click here to sign a petition that tells the House and Senate to put low-income families ahead of corporate welfare and to oppose all cuts to food stamps.)
I’d like to begin tonight by telling you the stories of three heroes of the civil rights era. I’d wager most Americans have never heard of them – but as far as I’m concerned, they deserve to be at least as well known as Emmett Till, Medger Evers and Rosa Parks.
The first is Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African-American farmer and woodcutter from in Marion, Alabama. Jackson grew up in poverty, but planned to move North for a better life after graduating from high school. After his father’s early death however, he spent his the remainder of his life on his small family farm in Marion, where he lived together with his sister, mother, and grandfather.
Jackson was an army veteran and a deeply faithful man; he became the youngest deacon in the history of Marion’s St. James Baptist Church. He also turned into a political activist at an early age after unsuccessfully attempting to register to vote for four years. Jackson spearheaded his church’s voter registration drive and eventually became a prominent civil rights leader in Merion.
On the night of February 18, 1965, Jackson participated in a demonstration in which 500 people peacefully marched from a church in Marion to the county Jail about a half a block away to protest the imprisonment of a young civil rights worker. On their way, the marchers were met and beaten by a line of Marion City police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and Alabama State Troopers. Among the injured were two United Press International photographers. A NBC News correspondent was so badly beaten that he was later hospitalized.
The marchers quickly turned and scattered back towards the church. Pursued by the state troopers, Jackson, his sister, mother, and 82-year-old grandfather ran into a café. The troopers followed them in and clubbed his grandfather to the floor. When Jackson’s sister and mother attempted to pull the police off and they began to beat them as well. Jackson went to protect them and a trooper threw him against a cigarette machine. A second trooper moved in and shot Jackson twice at point blank range in the abdomen.
Jackson staggered outside, was clubbed again and fell wounded in the street, where he lay for half an hour. Later that night, Jackson, his mother and grandfather were transported to a hospital in Selma. His mother and grandfather suffered head wounds but were treated and released – Jimmie Lee remained in the hospital where his condition grew steadily worse. Four days later, an Alabama state trooper walked into and hospital room and charged Jackson with assault and battery with intent to murder a peace officer. Eight days later, on Friday, February 26, Jimmie Lee Jackson died from his wounds.
His funeral took place on March 3. Dr. Martin Luther King was among the speakers at the service, after which a thousand people followed Jackson’s casket through the rain to a local cemetery. Four days later, several hundred marchers left Brown Chapel in Selma, formed a long column, and began walking up the steep incline of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River. Their goal was to walk 54 miles to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest Jackson’s death and petition the governor and legislature to open the state’s voting rolls to all citizens. The march ended violently on a day we would all come to know as “Bloody Sunday.” It was a galvanizing moment in the fight for voting rights in this country.
The second person I’d like to profile for you now is Reverend James Reeb. Reeb was raised in Caspar, Wyoming, served in the Army during World War II, and was later ordained by the Princeton Theological Seminary. Soon after, however, he left the Presbyterians and joined the Unitarian Universalist church. As a white man who believed in civil rights, he was particularly drawn to the UU’s strong emphasis on social justice.
Reverend Reeb was fully ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1962. After serving for a few years at All Souls Church in Washington DC, he became the director of the American Friends Service Committee Metropolitan Boston Low Income Housing Program in 1964. With his wife and four children, he moved to Boston and purchased a home in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American area of the city. His daughter Anne later recalled that her father “was adamant that you could not make a difference for African-Americans while living comfortable in a white community.”
Following Bloody Sunday, Reeb went down to Selma with 45 Unitarian ministers and 15 laypeople to participate in the voting rights demonstrations that arose in the wake of Bloody Sunday. On March 9, he joined 2,500 marchers for a second march from Selma to Montgomery. As on previous attempts they were stopped by the police – and so the marchers returned to Browns Chapel for an evening of speeches, singing and prayers.
Later that night, Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers had dinner in a local black restaurant. Although he had planned to return to Boston that night, he called his wife and told her he had decided to stay for one more day. Upon leaving the cafe, the trio was set upon by four men brandishing clubs and yelling racist slurs. They attacked and beat the three men – wounding his two colleagues and severely injuring Reeb with a blow to his skull. Needing a neurosurgeon, he was driven ninety miles by ambulance to University Hospital in Birmingham. He died two days later.
Reverend James Reeb’s death sparked mourning event throughout the country – tens of thousands held vigils in his honor, including a ceremony in Selma, where he, like Jimmie Lee Jackson, was eulogized by Dr. King. That evening, on March 15, President Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress on behalf of the Voting Rights Act. It was his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech, in which he urged Congress to outlaw all voting practices that denied or abridged “the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Six months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
And finally, let me tell you now about Viola Liuzzo – born in 1925 to a poor white family that moved constantly throughout the Deep South. During the early months of World War II, her family moved to Michigan, where she worked in a bomber factory. Eager to contribute to the war effort herself, Viola moved to Detroit, where she married and had two daughters. They divorced shortly after and she eventually married Anthony James Liuzzo, a union organizer for the Teamsters. Anthony adopted her daughters and they had three more children together.
Though she was a high school dropout, Liuzzo trained as a medical laboratory assistant and later took classes at Wayne State University. There she was exposed to political ideas of the time, including debates about the Vietnam War, education reform, and economic justice. This period marked the beginning of her political activism. She was arrested twice in demonstrations and both times she insisted on a trial in order to publicize her causes.
In 1964 Liuzzo, a former Catholic, joined the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit – attracted, like Reverend Reeb, by its commitment to civil rights. She also became active in the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. Like so many others, Liuzzo was galvanized by events in Selma. Following Reverend Reeb’s murder she attended a memorial service for him and soon after, she decided to go down to Selma herself to volunteer for a week. As she explained to her husband, she believed there were “too many people who just stand around talking.” She asked her closest friend, an African-American woman named Sarah Evans, to explain to her children where their mother had gone and to tell them she would call home every night. When Evans warned her that she could be killed, she replied simply, “I want to be part of it.”
So on March 21, Liuzzo joined 3,000 other marchers as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge attempting to reach Montgomery. She stayed on to volunteer over the next few days, driving shuttle runs from the airport to the marchers’ campsite and helping at a first-aid station.
On March 25, she joined the marchers for the final four miles to Montgomery, where she joined the thousands that demonstrated at the Alabama State House. When the march was over, Liuzzo and African-American civil rights worker named Leroy Moton drove five marchers back to Selma. After they were dropped off, Viola volunteered to return Moton to Montgomery. On their way back, four Ku Klux Klan members pulled up alongside their car. Liuzzo tried to outrun them, but they caught up with her car and opened fire. Viola was shot twice in the head and died instantly.
Following her murder, President Johnson publicly demanded that the arrest of Liuzzo’s murderers be a top priority. In just 24 hours, the FBI arrested the four Klan members, one of home was an FBI informant. Johnson appeared personally on national television to announce their arrest.
The FBI would later attempt to publicly discredit Liuzzo – most likely to cover up the fact that their agent was a KKK member and may have actively participated in her murder. J. Edgar Hoover personally spread rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist party and a drug addict and that she had traveled to Selma to have sexual relations with black men. Viola’s family was also targeted by hate groups – after crosses were burned in front of their home. Anthony Liuzzo had to hire armed guards to protect his family.
However, as in the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Revered James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo’s death had a powerful impact on the voting rights movement across the country. On March 27 hundreds of protesters marched to the Dallas County courthouse in Selma in her memory. The next day Dr. King eulogized her at San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral. The NAACP also sponsored a memorial service for Liuzzo at a Detroit church that was attended by fifteen hundred people including Rosa Parks. A Roman Catholic Church in Detroit celebrated a high requiem mass that was broadcast on TV. Dr. King was among the 750 people in attendance.
As with Jackson and Reeb, Viola Liuzzo’s murder played a critical role in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. According to historians, Johnson invoked her death repeatedly as he lobbied Congress. Five months after she died, he signed it into law.
Why am I telling you the stories of these three individuals tonight? One simple reason is that I believe they deserve to be told. We owe Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo at least that much. And we owe it to ourselves. I took the time to tell you about them because so few really know the stories of these American heroes. And we should. We should know who they were, how they lived and the significance of their sacrifice.
I also have a specifically liturgical reason for telling you their stories tonight of all nights. The traditional Yom Kippur service includes a section known as the Martyrology (or as we call it in Hebrew, “Eleh Ezkarah,” meaning “These I Remember.”) The centerpiece of Martyrology is a long liturgical poem that recounts the death of ten rabbis – including the famous Rabbis Akiba, Ishmael and Shimon ben Gamliel – who were executed for their support of the failed revolt against Rome in the year 132.
We traditionally read these accounts on Yom Kippur because of the classical Jewish belief that blood atones. Our Torah portion tomorrow will, in fact, describe an ancient sacrificial rite of atonement, in which the High Priest sacrifices a goat on behalf of the entire Israelite people. Though the sacrificial system is no more, we ask for God’s forgiveness by invoking the deaths of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And so on Yom Kippur, we beseech God: even if we are unworthy of God’s mercy in the coming year, we ask for forgiveness us on account of those who made the supreme sacrifice on our behalf.
Whether or not we buy into such a theology, I believe the Martyrology has an additional function as well: on Yom Kippur we pose the question honestly: what have we done in the past year to prove ourselves worthy of these profound sacrifices? What have we done to affirm that these courageous people did not die in vain? Have we honored their memories by transforming these lost lives into justice, hope and healing for our world?
When we ask these questions as 21st century American Jews, I believe they resonate for us on multiple levels. When we invoke those Jews who died for practicing their faith, we must ask: have we done what we can to ensure that this Judaism – this exquisite spiritual tradition of ours – will be passed on to future generations? And as Americans, when we remember those who died in furtherance of justice in our country, we are challenged: how have we honored their sacrifice? What to have we done in the past year to ensure that they did not die in vain?
Indeed, at the heart of this liturgy is a refusal to accept that our martyrs have died for nothing. I’ve just recounted for you the stories of three lesser-known martyrs of the American civil rights movement – but this Sunday, as a matter of fact, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of four others who are much better-known: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley – the four little girls who were killed by a KKK bomb in Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.
At the funeral for three of the girls, Dr. King gave a famous address that has since come to be known as the “Eulogy for the Martyred Children.” At one point in his eulogy, King said as follows:
So they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city … The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the white citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past in to the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event many cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience
Amongst the many religious texts I’ve read on the meaning of martyrdom, I personally find King’s words to be among the most spiritually meaningful and profound. I am particularly moved by his hope, by his realism, but most of all, by his refusal to surrender to the possibility that these four little girls died for nothing. Even in the midst of this wretched tragedy, he was determined to find a spark of spiritual meaning in their loss.
In his eulogy, King also described of blood of the martyrs as redemptive – but he did so in a way that affirmed goodness and justice in the face of an evil, unjust act. As horribly tragic as their deaths were, King could not help but affirm that their deaths would, as he put it, “serve as a redemptive force” that would eventually bring new light during those very dark days. And perhaps most important: his theology was not limited to mere words. As soon as he finished speaking, he continued to lead a movement that would ensure these sacrifices would bring social and political transformation to the American South.
In the end, I’m taking the time to tell you about Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo because I believe their stories are utterly appropriate to this day. On Yom Kippur, as we bear witness to their lives, their work and their sacrifice, we are the recipients of a direct spiritual challenge. Now that we’ve heard their stories, it’s time to ask ourselves: have what have we done to carry on the work that they have left unfinished? Have we done all that we can to give their lives and their deaths meaning? Have we done everything in our power to ensure their deaths were not in vain?
Well my friends, we have a very real opportunity to find out, because these are not merely academic questions. Just three months ago, the US Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the very cause for which these three individuals sacrificed their lives. As I’m sure everyone here tonight knows, on June 25, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to invalidate a key element of the Voting Rights Act – the section that required states with the worst history of voting discrimination to seek preclearance from federal government before implementing new voting changes.
Indeed, there have been numerous attempts to weaken or gut the Voting Rights Act over the past 50 years. Only a month after it was enacted, in fact, it was constitutionally challenged by South Carolina. Over the years, the Voting Rights Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court four separate times – in 1966, 1973, 1980 and 1999 – and each time, the Court has voted to uphold it. Meanwhile, the US Congress has voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act on four separate occasions; each and every time it was signed back into law by a Republican president.
In his ruling for the majority last June, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that there is no longer a need for the federal government to actively ensure voting rights:
Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, (voter) turnout and registration rates in covered jurisdictions now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels. The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.
According to this reasoning, voter suppression is simply not the problem it was back in 1965. As Justice Roberts put it, “the Nation is no longer divided along those lines yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as it were.”
Justice Ruth Ginsberg,in a brave and blistering dissent to the majority, stated the patently obvious: the reason things have changed since 1965 because the Voting Rights Act has been in place since 1965. As she wrote:
Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.
If there could be any doubt to Justice Ginsberg’s argument, her point has since been driven home with brutal clarity. Two hours after the ruling, officials in Texas announced that they would begin enforcing a strict photo identification requirement for voters, which had been blocked by a federal court on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect African-American and Hispanic voters. And as we speak, state officials in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida, among others, are now moving to change voter identification laws – laws that had previously been rejected as discriminatory by the federal government.
Make no mistake: this Supreme Court ruling has struck a devastating blow to voting rights in our country. And in so doing, it has reinforced a hard truth: it challenges us with a reminder that the struggle for justice is not a one-time moment but an ongoing process. Indeed, we are so very good at commemorating the victories of the past – but too often, it seems to me, we do it at the expense of the present. I do believe as King has famously said that the arc of freedom bends toward justice – but it doesn’t do so all by itself. Justice will only prevail if we remain vigilant. It is not enough to commemorate and teach our children about the heroes of the civil rights movement in ages gone by. On the contrary, we must teach that we ourselves must consistently do what we must to honor their achievements – and most importantly, their sacrifices.
On Yom Kippur, we ask: who has paid the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of righteousness – and what will we do in the coming year to honor their sacrifice? And on this Yom Kippur, I can think of no better spiritual gesture than to lend our support to the political efforts currently underway to restore the hard fought laws that ensure voting rights for all in our country.
At the moment, these efforts are taking many forms. Given the current reality in Washington, it is clear that our bitterly divided Congress is unable to legislatively address this issue. But there are other efforts ongoing that are eminently worthy of our attention and support. This past July, the Obama administration asked a federal court in Texas to restore the preclearance requirement there. In a speech to the Urban League, Attorney General Eric Holder said that this action is only the first of many different moves the Justice Department will make on behalf of voting rights throughout the country. A more ambitious effort: a Constitutional Amendment that would guarantee the right to vote, is currently being advocated by Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, among others.
In fact, there is no explicit right to vote spelled out in the US Constitution – and as a result, individual states continue to set their own electoral policies and procedures. At present, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all, in sense, separate and unequal. As Rep. Ellison has put it, “It’s time we made it clear once and for all: every citizen in the United States has a fundamental right to vote.”
Obviously passing a Constitutional amendment is a daunting prospect, but this campaign certainly has the potential to build a broad movement that would keep this issue front and center of our national consciousness. And such a movement could well create space for more immediate action at the congressional and state levels to address the devastating fallout from the Supreme Court’s ruling.
I frankly can think of no political actions more appropriate this Yom Kippur than this: actions that will bring redemption to the lives and deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. I hope you found meaning in their stories – and I fervently hope that we will all come to see ourselves as participants in their stories that continue to unfold even now.
I’d like to conclude with words from Reverend Reeb’s final sermon. They clearly have a heartbreaking significance when you hear them today – but I do believe they speak to us with as much urgency as the day he spoke them in All Souls Church in July 1964: At the very end of his sermon, Reverend Reeb said:
If we are going to be able to meet their need, we are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice. Let all who live in freedom won by the sacrifice of others, be untiring in the task begun, till every man on earth is free.
This and every Yom Kippur, may we be worthy of his words.
(Click here to sign a petition that urges the Justice Department to block discriminatory voter ID laws in our country. Click here to contact your representative and demand Congress act now to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.)
I’m sure many of you remember the story of John Walker Lindh, a young American citizen who converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Lindh was captured by the US military in November 2001 and was eventually brought back to the US to stand trial. It was the Justice Department’s first high-profile case in the post-9/11 war on terror.
While many are familiar with the story of the so-called “American Taliban,” I’m sure far fewer know the story of a woman named Jesselyn Radack, who was a legal advisor to the Justice Department at the time. Shortly after Lindh was arrested, Radack received a call from an FBI attorney, who asked her about the ethics of interrogating Lindh without a lawyer present, specifically mentioning that Lindh’s father had retained counsel for his son. Radack told the FBI that under no circumstances could Lindh be interviewed without his lawyer present.
In spite of her clear response – and numerous follow-up emails to that effect – John Walker Lindh was subsequently interrogated without counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft then held a press conference where he stated, bald-faced, “The subject here is entitled to choose his own lawyer and to our knowledge has not chosen a lawyer at this time.” It was clear to Jesselyn Raddack that Ashcroft and the Justice Department had lied to the American public about its legal handling of John Walker Lindh.
Around this time, Radack discovered the emails she had written to the FBI – emails that explicitly spelled out Lindh’s rights – had disappeared from the Justice Department office files. When she realized what was going on, she resigned her post. To her mind, something very, very wrong was going on and she refused to be party to it.
When Lindh’s initial hearing began, it became clear to Radack that none of her emails had been presented to the judge on the case – communications that were clearly germane to Lindh’s defense. Now Radack was now faced with an even more powerful ethical decision. She could do nothing, which would in effect continue the cover-up, or she could blow the whistle on the Justice Department.
So in June of 2002, three weeks before Lindh’s hearing was to take place, Jesselyn Radack downloaded the emails from her personal files and sent them to Newsweek magazine. Her revelation of the Justice Department’s malfeasance had a powerful impact on the government’s case. Although he originally faced three life sentences, Lindh eventually plea-bargained to 20 years in prison without possibility of parole.
For her part, Radack’s whistleblowing came at a huge price, as she knew it would. The Justice Department subsequently brought a criminal case against her, although she was never told for what she was being investigated or for what she might be charged. She also lost her new job at a private law firm after her former government employers put pressure on her partners. The Justice Department then referred her for discipline to her bar associations, effectively rendering her unemployable. As a final insult, she was placed on the national “no-fly” list.
The criminal case against Radack was later dropped without explanation and she was eventually removed from the no-fly list, but the damage to her career and her livelihood was permanent. Her experience obviously cost her any future in government, but in the end it led her to a different calling. Radack now devotes her life to defending whistleblowers at the Government Accountability Project.
I first learned about Jesselyn Radack’s story when I read an article she wrote about it in, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine. In the article Radack, who is an active member of the Jewish community, wrote openly and passionately about the Jewish values that lay behind her actions. She quoted her adult Bat Mitzvah Torah portion: “Lo ti’eh aharay rabim” – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do wrong” (Exodus 22:3) – a dictum she says has motivated her ethical decision-making ever since.
Here’s what Radack had to say in the conclusion of the article:
People also ask me if this experience has engendered a crisis of faith. On the contrary, Judaism has helped me get through this difficult period. My (rabbis have) been sympathetic and supportive. I have also drawn strength from the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who taught me that God did not cause my suffering and could not prevent it. Rabbi Kushner’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve teaches that the ability to choose between right and wrong is what makes us human. God does not interfere with that choice. But God can give us the strength of character we need to handle the consequences.
I chose my conscience over my career and take pride in having spoken truth to power.
I remember reading that article back in 2006 – and in particular I remember being deeply affected by the religious and moral convictions that motivated her actions. On a personal level, I’d always been a strong advocate of whistleblowers and the value of government transparency. But I don’t think I had ever truly thought about the act of whistleblowing in the context of Jewish values until I read Jesselyn Radack’s words in Reform Judaism magazine that day.
Since that time, I’ve thought a great deal about this issue. And so this morning I’d like to take some time to discuss the subject of whistleblowing – a subject that has been in the media spotlight a great deal this past year. I’d like to explore the issues raised by the more well-known whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden – and others who are not as well known but whose actions are just as worthy of our attention. Most of all, I want to share with you why I believe whistleblowing is not only a critically important American value, but a deeply sacred Jewish value as well – one that challenges us particularly as we gather now for the New Year.
I’ve often been struck that while government whistleblowers are often excoriated as unpatriotic at best and traitors at worst, the practice of whistleblowing is in fact rooted in American values. Our founding fathers fervently believed, and wrote repeatedly, that democracy is strengthened when it is transparent – and that government can only be truly accountable when it ensures an informed citizenry. As John Adams famously wrote:
And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge … But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.
True whistleblowing is not a traitorous act, though I think many governments would love their citizens to believe so. Whistleblowers are not employed by enemy nations – by definition they act individually and out of their own conscience. And while they do break laws, they do so not for personal gain but for the greater good. They do so to assert that no one – not even the most powerful of governments – are above the law.
In their defense, governments will invariably claim that secrecy is essential to “national security.” On the face of it, it’s difficult defense to for us to refute. After all, every nation’s primary duty is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens – it would be naive and in fact dangerous to try to claim otherwise. But it would be equally naive to assume that when our government acts in secrecy, it must somehow be doing so for reasons of legitimate national security. History has taught us repeatedly that governments will invariably use secrecy to cover up their own illegitimate actions – actions that will often end up betraying the very well-being and security of their own citizens.
Possibly the most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has written extensively and eloquently on this subject and about the process he went through that ultimately led to his revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg was a former marine who joined the Pentagon in 1964 and later worked for the RAND Corporation. Like almost all whistleblowers, he was originally among the “true faithful” – a patriotic American who believed that the US could and should be a force for good in the world. But as his government career progressed, he harbored profound inner doubts as he became privy to the highest decision making institutions during the buildup of Vietnam War.
Daniel Ellsberg had first hand knowledge that leaders at the highest levels of government knew from early on that the Vietnam war could never be won and yet insisted otherwise to the Congress and the American public. Moreover, they continued to escalate a war they knew was doomed, knowing full well their actions would lead to more American deaths overseas.
When Ellsberg went public with the Pentagon Papers, he went up against a powerful bureaucracy and government culture of secrecy. As a former insider, he had a first row seat at a massive act of government malfeasance, but he also was constrained by a deep-seated mentality that considered the telling of secrets to be a traitorous act. It’s no coincidence that most whistleblowers begin as patriotic insiders. But ironically enough, it’s the same motivation that initially drives them to serve their country that eventually drives them to bring the truth of their government’s wrongdoing into the light of day.
It is, of course, an act that carries with it a huge cost. When whistleblowers decide to go public, they know full well it is an act that will cost them their jobs and their livelihoods. They know they will likely be publicly vilified, their personal lives dissected, their reputations slandered. And of course, they also know they will likely endure prison time, be forced to go underground or live in exile.
Whistleblowers are indeed lightning rods – and governments count on this. That’s why, I believe, we invariably focus more attention on the whistleblowers themselves than the actual crimes they reveal. That’s why, for instance, I believe we’re hearing so much bandied about regarding Chelsea Manning’s personal life and emotional struggles. Our leaders and the media would much rather we focus on Manning personally. As long as we do so, we’re given a pass on the disturbing information Manning brought to light – and we don’t have to confront the truths of our nation’s crimes in Iraq, in Guantanamo and around the world.
Among Manning’s many revelations through Wikileaks is the now infamous video taken from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in which Americans soldiers shot and killed eleven individuals, including two Reuters reporters, in the streets of New Baghdad. When a van arrived to help the injured, the soldiers fired upon it as well, seriously injuring two children. As you watch the video, you can hear the voices of American soldiers urging each other on, joking about the dead and dying. At one point a soldier laughs when Humvee runs over a dead body lying in the street.
I remember watching this video when it was released in 2010. I posted and wrote strongly about it on my blog at the time. It was deeply and profoundly horrifying to see the dark reality of our military actions in Iraq in such a graphic and brazen manner. But I remember well being so grateful that this video had been brought out into the light of day.
As it turned out, however, Manning was not the only member of the military who recoiled from this particular action. An American infantryman named Ethan McCord rescued the two children from the shot-up van – and after the video was released, McCord publicly thanked Manning for bringing it to light.
McCord later criticized the media for going into great and often lurid detail about Manning’s gender identity issues while utterly ignoring the devastating significance of his revelations. In a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, McCord wrote the following:
By focusing so heavily on Manning’s private life (the article) removes politics from a story that has everything to do with politics. The important public issues wrapped up with PFC Manning’s case include: transparency in government; the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers; accountability of government and military in shaping and carrying out foreign policy; war crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks documents… and more.
McCord then ended his letter with these words:
If PFC Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine, not because he’s perfect or because he’s never struggled with personal or family relationships –most of us do – but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience.
Chelsea Manning has paid a profound price for blowing the whistle on the actions of the American military. After her arrest, she was put in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months, forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets and restricted from physical recreation or access to a television or newspaper. Manning’s punishment was later condemned as “excessive” by a military judge and “torture” by the UN. And of course, Manning has now been sentenced and faces an additional 35 years in prison.
As for the soldiers responsible for the attack in the video? The US military conducted its own investigation of the incident and eventually cleared everyone involved of wrongdoing. To date, no one has ever been held accountable – for these or for any of the numerous disturbing revelations Manning has brought to light.
I don’t think I could put it any better than the ACLU when it made this statement following Manning’s sentencing:
When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.
On Rosh Hashanah, the day for asking the hard questions, it’s well worth asking: who has committed the greater crime? The government that breaks the law and covers its actions up under the pretense of national security, or the single individual that breaks the law in order that these crimes might be brought out into the light?
It’s well worth asking why? Why is Chelsea Manning facing thirty five years in prison for revealing the disturbing truths about our government’s actions in Iraq while the very leaders who deceived us into that war have yet to be made to account for their actions?
And why, for that matter, has Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance on American citizens, been forced to live in exile in Russia while our Director of National Intelligence can deny the facts Snowden brought to light under oath and still remain in his job?
I believe Jewish tradition demands that we ask these kinds of questions. After all, asking hard questions to powerful leaders is a time-honored Jewish value that dates all the way back to the days of the Prophets. The Prophets were, in fact, the whistleblowers of their day. Just like our present day examples, they too spoke truth to power; they too sought to publicly reveal political corruption and hypocrisy of the governments of their time; and they too were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be for their truth-telling.
I’ve said and written often that I believe the prophetic stream in Judaism to be the most important – and in many ways the most sacred – of our tradition. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to government power. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision that says there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the mighty Roman empire and the myriad of powerful empires that have come and gone since.
As Jews, we know all too well that powerful nations and empires have historically exploited fear in order to increase their control at home and abroad. To be sure, it’s when times are fearful that we need these kinds of truth tellers the most. In today’s post 9/11 world, I think it’s fair to say that levels of our government’s control – and the secrecy it employs to cover it up – go deeper than anything we witnessed even at the height of the Cold War.
Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve created a national security bureaucracy that many believe has evolved into a juggernaut with a life of its own. As one important Washington Post investigative article concluded:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rein in Washington’s culture of secrecy that has grown so significantly during our nation’s so-called War on Terror. While we can argue about whether or not he’s been successful in this regard, it cannot be denied that Obama has become he most aggressive president in American history when it comes to whistleblowers.
Until this administration, only three government whistleblowers (including Daniel Ellsberg) had ever been charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917. Under Obama, the Justice Department has brought charges against eight individuals – more than all previous American presidents combined. His administration’s actions drive home the reality that this issue is not really about left or right. It is about government – and in particular, large powerful governments such as ours, that will invariably abuse their power and act to cover up their abuses.
To quote another great American truth teller, the venerable investigative journalist Izzy Stone, “All governments lie.” Stone didn’t mean this to be a criticism of government itself – on the contrary, he wrote endlessly about the critical role governments must play in creating ordered and just societies. He simply meant that there will always be a gap between what a government does and what it says it is doing. And that as citizens, we simply cannot sit back and assume governments will voluntarily rein in their abuse of power or hold themselves to account.
That, quite frankly, is our job. And that is why whistleblowers are so critical and why I believe they are worthy of our gratitude and support. They represent, in a sense, the final defense of an informed citizenry. They are the ones who are willing, at great personal sacrifice, to hold the most powerful people and institutions in the world accountable.
I know that all citizens want to trust their governments. We all want to believe our governments have our best interests at heart and will act to keep us safe – particularly in fearful times such as these. But as fearful as we are, we would do we to ask whether increased militarism abroad and the narrowing of our civil liberties here at home will truly bring us security in the end.
As for me, I tend to agree with Daniel Ellsberg, who recently wrote: “One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts just as power corrupts.” Today, as in years past, we owe a profound debt to those who courageous enough to tear down the shrouds of secrecy, often at enormous personal cost, so that we may all find our way to a future of true security – not a false sense of security in which the powerful hide behind higher and higher walls but a real security based upon leaders and citizens are truly accountable to one another.
After all, isn’t that really what our sacred day today is all about? When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are, in a sense, “blowing the whistle.” The Shofar represents, among other things, an act of revelation. When the shofar is sounded, we bring all the secrets of the past year out of the shadows. We announce our readiness to shine light into the dark places of our souls and all the actions for which we are accountable. We do this because we know, deep down that secrecy corrupts the soul – and that true security, true liberation, can only come from living lives of transparency and openness.
I do believe what is true for our national soul is true for our individual souls as well. Up until now, I’ve been specifically addressing the topic of government whistleblowers, but of course, whistleblowing takes many forms – it comes in may shapes and sizes. You might say that each of us is presented the opportunity to be a whistleblower in ways large and small each and every day. Every day, each of us is challenged by the Torah demonstrated to us so eloquently by Jesselyn Radack: “Do not follow the multitude to do wrong.”
Indeed, in the coming year, each of us will inevitably be faced with the challenge to speak out or remain silent. To remain in the darkness, in a place or secrecy and shame, or to shine a light into the dark places that we might all find our way forward together. This New Year, I hope we can all find the means to be truth tellers in our own right, to find the courage to speak where there is only silence. And to wrestle honestly with the questions: what is the world in which we truly seek to live? Where, in the end, will we find true security? And what will we be willing to do about it?
Baruch ma’avir afeilah u’meivi orah – Blessed is the one who removes the darkness and brings light.