A Force More Powerful: A Sermon for Tzedek Chicago’s Inaugural Rosh Hashanah ServicePosted: September 15, 2015
One of the most celebrated lines in the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the verse “Hayom Harat Olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.” As you might imagine, these words have an added resonance for me on this particular Rosh Hashanah. Hayom Harat Olam indeed. On this day the world was created – and recreated anew for us all.
As our new congregation celebrates its very first Rosh Hashanah, it is difficult to put into words just how profoundly humbling this moment is for me. At this very moment, we are creating a community out of whole cloth, a fabric of connection out of deeply shared communal values. I am so very grateful to be granted this opportunity and so inspired by the many people who have stepped forward so readily and so eagerly to make Tzedek Chicago a reality.
This Rosh Hashanah, I’m feeling, if you pardon the expression, as if we’re celebrating a New Year on steroids. This is truly a season of newness, of potential, a blank canvas upon which we can throw our deepest hopes and dreams and visions. More than any other Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah is the time in which we proclaim without hesitation that anything is possible in our lives and our world. And I am truly blessed to be sharing it with you.
I’ll be honest with you: I still can’t quite believe that we pulled this off. It was only a short time ago that we even began to think about creating this new congregation. The leadership of Tzedek Chicago began these conversations a few months ago, and we held our first orientation meeting just this last summer. Our start up period has been astonishingly short – but I think I can speak for the entire leadership of Tzedek when I say I’m not surprised by how far we’ve come in this relatively brief period of time. I’ve known in my heart that there is very real need in the world for a congregation such as ours.
We are at heart, a values-based congregation. As the name of our congregation makes clear, our community is deeply informed by the sacred values of social justice. In this regard, the establishment of Tzedek Chicago is a very mindful attempt to create a Jewish spiritual home for those in our community who cherish these values and are seeking a spiritual community in which to express them.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to go to our website and read our six core values carefully. While they are listed separately, I do believe they are part of a larger unified story: a narrative of liberation that runs through the heart of Judaism and Jewish history. It is a narrative rooted in the Exodus story that tells of a God who stands by the oppressed and demands that we do the same. It resonates through the words of Biblical prophets who spoke truth to corrupt power. And it can be found in the courageous example of ancient rabbis who responded to the trauma of exile from the land by creating a global religion with a universal message of healing and hope.
It is particularly relevant to invoke this liberatory narrative on Rosh Hashanah, of all days. Indeed, one of the central themes of this day is the concept of Malchuyot – God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives and our world. Even if you don’t adhere to the literal belief in God as a supernatural King sitting on his throne on high, I believe we have much to learn from this concept. At its core, I would suggest affirming Malchuyot means affirming that there is a Force Yet Greater: greater than Pharoah in Egypt, greater than the mighty Roman empire, greater than the myriad of powerful empires that have oppressed the Jewish people and many so other peoples throughout the world.
I would argue that this sacred conviction has been one of the central driving forces of Jewish tradition throughout the centuries: that it is not by might and not by power – but by God’s spirit that l our world will ultimately be redeemed. I would further argue that this belief in a Power Yet Greater sustained Jewish life in a very real way during some very dark periods of our history. After all, the Jewish people are still here, even after far mightier empires have come and gone. It might well be said that this allegiance to a Power Yet Greater is the force that keeps alive the hopes of all peoples who have lived with the reality of dislocation and oppression.
I will submit to you, however, that we have tragically betrayed this Jewish narrative of liberation in our own day. With the onset of modernity, we have largely surrendered the ideal of “not by might and not by power” through a kind of Faustian bargain with might and power. We now embrace a new narrative – one that responds to trauma not with a message of healing and hope, but by placing our faith in humanly wielded power. Our new narrative teaches that the pain of our Jewish past will inevitably become our future unless we embrace the ways of power and privilege; nationalism and militarism.
Historically speaking, we know what can happen when religion has been used to justify the aims of empire. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Constantinian religion, in reference to the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century began the process of making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In that one critically historic moment, what had previously been a small and persecuted religious community in the first century after Jesus, became a religion of state power. We know the rest. The Jewish people in particular know all too well the sorrows that inevitably ensued from Christianity’s bargain with empire.
In our own day, however, the Jewish people have made a similar kind of tragic bargain. Jewish theologian and thinker Marc Ellis has coined a term for it: “Constantinian Judaism.” With the onset of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel, Judaism has now itself become wedded to empire. The unavoidable focal point of Jewish life is now a Jewish nation-state that venerates Jewish power, Jewish militarism and Jewish privilege. Although Israel was established through a mythology of Jewish liberation and a “return to the land,” it has done so on the backs of that land’s indigenous inhabitants. The unavoidable truth is that the Jewish nation state has come into existence – and is continuing to justify its existence – through the oppression of the Palestinian people.
It is difficult to underestimate the extent to which Jewish life now centers on the rationalization and perpetuation of this new Jewish narrative, this new deal with empire. As Marc Ellis points out, we American Jews are deeply implicated in this new Constatinian Judaism:
(The) Jewish establishments in America and Israel have made their own empire deal. Jews are blessed in America. America blesses Israel. What is good for one is good for the other. For the protection American foreign policy offers Israel, Jews offer their support to the American government. (“Future of the Prophetic,” p. 36)
This new narrative has also become an indelible part of American synagogue life. There are so many examples I could point to. Here in Chicago, almost every synagogue has a sign in front with American and Israeli flags that proclaim, “We Stand With Israel.” Congregational religious schools and Jewish camps routinely cite “cultivating a connection to Israel” as an essential part of their curriculum. Perhaps most symbolically telling: it has become standard in most American synagogues to place a US and Israeli flag on either side of the Aron Kodesh.
In other words, in our most sacred Jewish spaces, we are literally bowing down to physical symbols of national power. This is a powerful demonstration of how completely this new narrative has taken hold of post-Holocaust Jewish identity. To my mind, it is nothing short of idolatry – and our inability to recognize it as such shows just how deeply we have bought into a religious mindset that radically values physical power over spiritual power.
So yes, Tzedek Chicago makes a point of stating the following in one of our six congregational core values:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
We reject any ideology that insists upon exclusive Jewish entitlement to the land, recognizing that it has historically been considered sacred by many faiths and home to a variety of peoples, ethnicities and cultures. In our advocacy and activism, we oppose Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people and seek a future that includes full civil and human rights for all who live in the land – Jews and non-Jews alike.
With these words, we are intentionally standing down the new Jewish narrative. I know full well what it means to do this. I certainly have no illusions how a Jewish congregation describing itself as “non-Zionist” and openly protests “Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people” will be received by the Jewish establishment. Given centrality of Zionism and Israel advocacy in Jewish communal life, Tzedek Chicago is clearly a dissident congregation in the Jewish world.
I do believe, however, that we must make room in our community for Jews whose values dissent from what the communal establishment deems “mainstream.” It bears noting that dissent has historically occupied a venerable and even sacred place in Jewish life. (It also bears noting that Zionism itself was once a dissident movement in Jewish life.) Our congregation consciously and proudly seeks to lift up this dissident legacy – one that has long been central to Jewish tradition itself in so many critical ways.
After all, we are not promoting dissent for its own sake. We are seeking to reclaim a sacred legacy – a liberatory narrative that has long been indigenous to Jewish life. But I want to underscore – this is not simply a nostalgic exercise in venerating the past. Jewish life in the 21st century is radically different than any in which we have lived before. We live in a global world in which we are connected to individuals, nations and cultures, in unprecedented ways. Having just come out of the ghetto, we have no desire to build new ghettos of our own making. To quote our core values once more:
We celebrate with a Judaism that builds more bridges, not higher walls. Our religious services and educational programs promote a universalist Jewish identity – one that seeks a greater engagement in the world around us. Within our congregation, we view our diversity as our strength. In our activism, we advocate for a world beyond borders and reject the view that any one people, ethnic group or nation is entitled to any part of our world more than any other.
Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
As I said at the outset, I do believe there are many out there who are thirsting for a Jewish community that espouses values such as these. At the same time, however, I am all too mindful that Tzedek Chicago is not for everyone. But that’s OK. In fact, I think, that’s how it should be.
I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.
The reason for this, I believe, is that the overwhelming number of American liberal synagogues simply don’t view political action as part of their mission. Many will articulate a commitment to Tikkun Olam, or “repair of the world,” but whenever this term is invoked, it invariably refers to direct service projects such as soup kitchens or coat drives for the homeless. Now there is of course, a dire need to support service work – particularly in a day and age when our social safety net is under constant and unceasing attack. As you know, here at Tzedek Chicago we are coordinating a High Holiday food drive in conjunction with the Greater Chicago Food Depository – and we thank you for your support of this sacred effort.
But while every religious community should and must engage in service work, we must also ask: what does it mean to ignore the wider context of this reality? What does it mean to do direct service to people in need without directly addressing the political conditions that creates these needs in the first place?
In truth, most liberal congregations are not designed to make waves. They might connect their Jewish identities to political action – they might invoke Jewish community support of the civil rights movement for instance – but when pushed to take a stand on the real political issues of our day, they ultimately fall back on “being inclusive” of the diversity of opinions in the congregation. They won’t mix religion with politics – the notable exception being, naturally, support and advocacy for the state of Israel.
So yes, you might say Tzedek Chicago isn’t really an inclusive congregation. We’re a intentional community driven by very specific values. We’re a community bound by the conviction that a Jewish congregation should be more than simply a fee for service institution for the Jewish middle and upper middle class. We hold that a synagogue should not merely comfort the afflicted, but also afflict the comfortable. We understand that a congregation should not only be about personal transformation, but socio-political transformation as well.
There has been a fair amount of press about our new congregation of late – and one of my favorite lines came from one of our detractors who was quoted as saying about us, “Statistically speaking, they don’t exist.” Now that may actually be true. There aren’t really congregations such as ours in the Jewish world. But I can’t help but be deeply gratified at how far we’ve come in such an astonishingly amount short time. By the growing numbers of people who have formally joined us as members; including many who are joining a Jewish congregation for the very first time in their lives. And by those who have stepped forward to volunteer considerable time and energy on our behalf.
And I will say moreover, that ever since our announcement, I’ve been hearing consistently from people all over the country who have told me they wish that something like Tzedek existed in their community. So while we might not statistically exist in the institutional sense, I believe we are very much alive out there in the borderlands of Jewish life. I just know in my heart that there is a place for a Jewish congregation such as ours. And while we are starting off modestly, mindful of our capacity, of what we are able and not able to do during this first year of our existence, I do believe the response we’ve received thus far indicates that the time has truly arrived for a congregation such as Tzedek Chicago.
And finally, on a personal note, I want to express once more how blessed I feel that I have been granted such an opportunity at this point in my life and my career. I am so very grateful and excited to be embarking on a journey such as this with all of you and many more who will be joining us as we make our way. I know it will be a complex and challenging journey in many ways. We’ve set our sights high and it goes without saying that we will be learning together as we go.
To be sure, it is not easy to do this kind of work. It is challenging, it is painful, it can often mean being alienated or isolated from family and friends, from the larger community. But for so many of us, we don’t have a choice but to do this work – and we know that we will ultimately find the strength to continue this work through the sacred relationships we cultivate along the way. In the end, this is a journey we have no choice but to take – and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather take it with than all of you. Speaking for myself and the leadership of Tzedek Chicago, thank you for putting your faith in us and in one another. Wherever our steps may lead us, I know we will be going from strength to strength.
And finally, please join me in expressing gratitude at having been sustained long enough to reach this incredible new season together:
Holy One of Blessing, your presence fills creation, you have given us life, sustained us and brought us all to this very sacred time together.