Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Shameless and the Shamed

The September 1st op-ed for the Jewish Standard, written by Adas Emuno president Lance Strate, is entitled The Shameless and the Shamed, and we share it here on our congregational blog, noting that the opinions expressed are not an official position of the congregation: 

Let’s play a game of word association. I’ll say a word and you say the first thing that comes into your mind. Ready?

The word is shameless.

If you answered Trump, then please feel free to continue reading. If not, then you may want to stop right here.

To be frank, I have no desire to bother trying to make a case for why Trump’s behavior ought to be described as shameless. If you can’t see it by now, then whatever proof I might muster won’t make a difference to you. I could easily fill this entire column with evidence, but it wouldn’t matter. And if I merely cited the most recent examples as of this writing, by the time it is published they’ll already be fading from awareness, displaced by newer instances.

In sum, I have no patience left for those who would deny a truth that is so very self-evident.

As I was writing this, the words “have you no shame, sir,” popped into my head, but a quick Google search showed that I had misremembered the quote. It was during the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings in 1954 that the chief consul for the U.S. Army, Joseph N. Welch, said to Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no decency?”

With those words, both the Republican senator from Wisconsin and the Communist witch hunt that bore his name—McCarthyism—were fatally shamed. Television played an instrumental role in this, because the hearings were broadcast on the ABC and Dumont networks. It also followed two See It Now exposés produced by the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow.

McCarthy’s chief counsel, who was a key participant in the exchange that prompted Welch’s denunciation of McCarthy, was attorney Roy Cohn. Two decades later, Cohn would represent a young Donald Trump, and he became something of a mentor to the real estate developer. Cohn is also credited with introducing Trump to Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who gave us the scandal-ridden Fox News cable channel, whose claim to be “fair and balanced” also is delivered without shame.

The connection between Trump and McCarthy is not confined to scapegoating, but also extends to manipulation of the news media. The conservative historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event to describe news that is manufactured by journalists and publicists, rather than gathered based on real world occurrences. He argued that the introduction of steam-powered printing presses in the early 19th century made possible the publication of daily newspapers, but there were not enough actual events, train wrecks, hurricanes, elections, armed conflicts, to fill their pages. It therefore became necessary to create pseudo-events that would not have happened except for the presence of the news media, such as interviews, publicity stunts, press releases, press conferences, and leaks. This is what Boorstin wrote about McCarthy in his book The Image:

It is possible to build a political career almost entirely on pseudo-events. Such was that of the late Joseph R. McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin from 1947-1957. His career might have been impossible without the elaborate, perpetually grinding machinery of ‘information.’… And he was a natural genius at creating reportable happenings that had an interestingly ambiguous relation to underlying reality. Richard Rovere, a reporter in Washington during McCarthy’s heyday recalls:

He knew how to get into the news even on those rate occasions when invention failed him and he had no unfacts to give out. For example, he invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference. The reporters would come in—they were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov’s dogs at the clang of a bell—and McCarthy would say that he just wanted to give them the word that he expected to be ready with a shattering announcement later in the day, for use in the papers the following morning. This would gain him a headline in the afternoon papers: ‘New McCarthy Revelations Awaited in Capital.’ Afternoon would come, and if McCarthy had something, he would give it out, but often enough he had nothing, and this was a matter of slight concern. He would simply say that he wasn’t quite ready, that he was having difficulty in getting some of the ‘documents’ he needed or that a ‘witness’ was proving elusive. Morning headlines: ‘Delay Seen in McCarthy Case—Mystery Witness Being Sought’.

There is no denying that the reporters who covered McCarthy also were shameless in their pursuit of content, and the same can be said of the news media covering the 2016 election. Recall the comment CBS head Les Moonves made that February about the coverage that Trump was generating: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Shameless pursuit of profit. Shameless self-promotion. Shameless exercise of power. The common denominator is clear.

But what does it mean to be shameless? The experience of shame comes from a concern over how others see us. We feel shame over something because we fear that it will cause others to think poorly of us. Adam and Eve were shamelessly unclothed until they ate the forbidden fruit, “and the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). This doesn’t mean that they had been blind, but rather that they had become ashamed in the sight of each other, and God.

We are not only ashamed of something, we are ashamed before someone. Someone whose opinion of us is important to us.

The Torah tells us that Adam and Eve felt shame because they were naked. It does not say that they felt guilt because they had eaten the fruit. Shame is a more basic, primal experience than guilt, based as it is on the fear of what others may think of us. Guilt is shame internalized. We can have a guilty conscience even if we have no fear of discovery. A guilty verdict is intended to be an objective statement about the defendant who is on trial, not about how others feel about that person. And guilt is separate from punishment. Shame signifies its own consequences—to be shamed before others.

Shame is about relationships. It is felt most acutely in regard to the people closest to us, but it also can extend to the larger entity known as the public. If you follow the HBO series Game of Thrones, you no doubt will recall from the season 5 finale how Cersei, then the Queen Mother, was forced to undergo a walk of atonement. She was stripped naked and led through the city, as crowds threw insults and garbage at her, and a priestess cried out repeatedly, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” And if you grew up in the United States, chances are you read National Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. That book’s title refers to the public shaming of its main character, Hester Prynne.

Television transforms the public of the city square and agora, as well as the reading public made possible by the printing press, into something at once broader and more diffuse. For more than two decades, investigative reporter Arnold Diaz gave us local news stories on WCBS-TV Channel 2 called Shame on You. (I still recall the jingle that preceded the segments: “Shame, shame, shame … shame on you!”)

More recently, social media have amplified both the process of shaming and our sensitivity to it, with many references to body-shaming, fat-shaming, and slut-shaming. Critics decry the decline of civility that leads to indiscriminate shaming on the one hand. But on the other, we have a desire to silence all forms of criticism, and that in turn leads to the accusation that any negative comment is a form of shaming.

We find ourselves in the midst of a series of shame wars.

Television shamed McCarthy, and more importantly, it shamed reporters so that they stopped covering him. The televised Watergate Senate hearings shamed Richard Nixon into resigning the presidency. But CNN’s and MSNBC’s unrelenting shaming of the president do not seem to have the same effect. Perhaps the contrary messages coming from Fox News and Trump’s Twitter feed—the president is notorious for blocking anyone who tweets anything negative about him—insulate him from any sense of shame.

Another possible explanation stems from Trump’s narcissism. Psychologists tell us that narcissism is a defense against powerful, at times nearly unbearable feelings of shame. Shame leads to blame, so that not only does a narcissistic person seek praise and approval, that person also responds in a highly defensive manner to any perceived criticism or slight.

Whatever the reason, a president who has no shame is a recipe for disaster. By way of contrast, consider the American remake of a British working class family TV series called Shameless. Our version, launched on the Showtime cable channel series in 2011, features a family living in extreme poverty, a family that is not working class but instead is part of an underclass. And while the subject of shame is not discussed much in the program, we recognize and even applaud the young family’s skirting of conventional legality and morality in their efforts to survive.

The fear of being shamed is a luxury they cannot afford.

Indeed, a sense of shame is directly proportional to honor, a somewhat archaic yet still significant notion, as well as status, something still very much with us. There is little or no shame possible for those on the lowest rungs of the social order, for example the beggar, while the greatest potential for shame is held by people of the highest status—once upon a time the aristocracy and nobility, today the rich and famous—anyone in a position of leadership at any time.

Honor served as a check against shameful behavior, preserving reputation and privilege, and therefore the leader’s legitimacy. For a person of honor, being dishonored requires that he or she must retreat from public life.

A leader without honor, a shameless leader, is a tyrant. And tyrants do not have a good track record in the United States.

When we talk about the shameless and the shamed, another word comes to our minds. It’s the Yiddish word for shame—shande. We speak of shande not just as individuals, but as a people. It’s the shame we feel collectively when one of our number behaves badly. And it is in this sense that I feel ashamed of our president.

Not guilt, because I didn’t vote for him, but shame as an American, before my friends and colleagues from other nations, shame before the rest of the world, and shame before history, posterity, the generations yet to come, and yes, before God.

In being shameless in his conduct, Trump has shamed all of us, and put our collective honor and status as a nation at risk.

It is a shande, plain and simple. And how shall we respond?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Sukkah Building at Adas Emuno

Here are some images of our gallant and plucky volunteers as they construct our sukkah for this year's celebration of Sukkot:

Our thanks to you all! 

And how about a snapshot of the front of our shul, just for good measure...

And we leave you with a hearty Chag Sameach!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Lance Strate's Yom Kippur Appeal 5778

Shana Tova! And Shabbat Shalom!

Every year we ask someone different to deliver the Yom Kippur Appeal. That's because we don't want to bore you. And it's because different members of the congregation have different experiences of Jewish life. Different memories that they can draw upon. Different relationships to our synagogue. And different reasons that they can give in asking for your support.

So why is this year different from all other years? Because this year is my last year as president of our congregation. I've been president of our congregation for a long time now. In fact, I'm in the second year of my third two-year term, and if you do the math, that means that I'm in my sixth year as president. I was a young man when I started out! Now I'm old.

But I want to make it clear that I still love Adas Emuno, and I will continue to serve our synagogue. And sure, I could continue for another two years. And another two years after that. And another two after that. But we all know that it can't go on forever. And it's healthy to have new blood. Because that brings with it new ideas, new approaches, new ways of thinking and doing, new styles and skills and competencies. It's a process of renewal. And I am very pleased that we now have several officers who are able to step into the leadership position at our shul.

So why is this appeal different from all other appeals? Because it's my last year as president, they thought you might be a little bit more willing than usual to listen to me. I'm not sure that's true, but maybe there are other reasons why this year is different.

For example, there's the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism here in the US. I'm sure you all saw the footage of the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville this summer. I don't know about you, but their chanting sent a chill down my spine: "Jews will not replace us!" It should serve as a warning against complacency and complete assimilation. Some of us may forget who we are, but they will not. And our position here in America may not be as precarious as a fiddler on the roof, but neither is it as secure as a bass drummer in the basement. Benjamin Franklin's words have some resonance with our own situation: "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." And how can we all hang together unless we have a place, like this one, where we can all hang out?

This has special meaning for me because both of my parents were Holocaust survivors. My mother lost one of her sisters, she was married, had a little baby boy, they moved to another town before the Nazis came, and my mother never heard from them again. In the immediate aftermath of the war, my mother witnessed her mother die as a consequence of the war. The Holocaust was a fire that continued to smolder even after Germany surrendered. And even today, the smell of that smoke still lingers.

My parents met in Paris, after the war, as refugees, and were married there. They couldn't come to America because of restrictions on immigration, a problem familiar to us today, so they went to Australia and lived there for three years, until the rules changed, and then they came to New York. I was born soon after. By that time, I was a last minute idea.

I grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, a Jewish neighborhood, full of immigrants, some survivors like my parents, some refugees who escaped before the war broke out, some who arrived earlier in the century. And some who were just running away from Brooklyn.

But between neighbors, family, and friends, I grew up in a Holocaust survivor milieu. Some, like my uncle, had the numbers tattooed on their arms. Some didn't. Some were in concentration camps, others ghettoes, others different situations. Some were deeply troubled, bursting into tears without warning, suffering nervous breakdowns, talking to themselves out loud about gas chambers and crematoriums. Some had to be taken away, committed. Others lived among us. I remember this. Most of all, I remember the nerves. Always the nerves. Today we call it PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder. Me and my friends, we just called it freaking out. I know it affected me, I had to learn to be calm in the midst of these emotional storms. I've read that the effects persist through many generations, and that troubles me.

But growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, I never experienced anti-Semitism directly while I was in elementary school. I grew up feeling safe and secure, confident and proud of my heritage. And for that reason, my reaction to the neo-Nazi footage was mixed. Part of me couldn't help but see them as almost comical, as buffoons, palookas. And I couldn't help but think, why in the world would we want to replace the likes of you? But clowns can be quite scary, as you may know, at least from Stephen King and American Horror Story, if not from personal experience. And a sadder response that came to mind was, how can we possibly replace you? There are so few of us left? So few of us. So very few.

My father never finished high school back in the old country, and as an immigrant here, he worked in an automobile body shop. My mother was a homemaker, as was the norm at that time. So we didn't have much money when I was growing up, and when I asked my parents to buy me a toy or game that I saw on TV, the answer was usually no. But I never felt deprived. And whenever I asked my parents to buy me a book, the answer was always yes. For books, always yes. We had some differences of opinion on whether comic books counted, but there was room for negotiation. Books, school, education, those were the values that were instilled in me from an early age. Jewish values. Not unique to us as Jews, but central to our culture. Read, study, learn, think, use your head, and hopefully, make something of yourself.

And we joined a nearby synagogue, Temple Isaiah in Forest Hills. My parents were not especially observant. Like some of you, they were more of the once-a-year-on-Rosh-Hashanah-and-Yom-Kippur kind of Jews. They never heard of Reform Judaism before, but the flexibility and meaningfulness of the services appealed to them. So did the friendliness, the socializing. We didn't have much money, but membership was a priority, and so was sending me to religious school there.

I loved religious school, especially the Judaica, the stories, the history, the ethics. I drank it all up. And because we were Reform, I was never told what to believe. We weren't told, here are the answers and you better learn them. We were told, here are the questions, let's all try to answer them for ourselves.

I loved religious school and I loved the services. And those feelings and experiences gave me vital resources to draw on, to call upon, when I was nine years old and my father died.

If you want to know what is really important, think about where we turn to when dealing with a death in the family, with grief and mourning. You can't find it on Facebook or HBO, or through sports or games. It's only here, in our house of worship. And it is the same source that we turn to, the only source that there is that can consecrate our life-affirming moments, marriage, and the miracle of the birth of a child.

I didn't understand it at the time, but our temple made accommodations for my mother, as a widow, so that we could remain members and I could continue to attend religious school. I had my bar mitzvah. The temple gave me a scholarship so I could go to Jewish summer camp. I went on to my Confirmation, and became active in temple youth group. Then I went away to college, and my strong sense of connection to Judaism faded a little, and after college a little more. I became a once-a-year-on-Rosh-Hashanah-and-Yom-Kippur kind of Jew, along with lighting candles on Hanukkah, the Passover Seder and not eating bread. And the culture was still very much a part of me.

And the pride.

And the friendships.

And the questions, the searching. And I do believe in something, I'm not sure what, but something greater than ourselves. Something beyond the physical world, beyond what science can tell us. And there is something else I believe in: Our people. I believe in the genius of our people, not that we are inherently better than everyone else, but that we have a unique history and tradition, a culture and religion that calls upon us to be our best possible selves. I believe that, as a people, we have been guided by something greater than ourselves, but only when we listen to that still, small voice. I believe that we have a responsibility to be, in the words of Isaiah, "a light unto the nations". But to do so, we have to follow the words of Peter Yarrow: "don't let the light go out".

I married a Jersey girl, crossed the Hudson River to live in Bergen County, we had two children. And we tried a few other congregations before we found a home here at Adas Emuno, a warm, welcoming, and nurturing environment.

And it hasn't been easy for us. Not long after we joined, my daughter was diagnosed with autism. I won't try to convey to you what life has been like under these circumstances, it's really not possible. But as all-consuming as it has been, dealing with my daughter's disability, it was still important to maintain our membership here, to send my son to religious school, to have his bar mitzvah and confirmation, and to give my daughter a sense of connection to Jewish life, including a special needs bat mitzvah. Among the many hardships that we faced have been financial ones, and I will confess to you that we have had to ask for accommodations ourselves. And I want to express our gratitude, on behalf of all those who suffer financial hardships, for the fact that ours is a congregation that will not turn away anyone in need. That only asks you to give what you can, however much you can, whenever you can. And if you can, to give as much as you can, because we're all in this together, our community, our congregation.

We are now four years away from our sesquicentennial, our 150th anniversary. And barring some unforeseen major disaster, we will be celebrating that auspicious occasion together, God-willing each and every one of us. But after that, will we survive for another 150 years?

We don't know what the future holds, but we can take action in the present to maintain and sustain our congregation, as a legacy and gift for the generations yet to come. And maybe I'm a bit biased, but I think our congregation is different from all other congregations, special in certain ways that are not always easy to explain, in some ways maybe even a little bit blessed. I think ours is the little shul that could, and maybe that's just because we think we can, we think we can, we think we can. But we do.

So my appeal to you is not so different after all, because I ask the same of you that we always ask. To give, if you can, to give what you can, when you can, as much as you can, to give, generously. To help us make ends meet, to help insure our survival, to keep our congregation going for many years to come.

And my appeal to you is a call to service, to join together in the work of running this congregation. We are a do-it-yourself congregation, and I ask you to give of your time and effort, whatever you can, whenever you can, as much as you can, to volunteer and help out, to serve on committees, to consider serving on our Board of Trustees. And I think that somewhere out there, sitting among you, are the future presidents of Adas Emuno.

And my appeal to you is to be Adas Emuno ambassadors, to help us bring in new members, new families, because first and foremost, Adas Emuno is us, a congregation, a community, not buildings, but people. Talk us up, show your pride in Adas Emuno, let others know about this warm and welcoming, one of a kind community. Help us engage in our ongoing process of renewal.

We are part of a tradition that goes back 4,000 years. And how can we not be filled with awe and reverence for our amazing history, for our survival against all odds, and for all that we have given to the world. As Reform Jews, we are part of a movement that is over 200 years old.

And how can we not be filled with gratitude and respect for an approach to Jewish life that emphasizes progress and evolution, flexibility within continuity, and the prophetic vision of social justice, to be that light unto the nations, to engage in tikkun olam, to heal our poor, broken world?

And we are part of a congregation that is almost 150 years old, and how can we not be filled with humility and happiness for being a part of this adas emuno, this assembly of the faithful? And how can we not dedicate ourselves to keeping the faith, and keeping faith with the future?

When I heard them chanting, "Jews will not replace us", I had another thought as well. I thought, but who will replace us? Who will replace us Jews, when we're gone. Over in Poland, where a once great Jewish community is no more, the Poles are trying to recreate the Jewish heritage of that country, lost through the Holocaust, by dressing up like Orthodox Jews and holding mock Jewish weddings and ceremonies. They're not trying to make fun of us, it's just a kind of historical recreation. Is that where we're headed?

We see and hear of so many Americans who are not Jewish, but have a Jewish parent, or grandparent, or ancestor. They recall a connection, but Judaism and Jewish life for them is nothing more than a memory. We have to be more than that. To be more than just a memory, we must instead be the ones who remember. We are called upon to remember, to actively remember instead of passively becoming a memory. To remember who we are, what we are.

And we can only remember together, collectively, through our houses of worship, our synagogues and religious schools, remembering together, remembering from one generation to the next. Who will replace us? No one else will. It's all up to us.

So this is my appeal to you, my call to you, in my final year as president. Do all that you can to support our synagogue and our tradition. Not only to defy those who wanted to wipe us from the face of the earth.

Do it because it matters, because in the long run it matters more than most of what we think is important in everyday life.

Do it for all those who came before us, who kept the faith so that we could have this gift of Jewish life, this gift that we call Adas Emuno.

But more than anything else, do it for all those who will come after us, whose lives will be so much the poorer if we have not preserved and sustained our tradition, and movement, and congregation.

My friends and fellow congregants, it's all up to you. My final appeal to you is, don't let the light go out!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Yom Kippur 5778




On Rosh Hashanah I shared my concern about what is happening here, in the United States of America, in a sermon entitled, simply, My Country.

Now on Yom Kippur I want to share my concern with what is happening in my other country, the State of Israel.

When I say “My Other Country” it’s not simply because I happen to have dual citizenship, and the fact that my family of five has ten passports.

It’s not simply because I studied there, got married there, worked there, served in the army there… in fact all of that was many years ago when I was young, and yes, had a full head of hair.

It’s because I believe if you are Jewish Israel is your second home, your spiritual homeland if not your physical one.

It’s because I believe that if America is your mother and Israel is your father, you should love both your parents.

It’s because you are a citizen of the United States and you are a citizen of the Jewish people.

And it’s because America happens to be Israel’s best friend, and sometimes only friend.

As you know, Israel will soon celebrate its 70th birthday. So let’s begin with some positive, before we get to the negative. That’s a good approach to take with family. It’s helpful at any time, even more so before a big birthday.

Let’s remember that just seven decades ago, in the life span of many of you here, against all odds, a modern miracle arose in our ancient homeland.

As I’ve said before, “I am sorry that I was not alive in May of 1948 to witness this miracle. The ingathering of the exiles, the revival of a Jewish state, the rebirth of Hebrew: is there a more astounding event in all of Jewish history?

What a marvel and privilege, after twenty centuries, to be able to board an airplane and eleven hours later touch down in the holy land of a sovereign Jewish state.

As Daniel Gordis, an American rabbi who made aliyah wrote after witnessing a concert celebrating Jerusalem, during the height of the intifadah:

“An amazing thing⏤thousands of people out to celebrate a city. And it struck me. This country is an unmitigated success. It’s an achievement of cosmic proportions.”

Gordis goes on to list Israel’s many problems. Then he says: “But tonight, the music and the dancing remind us that those… can be fixed. Not long ago, though, there were things we couldn’t change. Without our own country, there was nothing we could do to help ourselves, to save ourselves.… This is not a population or a generation that will be scared into leaving or into despair. The hope of this place runs too deep… there’s a pulse to life here that cannot [be] killed. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place where even concerts are miracles?”

This spring there will be a lot to celebrate, and I hope we will do our part. Israel’s joy is our joy. Israel’s successes are our successes. Because the Israeli flag is also the banner of the Jewish people. It's no coincidence that the colors are blue and white. Those are the colors of the tallit⏤the traditional prayer shawl⏤which inspired the flag design. And the Jewish star in the center? That is the symbol not just of the nation, but of the Jewish people everywhere.


So if Israel’s joy is our joy, it also means that Israel’s sorrows are our sorrows.

And if Israel’s successes are our successes, then Israel’s failures are our failures, and Israel’s disappointments are our disappointments.

It was a rough summer. Let’s start with that. First there was the collapse of the Western Wall compromise. After years of negotiation to create an egalitarian prayer space next to the divided plaza of the Kotel, the Prime Minister pulled the rug out from under all those who had worked so hard on the plan. To add insult to injury he threw his support behind a bill that ensures that non-Orthodox conversions will never be recognized in Israel. It was all politics. The Prime Minister needs the ultra-Orthodox parties to stay in power.

Do you know that at the same time this was happening I performed a wedding here at the Temple for a daughter of this congregation, who was denied a legal marriage in Israel because she couldn’t prove that her grandmother’s conversion to Judaism was valid?

Do you know that I told the young couple that Debby and I were denied a legal marriage in Israel 36 years ago because we wanted to get married by a Reform rabbi on the grounds of the Reform seminary⏤the Hebrew Union College⏤in Jerusalem?

Israel at 70 is a remarkable place, but it is not an egalitarian, pluralistic place for non- Orthodox Jews… and that should concern us and trouble us.

In fact, earlier this year, at the urging of Norman Rosen, our Board of Trustees passed a resolution urging the Prime Minister to cease delaying the implementation of the Western Wall plan, which was brokered by Natan Sharansky. And after receiving an unsatisfactory reply, Norman wrote a strongly worded opinion piece in the Jewish Standard entitled “The Disgrace of the Western Wall”. It begins, “Imagine a place that is the holiest spot on earth for the Jewish people. Now imagine a place where peaceful worshippers are pushed and shoved, stones are thrown at them, and they are insulted, spit upon, and cursed. Sadly, the Western Wall… fits both descriptions."

We are proud Reform Jews. We have nothing to apologize for. Non-Orthodox Jews make up 90% of the American Jewish community and 60% of the Israeli Jewish community.

Seven decades after its founding, Israel should officially recognize all streams of Judaism.

Seven decades after its founding Israel should support Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism.

Seven decades after its founding Israel should uphold religious marriage, civil marriage, and gay marriage.

As ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, commented, “Zionism… is premised on the idea of collective Jewish peoplehood as expressed by the Jewish state. Israel must remain true to its founding Zionist vision expressed in its Declaration of Independence: “Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Now as unfortunate as this inequality is within Israel’s borders, I believe that Israel at 70 faces an even greater problem with its occupation beyond its borders.

This past June marked the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. One Israeli journalist has called that War the “cursed blessing”.

Blessing⏤because the Six Day War sent the unequivocal message to the world: We are strong; we can take care of ourselves; we are here to stay!

Curse⏤because the Six Day War resulted in Israel control of today more than 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Blessing⏤because Israel gained defensible borders, in the south with Egypt, in the north with Syria, and in the middle with Jordan.

Curse⏤because Israel’s borders are still unsafe with the rise of Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Al Aqsa Brigade in the West Bank.

Blessing⏤because from Israel’s strength came the astonishing peace treaty with Anwar Sadat and Egypt; and with King Hussein and Jordan.

Curse⏤because the failure of a peace treaty with Arafat and then Abas has given Israel three intifadahs and endless strife in the territories, and fuel for the fire of a looming nuclear Iran.

The haunting question for Israel at 70 is how the Jewish State can remain democratic and Jewish while seven million Jews rule four million Muslims.

Can we continue to avoid this dilemma indefinitely?

I have said this before⏤unconditional love does not mean uncritical love.

You love your children unconditionally; that does not mean that you look away when you think they are wrong.

You speak up for their own sake; precisely because you care.

Israel is family. We have to be careful about criticism in public. We have to combat Israel’s enemies and naysayers. We have to say to the BDS movement⏤those who would boycott, divest, and sanction⏤you go too far; you are not fair or balanced or objective; you question Israel’s very right to exist, don’t you?

We need to love Israel. We need to stand with Israel.

We need to visit Israel. We need to lobby for Israel. We need to praise Israel.

We need to celebrate with Israel in this milestone year.

And we need to work for a more just Israel, inside and out.

In the words of the ancient prophet:

“For the sake of Zion I shall not remain silent… until her righteousness shines like the dawn and her triumph like a flaming torch.”

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidre 5778




A child asked his mother, “Where do people come from?”

“Well,” the mother said, “Adam and Eve were the first parents on earth. They had babies who became grownups. Then those grownups had babies who eventually became grownups, and so on and so forth, until today.”

Later, the child decided to ask his father the same question. The father had a different explanation. “Long ago, there were no people on earth⏤just monkeys. Slowly the monkeys developed and changed into people. We call this process ‘evolution.’”

The children ran back to his mother and tearfully blurted, “You lied to me! You said people came from Adam and Eve, but Dad just told me that people came from monkeys!”

“I did not lie,” the mother replied calmly. “Your father was talking about his side of the family.”

Where do we come from?

And where are we going?

Those are two really big questions.

And the buzz these days is about a pair of books written to answer these questions… that have become global bestsellers.
Yuval Noah Harari is a 40 something year old professor of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem… and now an international celebrity. His first book is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His new book is called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Both are on the short list of many a world leader, from Bill Gates to Barak Obama. I decided to tackle them this summer. You need a good block of time. But the writing is surprisingly accessible and the discussion provocative. The author pulls no punches and tells you where he stands. For me this was at once delighting and disconcerting.

You see, Yuval Harari is a secular Jew and a skeptical academic. He is a student of Spinoza, a devotee of Darwin, and an acolyte of Einstein. Harari has little use for the Bible in particular and religion in general. He would certainly side with the father in my opening story.

Harari’s provocative thesis about the future is embodied in the title of his second work: Homo Deus. To explain: The first humans on the evolutionary tree were homo habilis, handy man if you will, who mastered primitive tool making. They were followed by homo erectus, upright man, who not only walked solidly on two feet, but mastered fire. A long time later we finally arrived: homo sapien, wise man (or is it wise guy), who mastered language and writing and computer science.

It is Harari’s belief that we will soon become homo deus, god-man; super-human, god-like creatures, part carbon, part silicon; part man, part machine; an indistinguishable blend of human and robot.

This revolutionary, evolutionary great leap forward will ironically lead to the extinction of the human race as we now know it. As Harari says in his attention grabbing quote at the top of his website: “History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods.”

What does Harari mean when he says we will become gods? He explains that, “The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.”

The first will involve the intentional rewriting of our genetic code and the altering of our biochemical composition.

The second will involve the intentional merging of our organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes, and nano-robots infused into our bloodstream.

The third will involve the supplementing and eventual replacement of our neural network, meaning our brain, with artificial intelligence.

The reason we will want to do all this, according to Harari, is that it will be the final fulfillment of humanity’s three deepest desires: immortality, bliss and omnipotence. We want to live forever, we want to be happy forever, and we want to be all powerful.

Harari points out that that the march toward this holy trinity is unstoppable. The desire is unquenchable. The progress is inexorable. And the technology is inevitable.

After all, Harari grandly notes, over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible: turn the uncontrollable forces of nature⏤namely famine, plague and war, the big three scourges of human history, into manageable challenges. Today more people die from eating too much then from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by war or crime.

Harari cheerfully cautions against calling this future world populated by homo deus dystopian. He emphasizes how homo deus will alleviate human suffering, enable us to survive on Earth, and embolden us to populate the planets. But in the process Harari does admit that freedom and equality, humanism, liberalism, rationalism⏤all the isms we cherish⏤will collapse and disappear. He further concedes that the rate of change is accelerating so quickly that we have no idea how society will truly function by the end of the century. Homo deus will be more different from homo sapiens than we were from homo erectus. In the pursuit of health, happiness and power we will upend every assumption about human life that you can possibly make.

Harari has a sub-chapter heading, “Can Someone Please Hit the Brakes?” Then he proceeds to say, um, no we can’t. Firstly, nobody knows where the brakes are. And secondly, our economy and society will crash if we try.

Well, I can hit the brakes. With my remaining five minutes. So here goes.

Yuval Noah Harari is heir to a great religious tradition. I feel badly that he scorns his birthright.

Not because he doesn’t believe in God. He’s entitled, and anyway, Judaism is a big-tent religion that has room for believers and non-believers alike.

Not because he is, evidently, a non-practicing Jew. He’s entitled, and anyway, Judaism is a big tent ethnicity that has room for secular Jews, cultural Jews, and even Jews who, like Harari, embrace Eastern meditation, call them Bu-Jews (or is it Jew-bus).

And not because he agrees with Marx that religion is an opiate for the masses, and its adherents deluded followers of now discredited myths.

No, what makes me sad is that Harari ignores the great ethical revolution of ancient Israel, known as Prophetic Judaism, which changed the course of Western Civilization.

The Prophets gave to the world a moral imperative that is as essential today as it was two millennia ago… and maybe even more so.

They gave us the Golden Rule that we should do unto others as we would others do unto us.

They gave us the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

They gave us the Ten Commandments that forbid murder and theft.

They gave us the charge to love the stranger, the widow, the orphan… those most vulnerable in our society, those without a voice.

They gave us the demand “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly”.

While the Greeks gave us reason and science, the Hebrews gave us compassion and ethics.

Leo Strauss said that “Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of Greek thought and biblical faith” [emphasis and order mine].

Matthew Arnold wrote that “Hebraism and Hellenism are the two essential philosophies of life between which civilized man must choose.”

Solomon Freehof clarified that, “The Greek is interested in nature’s law; the Hebrew in nature’s lawgiver. The Greek is interested in peace of heart; the Hebrew in progress of character. The Greek said: Seek harmony and your will find serenity; the Hebrews said: Seek holiness and you will find nobility.”

As we hurtle toward the future we need Athens and we need Jerusalem.

We need the Greek sensibility that the unexamined life is not worth living, and we need the Hebraic sensibility that the immoral life is not worth living.

We cannot fear the advance of science, and anyway Harari is right that it will speed ahead whether we like it or not.

But neither should we abandon the insights of religion that will tap the brakes, and slow us down just enough to temper knowledge with wisdom.

It’s a touch ironic that the brave new world depicted by Harari was in a way anticipated by the opening myth of Genesis. Adam and Eve want to eat not just from the Tree of Knowledge but also from the Tree of Life; they want to be omniscient and immortal. That is why God says in Gen.3:22, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch our his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”

But remember that the full name of the second tree is The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Humankind is unique in its moral discernment. That is why God can pose the question to Adam and Eve, “What is this you have done?” (Gen. 3:13). And that is why the question is repeated to Cain (Gen.4:10), after he is explicitly warned, “Sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” (Gen.4:7)

It makes no sense to judge ourselves if we don’t know right from wrong.

It makes no sense to warn ourselves if we can’t control our actions.

If makes no sense to even question ourselves if we can’t take responsibility for those actions.

When Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer is yes! “Your brother’s blood cries out to me!” (Gen.4:9-10).

If we are going to reprogram our brains the software package better contain an ethical decision making file, or we will not become homo deus, but homo roboticus, mere robotic drones in human look-alike costume.

The clock is ticking… but my time is up. This leaves me only a minute for a shameless promotion. After you read Homo Deus you need to read one volume on the prophetic revolution of Ancient Israel that I have posited as the ethical antidote to unbridled technology.

Have no fear… that book has now been written, and will appear this spring. It is called, Path of the Prophets: The Ethics Driven Life. It is five years to a lifetime in the making. It is written by yours truly. I will even give you a good discount on the work, and sign it for free.

You see, if we are truly wise the next stage of human evolution will not be homo deus, but homo moralis, moral man.

And our brave new world will be not a nightmare, but a dream. In the words of the poet:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again. (Judy Chicago, 1979)

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Rosh Hashanah Visitation

In the early morning hours of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Schwartz welcomed a visitor in our Adas Emuno garden, as he later related at the start of services. Here is the photograph he took, standing just a few feet away:

A six-point buck was truly an auspicious omen for the start of the new year. As Rabbi Schwartz noted, six points on his antlers for the six points of the Star of David, and the six lamps of the menorah. 

And so we join together with our newfound friend to say, Shana Tova!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778




This summer a new chapter in an old debate erupted in the American Jewish community.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angles, among the best known congregational rabbis in the country, published a column, Why I Keep Politics off the Pulpit. In it he says that he is "endlessly besieged by requests to take on this or that political or social issue." He remarks that, “with each new presidential administration the pressure grows greater." Rabbi Wolpe then explains why he avoids talking about politics from the pulpit. He concludes, “don’t tie your Torah to this week’s headlines. We are better, bigger and deeper than that.”

The reaction was fast and furious, in defense of Rabbi Wolpe and opposed to Rabbi Wolpe. The most talked about rebuttal was from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, our movement. He begins, “There are few colleagues for whom I have more respect than Rabbi David Wolpe.… I count him as both a teacher and a friend. Which is why I was struck by… [his] recent op-ed… How could someone who is usually so right be so wrong on something so important?”

Rabbi Jacobs entitled his piece, A Politics Free Pulpit is an Empty Pulpit. He distinguishes between partisanship and politics. While maintaining that the former has no place in the pulpit, he argues that the latter is indispensable. According to Jacobs we have both the right and responsibility to speak out on the moral issues of our day. So whereas Wolpe claims that, “what you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say the Torah points in only one political direction,” Jacobs counters that “although once can certainly love Torah and follow different political paths, one cannot claim to be a lover of Torah and nor care about how our society treats those in need, the weak, the vulnerable, the stranger and the oppressed.”

Jacobs continues, “the Judaism that I believe in does not limit Torah lessons to the parchment of our… scrolls… The Judaism that I live compels me to use those lessons to understand the most urgent challenges we face." He goes on to quote Rabbi Stephen Wise, perhaps the most influential rabbi of the early 20th century, who said, “the pulpit of the synagogue is charged with the responsibility of… prophetic memories and prophetic aspirations… pledged to… truth- speaking under freedom… a most solemn and inescapable duty. I could not with self-respect remain silent.”

Indeed, we studied Rabbi Wise in our History of Reform Judaism course at our Shabbat morning Torah study this past year. In 1905 Wise turned down the most prestigious pulpit in the country, Temple Emanu-El of New York, over the issue of freedom of the pulpit. He wrote a scathing letter to the chairman of the synagogue board, the famed industrialist Louis Marshall: “Dear Sir: If your letter of December first be expressive of the thoughts of the trustees of Temple Emanu-el, I beg to say that no self-respecting minister of religion, in my opinion, could consider a call to a pulpit which, in the language of your communication, shall always be subject to, and under the control, of, the board of trustees.” Wise went on to establish the Free Synagogue of NY, and spoke out on the great issues of the day. In 1919 he took on the steel industry, siding with the striking workers. A group of prominent trustees and members connected to the industry were outraged. They withdrew their building pledges and many resigned. Wise later recalled that “the ideal of pulpit freedom was put to the test, and the ideal was sustained. But the [new] building was lost.”

I don’t think it is hard for you to guess where I stand on this debate. Stephen Wise is one of my heroes for the moral courage he showed in his generation, like Rabbi David Einhorn showed in his generation, when he spoke out so strongly against slavery and for abolition that he was forced to flee his pulpit in Baltimore. More recently another of my heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke out for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War, and so did my own rabbi Michael Robinson, in Croton-on-Hudson, NY.

All of them were inspired by the prophets of ancient Israel, who understood that religion and politics are inseparable; that ethics is the essence of piety, not ritual; that truth must confront power.

All of this is prelude to the point I make now. If what is happening in Washington now is the number one subject on my mind (and maybe yours); if what is happening to our country has been on my mind non-stop since November; if I cringe at the news night after night after night… how can I not talk about what is going on… from the pulpit, here at the High Holidays? Where do I begin?

I will take just one issue: healthcare. You will remember that is was the primary issue in the country… before Charlottesville.

National health insurance is considered a right, not a privilege, in first world countries around the world.

Here, the hard-won mandate to cover all in need, this summer’s debacle notwithstanding, is under constant threat of being repealed but not replaced.

Let’s not forget that at least 23 million Americans may yet lose their health care.

Let’s not forget that hundreds of thousands of the working poor may yet see their Medicaid program disappear.

Let’s not forget that hundreds of thousands of the elderly may yet see their Medicare program premiums skyrocket.

Let’s not forget that hundreds of thousands of the disabled may yet see their benefit slashed.

Many experts say that medical debt will surge. Untreated conditions will surge. Bankruptcy will surge. Extreme poverty will surge. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls the proposed repeal and the new budget lethal, and its effect, “apocalyptic.”

Paul Krugman puts it starkly: “Losing health care is a nightmare… tens of millions… [may] soon find themselves living this nightmare.”

What is happening? Who are we?

Look at what we have seen during and after this election.

I call this sad and cruel time, “the closing of the American heart.”

Make no mistake about it: the so called “America First” narrative is in reality an “America Divided” narrative.

As National Book Award Winner George Packer acerbically notes, “America First is the conviction that the country has lost its traditional identity because of contamination and weakness—the contamination of others, foreigners, immigrants, Muslims; the weakness of elites who have no allegiance to the country because they’ve been globalized.”

“This narrative,” Packer continues, “has contempt for democratic norms and liberal values, and it has an autocratic character. It personalizes power, routinizes corruption and destabilizes the very idea of objective truth.”

Is giving tax breaks to the rich while breaking the backs of the poor “America First”?

Is sowing fear among our immigrant population while quashing their entrepreneurial spirit “America First”?

Is blaming “both sides” for injustice while implying a repugnant moral equivalency between racists and those protesting racism “America First”?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

In American Covenant, his magisterial new study of civil religion in America, historian Philip Gorski notes how the Book of Exodus inspired our founding fathers. It speaks, of course, of the revolt against tyranny, the traverse of the wilderness, the making of a covenant, and the journey on to the Promised Land.

The Exodus saga inspired John Winthrop and Roger Williams. It inspired Benjamin Franklin, who wanted to depict Moses on the Great Seal of the United States. It inspired Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It inspired Martin Luther King Jr. It should inspire us anew.

At its heart and essence, the Torah is a prophetic narrative. All stand equal before God. All stand at the Mountain. All pledge loyalty to the covenant and to each other. As we will read on Yom Kippur, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God, your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer, to enter into the covenant"(Deut. 29:9-10).

A true American Covenant ethic, in contrast to a pseudo America First manifesto, promotes unity, not division. It promotes equality, not inequity. It promotes compassion, not cruelty.

A true American Covenant ethic does not build walls, but opens gates. It is not a fortress but a beacon. It cares for the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger… because it feels commanded to do so.

A true American Covenant faces out, like Lady Liberty.

And in the words of Emma Lazurus’ famous poem at her base, “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.”

This is our country.

This is our Promised Land.

This is the place where we reject division and defamation.

This is the place where say no to collusion and confusion.

This is the place where we speak truth to power.

This is the place where we say, “Dissent is patriotic.”

This is the place where we say, “Hate has no home here.”

This is the place where we sing, “My country, tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.”

This is our country!