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Home From the Rabbi Sermons
Why Do Good? - Yom Kippur Evening - 5773/2012 PDF Print E-mail


 Perhaps the question that I have been asked most frequently over the last fifty-two years since I entered rabbinical seminary is this: “What do Jews really believe about life-after-death?”  The answer to that query is really pretty simple.  Jews today and Jews in the past have believed a number of things about the hereafter.  We’re rationalistic and skeptical enough to wonder just exactly how one would know what for sure is going to happen.  Having no proof that will support any specific answer, the Jewish tradition has generally allowed us to propose our own varied ideas, with one caveat.  Believe whatever you want, the sages have told us; but while you are debating this question, do the right thing.  Behavior can be observed and verified, so we expect you to act properly.  Speculate all you want about life-after-death, but live as though God is watching you and will ultimately judge you for what you have done on earth.

 That’s the easy part.  But over the decades, I have learned that another question almost always lurks behind the first one.  People are often too kind or too embarrassed to ask it out loud, but once in a while a pious visiting Christian student or parent will forget inhibitions and say this:  “If you don’t believe in heaven or hell, what motivates you to do good?”  Someone who puts the challenge in those terms obviously has a problem shaping behavior except in the light of an ultimate divine reward or punishment; why else would anyone be inspired to choose between a righteous course of action and its opposite?

 As I move forward with this series of four High Holyday sermons, all connected by the questioning word “why?” this inquiry seems important enough to share some thoughts with you. 

 I’ve never taken a poll, scientific or otherwise, in a Jewish congregation.  But what I do know about you and me is that very few of us would assent to the proposition that fear of God’s wrath or hope for God’s approval after our deaths is the true motivator for our behavior.  If there is one theological axiom upon which I would place a bet, it is that the afterlife is not the reason we act in ethical and moral ways.  (After tonight’s sermon, you can disabuse me of this assumption if you wish, and I’ll report back tomorrow.  But I will be very surprised if more than a handful of you tell me that I’ve misunderstood who we are.)

 So, if we don’t decide on how we are to behave based on what will or will not happen to us after we die, what does motivate us?   I can suggest a few ideas for your consideration.

 Quite a few of us might answer very simply: “We do what is right because it is obviously the right thing to do.  Nothing more and nothing less.”  What an admirable and straight-forward perspective.   Who could argue with this tautology?  “Right is right and wrong is wrong, and I’m going to take my stand on one side of the equation.  Over and out.”

 Unfortunately, when we start to argue the proposition with ourselves, we run up against a tougher question.  “How do you know what is right?”

 The most existential answer is that what is right feels good to me.  We might almost claim that there is a rightness gene or a rightness instinct built into the personality of human beings.  Now, there is no evidence that this kind of knowledge of right and wrong is included in the fundamental make-up of what it means to be a human person.  No scientist has ever found such a source.  To the contrary, at least one account, the biblical story of Adam and Eve, tells us that people were created morally and ethically neutral and that they had to learn the difference between good and bad in the Garden of Eden.  A second concern that you might raise concerning a genetic or instinctual sense of right and wrong is that there are some people who apparently have it and some other who don’t.  But the fruits of this tree do not seem consistent through the generations of a family.  Parents may be wonderful people, but one or more of their offspring may turn out to be awful – or vice-versa.  It’s pretty hard to make sense of how the idea of a gene or an instinct for good and bad really operates.  Plus, of course, if the difference between individuals can be reduced to a biological cause, it’s awfully difficult to assign responsibility for actions when they are so pre-determined.   Some of us are old enough to remember Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, from the TV show, ”That Was The Week That Was.”  Whenever she did something wrong, she always exclaimed” “The devil made me do it.”  The notion of assigning responsibility for our actions to the devil or to fate or destiny or genes or instinct violates the basic Jewish idea that that we take the blame for the bad things we do and claim credit for the good; it eliminates any possibility that we are ethically accountable and eviscerates the very essence of what makes us human beings. 
Some people will tell you that they learned what to do from their parents and other older people – grandparents, friends, teachers, clergy and so on.  This makes more sense to many of us, but then we might push the question back in time: where did they get their ideas of fairness and justice and equity?  Our elders indubitably influence us in the directions our lives will take, but I suspect there is more.  That more can be summarized in one word: tradition.  Traditions are transmitted in a variety of ways: through family, through community, through books and movies and so on.  But the tradition of Jewish ethics and morality comes down to us through a three thousand-year record of history and the documents that Jews preserved during those years.  We begin with the Bible in all its richness, with the laws of the Torah and the ethical and moral strictures of Israel’s prophets.  We have read these words in every synagogue in every place where Jews have lived, in each and every year of our people’s existence.  We have listened to these words over and over again, so frequently that their messages have sunk into our collective consciousness.   Tomorrow morning, we shall hear again the words of Deuteronomy (30:15ff) – “See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil.  I command you this day to love the Lord, to walk in His ways and to keep the commandments, laws and teachings of your God, that you may live and increase….”  And then, almost immediately, we turn to the prophet Isaiah (58) and read together the mandate he spoke in the name of God:   “Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?  When you see the naked to clothe them and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”
We learn from repeating the superlatively ethical demands of the Bible, from working to apply them to real-life situations, and we demand of ourselves nothing less than compliance with the most exalted standards that human beings can ever have imagined.  Do we fall short of this goal?  All the time.  But we strive to make the historical legacy of righteousness and decency a part of our daily existence.  We learn our ethics and our morality in large part because, consciously or unconsciously, we become aware of what is the right thing to do as a Jew because we are involved with institutions, like the synagogue, and with people, like those sitting on either side of you, who are equally enmeshed in the project of making this a better world by doing the right thing.  

 Speaking of tikkun olam, of fixing our broken, often distressing world, we learn something about doing the right thing from our history as Jews.  All-too-often, our lot as a minority people has not been comfortable and easy.  Now, here in America, we find ourselves for almost the first time in modern Jewish life in conditions of security and acceptance.   We still do not forget the lessons of the past and how unpleasant, even terrifying, it must have been to live in many of the places from which we stemmed.   Over the last few centuries, we have acquired a finely-honed sense of righteous indignation about the injustices and brutalities of society, whether directed at us or at others who now occupy the role we once filled.   From our discontent rises the power of creative dissatisfaction, the insistence that we do not agree with the world in which we presently live and the drive that we must be part of a solution to social and personal dysfunction, that our role in the world’s economy is to strive to fix problems rather than to perpetuate them.  This impulse has disproportionately led us to enter professions that seek to ameliorate the ills we find all around us – to become doctors who heal the sick, lawyers who insist on an objective rule of law, counselors who support the distressed, educators who teach, business men and women who seek profit so that they will be able to distribute some of their gains for the good of others.  Our history and our texts have taught us that our mission is to be a light to the nations of the world – a light that shines its beam not on what already is, but that focuses its glare on the vision of a world that could be.

 Over three thousand years ago, so Jewish history teaches us, Moses and the newly-freed slaves stood at Mount Sinai.  There, they entered into a covenant with God.  In exchange for the gift of Torah, guidance for how they might wend their way through this world of choices suddenly open to them, they promised that they would strive to do God’s will.  Kol asher dibair Adonai na’aseh.”all that God ha said to us, we will do,” they affirmed.  And they understood that this commitment was not just for themselves, but for all future generations of their descendants, for all Jews to come until the goal of a society brought as close to perfection as humans can achieve is reached.  My friends, that end-point is still far away.  But the promise persists, and you and I are bound by its terms.  We reaffirmed that commitment when we became Bar or Bat Mitzvah and when we stood before the ark of that same covenant at Confirmation and now, when we come before God as a holy community of Jews who try to be faithful to that old,  but ever-new promise.  In the end result, we do the right thing because that is what we promised God we would do, and we are determined to live up to the oath that we affirmed on Sinai and every day of our Jewish lives since then.
So, do I know what will happen to me or you after we die?  I have hope that there is some kind of eternal life, but I am not sure.  I am, however, certain of one thing: I shall continue to try to do the right thing while I have the breath of life within me.  If there is a life after death, then I trust that my righteous conduct on earth will be sufficiently pleasing to the Almighty that I shall merit inclusion in the eternal people.  And if there is not, then I won’t know the difference, but I shall still have had the satisfaction of having lived my life at the highest standard I know and having tried to fulfill my commitment to my God.  This is my faith; it’s quite enough of an answer for me.

Why Why? - Yom Kippur Morning - 5773/2012 PDF Print E-mail

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning, 2012/5773

 In the three sermons I have already given during these High Holy Days, each one began with a question.  Why believe?  Why Israel?  Why do good?  This morning, what I am going to talk about also begins with the word “why,” but the question is not about some specific, substantive issue.  Rather, today I want to talk with you about the very process of asking questions.  And so I have titled this fourth sermon of the series “Why Why?”

 We ask questions throughout our lives.  Some of them are mundane and pedestrian, like “Honey, do you know where my car keys are?”  Or, “How can they repave a street and still  leave a washboard of bumps behind?”  Other questions have more complex answers, like “Why is the snow cold?” (Because it is at least 68 degrees colder than our average temperature, so, compared to the normal human body, it feels cold when we touch it.)  Or that classic question that every young child asks at least once: “Why is the sky blue?”  (Because the earth’s stratosphere scatters the sun’s light rays, and blue rays penetrate into the atmosphere more easily than red ones.)  You can come up with a much longer and better list of your own queries.

 These are examples of scientific questions.  Science is good at asking how things are made, how they work, and what are the consequences of their operation.  Religious questions are different.  We live in a world that is often filled with awe and mystery.   Religion and faith are ways we try to make sense and ascribe meaning to the mysteries of existence.  Because religious questions are essentially unanswerable, at least by scientific standards, there are thoughtful people who suggest we should just stop asking them.  But what does it mean that we never do stop asking?  Albert Einstein said that “behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly.”  We are human because we constantly ask “What does it mean?” but also because we puzzle why we cannot stop asking; we ask “why” and then we ask why we ask “why.”  To repress our urge tyo ask even unanswerable questions would not be to become more mature, but to regress to a pre-human state.   We would extinguish the intellectual and spiritual flame that, burning brightly, makes us who we are.

 Many people come to a rabbi – or a priest or a minister, I suppose – and ask questions in anticipation of an answer.  Sometimes, our questions have to do with Jewish ritual.  Around the Passover holiday, people want to know how many days they should eat matzah and why Jews don’t eat peas and beans and corn during those days.  At other times, people will ask when it is appropriate to erect a monument over a grave or whether it is acceptable for a Jew to be cremated.  Sometimes, the questions deal with theological issues: Does God exist?   Why should I pray?  And the most frequent question of all, What will happen to me after I die?

 One of the classic functions of religion is that they exist to provide answers to questions that we cannot answer in any other way.  According to this theory about the purpose of religion, theology is supposed to be the repository of last resort for the great dilemmas of human existence.  When faced with a quandary that we cannot solve anywhere else, we are supposed to turn to religion.
When we think about orthodox types of religion, whether Jewish or otherwise, this concept is relatively on target.  There are codes of religious law and manuals for religious behavior and rituals from which one may deviate only at serious risk of one’s eternal soul or salvation.  When you have exhausted the formal religious guidance in orthodox religions, you can turn to the voluminous body of legends and stories and bubbe meises and other kinds of religio-cultural advice that may not be mandatory, but, in fact, are as binding as any of the official legal dictates of the religion.  

Here’s an example.  When I was a student at Hebrew Union College in the early 1960s, my professor of Talmud reminded us that there is a law in the Torah that prohibits stealing.  In fact, it’s one of the Ten Commandments.  And yet there were ganovim, thieves, in every shtetl, no matter how orthodox, throughout Jewish history.  On the other hand, Dr. Guttmann suggested, if a small Jewish community had had a custom that no one in the hamlet steals, that non-binding custom would have been so forceful that there would never have been a theft.

Now, make no mistake, liberal religions also try to answer questions.  If you ask me a question – or if you ask any of my liberal Protestant colleagues a question – of course we’ll do our best to give you a decent, straight answer.   But there is a difference.  And the difference is summarized by the old joke that you all know.  How does a Jew answer a question?  With another question.

Let me tell you what an Orthodox rabbi, born in Transylvania in 1905, but who was at heart rather liberal, said:  Rabbi Shmuel Sperber thought that “Religion offers answers without obliterating the questions.  They become blunted and will not attack you with the same ferocity.  But without them the answer would dry up and wither away.  To question is a great religious act; it helps you live great religious truth.”  That’s why the why is so important. 

To be Israel, to be a Jew means constantly to be wrestling with uncertainty and with challenging questions.  The very word “Israel” means “he wrestled with God,” referring to the story of Jacob at Beth El when he struggled all night with an angel – or was it God?  The interesting thing about that biblical story is that the ancient patriarch emerged damaged – his hip was wrenched at the socket and he limped for the rest of his life – but the Torah and the Jewish tradition affirm that the act of wrestling with the divine was to be praised.  No supine acquiescence and craven surrender was acceptable.  Jacob’s act of wrestling with the divine creature was so commended in the Bible that his name was changed to Israel and he moved from being a spoiled brat to one of the great patriarchs of our people. 

Questioning is the essence of the mature religious life.  You see, answers are static.  Once you give an answer, you have stated a proposition that does not change.  It is true and permanent.  Orthodox religion, Orthodox Judaism likes that.  So, if one asks “What is the Torah?” the answer is that it is the unchanging, permanent revelation that has existed without alteration since Moses and the Israelites stood at Sinai about 3200 years ago.  The Torah in the ark in every synagogue in the world, according to this response, is identical to the revelation that Moses carried down the mountain- identical in terms of every letter, even every space between the words and even to words that may appear to be misspelled or derived from languages that were not even invented at the time of the Sinaiitic encounter.  If there are questions in an Orthodox context, it is only about how to apply this permanent document of God’s unchanging will, how to make it applicable in new circumstances.  But the answer does not change.  Torah is Torah is Torah.  There is no discussion and no debate and simply nothing more to say.

We are not orthodox, either with a capital “O” or with a lower case ”o.”  Whether you think of yourself as a Conservative Jew or a Reform Jew or as a trans- or post-denominational Jew, you are not an Orthodox Jew.  If you were, you would not be here this morning.  If you were, your life-style would be very different from what it presently is.  I hesitate to use the word “Liberal” to describe us because it is so loaded with political baggage today, so perhaps we can agree that we try to be modern Jews.

Modern Jews share one characteristic.  We are committed to the idea that the most ubiquitous feature of life is that there is constant change and that, as life changes, we must change with it.  As human beings, we grow from day to day; we are not the same people we were last year, and we are definitely not the same people we were ten years ago – or twenty or thirty.  The stable thing about us is a paradox:  we are in a constant process of growth and development as individuals and so are our institutions and our society, the way we conduct our lives, the ideas we think about and the values we hold dear.  Consider a couple of examples.  In the 1950s, Ozzie and Harriet portrayed the role of women in a very traditional vein.  There are very few Harriet Nelson’s around anymore.  The Civil Rights Movement has brought about an amazing decline in inter-group prejudice, both in terms of race and in terms of religion.  Language that was commonly used in reference to minorities only a generation ago is today unthinkable and unutterable.  And who would have thought, only a few years ago, that roughly half of the states of the Union would now be considering authorizing marriages between members of the same sex?  The only thing that is constant about our lives is that there are very few absolutes anymore; almost anything is grist for the mill of change; we expect tomorrow to be different in almost every way from today.   

A former professor of mine once wrote a book about Moses as a political leader.  {Aaron Wildavsky, The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader, 12]  In that book, he suggested that “…there is no ultimate right answer on earth, only the temporary assent of informed opinion….Society is not static, and neither is interpretation.  Without continuous interpretation in the light of changing circumstances, it would be impossible to maintain the integrity of any original conception.  Stability requires change.”

Change comes from the audacity constantly to be asking questions, to challenge, to doubt, to probe, to wonder, to raise the banner of skepticism high above the ramparts of certainty and, perhaps most of all, to believe that one’s religious faith is made stronger by constant asking and continual questioning.  We may not get answers to our questions, or the answers we hear may not be to our liking.  Do you remember the story about a little Christian boy who prayed like crazy every day for a month before Christmas: “God, I really hope You will give me a bicycle.”  When the 25th of December rolled around and he dashed downstairs, there was no bicycle parked in front of the tree.  He turned to his father and exclaimed: “I prayed as hard as I could for a bicycle, but God did not answer my prayers.”  His father replied:  “Oh, yes He did.  Only the answer was ‘No.’”  Sometimes, all we can hear is divine silence, and sometimes all we can hear are answers we do not want to hear. 

In case you think this is a modern phenomenon, please remember that great worthy of biblical fame, Job.  Job was an eminently decent man whose life fell completely apart.  He lost his fortune, his family, his friends.  Finally, he is presented to us, sitting on the garbage dump of his city, his body covered with sores and wracked with illness.  In desperation, Job turns to God and demands an answer: “Why are all these misfortunes happening to me?  Surely, I was not evil enough to occasion this kind of retribution from the Almighty.  God, I think You owe me an explanation.”  God’s response rivals the tough-love answer of any modern parent: “I’m sorry, but I owe you nothing.  And nothing is what you’ll get.  I am God and there are things that I understand that you as mere human will never comprehend.”  As unsatisfying to Job – and to us –as this answer might be, it is THE answer. That’s all there is.

 The interesting thing to me about the end of the book of Job is that the Bible never tells him “Don’t ask.”  In fact, Job is commended tor his bravery and his courage to confront God with an ultimate question.  It’s the way Job was going to grow as a spiritual being, and it is the way each of us can mature and develop and grow as religious and thoughtful human persons.  So I end my series of sermons on the subject of “Why?” with this talk entitled “Why Why?”  And the answer is because without ongoing challenge and questioning, you cannot grow as human beings and as Jews.  So, this afternoon, after the children’s service is over, I hope you’ll gather for a half-hour or so to ask as many questions as you can imagine.  Who knows?  Perhaps we’ll even find an answer.  And maybe that answer will be another question.

Why Believe? - Rosh Hashanah Evening - 5773/2012 PDF Print E-mail


 Last April, a group of local clergy sat around a lunch table at the First Baptist Church on Ocean Drive.  We gather once a month, and the only agenda for our sessions is that there is no agenda; we deliberately conduct no business so that we can merely talk with each other, come to trust each other and then share personal and professional concerns.  A question arose during our discussions: What religious issue troubles you most?  What theological or spiritual question gives you more to think about, more to worry about than any other?

 Each of the clergy had his own answer.  Some worried about secularism; others were concerned about the aging of the congregation or about those who never attend services.  There was some discussion about whether religion had anything to say about social values, given what some feel is a general breakdown in the ethical and moral standards of society.

 As a Jew, I had a different answer.  I said that the most problematic aspect of being someone involved with religion is God.  “God?!” one of the others blurted out.  “How can God be a problem for a religious person?”

 I gave my colleagues a short answer.  For you, I want to say a bit more, fill in the gaps, so to speak.  So, let us start with the classic Jewish tradition.  You may know the word MASHGIACH, supervisor.  This is a person who oversees the preparation of kosher food, from the time that the crops are harvested and the animals sent to the slaughter house to the time that it turns up on the restaurant table or in your own kitchen.  The word MASHGIACH is related to another Hebrew word, HASHGACHAH, and in the context of classical Jewish theology, this means “divine providence,” God’s care and concern both for the creation as a whole and for every individual within it.   According to our long tradition, God oversees and is involved with every aspect of the world.  The prophet Zephaniah (4:10) tells us that “the eyes of the Lord range through the whole earth.”  In later Talmudic literature (Hulliin 7b), we are taught that “a man does not even strike a finger here below unless it is decreed on high,” and in a parallel midrashic statement we learn that “a snake never bites, a lion never rends, a government never interferes unless so ordered from above.” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 10:11:1)

 In other words, from of old Judaism has taught that God is involved in the specific activities of human life.  Virtually everything that we do is part of God’s economy, part of God’s plan, and overseen by God directly.  My Christian colleagues understood this idea from the 1905 Gospel hymn refrain that holds “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

 For a modern Jew, this idea is a very difficult one to accept.  Not, to be sure, because of our egos.  We are victims of an exaggerated sense of pride in which we claim that we are totally independent of any outside influence, that what we do is of our own devising and that neither God nor society or, often, even other people influence our daily acts.  But I don’t think that this excessive sense of personal responsibility is really at the root of our problem with HASHGACHAH, with divine involvement in human events.  No.  I think it’s something more recent and more specific than the general tenor of our insistence that we, ourselves, are solely responsible for what we do.
From 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime in Germany and their allies and collaborators in other countries of Europe slaughtered six million of the world’s Jews – and five million others – political opponents, military officers of conquered nations, journalists, homosexuals, artists of various sorts and just about anyone else who could be styled “an enemy of the state.”  One-third of the Jewish population of the world was wiped out by the systematic slaughter perpetrated by the genocidal monsters during what we have come to know as the Holocaust.  Among the Jewish victims of this mass murder, fully a quarter, twenty-five percent, a million and a half were children under the age of thirteen.  On Yom HaShoah this last Spring, a class of students at Texas A&M University and members of the community gathered on the campus and recited the names and ages of as many of these children as they could.  As I listened to their recital, the numbing drone of name after name, of child after child whose future was stolen by sadists and perverts, my heart was almost wrenched from my chest.  It was hard to breathe and even harder to respond with words to summarize what they had, hour after hour, memorialized.
Here’s the question: How could something like this happen, if there is a God who is concerned about the specifics of human activity?  If divine providence and intervention is a reality, then why was the slaughter of these children permitted to happen at all?  If God is able to make a difference in human affairs, was this not the circumstance that most demanded that God, literally, step in and stop the massacre?  Where, indeed, was God at Auschwitz and at Treblinka and at Sobibor and at Maidanek and at Dachau and at Mauthausen and at all the other camps where Jews and their children were mercilessly killed?  If God can make a difference in the specific events of human life, why not during the Nazi horror?  And if God cannot make that difference – or wills not to make that difference – then why believe in God at all?

 My Christian friends began to understand why I am troubled by God.  They also understood that what I was talking about what not just a Jewish issue.  Any person involved in traditional western religious is affected.  It is hard, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, to be a traditional theist, to believe in the same kind of God that one could believe in, even during the 1920s and early 1930s.  The Holocaust was a watershed event for Jewish and Christian theology, although it is much more powerful as an influence for us than for them.  After all, our family members, our relatives, our children, our Jewish brothers and sisters were those who were chosen to be gassed and shot and incinerated; for Christians, the victims were always “the other,” someone with whom they had no intimate personal connections.  The issue for them is largely objective and abstract, whereas for us it is visceral and intense.  They can put it on the shelf and deal with it on occasion; for us, the Holocaust is transformative, a life-changing event that affects everything we do and every day of our lives.
I understand why it is hard to believe.  Many of you probably have the same questions and doubts that I have.  So I want to tell  you briefly why I still believe in God.

 A few months ago, the columnist Anna Quindlen was on NPR radio.  She had been raised in a very fervent Catholic environment, but recent developments within the Catholic Church caused her to question her religion.   No longer a member of the Catholic Church, Anna said that, while she had lost her religion, she had not lost her faith.  She could not be an atheist, she said, because that involved making a commitment to the non-existence of God based on evidence she did not have.  So, she has decided that the right stance for her is agnosticism – doubt, but also hopeful faith.
I find myself in much the same position.  I cannot be sure whether God exists or not, and if God does exist, what role the deity might play in human life.  Still, I find it necessary for my own spiritual life to believe.  My favorite congregational name in all the world is a Reform congregation in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It was founded by German Jews who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and who were joined by Holocaust survivors after the war.  They named their synagogue LAMROT HAKOL, which means “In Spite of Everything.”  Some people might say that it is a juvenile fantasy or a psychological delusion, but I find myself incapable of living without a basis in faith.  God may be difficult, but God won’t get rid of me that easily!
Here’s a second reason why I believe.  The great Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once wrote that God is the source of ethics and morality.  One need only  read the prophets of biblical Israel to understand how right he was.  These spiritual and religious giants wrote inspiring words based on what they believed God had told them, based on what they understood God to want humans – and Jews, especially – to do.  The exalted messages of the prophets tell us that the words “good” and “God” are inextricably linked.  For them, the godly life was a life of doing good.  I don’t think we’ve ever improved on that.

 Now I know that many people will say that terrible things have been done in the name of religion – wars, inquisition, persecution, all sorts of malicious and dastardly acts.  The metal belt buckle of the Wehrmacht had the legend, GOTT MIT UNS, “God is with us.”   People who voice this accusation are right, of course.  Over the centuries, people have perverted the true message of God, as it is filtered through human religious institutions, and acted in ways that completely contradict the essential values for which religion stands.

 But I want you simply now to look to your right and to your left, around this room at the people who are here.  I do not see any monsters, any evil doers, any horrible examples of the worst that humanity can produce.  Rather, I know that you are good people – not perfect, because, after all, we’re human – but good and striving to become better.  And if I go to the supermarket or to the Hooks’ games or look at my students at the university – wherever I go, wherever I look, I see pretty decent and righteous human beings, people who sometimes make mistakes but who, for the most part, are good and godly folks.  My informal study of human history is that our age is no different from most ages in the past.  Yes, there were perverse and evil people; there were people who murdered, but far more who took the commandment seriously and did not kill each other.  For the most part, people are good.  And that goodness is a direct result of the values that believing in God has taught us.  I believe in God because that belief helps us craft a society in which goodness and righteousness can triumph over their opposites.  There is, to be sure, evil enough in this world to break the heart; but there is also enough good to exalt the soul.  I believe that good people and good deeds come from a belief in a good and righteous God.
I have faith because my life’s experience teaches me that the universe and those who populate it are predictable.  To be sure, there are no guarantees; life is often an adventure.  Nature is sometimes surprising, and human beings will do the unexpected.  But, at base, I have come to trust in a substantial degree of predictable probability.  The Psalmist wrote (121:6-7) that “the sun shall not smite you by day nor the moon by night.  The Lord…shall guard your soul.”  And so I rise confidently each morning to greet a new, sun-filled day and bid farewell every night to a luminescent moon.  A similar expectation is largely borne out in human nature.  I trust, I have faith because experience has taught me that stability inheres among us: there is more love than hate, there is more good than evil, there is more right than wrong, there is more decency and more kindness than their opposites.  Seventy-three and a-half years of living have led me to an optimistic faith; it is the bedrock in which I trust.
I believe in God because, at least in the name of God, we have a road map of how to get from where we are now to where we would like to be in the future.  All of us, I suspect, would agree that the world we presently inhabit is hardly an ideal world.  There is plenty of good, but there is also copious bad.  There are wars and hatred, racism and ageism and sexism, dubious acts of mischief and devious ethical misdeeds.  How shall we move our world toward goodness, unless we know something of the ideal world that we would seek?  And from where do we see glimmers of this ideal?  From God and from God’s Torah, which provides us with values and directions to move from our present unhappy state to a better world.  The vision of what is better comes from God.  Without it, we would have no idea of how to navigate the twists and turns of earthly existence in our pursuit of a much finer and better life.
And, finally, I believe in God because God gives meaning and purpose to my life – to all human life.  Without the inspiration of a divinely-based messianic covenant, where would a human being go and to what ends would we exert our efforts?   To be God’s partners in TIKKUN OLAM is to make cosmic sense of our lives; without that organizing principle, human life is, literally, absurd.
Why do I believe in God?   Why do I persist in faith?  Very simply, because I cannot conceive a rich and meaningful life without such belief and without trust and faith.  On this Rosh HaShanah, I hope you will spend a few moments – or maybe more – asking yourself the same question.  Why believe?  Or, perhaps, why not?

Why Israel? - Rosh Hashanah Morning - 5773/2012 PDF Print E-mail


 Last night, I spoke with you about the issue of belief in God.  Why believe? was the question I posed, both to myself and to you.  Even though the subject of theology seems forbidding to many of us, the fact remains that a great many modern Jews have trouble with traditional theistic belief.  This morning, I want to continue my series of “Why” questions with a second major issue that confronts American liberal Jews.  That issue is “Why Israel?”

 Now, some of you may find even asking this question unnecessary and inane.  For those of us who have lived through the Holocaust and its aftermath, the existence of a place on the face of the earth where Jews can go as a matter of right is quite beyond debate.  Many of us remember the story of the steamship Saint Louis.  In 1939, the Saint Louis, owned by the Hamburg-America Line, sailed from Germany with 937 Jewish passengers.  Each of them held what appeared to be a valid entry visa to Cuba, and they were intent upon escaping the on-coming tragedy, the outlines of which were now apparent to them.  But when they arrived in Havana harbor, the Cuban authorities refused them the right to enter on the grounds that the visas were fraudulent.  For a month, the ship rode at anchor in the sweltering heat of the Caribbean summer while representatives of Jewish agencies sought refuge for these pitiful people in any port that would have them.  But not only would Cuba not admit them.  So, too, Panama, the United States and other potential refuges closed their doors and refused to offer sanctuary.  Eventually, the German shipping line insisted that the boat return to Europe.  Sailing north along the Atlantic Coast of America, even within sight of the lights of Miami, the ship first docked in Southampton, England where some of the passengers disembarked.  Then others left the ship at Cherbourg, France and in Antwerp, Belgium.  Finally, the ship arrived back in Hamburg, where the remaining passengers were put ashore.  Virtually the only survivors of this voyage, an odyssey chronicled in a book and a movie entitled Voyage of the Damned, were those who found a new home in Great Britain.  The rest perished because no country in the world would open its doors to save Jewish refugees.  I am, incidentally, convinced that the Nazis had authorized this test-case all along, just to test the willingness of the free world with regard to European Jewish refugees.  When no one would lift a finger to help them, the Nazis knew that the final solution could be undertaken without opposition.

 Had Israel existed in 1939, or had even the British mandatory authorities in Palestine been willing to admit a large number of European Jews, the story of World War II might have been somewhat different.  But a British White Paper, written to mollify Arab nationalists, had determined that the so-called absorptive capacity of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was no more than 250,000 people.  Despite protestations from Zionist authorities that “if you give us the people, we will find room for them,” the British adamantly blocked any Jewish immigration to the area.  They were more concerned with oil for their naval ships and continued free passage through the Suez Canal than the fate of thousands of European Jews who would end up murdered in the death camps of Poland.

 So, for those of us who lived through that era and that experience, the question of “Why Israel?” seems incredibly irrelevant.  Of course, Israel.  We must have at least one place where Jews can find refuge as a matter of right, where no one can bar the door to any Jew who seeks safety and protection under a Jewish banner. Even before the First World War, Robert Frost  wrote a poem called “The Death of the Hired Man.”  In that poem, he said that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  No words could be more true of the Jewish national homeland – it’s the place where they have to, where they want to take Jews in.  For those of us who lived through the terrifying years of the 1930s and 1940s, nothing more need be said about Israel.  Its role as the Jewish place of permanent refuge is all we need to know.

 For the first twenty or thirty years of Israel’s existence, American Jews viewed the developing country through rose-colored glasses.  Every kibbutznik was bronzed and athletic, self-sacrificing and altruistic, dancing the hora, repelling Arab invaders and raising a generation of proud and independent Jews, the likes of which had not been seen for two thousand years.  Every soldier was invincible.  A new era of Jewish and Zionist glory was dawning, and just about everything the new state did was glorious and worthy of our overflowing praise.  To criticize Israel was to act as a traitor, blemishing both the victims of the Holocaust and the sacrifices of the early settlers of Eretz Yisrael.

 With the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, something changed.  Now the custodian of lands that had formerly belonged to Syria, Jordan and Egypt, Israel was confronted with a series of issues that it had not previously had to deal with.  Now there were questions of how to manage a Palestinian population that was, by and large, overtly hostile to the Jewish state: Are these people citizens, resident aliens, still Jordanians and Syrians and Egyptians?  Who are they?  What role do they have in determining the conditions of their lives?  What public services must and should the Jewish state provide for these people who are under its care, but who are vehemently opposed even to the idea of a Jewish national homeland?  What security measures need to be taken to safeguard Jews who already live in Israel?  If we have conquered these lands in a fight we did not even invite, can we now build Jewish settlements on them?  Are these lands part of the eternal promise that God made to the Jews in biblical times, or are we simply temporary stewards of them, until a peace treaty is signed and they are disposed of in some way?

 These were questions that, of course, Israelis had to grapple with.  But so did Jews in the Diaspora, for the Zionist movement had long held that the Jewish national homeland belonged not only to those who lived in it, but to all Jews around the world.  Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh, the ancient Hebrew adage held; “all Jews depend on each other and their fates are inextricably entangled.”  We are responsible for and to each other in all things, including the fate of the new state of Israel.  We in the Diaspora contribute of our money for its support in ways that we would never dream to do for any other country in the world.  We go to visit in droves.  When Israel succeeds, the success is also ours; when Israel falters, its backward steps land crushingly on us as well. 

 And so we began to deal with the same questions that troubled Israelis.  Some claimed that it was illegitimate for American Jews to raise questions about Israeli policies and actions; “if you want to criticize, first you must move there.  Then you’ll have the right to raise your voice.”  As the euphoric image of Israel from the days preceding 1967 faded into history, American Jews entered into a spirited debate about what Israel was doing and what our responses should be to their actions.  It is, of course, only a mirror of the identical debate that occurs every day in Israeli society.

 So, why Israel?  For one thing, the role of Israel as a refuge for Jews who live under conditions of oppression and anti-Semitism is not over.  Many of us recall the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews from the Darfur region of Ethiopia.  The people who had been isolated from mainstream, rabbinic Jewish life for the last two thousand years, were being attacked by militias of other religious groups, as well as bandits simply intent on robbery, rape and murder.  Their lives were in great danger.  The Israeli air force mobilized an armada of C-130 transport planes that shuttled between Addis Ababa and Tel Aviv, airlifting these unfortunate Jewish souls within hours from their absolutely pre-modern lives to a first-world culture and civilization in today’s Israel.  It was – and you ought to be suitably impressed and proud about this – the first and only time in the world’s history that a Black population has been relocated for reasons other than enslavement.   The Ethiopian Jews faced an immense, almost incomprehensible adjustment, but they are making it.  And so are Indian Jews from South Asia and Russian Jews and Argentinian Jews and Jews who have left Toulouse, France after a gunman attacked their school and Jews who are fleeing Belgium and Sweden because the governments have become so enthralled with the huge Muslim minority that Jewish rights are ignored and their concerns disregarded.

 Not every Israeli is thrilled with the influx of new residents.  There is unfortunate racism, as we saw in May when a riot erupted in Tel Aviv about new African migrants who had come into the country, many illegally, and who were challenging Israelis for lower-paying jobs.  America is not the only country in the world with border control problems; the border between Israel and Egypt is porous, and as many as sixty thousand migrants have sneaked across the desert, entered Israel and now seek a better life for themselves and their families.  The emotional violence that characterized the anti-immigration riot arouse because some Israelis felt deeply threatened.  But the violence must be condemned, and it was by many senior government officials.  Still, there’s a problem.

 Not every Jew who lives outside the land of Israel wants to make aliyah.  And not every Jew who resides in Israel wants to stay there.  Life in Israel is not easy.  Salaries, while they exceed what is offered in any neighboring country, are hardly enough for families to live on; taxes are high; the bureaucracy of the government is infuriating; threats to personal and national security darken even the brightest of skies.  The eastern end of the Mediterranean is a volatile and dangerous region, and some people simply are not prepared to take the risks and the pressures of living there.  We have a significant community of former Israelis living on our own barrier islands; from Port Aransas to Brownsville, there is a community of Israeli emigres who run many of the souvenir shops and who have branched out into other occupations.

 You know, of course, that Israel is a place of conflict.  There are Palestinian groups, both Muslim and Christian, who would be delighted to see the Jewish state vanish from the face of the globe.  Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon are only the most well-known; but there are others.  You and I have read of problems the Israeli military has, policing the occupied territories.  We are aware of the so-called illegal settlements, Jewish squatters who have pre-empted Palestinian homes and fields and orchards.  We learn about second-class citizenship rights, grudgingly accorded to Palestinians, even despite clear promises and commitments by the Israeli government.  You want problems?   Israel has enough problems to satisfy even the most masochistic among us.

 So, faced with all these difficulties, why not chuck the entire Zionist enterprise, retreat into an American-Jewish capsule, take care of our own needs and let the rest of the world deal with its own issues?  Maybe it’s time to sever the umbilical cord that has up until now connected us with the Jewish state of Israel.

 I reject that kind of Jewish isolationism.  I reject this notion in the same way that I reject the idea that a parent may reject his or her children; Israel belongs to us as dearly as your son or daughter belongs to you.  You may not at times like what your child does but you cannot reject your own offspring.  Nor can we, American Jews, reject the rest of our Jewish family who happen to live in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Haifa and Beersheva.  We and they are bound together by bonds of family and fate, by history and by destiny.  If there are problems in our relationship, we deal with them.  We do not abandon each other when differences of opinion and challenges appear.

 Every football coach in the world – probably a lot of other people too – have quoted Knute Rockne’s famous aphorism: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  If dealing with the issues that Israel raises is difficult, now is the time to become tough.  Supine surrender is not an option; confronting reality, even harsh reality, and dealing with it effectively, these are the virtues that have made it possible for Jews to survive for thousands of years and to remain a guiding light of decency and excellence for the rest of the nations of the world.

 One more thing.  When Moses was about to die, he pleaded with God (Deut. 3:25) “Let me go over [and enter the Promised Land], I pray You, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.”  Moses asks to see the good land.  But what does God do?    Just before his death (Deut. 34:1], “The eternal showed him the whole land.”  God showed Moses all of the land, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly; the land lush with flora and fauna and water-springs, but also the land of desolation and waste.  God said to Moses:  All of this is the land.  The bitter truth for you is that this Promised Land is imperfect.  Moses came to the land with a lofty ideal.  He found that vision far short of realization.  And so it is for us, as well.  The Israel of which we might dream is not the Israel of the real world.  But the vision and the ideal remain before us  Is it not vitally important that we have one place on earth where we can hope to make the dream become the reality, where we can remain idealistic enough to think that the vision of a righteous society might come into being.  For us, the State of Israel is that place.  And, as Theodore Herzl once said, Im tirtzu ein zo aggadah, if you will it strongly enough, maybe it will no longer be a dream.

Sermon for Parashat Vayigash - 12/10/10 PDF Print E-mail

December 10,2010

Download Rabbi Roseman's Sermon by clicking HERE.

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