This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashana morning services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here.
A Rabbinic story, set 2000 years ago, explains a Jewish disaster: the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.
A certain man had a friend named Kamtza & an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party & told his servant, “Go bring Kamtza.” The man went & brought BAR Kamtza. When the host found him there he said, “You are mocking me; what are you doing here? Get out.” Bar Kamtza his enemy said, “Since I am here, let me stay & not be thrown out; I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” He said, “No.” “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” “No,” said the other. “Then let me pay for the whole party.” He still said, “No,” took him by the hand and threw him out.
Bar Kamtza said to himself, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there & did not stop him from humiliating me, this shows they agreed with him. I will go inform against them to the Roman Government.” He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” The Emperor said, “How can I tell?” Bar Kamtza said: “Send them an animal offering & see if they will sacrifice it.” So the Emperor sent him with a fine calf. On the way, Bar Kamtza made a mark on its upper lip where Jews count it a disqualifying blemish but Romans do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order to not offend the Government. Rabbi Zechariah disagreed, “People will say that blemished animals are being offered on the altar!” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he would not go & inform against them; Rabbi Zechariah again disagreed, “Is a person who only makes a blemish on holy animals to be put to death???” Years later, Rabbi Yohanan remarked: “Through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, & we ourselves exiled from our land.”
Rabbi Yohanan was wrong. It was not just Rabbi Zechariah being a stickler for the rules that destroyed the Second Jerusalem Temple – and you can debate what you might have done in Zechariah’s shoes: undermine faith in the Temple’s purity? Or kill someone who is only minorly guilty for the collective good? The Temple was also destroyed by the hatred between Bar Kamtza and the party host who would not be appeased, and Bar Kamtza’s hatred for the rabbis that stirred up conflict between Jews and Romans.
Elsewhere in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that the First Temple was destroyed centuries earlier for 3 sins: worshipping idols, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. However, during the Second Temple the people studied Torah, obeyed commandments and did acts of loving kindness – so why did disaster strike again? This time they blame sinat khinam – baseless hatred – which must be as bad as idolatry, forbidden sex and bloodshed all together since it caused a similar disaster. The party host, Bar Kamtza, and the rabbis were caught in a flood of hatred that consumed them and their society as well.
Plagues and other disasters rarely fly solo. If we agree, as we explored last night, that disasters have causes in the real world but not cosmic reasons in the heavens, then our task is not to suffer through disasters in pious silence; our responsibility is to understand disaster and then learn how to mitigate and prevent it as best we can. We spoke on RH evening about the plague of the COVID pandemic and what we can learn. One of those lessons I touched on was the emptiness of the cliché “we’re all in this together.” In one way yes, but in many ways no. Because there is a second plague, a slow-moving and often hidden disaster, that predates Coronavirus, a plague that made it worse and will outlive it as well – the plague of hate and indifference.
It may be that “love makes the world go round” and “all we need is love”, but if you examine how we actually treat each other, and especially how we treat our enemies like Bar Kamtza, a better song title is “what’s love got to do with it?” You might think that after the Babylonian exile, when the Jews finally returned and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, that they would find a way to get along. You might have thought that, as long as you had never met 3 actual Jewish people and then watched them disagree. The Second Temple era is noted for arguments between varying approaches to Judaism, power struggles between priestly families, a Maccabean civil war between Jewish fundamentalists and Jewish Hellenizers, debates over how to respond to Roman occupation of Judea, and ultimately a great and disastrous revolt that saw Jerusalem destroyed again, Jews exiled again, and renewed questions of: “Why?” This time the rabbis settled on “baseless hatred,” but the problem with accepting “baseless hatred” as the reason and trying to avoid it in the future is that MOST people believe that THEIR hatred is NOT baseless – I have very good reasons for hating those jerks! Even die-hard anti-Semites claim to have good reason for their hatred. Now their “reason” is supposed evidence for a global Jewish financial conspiracy using the media to undermine traditional religion and national identity in favor of both globalist capital and socialist government. It doesn’t have to make sense to us for them to consider their hatred well-based. Recall the story of the man railing against all the ills of the world in a bar. At the end of his rant, he concludes, “And for all this, I blame the Jews.” Another person pipes up, “And the bicycle riders!” Puzzled, the man looks at the other person and asks, “Why the bicycle riders?” “Why the Jews?”
“We’re all in this together?” Some of us are rowing towards shore while others are drilling holes in the bottom of the boat. Some parents are screaming at teachers and school administrators – the teachers are trying to keep kids safe, and those angry parents think that the schools are either harming their children’s socialization or health by making them wear masks or they are being trained to unquestioningly obey authority. Political opponents are not just wrong, they are evil; or, at best, they are promoting evil. “Red states and blue states” does not really describe the map -think Illinois between downstate and Chicago. It’s not even red counties and blue counties – it’s red houses and blue houses, even red siblings and blue siblings.
“We’re all in this together?” Some of us in this storm are in yachts while others are in leaky canoes. Think of another unity cliché: In 1883 American Jew Emma Lazarus wrote, “until we are all free, we are none of us free”; almost 90 years later Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Is that really true? Landowning white Protestant men have been free and full citizens of the United States since 1789 – everyone else has had to work towards that goal since then. Perhaps MLK Jr.’s version is closer to reality: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If the systems are corrupt, then we cannot rely on them to protect us even in our privileged positions. Still, the non-freedom of some was much worse than the non-freedom of others – if you had the choice of being a white man or a black woman in 1850, or in 1950, is it really a choice?
The problem with “we’re all in this together” is that it implies we all face the same challenges, and that is just not so. A single parent who relies on childcare for her waitress job had a vastly different pandemic from a telecommuting executive without children or a well-off empty-nest retiree enjoying a rising stock market – from January 2020 to July 2021 the S&P 500 was up 25%, while average median income in the same period was up only 5% [Q1 2020 vs. Q2 2021], and that’s if your job was at all possible!
Even today, as we have taken halting steps to emerge from the pandemic – two steps forward, and one or two back – we are not all in this together in the exact same boat. If you cannot be vaccinated or you have children under 12, your life is very different than fully vaccinated households and individuals. These High Holiday services are socially distanced, at reduced capacity and masked – they are the best we can do for those who chose to participate in person, and I feel for the parents of young children and everyone else who chose to attend online because they felt that even a greatly reduced risk was still not worth it. It does not take active hatred between different human experiences, like the hatred between Bar Kamtza and the party host, to create tension: white and black, men and women, financially secure and economically unstable, COVID mostly safe and COVID still at risk…It does not take hatred. Conflict can come from indifference, like saying “my temporary discomfort at wearing a mask trumps your fear for your child.” Having raised a child with food allergies, I was shocked to hear complaints about not being able to send one’s child with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – compared to my child’s risk of death! The Rabbis were indifferent to how Bar Kamtza was treated, so Bar Kamtza wanted to get back at the rabbis, and he did not care that his revenge came at the expense of all Judea.
Explicit racial and ethnic hatred is now beyond the pale, and that is a good thing, full stop. I would much rather be arguing over whether a particular critic of Israel is or is not antisemitic. Or arguing whether racism applies only to intentional hatred or if it can also be a structural social problem. These debates are much better than burning crosses, lynchings and legal ghettoes (for Jews and for people of color). As the tide of unambiguous and explicit bigotry recedes, what structural and systemic problems are revealed that grew in that terrible environment? Should we measure problems by racist intent or by disparate impact on different groups? Supreme Court Justice John Roberts famously wrote, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Some years later, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor responded, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” Recall Elie Wiesel’s insight that “the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” If we are indifferent to experiences radically divergent from our own, I fear that we will assume that life is fine now for everyone, and it is a short step from there to forgetting that there were ever problems to begin with.
In the Jewish imagination, Jerusalem was the shining city on a hill: “Ten portions of wisdom descended to the world – the Land of Israel took nine and the rest of the world took one. Ten portions of beauty descended to the world – Jerusalem took nine and the rest of the world took one.” That belief made it easy, and for some makes it easy today, to assume that the Jews are the chosen people, the others all hate and fear us from jealousy, and the promised Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem are worth anything to reclaim. Similarly, the American imagination has thought of the United States as a city upon a hill, an exceptional example to the world of freedom, tolerance, opportunity and whatever else we choose to emphasize. The first claim that North America was a City Upon a Hill was in 1630 by Puritan John Winthrop, but the phrase was mostly forgotten until it was resurrected for political purposes first by John F. Kennedy & then by Ronald Reagan. It is the first part Matthew 5:14 that Winthrop quoted which is the key: “you are the light of the world.” If you think America is and has always been the light of the world, or that the Jews are a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” then any who criticize you are wicked, and foreign, and heretical, even evil.
Let’s translate this to a personal level. The Jewish New Year is supposed to be a time of truth, confronting our failures and making amends. If someone came to me in the weeks before Rosh Hashana, in the spirit of self-examination, and they told me that they would LOVE to repent for anything they had done wrong, but in fact they are actually a shining person on a hill, a model for everyone in every way, the light of the world as they have been since they were born…. What should I say? Of course, they need to learn that no one is perfect, including them. And if someone came to me relentlessly negative about themselves, focusing only on their limitations and failures, never acknowledging their success and positive steps, I would try to help them see through the fog of cynicism to find legitimate self-esteem for the real good they have done and can still do. If America has not been perfect, it has not been relentlessly evil either, says this grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants.
Criticism does not always come from hate, and it certainly does not come from indifference – you have to be engaged to know what is wrong and needs fixing. If you only listen to your friends, your Kamtzas, and you refuse to mend your relationships with your Bar Kamtzas, your enemies, if you simply tune them out and throw them out, then the seeds are planted for a house divided against itself – we’ll talk more about divided houses on Yom Kippur.
What America needs, what the Jewish people needs, what each of us needs to do better is just this: “Tough Love.” Tough love means that I care about you, and that’s why I am telling you hard truth about yourself. Tough love is an intervention, making you hear what you need to hear even if you do not want to hear it. You need to hear from someone who cares when hatred you learned before you knew it was wrong continues to affect people you value now. You need to be called in by someone who loves you when you’re indifferent to others you say are full people. Far too few even bother to criticize North Korea or China for their human rights abuses – is it the bigotry of low expectations? Indifference to Uighurs who are “other” in so many ways – Muslim and Asian and way over there? If I choose to talk about Israel’s failings or America’s failings past or present, it is because I love them – and sometimes to make fair judgments we need tough love. The history our children are learning is very different from what we and our parents learned – I believe that this is right and true and important to better understand our past in its diverse experiences and to reduce our indifference today and tomorrow. That is a second challenge for this new year – from last night, try to change either your mind or your behavior in one way. Today I challenge us to try to give ourselves tough love in some area we know we need it.
If we have solved our hatred, we must then confront our indifference. And if we are truly Humanists, proud of our particular roots and identities but also connected to all of humanity (its needs, its rights, its possibilities) then our orbit of concern should know no limit; indifference should find no home with us, whether we are with Kamtza or with Bar Kamtza, whether we are rabbi or an ordinary host for one’s neighbor. I conclude with words of Rabbi Sherwin Wine:
We are Jews. We are Americans. But, above all, we are human beings.
Sometimes we forget this truth. Sometimes we only think about our own family. Sometimes we only think about our own friends. We look at other people and see them as strangers.. . . . The language they speak is not our own. We turn them into enemies before we give them a chance to become our friends.
Underneath … the different speech, underneath the different costume, every person is a human being. Every person needs the dignity we need. Every person wants the happiness we want. Every person feels what we feel.