This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur Evening 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.
Content warning: this Yom Kippur sermon will be mostly focused on Jews. This warning is probably not needed at other congregations; at Kol Hadash we treasure our whole congregational family, and our guests of other heritage who celebrate with us, which also means they are part of our mishigas, our absurdity. We thank you and we love you as you love us; tonight we sympathize with you as we work through some family business. And since Jews are people too, perhaps we can offer some insight into the general human condition.
One could argue that the Jewish house divided all goes back to the disaster of 1492. Yes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It was also the year of the Jewish expulsion from Spain, which followed expulsion from England and from France 200 years earlier. 1492 was a watershed because it drew three intellectual battle lines we still face today. First, the disastrous expulsion threw thousands of Spanish-speaking cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews into the Ottoman Empire. The Jews already living there mostly spoke Arabic and did not always get along with the snooty new arrivals with broader horizons. How connected to the wider world of human culture and values should Jews be? For that matter, what is the proper balance of open and insular for ANY cultural group?
Second battle: post-disaster, the Sephardim also wound up in Holland and other Dutch colonies, including New Amsterdam (later New York), where you can still find a few Jews here and there. How can one Jewish tradition survive the distance, the time, and the pace of change of globalism, both then and especially now?
The third battle: just 2 years after the first Jews arrived in NEW Amsterdam, in Old Amsterdam Baruch Spinoza, a Sephardic Jew, dared to say what he truly believed, and rabbinic authorities of his day excommunicated him. In some ways, this is a self-inflicted disaster, because how can we be one Jewish community if we are of many minds and cannot co-exist under one roof? These three battles: balancing openness and insularity, maintaining unity despite dispersion, and balancing communal unity with intellectual diversity – the battles did not begin with the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, they just became intensified. Rabbinic arguments in the Talmud are legendary; Maccabee pietists and Jewish Hellenists battled over how connected Jews should be to wider Greek culture two centuries before the Common Era; and debates between Jewish centralization and Jewish dispersion run through all of Jewish history from the myths of exodus and conquest in the Bible to modern Zionism.
Some consider of Yom Kippur a time of Jewish unity, when those who never attend synagogue find their way, and even those not attending services may observe in their own way – fasting, walking in nature. About 50% of American Jews choose to fast on Yom Kippur, which means that 50% choose NOT to fast on Yom Kippur. In Israel on Yom Kippur, hundreds of secular Jews take advantage of mostly empty roads for mass bicycle rides – that is their Yom Kippur. And everywhere there are some who eat on purpose on Yom Kippur and willfully violate the fast with NON-Kosher food as an expression of their Jewish freedom – an anti-tradition is still a kind of a tradition! But once you are counting both tradition and anti-tradition, that’s not really Jewish unity anymore. We’re all doing SOMETHING on the same day, but we’re not doing remotely the same thing with the same intention.
Once upon a time, the United Jewish Appeal tried to inspire Jewish unity with “we are one.” You can hear it in institutional names: United Jewish Appeal, Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, Hebrew Union College… To be honest, Jewish unity would NOT be the message I get from reading our founding Biblical literature. Here is a partial list of Biblical divisions: Cain vs. Abel – Abel dies. Isaac vs. Ishmael – Ishmael is expelled. Jacob vs. Esau – Esau disinherited. Joseph and his brothers – Joseph sold into slavery. Miriam and Aaron vs. Moses – Miriam cursed with leprosy. Moses vs. Korah the Levite – Korah and his rebels swallowed by an earthquake. King Saul and King-to-be David – Saul tries to murder David and then Saul is killed by the Philistines with David nowhere to be found. There are conflicts between Israelite tribes, between kings and prophets, between prophets and prophets, between prophets and priests, between those who worship Yahveh among many gods and those who were for Yahveh eloheinu, yahveh ekhad – Yahveh our god, Yahveh alone. And that’s just the Bible – wait until you get into REAL history! Maccabees and Hellenists, Jewish Philosophers like Maimonides and Jewish mystics who burned Maimonides’ philosophy, Hasidic pietists and their traditionalist opponents, traditionalists vs. Enlighteners, Zionists vs. Cultural Autonomists vs. Internationalists … dayenu! Enough! Do you hear these same battle lines in history – how exposed to the outside world should we be, how do we maintain a core tradition, how far can we move and change while still being connected to each another? Forget “we ARE one” – were we EVER one?
We certainly are not one today, and painfully so. Let me explain one example from just a couple of months ago. Many who suffer ask the same question: why did this disaster happen to us? Some Jews ask a related question: why did all these disasters happen to us on the same date? The 9th of Av traditionally marks the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples (never mind how unlikely it is that both would be destroyed on the exact same date centuries apart). The 9th of Av is also claimed as the date of other Jewish tragedies: supposedly the spies return from the promised land claiming the land is unconquerable on that date; the Bar Kochba revolt was supposedly crushed in 133 CE on that date; and Jews were expelled from England in 1290 AND from Spain in 1492 near that same date of the 9th of Av.
The new disaster this summer was not only the same date of Tisha B’Av; it was in the same place: the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Built by King Herod the Great (a divisive figure in his own right), that surviving wall is an impressive site, a place of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer for centuries. The first time I visited in the mid-1990s, despite the gender segregation and other problems at the site, I was very moved to feel how smooth the stones were from all the generations of my people who had touched those same stones. The Western Wall is run under ultra-Orthodox control, so men and women cannot pray or even stand together and women are restricted in their use of Torah Scrolls and other traditionally male rituals. An organization called Women of the Wall has been fighting this for over 30 years.
Eight years ago, a new platform around the corner from the Western Wall to the south side of the Temple Mount was built for egalitarian prayer services. It is out of sight of the ultra-Orthodox praying at the Western Wall, but clearly not out of their minds. This past Tisha B’Av, members of the Masorti or Conservative movement in Israel tried to hold an all-gender service at the south platform, including women reading from the Biblical Book of Lamentations. Tragically, the event was crashed by hundreds of right-wing Orthodox Jews who shouted, cursed, even brought their own mechitza partition to try to re-segregate the genders. In fact, for each of the 9 days of mourning from the beginning of the month of Av to the 9th, this same group had sent “troops” to the egalitarian platform to occupy it with gender-segregated study sessions and prayers. “We are one?” Even on a date that warns of the dangers of mutual hostility, on the very site those dangers were realized, we are many and we are a house divided.
Those rejectionist Orthodox Jews claim that their hatred, their disrupting of liberal Jewish prayer services, is not baseless; it is to prevent heresies that will cause more divine punishment – just like Spinoza’s ban in 1656. Reform and Conservative Jews who have fought Orthodox hegemony at the Wall have ample evidence how much their choices are despised; it would be understandable if they felt animosity in return. As for secular Israeli Jews? The Secular are more concerned about the Orthodox monopoly on marriage, and on defining who is Jewish, and forcing businesses and public transportation to close on Shabbat. They are more focused on getting more ultra-Orthodox Jews to join the workforce and to serve in the army instead of study full-time in yeshivas.
This issue of the Western Wall and egalitarian prayer is very important to liberal religious Jews outside of Israel, who want to travel to their homeland and pray with their integrity at their holiest ancestral sites. But most Secular Israeli Jews do not care that much about prayer at the Wall, since they do not pray and so they are not moved to fight for the right for women to wear prayer shawls and carry Torahs there. For some, praying at the Western Wall is like talking directly to God; for others, it’s like talking to a wall! Secular Israeli Jews have found some workarounds: on Shabbat public transportation, there has always been the option of a private taxi van or Monit Sherut, so some enterprising secular souls came up with a Smartphone app that uses a few of these vans to follow the major bus lines in Jerusalem on Shabbat. The name of their app? Sha-Bus! Needless to say, Sha-bus does not run through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, and smartphones have been banned by many of those sects anyways; they are too open to the outside world, and it is too easy to find divergent ideas.
The Jewish house is divided, has always been divided, will be divided in the future. As we shift to America, the Pew Forum’s recent report “Jewish Americans in 2020” headlines that we are “increasingly diverse” and “politically polarized”. 75% of the Orthodox identify as Republican or lean Republican, over 70% of the Conservative, Reform and everyone else go the other way. Is religion very important to you? 86% of Orthodox Jews say it is, compared to 14% of Reform Jews (the numbers are closer if you ask “is being Jewish important to you” since we all know that being Jewish is more than religion). How essential to being Jewish is remembering the Holocaust or leading an ethical life? Over 70% of all Jews agree on those two, but only 15% say that observing Jewish law is essential (among Orthodox Jews over 80% say Jewish law is essential). Do you believe in the God of the Bible? 93% of Orthodox Jews say they do, while over half of the rest of us either believe in some OTHER higher power or spiritual force, or we are part of the 22% of all American Jews who DO NOT believe in either a spiritual force OR the God of the Bible. Even the Orthodox are not monolithic: there are the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi, but there are also modern orthodox a la Yeshiva University, Open Orthodox a la Yeshivat Hovevei Torah, even Orthodox rabbinical schools for women like Yeshivat Maharat in NY and others in Israel – not to mention all the rival Hasidic sects & offshoots within sects who cannot stand each other!
There are many other points of Jewish disunity revealed in Pew 2020 – perceived levels of discrimination against Jews compared to other minority groups like Muslims, Blacks, or the LGBTQ; approval or disapproval of Benjamin Netanyahu or Donald Trump; the possibility of peace between Israel and an independent Palestine; whether the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is more friendly towards American Jews – the list of disagreements goes on and on. Now some religiously liberal Jews supported Donald Trump and some Orthodox Jews loathe him. Still, the dominant trends and their divergence are striking. There are some points of agreement, of course, and all sides acknowledge they have at least some things in common. But the tensions are just waiting for a stressor to trigger them, and they go back to those questions sparked by the disaster of the Spanish Explusion of 1492.
Each side sees the other as dangerous; for example, they have very different answers to what “causes” antisemitism. Are we most endangered if we maintain our difference and separation from society, or is the greater risk from those who would erase our differences through integration? Is a more religious America in Jewish interests? Yes for the ultra-Orthodox who want public funding and no government oversight of their private religious schools, but no for the rest of us who fear Christian hegemony. After the Jews were expelled from Spain (talk about Christian hegemony!), the Inquisition worked to find secret Jews who had outwardly converted. They called it limpieza de sangre “purity of blood” as they quite literally interrogated the sincerity of quote “New Christians”, an early kind of racial antisemitism. However, some of the most zealous persecutors of Jews both before the expulsion and after had themselves been raised Jewish and converted! Is the lesson that integration leads to betrayal, or that tolerance requires diversity, like the golden age of Muslims, Christians and Jews a few centuries before? We will explore the challenges of Antisemitism more tomorrow morning – it was a High Holiday sermon topic for me on its own just two years ago, but alas it seems to be ever-relevant.
Even today, each side of this divided Jewish house sees the other as collaborating with the enemy and naively betraying their Jewishness for outside approval. Politically progressive Jews defend the Israel-critical “Squad” in the House of Representatives, and politically Conservative Jews defend right-wing anti-diversity and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Just as Spinoza and his rabbis could not just get along, the Jewish house today faces a fundamental disagreement about the core message of Jewish ideas and the Jewish experience: is our best strategy sympathy with all oppressed, or should we emphasize SELF-advocacy because we cannot rely on the kindness of strangers?
And there’s the issue of Israel. We are not afraid here to talk about the Jewish state and its complications and contradictions – Israel is a point of pride for its creative secular Jewish culture and disappointing for its treatment of its own minorities, both Palestinians of Israeli citizenship aka “Israeli Arabs” and the dilemmas of the occupied territories. I see our engagement, at least my engagement, as a kind of tough love – not indifferent, still connected and grappling. The term “Zionism” itself has become a lightning rod word since it can stand for everything from believing in ethnic self-determination for both Palestinians and Jews to a messianic Greater Israel ideology of Israel for the Jews and not a state for all its citizens. Even explicitly self-labeled “Anti-Zionist Jews,” whether politically progressive or ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidism, they spend a surprising amount of their energy talking about Israel – still engaged, still connected and grappling.
Obviously I am not going to solve the issues of Israel, or a Jewish house divided, or how to balance particularism and universalism, in one sermon! I can highlight the fault lines, see the dynamics at play, seek a way to co-exist. Several years ago, as a parallel example, we hit an inflexion point in the growth of Kol Hadash. Many of you may know, and some remember, that we emerged as a split-off from a long-time Humanistic Congregation called Beth Or, which our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman helped “convert” from Reform to Humanistic in the last 1960s – Beth Or itself closed in 2010. As you can imagine, a congregational house divided can be as bitter as a divorce. Some years after the split, a family who had been on the other side left Beth Or and wanted to join Kol Hadash. It was very difficult to re-process those emotions, but we knew that ours would be a wide tent congregation and we would find a way to co-exist in one sanctuary with people who might not like each other. We were able to move forward.
I do not know what inflection point may come in the Jewish house divided, and we will talk more about how to start to mend our divided houses tomorrow as Jews and as Americans. What I would remind us today is that, in so many ways, we are the Jewish majority. The Jewish majority that celebrates same-sex marriages and intermarriages with wonderful partners, the Jewish majority that welcomes immigrants and celebrates diversity, the Jewish majority that celebrates Jewish freedom to make Jewish choices about Jewish life. Only in America could our house be so divided, and yet co-exist next to each other. In Highland Park, near Lake Cook Road, two Jewish restaurants are neighbors – Mizrahi Grill (Kosher Middle Eastern) and Max’s Deli (clearly NOT kosher)! I know plenty of Jews who are happy to eat at both, depending on what they feel like eating. Max’s Deli is open on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but the patrons and workers of Mizrahi Grill do not protest. They co-exist. And sometimes, when you live in a house divided, co-existence is quite the achievement.
There is a famous Jewish value of Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. Sometimes you forego vengeance and anger and bitterness, or you take positive steps to repair relationships, in the interests of shalom bayit. Because Hebrew is a language of many layers, we can also read “shalom bayit” a bit differently, because the same root is found in shalom/peace and in shalem/whole or complete. If we cannot have complete shalom bayit, peace in one home in which we disagree, we can work first for a bayit shalem, a home no longer divided in which we can share a roof and start a conversation.