This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur 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.
In 2001, Rosh Hashana began just six days after 9/11. 9/11 was not a Jewish disaster like destructions of the Jerusalem Temples or the expulsion from Spain, though of course many Jewish people were killed. You may recall internet rumors that the Israeli secret service told thousands of Jews not to come to work that day. An early example that the internet is good for spreading ideas but not for the truth. 9/11 was the disastrous end of the long 1990s: from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 to that clear September morning when some imagined an end to history, a cooperative new world order, a new globalism through internet technology and cultural exchange. And then the planes hit, and the towers fell. Rabbis everywhere rushed to rewrite their sermons – in one of my sermons that year, the central metaphor was the need to destroy old foundations to create new buildings! Needed to change that…Twenty years later, we are very weary of suicide terrorism, of geopolitical and economic conflict, and especially weary of the classic blunder of getting involved in a land war in Asia. So many problems require global solutions, and there is so little good will between peoples and nations. Indeed, there is little good will left within our own nation between each other.
Another sermon content warning. Last night I warned my Yom Kippur message would be all about Jews. This morning, the message is mostly about America with some Jewish angles. I am not a political pundit, and it is both inappropriate and illegal for me to endorse or oppose a political candidate or political party from the pulpit; as a private citizen I can do what I choose, but as the Rabbi of Kol Hadash, I am non-partisan. That does not mean that am not allowed to about the world outside those doors or how our shared values impact what we do out there. I can and I should talk about issues, concerns, our place in the world. And so I will.
In Philip Roth’s alternative history novel The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election on an isolationist platform, and large scale anti-Jewish persecution comes to America. As a slow-moving pogrom approaches the Jews of Newark, one character says, “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” (196) Roth wrote his novel in 2004 thinking about the George W. Bush White House, but that line could easily have been written in 2020. And it could have been written by anyone along the American political spectrum! “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” We know that Conservatives aspiring to “Make America Great Again” want everything to stop changing – for them, great was in the past, so we have to go back. They are dismayed that, for the first time in 80 years of polling, less than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue, or other religious institution – ironically, by that metric, we at Kol Hadash are part of the MORE religious minority since we are part of a “religious” institution! These people are dismayed that society tolerates and even celebrates what used to be unacceptable. In 2004 the Republican National Committee was adamantly in favor of bans on gay marriage. In June 2021, the RNC Chair tweeted this: “Happy Pride Month! GOP is proud to have doubled our LGBTQ support over the last 4 years, and we will continue to grow our big tent by supporting measures that promote fairness and balance protections for LGBTQ Americans and those with deeply held religious beliefs.”Some Evangelicals were very upset by this tweet, but a survey on same-sex marriage released that same month showed 55% of Republicans in favor, with 73% of independents and 83% of Democrats. In fact, 71% of American Jews support rabbis officiating at same sex weddings, and only 15% of American Jews flat-out oppose rabbis celebrating these partnerships. The basic human right to marry for love has mostly won – a change for the better, we would say. It is not just religion that MAGA wants to freeze in the 1950s – they also do not like increasing demographic diversity from immigration & birthrates, accelerating technological change, & the implications of falling rural populations & growing suburbs & cities. “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” sounds right to them.
Of course, progressives today might say the exact same thing – “How can people like these be in charge of our country?” They look at the federal courts, the state legislatures, the US Senate with dismay. In some ways, Progressives have become the conservatives, trying to preserve past progress on voting rights and abortion while pushing forward on other issues. But seeing the previously unthinkable has shaken their confidence – a torchlit march of white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us,” increases in anti-immigrant and anti-Asian violence, and what they consider steps backward from the Obama era. They see US Citizenship and Immigration Services change its mission statement in 2018 to no longer describe America as a “Nation of Immigrants;” they ask what happened to American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ promise to welcome huddled masses yearning to breathe free, inviting the homeless tempest-tossed (like our forebearers) through the golden door. Progressives see millions of their fellow citizens not just passively accepting these changes, but welcoming them with enthusiasm! These progressives ALSO lament “How can this be happening in America?”
So, too, the libertarian, whose vision of free-market capitalism & personal liberty as the core of the American tradition finds no comfortable mainstream political home. Both parties cut taxes or spend without much of a care for deficits, both seek to impose government control on personal decisions on what goes into one’s body like drugs or vaccines or what comes out in a pregnancy termination. Libertarians generally favor immigration and oppose social spending – whom should they root for between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? And let us not forget the poor moderate in the middle, now squeezed between extremes. They remember a time when there was dialogue and cooperation or even just friendship across the political aisle, when “bipartisan” did not mean “traitorous,” and “compromise” was a compliment, not an insult. “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” indeed.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln quoted the New Testament to describe the politics of his day: “”A house divided against itself cannot stand.” [Matthew 12:15] I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave & half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” Within 3 years of this statement, a bloody American Civil War had begun which would cost over 600,000 dead. Our current civil unrest is certainly a house divided, but with fewer deaths. Or maybe not – official COVID casualties have now passed 650,000, and that may be an under-estimate. Yes, not all of those COVID deaths are attributable to political conflict, suspicion of one’s opponents, distrust of institutions: the results of a house divided. However, many of those deaths have been casualties of a house divided, particularly since we learned that wearing masks and distance and a vaccine could reduce, if not eradicate, this plague on both our houses.
How did we get here? I do not think that 9/11 was THE disaster that drastically changed the overall direction of American discourse; 9/11 intensified divisions that were already there. In my lifetime of voting, from the Clinton/Gingrich battles of the 1990s to Bush v. Gore at the Supreme Court to Obama birtherism. But it goes back much further in the American political psyche. There are worse options in the American political repertoire that may yet see a resurgence: dig for yourself into historical political cartoons, partisan journalism and campaign rhetoric from the 19th century; or learn about electoral violence against African Americans and others through the first 2/3 of the 20th Century. As divided as our house seems now, it has been even worse.
Richard Hoffstader’s famous 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” begins with “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” The essay explores anti-Masonic conspiracies about “Illuminati” from the 1790s, anti-Catholic fervor from the 1830s to 1890s and the John Birch Society. Does this passage ring familiar today?
America has been largely taken away from them & their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans & intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic & communistic schemers; the old national security & independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders & foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.
This was written in 1964! From such a worldview, the terrible images and events of January 6, 2021 are no longer as inconceivable as they were on January 5th.
We can also see how this worldview can feed into antisemitic tropes – Jews have often been called rootless cosmopolitans, undermining national identity and religious tradition with secular globalism, undermining the Protestant work ethic with foreign socialist ideas. Even if one does not descend into the fever swamp of online antisemitism, those in the mainstream who are committed to robust nationalism and traditional religion see those who would undermine these institutions as their enemies; as a recent critique of critics of Zionism put it, these have become “un-Jews” in their attacks on robust Jewish peoplehood as embodied in Israel and in their emphasis on broader social justice as the center of their Judaism rather than Jewish particularism or tradition for tradition’s sake.
What makes the current moment particularly precarious is that we can feel attacked from the other side of the political spectrum too. If you really ARE a rootless cosmopolitan, a pure universalist, then Jews are too stubbornly distinct. If you really ARE a radical socialist, Jews with power in media, finance and establishment politics are working against you. If you really ARE a secular globalist, Jews in general and Israel in particular may be too religious and too tribal for the new world order you are working to achieve. Even if you yourself are a progressive Jew!
The 2020 Pew study of American Jews would be a gold-mine for anti-Semites of either stripe: Almost ¼ of American Jewish households earn $200,000 a year or more, compared to only 4% of general population. The capitalist elite! 29% of all Americans have a college degree or higher – that describes 58% of American Jews, double the proportion. The intellectualist elite!
Of course, we have our allies on each side as well, even if they only love some of us. Those who favor strong American nationalism and religious tradition see strong Israeli nationalism and modern Orthodox Judaism as models, even if they do not love secularized liberal Jews. And those secularized liberal Jews are stalwart supporters of LGBTQ rights, environmentalism, immigration and other progressive issues, even if they are sometimes frustrated when for example the 2017 March for Racial Justice was scheduled on…Yom Kippur (the march did eventually apologize for the oversight). And there are ongoing debates on the far left, sometimes intense, over whether Israel represents legitimate minority ethnic self-determination or illegitimate settler colonialism of Western culture. In some ways, we are caught in the middle of these political divisions because we don’t fit in neatly in any one department – Religion? Ethnicity? Nationality? Over the course of my academic career, I took many classes in Jewish studies, but they were all over the academic departments: religious studies, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, history, literature, and often cross-listed as that and also as Judaic studies!
How do we mend the house divided, the Jewish house or the American house? A parallel example: I often perform outdoor weddings. If there is the threat of rain, inevitably someone asks me, “Could you put in a good word so it doesn’t rain?” I used to say, “Well, I’m not that kind of rabbi.” Now I say, “If I could do that, I wouldn’t be doing this.” If I could control the weather, do you think I would be officiating weddings like this. If I had a silver bullet to slay the vampire of hatred, suspicion and fear, I wouldn’t be doing this. Platitudes about listening, understanding, finding shared purpose are all well and good, and they may make a difference. In the past, we can find examples of divided houses coming together. Maybe there are lessons to be drawn from that history.
At the end of WWI, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was born after the devastation of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe – it was a merger of The American Jewish Relief Committee (supported by Reform German Jews), the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War (supported by East European Orthodox Jews), and the Jewish People’s Relief Committee of America (supported by Jewish socialists who were mostly secular) [see Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism: A History, loc. 2897]. Three different groups doing the same thing that eventually merged. Whoever suggested to Monty Python that they make a movie featuring The People’s Front of Judea fighting with The Judean People’s Front got something very right. Or consider the unified American purpose during World War II, unthinkable in 1940 from a bitterly divided country between isolationists and interventionists. Or the postwar consensus in America against Communism (even if Jewish socialists sometimes took the brunt of that consensus). Or the Jewish community’s support for Israel shortly after its founding. Maybe all we need is another disaster or success to bring us closer together!
If you hadn’t noticed, we’re already in the middle of a great disaster and we are further apart than ever. So lesson one is: do not hope for disasters to bring us together! In our Kol Hadash Science Fiction book club, we read a novel about the aftermath of an asteroid crashing into earth. Based on what you know of politics, nationalism, history and human nature, do you think that would bring humanity closer together or put us at each other’s throats? We ALREADY face global crises, from climate to drinkable water to the COVID pandemic, and I don’t see Russia, China, US, Europe and Iran rushing to work together on any of them. The unity of September 12, 2001 faded far too quickly to expect a deus ex machina, divine intervention in either a positive miracle or a mass destruction, to save us from the worse angels of our own nature.
Lesson two is that we cannot minimize real differences. This summer, I was talking about politics with a friend who has a trans child. I commented that everyone, even political opponents, thinks they’re being ethical from their own perspective. She said to me bluntly, “They want my kid dead.” The denial of the reality of trans-ness, the denial of gender affirming medical care, the othering that takes place, well we know how high the suicide rate can be among trans teens. I could not argue with that statement because her anger is fully justified. Sometimes you HAVE to fight – Lincoln did not want a civil war, but it needed to be fought to end slavery. There must be red line issues beyond which there is no compromise; they may not be the same for everyone participating today, but sometimes there is no middle ground on which to compromise. I DO NOT believe that compromise is a dirty word; I believe we can find common ground with very disparate partners. The Catholic Church may be our foe on abortion and contraception and our ally on caring for immigrants and teaching evolution in science classes. But the Book of Ecclesiastes had it right that there’s a time for war and a time for peace, a time to remain silent and a time to speak. Human rights and human life demand more than moderation.
Last, I ended last night with the declaration that WE are the majority in Jewish life – the fundamentalists, the isolationists, those who would “Make Judaism Great Again” by freezing us in time or in place, they are the minority, the 20%. When even a majority of Republicans now support same-sex marriage, a tipping point on that issue has been reached in culture and society. So the last lesson is: for those who believe in democracy, find the majority. Even the rabbis of the first centuries of the Common Era accepted “After the majority you shall incline.” [Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metziah 59b] Your allies may change for different issues, and you may not get everything you want. Incremental change may be frustrating for those who seek a revolution, but sustainable progress is still progress.
For all the revolutionary excitement of the George Floyd protest moment, the election of new District Attorneys and the passage of new policies on the use of force and civil asset forfeiture and ex-felon voting might have the more lasting impact. Just this week, I read a story about a black family whose house was first assessed for well under an agreed-upon selling price; they then purged their house of all their family pictures and anything that indicated the owners were black (posters and books), even borrowing their white neighbor’s family pictures to display instead. A second assessment came back $92,000 higher. As one of the owners put it, “In the Black community, we know selling your home means take down your pictures. Don’t be present. As soon as I told my dad about our experience, he said, ‘Why was Erica home? Why didn’t you take down your pictures?’ He knew right away.” Would we have heard this story in mainstream media without the racial justice moments of the past few years? This community already knew this to be true. I doubt we would have heard about it. But I do have hope that the more of us who hear and are outraged by this, the greater the majority will become for fixing it. You cannot find these creative majorities if you only talk with those who largely agree with you, so we do need some listening and understanding and stretching along with the arguing and the coalition-building.
As we said on Rosh Hashana, for Humanists and for Humanistic Jews there is no cosmic “why” when disaster strikes. Temples are destroyed, people exiled, government buildings attacked, houses divided, hearts and bodies broken. And behind these disasters we see no just supernatural system punishing us or testing us or improving us. Yet if we do not ask “why,” we MUST ask “How”? Not “how did this disaster happen” in an endless cycle of recrimination and regret. “How” so we can learn lessons from human suffering. “How” so we can reduce human suffering. There IS no cosmic purpose to suffering, but WE can create human purpose if suffering today leads to less suffering tomorrow because we learned from it and can do better. When to get started? No day but today.