Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2018 High Holiday Sermons

1ST DAY ROSH HASHANA 5779 – 2018
There is a story about a family, born Jewish, who never gave their children any Jewish background. Their eleven-year-old son never went to religious school, would not have a bar mitzvah, had never even been to a high holiday service nor a Passover Seder. One day the boy came home from school. “Guess what I learned today. God is three – a father, a son, and a holy spirit.” The boy was surprised to see his father get extremely angry. He shouted, “How dare he! Tell your friend that he is wrong, God is not three. God is only one. And we don’t believe in Him!”
Do you know what the fastest growing group of Jews in the United States? No, it is not the Orthodox, not the Conservative, not the Reform. It is not the Reconstructionist nor the humanistic, nor even Chabad. According to a recent Pew Report, the fastest growing group of Jew s is people born Jewish who claim to practice no religion. The fastest growing group is the “nones.” Today I went to share a series of emails with one of those “nones,” a member of the millennial generation who decided that Judaism is not for them. I have in mind a particular young woman who proudly put on Facebook, “I grew up Jewish, but I no longer consider myself a Jew. I am a human being.” Although I had officiated at her bat mitzvah, this particular person did not communicate her feelings with me. But imagine if she had. Let me call her Katie. Katie is really a combination of this young woman and a few other people I have spoken with over the past several years.
Let me begin with her first email. Dear Rabbi Gold, I am writing you because I have always respected you. I loved my bat mitzvah, was active in USY, and even went to Israel on birthright a few years ago. But now I am an adult. I graduated college this year. And I have decided that I no longer wish to be Jewish. I do not want to hurt you. But I realize that Judaism was forced on me by my parents without my permission. Had I been born a Christian or a Moslem or a Buddhist, that would be my religion. It is all so arbitrary. By random chance I was born of Jewish parents. I read an article by the atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, who said that teaching any child a religion is a form of child abuse. I am not saying my parents were abusive. But now I have a choice. And I have chosen not to be Jewish. Maybe someday I will choose some other religion, or maybe no religion. I hope you will respect my choice. Sincerely, Katie.
Dear Katie, thank you for taking the time to write me and share your choice. I appreciate the respect you showed me. But you know I must respond. You were born into various circumstances over which you had no choice. You had no choice about your parents, about being female, about being an American, about living in this century. You were given no choice about the language you speak. What would happen if you were raised with no language, if you grew up not knowing English or any other language? What if you parents thought that you should wait into adulthood and then decide, do you want to speak French or Spanish or Russian? You could not function very well in this world. Religion is a kind of language. It helps you function in this world. It deals with ultimate questions such as why you are here. It gives you a sense of right and wrong. And it gives you a community. You can reject your religion. But before you do, I urge you to learn more about it.
You say you are no longer a Jew. But Katie, to the world you are a Jew. That is how they see you now and that is how they will always see you in the future. Look up on Wikipedia any celebrity, actor or rock star or professional athlete. If they were born Jewish, it will say they are Jewish. It does not matter whether they go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. And if you lived in Hitler’s day, he would have said you are Jewish. Being a Jew is part of who you are, you might as well study what it means.
Let me tell you a true story. Perhaps the most influential philosopher of Judaism in the twentieth century was a man named Franz Rosenzweig. Sadly, he died too young of ALS, what we often call Lou Gehrig’s disease. But before he died, he wrote books and essays about Judaism that were extremely influential. He helped me become a better rabbi. Why am I telling you this? When he was a young man, Rosenzweig was a lot like you. He decided that he would give up on his Judaism. He decided he would convert to Christianity. But before he converted, he decided to give Judaism one last chance. He went to a shteibel, a tiny Orthodox synagogue, in Berlin on Yom Kippur. I am sure he did not have a ticket, but thank God they did not turn him away. Something touched Rosenzweig at that synagogue. He decided to go back and explore his Judaism.
Let me share one of Rosenzweig’s most important teachings, the reason so many rabbis like him. He spoke of the difference between a law and a commandment. A law is in a book. It is something outside us. A commandment is in our mind. It is something that speaks to us. Someone once asked Rosenzweig if he put on tefillin each morning. He answered, “Not yet.” At that moment tefillin was a law in a book. Eventually he hoped it would become a commandment.
I think there is a lesson in that. For you, Judaism is something in a book, a book that you claim does not speak to you. I invite you to study it. Study it not as a child or as a teenager, but as a serious adult. Study it the way you studied for your classes in college. There is a reason why Judaism has survived four millennia. It has something to say to us. Katie, before you stop being a Jew, look at Judaism. See if you can get Judaism to speak to you. See if like Rosenzweig, you can make a law into a commandment. Shalom, Rabbi Gold.
Dear Rabbi Gold. Thanks for your response. With all the years of Hebrew school and USY, and even a couple Jewish studies courses in college, why have I never heard of Franz Rosenzweig? But he believed in God. He wanted to convert from Judaism to Christianity, both religions based on God. You taught me in Hebrew School to say the Sh’ma, “Here O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” You made me led the Ashrei – ashrei yoshvei beitecha, “happy are those Who dwell in your house, O Lord.” But now from my college classes I know that belief in God is nonsense. In my biology classes I learned that Darwin did not believe in God, from my economics classes I learned that Marx did not believe in God, from my psychology classes I learned that Freud did not believe in God, and from my philosophy classes I learned that Nietzsche did not believe in God. The greatest minds in history did not believe in God. But you, Rabbi Gold, keep conducting worship services at the synagogue as if God exists. To be a Jew is to believe in God. I think it is a silly idea. Sincerely, Katie.
Dear Katie, You are right about Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, they were all atheists. I am less convinced about Darwin who at one point in his life wanted to be a minister. But in each discipline you studied, I can mention another thinker who was a believer. I think of the biologist Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, and a deeply religious Christian. I think of Adam Smith who saw the hand of God in explaining economics. I think of Karl Jung, Freud’s disciple, who broke with Freud over religion. And there is the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a deeply committed Christian, who spoke of a leap of faith. For every prominent non-believer, there is an equally prominent believer. The problem is not that great thinkers do not believe in God, the problem is that too many college professors do not believe in God.
I have studied Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, each an intellectual giant. But I still believe in God. Let’s talk about God, adult to adult. First, when you tell me you do not believe in God, I will say, tell me about the God you do not believe in. The answer I mostly hear from young people is, “I don’t believe in an old man with a white beard in the sky, who knows everything and manipulates everything, who answers our prayers and does miracles.” If you say that, I will answer, “Good, we agree on something. I do not believe in that God either.”
So what do I mean when I say God? I look out into the world and I see two possibilities. First possibility, everything that exists, including you and me, exists by random chance. We are here because some molecules happened to crash together in a certain way. We live in an absurd meaningless universe, and our lives mean nothing. When we die, the molecules that make up our bodies fall apart. Second possibility, there exists some kind of will, some kind of mind, that brought us here. We are not here by random chance. We are here in this universe because something or someone brought us here. Call that something God. The first possibility, that we are here by random chance in a meaningless universe, is what most scientists and most college professors teach. The Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg, author of The First Three Minutes, ends his book with the words, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
I look at this approach and it remind me of the image of a tornado hitting a junkyard. It throws all the pieces of junk in the air at random, and they fall down forming a functioning Boeing 747. Possible – perhaps, but certainly unlikely. That is why I believe in God. Nonetheless, there are Jews, committed Jews, who build their Judaism on the denial of God. David ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the state of Israel, was a non-believer. Today you can go to Boca Raton and worship at a synagogue called Congregation Beth Adam, “the House of Man.” They deny God and instead worship humanity. This is not my approach.
Can one be a committed Jew without a belief in God? Judaism is far more than a religion. It is a culture and way of life, or as Mordecai Kaplan taught, it is a civilization. It is even about food. Let me throw a moment of levity into our dialog. A Jewish couple wins the lottery and decides to hire a very proper British butler. The butler doesn’t know much about Judaism. Sunday morning the couple tells the butler, “the Cohens are coming over for brunch , set the table for four.” They come home and see the table is set for eight. “Why eight, we said for four.” The butler answered, “The Cohens called to confirm. They said they were bringing the kugels and the blintzes.” You don’t need to be religious to understand that this is part of who we are as Jews.
I prefer that you and I are here, we are writing one another, because a force in the universe willed us to be here. I believe that Judaism has survived, that we are gathering in synagogue hundreds strong, because there is a force in the universe that willed this to happen. I am willing to sing Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father Our King, because I believe such a force truly exists. And I agree with another philosopher and psychologist, William James, who wrote an essay called “The Will to Believe.” According to James, if we choose to believe, we will live lives with a greater sense of purpose. To quote him, “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” I urge you not to give up on faith. Or to quote the great rock band Journey, Don’t Stop Believing. Shalom, Rabbi Gold
Dear Rabbi Gold, Thank you for your answer about God. I will think about what you said. People say that some people have the God gene and some people don’t. Some are predisposed to believe and some are not. I guess I don’t have the God gene. But let me share something else that really bothers me, that makes me want to stop being Jewish. My parents believed that the state of Israel was the greatest thing that happened to the Jewish people. They were thrilled when I went on birthright. But in college I am getting a very different view. I see Israel as an oppressor, ruling over the Palestinians. My friends use words like “apartheid” to refer to Israel, and in truth, as I read the New York Times and other newspapers, I think my friends are right. To be a Jew is to love Israel. I do not love Israel now. Often I think the world would be a better place if Israel did not exist. Perhaps then there would be peace in Mideast. Sincerely, Katie.
Dear Katie, Your words are so naïve. I wish I could talk to you and your friends about Israel. I ask you never ever to say the world would be a better place if Israel did not exist. Israel did not exist in 1939, and six million Jews were killed. If Israel had existed, the world would be a different place. We can talk about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Israelis certainly do. We can even disagree. But you have no children and my children live in the safety of the United States. It is not our children who are putting their lives on the line regarding policy towards the Palestinians. The decision is up to Israelis. And the issues are not as simple as you and your friends seem to think.
Today there are 193 nations that make up the United Nations. Of those 193, how many are facing an ongoing debate whether they have a right to exist. Only one – Israel. The debate today is not about how Israel can make peace with the Palestinians. It is whether Israel has a right to exist at all. Let me prove it. Go up to one of those anti-Israel activists on campus, one of the Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the supporters of B.D.S. (boycott, divestment, sanctions against Israel), one of the group that organizes Israel apartheid week and heckles any Israeli speaker. Say, “I know you are against the occupation. What occupation are you referring to?” They probably will not know. Most likely they will say the occupation of Palestine. Ask them what they mean by Palestine. Are they referring to the occupation of West Jerusalem, the occupation of Haifa, the occupation of Tel Aviv? You know what their answer will be. They will probably say all of Palestine, all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Know that what they are saying is Israel should no longer exist.
Will there be peace between Israelis and Arabs? I hope so. Let me tell you a true story. In November 2017 at the Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas, two contestants met and became friends. One was Sarah Idan, the representative of Iraq. One was Adar Gandelsman, the representative of Israel. They actually took a selfie together, two beautiful young women smiling into the camera. Sarah received death threats for publishing the selfie. Last Spring Sarah flew to Jerusalem to visit Adar. An Israeli and an Arab got together. Again they posed for pictures. Sarah said she made the trip, “because I want peace for everyone, for Israelis, for Palestinians.”
Let us suppose that tomorrow the leader of the Palestinians publicly declared that he will recognize the state of Israel and end all terrorism and all attempts to destroy her. In return, Israel must recognize a separate Palestinian state in land captured in 1967. He is prepared to negotiate all issues – borders, refugees, settlers, even some way of sharing Jerusalem as a capital of two nations. If that happens, there would be peace tomorrow. Do I believe there will this will happen? Not any time soon. But it will not come if we throw around words like “apartheid” or support b.d.s. It will come when Israelis and Arabs start seeing each other as real human beings. Shalom, Rabbi Gold
My dialogue with Katie continued through several more emails. I will share more, but you have to come back tomorrow. Meanwhile, let us pray that the younger generation of millennials begins to explore Judaism, explore God, and explore Israel as adults. May God help them open up their eyes and open up their hearts, and let us say

2ND DAY ROSH HASHANA 5779 – 2018
A little girl gets on the school bus as an older woman waits by the curb. The bus driver asks, “Who is that lady?” The girl answers, “That’s my grandmother.” The bus driver replies, “So she is visiting you. Where does she live?” The little girl thinks for a moment, “She lives at the airport. Whenever we want her, we go pick her up.” When I visit my grandson in Maryland, I hope he does not think I live at the airport. Actually, he does not pick me up, but each time I come I am driving a different rental car. He must think I own a lot of cars.
Children see the world differently than adults. That is one of the problems we have in Judaism. Most Jews, if they get any Jewish education at all, stop at thirteen years old. They tend to see Judaism through the eyes of a thirteen years old. Imagine if we stopped learning science or history or math at the age of thirteen. Perhaps that is the reason who so many Jews, when asked their religion, say “none.” One of my goals as a rabbi is to get Jews to look at Judaism with the eyes of adults. And that brings me to my friend Katie. As I mentioned yesterday, Katie is a combination of several young people, millennials, with whom I have spoken over the past few years. She wrote me an email that she no longer considered herself Jewish. We corresponded back and forth through email. Today I want to continue with our correspondence.
Dear Rabbi Gold. Thank you for answering my emails. When I was young I dreamed you would perform my wedding. But now that I am an adult, I am not sure. First, I have no potential partner at this point and do not know if or when I will marry. I know that if I choose a non-Jew, you will not marry me. I know that even if I choose a Jew, if we decide to marry as the sun is setting on a Saturday night in June, you will not marry me. And I know that my partner and I may want to write our own wedding ceremony. You will demand a tradition ketubah, which I consider sexist, a huppah which we may or may not like, and traditional Hebrew prayers, even if nobody knows Hebrew. Why should we have you marry us? Sincerely, Katie
Dear Katie, I would be honored if I can someday perform your wedding. You are right, I am not permitted by the rules of my rabbinic organization to perform a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew. However, I am permitted to perform an aufruf and give you my blessing. I will not perform a wedding on a Shabbat afternoon. And I will insist on certain traditions. I know that for these reasons, many people are avoiding a traditional Jewish wedding altogether. Sometimes they simply live together. But often they will write their own rituals and have one of their relatives get an on-line quickie ordination to perform the ceremony. You may choose to go in that direction and I will respect your choice. But I think you will be missing something. I have met Jewish couples who have their best friend with a new online ordination perform a do-it-yourself wedding on the beach with no huppah. Still, the groom still wants to break a glass. They want some Judaism, even in their non-Jewish wedding.
A wedding is not just a private ceremony. It links you to something greater than yourself. If a wedding were a private ceremony, then just fly to Las Vegas and have an Elvis impersonator marry you. If I do a traditional wedding, I am linking you to Jewish brides and grooms throughout history, Jewish brides and grooms all over the world. And that is the beauty of religion. The word “religion” comes from a Latin word meaning “to connect.” Religion is to be part of a community, something greater. The words I say at a Jewish wedding have been said for thousands of years. And no, the traditional ketubah is not sexist. It was formulated by the rabbis as a protection for the wife, to make sure that she was not left stranded if her husband died or abandoned her. Much of it is symbolic today. But I still use it. It is a promise that a husband will treat his wife properly by Jewish law.
I do perform a traditional ceremony, but I do make changes to show that there are two partners. I have the husband give the wife a ring, but she must show that she is accepting it of her own free will. Then I have the wife give the husband a ring, something forbidden by most Orthodox rabbis. I want to see that he is also accepting it of his own free will. Either I, or the cantor, or sometimes seven guests chant the sheva berachot, seven blessings which link you to every bride and groom, leading back to Adam and Eve. The words our beautiful, “soon may there be heard in Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.” If I am blessed to perform your wedding, I will let you add your own vows. But it would be in the midst of a ceremony that links you to something greater than yourself. Shalom, Rabbi Gold
Dear Rabbi Gold, Thanks you for your answer. Let’s see what happens when I meet my groom, if I meet my groom. But since we are talking about Jewish ritual, let me mention something that has been bothering me since I was in high school in USY. Do you know what the most controversial issue in our USY chapter was? When we went on field trips, like to Orlando for Disney Day, would we be allowed to eat pizza from a non-kosher pizza parlor? That was the fight. We were involved in arguments not about Israeli policies or poverty or immigration, but about kosher pizza. This is so trivial. Isn’t what comes out of your mouth more important than what goes in? Sincerely, Katie.
Dear Katie, You are right, whether to eat pizza out in a non-kosher restaurant is trivial in the grand scheme of things. But let me share why I think it is important. First of all, when you say that what goes out of your mouth is more important than what goes in, you are quoting Jesus. That is Christian teaching, not a Jewish one. Judaism is concerned with what goes into your mouth. So are all the world’s great religions concerned with what goes into your mouth. Eating is something we share with animals. Disciplining the act of eating is how we rise above the animals. That is why we Jews have dietary laws. We can only eat certain animals, only killed in a certain way, and we cannot mix life, the life-giving milk of an animal, with death, the flesh of an animal. Basic to Judaism is the separation of life and death. We have laws about food. But Moslems also have laws, against eating pork or drinking alcohol. Buddhists are mostly vegetarian to prevent suffering to animals. Many Hindus are also vegetarian, but those who eat meat will not eat cows. Even our Christian neighbors have their own dietary laws. When I was growing up, Catholics did not eat meat on Friday, it took me many years to figure out why my school cafeteria served fish on Friday.
Let me share a true story I have shared with my congregation. When I was working on my PhD, I took a seminar with a professor who was a former ambassador from Switzerland. He invited the entire class to his home for an authentic Swiss dinner. I told him that I would love to come, but could not eat the meat. Everyone else had Swiss steak and I had a piece of, I guess you could call it, Swiss salmon – delicious. Then it was time for dessert. He brought out delicious Swiss chocolates. One of my classmates sadly admitted, “I can’t eat it. I took a vow against chocolate during Lent.” It was one of the few times I enjoyed a food while a Christian friend had to refrain.
I know that fewer and fewer Jews are observing the dietary laws. But we are becoming more food conscious than every before. It reminds me of the lady taking all the neighborhood children trick-or-treating on Halloween. She approaches a house with her group of children, and says, “Before you give them anything, this one is vegetarian and this one is vegan. This one is lactose intolerant and this one is gluten free. This one is on a raw food diet and this one can eat no processed foods. As for my son, give him anything, as long as it has no sugar.” We are more food conscious than ever before.
So what about the pizza from the non-kosher pizza shop? I will allow our synagogue to eat strictly vegetarian food including pizza and I do not worry about the pots and pans. Some of my colleagues disagree with me, saying that if it were cooked on a pan that previously had pepperoni, how can I allow it? And so we rabbis argue, as rabbis have done for thousands of years. But the very fact that we are arguing about it is part of a greater message, the act of eating becomes a way to achieve holiness and become closer to God. Not just what goes out of our mouths but what comes into our mouths is important. Shalom, Rabbi Gold.
Dear Rabbi Gold. Thank you for your answer. I do try to be more aware and careful about what I eat. And it is funny, although I no longer consider myself Jewish, I cannot bring myself to eat pork. I guess some things are too deep. But let me ask you a more painful question. It is painful for me, because my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. Yet Jews seem obsessed with the Holocaust. I heard the word Holocaust or Shoah, over and over in my home, in the synagogue, on birthright. There have been other Holocausts – in Armenia, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, all over the world. Can’t there be a Judaism without this constant obsession with the Holocaust? Sincerely, Katie.
Dear Katie, You have raised one of the most difficult issues in Jewish life. Yes, there are multiple cases of genocide over the centuries, and certainly over the past century. No one people has a monopoly on suffering. And I certainly never want to start a competition whose genocide was worse than whose genocide. All were evil. Nonetheless, there is something about the Nazi war against the Jews that was so large, so systematic, so scientific, so evil that it defies description. And to believe that there are people out there who are saying it never happened. Facebook recently permitted Holocaust deniers to post their claims, saying it is free speech. The numbers of the Holocaust alone are terrifying – six million Jews, that is approximately the number of Jews who live in the U.S. And millions of other innocent people, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, communists, and so many others. We cannot hide from these events. They affected the Jewish people in a deep and sad way.
The Jewish philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel in 1961. Eichmann was the mastermind of the Holocaust. He was kidnapped in Argentina where he was hiding out and taken to Israel, put on trial for crimes against the Jewish people. Eichmann was found guilty and became the only person in history ever executed in Israel. Arendt was at the trial and wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She invented the phrase “banality of evil.” What did she mean? When she began reporting, she expected to see Eichmann as a devil incarnate, an evil man, some sort of sociopath. What she saw was a meek bureaucrat who was simply trying to follow orders and advance his career. Evil is not conducted by sociopaths but by ordinary, even weak people. We see Nazis in the movies and they epitomize evil. Arendt was disturbed at how ordinary they were.
Did such evil happen only in Nazi Germany? In 1961 Professor Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment with students at Yale University. These were not average students, but students at a prestigious Ivy League university. He wanted to see if students would follow orders from authority figures. A group of volunteers had to answer questions, and the students applied electrical shocks for wrong answers. With each wrong answer they increased the voltage of these electrical shocks. Even when the volunteers screamed in pain, the authority figures urged the students to keep applying the shocks. That was the only way to find out if the experiment was accurate. Most of the students ignored the pain and kept applying the electrical shocks. What the students did not know was that the volunteers were actors, pretending to be in pain. The students were performing acts of evil at the urging of authority figures. The banality of evil – not in Nazi Germany but at Yale University. Often the evil doers are ordinary people.
How did the Nazis perform their evil acts? In the beginning they did not build death camps. They took away the humanity of Jews. They passed Nuremberg Laws. Jews could not hire non-Jews. Jews could not study at the University. Jews could not practice certain professions. Jews had to wear yellow stars. Jewish businesses were vandalized. Jews were forced to live in ghettos. Then Jews were deported to the camps. And Jews were slaughtered. But by then, they were no longer considered human beings. They were vermin – not people. The Nazis had stripped away their humanity.
What is the Jewish answer to all of this? I think the answer is to emphasize the central message in Judaism. Over and over the Torah teaches, “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Nazis tried to take away the humanity of those who were different. Judaism tries to reassert the humanity of those who are different. This idea, love the stranger, is taught over and over in the Torah. The Talmud teaches, why were we all created from one couple, Adam and Eve. So that nobody should ever say, my family is better than your family. Everybody is created in the image of God.
Katie, I agree with you, that often we Jews over emphasize the Holocaust. We look for what is sad rather than what is joyous. Judaism is a religion of joy. Yet it is far easier to raise money to build a Holocaust museum than to build a Jewish school. We need schools that will teach our children, and teach our adults, the fundamental lesson of Judaism. All life is sacred. All people are holy. There is a banality of evil. The Torah teaches that we should not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood. This is the lesson that Judaism has proclaimed to the world.
Katie, you told me that you have decided not to be Jewish. But I hope you have understood through these emails that Judaism has something important to say to the world. My hope is that you will look at Judaism not as a child, but as an adult. Like Franz Rosenzweig, on the verge of converting to Christianity, who walked into a little synagogue on Yom Kippur and decided to return to Judaism, I hope you will return to Judaism. Is Judaism perfect? Of course not, no religion is. But does Judaism have some profound teachings about what it means to be a human being, what it means to rise above the animal in us, what it means to see the sacred dimension of all life, what it means to love the stranger, and what it means to love God? Yes. I hope you will explore these ideas as an adult? Shalom, Rabbi Gold
That was the last email I received from Katie for the moment. I am sure there will be more. I am happy that she chose to communicate with a rabbi. Many millennials are fleeing from Judaism. That is the way of the world. But many other millennials are going through a true spiritual search. Sometimes that search takes them to other spiritual traditions – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, even Mormonism. And sometimes that search brings them back to Judaism. I can only pray that Katie, and young people like her, will explore Judaism as adults. May God help them in that effort. And let us say

KOL NIDRE 2018 – 5779
A wife turns to her husband. “Please hand me the newspaper.” The husband answers back, “It’s time to enter the twenty-first century. The entire newspaper is on my Ipad.” “No, I need a newspaper.” “Enough with the newspapers. Start reading it on the Ipad.” “Please hand me the newspaper.” The husband opens his Ipad, turns to the newspaper online, and hands it to her. The wife takes the Ipad, turns around, and smashes a cockroach. I don’t know how the husband reacted. Welcome to the world of new technology.
Let me share a true story. In December I went to Atlanta to attend the United Synagogue Convention, where our synagogue was receiving a Solomon Schechter Award. I brought my tallis and tefillin as I always do, but I forgot a siddur, a prayerbook. No problem – I have an app on my phone with a prayerbook. On my last day I had to catch a very early flight home to officiate at a funeral. When could I say my morning prayers? Jewish tradition teaches that it had to be when the first rays of light were in the sky. I decided to cheat a little, God forgive me this Yom Kippur. It was still dark when I put on my tallis and tefillin and opened my phone. The app would not open. It gave me a message – it is too early to say the morning prayers. My phone had become a Jewish policeman. This is the world we live in.
The world has radically changed today. New technologies, including the internet, social media, and apps have made these changes. Our children are growing up in a different world than I did. Think about it. People say that today the biggest taxi company in the world owns no taxis. I have used Uber regularly and it is wonderful. The biggest hotel company in the world owns no hotel rooms. I have never used Airbnb but I am sure I will one day. Today there are apps for everything. There is an app to have someone come over and walk your dog. Dog walkers in your area have downloaded it on their phone. There is an app for golf caddies. You want someone to carry your clubs and measure the distance to the green; there are people on standby with apps on their phone. So far there are no apps to hail a rabbi to facetime with you, but I do know someone who is developing one.
This new world of technology has changed the way we do business. How many of us call a travel agent to book an airplane flight? We do our banking from our phones, pay bills from our phones, work from our tablets and our computers? There is one old Jewish business that has been radically changed by this technology. Yente the Matchmaker has been put out of business. Today more than half the couples I marry, both younger and older, met on-line through J-date, Match.com, e-harmony, ok-cupid, plenty-of-fish, and so on. There are even ultra-Orthodox matchmaking sites like frumster. Before young people meet they check out each other’s Facebook profile or look at Instagrams. Yente never put a profile on line before making a match. Today, before accepting a date, young people want to see each other’s profile.
There is another place where the world has changed. As many of you know, I teach religion and philosophy at Broward College. More and more of the college’s classes are on-line. I have no face-to-face contact with many of my students, unless they come to me for tutoring or counseling. Can I teach as well on-line as in-person? No, but it does not matter. The world is connected electronically. With that, there is something gained but also something lost. That is what I want to explore. What does this new technology, this world of the internet, apps, and social media mean for Judaism? Can we make Judaism into an app? (For those unfamiliar with the terminology, and app is an application, something you download unto your smart phone. Facebook and twitter are apps, and if you bank on line, your bank is an app.)
Let me begin with a quick word about how Judaism views technology. We can compare Judaism to the ancient Greeks. In Greek mythology Prometheus stole fire from the gods. Fire symbolized technology. Fire was for the gods, not for humans. Judaism took a radically different view. The Torah teaches that we can use fire, at least six days of week. Only on the Sabbath day are we forbidden to burn a fire in our households. This comes to teach that there is a limit to our technology. We must remember that technology has been given to us, but there is a limit. Fire can be used for good or bad, and so can all other technology.
The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel drives this home. Humanity gathers together to build a giant skyscraper, to challenge God. Is there anything wrong with a skyscraper? If so, I would not take our teens each winter to visit the Empire State Building. The problem is that in the Bible, the tower was used to challenge God. It became a place of evil. According to the Midrash, the tower was so high that if a brick fell off when they were building, people would cry. It took so long to bring that brick up here. But if a worker fell off, a human being, people did not react, there are plenty of workers. The people who built the Tower of Babel celebrated their technological accomplishments, and lost touch with their humanity. That is why God mixed up their languages and scattered them throughout the world.
Technology is neither good nor bad. It is a tool. As a tool, we can use it in a positive way. But as a tool, it can make us lose our humanity. That is how we ought to concern this modern world of information technology, of the internet and apps and social media. It can be a tool for good or for bad. How should we look at Judaism in this technology world?
First let us look at what is good. Anyone who has ever been in my office knows that it is filled with bookshelves. Much of the space on those bookshelves is taken up by multiple volumes of the great books of Jewish literature – the Bible, Biblical commentaries, the Talmud, the Midrash, the codes of Jewish law, the Zohar. I am proud of this library which I collected over many years. Today, every one of these books is on an app on my I-phone. I have access to them anywhere. And if I am looking up something in these books and cannot find the answer, I can do an internet search. A world of information is available to be at my fingertips, everywhere I go. On my phone I can also look up any Hebrew date if given the English date, or any English date if given the Hebrew date. I can find the candle lighting time for Shabbat anywhere in the world.
I already mentioned how I have down-loaded a siddur on my phone. I have stood in line to get a kosher hotdog at the ballpark, when someone asks me, would I help make a minyan. So I miss half an inning to help someone say kaddish. I look around me and there are ten or more Jewish men, most of them Orthodox, davening, each looking at his phone. There are other multiple uses of my smart phone as a Jew. I can go on Youtube and listen to lectures by rabbis and prayers by cantors, all over the world. I even have a few lectures of my own on Youtube, and I hope to add some more. I can be a Jew using my cell phone in ways that my grandparents could not even imagine.
There is another great advantage to the new technology, as a teaching tool. I am convinced that the future of Conservative Judaism depends upon us embracing conversion. All over the world are communities longing to be Jewish. Often the only way to reach them is through skype and similar apps. Already an entire community known as Abayudaya in Uganda has converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative Movement. They even have their own rabbi who studied at the Ziegler School in Los Angeles. Similar communities have sprung up in Africa and Latin America. Many of you know that I have worked with a community of converts in Colombia. Recently I performed two conversions in Barbados, with more people interested. If not for the new technology, these conversions would not have happened.
In so many ways the new technology is good. But in other ways it is not only bad, but extremely destructive. Why is it destructive? Next time you go out to a public place, a coffee house or restaurant, look if there is a table of young people, people in their teens or early twenties. Odds are they will not be talking to each other or even looking at each other. Odds are they will be looking into their smart phones. The technology has become a way for people to not see each other.
A wonderful rabbi in Los Angeles, a colleague of mine named Naomi Levi, just published a new book called Einstein and the Rabbi. There is a great deal of wisdom in the book. She tells the story of arriving in Jerusalem on a mission with other rabbis and going up to Mt. Scopus as they entered the city. A panoramic view of Jerusalem including the entire Old City lay before them. All the rabbis turned their back to the city and started snapping pictures of what looked like a pile of rocks beside the road. Was this a holy site she did not know about? It took her a moment to realize that it was just a pile of rocks. The rabbis were snapping selfies with the city of Jerusalem behind them. This is the problem with the new technology. We see ourselves. But we do not see others.
I have been addicted recently to a television series on Netflix called Black Mirror. It is like The Twilight Zone but set in a technological future. Most episodes are dystopias, showing technology at its worst. Let me share one episode, called “Nosedive.” Do you know how whenever we use a business, we are asked to rate it – one to five stars? The younger generation will not buy anything without first looking at its rating on Yelp. This particular episode stars Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard. (Remember him as Opie on the Andy Griffin Show.) She lives in a world where every time people meet, they rate each other. Bryce plays a young woman named Lacie who wants to move into a new apartment, but her rating is not high enough. She keeps trying to up her ratings, but everything goes wrong. She accidently bumps into a woman, causing her to spill her coffee, the woman gives her a one star rating and the number drops. So the episode goes on. Imagine a world where we use an app to rate one another. We are getting close to that world.
This brings me to the heart of the problem with the new technology. Judaism is about the other. It is about seeing the other. It is about “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is about “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is about community. You cannot pray without a minyan. You need other Jews to be Jewish. My favorite Jewish teaching, which most of you heard me share many times is, in the mishkan, the ancient portable sanctuary, where was God? The mishkan had two Cherubim, portrayals of human beings facing one another. God appeared between the faces of the Cherubim. God is present when human beings meet each other face-to-face. Imagine if each Cherub had a smart phone taking selfies. God would be absent.
This idea, that when one human being encounters another human being face-to-face, is so important that it became the central teaching of one of the most important Jewish philosophers in the twentieth century. Most of you have heard of Martin Buber, not only a philosopher but a strong Zionist and a collector of Hasidic stories. Buber taught a religion of encounter. If I encounter another person in a full relationship, what Buber called an I-Thou relationship, that becomes an encounter with God. Buber taught that every I-Thou relationship is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou, to God. Tomorrow I will look at another great Jewish thinker, Emmanuel Levinas, who developed this idea even further.
This brings me to the heart of the problem with the new technology. When we look at selfies, we fail to see the other. Technology becomes a barrier between people. Many years ago in a high holiday sermon, I spoke about how automation prevents us from interacting with real human beings. At that time, I said that when I drive on a toll road, I always go to the toll booth manned by a human being rather than a machine. That sermon is so dated. Today there are no booths manned by human beings. Technology has replaced people. The biggest proof – try to get a real live human being on the phone when you call your bank, a store, an airline, or a government agency. Buber would be horrified if he was alive today. We cannot see the other when we are looking at a smart phone.
There was an article that appeared last year in the Atlantic Monthly by psychologist Jean M. Twenge. The title of the article is “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” She speaks about teens and young adults, what she calls the iGen. This is the first generation who have always had smartphones. More and more they do not get together in person. They sit in their rooms, text and send Snapchats. Younger people are not dating and many are putting off learning to drive. There are positive results. Teen pregnancy is falling as is teen drunkenness. A young person cannot get pregnant sitting in their bedroom talking on their phone. But there is a scary part. To quote one young person in Twenge’s article, “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” Depression and loneliness is rising. Bullying on social media is common. And suicide rates among young people has gone way up.
Technology is neither good nor bad. As a tool for learning or teaching it is wonderful. But often social media disconnects us. I know people with thousands of friends and Facebook who tell me how lonely they are. To demonstrate the challenges of the new technology, let me raise two issues. Suppose I have ten adult Jews spread around the world, all of them online in a chatroom. Is that a minyan? Could they say kaddish? Could I have a totally virtual service where no two people are in the same place? Would we consider that a minyan?
My gut feeling is that ten people in a chat room is not a minyan. To become a minyan there must be ten Jews, all of them in the same room. They must be able to see each other. There is a difference between being face-to-face and being connected by technology, as much as I love facetime. Often on Friday night I facetime with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. I am guilty; I do use my smart phone on Shabbat. But I use it for activities that I believe are in keeping with Shabbat, like connecting to family. Still, ten people Skyping with one another, even if they can see the color of each other’s eyes, is not a minyan. At least that is how I see it. Other rabbis may disagree.
A second question that has come up several times to our ritual committee. Should we stream our Shabbat, festival, and High Holiday services over the internet? Let us suppose that we set up the equipment to go on automatically, like a Shabbat clock. There are significant arguments on both sides of this issue. Those in favor say that people who are homebound, people in the hospital, people without transportation, people who are travelling, could tune in and watch services. The grandma in New York who cannot come in for her grandson’s bar mitzvah can watch it on the computer, assuming she knows how to use a computer. Not only Reform but many Conservative synagogues provide this service for their members and others, and they have received notification that people from multiple time zones are watching. Mumbai India is 9 ½ hours ahead of us. You could tune from India in Saturday night at 6:30 pm and pray our morning service. Maybe someone in Mumbai would even send in a donation.
But many are quick to point out the disadvantages. It is not simply that the equipment might break, that someone might have to fix it on Shabbat. The question is, would it become a disincentive to coming to services in person? Why deal with the crowds and the parking, particularly on the High Holidays, when I can lie in my bed, turn on my tablet, and say my prayers. Rather than creating community, would it not destroy community. People do not interact if everyone is on their own computer or tablet or cell phone. A big part of what creates a synagogue would be lost. These concerns are real and have been expressed by many of our members when the idea comes up.
There are good arguments on both sides of the issue of streaming our services live, and I am not going to decide it here. There are arguments on both sides of technology. Judaism teaches that technology is neither good nor bad. It depends how it is used. Fire can be used to cook a meal or to burn down a home. Smart phones can be used to check a bank account, book an airplane flight, or study Torah. Smart phones can also be used to take selfies, avoid seeing others, and send cruel messages to the most vulnerable.
May we learn to use these tools in a positive way, to make the world a better place. May we never stop seeing the face of the other, and let us say Amen.

YIZKOR 5779 – 2018
A young woman decides to flee her traditional Jewish home in New York. She moves to North Dakota to do volunteer work on an Indian reservation. A few months later she calls her mom. “Mom, I met a wonderful young man, a Native American. On the reservation they call him Running Stallion. We are getting married next month in an authentic Native American ceremony.” The mother becomes very angry, “you know that your father and I cannot approve.” And she hangs up on her. The young woman is upset, but her fiancé says, “Don’t worry. I am sure she will come around. I will call her after the wedding.” Sure enough, the young man waits till after the wedding, then calls the mother. He tells his new wife, “See, I told you she would come around. She even took on an Indian name. She told me she is now Sitting Shiva.”
Through most of Jewish history we Jews have seen the world as divided between our own kind and the other. Remember the words of Tevye in the song Tradition at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof. “Then, there are others in our village. They have a much bigger circle. His Honor the Constable, His Honor the Priest, and His Honor … many others. We don’t bother them and so far they don’t bother us.” The others keep their distance. Of course, we all know how Tevye reacted when his daughter Chava married one of them. In the Jewish world, and in fact in the world in general, humanity is divided between our kind, our people, our tribe and the other. One sticks to one’s own kind. Or as Tevye said, “a bird could love a fish, but where would they build a house.”
This morning I want to look at a world divided between us and them, our kind and the other. To begin, let us look back to one of Judaism’s oldest rituals, performed by the ancient priest on Yom Kippur. Lots were thrown between two goats. One goat became holy, designated for a sacrifice within the Temple. The other goat was designated for Azazel, literally a desert demon. That goat would carry the sins of the people away into the desert. We will reenact this ancient ritual during our Musaf service. The English word “scapegoat” literally comes from this ritual, from the goat sent off to the demon of the desert.
I came across a fascinating scholarly interpretation of this ritual. The French literary critic and anthropologist Rene Girard taught that this ritual fulfills a fundamental human need. He called his philosophy mimetics, similar to the word mimic. My neighbor gets something, say a new car, and I want to mimic him, I want a new car. My neighbor vacations in Italy and I want to mimic him, I want to vacation in Italy. Conflicts arise. In every culture and every society there is what Girard called mimetic rivalry as people compete with one another. How do we overcome this rivalry? That is what the scapegoat symbolizes. Every culture has an other, someone who becomes a scapegoat. According to Girard, the entire Yom Kippur ritual mythically teaches the resolution of the conflict. The first goat, the one offered in the Temple, represents us, our community, our people, our tribe. The other goat, the scapegoat, represents the other, the demonic, the enemy, the people that must be thrust out. Only by sending our sins unto the other can the conflicts within our own society be resolved. We need the other, the scapegoat.
Today I want to talk about confronting the other. I want to make two points. First, it is in the nature of things to have a scapegoat, an other. Second, Judaism is about moving beyond nature and seeing the humanity of the other. According to Girard, every culture has its scapegoat, its other. And as most of us know, through most of human history the true scapegoat, the true other, has been the Jews. It is as if the world needs Jews to carry away its sins and resolve its conflicts. The Bible itself seems to say that. Isaiah chapter 53 speaks of a suffering servant who carries away the sins of the people. To Christians the suffering servant is Jesus. He was the other. But to Jews, the suffering servant is the Jews. We are the other.
Every culture has had its other. Too often it has been the Jews. Sometimes it is blacks or women or Moslems or immigrants or evangelical Christians or gays or … the list goes on and on. To many Israelis the other is the Palestinians, and to many Palestinians the other is the Israelis. When a Palestinian teenager stabbed to death Ari Fuld, an American immigrant activist immigrant in Gush Etzion this week, he did not see a human being. He saw an other. To Haridim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), the other is the Reformim. (To Haridim, we Conservative Jews are Reformim.) To liberal Jews, the other is the Haridim. According to Girard, the other plays a key role in any society. Cultures need to have an other to demonize, to scapegoat, to carry away sins. The world is divided between our kind and the other. That is human nature.
Of course, there are voices who disagree, who believe that the time has come to stop dividing the world between us and the other. Let me share one of the most controversial moments of this past year. Novelist Michael Chabon, author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was invited to address the graduating class of rabbis at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinic seminary. He was extremely controversial, saying words that are still being debated today. He attacked Israel, he attacked Jewish ritual, and most important, he attack the Jewish ban on intermarriage. He is a brilliant writer. Let me quote just a few lines of his speech. “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders and the preposterous history of Barack Obama. I am for the hodgepodge cuisines of seaports and crossroads, for sampling and mashups, pastiche and collage. I am for ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity, muddle, complexity, diversity, creative balagan.” Although he himself married a Jew and raised his kids Jewish, he feels almost guilty about it, “An endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two; as the traditional Jewish wedding ritual makes explicit, it draws a circle around the married couple, inscribes them—and any eventual children who come along—within a figurative wall of tradition, custom, shared history, and a common inheritance of chromosomes and culture.”
How did these young Reform rabbis take to this speech? Many were upset. This is not the Judaism they had been taught, a Judaism where at Havdalah we say, hamavdil ben Yisrael v’Amim “Who separates Israel from other people.” This is not the Judaism of the Torah which teaches, “This is a people who dwell apart and are not counted among the nations.” What should they think when their ordination speaker condemns Israel, Jewish ritual, and Jews marrying Jews? And yet, as much as I hate to admit it, Chabon has a point. Too often if we divide the world between ourselves and the other, we demonize the other. The other becomes a threat, a danger. The other becomes the scapegoat. We fail to see the humanity of the other. Let me share some examples, all from this past year.
We speak about about building a wall, separating ourselves from the other. There was a photograph that appeared in social media of a prominent progressive politician, I won’t give his name, carrying a sign that said, “From Palestine to Mexico, All the Walls Have Got to Go.” In the past this politician had been friendly to the Jewish state. He claimed that he did not realize the sign was anti-Israel. Yes, Israel did a build a wall, and was condemned by much of the world for doing so. Why did Israel build the wall? Remember the second Intifada, when Palestinian terrorists blew up busses and cafes in Israel on an almost daily basis. Since building the wall, the daily terrorism has stopped. One can build a wall to keep the other out, if the other is threatening to kill you. But even as Israel built the wall, it needs to remember that most Palestinians are not terrorists. And all Palestinians are God’s children, created in the image of God.
What about the wall between the United States and Mexico? Some of our members have called on me to support such a wall as the only way to keep illegal immigrants out. Some of our members have called on me to denounce such a wall as an affront to human dignity. I am going to disappoint everyone; I will not give an opinion. But I will say that immigration is a complex issue that will not be solved by bumper sticker with sayings like – “build the wall” or “tear down the wall.” Let me look for a moment at immigration.
On the one hand, unless you are pure bred native American, you or your ancestors were immigrants. My grandparents were all immigrants, except for my mom’s mom who was born in the United States of immigrant parents. It is time to recognize the humanity and human dignity of immigrants. I think of the story of a woman who sees two people talking in a foreign language in a restaurant. She does not recognize the language and so she confronts them. “You’re in America now. Why can’t you speak our country’s language, English?! The couple looks at her sadly. “Sorry we bothered you. We were speaking Navajo.”
We need immigrants. And yet there is another side. I don’t believe any country can afford to totally open its borders and let everyone in. Europe is dealing with a serious immigration crisis. In 2011 the prime minister of Germany Angela Merkel, the then prime minister of France Nicolas Sarkozy, and the then prime minister of England David Cameron all admitted that the open immigration policies of their respective countries were failing. All three countries are facing an anti-immigration backlash from their right wing. It hit home for me when I visited Paris and took a walking tour of the city with the local Conservative rabbi. As we were leaving his apartment, he told me to take off my yarmulke. It is not safe to walk in Paris with a yarmulke. Immigration is a serious issue. Of course, the situations are different; in Europe the immigrants are mostly Moslem from Turkey, North Africa, and Asia. In the United States the immigrants are mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean. And Israel is facing its own immigration crisis, mostly from the Sudan and other parts of black Africa. Whatever policy we follow towards immigration, all immigrants including those who are here illegally are created in the image of God.
The demonization of illegal immigrants often comes from the right side of the political spectrum. But the left can be equally guilty of demonizing the other. Let me site one flagrant example from this past year. The Supreme Court ruled on the case of a Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Personally, I think he was wrong. But the Supreme Court ruled in Phillips favor. They did not say that it was permissible to discriminate against gays. It was a much narrower decision. They ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown a clear bias against religious Christians. To many on the left, religious Christians are the other. Justice Kennedy wrote that “these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.” Clearly in this case, both gays and religious Christians became the other.
Some of the worst demonization of people by the left happens on college campuses, particularly if a speaker is Israeli or conceived as being pro-Israeli. In May at the University of Houston, pro-Palestinian protestors shouted down Nikki Haley, our ambassador to the United Nations, because of her pro-Israel stand. They held up Palestinian flags and chanted, “Nikki Nikki can’t you see, You are on a killing spree.” On too many college campuses, anyone perceived as pro-Israel becomes the other. And more and more Jewish students feel they are becoming persona non grata on their own college campuses.
Let me give one more example of being treated like the other – how too many men treat women. In 1949 the French existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote her groundbreaking book The Second Sex. She pointed out that in our day-to-day discourse, whenever we talk about a human being, we mean a male human being. Males are the norm and females are subordinate. Women are the other. And by being the other, too many men feel that it is permissible to mistreat women.
This year the issue blew-up in the film industry, thanks to the behavior of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and too many others. Women started the #metoo movement as more and more women came forward. Recently I had a long, fascinating talk with someone I met from Los Angeles who is both an actor and a director. He told me how, as he was directing a movie for a major studio, he was called into the office of the studio head. They asked him, “Have you seen any sexual harassment happening on your movie set.” He answered that he is on a set with hundreds of people, many of them attractive young actresses. He cannot guarantee that it will never happen, but he will do his best to stop it. The movie industry is scared.
Such sexual harassment, of treating women as the other, mere sex objects, is not confined to the movie business. It happens in government, in corporations, on universities, and dare I say, in the religious world. The issue came to a head in our own synagogue this year. Many of the prayers we chant, particularly on Friday nights, were composed by the late musician and spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. There have long been rumors that Carlebach was a womanizer. Of late, more and more women have said that he was a true sexual predator. His daughter Neshama Carlebach, a well down singer in her own right who just married a colleague of mine, has said that her father is dead and cannot defend himself against charges. The issue came up in our synagogue, should we stop singing his music? It would mean changing the religious school curriculum and removing some of our favorite songs from the liturgy.
I argued before the ritual committee that we can separate the art from the artist. Artists could be evil, but the art itself is neither good nor bad. For the moment the ritual committee went along with me. I wrote a piece for our Scroll about Carlebach, and we continue to sing his tunes without mentioning his name. But there was serious dissent among members who want us to remove any Carlebach music from our liturgy. The question raised by the #metoo movement about separating the art from the artist has provoked serious discussion. I am not sure what the right answer is. Meanwhile, it is vital that we stop treating women as de Beauvoir’s second sex, as the other. The Torah teaches that God created humanity in God’s image, male and female God created them. From the beginning of Genesis, males and females are created in the image of God.
Perhaps the lesson in all of this is that it is human nature to divide the world into us and them, ourselves and the other. We all are sometimes guilty. You know I like Broadway shows. There was a song in the Broadway hit, the R-rated version of Sesame Street called Avenue Q. Here are the lyrics, “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find, No one’s really color-blind. Maybe it’s a fact we should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race.” Perhaps there is a touch of truth in the song. It is too easy to look at the other – Jews who practice differently, religious Christians, Moslems, illegal immigrants, blacks, gays, Palestinians, or even Israelis, and see the other. It is easy to demonize those who disagree with us.
Before Selichot services we showed the movie Focus. It is based on a novel by Arthur Miller and speaks of antisemitism in the United States towards the end of World War II. In one scene, the main character Larry Neuman, who the neighbors think is Jewish, confronts his neighbor Finklestein, the one Jew in the neighborhood. He tells Finklestein all the reasons he does not like Jews. Finklestein asks, “Do you think I am that kind of person.” Neuman answers, “Your people are.” Then Finklestein speaks a line that is at the heart of how we feel about the other. “When you look at me, you don’t see me.” “When you look at me, you don’t see me.” That is how we view the other, we don’t see them. We see some pre-conceived stereotype of them. How can we learn truly to see the other?
Perhaps we can learn something from one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. His name was Emmanuel Levinas. He was a committed Jew who ran a Jewish school and wrote books about Judaism. He was also one of those French postmodern philosophers. At the heart of his philosophy is that in life we confront the other. We can never fully know the other. In fact, he uses the fancy word “alterity” to describe the other, meaning the state of being utterly different from me. But according to Levinas, the moment I see the face of the other, I have obligations. His or her presence before me lays ethical obligations on me.
Levinas believed that when we approach the other with an open mind, when we move beyond ourselves, we not only have ethical obligations. We can learn from the other. Every other, particularly of a different race or religion or ethnic group, has something to teach us. Here Levinas is simply reflecting the words of one of the great Talmudic rabbis Ben Zoma. Aizai Hu Hacham? HaLomed mi Kol Adam. “Who is Wise? The one who learns from everyone.”
The lesson of the scapegoat, the lesson taught by Rene Girard, is that it is human nature to divide the world into my kind and the other; it is natural to demonize the other. The lesson of Judaism as taught by Emmanuel Levinas is to rise above human nature, to truly see the other. .
We are about to begin our yizkor services. As we prepare to remember those no longer with us, we remember the seventeen precious souls taken from us this past February at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. We pray for healing for all those bereaved and wounded by those horrible events. It is the worst example of someone who saw their fellow human beings as the other, not worthy of life.
May God help us the humanity in the other, and let us say,