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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2021 High Holiday Sermons

1st Day Rosh Hashana 5782 – 1021
I Believe, Part 1
There is a story about a drought back in the old country. Everybody prayed for rain, but it did not help. The synagogue arranged for a minyan of pious men to go to the edge of town and pray for rain, but it did no good. The elderly rabbi, having difficulty moving around, went to the edge of town and prayed for rain, but it did no good. Finally, a little boy said, let me try. He went to the edge of town and prayed, and the heavens opened up. The rain poured down. The rabbi called out to God, “You did not hear my prayers or those of the most pious men in town. But you listened to this boy. Why, God?”
Then a voice answered back from heaven. “I listened to his voice because he had faith in me. He was the only one who came to pray with an umbrella.” To pray for rain with an umbrella, that is faith.
These are my last official High Holiday sermons as your rabbi. I think you deserve do know what I believe. Today and tomorrow, I want to speak about faith – and doubt. You all know that at some point in my sermon I will quote a Broadway show. Let me start both today and tomorrow with shows that won the Tony Award for best musical. In 2011 The Book of Mormon won. It is an extremely entertaining show, irreverent, often crude, but with great music and a worthy message. One thing that impressed me when I saw the show is that there were a group of Mormon missionaries passing out leaflets outside the theater. Instead of picketing the show, they wrote, “Enjoy the show. Then contact us to learn what the real Book of Mormon says.”
In the show was one song that always brought down the house. Elder Price, played by Andrew Rannells, abandoned his companion Elder Cunningham and abandoned his mission to convert a community in Uganda. Now he felt guilty, decided to return, and he sang the wonderful song, “I Believe.” “I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon does believe.” The song is a crowd pleaser, you can watch it on YouTube. But it made me wonder. Could a Jew ever say, “I am a Jew, and a Jew does believe.” (Don’t worry, I will not try to sing it.”)
I am aware that Judaism is based on action, not on faith. When the Danish, Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke about a “leap of faith,” the Jewish rabbi philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel responded that Judaism is about a “leap of action.” We Jews have always been a bit skeptical about religious faith. I think of the boy who comes home from Sunday school and tells his parents, “Religion is when you believe things that you know are not true.” What is important is not what you believe but what you do.
And yet there must be an underlying faith. Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and rabbi, wrote out thirteen articles of faith that a Jew should believe. Each article begins with the words, anee maameen be’emuna shelema. “I believe with a perfect faith.” I am not going to list his thirteen articles of faith. We will be here all day. But I am going to answer the question, what are my articles of faith? After serving as your rabbi for over thirty years, I think you deserve to know what I believe. So without singing, I am going to list three things I believe. To paraphrase a hit Broadway show, I am a Jew and a Jew does believe.
When I teach my Introduction to Judaism class, my first class is always entitled “What Jews Believe.” And I always begin with the words, I want to introduce the Jewish trinity. Do not worry; I am not speaking about the father, the son, and the holy spirit. That is the Christian trinity. But people who design stools know that it takes three legs to stand firm. Judaism stands on three legs. The Jewish trinity, the three pillars of Jewish faith, are God, Torah, and Israel. So let me say, I am a Jew, and a Jew believes in God, Torah, and Israel. Allow me to explain.
I believe in God. What do I mean by that? I do not mean that there is a man with a grey beard sitting in the sky and controlling everything, now parting a sea and now sending us a pandemic. I do not believe in a big book where God writes down who will live and who will die, who by earthquake and who by plague. At least I do not believe in this literally. I think my belief is much closer to the God of Lurianic kabbalah, a God Who limited God’s self by an act of tzimtzum or contraction, leaving behind holy sparks we have to uncover. I believe in a limited God that left room for us humans to have free will and for the laws of nature to unfold. Perhaps my God is, as Einstein put it when asked if he believed in God, closer to Spinoza’s God then the God of the Bible. It is a God Who is manifested in the glory of the natural world. It is God the Creator.
I believe in God because I do not believe the world came into being by random chance. I do not believe that the big bang was simply a quantum burst of random energy. I believe that there had to be a mind or a will behind everything that exists, and I call that mind or will God. God created the universe through an act of volition. The universe is fine-tuned so that life will evolve. For example, the earth is at exactly the right distance from the sun so that water is in liquid form. If the earth were a bit closer to the sun, it would be a world of steam. If the earth were a bit farther from the sun, it would be a world of ice. Like the Goldilocks story, our world is not too hot and not too cold, but just right. You need liquid water for the chemicals of life to come together. There are countless other examples. How does an atheist explain the universe? Let me give you the prevalent view today among many atheist scientists and philosophers.
They have a theory of a multi-verse. There are billions of different universes, each with its own physical laws. The odds of winning the lottery are miniscule. But sell enough lottery tickets and somebody is going to win. The odds of a universe appearing where life, and particularly human life evolves, are miniscule. But if enough universes exist, one of them is bound to be just right for human life. If you believe in a multiverse, you do not need God. Ours is the one of the billions of universes where everything worked out right.
This theory has scientists and philosophers convinced. But I don’t buy it. There is a principle known as Occam’s razor, named after the medieval philosopher William of Occam. If there are multiple explanations for something, you take the simplest explanation. Which is the simplest explanation, a multiverse or a God Creator? I choose to believe in God. And that means I believe there is a mind or a will or a force that wanted us here. You and I must be here for a reason. So I believe in God. When I think of the universe, I believe in Creation.
I believe in Torah. What do I mean by that? Torah means teaching and I believe that God Who created the universe has teachings for us, both as human beings and as Jews. I do not believe that the written Torah we have was given word by word and letter by letter, as if God were sending data over a modem. I reject the idea that the Torah contains secret codes, that we can study the letters of the Torah to predict Haman and Hitler. And I do not believe every teaching of the Talmud was already given by God to Moses. The Rabbis of the Talmud tell the story of Moses visiting the future academy where Rabbi Akiba was teaching. He was teaching the meaning of all the little crowns on the letters of the Torah. And Moses did not understand a word Akiba was saying. Moses began to feel weak, until Akiba said, “This is the Torah Moses gave us at Mt. Sinai.” With that, Moses felt better.
So, what do I believe? The Rabbis teach that when God created the world, God had a primordial Torah. It was the blueprint God used to create the world. God had a vision of what kind of world to create. And we humans can gain insights of that original primordial Torah, insights of how God wants us to live. To quote Abraham Joshua Heschel again, the written Torah is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation. It is a human document. But it is a human document that shares insights of that original primordial Torah. It is a document that teaches us what God wants us to do.
That is why we Jews worship God by studying the Torah. We are constantly searching for answers, interpreting and reinterpreting. Let me give a simple example. The Torah teaches that we gather with a minyan, a quorum of ten Jews who see each other face-to-face, to chant our most important prayers including the mourner’s kaddish. But what if a pandemic prevents us from coming together and seeing one another face-to-face? What if we can only see one another in little square boxes on a computer? Is that a minyan? Can we say kaddish? When covid hit, I struggled with that question, and I decided that if technology allows us to see each other’s faces on a computer, that is a minyan. And so we have a minyan and say kaddish every morning and every evening, praying in front of our computers. Other rabbis disagreed with me, strongly. In person means in person, in the same room. We Jews have always disagreed about what the Torah demands. That is what is so beautiful about Torah. I believe in Torah, as a human interpretation of God’s will. When thinking of Torah, I believe in Revelation.
Finally, I believe in Israel. By Israel I do not mean the country. The technical name of the country is Medinat Yisrael “The State of Israel.” By Israel, I mean the people Israel. I mean what the Bible calls this stubborn, stiff-necked people. I believe being a Jew, part of the people Israel, is vitally important, even for Jews who never set foot in synagogue, even for Jews who do not know a knish from a quiche. The historian Arnold Toynbee called the Jewish people, “fossils of history.” To Toynbee, we are a people who should not exist, a people who should have gone the way of the Moabites and the Edomites, should have disappeared from history long ago. I disagree. I believe the people Israel have played a vital role in history and will continue to do so. God needs the people Israel as part of God’s plan.
Who is this people Israel? The word means “wrestles with God.” We are a people who constantly wrestle with God. This is not simply the story of Abraham, who argued with God to save the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is not simply the Biblical story of Job, who challenged God to a trial to find out why he was suffering. These are the Jews of Auschwitz who held a mock trial of God. They called witnesses to defend God and witnesses to prosecute God. At the end of their mock trial, these prisoners of Auschwitz found God guilty. When they were finished with their mock trial, they davened mincha, prayed the afternoon service. This is an amazing story. It is the story of a people who wrestle with God, and who pray to God.
Israel, the people who wrestle with God, have been the eternal iconoclasts. Do you know what an iconoclast is? It is a person who does not accept the established truths and established ways of doing things. The classical example was Abraham our father, who grew up in a world of idol worshippers. According to a famous Midrash, Abraham grew up in a home where his father owned an idol shop. One day, seeing the absurdity of worshipping idols, he smashed the idols in the shop. (No, this story is not in the Torah, it is in the Midrash.) Ever since, we Jews have made a point of smashing idols, of not accepting how things are because they have always been that way. The Midrash says that if everyone stood on one side of the river, Abraham stood on the other.
Let me give an example of being a Jewish iconoclast. I already mentioned Einstein. He was not the most religious Jew, but he was deeply Jewish. He grew up in a world that accepted, since Isaac Newton, that time and space were fixed and the same everywhere. Einstein sat in the Bern patent office and thought about the world. If Newton was right, then the laws of physics will not work out properly. Newton must be wrong. Space and time must be curved and bent. Clocks must run faster or slower depending on who is looking at them. Gravity must bend light. It was a radical idea that overturned established principles of physics. And in the end, it turned out Einstein was correct. I am convinced that it took a Jew to revolutionize physics, a people who smash idols.
I believe in Israel, a people who wrestle with God. We are a people who see the world and ask, how can we make it better? Small wonder that Jews have been at the vanguard of every revolutionary movement in history, from psychoanalysis to socialism and feminism to environmentalism. By believing in Israel, I believe redemption.
So, what do I believe in? I believe in the Jewish trinity. I believe in God. I believe in Torah. I believe in Israel. To put it another way, I believe in Creation. I believe in Revelation. I believe in Redemption. For those familiar with the siddur or Jewish prayerbook, those are the three great themes. The first blessing before the Sh’ma is about Creation. The second blessing before the Sh’ma is about Revelation. The blessing after the Sh’ma is about Redemption. To paraphrase the song from The Book of Mormon, I am a Jew, and a Jew does believe.
If I say I believe, does this mean I ever have doubts? Do I ever think that maybe God does not exist? Do I ever think that the Torah is just a book and no more? Do I ever believe that the people Israel have no role in history, and their survival is a fluke? Of course, I have doubts. It is human to doubt. Faith and Doubt is the title of a book written by the late Orthodox rabbi and head of Yeshiva University Norman Lamm.
I want to look at another Broadway Tony award winning best musical. It will set us off thinking about doubt. But for that, you need to come back tomorrow. But on this first day of Rosh Hashana, may God bless us with faith.
And let us say, Amen.

2nd Day Rosh Hashana 5782 – 1021
I Believe, Part 2
There is a story about a man who falls off a cliff but is able to grab a branch. He hangs there, unable to climb up and knowing that to let go is certain death. He shouts for help, but nobody is around. He keeps shouting and finally he hears a voice, “Let go and I will catch you.” “Who is this?” “God, let go and I will catch you.”. “Are you really God?” “I am God, let go and I will catch you.” The man pauses for a moment thinking about his options, and then shouts, “Is anyone else there?”
I love that story because there is a time for faith and a time for doubt. Yesterday I spoke about my own faith, my faith in the trinity in Judaism, my faith in God, my faith in the Torah, my faith in the people Israel. Today I want to talk about doubt. Faith is important, but so is doubt. The prominent Orthodox rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, wrote a book called Faith and Doubt. He wrote, “The path to the knowledge of God is strewn with rocks and boulders of doubt; he who would despair of the journey because of the fear of doubt, must resign himself forever from attaining the greatest prize known to man.” And the Christian theologian Paul Tillich famously wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” Here are two great theologians, one Jewish and one Christian, saying that just as we need faith, we also need doubt.
I said yesterday that I would speak about another Tony Award winning Broadway show. Today I want to mention the show Hadestown, which I still have not seen. As soon as I have the opportunity I will see it. The show has a song in it called “Why We Build a Wall.” I thought perhaps it was written when Donald Trump was running for president, but in truth, the song was written a decade before. Anais Mitchell, who composed the music for the show, called the image of building a wall to protect us, a “folk archetype.”
The show is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus and Eurydice are deeply in love when Eurydice suddenly dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to try to rescue his beloved. He is told that they can be reunited if he can walk out of the underworld with her following him. But he has to have faith. He cannot look back to see if she is following. As his journey nears the end, the suspense becomes too much for him. Is she following? Orpheus looks back, sees Eurydice following, and loses her forever. In the Broadway version, Eurydice goes to the underworld to help build a wall because she is hungry, and she will be fed down there. Orpheus goes down to find her, and she is allowed to follow him out. But only if he does not look back. The muses sing a song called “Doubt Comes In.” Does doubt cause him to look back? I suppose we must see the show to find out. It is a wonderful Broadway show built on an ancient Greek legend about doubt.
What I love about Judaism is that it asks us to believe, but it leaves room for doubt. There are few people more difficult to tolerate than those who are so sure of themselves that they become smug and arrogant. It is hard to deal with people who are never wrong. Philosophers speak of something called a cognitive bias, where you only see things that support your point of view and are blind to things that challenge your point of view. Too many religious believers suffer from this cognitive bias.
A bit of doubt is healthy. It can teach us some humility. Can we doubt the existence of God? I think of the Hasidic story of the rebbe who lived a century ago in the old country, who told his followers that everything that exists can teach us something. One Hasid asks, “What can we learn from a train?” The rebbe answers, “We learn about leadership. One car full of energy can pull a string of cars with no energy.” Another Hasid asks, “What can we learn from a telephone?” The rebbe answers, “We learn about gossip. What is said over here can be heard over there.” Finally, a third Hasid, hoping to get the best of the rebbe, askes, “What do we learn from atheism?” The rebbe answers, “Atheism teaches us the most important lesson of all. We should always think there is no God. When your fellow Jew is in trouble, do not say God will provide. Perhaps there is no God, and you need to provide.” To Judaism, atheism serves a purpose. If there is no God, we must act in God’s stead.
Yesterday I said I believe in God because I do not believe the universe happened by random chance, by a quantum fluctuation. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the world did happen by random chance. Maybe the French author and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus is correct, that we live in a meaningless, absurd universe. Maybe, like another Greek myth of Sisyphus, made famous by Camus, we are like poor souls rolling a stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again, continuing for all eternity. Camus taught that even poor Sisyphus can find meaning and happiness in life. Suppose God does not exist. Then we need to be gods. We need to do the work in this world that God would do. We can be as gods. Our actions can create worlds.
Yesterday I said that I believe the Torah is God’s word, not literally letter by letter, but a human interpretation of a spiritual Torah. I quoted the midrash that God had the Torah, a primordial Torah to look at while creating the world. There is something magical and mystical about the Torah. But I do have doubts. What if I am wrong? What if the Torah is just a book, like any other book – no different in essence from War and Peace or Harry Potter, for that matter. I have read the Torah; in fact I read it through each year. It is not easy reading. Perhaps it needed a better editor What if the Torah is no more than a scroll written by a human being long ago?
I thought about this question, and then I thought about the movie our Sisterhood showed a few months ago, an animated feature called The Tattooed Torah. It is the story of a small Torah written by a scribe before World War II in a town in Czechoslovakia. The scribe’s grandson loved this little Torah and danced with it. Then the Nazis came. The little Torah was taken away and stored in a warehouse with thousands of other stolen Torahs. Just like Jews were given tattoos, each Torah was given a tattoo. The Nazis were fanatic record keepers. After the war, someone found those Torahs in a warehouse in Prague and they were relocated to London, where a scribe worked on them. In fact, we have two of those Czech Torahs on display in our synagogue. In the movie, the boy, now a grandfather himself, went to London and through the tattoo, was able to find his Torah, the one he loved as a boy, the one his grandfather wrote. He arranged to bring it back to his own synagogue in the United States.
Nowhere in that story does it say that God wrote that Torah. Nowhere did it say anything mystical or magical. The Torah was holy because of its role in the life of one Jewish boy, now a grandfather. The Torah is holy even if God did not write it, because of its role in our lives as Jews. In my first year of Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, I recall a lecture by an Orthodox rabbi. It was the height of protests about Jews in the former Soviet Union. This rabbi found a way to smuggle a Torah into Russia. He could not put it through customs; he had to hide it. When he arrived, he knew that the only way to get this Torah to its location was to travel there by car on Shabbat. He asked his rabbi, a posek or scholar of Jewish law, for permission to travel on Shabbat with a Torah. The posek answered, for purposes of bringing a Torah to a Jewish community, you may travel on Shabbat. That story made an impression on me. This is the holiness of the Torah. Even if the Torah is only a book, it is a special book to me.
Yesterday I said I believe that the Jewish people have a role and a mission in history. But what if doubt creeps in? What if I were to think that the Jewish people are just a people like everyone else, no different from Albanians or Slovenians. Would being Jewish still be important to me? Let us turn to the Olympics which just took place in Tokyo. I was excited that for the second time in Olympic history, an Israeli athlete received a gold medal. For the second time in Olympic history, Hatikva was played at the Olympics. I had to find the medal ceremony on YouTube. Artem Dolgopyat won the gold in gymnastics for floor exercise. He stood there proudly as an Israeli, and I also proudly watched. I am a Jew and this is my people.
I was privileged to do this a second time in the Tokyo Olympics. A young Israeli woman, Linoy Ashram, won a gold medal in the all-around rhythmic gymnastics. In rhythmic gymnastics an athlete is not flipping around on a four-inch beam. Rather, she is showing dance skills and flexibility with a ball, a hoop, bars, or a ribbon. And a young Israeli soldier was the best. Again. I listen to Hatikvah being played. There was controversy. Russia had always won the gold, and the Russian coach launched a protest that the judges favored Israel. I have never heard of Israel being favored for anything. Sadly, the judges of the event have been victims of harassment. And Linoy herself has been trolled online, and was forced to make her Instagram account private. The Olympics claim to be apolitical, but they are extremely political.
There is also controversy in Artem’s men’s gymnastics medal. His medal raises issues in Israel. Artem was born in the Ukraine and came to Israel when he was twelve. His father is Jewish but his mother is not. Under the law of return, the family was considered Jewish and can immigrate to Israel. Under Rabbinic law, he is not Jewish. He is looking to marry his long-time girlfriend Masha, but because only Orthodox rabbis can perform weddings in Israel, he cannot marry her. Eventually the two of them will have to travel to Cyprus, or perhaps the United States, to get married. Or perhaps this will motivate Israel to change its laws.
Why do I mention all of this? Because Jews are my family. Like a family, we care about each other. And like a family, we sometimes have vicious disagreements. I love my family. And sometimes I fight with my family. I love Jews. And sometimes I fight with Jews. But I am a Jew and these are my people. We may or may not be God’s Chosen People. But by fate, or an accident of birth, these are my people.
Yesterday I said that I believe. I believe in God, that God created the world. I believe in the Torah, that it reflects God’s teachings to us. I believe in the Jewish people, that we have a special role in history. Today I admit that sometimes I have doubt. I can doubt the existence of God. I can doubt the specialness of the Torah. I can doubt the historical purpose of the Jewish people.
I thought about calling these sermons faith and doubt. We need faith. As the Christian theologian GK Chesterson said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes in anything.” We need to have faith in something. But if faith is important, so is doubt. Doubt forces us to struggle with our beliefs and perhaps strengthen them. Doubt makes our faith stronger.
On Rosh Hashana we believe that God stands in judgment, God decides who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. I have never believed in that literally. But I do believe that it reflects a profound truth about the universe. What we do in this life matters? I have faith. I also have doubt. And it is doubt that forces me to struggle with my faith. After all, we are the people Israel. We are a people whose very name means, “struggles with God.” May we all be written for good in that Book of Life, and let us say
Amen.

Kol Nidre 5782 – 2021
Should Israel Exist?
There is a story about two men watching an old John Wayne movie. One turns to the other and says, “I will bet you $5 that within the next minute John Wayne falls off his horse.” The other man takes up the bet. Sure enough, within a minute John Wayne falls off his horse. The other man reaches to pay and the first man stops him. “I can’t take your money. I saw this movie before.” “I saw this movie before, also.” “So if you saw the movie, why did you bet that he would not fall?” “I did not think John Wayne would make the same mistake twice.”
We Jews have made the same mistake, not once, not twice, but countless times. We keep thinking that if we behave a certain way, antisemitism will disappear. We keep thinking that the world will come to accept us as Jews. As the saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.” We Jews want the world to accept us, so that we can say, to paraphrase Sally Field when she won her second Academy Award, “You like us. You really like us.” As I said on Yom Kippur a year ago, antisemitism is the world’s oldest virus, a virus that keeps mutating.
There was a time when antisemitism was based on religion. If we Jews would only change our religion, the world will love us. In the nineteenth century many Jews did just that. The German poet Henrich Heine converted to Christianity so he could get a job teaching in a university. Afterwards he regretted it. He said, “I was baptized but not converted.” Benjamin Disraeli converted and eventually became Prime Minister of Great Britain. Queen Victoria asked him about his religion. He famously replied, “I am the blank page between the Old and the New Testament.” Karl Marx had grandfathers who were rabbis. He was baptized as a child and grew up to write The Communist Manifesto. His disparagers would blame communism on the Jews. Those who hate Jews for their religion continue to hate them even if they convert.
The virus of antisemitism mutated. Judaism was not a religion but a race. The Jews were not truly white, but a separate race who threatened to pollute the pure Aryan race. More about this tomorrow. In religious antisemitism, one can convert out of Judaism. But one cannot convert out of one’s race. In the Holocaust, even Christians who had Jewish blood were victims of the death camps. After the Holocaust, such racial antisemitism became less acceptable, at least for a period of time. This racial antisemitism is coming back, especially on the right. Jews are not truly white, they are the one’s who are working to replace good white Christians with blacks, browns, Asians, and immigrants of all colors. That is why the marchers in Charlottesville shouted, “Jews will not replace us.”
Meanwhile, the virus was mutating again. Jews were hated not for their religion and not for their race, but for their national identity. Theodor Herzl believed that if the Jews had a state of their own, what he called “The Jewish Problem” would disappear. When the Jews returned to their homeland and built a nation of their own, they would become like every other nation. Jews would no longer be hated. So, the Jews created the state of Israel, took in Jewish immigrants from around the world, resurrected the Hebrew language, built a city named Tel Aviv on the sand dunes, fought countless wars against those who would destroy her, and became an economic powerhouse in the Middle East. But now a new hatred developed – a hatred of Israel. Israel is the only country in the world whose very existence is open to debate. Let me say that again. Israel is the only country in the world whose very existence is open to debate.
I can think of countless examples but let me give one. Philadelphia sponsors a big ethnic food festival each year. Food trucks from multiple ethnic groups gather to sell their wares. An Israeli food truck, Moshava, was supposed to participate. Then Moshava was uninvited by the organizers of the event. It seems that the presence of an Israeli food truck would be traumatic for Palestinians and certain progressives planning to attend. Israeli food has no place at an international food event. When there was an outcry from the Jewish community, the organizers apologized but did not invite the Israeli food truck back. Rather, they cancelled the event altogether.
This kind of anti-Israel activity happens all the time. This year an ice cream company founded by two Jewish boys in Vermont, Ben and Jerry, decided it would join the boycott of Israel. By closing its factories in parts of Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians, it put mostly Palestinians out of work. I suppose I am going to have to manage my life without Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey Ice Cream.
Should Israel continue to exist as a Jewish state? On college campuses around the country, students hold up signs saying, “Israel Practices Apartheid” and “Stop the Occupation.” What occupation are the talking about? Probably most students have no idea. But the Justice for Palestine organizations on college campuses can answer exactly what occupation. They hold signs saying, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” There will be a Palestinian state throughout the land, including not just the West Bank of the Jordan River, but all of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. What about the more than seven million Jews who live there? They are colonialists who can go back to where they came from.
To quote the late Rodney King, whose arrest brought about riots in Los Angeles, “Why can’t we just get along?” Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians just be good neighbors and get along? Some people have called for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state and the establishment of a binational state called Israel-Palestine. One state that would be a homeland for both Jews and Palestinians. There were legitimate thinkers in the early 1900’s who believed in such a binational state. Such Zionist leaders as Martin Buber and Henrietta Szold shared such a vision.
Today, one of the most articulate voices who has called for such a binational state is the progressive journalist and author Peter Beinart. He envisions one state with one government, Jews and Palestinians living together, both groups welcomed to return to their homeland. Beinart is an Orthodox Jew who grew up in a very traditional Zionist household. But his left-wing view reflect many on the progressive left. According to Beinart, the Zionist dream was for a Jewish homeland, not a Jewish state. Let the Jews have a homeland without a state, living in a Palestinian state. I believe his opinions prove that some of the biggest threats to Israel’s existence come from the progressive left.
In my mind, binational states do not work. Look at Northern Ireland, look at Cyprus, or closer to Israel, look at Syria. If there was a binational Israel-Palestine, the greatest danger would be to the seven million Jewish Israelis living there. Such a binational state, as appealing as it is to progressives, is not going to happen. Israel will never give up its self-identity as a Jewish state.
What about the two-state solution? What about two states, Israel and Palestine, built on sovereignty, security, and regional cooperation? This was the dream of the original United Nations partition plan in 1947, two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Israel offered the Palestinians of the West Bank a sovereign state after the Six Day War. A two-state solution was part of the Oslo Accords, the famous agreement between Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat. Numerous Israeli prime ministers until our own time have offered the Palestinians their own state. The vast majority of Israelis would agree to a two-state solution in a moment. It is the Palestinians who have always rejected this solution. Why?
No Palestinian leader can give up on their own dream, of a return of all Palestinians refugees and their descendants to the homes they fled during the Israel War of Independence. They call the day Israel gained independence Al Nakba “the catastrophe.” To the Palestinian mind, the only way to undo this catastrophe is a total return of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians demand that Israel open its borders to millions of Palestinians. If Israel ever agreed to this, which they will not, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. If Israel ever agreed to this, I fear for the safety of the Jews in Israel. And so the conflict continues.
The world once hated Jews for their religion. They then hated Jews for their race. Today the world hates Jews for its nationhood. They claim that it is not Jews they hate, it is the state of Israel. But to hate Israel and want to see Israel destroyed is to hate Jews and want to see Jews killed. Some people say that they are anti-Jewish because of Israel. I believe it is the other way around. People are anti-Israel because it is Jewish. The animus is not against just Israel, but against Jews. Why else would Rose Ritch, a Jewish student at the University of Southern California, where my nephew went to college, be forced to resign her position on the student government? As a Jew and a Zionist, she could not fairly represent all the students at U.S.C.
Let me make it clear. When I talk about Israel, I am not speaking about the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians or towards the territories occupied during the Six Day War. We can argue about Israeli politics. Certainly, Israelis do. What we cannot argue about is Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. In philosophy, we speak about brute facts, certain assertions that are given and not open to debate. I take it as a given that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. Those who seek to destroy Israel as a Jewish state are not simply enemies of Israel, they are enemies of the Jewish people. We must fight this attack on the existence of Israel with all the resources available to us.
There are over 200 sovereign nations in the world. 193 nations belong to the United Nations. Of these nations, there is only one nation whose existence is still open to debate. Only Israel still must convince the world that it has the right to exist. This is true 73 years after its founding, with the blessing of the United Nations. Today there are university classes taught by tenured professors at some of the leading colleges of the country, built on the question – should Israel continue to exist? How sad that it is even open to debate?
Fortunately, Israelis do not think about such existential questions. They know their lives are at stake and they must fight to maintain a Jewish state. I recall a meeting a group of rabbis had with President Joe Biden when he was still Vice President. It was at a home in Boca Raton. Biden told us a story of a meeting he had early in his career with the late Prime Minister Golda Meir. Golda mentioned the threats to Israel from the north, from the east, and from the south. Biden asked her, “how do you manage with all those threats?” Golda smiled, “We Israelis have a secret weapon.” Biden replied, “What kind of secret weapon?” Golda said, “We have nowhere else to go.”
Seven million Jews live in Israel. It is open to any other Jew, anywhere in the world, who needs a place to call home. They are not going anywhere. Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation is not open to debate. It is a given – a brute fact. The sooner the world realizes that, the sooner there will be peace in the Mideast.
May God give strength to his people, and may God bless His people with peace, and let us say, Amen.

Yizkor 5782 – 2021
A Virus Called Racism
A woman called the local military base before Thanksgiving. “I want to invite five young soldiers for Thanksgiving dinner. But no Jews, I want good Christian boys.” The person at the base took her request. Then before Thanksgiving dinner, she opened the door to see five young black men dressed in military uniforms. She gasped, “There must be something wrong.” One of the young men answered, “There is nothing wrong. Captain Goldberg never makes a mistake.”
I first heard this story over forty years ago. It resonated then and it resonates now. Racism does not go away. Last year on Kol Nidre night, I gave a sermon in which I called antisemitism the world’s oldest virus. I was wrong. There is a virus still older. It is called racism. How do I know it is older? In the Bible, before there were Jews, in the story of Noah and his sons, we get the first hints of racism. Something happens between Noah and his middle son Ham. Noah curses Ham and his son Canaan. “Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” Kush was a son of Ham, a brother of Canaan. The word Kush came to mean Ethiopia, people who are black. People interpret the Bible that Noah curses people who are black. In the old South people quoted this verse to support slavery. As Shakespeare said in Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
This is not the only place where racism appears in the Bible. Miriam, Moses’ sister, insults Moses’ wife for being a Kushite woman, a black woman. As a punishment, God afflicts Miriam with leprosy, turning her skin white. It is as if God is saying to Miriam, “You like being white. I will make you extremely white.” Moses prays for his sister, and she recovers. Later in the Bible, in Song of Songs, the young shepherd woman says, “Gaze not upon me because my skin is dark, for I have been scorched by the sun.” She has been harassed by the other young women for her dark skin. But she saw her dark skin as a gift, as something beautiful. It is the first example of black is beautiful.
In Biblical times race was part of public discourse. And in our own day race is still the issue that will not go away. Whether it is “Black Lives Matter,” “critical race theory,” “the 1619 project,” “affirmative action,” or the riots over the senseless murder of George Floyd, race is at the center of our public discourse. One moment that hit home with me was when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle about the birth of their son Archie. They shared the sad fact that, because Meghan is bi-racial, some members of the royal family were worried about the race of their soon-to-be-born baby. This is one of the issues that caused Harry and Meghan’s estrangement from the royal family.
Racism exists not just in the United States but in Great Britain, and most the rest of Europe. I am sad to admit that it even exists in Israel. There are a group of Jews in Uganda known as the Abayudaya. They were converted through the Conservative Movement and even have a Conservative rabbi, trained in the United States, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, as their spiritual leader. Several members of the community have attempted to make aliya, move to Israel. They have been turned down by the Israeli Department of Interior, which handles immigration. Other converts from the Conservative Movement have been welcomed to Israel, including several I have converted. It is clear that the Abayudaya were turned down because they were black.
Judaism dreams of a color-blind society. Judaism would support Martin Luther King Jr’s famous statement, “People should be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” I love an old Dennis the Menace cartoon. Dennis introduces his mom to his new friend, who is black. “Me and Jackson are exactly the same age. Only he’s different. He’s left-handed.” Race should make no more difference than handedness. Sad to say, race matters.
I remember being invited to participate in an interfaith service for Martin Luther King Day. They handed me a reading to recite. The reading began, “Love is patient, love is kind.” I told them I could not read this. It is from the New Testament, the Christian Bible. Flustered, they asked if I could find something else to read. I ended up quoting the Mishna. “Why are we all descended form one couple, Adam and Eve. So, no person can ever say, my father is better than your father.” Or as the prophet Malachi said, “Have we not one Father, did not one God create us all.” Race should be a non-issue. But sad to say, race seems to always be an issue.
Why are they many races? I believe it is part of the miracle of God, growing out of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Human life began in Africa. Because of the strong sunlight and threat of ultraviolet radiation, the humans who flourished in Africa had more melanin in their skin. Melanin causes dark skin. Since humans began there, dark skin should be the default position. But humans migrated throughout the world. As they migrated north,
particularly to places like Scandinavia in Northern Europe, dark skin was a disadvantage. People need Vitamin D to survive, which comes from sunlight. Those with less melanin and lighter skin produced more Vitamin D and had a better chance of survival. So lighter skin evolved. Race is part of the miracle of evolution. A multitude of races ought to be celebrated. But sadly, is not true.
To quote two Broadway shows (I promise this is the last time I will quote Broadway shows), in South Pacific, we learn “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade, you’ve got to my carefully taught.” And in Avenue Q, we learn, “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 all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race.” Judging people based on race seems ingrained in human nature. Racism needs to be fought – racism on the right, racism on the left, and racism in the moderate middle.
Racism on the right is clear. There are people who hate blacks, Hispanics, Asians, immigrants, and anyone who is not a good white Christian. These people often hate Jews most of all. For Jews can pass as white, but they are not really white. Jews are a threat. That is why, when this group of racists marched in Charlotteville, VA, they shouted, “Jews will not replace us.” That is why Robert Bowers murdered eleven people in Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He blamed the Jews for supporting immigration and causing the mongrel-ization of the white race.
Not everyone on the right is a fanatic. I had a neighbor once who was a very nice man. I had been to his home. But when we put our house on the market, suddenly he hung a confederate flag outside. The message was clear. Certain people would not be welcome in our neighborhood.
Racism on the left is less clear, but as a Jew it is scarier. The left tends to divide the world into two groups, the haves and the have-nots, the oppressors and the oppressed, the privileged and the non-privileged. And Jews being white, are the oppressors. It does not matter how white people behave, racism is built into the very system. Racism becomes an original sin. Let me share an egregious example. One of the most articulate voices on the left is Ibram X. Kendi who wrote the bestselling book How to be an Antiracist. He attacked the racial views of conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett has two black children she adopted from Haiti. Whether you like her politics, she is not a racist. Kendi wrote, “Some white colonizers adopted black children. They civilized these children in the superior ways of white people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity.” To Kendi, adopting black children made Barrett a racist.
Not everyone on the left is a fanatic. I was told once by someone I know that I should not become too smug about my professional success. I am the product of white privilege. Had I been born black or brown, I would not have been so lucky. I believe this person wanted me to feel guilty about my white privilege.
We see racism in action. From the right, I am hated as a Jew because I am not truly white but trying to help people of color. From the left, I am hated as a Jew because I am white and therefore have committed the sin of privilege. As a Jew I cannot win.
What about those of us in the middle, moderates like myself, people who do not identify with either the right or the left. Is racism a problem? I believe it is. The word prejudice means pre-judge. And it is human nature to pre-judge people based on many superficial issues, including the color of their skin. On Yom Kippur we say the alphabetic ashamnu, bagadnu, “we have sinned, we have rebelled.” Many machzorim come up with an alphabetical list of sins in English. What do we say for the letter “x”? The translation the say is that “we are xenophobic.” We dislike strangers, people who are different from us.
We need to work hard to avoid judging people by the color of their skin, their ethnicity, religion, able-bodiness, gender, sexual orientation, looks, age, or other superficial qualities. We can start with something simple. We Jews can stop using the derogatory Yiddish term shvartze. It insults a whole group of people based on the color of their skin. I feel uncomfortable even saying the word in a sermon. Too many people have insulting us Jews for too long, based on our religion, our ethnicity, or our nation. We of all people should not be insulting others.
I know that being a person of color in the United States is not easy. I have been told by black friends that, as a white, I cannot understand what it is like to worry that you son will be pulled over for a minor driving infraction and end up in jail, or dead, due to an overzealous cop. I have been told that as a white, I cannot understand what it is like to walk into a store and be followed by a security guard to make sure I was not shoplifting. And I have been told that as a white, I cannot understand what it is like to get into a top college and be told that I was accepted not for my grades or ability but for my race. I admit that I cannot understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States.
But I can understand what the Torah teaches over and over. Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Do not oppress the stranger. Do not harm the stranger. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that when we confront other people, what he called the other, we cannot know them. But we always have obligations towards them.
Let me briefly mention one other issue. There is much controversy about critical race theory today. Without going into details, let me say that critical race theory says racism is built into the very structure of our society. We will not be rid of racism until we overturn the structure. With all due respect, I take a different approach. I choose not to change society but rather to change the hearts of human beings. We will only be rid of racism when we begin to change the hearts of people. And I believe it needs to begin with us, each of us, on this Yom Kippur.
Let me return to the Noah story once more. God makes a covenant with Noah that God will no longer destroy the earth. What is the symbol of that covenant – a rainbow. A rainbow is made of multiple colors. But we know that a rainbow is really one color, white light, refracted by water vapor into multiple colors. So too, there is one race, the human race, refracted by genetics into multiple colors. The rainbow that Noah saw symbolizes the beauty of multiple races in our world.
We are about to begin our yizkor service. I will certainly remember my parents who are long gone but raised me and my brothers with certain fundamental values. One of those was never to judge people based on race, ethnicity, or religious background. I grew up in the fifties and sixties, during the height of the civil rights movement. I remember coming home from high school one day when I was a senior and seeing my mom on the verge of tears. I asked her what happened. She told me, “They killed Martin Luther King Jr.” Of course, I knew about King, but I confess, at that stage of my life I was a teenager, more interested in parties and girls than politics. My mom spoke to me about the importance of King’s work and the tragedy of his loss. I believe my parents would be saddened to know that over 25 years since they are gone, race is still a major issue in our country. As I say yizkor, I hope to work for the kind of society they believed in.
May God help us remove racism from our hearts, and help us to build a color-blind society, and let us say
Amen.