Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Rabbi David Lyon
October 2, 2016/5777
Congregation Beth Israel
“Judaism Addresses the World”
There is nothing finer than standing on the threshold of the Jewish New Year. It’s like the budding of new growth in spring time and just as sweet. But, we are not naÃ¯ve. We’ve been here before. Some people approach this threshold creatively and emotionally, like artists. Some people approach this threshold structurally and rationally, like scientists. Whether artists or scientists, we all confront the same future, and with equal gifts granted us to harmonize what is new with what is familiar, and to make partial order out of total chaos. [i]Together, we press on with hope founded on faith that we can navigate one of the strangest presidential elections ever; one of the worst years of world-wide terrorism; and the most dangerous rising trends in anti-Semitism since WWII.
We press on by drawing strength from enduring Jewish understandings to address our changing world. Thankfully, we already possess enduring Jewish understandings and the vocabulary to express them. The late Richard Rorty, an American philosopher who hailed from University of Chicago and Yale, explained that “cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human–farther removed from the beasts (his word)–than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.” The Jewish people is “amply stocked with verses.”
If we have forgotten our stock of verses, it could explain why we feel that it’s difficult to change the political and social climate in which we now live. Rorty attributed the problem of feeling stuck, of intransigent thinking, to what he called our “final vocabulary.”[ii]He defined a final vocabulary this way:
“All human beings carry a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell…the story of our lives. It is a ‘final’ vocabulary in the sense that if doubt is [ever] cast on the worth of these words, [we have] no recourse. Those words are as far as [we] can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.” Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (pp.73-75).
The bully on the playground uses a small vocabulary. He uses it to make his opponent afraid of him. The other boy, who is usually smaller but smarter, fights back with reason and a large vocabulary. Unable to match wits with the smarter boy, the bully runs of out petty words and taunts very quickly. Without any other recourse, he rolls up his sleeves and punches his opponent in the nose.
We don’t have to extrapolate the playground experience very far to understand the problems we face, from global terrorism & unyielding racism, to widespread xenophobia and deepening anti-Semitism. They rise from misplaced animosity for western values, rampant economic stagnation for the working and middle class, and lackluster political leadership. They’re expressed in a shocking lack of civility and rise in brutality, which are only symptoms of deeper and more insidious problems that grow from a lack of a greater “final vocabulary.”
Rorty explains that “the world [itself] does not speak.” Only we do. The world is mute without us. The world needs our vocabulary. But, what is our vocabulary, lately? In conversations on the Internet, where over 3 billion users interact every day, words should matter. But, according to LanguageMonitor.com, which tracks trending words, the top word in 2015 was Emoji; it’s not even a word. It’s a picture! In 2016, the top three vocabulary words are:
Bigly— it means trending larger; as in, everything trended “bigly” in politics and foreign affairs. I can’t make this up. If you liked that one, you’ll love this one.
Texticate— everything reduced to text in Facebook and Twitter; as in, the textification of the world as we know it.
Finally, there’s Non-binary— a new legal term for a gender identity between male and female.
According to experts, these words add hyperbole, urgency, and intrigue to our conversations on the Internet worldwide. It’s no wonder we might feel anxious, lost and left behind. We’re textifying bigly with emojis to non-binary friends. And, I’m not even sure what I just said.
This vocabulary can’t help us address and transform the world. It’s not linked to any final vocabulary derived from ample stocks of verses. The result is that bigots, misogynists, white-supremacists, Holocaust deniers, and anti-Semites are rolling up their sleeves to protect their view of the world with barriers and threats. It’s what bullies do, because it’s the only way they know how to preserve the world when they reach the limit of their final vocabulary.
One reaction, though I don’t recommend it, is to avoid the world altogether. To some, it feels too late to participate personally. To them the world, by their own admission, is increasingly foreign to them. A senior citizen in the congregation told me proudly that he was going to put all his computer data “in the sky.” He meant to say that he was going to put it “in the cloud,” a popular way to store and access data anywhere you go. But, honestly, just ten years ago, to say that you were storing anything “in the cloud” was just as ridiculous as saying “in the sky,” today.
A reasonable action would be to learn and implement a better final vocabulary to address the world as it is and how we know it ought to be. Words do matter and political correctness really does promote our nation’s best values. Words don’t have to cut through the soul of a human to hurt them with enmity and bigotry. We’ve been the victim of it. We know it’s not the right way. It’s better that the world should change because we spoke up, than it should change against us because we said nothing.
Rorty’s answer is reassuring; remember that Rorty taught that “cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human–farther removed from the beasts–than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.” Judaism is a rich culture filled with rich vocabularies and verses. Enduring Jewish understandings reflected in Hebrew values and verses — mitzvah, tzedakah, tikkun olam, HaTikvah, zei a mensch, and many more — are timeless and timely. Our final vocabulary is an impressive list of words and ideas from our culture, heritage, and faith. It has always shaped our worldview. It includes:
From Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, “In a place where there is no mensch/fine leader; strive to be a mensch.” The corollary teaches that if there’s already a person in charge, then let him or her do the job. We have an obligation to step into a void of leadership; but, we also have a duty to respect leadership when it is already present. It leads us to words and ideas like honor, duty, and respect.
From Talmud, we learn to “Love service; despise rule.” I used this teaching in a lesson I shared with a political leader in our city before she represented us, and again in the benediction I delivered at Mayor Tuner’s inauguration. The One to whom we are ultimately accountable is God; all other service to the people should bring honor to God through the works of our hands. It gives us ideas like leadership, covenant, ethics, and humanity.
From Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” First found in Torah, it is a central tenet in Christianity and Islam, too. It should bear weight on all of us to find love within and beyond us. We learn from it self-respect, mutual respect, and ultimate love.
In Mishnah, Rabbi Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” Created as blessings, not as sinners, we are inclined towards the good; and, therefore, taught not to hurt others as they might hurt us. Hillel gives us code, morality, kindness and humility.
Our final vocabulary has seen our people fall and rise again with words and verses that cherish God’s presence as an unconditionally loving parent and ultimate motivation for good in the world; that establishes human beings as created in God’s image uniquely prepared to be good stewards of God’s creative acts; and, that holds us accountable to bring healing and wholeness to a world filled with brokenness.
A colleague of mine visited Germany, recently. He was part of a missionbetween the Central Conference of American Rabbis and IsraAID, an Israeli-based humanitarian aid agency. With 14 other rabbis, he witnessed Germany’s effort to welcome Syrian refugees and the Israeli volunteers helping them do so. During a shared meal, he met a young man who also joined the volunteer effort. The young man was Pakistani by birth. His father moved the family to California, where he worked hard and made a fortune in the tech industry. The young man’s father was generous. He provided funding for the refugee center where his son was now volunteering. My colleague told me that he reflected on the meaning of his experience as a Reform Jewish rabbi from New York City, serving with a Pakistani from California, who came to help a joint volunteer program between Germany and Israel providing aid for Syrian refugees. The reality of our global world and our duty to address it was not lost on my colleague or on me.
The world works when we find a thread to weave into a tapestry of threads with other peoples. Hate is not the thread and neither is fear. Speaking above a person’s understanding just to gain control, or speaking offensively just to demonstrate power, disables the positive potential that can be found in any relationship and leaves everyone feeling unnecessarily insecure and fearful. Using mindfully chosen words conveys mutual respect even when we have to give difficult messages. Used like weapons, words can destroy both the user and the victim. That’s why there is a fuss made by mindful people to use politically correct words. It has nothing to do with sanitizing our language as if one’s mother was washing out her child’s mouth with soap. It has nothing to do with avoiding the truth, as if anyone isn’t completely aware of the meaning of a carefully crafted message. On the contrary, words that once suited us in the past also conveyed messages; but, they also made inferences about people and issues that we’ve long ago learned more about and grew to respect. So-called “Politically Correct” words match our contemporary sensibilities about race, sexuality, and equality. It’s in the power of carefully chosen words that we express our willingness to grow our vocabulary and discover the power to be more fully human.
We would waste 4,000 years of Jewish history and literature if we failed to find the words and verses to penetrate the darkness in the world around us. The world didn’t speak for the martyrs of our people. The world became uncivil and brutal. Jewish men, women and children held fast to their beliefs. As they uttered the words of “Shema” before they perished, they placed their faith in God’s hands because there were no other hands to save them.
The common thread we weave comes from original and enduring Jewish understandings. Our final Jewish vocabulary is rich with wisdom of the ages and enduring understandings that promote life, liberty, freedom, diversity and equality. “It offers us stability from one moment to another. Our sense of renewed stability comes from a balance we strike between stable culture and innovation; between the comforts of tradition and the excitement of new discoveries. Some of us hold onto the present at the expense of the future and innovation; while others walk recklessly into the future without respecting values that preserve who we are as a people or as a nation. It’s a balancing act.”ii
It isn’t just to our faith that we turn for support, but to our government, too. We seek its support to uphold the values of our nation, which were founded in the faith of our Founding Fathers they also found in the Hebrew Bible. In 1790, Moses Siexas, wrote a letter to George Washington, on behalf of his congregation, known to us as Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island. His letter expressed his congregation’s and his people’s support of the new president and his best wishes on the development of the new nation. In it he expressed many of the words that we now remember as Washington’s own. Either way, it is the letter Washington penned to the members of Touro Synagogue, which has become a cherished testament to our Founding Fathers’ efforts to secure the separation of church and state and the well-being of all its citizens. In his letter, Washington wrote:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Washington’s concluding paragraph perfectly expressed the ideal relationship among the government, its individual citizens and religious groups. He wrote:
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Ever since, America has been the beacon to which other nations and peoples look for the greatest examples of liberty and justice for all. It would be a sin to let leaders of other nations use words that bear no weight on the world we wish to see. It would be a sin if we let anti-Semitism keep rising because their words were stronger than ours. And, it would be a sin if we let the world burn because we failed to speak up.
The Jewish New Year has begun. It awakens us to everything that hangs in the balance. It beckons us to harmonize what is new with what is familiar. It summons us to draw from deep wells of Jewish understanding. Let us bear up this New Year. Let the year 5777 find us, a resilient people able to draw strength from its heritage to build an enduring future. Amen.
[i] Paraphrased. Address at the close of the year-long Bicentennial Celebration of Columbia University (26 Dec 54). Printed in ‘Prospects in the Arts and Sciences’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Feb 1955), 52.
[ii] Aaron, David (2015). “Some Current Intellectual Trends Potentially Important to the Reform Rabbinate”, HUC-JIR President’s Rabbinic Council Chicago Kallah, October 19-20, 2015. Cincinnati.