Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Nearly every night since August 26th when historic floods struck Houston, I’ve had nightmares. I wake up in the middle of the night after dreaming about running to save people from torrents of water with no way to escape. It’s exhausting. Hours later when I’m ready to leave for Temple, I exit the kitchen to enter a mud room next to our garage; but, since those two rooms flooded, the sheetrock is gone. To enter the garage, I can either go through the door or under the wall. Some days it feels like a Cartesian dream; I don’t know where the nightmare ends and reality begins. In a word, my world has become confused; and, I think it’s safe to say, for some of you, so has yours.
Our first instinct is to put it all back together, again. And, we’re doing it. Floors, walls, and cars are being replaced. In time, these material necessities will be reassembled. Our second instinct is to steady ourselves. We do it with faith that the world that sustained us in the past will sustain us in the future. We’ve also gained new perspective. More and more, you’ve told me that life, itself, matters more than material things and that giving to others is more important than taking for ourselves. Our instincts are working. But, there’s a wrinkle. The world around us hasn’t changed as much as we have.
TV is done reporting on the floods. They’ve returned to regularly scheduled programming — terror in London, conflicts in Syria, North Korean missiles, late night Tweets, racism in America — my, how I miss reports on the floods. All around us there remains deep confusion between what is right and wrong, and between what is patently true and unmistakably false. It all contributes to a persistent feeling of unsteadiness while we strive to restore our sense of well-being at home.
On Rosh Hashanah, we restore our well-being by examining our souls. Called “cheshbon hanefesh,” we take an accounting of our souls during this 10-day period of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We begin with an examination of our own souls; then we engage with others whom we’ve wronged or who have wronged us and seek forgiveness. Only then, can we pass before God and ask God to forgive us, too. If it’s any comfort, God responds, “Salachti ki-d’varecha,” I pardon according to your plea. God is slow to anger and quick to forgive.
But, are we? Are we also slow to anger and quick to forgive? I believe that we can be. This year, our eyes have grown wider with vision and our hearts with compassion for others’ needs. We’re naturally more inclined to apologize and quicker to forgive. But, is everyone similarly inclined?
If recent times in our country are any indication then the answer is “No,” not everyone is similarly inclined to apologize. In an opinion piece written by Wesley Morris for the New York Times, he wrote, “We’re living in sorry times…and by ‘sorry,’ I mean ‘not sorry.’” He cited an example of an anti-Muslim agitator who defended his use of anti-Islamic rhetoric before a town hall. With pride he told the room, “I owe nobody an apology for exercising my First Amendment rights.” Similarly, the Los Angeles Times characterized Donald Trump Jr.’s defense against meeting with Russian lawyers as “unapologetic.” Wesley Morris wrote, “In the Trump era, ‘unapologetic’ constitutes a state of mind: there is no shame in flouting norms, exiting accords, jeopardizing international relations, [and] lying.” Morris calls the new normal an “allergy to apology.”
What follows? What becomes of us when saying, “I’m sorry” is more than we can muster? What happens to us when the essential ingredient of human renewal is replaced with human arrogance and triumphalism?
The essential ingredient of human renewal is the act of forgiveness between us. It is the profound prerequisite to forgiveness from God. Two words, “I’m sorry!” lower barriers, open doors, and soothe a hardened heart. Forgiveness, empathy, and love follow; and, hearts joined in hope build a future on better promises and greater faith. It sounds so humanly simple. It is. It was always meant to be simple. God never sought the death of the sinner. The prophet Ezekiel (33:11) said, “It is not [God’s] desire that the wicked shall die, but that the wicked turn from his evil ways and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways that you may not die, O House of Israel.”
Sadly, the simplest and most obvious form of repentance has been set aside in favor of leveraging our basest human tendencies. Excessive exultation over one’s success and achievement, as a model of behavior, at the expense of faith’s ethical ideals and personal humility can potentially lead us down a road to moral destruction.
There will always be those who fail to apologize for anything they do or say. They’re indifferent to human feelings, especially suffering. Stay far away from them. Ironically, if we choose wisely by learning well from our Jewish faith, there are actually times when we can be unapologetic. They are times when we should double-down unapologetically on Jewish ethical mitzvot, the deeds we do that bear witness to the covenant God makes with us.
Earlier this summer, White Supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and the outcome was grim. Violent protests led to many injuries and one death, when Heather Heyer fell beneath the wheels of the car driven into the crowd by a White Supremacist. And, then the President of the United States was equivocal about pure evil. He granted White Supremacists and neo-Nazis “moral equivalence” with protesters who came to defend the rights of Jews, blacks, the LGBTQ community, other minorities, and most Americans. I know that some found fewer faults in his efforts to find “moral equivalence,” but I was not convinced. In the respected history of presidents, this President should have demanded an apology or retraction, immediately. And, in the absence of any apology or retraction, he should have condemned White Supremacists and neo-Nazis in the strongest possible terms.
An obligation of the President of the United States has been to clarify for our nation and the world that there is, indeed, a boundary between good and evil. Jimmy Carter did it when neo-Nazis planned to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977. Carter said, “I must respect the decision of the Supreme Court allowing this group (the Nazis) to express their views, even when those views are despicable and ugly as they are in this case. But if such views must be expressed, I am pleased they will not go unanswered. That is why I want to voice my complete solidarity with those citizens of Skokie and Chicago who will gather Sunday in a peaceful demonstration of their abhorrence of Nazism.”
Reagan did it when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and defined the difference between good and evil, categorically. Except in one unfortunate incident, in 1985, Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, spoke to but failed to impress upon President Reagan not to place a wreath on the grave of the SS at the Bitburg cemetery in Germany. Despite the unfortunate event, history records it as one of American Jewry’s finest moments, when in the words of Wiesel, “truth was spoken to power,” unapologetically.
After Charlottesville, White Nationalists and neo-Nazis, unpunished and without reprimand, retreated to their dens to reload for another wave of anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry. This should make us tremble. But, we’ve learned from the past that we can’t tremble. We have an obligation to the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust, and a duty to our covenant, not to retreat in fear or to succumb to it, ever again.
We don’t have leaders like Wiesel to speak for us, anymore; but, we can take a page from Wiesel’s lessons about rescuing humanity from inhumanity. It’s our turn to speak truth to power, unapologetically. It’s our time to double-down and protest against equivocal speech from anyone who gives credence to “moral equivalence” between White Supremacists and the rest of us.
And, we did. Faith leaders around Houston joined me in signing an op-ed that was published in the Houston Chronicle, which I wrote, and which cited Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. We concluded our joint statement with a call to the people of Greater Houston to:
“’Love your neighbor as yourself,’ [because] faith in such an enduring teaching is the beginning of love between us and all God’s acts of creation. Permission is not granted to human hands to destroy God’s handiwork; to do so is an act of ultimate moral weakness. Rather, defending the poor, sheltering the widow, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and loving your neighbor, are demonstrations of ultimate moral strength.”
And, we left the door open to those who hate today, to make repentance, because it’s always possible to love your neighbor, tomorrow. The op-ed concluded, “If our nation’s moral authority emboldens White Supremacists against Jews, blacks and other minorities, then we must link arms and hands, and join voices … to labor for a strong and loving nation; the America our forefathers bequeathed to us. We know the difference between good and evil; we must make room in our hearts and our homes for those who know or will come to know the difference, too.”
The storm that erupted in Charlottesville lingered. The underbelly of American populism gained strength, but thankfully not without a substantive challenge. Almost immediately, governors and mayors in southern cities and university presidents began to understand and then remove Confederate statues and monuments from public spaces. It became a national conversation. It became a Jewish conversation, too. Naturally, there were more than two Jewish opinions, but the conversation should have gone like this.
In Judaism, we immediately begin with the Ten Commandments. The second one commands, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make for yourselves a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20, JPS Translation).
Since the incident of the Golden Calf and the Israelites’ subsequent acceptance of God’s covenant, statues, obelisks, monuments, and the like have been an abomination. Furthermore, throughout Jewish history, in nearly every century, Jews were driven from their homes and the lands where they lived; and, because they never held sufficient government power where they lived, they could never have had major monuments or statues of their own. The combination of the commandment and historical experience prevented the Jewish people from ever establishing deep roots and erecting monuments to their heroes or achievements, except in modern-day Israel. What they left behind in the places they fled from were “monuments” to intellectual, artistic, economic, scientific and political achievements and contributions.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who wrote about memory and history in his book, “Zakhor” (1996), explains that Jews didn’t excel at history, at recording dates, times and details. They excelled at memory, preserving the meaning of what happened in their past. Erecting statues and monuments don’t teach about history; rather, they establish collective memory. To erect statues and monuments isn’t educational; they’re meant to evoke emotional responses, and for many, those emotional responses are painful when they are confronted with confederate statues. For Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War came to mean the battle against the inhumanity of human slavery and was driven to abolish it. After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow laws increasingly gripped the American south. Confederate statues and monuments were erected by southern states to demonstrate that though they lost the Civil War, they didn’t lose the battle they aimed to wage against desegregation and equality.
It follows that the absence of statues doesn’t change anything about history that’s already recorded in history. We should fear only revisionists and the damage they do to honest scholarship even about regrettable periods in our countries past. Without apology, we can conclude that public statues and monuments to an inhumane period of our nation’s past are an affront to our population of men, women and children who are beneficiaries of a proud nation, not the lost plunder of a failed Confederacy.
Therefore, our Jewish position is unapologetic in its clarity: we must take down those statues and monuments. We can move them to a museum where history and education are the purpose, or transform their brass, iron and copper, as the prophet Isaiah spoke, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4).
After all that, the answer doesn’t ultimately lie in who is right versus who is wrong — there’s no room for being smug; and, it doesn’t rest in the hands of those who are strong versus those who are weak — there’s even less room for bullies. In high school civics class, we all learned the lesson, “majority rules; minority rights.” The direction we’re heading in has all but forsaken this simple but elegant expectation of our commitment to humanity founded on our faith, and confirmed by our Constitution.
My preference would be for us to feel compelled to share a commitment to humanity expressed through respective faith traditions and guaranteed by the Constitution of our great nation. But, my preference means little if we can’t embrace a new way forward for our nation where men and women can compromise across all the aisles that still separate us.
If the essential ingredient of human renewal is the act of forgiveness between us, manifested in two simple words, “I’m sorry,” then we should aim to say them more readily than we do; or, if we prefer to avoid saying them at all, then we should avoid creating reasons why they need to be said in the first place.
On this first new day of the Jewish New Year, as we do each year, we seek repair and renewal, security and safety, prosperity and peace for ourselves. To achieve it, we are urged not to rely on prayers and rituals, alone; but, to take into our hands the obligation to transform the world around us by lifting up all people, and to do so without censoring them; to provide food, education and healthcare without demeaning them; and, to ease their burdens without withholding lovingkindness. These are the highest measures of what it means to be human beings who stand before God, every day, even in the midst of our own needs, and to do so unapologetically.
At Congregation Beth Israel, we respond to the ancient prophets’ calls for social justice and aim to bring dignity to all of God’s acts of creation. Our path diverges only according to our unique time and place in history; but, the human need for wholeness and peace is eternal. Let us commit ourselves to justice for all people. Then one night may we all begin to dream dreams without angst, and walk through doors and not under walls to enter a world of greater stability and enduring peace. Amen.