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Peter J. Rubinstein
Our Voice and Our Values (Rosh HaShanah 5766)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  October 4, 2005

The contentious issue of whether a rabbi should speak of political matters from the pulpit is a consequential debate in the liberal Jewish community.

It is against American law for clergy to endorse a candidate from the pulpit. But the more controversial and significant issue is whether a rabbi should ever speak of matters that by virtue of their contemporary import are being widely addressed in the public forum, debated on the editorial pages of newspapers and in legislative bodies, state houses and across political lines.

I say “Yes”. “Yes!” Not only should a rabbi talk of these subjects expressing an opinion derived from our historical wisdom, but not to do so forfeits our particular mandate to teach and make relevant our tradition as it applies to our lives and society.

I shudder to think that rabbis refrained from speaking out about our government’s policy of inaction during the Nazi era because there was political debate about it. Rabbis needed to object to our government’s heartless decision in 1939 to turn away from our shores the 900 Jewish refugees who sailed on board the SS St. Louis, fleeing for their lives and seeking a haven from the Nazi gas chambers. We can never forget that though they sailed within sight of the Florida coastline their fate was sealed when the United States forbade the St. Louis from entering American harbors, a portent of American policy during WW II.

Rabbis must speak out.

I cannot imagine that any rabbi did not speak out forcefully in favor of our government’s support for the creation of state of Israel in 1947-8 despite significant political resistance to Israel’s creation by leaders of the state department and in the halls of congress.

I cannot imagine rabbis remaining silent during the campaign for civil rights.

I cannot imagine a congregation that does not expect its rabbis to address the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as it washed away the artificial patina of social well-being and compelled us to face our national failures. From the start we needed a heroic voice of hope and confidence from elected officials. They were remiss in leadership, apparently more focused on administrative self-congratulations than grappling with the agony of families separated from children, elderly left to die, and hundreds of thousands who have lost everything, even their loved ones. They were absent while bloated bodies floated, left unattended and not treated with the dignity the dead deserve. They were absent while tens of thousands of refugees in the shelters to which their government had sent them were abandoned with no food, no water, no protection from violence, no buses to rescue them. They were absent while the poor who didn’t have the ability to evacuate did not survive at all.

We know that these fellow citizens were victimized by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina and then set adrift and abandoned by inattentive government policies, territorial bickering, and inept, even indifferent leadership on every level.

Our tradition calls us to action and to summon the blameworthy to responsibility.

“Americans sometimes expect their government to do far too much” editorialized the Wall Street Journal “but they do have a right to expect that it will at least provide for the safety of its citizens, even or perhaps especially in a crisis.”

And when the government fails as it did and as the president belatedly admitted, then let our president keep his promise of a “comprehensive review” by appointing and supporting a properly balanced commission of respected individuals deserving of our confidence.

When Jews err, we are commanded to admit our sins and mistakes and seek forgiveness from those we have wronged. We expect the same from our leaders and officials. We rabbis and each of us in this congregation need speak out on the most important matters of our day: a war in which Americans are dying, the invisible poverty and racial divide unveiled by Katrina, government interference in the most personal matters of reproduction and death.

Our religious tradition and values compel us to speak forcefully against the powerful, against government, even against our elected leaders when necessary. We cannot be silent, not rabbis nor any other Jews. We speak from the strength of our Jewish history.

When it was necessary we protested. Moses challenged Pharaoh. Prophets raged against their own kings. Isaiah preached against injustice and inertia. The third century Rabban Gamaliel taught: Be cautious of the ruling powers. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel vociferously condemned segregation.

When protest was not effective, Jews sought to positively influence and support their rulers. In 70 CE my rabbinic hero Yochanan ben Zakkai implemented a mutually beneficial pact with the Roman Emperor Vespasian. In the middle ages Court Jews aided their people by serving their feudal lords. Legations lobbied for Jewish rights in ancient Babylonia and in the kingdoms of Europe. At the bequest of Napoleon a council of Jews formatted the relationship of French Jews to their nation.

From our inception Jews have engaged in expressions of political concern protesting injustice and bias and supporting the battle for civil and social rights.

Why is it then that Jews today of a moderate persuasion have abandoned the discussion of religious values as they apply in the political arena? Why then has there been a knee-jerk reaction against appointees or candidates who espouse their own religious faith and values when that is what we would expect of ourselves? After all aren’t we here today to recommit ourselves to our religious faith and the embodiment of our religious values in action. I hope that all of us anchor ourselves in the moral expressions of Judaism and bring these moral values to bear on the decisions of our political leaders.

Some say we must guard the separation of church and state, that the discussion of religious values does not belong in government.

Certainly, no one religion belongs in government and I do not believe that government should support religious initiatives but, from the beginning, our nation was firmly and unabashedly anchored in religious values. Speaking at Union Theological Seminary Bill Moyers submitted that “The First Amendment neither inculcates religion nor inoculates against it. Americans can be loyal to the Constitution without being hostile to God, or they can pay no heed to God without fear of being mugged by an official God Squad. It is a remarkable arrangement….’”

In his column on Beliefs Peter Steinfels considered the linkage between one’s religious commitment and professional life work. He wrote that the devoutly religious judge, the devoutly religious scientific researcher or entrepreneur who work within the secular framework of their respective disciplines “may be doing so not because they have set their religious faith aside, or compartmentalized it into their personal and family lives, but ...because their faith informs them that these may be the best ways of putting their particular talents at the service of God and their neighbors.” (NY Times 7/30/05)

We Jews must place our religious values in the public arena. We cannot abandon them in the name of the separation of church and state. We must fully engage in the battle for this nation’s soul or we will forfeit it to the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who proclaimed that 9/11 was God’s vendetta against a despoiled America. We cannot sit idly by when General William Boykin, a professional soldier participates in evangelical revivals proclaiming that America is a “Christian nation” that will win our war against Muslim enemies “only if we come against them in the name of Jesus.” (By the way, Gen. Boykin was not reprimanded for evangelizing in uniform but was appointed the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.)

We cannot sit idly by when the superintendent of the Air Force Academy acknowledges a culture of religious intolerance in that national institution, where a campus chaplain warned hundreds of cadets that those “not born again” would “burn in the fires of hell.”

The success of the religious right, in no small part, results from our abandonment, our timidity, or as Bill Moyers says “our acquiescence”. Liberal Jews need to raise their voices and speak from the anchor of our religious values to confront religious bullies with a tenacity of equal strength. We must believe what we say. We must know what we believe.

We must be firm in these beliefs for the well being of our nation.
We believe in God. We liberal Jews believe in God! Our ethics and moral resolves derive from our people’s historical experience in which God saved us, commanded us and commissioned us. God brought us into existence by rescuing us from “the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” God commanded us to never forget that we were slaves, and to be certain that no one else ever suffers the indignities that we suffered. God commissioned us to be an “or l’goyim” a light to the nations. We believe that our mission is to dispel the darkness of this world. And we take that mission seriously.

God commanded us to keep the mitzvoth: to do justly and to love mercy in order to walk humbly with God and we affirm that mission. If fundamentalism means taking our Torah seriously, then let us be fundamentalists. We believe that the Torah is the fundamental source of our values while we do not believe that the Torah is a factual historical narrative. The lessons taught by the Torah were the reason for our ancestors to teach and pass it down to us. We believe in God and believe that our scriptures are sufficiently vital to meet the needs of our changing human condition. Yes, we are a people. Yes we are a tradition and an identity but at the core we are a faith. We believe in a loving God, not a vengeful God, We believe in a creating God, not a violent God.

We believe. We will not be silenced.

Though we believe in God according to the tenets of our faith we humbly accept the right of other people to worship and live according to their faith. We do not have the monopoly on truth nor does anyone else. That the Hebrew word for God, elohim, is in a plural form compelled our commentators centuries ago to teach that other people, even other Jews, experience God differently. So we accept the existence of different, even opposing truths. Thus we believe that it is presumptuous and idolatrous for any person to behave as God’s self-appointed speaker.

Moses, himself, as cherished as he was by God was rejected when he requested to know God’s ways. When God’s presence passed by Moses, Moses was commanded to hide and turn his eyes toward the cliff. Exact knowledge of God was forever hidden from mortal beings. I do not believe that Judaism is the one true faith but I do believe that that our history affords us a unique, wise and compassionate understanding of existence, creation and humanity. Thus, we do not well abide charlatans, Jewish or not, that claim to know what is on God’s mind, or those who kill in the name of God, or those whom as Moyers put it “use God as a battering-ram on almost every issue.” No religious cabal has the right “to decide the laws of the land according to their interpretation of biblical revelation and to enforce those laws on the nation as a whole.”

Writing to the Jewish community in Savannah in 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension: the maxim of civil government…in its true form is ‘divided we stand, united we fall.’”

Judaism proffers the axiom that is a fundamental strength of our nation, that we endorse and learn from the co-existence of different expressions of truth and we will not vilify, exterminate, or destroy those who do not agree with us. Compassion and justice are our anchors.

We believe that we are commanded to accomplish everything that adds to life and does not destroy life. To paraphrase Rabbi Jack Stern’s suggestion for my terminology: we are religious secularists if secularism means to focus on this world. The thrust of our teachings is about attaining peace here in this life, about creating a heaven now on this planet, about saving ourselves at this moment. We have faith in a world to come but we have never been focused on the world to come. Our tradition measures us by our behavior here and now.

The story is told that in response to a question about the coming of the Messiah, it was taught that the Messiah will come when the world is ready for the Messiah. The Messiah will have arrived when the poor are cared for, when Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Christian, American and Iraqi, black and white will dwell as peaceably together as the prophetic lion and lamb.

Thus Tikun Olam, the repair of this world, has become a mainstay of our reform liberal tradition. The ultimate test of proper behavior is whether we are adding to the health and well-being of human interchange and the wholeness of society by putting back in place the broken fragments of human failure. We add to live by supporting the state of Israel as it seeks a just peace with its neighbors. We add to life by supporting human rights. We add to life by pushing for help for the 36 million American citizens living in poverty. We add to life by supporting scientists to find cures to disease through stem cell research. We add to life by affirming the evidence of evolution in God’s creation and rejecting “intelligent design” which postures the notion that God is the continuing puppeteer of creation. We add to life by being guardians of the environment and trustees of its natural resources. We add to life by permitting healthy expressions of love according to human desire. We add to life by affirming a woman’s choice to decide when they are capable and prepared to nurture life. And yes, we even add to life by allowing death its natural course. These are lessons which emerge from our commitment to life.

These are basic Jewish values, the podium from which we speak. These values give marching orders to our movement’s Religious Action Center for which, though we may not agree with all its positions, we should be grateful for its being a voice of the moderate Jewish community in Washington. All of us yearn to live according to the highest precepts of Jewish teaching. All of us have the opportunity to embody and fulfill the core ideals and fundamental integrity of our tradition which urges decency, compassion, justice and virtue.

Our history, our mandate, our mission compel us to speak out, forcefully at times on behalf of our national conscience and for the well-being of our people and all people.

We believe in God, the source of our ethics. We believe that there is strength in a diversity of faith. We are committed to the improvement of life, society and creation in this world, at this moment, and for all of us. On behalf of these religious values let us raise our voices, let us be true to our beloved nation, and let us always be passionate about our indomitable faith.

That is what it means to be a Jew. These are our marching orders and we have a mission. There is much to do. Let us get on with it.


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