sermon: Kol Nidre 5777

A Vision of Society

We have lost our national ability to engage in civil discourse. Let’s get it back.

We are ill-served and badly affected by a culture that values volume and bombast over reason and decency. We need a new vision to guide how we consider, perceive, and speak to the other, a vision we have as members of the Jewish community who are part of something noble and special.

We are the proud inheritors of a remarkable legacy, left to us by our congregation’s founding rabbi, Gerald Raiskin, of blessed memory. When he and Congregation Beth Jacob’s Rabbi David Teitelbaum traveled to Selma, Alabama for the voter registration drive and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he was following our Jewish teachings. He and Rabbi Teitelbaum marched together, and they were jailed together. Rabbi Raiskin suggested they wear kippot, and when they were asked what those caps were, he answered: “They’re freedom caps,” and before long, everyone wanted one.

Rabbi Raiskin (front left) and Rabbi Teitelbaum (front right) in Selma. Also pictured (from left): Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, activist Irving Katuna, Rabbi Saul Berman.

Rabbi Raiskin (front left) and Rabbi Teitelbaum (front right) in Selma.
Also pictured (from left): Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, activist Irving Katuna, Rabbi Saul Berman.

What did those freedom caps symbolize? For one, that Judaism is not removed from the world. It is part of the world. It may not be able to imagine every choice we face or be able to answer each decision we are considering, but it gives us teachings to guide us in our decision-making process. It gives us a lens through which to see the world. And it reinforces in us the desire to make the world a better place.

I remember the High Holy Days in 2001, which began less than a week after 9/11. The sanctuary was filled with a sense of how unusual those times were. Our world felt different and our hearts felt heavy.

Tonight, I perceive that these are distinct times but for a different reason than in 2001. It’s a sense that the past year has uncovered some deep divisions in our national psyche. The vitriol surrounding both the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem are two examples.

And, of course, we have seen an election season – witness Sunday night’s debate – unlike anything in recent memory. One of my conclusions from the debate, a sad conclusion, is that we as a society are implicated in the low level of substantive debate in this election season. We need to demand that the complex issues that confront us are talked about, and that we hear real solutions. Only then will we get the government we deserve. The level of coarseness and uncivil dialogue on the national stage in America seems to be at an all-time high.

Part of the concern I have is that this affects the way all of us speak to each other. I was watching a popular cable talk show the other day. The commentators were going back and forth. The venom and the diatribes were so strong that it was hard to take. They were talking with such bombast, and they were talking right past and through each other. What were they talking about? Pro football. The Patriots and the Cowboys.

On a societal level, I am concerned that we have lost our national ability to engage in civil discourse. In some ways, I can understand that more drama on TV makes for better ratings, which makes for better advertising revenue. Good for the networks, but bad for us. We are ill-served and badly affected by a culture that values volume and bombast over reason and decency.

My hope this evening is to articulate a vision of society – about how we consider, perceive, and speak to the other. A vision we have as members of the Jewish community who are part of something noble and special – the American commitment to democracy and self-government – that we hold so dear.

I remember a sermon I gave in Pennsylvania the Shabbat evening after the election of 2000 – a time the civility of our political process also was sorely tested. It seemed that we were so polarized and that it couldn’t get worse. My message that Shabbat was that we needed to find a way to talk through national issues and that to thrive as a nation, the voters – Democrats and Republicans – needed to be able to tolerate a political back and forth without devolving into name calling. And our elected officials needed to be able to cross party lines, work together, and put the issues of national concern above winning.

Well, sixteen years later, our situation is so much worse. Our society is ever more polarized.  And this is harmful – to our youth who are coming of age in an environment where it’s normal to shout down someone with whom you disagree and to us as adults as well. It’s harmful emotionally, but it is also harmful physically.

Dr. John Arden, a psychologist, has written about the lasting, harmful impact that exposure to uncivil speech has on the human brain. We become desensitized to hateful words. No longer do we use our pre-frontal cortex, the fact-checking, thoughtful parts of our brains to process messages. Instead, we receive uncivil words in the amygdala, the part of our brains that is used to dealing with threats, real or perceived.

Dr. Arden writes: “Every time you hear a politician call another ‘anti-American’ or hear a slur hurled at one group, it becomes more familiar and even normal” because our brains learn to hear, over time, this alarmist speech as normal.

For centuries, politicians across partisan lines seem to understand this and have used fear and anger to drive our votes. “Our brains recognize harsh rhetoric, uncivil comments and angry diatribes as threats, routing them past our prefrontal cortex, where facts are sorted out from nonsense.”

Right now, it seems as though so much over-the-top speech is coming at us, that we’re in a constant state of reacting, which, according to Dr. Arden, makes us more susceptible to anxiety and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, you would have thought we had just cleared a hurdle – electing the first black president and that we were on the way to becoming a more color-blind society. Eight years later we know better. The Black Lives Matter movement is about an injustice in our society that has been shown to occur over and over again. If you are black and you are approached by a police officer, you have every reason to believe you will not be treated with as much respect and dignity as a white person. Though we have been presented with the reality of this over and over again, still, the rhetoric around this issue is not as constructive as it needs to be. We need to confront the systemic racism that still exists in our country. This means listening deeply to the other, developing our capacity for empathy, and it means articulating our observations constructively. It means building our ability to debate back and forth, for the common good.

Take the Colin Kaepernick story. Here we have a quarterback of a football team who refused to stand during the national anthem, citing racial injustice and police brutality as reasons. Much vitriol followed. A teammate of his spoke to him and expressed a desire to support his statement but thought it could be done more respectfully, by kneeling, for example, rather than sitting on the bench, and that is what they did. I don’t take exception to those who are critical of Kaepernick’s actions or the statement he is making.

However, I am genuinely surprised by the hostility that his actions provoked, including friends in casual conversations. Even a supreme court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, added to the shrill voices by calling his action “dumb.” How might we approach the subject? By demonstrating respect for different belief systems while respectfully articulating one’s own. Reasonable persons can and will disagree, but only by mature dialogue and attentive listening will these troublesome issues in our society be resolved.

Adding to the lack of civil discourse is the rise, over the past year, of the white supremacist movement, a movement that espouses racism as well as antisemitism. I learned quite a bit about this subject when I interned at the Anti-Defamation League thirty years ago, and it pains me deeply, now in the year 2016, to hear their talking points on the national stage. Their language of hate and intolerance used to be considered part of the fringe and sadly has become more mainstream. Ignoring these voices does not make them go away. We have to recognize their presence and work all the harder for inclusion and tolerance, because we have a stake in the America that we are continuing to create.

What’s the most oft-repeated mitzvah in the Torah? It is to not wrong the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. This doesn’t mean we know how it feels to be the marginalized in society today, but it does mean that we have a religious obligation to be sensitive to the needs of the marginalized.

Yom Kippur calls on us to immerse ourselves in the teachings of our tradition and apply them to the world we live in. “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy,” we read tomorrow in our morning Torah service. What does it mean to be holy?

Certainly, at the time of our biblical Israelites, they could not imagine a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, so we have to extrapolate what it means for the complicated times in which we live. And what does it mean for us to read and internalize the words of the same portion: “love your neighbor as yourself?”

We have the wonderful example of the work of our founding rabbi – who traveled into harm’s way – with his freedom cap on his head – to demonstrate what holiness can look like in America. He embraced neighbors who were unlike himself.

And he demonstrated how we make real the words of Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We use our voices and our feet to make sure that those who are the most vulnerable in our society are protected not attacked.

We live in a wonderful country, and we have a citizenry made up of many different people and backgrounds. We can love our country and still see its imperfections and blemishes. This is one of those times to say, as a country, we have some reckoning to do.

We need more real communication. Tomorrow, Rabbi Delson will speak about how we listen attentively. And we need that message, between friends and family, but also between different segments of society.

We pursue justice by coming together. We won’t make progress by speaking respectfully only to those who are like us, we make progress by sitting down with people who worship differently, who speak different languages, who dress differently, who vote differently, who look different, and who live differently.

As Jews, we should always speak out against intolerance in our society – as our biblical prophets taught us to do. But we also should be afraid not to.  If whole groups are being targeted because of their religion or their race, then we should be afraid. History has taught us that, while the finger of paranoia and distrust is not pointed at us right now, inflaming that distrust and paranoia means that it eventually might be.

We are a religious minority in this country, and in every country in the world – save Israel, so we have to be the voice of tolerance – for those of other religions and races, because it’s the right thing to do as well as in terms of our own self-preservation.  But most of all, because when our biblical ancestors envisioned what Israelite society would look like, it was of a society built on the notion that every person was created in the image of God.

If we apply our bedrock Jewish values to the world today, then our tradition calls on us to create a world where each person is treated as if he or she were created in the image of God and thus worthy of dignity and respect, for we all come from the same Creator. It calls on us to use our Jewish values to guide our actions and our words, to live in this complicated world upholding those values and to work hand in hand with God to create a society we all can be proud of. And it’s one of the ways we can engage constructively in our nation’s civil discourse.

The movement that Rabbi Raiskin made himself a part of serves as a model. Its leaders preached non-violence, both literally and in the language that it used to build its case. Those kippot became a symbol, of Judaism’s support for equality, but also of something bigger, redemption – of society and the human soul.

On the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Robert Kennedy had a scheduled speech in front of a predominately African American audience in Indianapolis. Many of his advisors called on him to cancel his speech, for fear of riots. That night, he made a call for unity:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion.

On this Kol Nidre night, let us all pledge that in the year 5777, we will come, with freedom caps on our heads, to raise our voices in civil discourse, and create the society our children deserve. And may this process lead to true redemption.

Cain yehi ratzon, so may this be God’s will.