From Personal Lives to the Jewish Community in the Wake of the Iran Deal: If We Can Harm, We Can Heal


delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer Yom Kippur morning       

So… Who lives in the Pope traffic box?  Me, too.   Although logistically complicated, I appreciate that this is a momentous occasion, for our Catholic friends and for our city, and I am intrigued about how we in the Jewish community might find meaning in the Pope’s visit.

On this sacred day, we open to atonement, change, repair. Pope Francis serves as an extraordinary model of faith in repair.Inter-religious relations can be complicated: I have stood on the opposite side from the Church on issues such as LGBT rights, accessible divorce, a woman’s right to choose; yet I draw inspiration from shared values when this Pope demonstrates what it means to dialog with Jewish leaders, to love the poor, to protect the environment and to show mercy to others.

I am struck by the Pope’s schedule this weekend.  With only two days in Philadelphia, one of the few visits he will make is to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility– a city prison.  Pope Francis will meet with inmates to teach the message that for even the most marginalized in the society there is hope for rehabilitation.

When Pope Francis visits a prison, he also speaks of his own sins and his need to atone.  Because we all need forgiveness; we all need repair.

During the visit, prison inmates who have been learning carpentry will give a gift to the Pope—a chair they are creating with their own hands.

This 21st century gift, recalls the 18th century rabbi, Nachman of Bratzlov, who was a deep thinker about atonement in Jewish tradition. He, too, had a story of a gift of a chair. One of Rabbi Nachman’s followers was a carpenter and he carved a beautiful wooden chair for the rabbi.  It became his symbol of physical and spiritual foundation. After Rabbi Nachman’s death, his chair endured among his loving followers, as a precious reminder of his legacy.

Many of Rabbi Nachman’s insights are found in his collection called the The Empty Chair.  There, he teaches: “If you believe that you are capable of damage, then believe that you are capable of repair.  If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.”  Rabbi Nachman knows: we don’t always believe in our capacity to mend what we have broken.

Consider this story broadcast on This American Life, called: “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Say it in All Cap’s”.  For writers who are published online, learning to ignore trolls is part of the job.  Trolls are internet commenters who try to derail a conversation, by posting inflammatory comments designed to provoke.  Comedy writer Lindy West, tells the story of her worst internet troll.

Not long after Lindy’s father dies, she receives a message from a fake account, attributed to her dead father.  The message says that Lindy is a disappointing daughter.  Conventional wisdom?  Don’t respond.  Never feed the internet trolls.

But Lindy can’t let it go.  She writes an article about how much the comment hurt her.

Then, can you imagine this?- The fake dead father commenter, responds with an apology: His note says: Hi Lindy, I don’t know why I sent you hurtful messages.  I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being.  I think it serves to highlight my unhappiness.  I created the fake email from your dead father.  I can’t say I’m sorry enough.  When you included it in your article, it finally hit me, I am attacking someone who has never harmed me.  I made a donation in memory to your dad.

There’s more.  Lindy calls the man. She asks him: Why?

He talks to Lindy.  He says he hurt her because she often writes about body image and refers to herself as fat.  At the time he hated his body, hated his job and had just gotten dumped by his girlfriend.  When Lindy would express her acceptance of her body and her confidence, it threatened him.

Once this man changed jobs and started to feel more whole, he felt the urge to do t’shuvah.  He needed to get to a place where he could take steps toward repair. He came to understand the fracture he caused, and he began to believe, he might have the capacity to mend it.

“If you believe that you are capable of damage, then believe that you are capable of repair.  If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.”  Rabbi Nachman knows: we don’t always believe in our capacity to mend what is broken.

We see damage in our personal lives, and across the globe.  And recently, I have observed brokenness within our Jewish community.  In the weeks following the announcement of the nuclear agreement with Iran, many individuals, organizations and leaders in the Jewish community, have chosen to debate in a tone of vitriol rather than civility.   Accusations have been slung in many directions: Support the deal? You’re a self-hating Jew or anti-Zionist.  Oppose the deal? You’re a disloyal American or a racist.  Refrain from taking a position on the deal?  You have no backbone.

Our tradition teaches that, in the days of the ancient sages, the school of Hillel constantly debated the school of Shammai.  Rabbi Hillel’s followers saw Jewish law through the lens of openness, Rabbi Shammai’s followers through the lens of rigidity.  Yet they were known as a pair, because the constant debate, brought them closer to the truth, and created more balance, and deeper understanding, in the collective teachings their generations produced.  The Talmud says of them “Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim – these, and also these, are words of the living God.”  So fundamental is this lesson, that in Jewish-speak, the abbreviated phrase Elu v’Elu is almost code.  If I am debating an issue with my fellow colleagues, we might say Elu v’Elu, just to express the heat of the debate, and the fact that there is truth to learn from both perspectives.

Lately, there are those who argue that Elu v’elu does not apply.  That somehow, there is a moratorium on respecting each other’s ideas and learning from one another, a greater truth.

In a statement reflecting the demonizations, the Union for Reform Judaism insists: “Calling those who oppose the deal ‘war mongers’ shuts down constructive debate; calling those who support the deal ‘enablers of a second Holocaust’ ends thoughtful discourse”.

Passionate belief in an important cause, such as this deal with Iran, is critical in our engagement with the world!  But when American Jews sit, poised to watch the implementation and monitoring of Iran, ready to gloat to the other, when they are right that Iran did or did not comply, we deprive ourselves the possibility of learning some truth from another’s perspective. When American Jews look at each other across our institutions’ board rooms or through mailings or the media, and deny Elu v’elu – that these, and also these, are words of the living God —  our Jewish community is fractured.

And of course, when those Jews who are disengaged with the debate witness the rancor, the entire situation serves to further distance them from Jewish life.

Although the Jewish community and the media, have paid special attention to the hostility, in the midst of the Iran debate, I’m not sure the division is new.  Perhaps the current debate simply aggravates a rift that already exists.  For some time, portions of the Jewish community have felt a rift when considering what it means to love America, to love Israel, what it means to bind ourselves to the Jewish people, what it means to cautiously protect Israel’s security, what it means to support the lives of Palestinians and other non-Jews across the globe.  For some time, portions of our community who have differing ideas about these questions, have isolated from each other.  Rather than engaging in civil dialogue, in a quest for understanding and for greater truth, we have widened the chasm, talking about each other instead of to each other.

We need to get to a place where we can take steps toward repair.  Truth will not come from ignoring each other.  Understanding will not come from partisan labels.  Repair will not come from over-confidence in a position, or believing we know for certain what reality the future will bring. Healing will not come from distance.

What would it look like to begin to bring repair to the Jewish community?  Torah teaches that we live our lives and we repair our lives through personal connection.  This morning we learned from our portion that Torah is lo bashamayim hi–not in the heavens; it is very near to you, b’ficha — in your mouth.  Last week on Rosh Hashanah, our Torah portion taught us of a time, when our patriarch Abraham and our matriarch Sarah were distressed, about a painful family dynamic.  God’s marital advice to Abraham?  Listen in her voice. Shma b’kolah. Sarah sees things and feels things differently than you do; if you hope to mend your family, you need to understand her.

What might God’s family counseling advice be to the American Jewish community today?  Listen in their voices. Seek out someone you believe holds a different position than you do.  Sit with someone who thinks differently about Israel or Iran, or any divisive issue.  When you talk, remember b’ficha– Torah is in your mouth.  When you listen, shma b’kolah — listen to what is in their voice.  Try to convince them of nothing.  Simply understand them.  Learn something new.  Grow mutual trust.  Perhaps, even reach a higher truth.

Our congregation is a place where we share important conversations. This fall, we will continue our Israel conversations.  We will engage multiple perspectives when we welcome an Israeli rabbi and a Muslim sharia judge, for a conversation about interfaith work in the Middle East.  And we have the chance to expand opportunities.  Please contact me if you are interested in conversations with fellow congregants, about Israel and Jewish peoplehood.  If we are to find healing in our Jewish community, it is not likely to come from mass emails; healing will come because we create a safe space, for individuals to talk to each other bificha–with Torah in their mouths and shma b’kolah—to listen in each other’s voices.

Do you remember Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov’s chair?  Each generation kept the chair safe. However, during the Second World War, Rabbi Nachman’s followers heard that, the Nazis were about to march on their city.

They gathered together, and decided to escape, from Eastern Europe to Jerusalem. There they could build a synagogue where they would follow the ways of Rabbi Nachman.  But there was a problem – how could they take the chair with them? A young boy listened to their discussion, and tugged at his father’s coat. He shared a parable that the Rabbi had told, about the way a squirrel breaks a nut into pieces, in order to carry it to his nest.

The community carved the chair into small pieces and gave a piece to each follower. Somehow, each of them who carried a piece of that chair reached Jerusalem. There, they reassembled it. Together, the community repaired the fragments, and their physical and spiritual foundation was again whole. The chair sits beside the ark, in the Bratzlover synagogue in Jerusalem, to this day.

We are capable of damage, we can harm.  May we be driven by the faith, that we are capable of repair in our relationships and in our interactions, in our community and in our world.  May we believe that we can heal.