Neighbor is a Moral Concept* (Kol Nidrei 2017)

Or zarua latzadik / Light is sown for the righteous**, words we just sang as the introduction to Kol Nidrei. This Yom Kippur, we search for the light of righteousness that it may illumine our path, and the path for generations to come.

Since our last Yom Kippur together, our world feels different.  We have born witness to anti-Semitism and bigotry, meant to keep us from the faith that we have the power to stand in the light.  More emboldened than recent memories of hate.  No longer hiding behind the white hood.  Not limited to the right or left fringes.  White supremacists, have desecrated cemeteries, painted swastikas in our city, threatened our Jewish Community Centers, and just last week created a new online presence #Gasthesynagogue.  And, in 2017 America, armed Nazis stalked a Reform Jewish synagogue in Charlottesville.   According to the Anti-Defamation League, in the first quarter of 2017 anti-semitic incidents in the U.S. surged more than 86%.

What do we do, in the face of heightened Anti-Semitism?  Certainly, we are vigilant about security protocols and are grateful for the people who keep us safe at Rodeph Shalom.  But in a deeper way, how do we respond to anti-Semitism?

When in Charlottesville, Congregation Beth Israel sees three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from the Temple, they keep praying and finish their Shabbat worship.

When in Florida, a Jewish Day School receives a bomb threat during their morning service, they evacuate to the parking lot as one student takes the Torah scroll outside. Once in the parking lot, another student takes his tallit/prayer shawl, and spreads it on the hood of a car. And then the kid with the Torah scroll, unrolls the Torah on the tallit, and the students continue with the Torah service – with a Torah on a tallit, on the hood of a car, in a parking lot, to which they have been evacuated, because of an anti-Semitic bomb threat.***

How do we respond to anti-Semitism? That is how we respond to anti-Semitism: Unafraid to stand in the light, we pray and we read Torah!  We– Jews of different colors, countries of origin and background, and non-Jewish family members too– we show up today in this sanctuary!  With resilience and courage, we show up, and we re-devote ourselves to Jewish life, to illumine our path and the path for generations to come!

But that rededication to a vital and meaningful Jewish life, is only our first response to hate.  

Our second response to hate, must be to heed the words of Elie Wiesel who taught: “Silence encourages the tormenter. We must take sides.”

In our response to hate we cannot only protect ourselves.  We see the other groups who are targeted by bigotry: African-Americans, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women…  We must honor difference in our world and with moral leadership stand in solidarity with other vulnerable groupswhether or not we are targeted that day.

We have already begun.  Coalition-building raises hard questions; I realize that some of you hold different perspectives from my own, and I invite you to share them with me.

It is not easy.  Some fear that speaking out makes us vulnerable to hate.  At the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, on whose Board I serve, I have the privilege of getting to know people from many backgrounds different from my own.  I recently shared a conversation with a man of another minority religion.  In his community, when they care about a social issue, they stay quiet, afraid they will be targeted if they speak out.  This “laying-low” may capture a sense of fear that some Jews share.  Will they leave us alone if only we keep our heads down?  …Probably not.  But even if Jews could find protection in our silence, at what cost? If we weren’t speaking to our Jewish values, wouldn’t we be giving up something even more precious than our security?

It is not easy.  Some fear that speaking out alongside groups with whom we disagree on other issues, threatens our integrity.

When it comes to coalitions, the question is: which groups, are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values, that they are the appropriate partners for us, for specific causes?

After the Vigil in Support of Those Who Stood Against Hate in Charlottesville, I shared with one of the organizers how much I appreciated the opportunity to speak, but also my discomfort with some of the messages that were presented by other speakers.  This organizer explained to me, that when she was invited to help she knew she would not be comfortable with all that was said at the Vigil.  But this woman, a Jewish woman, also knew that without her enlisting rabbis to speak, the vigil would not have a Jewish voice. And the rally would remain more distant from issues that matter to the Jewish community.  So she stretched her boundaries. This woman’s story reflects much of my recent thinking…

I have been challenged by the question: Which groups are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values that in the question of partnership, or just co-sponsoring the same statement, I can revisit some of my past boundaries.

For instance: I love Israel and believe Israel’s existence and security is critical to the Jewish people.  I also care deeply about a Two-State Solution that will offer opportunity and dignity to the Palestinians. And I oppose the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions, that is BDS, movements which I see as both anti-Israel and often anti-Jewish.  So, when a women’s or an anti-racism initiative includes organizers who are also BDS activists, do I participate, risking association with groups I oppose?  Or do I stay home, risking complacency, risking an absence of a Jewish voice… and knowing that when I stay home, I miss the opportunity, for other groups to get to know and understand Jews.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently taught, it may be time to experiment with our restrictions.  For sometimes, the big community-wide gathering that advocates some of our most cherished principles, is the one with co-sponsors who offend us.  Perhaps, there are rallies where I would say “We don’t all agree on every issue, but on this, we can stand together.”

I have engaged our leadership in conversation to explore these hard questions about how Rodeph Shalom takes moral leadership.  I invite you to join me in a conversation about our congregation’s unique social justice role, on Thurs., Nov 9. I am inviting you to struggle with me and to share your point of view, as tonight, I’d like to share my own perspective, that I draw from our religious values.

Solidarity and coalitions challenge our boundaries. We are cautious because, the people with whom we stand, say something about who we are.   The question is: when does staying home, say more about who we are?

The ancient sages imagine our patriarch Abraham traveling when he sees a house aglow in flames. Abraham stops and says, “Who is looking after this house?”  Then what happens?  Abraham could continue to walk past.  He could say: the fire is not my problem until it’s in my backyard.  He could say: this is not really even my neighborhood.  But not Abraham.  Abraham realizes: this is God’s house.  This is all God’s house.  God’s house is on fire!  All of it.  Not just in the Jewish neighborhood.

In August of 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke, just before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did, at the March on Washington.  Rabbi Prinz said: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, the most important thing that I learned was that bigotry is not the most urgent problem. The most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence….Our ancestors taught us, that God created every human being as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept.* It means our collective responsibility, for the preservation of humanity’s dignity.”

When we stand in solidarity, that fire is our problem, because neighbor is a moral concept.

We know what can happen when we forget our collective responsibility for the preservation of humanity’s dignity. How do we move beyond the words of German pastor, Martin Niemoller, who, before his own imprisonment in the concentration camps, conformed to anti-Semitic norms, and after his release, wrote these now famous words:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Pastor Niemoller warns us how dangerous it is to be silent, to hide difference, to disconnect, or to allow ourselves to be pitted against each other.  But despite its powerful message, the poem reflects a failure to honor difference and to stand in solidarity.  Haunted by Pastor Niemoller’s remorse, my friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Latz responded with his own poem this year:

First they came for transpeople and I spoke up–

Because we are all God’s children!

They came for the African Americans and I spoke up—

Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.

And then they came for the women and I spoke up—

Because women hold up half the sky.

And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—

Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.

And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—

Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.

And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—

Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.

They keep coming.

We keep rising up.

Because we Jews know the cost of silence.

We remember where we come from.

And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—

and THAT just won’t stand.

These Days of Awe, and this season in the life of our nation, demand we ask ourselves:  Will we see our neighbor, not as a geographic concept, but as a moral concept?  Will we see that the house on fire is our problem, because it is all God’s house.  I pray we will look back on this season and be able to say, again and again, when we witnessed words of hate, systems of racism, policies of fear: we spoke up!

As in these Days of Awe we dig into the deepest darkest places of our souls, in the words of the prophet Isaiah in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah: “may our light burst forth like the dawn.”  May we light the way to Jewish study, Jewish values, Jewish living, and the repair of our world, faithful and unafraid to stand in the light.

Or zarua latzadik, this Kol Nidrei, may we sow the light of righteousness, that it may illumine our path, and the path for generations to come.


**(Psalm 97:11)

***adapted from retelling by Rabbi David Stern, CCAR President