When I was a student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati studying for the rabbinate, as part of the training, HUC required that we be student rabbis in small congregations that did not have full time clergy. We travelled every other weekend, to serve as the rabbi of congregations that had been in the program for many years. As a result, they were patient teachers of young aspiring students.
Sixty years ago, I was such a student. I selected Temple Sholom in Galesburg, Illinois, a small town in the western part of the state, the people were most welcoming. They introduced me to the town and its historic sites, one of which is Knox College. There i was introduced to a bit of history. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. His opponent was stephen douglas. They engaged in a series of seven debates, the fifth of which was held at Knox College, in galesburg. Even though Lincoln lost the election, it is virtually the unanimous opinion of historians that it was this fifth debate in galesburg that set Lincoln on the path to the presidency.
The nearly exclusive subject of all the debates was slavery. In 1858, a discussion of that subject when running for public office was a political nightmare. It was common that politicians would change their message depending on where they were speaking – in a slave state of or a free state. Political messaging often was sectional and regional. Douglas tried to accuse Lincoln of such political gymnastics. In this fifth debate in Galesburg, Lincoln would have none of it. I quote from his speech – now, said Mr. Lincoln, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulty of getting rid of it in a satisfactory way, and all the constitutional obligations which have been thrown about; but nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong, it may come to an end.
Lincoln did something in that moment that changed the trajectory of his life-he advanced the discussion of slavery from political to moral. Whether it was a political death sentence or not to speak against slavery no longer was the issue – it was morally wrong, and as such there was no choice but to oppose it.
One of the early leaders of Reform Judaism in America was Rabbi David Einhorn. In 1855, he became the rabbi of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. He was known as being anti-slavery. In April of 1861, he was driven out of town as a result of a sermon that he delivered on the subject of slavery. He fled to Philadelphia and for a period of time was the rabbi of Reform congregation Keneseth Israel. His rabbinic career ended in New York City. Many consider him to be the ideological inspiration of Reform Judaism in America. His prayer book, Olat Tamid, was the model for the first edition of the Union prayer book, which, for many years, was the standard siddur for Reform congregations throughout the country.
I learned much from my years as a student rabbi, but perhaps nothing more important than from Abraham Lincoln of 1858 in Galesburg, Illinois and David Einhorn of Baltimore in 1861. Both Abraham Lincoln and David Einhorn used their pulpits to condemn slavery because it created a class of people who were considered less than human. In their minds there could be no compromise with the moral implications of that stance.
We rabbis, your rabbis, on many occasions must face the choice between speaking out on a subject that has deep moral implications, or staying silent for fear of being accused of being political by those who disagree.
As we join together on these High Holy Days, there are serious issues that have become political landmines, that have divided friendships and even separated families, but which cannot be ignored – issues which I as a rabbi deem it imperative to discuss, which if not given the moral weight they deserve threaten to destroy human life as we know it or worse, render it extinct – issues which i learned from Abraham Lincoln and David Einhorn must be elevated from the political to the moral.
We hardly need more evidence than the wildfires that are consuming large swaths of the western part of our country and the devastation from this latest hurricane to prove that climate change is an imminent danger to this earth and all that live on it. Many sections of this globe are experiencing record heat. The oceans are warming and rising, ocean currents are changing in such a way that entire continents are threatened. Arctic ice is melting. Climatologists point to numerous signs that human behavior is destroying the planet. It is no secret that some, perhaps many, serving in public office take money from the fossil fuel industry and then lobby on their behalf to prevent the development of clean energy. For many climate change is a myth, perpetrated by those who pretend to be the intellectual elite of society. It is not and should not be a political statement to say that we support those who take the human destruction of this earth seriously, and who will work to save our planet. That is our moral responsibility. The future of life on this earth is at stake.
I recently read of clergy in some areas of this country who have either rallied their congregations against being vaccinated for covid or are silent on the issue for fear of losing their jobs. They serve people who have a variety of beliefs about the vaccinations – that it is a lie that the vaccine is effective perpetrated by those who want to kill them or that some device will be implanted in their bodies to enslave them, or other myths spread by those who also sell snake oil. That also is true of government officials attempt to mandate against the wearing of masks. A primary obligation of Jewish tradition and Talmudic law is pikuach nefesh – the saving of life. To remain silent on the subject of vaccinations or wearing masks is to contribute to human suffering and death. To say that any politician who does not follow the guidelines of our health experts and who places his or her political ambitions before the health and welfare of their community is endangering human life and should not be in public office is not a statement
Of political preference. It is a statement reflecting the moral underpinnings of the history of the people of Israel.
A third subject, so glaring at this moment reminds us, especially us, why our ancestors fled to America. We came here to escape centuries of being persecuted because somehow we were perceived as being religiously evil, financially devious, less than human, or just the “other”. Now, here in this nation founded on the principle that all people are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we find ourselves in the midst of a white supremacist movement that would deny those rights to large segments of our population. Isabel Wilkerson, in her book “Caste”, with great clarity, explains that the early settlers of America created a caste system that said that white people were the dominant caste, and that the ideals expressed in our original documents were intended to apply only to them. The election of a black president only heightened the fears of this white caste and has caused them to rise up to attempt to rule the nation even it means the destruction of our democratic republic. It should not be a political issue that we insist that our elected officials actively support equal rights for all Americans, voting rights, educational rights, employment and social rights for all – no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. That is the America of the song – this land is your land and this land is my land. That is the America to which the lady in the harbor with the torch welcomed us all.
I do not intend to ignore many other subjects – such as a woman’s right to choose – that must be addressed. This is but a sampling of the difficult but necessary road we must tread if we are to be true to our values and our heritage.
We are here to observe Yom Kippur. Some would have us believe that we are here to apologize, to say we are sorry, to beg for forgiveness from human and divine so that all of our sins and shortcoming will no longer be a stain on our reputation. I submit to you that we are here for a larger purpose. We are here to examine our deeds, not simply for forgiveness, but to change our behavior where that is necessary – to become something better, for no one is perfect. That must involve a personal discussion, a self evaluation about our own moral standards. This morning we read from a prophet often called Trito Isaiah. He spoke to the people of Israel at the end of their Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. As they returned to Jerusalem, reminding them it is not ritual but social justice and action that must be their redemption. “is this not the fast that i have chosen”, the prophet says their god demands, “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?” In the afternoon service we read the holiness code, kedoshim tih’yu – you shall be holy. It speaks of deeds, not words. – to act honestly, to care for the stranger, to not pervert justice, to love your neighbor as yourself. The haftarah was from the book of Jonah who was sent to Nineveh to change the moral and religious behavior of its people. The following admonition is in the book of Deuteronomy, which we also read this morning: this day i call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. That is our charge. Those are our texts. That is our mission, that is the message of Yom Kippur – choose that which is moral if necessary choose that which is hard, not that which is easy. Remember pikuach nefesh – the saving of human life. Remember tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue. Answer the call, as did the prophet, with a resounding “here i am, send me.” So that there will be future generations who will say of us, they chose life so that we, and our children and our children’s children may live.