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Kol Nidrei 5783: Fighting Words

Too many years ago for me to admit, I attended a pro-choice rally at Rancho Park. The park was filled with a diverse group of people who feared the right to abortion would be curtailed or eliminated, along with a few who hoped this would be the case. After the rally, as I was walking to my car, I encountered a middle aged woman on her knees praying. A small circle of rally-goers surrounded her, assuming she was anti- choice. They hurled profanity-laden epithets at her, while she continued swaying on her knees with her eyes closed. I felt nothing but compassion for her. I wanted to say something to this abusive circle. But I did nothing. I said nothing.

Avinu Malkeinu, I sinned before You at that moment. I failed to intervene on behalf of someone quietly exercising her free speech rights. I failed to stop the crowd from its antidemocratic behavior. I ask You to send that woman a message that I apologize for my sin of omission. And I ask You for forgiveness at my abject failure to adhere to my values.

Today we witness the grave polarization of our body politic. Violent threats against members of Congress have increased tenfold over the last 6 years. A quarter of Americans believe violence against the government is sometimes justified. Nearly 70% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats agree that democracy is threatened, and they blame the other side for this threat. Reasonable people can disagree on who is right and who is wrong, but this polarization may be an even larger threat than either side is perceived to pose.

All this begins with speech. Our nation gives us the right to free speech. The Jewish tradition, however, gives us the responsibility to be careful how we speak. The proverbs say, “Death and life are within the power of language.” Recent history provides a grim reminder of how true this is.

Last week I had a lengthy conversation with a congregant who was upset by the tone I struck during last year’s Kol Nidrei sermon. Neither of us budged from our positions. What struck me, though, was that we were not as far apart on our thinking as we had thought. I deeply value dissent. I have no interest in preaching to an echo chamber, and our synagogue should be a haven for respectful debate in a society where such opportunities are scarce.

The truth is, Judaism is not entirely liberal nor conservative. On matters of personal behavior, our tradition is quite conservative. On matters of wealth distribution and the most vulnerable among us, our tradition flirts with socialism. Our tradition allows for private property, but also acknowledges that on a spiritual level, God owns everything and everyone. Our tradition does express concern for the unborn, even as it does not consider the unborn alive until they take their first breath. Our tradition sanctifies life, even as it acknowledges that heroic measures may be withheld when a life can no longer be saved. Our tradition believes in collective responsibility – “all of Israel is responsible for each other” – even as it embraces individual dignity – “everyone should say ‘for my sake the world was created.’” While we are correct to draw on our tradition for insights on what we believe is the greatest good for the nation in which we reside, we should be mindful of our biases when we do so.

Our tradition celebrates honest debate. We learn in Pirkey Avot, chapter 5: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? Such were the disputes of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the dispute of Korah and all his congregation.” The Bartenura explains that an argument for the sake of heaven is a genuine and humble search for the truth, quoting the Talmud: “from a dispute, the truth shall be clarified.” Inversely, an argument not for the sake of heaven is one where the goal is achieving power, and contention for its own sake.

Our Sages, of blessed memory, praise the argumentation between Hillel and Shammai, who bitterly disagreed on what is pure and what is impure and on who can marry whom. However, these disagreements did not prevent them from marrying into each other’s families or handling things one side thought was impure. The talmud records the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated one particular matter for three years. Finally, a heavenly voice declared, “Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, v’Halakha k’veit Hillel / These and those are the words of the living God, but the law is according to the school of Hillel.” How can only one side be right if both sides use the words of the living God? The Talmud answers: “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Furthermore, they even taught Shammai’s opinions first.”

In contrast, in the book of Numbers, Korach accused Moses of raising himself up over the community like a military strongman, even though Korach and his followers were already men of great privilege. Korach seceded from the community of Israel and refused to debate. Korach did not seek justice for the people, our Sages say. Rather, he sought power for himself. Therefore, his argument did not endure, and neither did he.

It is often difficult to discern who among our elected officials genuinely strive to serve their country or to serve themselves. It is not so easy to know if they are telling us the truth. Sometimes questions arise if an election was fairly concluded, as were the cases of Bush vs. Gore and Trump vs. Biden. When the Supreme Court halted the recount in Florida, some Gore supporters called Bush the “commander in thief.” They were wrong. Although many constitutional scholars scratched their heads at the Supreme Court’s reasoning, the process was lawful and peaceful, and the Vice President himself presided over the Congressional session where Bush’s electoral college majority was ratified, fending off objections from a few of his own supporters.

On January 6, 2021, over ten thousand Americans rallied over their sincere belief that the 2020 election was stolen. Most of them were peaceful, and they did what they felt one should do if one feels a political process is corruptly perverted. I cannot say I would not have been at such a rally if I felt my candidate’s victory were improperly stolen. Many were members of violent extremist groups, but many were just regular people who were outraged. About a thousand of them illegally breached the Capitol. Dozens assaulted police officers. Over 900 persons have been charged with crimes, and hundreds have been convicted and sentenced. This was an insurrection, the gravest assault on our democracy in our lifetimes. Investigations continue, and more indictments and convictions are certain.

Those who violently attacked our democracy deserve to be brought to justice. But we err in calling the entire mob a bunch of evil persons. It would be more accurate to say they were led astray. Never in our history have such enormous lies been widely disseminated from the highest office in the nation. This was not a dispute between two legitimate positions, but rather a naked, authoritarian power grab. Many elected officials continue to pay homage to the Big Lie and have allowed authoritarianism to infect a large portion of a political party.

Hannah Arendt wrote this in “The Origins of Totalitarianism:”

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

The Coarsening of political discourse is an enormous casualty. We’ve had to experience a president who called the media “the enemy of the people;” who explicitly advocated and continues to advocate violence against his political opponents; who spread enormous lies about the 2020 election and failed to act against an attempted coup, and even, it is alleged, gleefully welcomed it and possibly intended to participate in it. He continues his gaping lies about the election and espouses violent rhetoric which reverberates throughout our nation.

On Yom Kippur, we are commanded to afflict ourselves with difficult questions. Instead of pointing the finger outward, we are called to point the finger at ourselves. Is any of us truly immune to the seductions of authoritarianism? Is it really impossible to believe that either side of the aisle is impervious to violent extremism? Authoritarianism is on the rise across the world, irrespective of political affiliation. For every Putin, there is an Jinping. For every Bolsonaro, there is a Maduro. Such naked power-grabbers achieve their aims by virtue of disenfranchising entire populations. Our own political system is under siege, and all of us are duty-bound to counteract these chill winds. However, the best way for us to do that is by refusing to demonize each other; by recognizing that underneath our political differences, all of us are created in the image of God. As the Jerusalem Talmud explains: “One who is honored by the disgrace of his fellow has no share in the world to come, but one who treats his fellow with love, peace and neighborliness, seeks their benefit and is happy about their well being, the verse states about him, ‘Israel, about you will I be glorified’ (Isaiah 49:3).”

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav has this to say on the subject: “The essence of shalom is to unite two opposites. Therefore, do not be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him in peace. Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites, just as God makes peace in the heavens between the contrasting elements of fire and water.”

It enrages me to hear the former president constantly infect our body politic with toxic invective. But it also pains me to hear Hillary Clinton denounce half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” These deplorables are our neighbors! They are our co-religionists. President Biden characterized the MAGA philosophy as “semi-fascism,” a position many find defensible. But he went on to say he did not respect “MAGA Republicans.” Mr. President, all people are created in the image of God and thus deserve respect.

As the rate of affiliation in religious and civic organizations continues to shrink, so does the opportunity to see the divine in each other. Many people who flock to worship spaces hope to find an oasis from the divisions and conflicts we encounter during the week. I certainly sympathize. We should be careful not to transform our places of worship into thinly veiled political movements. However, where better a place can there be for us to discuss our differences than a house of worship? It is difficult to despise another human being when they need you for a shiva minyan. Perhaps we should be proactive about this. Why can’t we turn our synagogue, our beit knesset, into a space implied by its true translation: a meeting place? A meeting of the minds? A meeting of the souls?. A meeting of competing truths, where these and those are the words of the living God? As long as our arguments are quests for truth, instead of a zero-sum game, our debates will endure until we find the truth together.

I cannot stand before you and declare that I have always modeled this behavior. I have very strong opinions on just about everything – especially Craig Kimbrel. For those times where I crossed the line from passionate argument into demonization, I humbly apologize and ask for God’s forgiveness. And, to make amends, I stand ready to hear rebuttals to whatever I say on this pulpit or in my blogs. I pledge to those of you who disagree with me: I will offer to schedule a time where I will step away from my pulpit and let you preach. I will publish, with your permission, any rebuttal to any position I take in my blogs. I cannot promise that you will change my mind, and I doubt I will change yours. But you will be treated with respect.

Earlier tonight, we chanted: “And the congregation of Israel shall be forgiven, along with the stranger who dwells among them. For all the people have acted unwittingly.” In our passion for the truth, we have erred. In our quest for the greatest good, we have missed the mark. Let us therefore move forward together, mindful of our sins arising from passionate speech. May we all be forgiven. Let us stand arm-wrestle in arm-wrestle as we strive together to form a more perfect union. And above all, for the sake of this house of God, may we never lose sight that we are here to seek each other’s well being. May God grant us strength. May God bless us with peace. Have an easy and meaningful Day of At-One-Ment. A person at one, a family at one, a congregation at one, a nation at one, a world at one.


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