It is so good to see you again on this, our fifteenth Rosh Hashanah together. I know what you are thinking. It does seem a bit early for the High Holy Days to begin. It is much too warm to be Rosh Hashanah. In fact, this is the earliest Rosh Hashanah since 1899! Most of us will not be around the next time Rosh Hashanah is this early in 2089, but our physical and spiritual descendents will be here to celebrate the New Year. While it may not yet feel like fall, this is still the opportunity for us to reach out to one another and to God, to return to the paths of righteousness, to make Teshuvah and end our separation from God. Last night I spoke about how we use time. On Erev Yom Kippur I will speak about sin and repentance. On Yom Kippur morning, my sermon will dwell on how we can best add to the goodness in this world. This morning, on this first day of the year 5744, the birthday of the world, is the time for us to review the events of this last year and to think about what the future may bring. I will start with Oheb Shalom, speak about the United States and the world in general and then concentrate on Israel and the Jewish people. First, however, a story.
A rabbi, priest, and minister were talking. The priest told of an occasion when he was caught in a snowstorm so terrible that he couldn’t see a foot in front of him. He was completely confused, unsure even of which direction he needed to walk. He prayed to God and miraculously, while the storm continued for miles in every direction, he could clearly see his home twenty feet away. The minister told a similar story. He had been out on a small boat when a heavy storm struck. There were twenty foot high waves and the boat was certain to capsize. He prayed to God and, while the storm continued all around, for several feet in each direction the sea calmed and the minister was able to return safely to port. The rabbi, too, had such a story. One Shabbat morning, on the way home from services, he saw a very thick wad of $100 bills lying in the gutter. Of course, since it was Shabbat, the rabbi was not able to touch the money. So he prayed to God and everywhere, for miles in every direction, it was still Shabbat, but for ten feet around him, it was Thursday…Of course, the rabbi donated the money to Pathways.
This last year has been a very good one for Oheb Shalom, as we completed our Pathways Campaign, almost doubling our endowment to ensure our future. Contrary to most synagogues, we continue to grow, especially with young families. Our religious school is burgeoning with children. We have so many upcoming b’nei mitzvah that we have instituted Minchah/Havdalah bar and bat mitzvah services on Shabbat afternoons, ensuring that every child will be able to celebrate this special day without sharing. I am personally grateful to the congregation for the weekend long celebration of my bar mitzvah year with Oheb Shalom. Sally and I are incredibly grateful to be part of this wonderful Oheb Shalom “family of families.” Baltimore is our home. We cannot imagine living anywhere else.
As we look around the world on this Rosh Hashanah morning, we see much that disturbs us. I do not ever remember being as troubled by what I see. The Arab Spring has become self-destructive, as Arab countries tear themselves apart after removing established authority. The Arab world is divided against itself with Shia vs. Sunni, the Egyptian military vs. the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Assad government in Syria vs. all varieties of rebels. The United States Government has conclusively determined that the Assad regime used poison gas against its own citizens, killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children. Ha’aretz veteran analyst Ari Shavit has recently warned, “What’s happening in Syria proves the validity of Netanyahu’s warning that the greatest danger to world peace in the 21st century is the combination of unconventional weapons and unconventional regimes. Lunatics really are insane. Barbarians are really barbaric. Huns will be Huns. Those who act mercifully toward Huns bear direct responsibility for the fact that nuclear weapons are being built in Iran, chemical weapons are being used in Syria and doomsday weapons threaten the future of the Middle East. … Those who underestimate the inherent danger of the Huns bear direct responsibility for the deaths of today’s victims, the Syrians, and tomorrow’s victims, the Israelis, Europeans and Americans. It’s time to break free of the moral relativism, multicultural hypocrisy and political correctness that prevent us from seeing our evil neighborhood as it really is. A terrible warning siren is being sounded in Damascus. Do we hear it? Does the world hear it?”
Russia has abandoned democracy in favor of absolutism, returning to the rule of the Putin, the new Czar, and the Russian Orthodox Church. China continues to assert its new found strength in the Pacific as the United States re-orients its military from a European to a Pacific centered strategic position. The world economy has still not recovered from the Great Recession. The only bright spot for us is Israel which, because of the turmoil in the Arab world, is not under immediate threat by conventional forces. What is of most concern is that Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons. European and American efforts to restrain Iran are impotent. Israel is still facing a serious threat to its existence. Does the world take the Iranian threat seriously? Will Israel stand alone against Iran? I am very concerned that, once again, Israel must take care of itself.
I am even more concerned by what I see in this country. There is more anger and political divisiveness now than any time since the 1920s. Americans are angrier today than ever before. American are politically and ideologically polarized. Many are convinced the country is on the wrong path. The gap between the Republican and Democratic parties has not been this great in over ninety years. Compromise, which is the key to democratic politics, has become poison in the mouths of our politicians. Extreme positions have become the norm in Congress- which is why nothing can be done. Congress could not even agree on a plan to deal with the Federal budget, leading to sequestration which has had a devastating effect on jobs in this area. Most of us know at least one person who has lost his job or is furloughed several days a month. The economy has still not recovered from its high in 2007. Median wages are still dropping, now 4% lower than they were at the beginning of the so-called recovery. The middle class is being squeezed. The number of poor Americans has increased while CEOs see record pay increases. The wealthiest 1% of Americans continue to get wealthier while the rest of us become poorer. Political scientists tell us there is a direct correlation between inequality and political divisiveness. America has not been this economically and socially divided since the 1920s. We were not this polarized even in the McCarthy era and Vietnam. Average people are feeling that they cannot get ahead, that the American dream has become the American nightmare, and that the economic game is rigged against them, benefitting the rich, the banks, and Wall Street, who are often one and the same. For anyone who cares about the future of our country, this should be a cause of great concern.
The Jewish world does not live in a vacuum. We are part and parcel of the greater world. We reflect the trends and tendencies of the world around us. Next to the United States, Israel is the most economically and socially stratified country in the world. The struggles in Israel are a microcosm of the serious rifts in the Jewish world, rifts that pit Jew against Jew and make ridiculous any claim that the Jewish people are one. We are many differing and competing tribes which warily and uneasily co-exist with one another. We vary in culture, belief systems, and values. Our interpretations of Judaism are so radically at variance that we may at some point in the future be adherents of separate religions. The only thing that unites most of us (not even all of us) is a love for the State of Israel and, in a negative sense, anti-Semitism, which is a serious issue in the Arab world and the European left. For some of us, that is enough to keep us united. I maintain, however, that the manner in which we express our love for Israel and fight anti-Semitism is so at variance that it belies the claim of unity.
So what has been happening in Israel? The Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) leadership refuses to allow its young men to join the Israeli army, castigating and shunning those few thousand who choose to wear the uniform and protect the state. Haredim have even physically attacked those of its own who return to their neighborhoods wearing army uniforms. The ultra-Orthodox are the fastest growing segment of Israeli society, using more and more resources and draining the state’s coffers with their subsidies. They live on subsidies from the state without contributing anything. Haredim have declared war on women, inflicting violence against Women of the Wall, the group of women who for over twenty years having been holding services on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Hebrew month, at the Kotel, the Western Wall. They have had our own Reform women and rabbinic colleagues arrested, stripped searched, and violated by the religious police. They relegate their own women literally to the back of their buses. Some are anti-Zionist while none accept the democratic values of the state. They reject the concept that Israel is both a Jewish and democratic state. The mainstream Orthodox reject the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewish movements, do not accept the equality of women, and have only disdain for gays and lesbians. On a local level, the right wing Orthodox refuse to enter our synagogues and hold values that are antithetical to what we believe. Let me give you some examples.
I have been working with CHANA on the creation of a support group for Jews whose loved ones suffer from addiction. We thought we had the right therapist until he said his rabbi would not allow him to enter a non-Orthodox synagogue. The only time I have ever seen a right wing Orthodox rabbi enter our synagogue was a number of years ago when Governor Ehrlich was handing out security grants to synagogues. They would come here for money but otherwise will not even use our restrooms. To do so would be to acknowledge that we are authentically Jewish.
Maryland recently approved marriage equality. I was very proud of our congregation for joining with Baltimore Hebrew in advocating for passage of Proposition Six. Both Rabbi Busch and I received hateful and very disturbing phone calls from the Orthodox community, condemning us to hell and saying that what we were doing was against everything for which our Tradition stands. Let me be very clear. There are a handful of Modern Orthodox synagogues and rabbis in Baltimore who do not share the prejudices of their right wing brothers and sisters. Their rabbis are part of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and they are welcoming to women and tolerant of LGBTs. I am speaking today solely of the right wing Orthodox and Lubavitchers, two fast growing populations in our city whose values and life styles are in opposition to our own. In reality, we have two separate Jewish communities connected only by our name. We rarely interact with one another and have very different conceptions of what it means to be Jewish, what it means to support Israel, and what it means to be part of American society. I understand that what I am saying is controversial and perhaps even heretical. I do not comprehend why we, through our contributions to the Associated, support the day schools and yeshivot that teach their students that only the Orthodox are real Jews and that our expressions of Judaism are illegitimate and inauthentic. In fact, there is only one non-Orthodox day school left in Baltimore, Krieger-Schechter, after this summer’s demise of the Cardin School which was housed here and the Day School at Baltimore Hebrew. The vast majority of non-Orthodox Jewish children now receive their Jewish educations at Reform and Conservative religious schools, which receive practically no funding from the Associated and little to no help from its constituent agency, the Center for Jewish Education which, for all apparent purposes, deals almost exclusively with the Orthodox community. Since most contributions to the Associated come from members of Reform and Conservative synagogues, why do we not insist in a change of funding formula?
I will leave it to you to answer these questions at your lunch and dinner tables on this Rosh Hashanah day. I have posed similar questions at various Associated meetings and have received a positive response from the majority of those present, despite the fact that serious answers to these questions call into question the basis of the Federation system. In a recent interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, I was asked if all Liberal Jews are Democrats. I answered, and I quote myself, “While most Jews are Democrats and politically liberal, more and more Jews of all persuasions are becoming politically conservative and support the Republican Party. It used to be said that, “Jews have the incomes of Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” This is no longer true. Many Jews are now voting according to their class and economic interests, just as do other Americans.” If we are changing our voting behavior, can we not also change the rules by which we support other Jews?
Make no mistake- I still advocate giving to the Associated, being involved in its activities and taking care of Jews in need. We can only change the system if we have a stake in it. I would never allow a fellow Jew to go hungry or homeless. They are still family, like the distant cousins with whom we no longer associate. Yet I do not think we should support institutions within our community and overseas that do not accept us as authentic Jews.
This is the first day of the year 5774. All Hebrew letters have numerical equivalents, so the year is written with a tav (400), shin (300), ayin (70), and dalet (4), with the 5,000 being understood. If we take the last three letters, the shin, ayin, and dalet, and re-arrange them, it spells the word, adash, meaning lentil. Lentils are a healthful and ancient legume that were grown throughout the ancient Middle East. Our ancestors ate them regularly, since they are easy to grow and very nutritious. Esau traded his birth rite to his younger brother, Jacob, for a bowl of lentil stew. Lentils are traditionally served at a house of mourning because they are round, symbolizing that the wheel of death touches everyone, and they have no serrated edge or mouth, symbolizing that mourners should not be the first to speak to guests. Lentils symbolize our wish that this New Year be a healthy one for us and our loved ones. Yet, lentils have another meaning. It seems that the Latin name for magnifying glass is “lentil” because the first magnifying glasses were made in the shape of the lentil. I pray that in this New Year, we may look at life and our community through a new and clearer lens. May our vision improve and our values be clarified.
On behalf of Sally and our entire family, I wish you a Shana Tova uM’tuka, a happy and sweet New Year.
i. Robert Reich, Baltimore Sun, August 16, 2013, page 17.