I was delayed publishing an article about Day Two of Rosh Hashanah by a pressing need I felt to write about “The ‘Science’ in ‘Global Science'”. I wrote this to suggest that neither “side” of the argument knows as much as it thinks, and that our discussion of a highly emotional and politicized subject – in this case global warming – has to move from opinions and activism to slowing down, listening, and to being willing to really examine what we know and what we don’t know. I’m very glad I explored this issue, because I now realize that Day Two of Rosh Hashanah, for me, was about doing this around another very difficult issue.
I attended Or Hadash for the service and as always was made to feel extraordinarily welcome. This really is a beautiful congregation, and Rabbis Karpuj and Bortz are wonderful people. The service of this conservative congregation is considerably longer than that of Temple Sinai (four-and-a-half hours as opposed to two-and-a-half), and it is conducted substantially in Hebrew, but the service book has an English translation, the music and liturgy is exquisite, and the time flew! And the climax of the service was Rabbi Mario Karpuj’s sermon, which is also the central point of this article.
Rabbi Analia Bortz led us through the Torah section and provided a very challenging exegesis. The section was the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice at the command of God and having his hand stayed at the last minute. Analia brought out some profound points:
- at this time Isaac was a grown man, I believe 37 years old. Seeing the story in this light – a mature adult Isaac allowing himself to be bound by his father – puts it in a profoundly different light than reading it with Isaac as a child;
- Isaac’s last words to his father are to ask him about the apparent absence of the sacrificial animal. They both live many years after this and yet don’t talk;
- a fundamental question is whether G_d was testing Abraham or Abraham testing G_d. This question has really deep meaning if one can put oneself in the Jewish mindset of wrestling with G_d, and as I approach that place, it rocks my world.
The day after Rosh Hashanah I resumed my own Torah study and found deep resonance both with this approach to the Rosh Hashanah story and with Mario’s sermon (to which I’ll return shortly). Genesis 16:9 reads, “I will establish my covenant with you and with your descendents after you for all their generations, an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” As the editors point out, this covenant by G_d is remarkable since it is unconditional; and more so because the stories of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob show them all to be fallible – very fallible! – human beings. They variously engage in lies, deceit and terrible unkindness. But despite this, the G_d whose disappointment with mankind led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and to the Great Flood that wiped out almost all of life on earth, is willing to make an irrevocable, unconditional covenant to be the G_d of this people for eternity. And the Torah, which chronicles the lives of these fallible humans does so without any explicit moral judgment of them or of their actions. Isaac deceives first his brother and then his father to steal his brother’s birthright and I c an find no judgment in the text.
For me this is profound: it is at once extremely difficult, and yet extremely simple. G_d is G_d regardless, and no voice but His can judge. How can we live with this complete acceptance of these basic guidelines?
While my recollection of the details of Mario’s sermon is poor (I was unable to take notes), it left a profound and lasting impression and deep message: it pointed at the public perception of Jews, Judaism, and Israel in a manner that tied closely to Rabbi Ron Segal’s message at Temple Sinai the previous day. Mario told beautiful and deeply moving stories of humanity, of compassion, and of connection within Israel and Gaza, and of Israeli- and non-Israeli-Jews. But he also spoke of great prejudice, intolerance and ignorance, not just related to Israel but related to Jews and Judaism in the Diaspora. Above all, though, it was not the words Mario spoke, but the heart they came from that carried the real message: Mario spoke from a place of deep personal, corporate and cultural pain; he spoke from a place of Jewish suffering and Jewish fear; and from a place of feeling misunderstood and misrepresented.
The sermon left me in tears. Mario is a profoundly compassionate and loving human being whose closest friends include Muslims. He is heavily engaged in interfaith work and later this month will be the Jewish leader of an interfaith group of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who are traveling together to Turkey. Mario’s pain has many sides and is very complicated, but somewhere near its heart is the emerging experience of persecution by Jews regardless of nationality and regardless of their views of Israel, a prejudice founded on a public perspective of events in the Middle East shaped by sound-bite journalism. I knew intellectually going into Rosh Hashanah that I am profoundly ignorant of “the real story”, but I had not realized the extent to which I bore subconscious views shaped by the media. But after Mario’s sermon and Ron’s the previous day, I got a glimpse of how much my worldview has been shaped by the dangerous flight to judgment of our culture, and the extent to which we are on a precipice fueled by ignorance and intolerance. As with climate science, I believe it is critically important that we step back from this precipice and leave our opinions and judgments behind. It is important that we recognize that doing this is really hard and counter-cultural, but that we do it anyway.
In a beautiful piece on facebook, Rabbi Josh Lesser showed us a way: I Chose Silence: The Attribute of Sh’tikah. In choosing the way of silence he chose not weakness, submission, acquiescence, but the way of great strength, compassion, and humility. He chose a way of healing and of growth. It is a way which, by different names, is at the heart of all of the world’s religions. Sadly, though, it is a way that is becoming increasingly countercultural as we thrive on news soundbites, on instant communications and almost as rapid a polarization into competing judgments. It is a way that each of us needs to rediscover and live, and I hope that if enough of us do it will slow the conversation down and create enough space for real dialog and healing to emerge. It is my hope that if enough of us do this we can show our children there is a different way, a better way. What a great gift that would be!
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