Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Yom Kippur Evening, 5779: We Were Strangers

“My sweet daughter-in-law, I love you as if you were my own blood but, you cannot come with me it is illegal.” “Mother, I will not leave you. I will risk the danger of crossing the river. Whatever the future holds, I will not leave your side.” “But my daughter!” “Hush, I know the danger but I trust in you, your family, your people.” “It will not be easy child. The only work you will find will be picking crops.” And so they traveled together. The young daughter-in-law seduced a man. They married and had an anchor baby. Who had a son. Who had a son who became the greatest leader in our nation’s history.

Too subtle? Ruth the Moabite, a people that Torah law states should never be allowed in our community, flaunts that law to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Eventually her great grandson, David, rises to the kingship of Israel and, becomes the progenitor of the Messiah. Why was Ruth’s great-grandson chosen for this honor? Because he knew our people’s story of being aliens in a foreign land, and his great-grandmother’s story of being an alien in our land.

We Jews, of all peoples on this planet, should not need commandments to welcome the stranger, to love the stranger as ourselves. Why? Because, as we say each Pesach, we were aliens in the land of Egypt and we know the heart of the stranger. Thus, our hearts and our actions must reflect our understanding of the needs of others who must flee their homes to escape oppression, or rape, or death, or to provide a better life for their families.

If there is one thing I miss from Gates of Repentance, it is the listing of the sin of xenophobia, the sin of fear of strangers. As I said on Rosh Hashanah: “We are all guilty of this….You know you are guilty of this. I know I am…. We all, without exception, make assumptions about people who are from other countries, people who are poor, people who are rich, people who are a different race,… The list goes on.”

We are not only Jews, we are Americans. It breaks my heart seeing hope in America being shunted aside and, xenophobia, rule. We began to shut our doors with the immigration laws of the early 1920’s. These laws were specifically designed to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans. In their immediacy, these new immigration laws kept out Jews trying to escape the Communist revolutions and counter revolutions. Later, our the United States used these immigration laws to turn away Jews escaping the coming horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust.

A true story. On Thanksgiving eve 1938, Secretary of State Harold Ickes, a Christian and a Republican in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, gave a speech proposing a plan to resettle Jews on farmland outside Anchorage, Alaska. He said this could be: “a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions."

Bills were introduced in the Senate and the House but never passed. The charge to defeat the resettlement was led by Alaska Territorial Governor, Ernest Gruening, a Jew. Gruening did not want these kinds of Jews with their strange dress and accents in his state.

A year later, in 1939, the United States turned away the ship St. Louis, forcing its Jewish passengers to return to Europe and the Nazi’s final solution. Even those who survived the camps and the war suffered fear and trembling. Can you ever forget the pictures of those Jews crowding, beseeching, on the St. Louis’s deck?

In 1942, fear, especially xenophobia, again raised its ugly vile head as President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the round up of people who were at least 1/16 Japanese and placing them in concentration camps. Close to 60% of these internees were American citizens by birth or by naturalization. 1/16th, Japanese means having a Japanese great-grandparent. That number 1/16th should echo in your souls. King David was 1/16 Moabite. Hitler determined that anyone who was 1/16th Jewish would be subject to the final solution. 

Incredibly, many of the interned Japanese Americans volunteered to fight in the war. The military established the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and sent them to fight in Europe. The 442nd became the most decorated unit in United States military history. It also suffered large numbers of casualties.

I learned this story about one of the casualties, Sgt. Kazuro Masuda from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in California. Sgt. Kazuro enlisted while interned at Manzanar Concentration Camp in Orange County, California. In Italy, on the night of July 6, 1944, he turned back two major counteroffensives and inflicted heavy casualties after firing at the enemy for twelve hours. Eventually, Sgt. Masuda was killed in action. In 1945, General Joseph Stilwell, flew to the Manzanar concentration camp.  There, on the porch of the shack in which the Masuda family was forced to live, General Stilwell pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Sgt. Masuda’s sister Mary.

At that ceremony was an army Captain who spoke these words: “The blood that has soaked the sands of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world; the only country not founded on race, but on a way and an idea. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”

Forty three years later, that Captain, Ronald Reagan, now President signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 providing redress and restitution to the Japanese who had been interred in the camps. At that ceremony he said: “… (W)e gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.He then told the story of being present for the presentation to the Masuda family. Two years earlier, President Reagan, signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 which reformed our immigration system, allowing thousands upon thousands of people to come out of the shadows with no fear of being forced to leave their homes in America.

President Reagan, the archetypal Republican, decided that, when it came to people who made it to our shores, America should be built on hope and not on fear and hatred of the other. Quoting John Winthrop on the Mayflower President Reagan said: “We shall be a city upon a hill….” He continued: “America has not been a story or a byword. That small community of Pilgrims prospered and driven by the dreams and, yes, by the ideas of the Founding Fathers, went on to become a beacon to all the oppressed and poor of the world.”

My family’s story while similar to many of yours. has a unique twist. My grandfather immigrated to Canada from Russia sometime before 1913. There he met my grandmother, also a Russian immigrant. They married and, in 1913 had a son, my father, to go with my grandmother’s two daughters from a previous marriage, his half sisters, Lil and Mae. Six months after my father’s birth they moved to Philadelphia to be with the rest of my grandfather’s family and had a second child, my aunt Ruth. Several years later, my grandfather applied and became a United States citizen. My father and his sister were minors and therefore were naturalized under of their father’s citizenship.

My father spent 18 years of his life serving in the military both overseas and in the States. After serving in the Pacific theater for the entirety of World War II, he was honorably discharged in 1945.

In the fall of 1971 I spent a semester in Israel. My father, who had never left the United States except under the auspices of the United States military, decided to visit me in Israel. In the spring of 1971, taking his birth certificate and his naturalization papers, he applied for his first passport. His application was denied. The reason? He had been naturalized on his father’s papers and not on his own. The Government, after 58 years of living in America, 18 of which were in the military, declared he was not an American citizen. I will never forget the pain in his voice and on his face when he told me what happened that day. Thankfully our Rabbi reached out to our Congressman who arranged another interview for my father. Before the interview he had to obtain sworn and notarized affidavits from his two older half-sisters, Lil and Mae,  and others who had known him throughout his life to swear that he was in fact the Nathan Rosenfeld who arrived in America at the age of six months, and that he had never become a citizen of another country. A year later, long after I was home, he finally got his passport which sat in a drawer unused until the day he died.

When I read last week that our government started revoking the citizenship of Americans born in Texas, stripping the citizenship of people who were legally naturalized, and established a “Denaturalization Taskforce,” I felt a hot poker pierce my heart and soul. We have surpassed the sin of xenophobia and moved to the sin of hating the stranger, the one who is different that lives among us. We learn from the easy way the Nazi government revoked the citizenship of German Jews, that one day it could be us. While first it may be people from our southern border, unless we and our neighbors publicly draw a line and stand up for the strangers living among us, it could easily one day be us in this sanctuary. How do I know? Just ask Gwyneth Barbara of Fairway, Kansas. On September 10, a mere eight days ago, in an interview on KCTV Ms. Barbara told how she was denied a renewal of her passport because she was born at home and not in a hospital her birth certificate, with its official raised seal from the county, did not constitute proof of being born in the United States. The passport office in Houston told her that she could submit any of the following as proof of citizenship: “Border crossing card or green card for your parents issued before your birth.” She had neither as both her parents had been born in the United States, as had her mother’s family since the 1600’s and her father’s family since the 1700’s. The passport office also said she could provide early religious records or a family Bible as proof of citizenship. Her family was not religious so she did not have those either. In America, a government official decided a Bible or Baptismal record was better proof of citizenship than a birth certificate. Finally, she turned to her Republican Senator Jerry Moran’s office for help. A few days later she received her passport with no explanation or apology. If the government can deny Gwyneth Barbara’s citizenship, it can certainly deny yours or mine. Suddenly it is no longer just about the stranger, it is about our neighbors and us.

We know the heart of the stranger for we have been the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger as we love ourselves. We are not commanded to fear, hate, or oppress the stranger, as we have been feared, hated and oppressed.

We are taught that atonement, does not come from our prayers on Yom Kippur. Atonement only comes when we take positive action to change ourselves and undo the wrong we afflicted upon others. Let us stand up to fear. Let us confront bigotry and hatred. Let us rebuild hope and kindness within ourselves, within our nation and our world. Paraphrasing Isaiah: Let my house, my country, my world be a house of hope for all peoples, not just those like us.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

As we do every Rosh Hashanah we will read in this morning’s portion: “And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And God said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.”

I have told you before, I believe Abraham failed the test. At the pivotal moment, Abraham stands over Isaac bound on the altar, knife in hand, ready to strike the final blow. Were it not for the Messenger of God, Abraham setting his ethics aside, would have murdered his son because God commanded it.Thus he failed the test. How do we know? While Abraham continues to grow in wealth, remarries after the death of Sarah, and has more children, God never speaks to him again. Let us take a closer look at this story and its implications for our world today.

Last night, I spoke about Rabbi Donniel Hartmann’s book: Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself. In his old age, Abraham suffers from the other auto-immune disease of religion; what Rabbi Hartmann calls God Intoxication.

According to Rabbi Hartmann: “For the God-Intoxicated person, the awareness of living in the presence of the one transcendent God demands an all - consuming attention that can exhaust one’s ability to see the needs of other human beings. This religious personality is defined by strict nonindifference (sic) to God. The more we walk with God , the less room we have to be aware of the human condition in general , and consequently , our moral sensibilities become attenuated. (Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (pp. 45-46). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

In this morning’s Parasha, Abraham suffers from God Intoxication. The Abraham we are more comfortable with is the younger Abraham who argues with God to save Sodom and Gomorra. The older, God-Intoxicated Abraham does not argue, does not object he unquestioningly obeys.

God-Intoxication explains much going on in our world and our country. For most of us what readily comes to mind is ISIS or Al Qaeda, suicide bombers, Islamic terrorists.

But do not think that God-Intoxication only infects some Muslims. It infects Christians who believe everyone needs to structure their lives to follow their idea of Christian morality. They work to enshrine their morality as the law of our land.
God-Intoxication infects Jews. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jew, the slaughter of Muslim worshippers in Hebron and the Al Aqsa Mosque by Jews. The domination of the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel. The calling of non-Orthodox Judaism not real Judaism by some Orthodox Jews in America. The calling of Orthodox Judaism anachronistic by some non-Orthodox Jews, constitute just a few examples in the Jewish community.

In fact, Judaism has a long history of God Intoxication from Abraham to the present day. All of us here have been guilty of it. The God-Intoxicated follow the verse: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19: 18) They love God and only only those who are like themselves. In their xenophobia they ignore the verse: “you shall love the stranger as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:24)

You know you are guilty of this. I know I am. Using the derogatory names Goyim, Shiksa, Sheigetz, when speaking about people of other faiths. We all, without exception, make assumptions about people who are from other countries, people who are poor, people who are rich, people who are a different race, people who are a different gender or different gender identity, people who belong to a different political party, people who have jobs we look down on, people who have physical or mental illnesses or disabilities. The list goes on.

In our society God-Intoxication has a new sibling, America-Intoxication. Just like different people are intoxicated with their own God, we are intoxicated with our own Americas. Surveys show conservatives only watch Fox News and liberals MSNBC and CNN. Conservatives see liberals wanting to destroy all boundaries and liberals see conservatives as always trying to add restrictions. We hear endless lamenting about the absence of civil dialog. How can there be civil dialog when we do not live in the same America? How can there be civil dialog when, to paraphrase Rabbi Hartmann: America-Intoxication creates individuals who yearn to show indifference to themselves and others as evidence of their nonindifference to America.

As Jews we are blessed. Our tradition calls upon us to put ethics and good deeds over God. Next week, we will read the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah from Isaiah 58. On the holiest day of the year, while supposedly deep in prayer to God and self reflection Isaiah conveys the message that ethical behavior takes precedence over religious practice. Isaiah quotes God saying: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free...? Is it not to distribute your bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him...?”

Rabbi Hartmann writes: “Isaiah’s message can be summarized in this way: Your prayer and fasting are worthless to me (sic) as long as there are hungry, poor, homeless, and naked people suffering just outside with walls of your religious sanctuary. Get out of synagogue and create a society of justice!” (Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (pp. 56-57). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

For me, saddest part of the High Holy Days is the necessity of the annual food drive. Because of the pervasiveness of hungry people in our community, we must feed them. But feeding the hungry is like putting a band-aid on a cut that needs dozens of stitches. It is no where near enough. We should be working together to solve the root causes of poverty and hunger, working to put the food pantry at Shalom House, the Storehouse, Roadrunner Food Bank out of business. We should be on the phone with our leaders, working together to eliminate the scourge of hunger, coming up with solutions that defy political concerns and focus on ideas that will actually work.

When we read ובכרת בחיים - “choose life that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:19) we need to understand it as choose ethics and justice above God or nation. To do otherwise is to turn God into an idol or a nation into a god.

The thought of trying to solve the large problems of our world can seem overwhelming. Not feeling up to working to solve hunger or poverty? This is a true story.

One of our families was driving to Shabbat morning services with their son who was celebrating becoming Bar Mitzvah that morning when they saw a woman on the other side of the street trip and fall. On the one hand, God was calling them to worship like God called Abraham to worship by murdering Isaac. On the other hand, a woman needed help. Unlike Abraham, they put ethics and justice above God and made a u turn to help the woman.

What would you like to think you would have done?

What would you have actually done.?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

You can hear the sermon and entire service on the Congregation Albert page on Mixlr.

My Facebook page has parts of the sermon and service on Facebook Live.

Someone asked me to teach a class entitled What Is The Motivation To Be Good In This World: Why Be Good If There Is No Heaven Or Hell? I agreed it would be a good topic for a class and so I pondered it for a few frustrating weeks. I found the appropriate sources from our historic Jewish literature. I reread some philosophy. And ultimately I ran into that preverbal brick wall. So I did the most logical thing: I decided not to teach it and set the class aside. But, the frustration remained. I don’t believe in an afterlife in which we are rewarded or punished for our actions in this world. I know that our place in this world as Jews is to work to perfect our world and our community. But that is too simple an answer.

Then I found the book: Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself by Rabbi Donniel Hartmann. Rabbi Hartmann’s book answers  the question “Why have religious people in the past, and today, and probably into eternity, done such horrible things in the name of religion?” In answering that question he also answers the question: What is the motivation to be good in this world if there is no heaven or hell.

Rabbi Hartmann writes: “While there are multiple causes for the moral inadequacy that so often typifies human existence, a significant and largely unobserved challenge lies squarely within religion itself. We must acknowledge that many religious systems, while commanding their adherents to act morally, also cultivate perspectives and predispositions that undermine this very goal. This inner conflict between faith in God and the moral imperative to become people who are not indifferent is at the core of religion’s autoimmune disease.

He then enumerates the two “auto-immune diseases of religion; God Intoxication and God Manipulation. Tonight we will focus on God Manipulation.

“God Manipulation, aligns the identity and will of the One with the interests and agendas of those who lay claim to God’s special love…. Within this way of thinking, we may embrace the obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, while redefining neighbors to include not those among whom we live but rather the much smaller circle of those who share our particular set of religious beliefs. God Manipulation extends a blanket exemption from truly seeing anyone outside our religious community. (pp. 45 - 46. Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

Without question our Torah and our Tanach contain some of the highest moral imperatives and ethical laws. From “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) to  just a few verses later: “the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Eternal your God” (Lev. 19:24)

On the other hand, our Torah and Tanach contain commands to restrict, oppress or kill those who are different. God commands that we commit genocide, treat women as less than men, kill our own children for drunkenness, and put people to death for traveling more than 4500 feet from their homes on Shabbat.

Fortunately, as early as the first Century B.C.E, our spiritual ancestors deemed these horrific laws unethical and thus inapplicable. Thus evolved our people’s propensity for interpretation. We live in a real world with real challenges. Judaism understands that with new situations, new technology and an ever increasing body of knowledge, people evolve and change. In the last sixty years our understanding of equal rights for all races, genders, and gender identities has grown and continues to grow. Without an evolving Judaism, grounded in moral principals and ethical actions, Judaism would have died with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans 1948 years ago.

An evolving Judaism seemingly stands at odds against those who believe in a perfect, infallible, eternal God, who gave the Torah to the Israelites through Moses,  Would not Torah have to be perfect?

The answer is a resounding no. Logic dictates that if you believe God is perfect, and infallible, God could only give the Torah in a way that our ancestors could understand? Michele and I were once at a party and a coworker told us that her seventh grader was studying studying Immanuel Kant. Having studied Kant over the past 4 decades, regardless of how smart a seventh grader may be, she or he cannot understand Kant the way an adult, with years of life experience can understand Kant’s views on the world. In other words, if Moses did receive the Torah from God on Sinai, what he received was what he could comprehend.

As Rabbi Hartmann more eloquently writes: “But what if it were possible for a perfect God to give an imperfect scripture? What if, upon further consideration, imperfect scripture is the only scripture imaginable?

‘Sacred scripture, while purporting to provide for humankind a window into the will of God, at its core is an anthropocentric (human centered - my comment) endeavor. Its aim is theocentric (God centered - my comment), in the sense that it purports to serve as a foundation for the average believer to live with God… Scripture is thus inherently constituted as a compromise between divine will and human limitation.”  (Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (p. 123). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

As Americans we are familiar with this concept. We understand that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution wrote of the rights of all men, they really meant only white men who owned land. No non-Europeans. No renters. No women. Over time, especially the past 60 - 70 years, our understanding of what they wrote does include these forgotten groups. To revert to the founders understanding of “men” would be unthinkable today.

So too in Judaism. Torah and Rabbinic Literature teach that to be a witness in a trial, one must be a Shabbat observing, male Jew. So then to be a rabbi who more often serves as a witness than anyone else, one must be a Shabbat observing, male Jew. The first woman rabbi was a 17th Century Kurdish woman named Asneath Barzani. She gained the title of Tanait, the equivalent Kurdish term for Rabbi. In 2010, the next known Orthodox woman, Rachel Isaacs, was ordained. Today, women Rabbis occupy some of the most prestigious pulpits and, along with talented lay women, lead some of the major organizations in the Jewish world. Our definition of who can be a rabbi can never go back and exclude women. To do so would be unethical, regardless of any of God’s laws in the Torah.

Our heritage calls on us to continue on this same path. We are called to evolve our understanding of what it means to be good and the acts we need to perform even when it contradicts specific Divine laws in Torah.

Nonetheless, we must take great care to ensure that when we say we are putting the ethical above God, the ethics we promote increase good in the world and not just our own self interest. Ultimately we can only know in hindsight if we increased good in the world. This compels us to take care and at the same time not ignore the need to put the ethical above God.

So let us return to the original question: Why be good if you do not believe there is reward or punishment after death and to take it a step farther, you do not believe in God? Allow me to again quote Rabbi Hartmann: “Does one have to believe in God in order to be good ? Certainly not....The question then becomes, what forms of doing or believing, or both, constitute the standard of the ‘good Jew’"?(Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (p. 144). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

To answer the question Rabbi Hartmann cites the story of the person who comes to Hillel to convert to Judaism with the requirement that Hillel teaches him all he needs to know while the person stands on one foot. We all know the story. Hillel agrees and answers with what he knew to be the essence of Judaism: “What is hateful to you do not do to another.”

Hillel does not mention belief in God, an afterlife, or even prayer. For Hillel, to be a good Jew one has to be ethical and just.

Judaism indeed places doing good above believing in God. It is one of many things that make me proud to be a Jew.