(Sermon delivered at Temple Israel of Boston, December 22, 2017)
Last year a debate rippled across the Jewish community, when the prominent Jewish leader, Rabbi David Wolpe, railed against speaking politics from the pulpit. This was not a new argument—there have been rabbis making this case in this country for as long as there have been Jews in this country. We’ve had some of our great rabbis running for their lives from their communities because of political statements. One of my own rabbinic heroes Rabbi David Einhorn in the 19th century had to flea for his life, with his family, from his Baltimore synagogue because of his emphatic opposition to slavery. Lots of rabbis still keep politics far from the pulpit—it’s safer that way. Rabbi Wolpe’s column would not have been so bitterly received by so many colleagues were it not for the backdrop of the rise of Donald Trump and “all the President’s Men” and women.
This past month was the Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism. Some 6,000 Reform Jews flocked to the Hynes Convention Center, from congregations from “sea to shining sea,” and beyond. I was asked by folks from another community if I felt like it was possible to keep politics off the pulpit. I said immediately, “No, of course not. But it is possible and essential to keep partisan politics off the pulpit.” And I believe that will all my heart.
I have taken measures in my rabbinate—our whole clergy team has, in fact—to guard the pulpit from serving a political party—and not just because we need our status as a non-profit to maintain fiscal integrity. But because a synagogue serving a political party would reflect the most basic definition of avodah zarah, worshiping idols or fake gods. As we know from Sinai, from the broken tablets, we, the Jewish people, do not serve any manufactured cause; we do not serve any political body, except God. We are servants of the Sacred. And however you define God, I think we can agree, God does not look like an elephant or a donkey.
What keeps us honest is our adherence to what we believe to be the living, dynamic message of Judaism—our values, our mission. We read Torah aloud—we do this according to Jewish law because we know that our forbears gave us these words for a purpose: to shine light on how to live a holy life, one of obligation and righteous impact.
And yes, there is a constant interplay between our secular and religious identities. This too is part of authentic Judaism—a dynamic tension that shapes our attitudes. But there are moments of crisis, when our social consciences can no longer hold the tension. In these moments we have to decide how to respond to a perennial Jewish question: what does it means to be human? And inasmuch as we call ourselves “citizens,” here, this answer cannot be altogether private.
Unlike moments in Jewish history, like when Napoleon put a litmus test of “Frenchness” before the Jewish community, in this nation we enjoy the promise of inalienable rights, one of which is our right to free speech. And God forbid we take this for granted, since we are commanded to speak Torah aloud.
In this spirit, and exercising the freedom of the pulpit that Temple Israel of Boston affords its clergy, I humbly offer this reflection on the tax bill signed into law this morning.
The bill is entitled, “To Provide for Reconciliation Pursuant to Titles II and V of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2018.” This bill is as righteous as its title is… eloquent. Passed by the Congress of the United States of America and now the law of the land, this legislation shows absolute disregard for the intolerable suffering of our brothers and sisters—our fellow citizens and residents among us, those who are afflicted by the gruesome grasp of poverty.
Money is not easy to talk about in communities—it’s taboo. And when it comes to conversations on socio-economic class, we mostly avoid them—yes, even here, in a Boston Jewish community that tends to dive into issues that other communities dare not touch. Perhaps we don’t touch class directly because it elicits feelings of shame—and from some on both ends, from the 1% to the 99%, both of whom call Temple Israel their home.
The truth is we do not need to agree on a Tax Code. Judaism, however, is unequivocal and unwavering about basic human obligations toward the poor, the proverbial “stranger, window, and orphan,” which we read about beginning in Exodus.
How we can read the story of Exodus, which begins at the start the New Year, and feel like what’s happening around us is okay?
How do we read a story about being enslaved and oppressed and not see how we are systematically enslaving and oppressing? The bill that was passed this week is a foot on the throat of those who are already suffocating, gasping for breath.
How do we read about Moses’ actions when he saw Egyptians whipping his brethren, and not speak out when we know that this bill will cause bodily harm to millions of our citizens?
How do we read about Amalek, the quintessential enemy of the Jewish people, who attacked the Israelites from behind, targeting those at the end of the line out of Egypt—the sick, the pregnant, the children, the elderly—and not think about what happens to people today who are at the end of the line?
The Torah tells us, “Remember what Amalek did to you when you were coming out of Egypt,” attacking the most vulnerable. Remember what Amalek did to you?
This year, how do we approach this Book, in the wake of this bill, without trembling?
Because this bill is a weapon of Amalek, an attack on the vulnerable. And our Amalekite President signed it with hubristic joy, while they are weeping, begging to God that someone hear their cries! Who will hear their cries?
The cries of nearly 13 million children who live with food insecurity. 1 out of every 6 children in this country don’t know when his or her next meal will come! Who will hear their cries?
The cries of the million people who will not be able to pay to see a doctor; or who will spend their lives in debt because they got sick.
While they cry, while our citizens suffer:
83% of the money will go to top 1% by the 2027. Most of it goes to a very small percentage of the 1%! Picture a tzedakah box stuffed with 1.5 trillion dollars, divvied up mostly to the wealthiest of the wealthy! And just to be clear, in Judaism we are not permitted to stigmatize that 1%. Wealth can be a blessing! As Bryan Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth—it is justice!”
Republican, Democrat, whatever. God bless the Republican who, like Abraham and Sarah, prioritizes compassion and welcome! God bless the Democrat who, like Joseph, prioritizes economic health!
Judaism is non-partisan. If a bill like this had been raised in the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai would have nothing to debate. They’d have stood, side by side, with identical posture, jaws dropped, and probably with tears in their eyes. They would hear the cries, and they’d be crying out. There is no righteousness here—just gutless, unfettered greed.
So what can we do? First of all, it is a mitzvah to listen, to listen to the truth, to reality. We say in our prayers, Adonai Eloheichem Emet “God is truth.” Non-denial of reality is step 1. Hearing the cries of the poor.
And from a place of listening, we can do what we have sacred track record of doing: organizing ourselves to resist; to stand up, to march, step by step, as spiritual activists.
In the immediate future, we can show up on MLK Shabbat Tzedek, our Sabbath of Justice, on January 12th, when we will affirm what we know to be true and just.
We will be rolling out 4 concrete steps that our justice leaders in Tikkun Central, in our Racial Justice Initiative, have identified to make a righteous impact. 4 actions we can all take that increase light:
- the light of economic justice
- the light of restorative justice
- the light of criminal justice reform
- the light of moral reflection.
This is the darkest of seasons. Last night was the darkest night of the year, in fact. But we still have to believe that we can be agents of repair, of tikkun. That’s our purpose, the “why” of our existence as a people. As Rav Kook taught, “the righteous do not just complain of the dark, they increase the light.”
Chanukah may be over, but we have every opportunity, through our actions, to kindle light. The symbol Chanukiyah can still inspire us to shine more and more light, with every passing day.
In this darkness, what else are we to do?
In this darkness, if not us, then who?
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu lirdof tzedek
Blessed are you, Eternal Our God, who makes our lives holy with the obligation to pursue justice.