For the first time in my 38 years as a congregational rabbi during a High Holiday sermon, a visitor to our congregation stood up, yelled out in protest, and slammed the sanctuary door on his way out.
It was Kol Nidre and our Sanctuary was packed with 1200 worshippers. My sermon that so disturbed him is posted on my synagogue website and it can either be read there or watched on Youtube – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQyxdgcspw0 – I ask only that you read or listen to the entire address, which this man did not do.
As I do for all my High Holiday sermons, I spent a great deal of time over the summer thinking, researching, writing, and rewriting. It is important for me to be as clear and considered as possible while being as edifying and uplifting as I can be in these addresses. In this Kol Nidre sermon (“We the People”) I sought to address issues that transcend the daily politics that have consumed and stunned our nation in the last two years and focus instead on the greater Jewish and American values at stake.
I drew parallels between our liberal Jewish values based on the Biblical prophetic tradition, the ethics and compassion of the rabbis, and the values of American democracy, inclusivity, and exceptionalism. I called out the intolerance, bigotry, extremism, racism, nationalist nativism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia of “American Firsters” and drew parallels to a movement of the same name that was supported by 80% of Americans before World War II.
I offered thoughts about the long generational trend in America that put President Trump in the White House, and noted that he is there in part due to the Balkanization of America, the ignorance of American history so rampant in large portions of the population, the dismissal of the virtues embodied by American exceptionalism, and self-centered “me-ism” that Trump reflects in his own life, stokes and encourages among so many frustrated Americans.
Clearly, I hit the right note in my community resulting in a standing ovation at the conclusion.
The man shouted as he left “This is a house of prayer!”
I returned to the microphone to cite the Talmudic requirement (Berachot 34b) that every synagogue must be built with a window so that those praying inside will never be separated with what is going on in the street. I recalled the example of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who joined with Dr. Martin Luther King in a march from Selma to Montgomery during the civil rights era and who explained that by marching he was “praying with his feet.”
After Yom Kippur, a distinguished member of my community and a Jewish leader in Los Angeles told me in an email that for a rabbi not to address the serious conditions of this country today as I did would be nothing shy of “spiritual malpractice.”
When this man screamed out I thought immediately of President Obama when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 2009 on health care. In the middle of the President’s speech, Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina screamed out “You lie!”
I recalled President Obama’s restraint and dignity. I remembered his refusal to be distracted from his message. Following his example, I ignored the man’s outburst and continue to deliver my sermon.
This man’s behavior on the holiest night in Judaism, just as Representative Wilson’s behavior in a joint session of Congress, is exactly what’s ethically and morally wrong with large portions of our own Jewish community and the American population as a whole. The man’s intolerance, lack of civility, and nasty self-righteousness makes dialogue between people who hold legitimate differences of opinion difficult. Hate and rage replaced love and understanding. The lack of civility has replaced respect for the dignity of the other. That this should occur on the holiest night of the year is particularly disturbing but also revealing about our imperfections and need for moral and ethical improvement.
I wrote to President Obama today to thank him for modeling for me how to handle such a situation as a leader. This is what I said to him:
Dear Mr. President:
I write to thank you for … giving me courage in the middle of my Yom Kippur sermon … as what constitutes dignified behavior as a leader.
A visitor in my congregation stood up as I was speaking before 1200 congregants on Kol Nidre and began shouting at me before walking out and slamming the Sanctuary door behind him.
The episode was shocking not only to me but to our community as a whole much as it was shocking when a congressman called you a “liar” in the middle of your address on health care before both houses of Congress before the ACA became law in 2009.
I remember your dignity then, that you paid him no heed and went on with your speech.
… I decided on Kol Nidre to follow your example…and I write to thank you for this and for so much more.
John L. Rosove, Rabbi
For those interested, the High Holiday sermons for our three rabbis at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Rabbi Jocee Hudson, and me are available on line at http://www.tioh.org/worship/rabbis/clergystudy.
The Themes of our sermons are as follows:
Rabbi John Rosove’s High Holyday Sermons:
- “Hineni-Here I Am” – Ten Life Strategies – Five Jewish Virtues – One Set of Skills – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
- “We the People” – Kol Nidre 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
- “This Moment of Reunion – Yizkor Yom Kippur 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh’s High Holyday Sermons:
- “Listening Deeply In a Divided Time” – Rosh Hashanah 5778
- “Communicating in a Fractured World” – Yom Kippur 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
Rabbi Jocee Hudson’s High Holyday Sermons:
- “It’s All Interconnected: Intersectionality in Torah and Today’s Times” – Rosh Hashanah 5778
- “Let Me Lie by Still Waters” – Rosh Hashanah 5778
Though the chanting of the Kol Nidre text is the iconic moment of the evening service on Yom Kippur, the words of this Aramaic legal formula are less important than the dramatic occasion in which the Kol Nidre is the central element.
The congregation enters the Sanctuary on that holiest of nights and is stunned to see an empty open ark devoid of Torah scrolls. Normally the Aron Hakodesh (The Holy ark) is filled with sifrei Torah – the Torah scrolls are what make the Ark “holy” (Kadosh). Without Torah scrolls the Aron’s meaning changes. In Hebrew, “Aron” is an “ark,” a “closet,” and a “casket.” Looking into an empty Ark is as if we are peering into our own coffins and confronting our limitations and mortality.
The High Holidays, however, offer a reprieve. The liturgy reminds us that prayer (i.e. praising and celebrating God and life), teshuvah (i.e. turning and returning to lives of meaning in relationship with others, with Torah, the Jewish people, nature, and God), and tzedakah (i.e. restoring justice into human affairs) are available to us at any time. Despite whatever has drawn us away from our core Jewish values during the year, we can recommit in this season to living our lives with greater dignity and meaning. We can turn our lives around. Fate need not necessarily determine our destiny. We can change, evolve, and grow. We can be elevated and worthy to stand with dignity before God on this holiest of days.
The Chassidim teach that if one wishes to walk east when one is walking west, all that’s necessary is to turn around.
G’mar chatimah tovah.
The primary responsibility of the Jew during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is teshuvah.
I have posted here classic rabbinic text for study and contemplation during these days. I wish for everyone the strength and courage to confront that which prevents us from being close to the people we love, friends, community, the Jewish people, Torah, and God.
“Repentance must be preceded by the recognition of seven things: (1) the penitent must clearly recognize the heinousness of what s/he has done… (2) S/he must be aware that his/her specific act was legally evil and ignominious… (3) S/he must realize that retribution for his/her misdeed is inevitable… (4) S/he must realize that his/her sin is noted and recorded in the book of his iniquities… (5) S/he must be fully convinced that repentance is the remedy for his/her sickness and the road to recovery from his/her evil deed… (6) S/he must conscientiously reflect upon the bounties the Creator had already bestowed upon him/her, and how S/he had rebelled against God instead of being grateful to the Eternal… (7) S/he must strenuously persevere in keeping away from the evil to which s/he had been addicted and firmly resolve in his/her heart and mind to renounce it. – Bachya ibn Pakuda, Duties of the Heart 7:3
“What is t’shuvah? It is when a sinner abandons his/her sin and removes it from his/her thoughts, and resolves in his/her heart not to do that deed again. As it says, “Let the wicked person forsake his/her way, and the unrighteous one his/her thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:7) And so s/he repents for the past. As it says, “After I turned away, I repented.” (Jeremiah 31:18) And s/he will call the Knower of secrets to testify against him/her that s/he will never again return to this sin. As it does not say, “Nor shall we say ever again to the work of our hands, ‘You are our God’ (Hosea 14:4). And s/he must confess in words these things that s/he has resolved in his/her heart. – Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:2
It is very praiseworthy for the penitent to confess publicly and announce his/her sins, and reveal to others the transgressions he committed against his/her fellow. S/he should say to them, “Truly I have sinned against so-and-so by doing such-and-such. But now I am turning and repenting.” Everyone who is arrogant and doesn’t reveal but rather conceals his/her sins – his/her t’shuvah isn’t complete. As it says, “One who conceals his transgressions does not succeed.” (Proverbs 28:13) – Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:5
“What is complete t’shuvah? When one comes upon a situation in which s/he once transgressed, and it is possible to do so again, but s/he refrains and doesn’t transgress on account of his/her repentance. – Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:1
“Humility is the root and beginning of repentance.” – Bachya ibn Pakuda
“Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked him, “Does then one know on what day s/he will die?” “All the more reason s/he should repent today, lest s/he die tomorrow.” – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 53a
“Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world… When an individual repents, s/he is forgiven, and the entire world with him.” Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b
“How wonderful is the moral perspective that arises from this great responsibility – a responsibility for all of existence, for all worlds. We have the power to bring favor and light, life, joy, and honor in these worlds. This occurs when we follow the straight path, when we strengthen and gird ourselves with a pure fortitude and conquer paths of life that are good and admired, when we advance and go from strength to strength…. YYet it is also in our power to bring pain to every good portion, when we debase our souls and corrupt our ways, when we darken our spiritual light and suspend our moral purity.” – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cook, Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 63
G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed in the book of life.
“While Netanyahu cuts us Reform Jews out, he payrolls those who spew hatred towards us. But we won’t give up on Israel, equality or democracy. And we will continue to demand our rights” (Rabbi Rick Jacobs)
In my memory, the non-Orthodox American Jewish community and the Prime Minister of Israel have never been in a greater crisis of trust. This is not good for the Jewish people, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Jews representing 1.5 million American Jews. Rabbi Jacobs is right and he says so eloquently and forthrightly in an open letter printed in Haaretz this week. (see link below)
As the chairman of the national board of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the largest Zionist movement in the United States, I stand proudly with Rabbi Jacobs in his call to Prime Minister Netanyahu to heal this terrible breach between the Israeli government and the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.
We American Reform Jews can no more walk away from Israel than we can walk away from our own country when our own political leadership fails us.
Read Rabbi Jacob’s powerful letter here – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.813840
“Why Judaism Matter – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation” with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove is now available for purchase on Amazon.com (publishing date – October 10). This book is a collection of thirteen letters offering a common sense guide and roadmap for a new generation of young men and women who find Jewish orthodoxy, tradition, issues, and beliefs impenetrable in 21st Century society. It is published by Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing.
I have addressed this book of letters to millennials specifically, but this volume is also for their parents and grandparents, the younger generation of college-age Jews, and non-Jewish partners and spouses of Jews who are interested in the possibility of living meaningful and vibrant Jewish lives.
I invite you to purchase this book and share it with those you love.
“Rabbi John Rosove addresses his intellectual and well-reasoned investigation of faith to his own sons, which sets this book apart for its candor and its ability to penetrate not only the mind but also the heart.” – Matthew Weiner, creator of the AMC series Mad Men, and writer and producer on the HBO drama series The Sopranos. Matthew has earned nine Primetime Emmy Awards.
“John Rosove does what so many of us have struggled to do, and does it brilliantly: He makes the case for liberal Judaism to his children. As Rosove shows, liberal Judaism is choice-driven, messy, and always evolving, “traditional” in some ways and “radical” in others. It is also optimistic, spiritual, and progressive in both personal and political ethics. Without avoiding the hard stuff, such as intermarriage and Israel, Rabbi Rosove weaves all of these strands together to show the deep satisfactions of living and believing as a liberal Jew. All serious Jews, liberal or otherwise, should read this book.” – Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism and a regular columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.
“Rabbi John Rosove has given a gift to all of us who care about engaging the next generation in Jewish life. The letters to his sons are really love-letters from countless voices of Jewish wisdom across history to all those young people who are seeking purpose in their lives. From wrestling with God, to advocating for peace and justice in Israel and at home, and living a life of purpose, this book is a compelling case for the joy of being Jewish.” – Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
“Rabbi John Rosove gets it. Here is a religious leader not afraid to tell it like it is, encapsulating for his audience the profound disaffection so many young Jews feel towards their heritage. But instead of letting them walk away, he makes a powerful case for the relevance of tradition in creating meaningful lives. In our technology-saturated, attention-absorbing age, Rosove offers religion-as-reprieve, his fresh vision of a thoroughly modern, politically-engaged and inclusive Judaism.” – Danielle Berrin, columnist and cover-story journalist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, commentator on CNN and MSNBC, and published work for The Guardian, British Esquire, and The Atlantic.
“Rabbi Rosove’s letters to his sons are full of Talmudic tales and practical parables, ancient wisdom with modern relevance, spiritual comfort, and intellectual provocation. Whether his subject is faith, love, intermarriage, success, Jewish continuity or the creation of a meaningful legacy, you’ll find yourself quoting lines from this beautiful book long after you’ve reached its final blessing.” – Letty Cottin Pogrebin, writer, speaker, social justice activist, author of eleven books including Debora, Gold, and Me: Being Female & Jewish in America, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, a regular columnist for Moment Magazine, and a contributor of op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Toronto Star, and LA Times, among other publications.
“If you’re a fellow Reform millennial, give yourself the gift of John’s insights. This book is written in a breezy, gentle, readable style that is welcoming without losing sharp insight. It was so enjoyable and refreshing to read and persuasive without ever being pushy. Rosove managed to do what only a truly worthy slice of kugel or chance viewing of Fiddler has done for me; reactivate my sense of wonder and gratitude about being Jewish. I’m a huge fan of WJM.” – Jen Spyra, staff comedy writer on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS), former senior writer for The Onion, actress, and stand-up comedian. Jen’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Daily News, and The Daily Beast, and has been featured by The Laugh Factory Chicago’s Best Standup Show Case.
“Rabbi Rosove has written a wonderful book, a love letter to his children, and through them, to all our children. Prodigiously knowledgeable, exceedingly wise, and refreshingly honest, Rabbi Rosove has described why Judaism Matters. It should serve as a touching testament of faith, spanning the generations for generations to come.” – Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in NYC, former Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America-World Union for Progressive Judaism, author of One People, Two Worlds: A Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi explore the issues that divide them with Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman.
“Rabbi Rosove has written a book of the utmost importance for our time. It is an imperative read for all those who struggle with the changing and evolving attitudes towards belonging, behavior and belief. His analysis, stemming from deeply personal contemplation and decades of rabbinic experience, offers clear yet sophisticated approaches to tackling the challenges facing this generation and those to come. This book offers a treasure of wisdom through the lens of Jewish texts – both ancient and modern – which help to frame life’s major issues taking the reader from the particular to the universal. Israel is one of the most complicated of issues and he bridges the divide between Israel’s critics and staunch supporters and moves beyond the conversation of crisis for the millennial generation.” – Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America
“John Rosove’s letters to his sons based on his life, philosophy, and rabbinic work address what it means to be a liberal and ethical Jew and a lover of Israel in an era when none are automatic. He writes in an unassuming personal style steeped in traditional texts as he confronts conflicts of faith and objectivity, Zionist pride and loving criticism of the Jewish state, traditional observance and religious innovation. He is never gratuitous and invites his readers into his family conversation because what he says is applicable to us all.” – Susan Freudenheim, Executive Director of Jewish World Watch, journalist, former managing Editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times.
I recommend highly a little book first published in 1898 called “The Majesty of Calmness” by William George Jordan, an American editor, lecturer and essayist of the late 19th and early 20th century.
This 62-page treasure-trove of common-sense wisdom reminds me of the Biblical Book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. It was written in an elegant prose that exists in classical works.
This series of seven short essays is particularly appropriate reading during the coming ten days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “The Majesty of Calmness;” “Hurry, the Scourge of America;” “The Power of Personal Influence;” “The Dignity of Self-Reliance;” “Failure of Success;” “Doing our Best at All Times;” “The Royal Road to Happiness.”
I offer a few short passages from each of the essays that offer a taste of what you will find in this remarkable series of essays:
“Calmness is the rarest quality in human life. It is the poise of a great nature, in harmony with itself and its ideals. It is the moral atmosphere of a life self-centered, self-reliant, and self-controlled.” (p. 1)
“Nature is very un-American. Nature never hurries. Every phase of her working shows plan, calmness, reliability, and the absence of hurry…Hurry has ruined more Americans than has any other word in the vocabulary of life….In the race for wealth, people often sacrifice time, energy, health, home, happiness, and honor, –everything that money cannot buy, the very things that money can never bring back.” (pps. 8, 9, 10)
“Self-confidence, without self-reliance, is as useless as a cooking recipe, –without food. Self-confidence sees the possibilities of the individual; self-reliance realizes them. Self-confidence sees the angel in the unhewn block of marble; self-reliance carves it out for himself.” (p. 23)
“Many of our failures sweep us to greater heights of success than we ever hoped for in our wildest dreams. Life is a successive unfolding of success from failure…Failure is often the turning-point, the pivot of circumstance that swings us to higher levels…Failure is one of God’s educators.” (pp. 33, 35, 36)
“Living at one’s best is constant preparation for instant use. It can never make one over precise, self-conscious, affected, or priggish. Education, in its highest sense, is conscious training of mind or body to act unconsciously. It is conscious formation of mental habits, not mere acquisition of information.” (p. 46)
“Happiness is the greatest paradox in Nature. It can grow in any soil, live under any conditions. It defies environment. It comes from within: it is the revelation of the depths of the inner life as light and heat proclaim the sun from which they radiate. Happiness consists not of having, but of being; not of possessing, but of enjoying. It is the warm glow of a heart at peace with itself.” (p. 53)
“Majesty of Calmness” can be purchased on Amazon for $4.95. Do yourself a huge favor. Read it once, and then read it again.
At the midnight hour after Shabbat that precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish community gathers as the Gates of Heaven begin to open to receive the petitions of forgiveness of the community.
Each year we change our Torah mantles to white symbolically revealing the deepest purpose of these High Holidays, to do Teshuvah, to turn away from an alienated life and to return to our loved ones, community, Torah, one’s own soul, and to God.
The moment is pregnant with possibility, as these verses suggest:
This is the midnight hour. / The Psalmist said: “At midnight I rose to acclaim you” (116:62). / We, who are his descendants, would follow this tradition. / For midnight belongs neither to today nor to tomorrow.
It is a moment alone in time. / It is an interval with a magic all its own. / As we grow weary with the weight of the late hour, / We become introspective, / Concerned with the nature of life; / Especially our own.
Time is fleeting. / Midnight becomes tomorrow. / A day is behind us / And the New Year beckons. / How shall we use our days? / What is the meaning of our lives, our goodness, our power? / Shall we use them only for ourselves / Or for the good of others? / This midnight service summons us / to the true purpose of life.
Summer is passing. / The days grow shorter. / The sounds and colors of nature, / The stirring of the wind, / Speak to us of changes in the world, in life, / And in a human being’s course on earth.
Now is the time for turning. / The leaves are beginning to turn / From green to red and orange.
The birds are beginning to turn / And are heading once more towards the south. / The animals are beginning to turn / To storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds, and animals / Turning comes instinctively. / But for us turning does not come so easily.
It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. / It means breaking with old habits. / It means admitting that we have been wrong; / And this is never easy.
It means losing face; / It means starting all over again; / And this is always painful.
It means saying: I am sorry. / It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. / These things are terribly difficult to do.
But unless we turn, / We will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.
Author of above poem unknown.
Photographs by Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh