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.
“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.
The central theme of the High Holidays is teshuvah, a restorative process that brings us back to ourselves, to our families and friends, to our community, to humanity, to the natural world, to Torah, and to God. Teshuvah demonstrates the power of hope, that who we are today need not be who we become tomorrow.
Teshuvah is a step-by-step process of turning and re-engaging with our inclinations, the yetzer hara-the evil urge that’s propelled by desire, lust, and self-centered needs and our yetzer tov-the good inclination that is inspired by humility, gratitude, generosity, and kindness.
The beginning in the teshuvah process is, however, despair, hopelessness, and sadness, the feeling that we’re stuck and can’t change the nature, character, and direction our lives have taken us.
Judaism rejects pessimism, cynicism, and everything that impedes personal transformation and a hopeful future.
In the story of Jonah, to be read as final scriptural portion on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, we read the tale of the prophet’s descent into despair and what’s required for him to change direction and restore a hopeful self.
Jonah is an unrealized prophet who runs away from himself, from civilization, and from God. Every verb used in his journey is the language of descent (yod-resh-daled). He flees down to the sea. He boards a ship and goes down into its dark interior. He lies down and falls into a deep sleep. He is thrown overboard down into the waters. A great fish swallows him and he finds himself down in its belly where he remains in utter darkness for three days and nights until his despair forces him, at last, to choose to live and not to die. Then he cries out to God to save him.
God responds and the great fish vomits Jonah out onto dry land. Jonah agrees this time to do God’s bidding and preach to the Ninevites to repent from their evil ways. The town’s people put on sack cloth and ashes and promise to change.
Jonah, however, still believes that change is impossible and the Ninevites are destined to failure. God chastises Jonah for his pessimism and lack of faith, for his self-centered concern for himself and not the well-being of others.
Teshuvah is difficult and challenging. It’s a dramatic break from the past, our refusal to remain stuck. It’s for the strong of mind, heart and soul, for those willing to work hard and transcend their suffering and fear of failure, to get up every time, to own without defense and excuse what we do and what we’ve become, to acknowledge all of it, to apologize to ourselves and to others without conditions that we are responsible and at fault, and to recommit to our struggle step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, one moment at a time to turn our lives around.
When successful, teshuvah is restorative and utopian, for it enables us to return to our best selves, to the place of soul, to the garden of oneness.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that in teshuvah we’re able even to transcend time: “The future has overcome the past.”
Originally published – September 13, 2015
In a message sent to Malcolm Hoenlein, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, expressed his support and solidarity and that of all the Israeli people, with the American Jewish community in the difficult times following the events in Charlottesville, and he asked that his message be shared with Jewish organizations and communities across the United States.
At this difficult time, I want to express my support and solidarity, and that of all the Israeli people with you and your communities, and ask that you kindly convey this message on my behalf to the Jewish communities across the US.
The very idea that in our time we would see a Nazi flag – perhaps the most vicious symbol of anti-Semitism – paraded in the streets of the world’s greatest democracy, and Israel’s most cherished and greatest ally is almost beyond belief.
We have seen manifestations of anti-Semitism again and again arise across the world; in Europe and the Middle East. In the face of such evil, we stand now as we did then. With faith. With faith in humanity, with faith in democracy, and with faith in justice. I know that the great nation of the United States of America and its leaders will know how to face this difficult challenge, and prove to the world the robustness and strength of democracy and freedom.
As we say Chazak, Chazak, ve’Nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and we will be strong.
Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel
Note: My colleagues at Temple Israel of Hollywood and our Vice President of Social Justice today posted the following statement:
The face of hate is no longer concealed by a white sheet. It is out in front of us. Hate is not hidden.
And, likewise, the face of justice will not be concealed. The voice of justice will not be silenced. Our voices will ring out louder, clearer, and with deeper purpose. We will respond to hate with action and education, advocacy and giving, drawing near and finding common purpose within our own community and across religious, cultural, ethnic, racial, and national lines. We stand with our neighbors, fellow citizens, and fellow human beings of every background.
Yesterday’s events in Charlottesville were evidence of the dark underbelly of our society and the human condition. As Jews and as Americans we condemn the hate-mongering of the neo-Nazi white nationalist movement in this country the representatives of which callously and brutally attacked law-abiding and innocent people yesterday. We mourn the loss of life and send blessings of love and healing to the victims’ families and dear ones.
We are deeply disappointed that the President of the United States did not initially specifically condemn the neo-Nazi white nationalists as the perpetrators of yesterday’s violence nor condemn them in the strongest terms for their bigotry, racism, hatred, and violence. Though he condemned the violence, we believe that a general condemnation is never enough. We insist that he always be specific about the true perpetrators of criminal acts such as this immediately and condemn the responsible groups in the strongest terms.
Our response today is based on the affirmation that American diversity and pluralism help to make America truly great. We affirm as well the merits of the inclusive character of our nation of immigrants and their descendants, and we reaffirm that our nation belongs to all of its citizens and we hope, the dreamer generation too as well as those fleeing persecution and violence throughout the world.
In the days to come, local interfaith groups will be gathering in solidarity to respond publicly to yesterday’s deadly terrorism and to reaffirm the bonds we all share. We will keep you informed of these events.
LA Voice is cosponsoring a vigil tonight, Sunday, August 13, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/events/1906898732883984/?ti=icl
John L. Rosove, Senior Rabbi
Michelle Missaghieh, Associate Rabbi
Jocee Hudson, Associate Rabbi
Heidi Segal, Vice President for Social Justice