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
“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.
Nothing has changed in the last month with Trump’s extraordinary refusal to condemn all those on the side of the KKK and Neo-Nazis at Charlottesville.
People say Trump isn’t a racist or an anti-Semite. I say that if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.
Read this article in the Forward about the American Jewish community decision concerning a pre-High Holiday call scheduled for this morning with Trump.
Our Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movement’s moral decision to boycott this meeting because of Trump’s promotion of the outrageous moral equivalence argument of the haters and those who came to protest the haters.
Read the entire article, but note below the historically low level of support in the Jewish community for Trump and his presidency. Only 11% of Reform Jews support Trump.
“…. While the Orthodox community is fully on board with Trump’s call, other elements of the Jewish community are strongly opposed to participation. This split reflects the broader political divide within the Jewish community, as seen in this week’s American Jewish Committee public opinion survey. The poll found that 71% of Orthodox Jews approve of Trump’s performance as president, compared with 25% of Conservatives, 11% of Reform, 8% of Reconstructionists and 14% of those identifying as “just Jewish.” Orthodox Jews make up an estimated 10% of the American Jewish community.
In watching Steve Bannon dueling with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, I was reminded of this famous Yeats poem and wondered what further damage Bannon and his minions will do to the soul of America.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, / And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
William Butler Yeats
A narcissist is a person concerned only about himself. He sees the world through a lens reflecting just his image. Everything is a function of his ego. He is hypersensitive to slights. He bristles at criticism. If it serves his interests, he attacks, maligns, humiliates, and obliterates those he perceives as a threat.
When a narcissist is President of the United States, his actions, words, and policies can be cruel, and cruelty is the only word that adequately describes Trump’s action against 800,000 children of undocumented people who have committed no crime.
Trump’s cancellation of DACA instituted six years ago by Executive Order of President Obama, despite the urging of Trump’s advisors and many fellow Republicans not to do so, is without question the ugliest action he has taken since becoming President. In my memory, this is the ugliest action taken by any president in my lifetime.
Countless Jewish organizations have condemned Trump’s decision including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish Committee, the ADL, Bend the Arc, J Street, Amenu, the National Council of Jewish Women, Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the Shalom Center, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Why did Trump do it? The writer John Binder in Breitbart News tried to justify Trump’s action:
“Ending DACA could be a major stimulus for the 4.4 percent of unemployed Americans who will see more than 700,000 new job openings across the United States.”
Rob Eshman, the publisher of the LA Jewish Journal, put it exactly right when he wrote this week:
“… ludicrous. It assumes none of the Dreamers are self-employed, that their roles can easily be filled by the ranks of the remaining unemployed – many of whom are far less well-educated, less well-trained, less motivated, far older or not even living in areas where the Dreamers work. Some 250 work for Apple – in what fantasy world are those jobs just ripe for the picking? But Breitbart knows that.”
And so, what’s this all about?
It seems to me that Trump was motivated by two things:
First, he hates Obama, never missing an opportunity to trash policies of the Obama administration. It doesn’t matter what good Obama did for the country and for millions of people. If the policy was Obama’s, Trump has sought to reverse it.
Second, Trump recognizes that his shrinking power-base has to be fed continually. His base of nativist, xenophobic, white supremacist and anti-immigrant bigots will stay close if he speaks and acts on their dark impulses. According to polls, Trump is now losing everyone else at the rate of one percentage point each week.
Thankfully, for the sake of these 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants, there is a potential silver lining. Not only has the nation reacted negatively across political lines to Trump’s decision to cancel DACA, a number of Republicans are working in a bi-partisan effort with Democrats in Congress to legislate a compassionate and humane solution for the dreamers.
As more and more Republicans lose faith in Trump and see him for who he really is, many Republicans in Congress will be guided not by partisan politics but by their moral compass. That will be good not only for the DACA people but for the country.
This week has yet proved another difficult time for the American dream and the dreamers.
I offer some thoughts by others as an antidote to the hard-heartedness of Donald Trump.
“Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.” -Albert Schweitzer
“I learned compassion from being discriminated against. Everything bad that’s ever happened to me has taught me compassion.” -Ellen DeGeneres
“The dew of compassion is a tear.” -Lord Byron
“The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.” -Thurgood Marshall
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” -The Dalai Lama
“Az mir hat nit kein rachmonis, farvoss zein zee a Yid? — If you have no compassion, so why be a Jew?”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
The following is taken from the end of an undelivered Address to be given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 13, 1945. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage the day before.
His written words are as poignant today as they were then.
“Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.”