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
It is now clear where President Trump stands – with haters, bigots, and violent thugs.
It’s sickening and disturbing to know that the man who occupies the Oval Office, a symbol of American exceptionalism, is an immoral, instinctively insensitive human being that represents the very worst of the human condition.
Trump and his campaign have brought the extremist and violent fringe into the mainstream of American life, and it is now up to all decent Americans of every race, ethnicity, religion, national background, and gender orientation, to stand up and say “Enough!”
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
“One who condones evil is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it.” (Dr. Martin Luther King)
“One who is able to protest against a wrong that is being done in his;/her family, city, nation or world and doesn’t do so is held accountable for that wrong being done.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b)
“We generations close to the Holocaust must be very clear that no interests of any kind can justify a shameful alliance with groups or individuals who fail to recognize responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust.” (President Reuven Rivlin, State of Israel)
“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
Leah Aharoni’s “Undermining unity at the Kotel won’t make Reform great again” (op-ed JJ, July 11) is so riddled with mistakes and faulty metaphors that we are compelled to respond in order to set the record straight. http://jewishjournal.com/opinion/221495/undermining-unity-kotel-wont-make-reform-great/
Ms. Aharoni began her tirade against the international Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Women of the Wall in our advocacy of an egalitarian and equal prayer space at the holiest site in Judaism by citing a Chassidic tale in which a father tells his son that “If you want to be taller, make yourself a mound and get up on it. But don’t drive your brother into a hole.”
We in the Israeli and international liberal religious community are not trying to knock anyone down. All we are doing is reminding the Prime Minister and his government that the Kotel Agreement that he himself initiated and oversaw negotiations in good faith led by Jewish Agency Director Natan Sharansky is about equal recognition for all Jewish religious streams in Israel and preserving Israeli democracy.
Despite Ms. Aharoni’s false claim that our protest is a way to prop up a failing liberal Judaism, the facts are otherwise. The liberal movements in fact are growing rapidly.
Her claim that Reform and Conservative Judaism represent only a combined 25% of American Jews is wrong according to the Pew Survey that reports that 35% of the American Jewish community is Reform and 18% are Conservative (http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/)
Her statement is pure nonsense that “Outside of North America, in Israel, Europe, Russia, and Australia, when Jews want to pray they go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if they are not observant in their private life. Reform and Conservative movements are negligible there.”
There are, in fact, vibrant Reform and Conservative movements and synagogues in every country in the world where there is a Jewish community.
Ms. Aharoni’s claim that “the main reason the Kotel is run like an Orthodox synagogue [is because for] the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide, this is the face of Jewish holy places” is also false.
The Kotel became an orthodox “synagogue” after 1967 because the Chief Rabbi of the army was given jurisdiction over the area and because the Israeli government has handed over the official power of religion to the most extreme and fanatical ultra-Orthodox authorities.
The Kotel area is a national site and we in the non-Orthodox world believe it should be open and accessible to all. After the Kotel Agreement was made, Prime Minister Netanyahu said with pride that the agreement now enabled the Kotel to be “one wall for one people.”
Ms. Aharoni wrote: “By creating an alternative at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest place, the liberal movements had hoped to create legitimacy in the eyes of Israeli and visiting Jews. For if you can pray this way at the Kotel, why not look up (or establish) a liberal community back home. While I disagree with the Reform and Conservative rejection of the Torah, attracting new membership is certainly their prerogative. But tearing the holiest Jewish site apart is not the way to do it. Questioning the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry only hurts all of us. Bashing the Israeli Orthodox community isn’t what’s going to make the liberal movements great again.”
No – Ms. Aharoni. Our idea is to grant equal access to the Kotel as a national site to the majority of Israelis who do not consider themselves Orthodox and who would like to pray there without interference by the extremist Orthodox authorities.
Ms. Aharoni’s most egregious accusation is her assertion that we in the Reform and Conservative movements reject the Torah. To the contrary, we in the liberal streams believe that women ought to have the right and to be able to read and hear the Torah at the Kotel just like men.
We are not bashing Israeli Orthodoxy, though we vehemently disagree with its claim to be the only true and authentic expression of Judaism. Rather, we insist that Orthodoxy and the liberal movements should have equal rights to pray according to our customs and values at the Kotel. We do not at all wish to supplant Orthodoxy.
Ms. Aharoni says that “Maybe they [Reform Jews] should consider what makes traditional Jewish practice attractive to young Jews and do more of that.”
She ought to realize that extremist Orthodox religious claims that there is only one way to practice Judaism is among of the single greatest turn-offs to the younger generation of Diaspora Jews and is one of the reasons that young Jews are turning away from the State of Israel.
In her op-ed, Ms. Aharoni is called the “co-founder of Women For the Wall.” Her organization is to be distinguished from “Women of the Wall” which has been the driving force for equal rights for women at the holiest site in Judaism for more than 25 years. Ms. Aharoni has nothing to do with that large group of Israeli Jewish women.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, President, Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA)
Rabbi John Rosove, National Chairperson, Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA)
Dani Dayan laments Israelis’ lack of understanding and unwillingness to engage with liberal Jewish streams
Do read this article in the Times of Israel (see link below).
In Israeli’s political arena, one would have thought that Dani Dayan would align himself with the most right-wing in Israel on every matter – but it just isn’t true.
He was the head of the Yesha Council of settlers before becoming Israel’s Consul General for New York. As it turns out, on the pluralism issue the non-Orthodox have in Dayan a friend.
Dayan himself is not religious, and perhaps that’s why he is open-hearted to the non-Orthodox streams in Israel. But there may be something else as well.
I don’t know what Dayan’s attitudes towards the Reform movement in America were before he arrived in New York. He may already have been a religious pluralist. If so – terrific, but since coming to the US he has been nothing shy of a friend to all the religious streams.
In my own encounters with Mr. Dayan in New York as Chair of ARZA, I found that he couldn’t be more open-hearted towards non-Orthodox Jewry if he tried. His magnanimity is both surprising and refreshing.
What we need now is a Prime Minister to show a measure of courage and stop cow-towing to the ultra-Orthodox political parties on the Kotel issue and Conversion Law, and then on civil marriage and civil divorce, on women’s issues, on the rights of NGOs to operate on behalf of human rights in the state of Israel and the West Bank, and everything that makes for a true democracy that Israel is and ought always to be.
The greatest leaders are those who stand for principle over politics – Dayan is showing himself on the issue of who is a Zionist to be a democrat (with a small “d”).
As a consequence of the cacophony provoked by the President’s tweets coupled with the introduction of the Republican Senate’s “wealth-care” bill that there is another story with major implications for the unity of the Jewish people and the well-being of Israeli democracy about which many American Jews seem to be unaware.
My colleague and the President of Association of Reform Zionists of America (Rabbi Josh Weinberg) in his weekly email to ARZA members got to the heart of the matter on Friday that expresses concisely what is happening and why it’s important for the American Jewish community (regardless of whether one is Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox) to be aware. Rabbi Weinberg wrote:
“In the world of the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, rarely has there been a week like this.
On Sunday [June 25], the Government of Israel decided to cancel the already-agreed upon deal to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, with full signage and administrative authority by the liberal movements, JFNA [Jewish Federations of North America] and WoW [Women of the Wall]. In addition it supported the passing of the conversion bill, which would place control of all conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and could have serious implications for already existing conversion programs as well as implications for Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jews in particular. Fortunately, as of this writing, the vote on the conversion bill has been stayed for 6 months due to significant pressure on the government from all sides and angles. We must acknowledge the tireless work of Rabbis Rick Jacobs [President of the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States and Canada], Gilad Kariv [Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Reform Judaism], Noa Sattat [Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center], Anat Hoffman [Chair of the Women of the Wall] and many more, who ably represent our [Reform] movement in Israel and abroad.
The week continued with the Jewish Agency for Israel, in an unprecedented move, canceling a dinner with the PM [Benjamin Netanyahu] and taking out ads in the Israeli media openly criticizing the decision beginning a wide spread response from mainstream Jewish organizations breaking stride and expressing their outrage to the PM and his government.
We all know that this essentially is about coalition politics. That PM Netanyahu made a calculated decision to renege on his promises to implement the [Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Space Agreement] deal and at the same time take action that put his support firmly behind his ultra-Orthodox constituency, ensuring that he’ll last another day. This is neither shocking nor surprising, and the uproar is due to the coinciding events (The reneging on the Kotel agreement and the introduction of the Conversion bill into the Knesset) as well as the leadership of the organized Jewish community feeling the sting of this blatant betrayal.
Let’s be clear this is NOT about two things:
- This is not just about the Diaspora. Many headlines read that this is a slap in the face to Diaspora Jews and it is important to note that this is an insult and a complete rejection of the growing trends of Israeli frustration and rejection of the Chief Rabbinate.* This is not only about Reform and Conservative Jewry. The conversion bill was set to transfer power away from a great deal of modern Orthodox (National Religious) rabbis. This is bigger than just angry Reform and Conservative Jews. We are angry. We’re outraged, hurt and betrayed. But this has now risen to the level of a “Gog and Magog” style battle over who holds the keys to Judaism in the Jewish State. Make no mistake, the Haredim [Ultra-Orthodox religious political parties] see the inroads the liberal movements are making [in Israel], and are (justifiably) feeling threatened. The Prime Minister will do everything he can to maintain his coalition even if it means going back on deals and promises (pittance) compared to risking losing his [governing] Our [non-orthodox] movements are gaining strength and building coalitions – including with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who is also considerably concerned about the conversion issue [Liberman represents a very large Russian Israeli community among whom are roughly 700,000 individuals who are not Jewish by traditional Jewish legal standards], but will unlikely risk his prize position over this issue.
- Many have asked why the Reform and Conservative movements have not expressed equal outrage over the Occupation [of Israel in the West Bank beyond the Green Line], the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Syria, and the list goes on. Those do continue to be ongoing issues that we care deeply about. Each organization, movement and individual has to engage in the struggles that it can and fight the good fights that it can. אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים. “These and Those are words of the living God.” [A famous principle found in the Talmud said by Rav Shmuel who believed that it is important to find truth in all sides to an argument].
We hope you join us in the struggle and work wherever you are for a Jewish and democratic State.
“It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” (Former Senator and Vice President of the United States, Hubert H. Humphrey)
So – the question is this! Does the Senate’s health care reform bill released yesterday pass this moral test?
Our own Reform movement sharply criticized this Republican Senate bill because it would repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, make severe cuts to Medicaid, get rid of the legal requirement that most Americans have health coverage, and remove federal tax credits to aid Americans in paying for health insurance.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. has called this measure “deeply harmful” and yesterday, the RAC made the following statement:
“The Senate bill revealed this morning is a major undermining of American health care that will hurt Americans most in need: the elderly, the poor, children and people with disabilities…Jewish tradition’s emphasis on caring for the sick and lifting up those in need inspires us to call on Senators to reject the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.”
Here are some of the specifics in the bill’s provisions:
- It enables insurance companies to charge five times the cost of insurance to people over fifty;
- It denies coverage for maternity care, mental health care, and substance abuse to millions of Americans;
- It dramatically cuts treatments for those who have opioid disorders;
- It defunds Planned Parenthood on which 2.4 million people depend for their health care;
- It has dramatic cuts to Medicare effective over time;
- The following categories of people will be affected: 49% of all births – 64% for all nursing home residents – 30% of adults with disabilities – 40% of all poor – 39% of all children – 76% of poor children – 60% of all children with disabilities
This bill is an attack on the weakest Americans in order to give massive tax cuts for the top 1% of the wealthiest of Americans – consequently, it does indeed fail Hubert Humphrey’s moral test of government.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will issue a cost analysis at the beginning of the week, but Senate Majority Leader Mitchell has insisted that there be a vote before the Fourth of July Congressional recess. For a bill that affects one-sixth of the American economy and impacts negatively the lives of more than 20 million Americans, he refuses to allow time for debate, discussion, or analysis of this bill.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 took one year to pass with massive amounts of House and Senate discussion and more than 200 amendments. Senator Mitch McConnell thinks that Americans and the Senate have discussed health care enough and it’s time to fulfill the President’s and the Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, though a great majority of the American people don’t want it replaced.
This is not democracy, nor is it reflective of the humane tradition of America.
What ought we to do?
We have a weekend to have our voices be heard and we should make them heard by calling the ten fence-sitting Senators who have not as yet signed onto this Senate bill (per Families USA).
We ought to flood their Washington DC offices with calls and emails to demand that they vote no on this Senate bill.
The ten include Senator Susan Collins (R. Maine), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R. Alaska), Senator Bill Cassidy (R. Louisiana), Senator Jeff Flake (R. AZ), Senator Cory Gardner (R. Colorado), Senator Rob Portman (R. Ohio), Senator Ted Cruz (R. Texas), Senator Rand Paul (R. Kentucky), Senator Mike Lee (R. Utah), and Senator Ben Sasse (R. Nebraska).
We Jews are inspired by the example set over many centuries in Jewish tradition which instructs communities to provide health care to their inhabitants. In RAMBAM’s Mishneh Torah (Hilchot De’ot IV: 23) it’s written:
כל עיר שאין בה עשרה דברים האלו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה ואלו הן
“A Torah Sage is not permitted to live in a community which does not have the following: a doctor.”
Please make those calls!