Author of the upcoming book, Mensch•Marks: Life lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times. Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2018 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Random musings of a journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Rosh Hashanah Sermons, 5777
Rosh Hashanah, Day 1
- The Kaleidoscope Within
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman Audio:
On a Thursday morning in August, as our
community was basking in the glow of a fantastic Maccabi week, our sacred space
was violated. A man from California, deranged by hate, ended a
cross-country odyssey targeting Jews right across the street from our parking
lot. We were put on lock-down. A thorough search revealed
that the man and car were unarmed. That story was well publicized.
But here’s another story, one that you haven’t
heard before. That very same week, late at night – about 11 – I was
walking back home from the office, and I noticed a different car parked at the
end of the temple driveway, and a driver getting out. I went over to
the driver, my heart beating a little more rapidly, because, well, you know,
because of the world we live in. The driver, standing outside the
car with the door ajar, held up his phone and said, “I’m having radiator
problems and am calling an Uber. Is it OK for me to leave the car
Almost instinctively, I replied, “No. The
police are patrolling here constantly and will be suspicious of this car,” I
added. I gave him directions to the nearest gas station.
There were a number of reasons for me to be
suspicious. I was a little skittish, given what has been going on – around the
world and in our own backyard. Why would he want to abandon
the car? Why not call AAA and have the car serviced right
then? And besides, he was a stranger. He was different. He
was an “other.” He didn’t belong.
And so I’m sure the question you are asking is,
“What was he?” What kind of other? So
I’ll tell you.
It was dark, but I could see very clearly: He
had a New York license plate.
He was a New Yorker.
And if there’s one thing I learned growing up in
Boston, it’s not to trust people from New York.
But what else was he? Inquiring minds
want to know. Did he look Middle Eastern? Did he have a
foreign accent? Was he a person of color? Did he have a
shaved head and a swastika tattooed on his arm? What was he?
Well, what was he? A human
being. One whose pigmentation was a few shades darker than
mine. To this day, I believe that I would have acted the same way no
matter who this person is. Given my responsibilities, I did not
question that I had to get that car out of our parking lot. After
all, I have no bomb sniffing dogs. If there were Milk Bones in the
car, my dogs would have found them. So I don’t question that I did
the right thing.
But I could have been friendlier. I
could have been more helpful to a stranger.
And while I firmly believe that I am as
colorblind as they come and that this person’s pigmentation did not impact my
behavior one iota, I can’t be sure of that. I can’t be sure of that,
because I know something else. I know that I am the product of a
society that is struggling so mightily to overcome a pathology so
inbred, so pervasive and so insidious that it affects us all. It
is our greatest challenge.
Now I can’t throw the blame entirely on a sick
society entirely. I have to take some responsibility for my
actions. It’s Rosh Hashanah after all. And
you might say I’m being too hard on myself - and perhaps I am. But
if I don’t own my actions, how can I expect others to own theirs?
And if I’m not willing to take such
responsibility and share a story that I am not proud of, I have no hope of
helping the rest of you understand that we are all in this together, that this
is everyone’s challenge, not just the challenge of one political party or
demographic group. This is too important, too painful and too
personal to allow it to become just another political hot potato.
We need to have a conversation about racism. Now
there’s all kinds of bigotry, on the right and the left – and many forms of
anti-Semitism, including an insidious form adopted by the BDS movement that is
masked in its opposition to Zionism and Israel. That’s all true.
But racism is its own distinct brand of evil.
Merriam Webster defines racism as “a belief
that race is the primary determinant of human traits and
capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a
The key words there are “inherent
superiority.” People are bigots for all kinds of reasons. But
they are racists if they feel that the other group is somehow
collectively and inherently inferior, whether the rationale is pseudo-science,
theology, political expedience or just pure hate. Something about
your group is of less value than mine.
In contrast, Jews believe that all human beings
are unique individuals created in God’s image. That means we
are all of equal value in God’s eyes. When the
Torah talks about a “Chosen People,” that doesn’t mean superior. It
might allude to unique responsibilities that Jews have, or perhaps about God’s quest
for intimacy, in the hopes that such love will inspire us to better love our
neighbor. As Jews - as Jews - we were put
here on this earth to fight racist ideas and to eliminate them.
For racism has the power to erode our basic
humanity, to e-rase what is good and what is positive. We
need to recognize that the toxicity is found in each of us. Our
society is afflicted with fear, to be sure, but it also has a sickness, a
pathology, and it affects everyone.
The racism we are witnessing this year is
shocking in its intensity. Across the world, the handmaidens of hate
are joining hands in a most unnatural partnership: ISIS and
Aryan Nation, Al Qaida and the alt-right, Hamas and France’s National Front,
the New Black Panther Party and the far right Israeli Jewish group Lehava, who
oppose any personal or business relationships between Jews and non-Jews, based
on the racist views of Meir Kahane.
They are all bedfellows
spreading racism, bigotry and fear. We can never accept it. We
must put an end to it. We must be shocked by language that unleashes the forces
of hate! And we must respond.
This is beyond a political issue. This
is a moral imperative!
My friends, there is also some good news. There
are signs that the fever is breaking and love is indeed winning,
especially among the younger generation, for whom the barriers of separation are
constantly breaking down.
Small signs. Like at the recent
Olympics, a women’s gymnastics team that looked like America, and an African
American swimmer finally winning gold. So tell me, didn’t that make
you proud – or did it give you pause? …at how it took so long, and
at how the tentacles of racism reached into swimming pools all over our
But the fever is breaking. Small
signs… like the police chief in Dallas, Chief Brown, who told his mourning
community, “Change your words into truth and then change that truth into love.” Or
the overwhelming kindness of the people of Orlando and Charleston and
Small signs. Like the new Museum of African
American History and Culture in Washington. Or the multicultural
phenomenon known as “Hamilton.” A black Thomas Jefferson – who’d a
thunk it? A key to the success of this groundbreaking musical is our
thirst, our readiness, to become colorblind. And this musical has
been transformational. Hey, in the new Harry Potter musical in London,
there’s even a black Hermione. No literary work of this generation
has done more to debunk the theories of racial purity more than Harry
Potter. In the end, we are all Muggles. And the end, the
Small signs – like President Obama himself, his
election, his re-election, hid dignified presidency, and, at his term’s sunset,
a popularity that far exceeds the size of his original coalition.
A couple of months ago, I decided to have my DNA
analyzed. So I spat into a test tube (my most expensive spit since
Mrs. Allen’s class in third grade), mailed it in, and, in the interest of
complete transparency, here’s what I discovered about my ethnic background:
Your rabbi is:
97.2 percent Ashkenazi Jewish;
.8 percent Eastern European – which means
Hungarian, Polish, Ukranian or Russian. I knew there would be a
Cossack in there somewhere.
.2 percent Southern European, which includes
Italy, Iberia and the Balkans. No surprise there: 20
percent of the current population of the Iberian Peninsula has Jewish
1.7 Broadly European – pointing to some more
generalized strands of genetic material going back to the hunter-gatherer days
when Europe was settled.
And finally, .1 percent… Native American. Who
knew! With both Jewish and Native American lineage, no wonder I
was so tempted to name my first child “Whitefish.”
I just think that’s so great! Call me
Pocahontas! And call me a mutt.
And speaking of mutts, I’m also 84 percent
Golden Retriever. We all are. We share 84 percent of our overall genetic
makeup with dogs. With chimpanzees, it’s 98.6 percent. (I told you
the fever is breaking). And about 60 percent of our genetic code is
shared with your basic banana.
But human beings are in many ways the crown of
creation, and genetic researchers have confirmed what the book of Genesis told
us long ago – that all humans have common ancestry.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, we read
in Genesis that God created different kinds of plants and different kinds of
animals. But strikingly, the Creation account does not say
that God created different kinds of human beings, of different
colors and races; rather it proclaims that God created one single
person. From a single human being all are descended.
In the Talmud, where Rabbi Akiva said that “Love
your neighbor as yourself” is the most important principle of the
Torah, Ben Azzai disagreed, saying no: the most important line in the Torah is
Gen. 5:1, “These are the generations of Adam.”
The text sides with Ben Azzai, saying that the
fact that all human beings are descended from a single person teaches us that
no one can say to his neighbor, "My parent is greater than yours." And
whoever saves one life has saved the world.
Science agrees. When it comes down to
it, all of us, all human beings, it turns out, came from the same place: Africa
roughly 200,000 years ago. Genetically speaking, all human beings
are 99.998 percent the same.
The ancient rabbis taught:
“Al tistakel b’kankan elah b’ma she’yesh bo.”
“Do not look at the flask but what is in it.”
The differences are literally skin-deep. And
our sources teach us that we must look beneath that surface to see what is authentic.
Over the course of these High Holidays, I’m
going to be exploring the nuances of a word that has become perhaps the most
oft quoted word of the year: authenticity.
People crave the mantle of authenticity. In
the New York Times last June, Adam Grant called this “the Age of Authenticity.”
It’s nothing new, actually. The word’s usage has increased
dramatically since about 1990, but it was even more popular in the 1800s, a
time when Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already
The funny thing is, there’s no authentic
word in Hebrew for authenticity. The word most often used
is “autenti.” Now there are several words used as synonyms,
each one carrying a shading of what can be considered a Jewish concept of
authenticity. One of them is “baduk,” “inspected.” Before
Passover, the search for the Hametz is called “bedikat hamatz.” To
be bodek is to be seeking, to dig beneath the
surface, to find deeper truths beyond what the eye can see. So from
this perspective, the opposite of authenticity would be superficiality, what is
seen on the surface, something that is pre-judged based
on a first impression. In other words, for Jews, the opposite of
authenticity is prejudice.
Do not look at the flask, but at what is inside
it. The second part of that Talmudic line is illuminating: There
are new flasks filled with old wine and old flasks containing new wine.”
This year there was older flask around than
Bernie Sanders, someone widely praised as being “authentic.”
One would have expected Bernie’s message to be
coming from someone in his 20s, wearing hipster glasses, a flannel shirt and
skinny jeans. But millennials flocked to listen to the
jeremiads of an old Jewish guy with a wrinkled suit. What they were
craving, we kept hearing, was authenticity. And it didn’t matter
that the hair was a few shades grayer than your typical candidate’s. That
only made him more authentic. And of course, “one
pair of underwear. That’s it!”
Bernie’s legions of followers were wise enough
to understand that vitality and idealism are not necessarily synonymous with
youthful looks. They were intuitive enough to understand that’s
what’s important is what lies beneath the surface.
So my DNA study revealed some of my hidden genetic
traits. I tend to favor salty snacks over sweet ones. In
the TMI department, I can smell asparagus in my urine and am likely to have
little or no upper back-hair. Not that there’s anything wrong with
that. (I don’t want to get nasty emails from, the Anti Back-hair
Defamation League, the ABDL). The DNA test also linked me to a
certain group of Neanderthals originating in Germany.
I’m also genetically marked for hazel eyes,
thinning hair, a few freckles, no dimpled chin - oh and by the way, fair
Skin color is not racial; rather it results from
generations of exposure to ultra violet radiation from sunlight for those
living in hotter climates, which increases the production of melanin in the
skin, making it darker. It then gets literally baked in to one’s
But it’s just one marker among an untold number
of markers that tell us so much of what’s on the surface and what lies
beneath. But while there are markers for skin color predisposition,
there is none for race. There is no gene for race. Let me
repeat that. The more we learn about the genome, the more scientists conclude: Race
is not genetic!
Race is an artificial construct, based on faulty
theories of Europeans like Johan Blumenbach, a 23-year-old grad student, who in
1775 correlated human character with skull size. He found the biggest
skull while rummaging in the Caucuses, so he called it Caucasoid. He
created the “oids.” The larger the skull, in his mind, correlated to a larger
brain, which he connected to light colored skin. Spoiler alert –
Blumenbach’s pigmentation was also white.
That’s like standing in the end zone and
inventing the touchdown.
Of course, if brain size were truly a
determinant of mastery and superiority, we would all be picking cotton for
whales and elephants, whose brains are much bigger than ours.
These racial theories were in the air
precisely at a time when the world economy was expanding dramatically and many
nations relied on the slave trade to keep up. It was
convenient for them to regard people whom they were treating inhumanely as
being less than fully human. Three fifths of a human, to
be exact. Or to be really exact, tree fifths of a
male, white human. I don’t pass judgment on our founding fathers
who, after all, were reflecting the tenor of their times, but we must admit
that, if pseudo-scientific racism was invented in Europe, it was in America
that it was raised to a high art form.
There is little doubt that the racial theories
that evolved in the 18th century have tainted the soul of
humanity more than just about any other system of ideas. Communism
killed its millions, true. Millions more have also been killed
senselessly in the name of God and religion. But think about
the tens of millions of lives destroyed by these misguided theories of racial
superiority, which justified American slavery, spawned South African Apartheid,
led to the genocides of indigenous populations everywhere, including here, and,
culminated in the piece de resistance, the Nazi Holocaust.
The Nazis expanded these warped racial theories
not only to include Jews, but to differentiate between subgroups of Europeans,
and then they added sexual orientation and intellectual disability to the
mix. And they targeted them all for slavery or genocide.
It’s so crazy, on the surface, to call Jews a
race. We’ve got black Jews, white Jews, orange Jews, tomato
Jews. Jews with big noses, Jews with small noses. It’s
crazy to call Jews a race. But that’s just the
point. It’s crazy to call ANYONE a race.
But today, that’s all we do. We are obsessed with
race. Every political poll or demographic survey is broken down into
racial categories. Every policy is directed toward the racial
divide. That won’t end overnight – we still need policies that address
the inequalities, because there are inequalities – everywhere.
But it’s so absurd to connect race to
everything, like the time a football player was ostensibly asked before the
Super Bowl, ”How long have you been a black quarterback?” Yes, Doug Williams was the
first African American to start at quarterback in the Super Bowl, and yes,
the story is an urban legend. And yes, the absurdity is
compounded that he played for a team called the Redskins.
Why not call them the Washington Asparagus Sniffers?
And today, with some dangerous theories of
eugenics still being propagated, in particular by the increasingly mainstreamed
White Supremacists, who are also virulently anti-Semitic, we must extinguish
this insidious brand of hatred. We must extinguish it in society –
and in ourselves.
In mid June I participated in a seminar
sponsored locally by the Domus Center. It was called “Undoing
Racism.” About 30 or us sat together for three days in a circle and
we learned about the roots of the problem and the serious challenges before
us. I was one of two clergy present, and I believe the only
Jew. The others were teachers, interns, police officers,
firefighters, community organizers, and civic leaders. At one point,
those participants with fair skin, about half the group, were asked to be
silent, as we listened to those whose pigmentation happens to be darker than
mine talk about what it is like to live in their skin. The stories I
heard were heartbreaking. We’ve all heard stories like these
following the tragedies we’ve witnessed this year.
As each person spoke, about the profiling, about
the discrimination, about assumptions at an academic conference that a PhD was
the maid, about simply passing people on the street and sensing the fear, I
thought about how similar the Jewish experience has been, right here in
America. Henry Ford and Father Coughlin thought we wanted to take
over the world, and Leo Frank’s lynching led to the rise of the KKK, which in
turn spurred the nativism of the 1920s, which led to our Congress cutting off
of the flow of Jewish refugees from Europe at the time when we most needed an
escape route, and that undoubtedly cost millions of Jews their lives, trapped
in Hitler’s fortress Europa
Yes, back in the ‘30s, there was for European
Jews no path to US citizenship. The only available path led to the
train tracks bound for Auschwitz.
All of that due to racism, the perception that
Jews are somehow an inferior life form. And each of those who spoke
at that Domus conference could well have been echoing the timeless words of
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; BACK HAIR, fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the
same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a
Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not
laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Few of us
seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism
is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man,
the maximum of hatred for a minimum of Reason, the maximum of cruelty for a
minimum of thinking.”
So how do we “undo racism?”
How do we fight the bigotry that so infects our
culture? By proclaiming for all to hear that we are all equal
in the eyes of God, that we are all brothers and sisters. We
should constantly ask what the Mishna asks, “Is my blood redder than anyone
“It turns out that most white Americans actually
do have black blood,” says the activist john powell. “White blood
and black blood have been mixing up for a long time. And so as we
deny the other, we deny ourselves. Because there is no ‘other.’”
One in five African-Americans has Native
American roots. In Louisiana, 12 percent of European Americans have
some African ethnic ancestry. We are all people of color, it
seems. Not just color, but colors, the colors of the wind – We are all Pocahontas! There
is a veritable rainbow coalition within each of us!
Just ask Csanad Szegedi, the extremist anti-Semitic
Hungarian MP, who quit parliament in 2012 when he found out he had Jewish
roots. Last week he announced he is making aliyah to Israel.
My friends, I’ve chosen deliberately to discuss
this difficult topic today, come what may, because we face a crisis that cannot
be ignored – and an opportunity that must be grabbed. We can make
a difference. The strategy of the racist is to divide and
conquer. It’s what was done in the 19th century to
Native Americans who harbored black slaves, and what was done in the 20th century
between blacks and rural whites in the South. We can’t allow wedges
to divide groups today. We can bridge the gaps, as Jews,
because of our unique position of having experienced racism from both sides of
the divide. We can bring people together.
And we need to set an example of how to reach
out to those who are different. Here we are doing that through a new
initiative known as Keruv, whose intent is to embrace the growing number of
interfaith families who are so welcome in our ever expanding tent. Our
faith demands that we love unconditionally anyone who chooses to be here. We
need to understand that there are no whole Jews or half Jews or quarter
Jews. We are all on a Jewish spectrum, even those
who are there simply because they are married to a Jew. We are all
part of that Jewish coat of many colors.
Did you know that the fastest growing
demographic in United States is not Latinos? It’s actually interracial
and inter-ethnic couples. That was unimaginable just a few years ago,
before Loving vs Virginia in the late ‘60s, it was
illegal. Since Judaism, transcends all ethnic boundaries, there is
no reason for any Jew not to celebrate that. In a just released
Jewish population survey, nearly 12 percent of Manhattan’s Jews identify as
non-white, while in the Bronx, the figure swells to nearly 30 percent. We
welcome everyone into our tent.
But we have also seen that the spirit of
intolerance still lives. No self respecting Democrat or Republican
or Independent should stand idly by in an atmosphere that has become this
toxic. Certainly, no Jew should. We have seen what can
happen when we are silent. And we have seen that all of us, and I
include myself – have fears ingrained within us that will not easily be
overcome. We must call out racism where we see it. And we
must root it out in ourselves. We will all be called to account if
we remain silent.
By God? Perhaps. But most
of all, by our great grandchildren.
For history has its eyes on us.
In writing “Hamilton” for the stage, Lin-Manuel
Miranda chose to lie. That is, he intentionally cast the founders of
our country as people of color, even though they probably were not – though in
the case of Jefferson, some of his grandchildren were. But Miranda
wanted to make a larger point – not about that era, but about ours. We
are a nation built by immigrants, all of whom were outcasts at one time, and
immigrants, as they say in the show, get the job done. After a
while, when listening to the music of “Hamilton,” an incredible thing
happens. You forget about skin color altogether.
The newly sainted Mother Theresa said, “One of
the realities we’re all called to go through is to move from repulsion to
compassion and from compassion to wonderment.”
“Hamilton” has moved us to wonderment.
Let us revel in our differences and celebrate
our diversity. But let us see in that very diversity a common unity
of spirit, as well as of biology.
A few weeks ago, I made my first pilgrimage to
the new 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero. It was an extraordinarily moving
experience. The museum exposes the roots of the hate that led to the
deed and then traces the love that overcame it.
After visiting the museum and memorial, I
ascended to the top of the Freedom Tower, and there took in a view that I
hadn’t seen since a year before 9/11, when I performed a wedding at “Windows on
the World.” The sky was as deeply blue as it was on that fateful
day. The city lay there before me, a unified patchwork of
neighborhoods and jagged skyscrapers, a nurtured by bridges and blue waterways,
this enormous living organism being guarded by a lady with a lamp. It
took my breath away. The city as one, organic, unified whole, a body
with flowing arteries, the Hudson, the East and the Harlem, pumping life-giving
fluids, and the outstretched limbs, from the Verrazano to the GWB carrying food
and fuel and tiny little people to the skinny long torso that is
Manhattan. And looking down at it, the whole seemed far greater than
the sum of its extraordinary and unique parts, all blending together in common
purpose. It is truly a God’s eye view.
What an amazing world that could be if we could
come together as one. Where the Manhattan African American, or the
Florida Latino, or the Nebraskan Native American, the Iowan farmer –could all
see ourselves as part of the same mosaic - along with the Stamford
Jew who is .1 percent Native American, 84 percent poodle and just now awakening
to an awareness of the kaleidoscope of color that exists inside each one of
We can overcome our fear and we can forge such a
world. We can love our neighbor and we can forge such a world. We
can embrace the diversity that is embedded within us and implanted among us,
and we can forge such a world. We can give help to our neighbor
whose radiator overheats, and we can forge such a world.
And we will. I will. Next
time, I will.
Because history has its eyes on us.
Rosh Hashanah, Day 2
- Words Matter
by Rabbi Joshua
Over the past few weeks, we’ve begun using our
new Shabbat prayerbook, Siddur Lev Shalem. The decision to acquire
it was partly based on the very positive response you have had to the siddur’s
older sibling, our new High Holidays machzor. When the book was
released, there was a lot of discussion among rabbis about language –
specifically, about the new siddur’s choice of words. For instance,
you will not find the word “king” there in reference to God. Instead,
it says “sovereign,” a somewhat more relate-able term.
The siddur also eliminates the word “awesome” as
a translation for the Hebrew “no-ra.” Rabbi Ed Feld explains that a
generation ago, the word connoted “wonder,” but nowadays, when things are so
routinely called “awesome,” do we want the experience of praising God to be
equated to the experience of drinking a milkshake? Well,
maybe. But the point here is that we Jews take words very seriously.
Jews have been called the People of the Book,
but in fact we are the People of the Word.
And words matter.
Rabbis love to talk about the foibles of their
congregants in our private chat group. A rabbi from Maryland told of
the Bar Mitzvah student who began his blessings with, "Baruch ata
annoy." God can be quite annoying sometimes. A rabbi in
California wrote of a Bar Mitzvah who, when blessing his tallit, said,
"Asher Kidshanu bemtizvotav vitzivanu lehadlik ner shel
tzitzit," praising God "who lit his tallis on fire.” And
then my favorite, from a rabbi in Massachusetts, who had a young student say
the blessing over cookies, which usually concludes, borei minei mezonot,
only the child said, "Borei pri zonot," thanking
God for the fruits of the world's oldest profession.
Yes, words matter.
There is an entire tractate of the Talmud that
deals with the laws of vows and when they can be annulled, which is also the
purpose of the Kol Nidre prayer. On Yom Kippur, before we get into
any of that long list of sins, we pray to get our words right. And
many of those sins we list are related to the misuse of words…gossip, slander,
gratuitous levity, lies, sarcasm.
Tractate Avot states, “Emor Me’at v’aseh
harbay,” Say little and do much,” and for Jews, our actions should speak
louder than our words. I always say at wedding ceremonies that Jews
are great with words, but even better at deeds, so the ceremony ends not with
words but with the breaking of the glass.
The story of Abraham, featured in our Torah
reading on Rosh Hashanah, is filed with meaningful words – about people who
didn’t talk all that much.
When guests arrive, Abraham doesn’t schmooze
with them, he scurries around and engages his entire household in feeding them
and making them comfortable.
Aviya Kushner, in her new book, “Grammar of
God,” analyzes the lovely texture of the language of this chapter. When
Sarah hears that she and Abraham are about to have a child, the text tells us,
“Va’te’tzachek Sarah b’kirba.” “Sarah laughed deep
inside.” This is just the second laugh of the entire Bible – and a
justifiable response, given Sarah’s advanced age. So what is the
meaning of this peculiar choice of words?
Commentators suggest that she suppressed the
laugh so as not to embarrass Abraham, or, for that matter, God.
Kushner suggests that maybe Sarah was trying to
suppress her own skepticism. She wanted to see how things would turn
out. She put on hold part of her laugh, reserving her incredulity
while holding on to a glimmer of hope - that maybe God was right, that maybe
she could still have a child. And we, the readers
of this story, suppress our laughs too, knowing that this is no laughing
matter. Because if she couldn’t have a child, the Jewish nation itself would
have been stillborn. Yet at a moment of such absurdity, faced with such
overwhelmingly tragic odds – what’s a Jew to do? Why, laugh, of
Perhaps that internal laugh of Sarah’s was
actually not just any old laugh. Perhaps it was Isaac himself,
already embedded in her womb, whose name, after all, means laughter. Actually,
Isaac’s name really means, “Will laugh.” It’s in the future
tense. The laughter hasn’t happened yet.
To this day, we haven’t yet experienced the
happy ending. To this day, our joy is embryonic. But
still we laugh – a muffled laugh. So maybe that’s why it’s called an inside laugh. Tetzachek
B’KIRBA. And when you think of Jewish humor, rarely does
it evoke an LOL kind of response. (Or maybe it’s just my jokes). So
often, we laugh through our tears.
We get all that from just
a couple of words about Sarah’s muffled laughter.
Aren’t words beautiful?
This week, I’m focusing on the questions of
authenticity, one of the most overused and least understood words in our
vernacular, and in particular, what does it mean to live authentically as a
Jew? Yesterday I mentioned that there is no exact translation for
the term in Hebrew, but several synonyms that reflect different shadings. One
of them is “mekori.”
“Makor” in Hebrew means “source.” To
be authentic, we need always to be reconnecting to our roots, and there is no
more authentic way Jews can do that than by reconnecting with our ancient
language, a language that takes us back to the origins of all human
Amos Oz, the great Israeli author, talks about
the Jewish love affair with words, and in particular, Hebrew – a
reimagined language for a reimagined people. You can see elements of
this in the beautifully crafted new film about his childhood, directed by
Natalie Portman, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” In that film, and in
his more recent book, called fittingly, “Jews and Words,” he writes of how the
Hebrew word “Kadima” means forward, but the term “kedem,” also
means “ancient times.” He writes, “When we speak Hebrew we
literally stand in flow of time with our backs to the future and our faces
toward the past.” That’s very different from the Western sense of a march of
progress, which is inexorably forward thinking. Kadima, is “a
unique linguistic creature, progressive and at the same time
It’s like the extraordinarily nuanced word, Shalom. My
father used to sing the song, “Shalom” from the musical “Milk and Honey.” “And
even when you say goodbye, say goodbye with a little "hello" in it,
and say goodbye with Shalom.”
The word “shalom” enshrines the
eternal Jewish quest for peace in every single greeting. It’s not
“hello,” “goodbye,” or “peace.” It’s all three, something that gets
lost in translation.
Language can be a barrier, but it can also
be a gateway. And our new siddur, like the machzor, helps it to be
Words matter so much for Jews. Hebrew
especially – it is part of what makes for authenticity in our tradition. That’s
why we pray in Hebrew, despite the fact that it is hard for most American Jews
And Israelis understand Hebrew – which is why
it’s harder for many of them to pray.
Sometimes knowing the literal meaning of words
gets in the way of appreciating the finer textures of language.
Literalism in language can be a dangerous
thing. Think of Amelia Bedelia, the star of Peggy Parish’s
children’s book series. The joke, not lost on kids, was how she
takes words so literally.
Amelia Bedelia, who planted light bulbs instead
of flower bulbs, who made cheesecake by decorating blocks of cheese, who cut
holes in Mrs. Roger’s dress when she was asked to “remove spots,” and who
doused women with water from the gardening hose for her wedding shower.
Through her antics, kids learn early on that
words matter. Some kids know that more instinctively.
I recently saw the superb Broadway version of
the bestselling book, “The Curious Story of the Dog in Night Time,” about an
exceptionally intelligent young man named Christopher who is ill equipped to
interpret everyday life in the manner that many people do. Notice I
didn’t say “normal,” people, because, who is to say who is normal in this
When, toward the end of the play, Christopher’s
teacher is about to give him a test and says “let’s get rolling,” we are in his
head – and when he gives a knowing glance to the audience, we know that he is
one millisecond away from getting down on the floor and rolling over. When
he sees a sign that says “Keep off the grass,” he asks the questions that few
of us would even consider: Does it mean to keep off the grass just
around this sign, or all the grass in this park? “Cause there’s a
lot of grass!”
We hear often about our world being in crisis –
and indeed we have much that should concern us. But not to discount anything
else – terrorism is real…. Gun violence, Zika virus, the hottest year on record
yet again… all of these are very, very important.
But this also was not a good year for
We have devolved from reasoned, thinking
creatures to knee-jerk, Pavlovian responders, and the level of our language has
devolved as well. We no longer understand the difference between
talking and talking points. We’re communicating in dog whistles and
winks. We’re jumping all over verbal gaffes that were not
intended. We giggle like school kids when someone’s hacked words get
exposed for all to see. We take phrases out of context. We’ve
all become Amelia Bedelias, but Amelia Bedelias with a nasty streak.
Last March, Carnegie Mellon released a
readability analysis of presidential candidate speeches, assessing the grade
level of vocabulary and grammar. Abraham Lincoln spoke with an 11th grade
vocabulary. Both President Obama and President Bush used the
vocabulary of a tenth grader.
This year, including the primaries, most
candidates have been using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8,
and in some cases, lower.
Hey, I’m all in favor of plain speaking, and I’d
like to think I’m no elitist. This sermon itself is grammatically
only a little north of 8th grade. I checked. But
the dummying down of America cannot be a good thing for our democracy.
We’ve lowered the bar on language.
Back in the 1950s, Abraham Joshua Heschel
memorably stated that the People of the Book have become the People of the Book
of the Month Club. Well, it’s gotten much worse – and it’s not just
for Jews. We’ve become the People of the Tweet, and the People of
the Text. Words have become cheap.
Back in my college days, when we used these
things called typewriters, if we made a mistake, we had to do the whole page
over – or use this white liquid that supposedly covered the error, though no
more effectively than Clearasil covers a pimple. The blemishes were
there for all to see. So we had to think before we wrote – and
Now, while it’s true that every word we put
online or send in an email is indeed there forever, we don’t take our words
nearly as seriously. Consequently, we say the darndest
things. And we forget how much words can hurt.
Exactly 25 years ago, on Rosh Hashanah 1991, I
gave a sermon here on an interesting topic known as “Political Correctness.” As
far as sermons go, it was one of my greatest hits.
I made some points back then that seem really
off base now. I said then that the most PC thing around was the
Cosby Show. Back then, it was a revelation, a show about a Black
family succeeding in upper middle class life without the help of white
benefactors. Back in 1991, I joked about the Fresno Bee, a newspaper
that programmed their computer to be so PC that when an article spoke about the
Massachusetts budget crisis, it said that the state had put itself back in the
“African American.” Back then, I speculated about whether it
would be more correct to change the nursery rhyme to “Three Visually Challenged
Mice.” Yes, there was a lot to question back then – and there is a
lot to question now. Back then, as now, political correctness was
seen as a tool of condescension, designed to ridicule and shame people into
using more sensitive language. And back then, as now, to call someone P.C.
was also a tool of humiliation and condescension.
Interestingly, another one of the synonyms for
authenticity in Hebrew is “nachon,” which means correct. To
be authentic, at least in Hebrew, is to be correct. Yet, being
correct, at least in the PC sense, is suddenly something that no one wants to
be, even on the left, where it is seen as being synonymous with intolerance of
free speech. Everyone makes fun of political correctness.
I know all about Political Correctness. It
was literally invented at my alma mater, in a 1980’s comic strip. And
since then, Brown has perfected it, this past winter officially renaming
Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day.”
But my focus today is not on the politics
of political correctness, but on the lack of honest communication in our
society, and on the power of words to hurt or heal.
The end result is that dialogue becomes
impossible because opposing sides can’t agree on a common vocabulary. And
as result, you end up with people shouting past one another
rather than engaging in dialogue. You end up with a need for safe
spaces and time outs.
In 1991, we did not have social media, and
people were not so easily silo-ed into their cable-news camps, so we had to
find a common platform from which to scream at one another. Now we
have our own echo chambers where we can insult the other side with impunity –
and now we have anonymity of Twitter, where all the resentment can spew forth. The
result has been a massacre of civil communication to an unprecedented degree.
The ADL has witnessed what it calls an
“explosion of hate” online over the past couple of years and has been
monitoring the recent spike on such harassment, which seems to have
corresponded to the political season, with a large amount of this vitriol directed
from the alt-right at journalists, particularly Jewish journalists.
And of course I know that this is not just about
Jews and anti-Semitism, but Jews have always been the canary in the coalmine of
hate and others are victims too. When I was growing up, the most un-PC person
imaginable was fictitious; his name was Archie Bunker and we laughed at him. Now
Archie has jumped out of out TV and become mainstream and it’s not funny
In some ways, things have improved. Back
in the 1940s there was a popular comic book called “Little Moron,” and a whole
genre of jokes that made fun of people who were intellectually disabled. Now
it is considered wrong to use that term when referring to someone’s
intelligence, or to use the dreaded “r” word.
I don’t care whether or not it is considered PC,
but speaking as one with an intellectually challenged sibling, the “r” word
hurts. Better to be more sensitive to our use of language, even if
it means being inconvenienced.
One suggestion is to use “People first”
language; if we use the term “people with intellectual disabilities,” we put
our humanity first and consider the impairment only secondary, as a modifier.
It’s the human being that matters.
What I want to know is, when did it become so
sinful to be sensitive to the feelings of others? Sometimes
sensitivity can be overdone. But a little sensitivity can
soften the blow. I had an eye check up and asked if my vision was
deteriorating. The doctor said my vision is “progressing” and that
made me feel good, even though it meant that it was the deterioration that was
I guess that’s why when I was growing up and it
was time to check my eyes, I always thought my parents were saying that we were
going to visit the optimist.
Reframing words for sensitivity can be a good
The rabbinic sage Avtalyon, warned his
colleagues, “Be careful with your words – because you are modeling behavior for
children. Indeed, as the cantor often sings, children do listen.
The National Committee for Prevention of Child
Abuse has compiled a list of disparaging comments made by angry parents to
children, including: "You're pathetic." "You can't do anything
right." "You disgust me." "Just shut up." "Hey,
stupid. Don't you know how to listen?" "You're more trouble than
you're worth." "I wish you were never born." Does anyone here
think that a child raised with these words believes that sticks and stones can
break our bones but words can never hurt us?
An old Jewish teaching compares the tongue to an
arrow. "Why not another weapon, a sword for example?" one rabbi asks.
"Because," he is told, "if a person unsheathes his sword to kill
his friend and his friend begs for mercy, he can always put the sword aside;
but the arrow, once it is shot, cannot be returned, no matter how much the
person wants to."
So it’s not OK to let it all hang out. It’s
not “authentic” to speak without a filter and spew whatever offensive thing is
on your mind. If you are going to call me a dirty Jew or my
brother a retard, those words are arrows – that’s what the Talmud says – much
more harmful, in their own way, than sticks and stones.
Judaism understands words to be bearers of
holiness. There is no custom of kissing simple ritual objects like candlesticks
and kiddush cups. But we kiss a mezuzah because it contains a word, the name of
God. Recite fourteen words over two burning candles on a Friday
evening and you have, magically, brought Shabbat peace into your home. Recite only
nine while giving or accepting an object of minimal value, usually a plain gold
band, and you have sanctified a relationship for eternity.
To be authentic - Jewishly authentic
– means to get beyond the rhetoric, to shun knee jerk responses and clichés,
and (to use a cliché), to get ourselves to think outside the box. A
study last month shared the news that even dogs, the ones who respond best to
dog whistles, the ones who are by nature Pavlovian, even dogs have
a place in their brain that treasures language. All the more so,
Another translation for “authentic” in Hebrew is
“samooch.” Connected. The letter samech in
Hebrew is perfectly connected. A circle, without holes. As
authentic Jews, we are called upon to use language to create connections, to
forge real relationships.
Sherry Turkle writes in her book, “Reclaiming
Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” that instead of promoting
the value of authenticity, social media encourages performance over teaching
the rewards of vulnerability; it suggests that you put on your best face.
To forge authentic relationships, then, we need
to – at least some of the time – put our phones down, stash our emojis in the virtual
drawer and set aside our texting shorthand, and try some face to face, real
I mentioned that Sarah’s laugh was the second laugh
in the entire Bible. That’s because one chapter earlier, Abraham
also laughed, when God told him that he and Sarah would have a
child. “Vayipol Avraham al panav va’yitzchak.” He
didn’t just laugh, he fell on his face and laughed. Emmanual
Levinas wrote that the presence of a face initiates the human ethical
compact. An authentic response is one that is full-faced. An
authentic relationship is one that is face to face. And in his
relationship with Isaac, only at the end of the Akeda story does Abraham lift
up his eyes. Only then does he fully engage in authentic,
face-to-face relationship. Only then can he save his son.
We need for our words to be as full faced, as
authentic a response, as our laughter and our tears.
Imgine the Akeda with cellphones. We
regularly put people on pause while we check our phones. As Turkle
indicates, we have now begun to treat people like machines. We regularly put
people on pause while we check our phones. We have now begun to
treat people like machines. “Sorry, Isaac, I have to check my
texts.” When we pick up our phones, we are actually clicking the
pause button on the real live people who are in the room with us.
Exactly twenty years ago, five years after the
PC sermon, in another greatest hit sermon I gave here about words, I challenged
the congregation to go from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, just a little over a
week, without using bad language – lashon ha ra. No
gossip, no slander, no vitriol, no flaming, no trolling, no mic dropping –
watching every word – and aiming to say only words that heal – just for a week.
exercise changed lives – and people remember it to this day.
Twenty later, in this crazy, feverish, frenzied
October, it’s time to try that again. From now until Yom Kippur,
let’s try to be nice, online and in person. It may not change the
world in these troubled times, but it might change us – which might,
ultimately, have an impact on the world.
Try to be more conscious of what you say and how
you say it, or write it. Feel free to share your experiences.
Let’s change the world by changing
ourselves. Let’s make this the most PC place on the planet – by that
I mean Perfectly Civilized.
This weekend, on Shabbat Shuvah, we'll read the
immortal words of the prophet Hosea, “K’Chu Imachem Devarim V’Shuvu El
"Take words with you and return to the
Lord. Instead of bulls, our offering will come from our lips."
On these days of repentance, let us inscribe
each word we utter into the Book of Life. Let's aim in our use of
language to be Jewishly authentic: Mekori, Nachon and Samooch -
to reflect, correct and connect. Let us aim higher than ever before in
how we speak. Let us aim for nothing less than perfection. Let only
words of healing, love and sanctity flow from our lips.