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Sermon for Kol Nidre: "Science and Sinai"
Sermon for Yom Kippur Day: "#UsToo"
Kol Nidre 5779 - Science and Sinai
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
1950, a rabbi wrote a letter to the greatest scientist of our time – and
arguably of all time. The response, by
Albert Einstein to Rabbi Robert Marcus, has been part of the public record for
decades. We’ll get to that. But what interests me more right now is what
Rabbi Marcus wrote – because it was buried deep in the archives, only to be
recovered very recently by Rabbi Naomi Levy for her new book, “Einstein and the
Marcus was a remarkable man. During World War II, he was a chaplain in the
Ninth Tactical Air Unit, winning a Bronze Star for his service. He was on the beaches of Normandy, and in
April, 1945, he was one of the first chaplains to liberate Buchenwald. He was devastated by what he saw, but his
immediate focus was to save those who had survived – and he processed the
evacuation of 1,000 children, saving many of their lives, and he accompanied
them to freedom. Among those children
was Elie Wiesel. Another, a teenager at
the time, was Ruth Westheimer. When he
returned to the states, Rabbi Marcus became political director of the World
Jewish Congress, trying to stave off brutality all over the globe. In the summer of 1949, an outbreak of polio
in the Catskills infected all three of his children. By the time he could arrive home from Europe,
his beloved firstborn son Jay had died.
Rabbi Marcus was devastated.
that is when he wrote his letter to Einstein.
summer my 11-year-old son died of polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of
great promise, who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare
himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very
structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void, for
all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his
strivings. I have tried during the past months to find
comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony
of losing one dearer than life itself - an innocent, dutiful and gifted child
who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief
that man has a spirit which attains in mortality-that somehow, somewhere my son
lives on in a higher world…
would be the purpose of the spirit if with the body it should perish… I have
said to myself: it is the law of science that matter can never be destroyed;
things are changed but the essence does not cease to be… Shall we say that
matter lives and the spirit perishes; shall the lower out last the higher?
have said to myself: Shall we believe that they who have gone out of life in
childhood before the natural measure of their days was full, have been forever
hurled into the darkness of oblivion? Shall we believe that the millions who
have died of the death of martyrs for truth, enduring the pain is of
persecution have utterly perished? Without Immortality the world is a moral
write you all this because I have read your volume, “The World as I See it.” On
page 5 you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is
beyond my comprehension… Such emotions are for the fears or absurd egoism of
feeble souls.” And I inquire in the spirit of desperation, is there in your
view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my
beautiful darling child-a blooming bud that turned its face to the sun and was
cut down by an unrelenting storm-has been forever wedded into dust, that there
was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of
death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an
intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son? May I have a word from
you? I need help badly.
Sincerely yours, Robert S Marcus
that this world-famous rabbi in pain did not turn to another rabbi, or any
other religious leader or philosopher.
As Naomi Levy notes, he was seeking a scientist’s solution to a
deep spiritual crisis. How do we make sense of senseless tragedy? Is our
universe a cold and in different place? Is there hope? What is our comfort?
What can we do when we feel like we are free-falling inside a vacuum of
despair? Does this all live on?
rabbi understood that religion and science are not at odds. “He was a man of God,” Levy writes, “seeking
answers from the one man who knew more about the workings of this universe than
any other human being alive in his day, a man who changed the way we understand
time and space and matter.”
Einstein quotes place this in perspective.
without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Einstein also wrote, “There are two ways to live. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The
other is as if everything is.”
was, in a way, one of the great rabbis of the 20th
century. And his words are the greatest
testimony that science and religion are not only compatible, they exist in a
state of harmonious convergence.
course, if you read the papers (as they used to say when people read newspapers),
you would think that the opposite is true.
Science is considered by many to be the enemy of faith. Demonstrable, empirical facts are downplayed
as mere opinions; theories endorsed by nearly 100 percent of scientists, like
those regarding our climate, are pooh pooed by people purporting to speak for
the Almighty, when they are actually speaking on behalf of the almighty dollar.
mind-blowing work of evolutionists, biologists, paleontologists, physicists and
archeologists is regularly tossed aside by proponents of the literal reading of
the Bible, by people like creationist Ken Ham, who states, “No apparent,
perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology,
can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.”
prefer the attitude of this believer: “Science is fantastic and I thank God for
this. … It isn’t as if He didn’t want us to find out about His incredible
indeed. Recent discoveries, like the
genome project, have forced us to confront our deep connection not only with
all of humanity, but with the all living beings. In the words of Brown University biologist
Kenneth Miller, this “does not undermine our unique humanness.” In his new book, “The Human Instinct: How we Evolved
to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will,” Miller writes that advances in
genetic research are not to be lamented as “the death of Adam. It is, in, fact,
the best news we’ve ever received about the world and our place in it.”
are surely part of Darwin’s tangled bank,” he adds. “But we are also the only creatures to be
able to transcend it.”
travels this summer took me to the island of Borneo, one of only two places on
earth where one can find Orangutans in the wild. The name orangutan,
incidentally, has nothing to do with the word orange. In Malay it means “forest person,” I felt a
kinship –almost as if they were in some sense, human – like Koko, the gorilla
with the 2,000-word vocabulary. The ones
we saw had distinct personalities, but even the alphas among them were gentler
than lots of humans I know. They seemed
very much like us, in fact – which makes sense, because our DNA is 97 percent
identical to theirs.
I didn’t feel the least bit cheated by this, that somehow our kinship with
these creatures made me in any manner less human, less special in God’s eyes,
or that the Torah is any less “true,” even if its narratives don’t always conform
to more recent scientific discoveries.
lets’ take some time to lay out the case for the compatibility of science and
religion. And like a good little scientist, I’m going to lay this out
systematically. Consider this kittel
to be my lab coat.
is an urgent one, for three reasons.
one, because many have been deceived into thinking that religion is anti-science,
and since Jews, especially younger Jews, are great believers in science, Judaism
has suffered disproportionately because of that misconception.
because religion – specifically Judaism – has much wisdom to contribute to the work
that scientists are doing. And since so
many scientists are also Jewish, this dialogue can be especially useful.
third, because Chicken Little was wrong: The sky is not falling - it's
burning up, and religious leaders have a moral responsibility, a religious
responsibility, to work with the scientific community to do something about our
melting planet before it is too late.
by water and who by fire” no longer is simply a poetic vision from the machzor. It’s last weekend in Carolina and the
Philippines, last month in California, and last year in Puerto Rico and
Houston. We’ve joined the mega-storm of
the month club.
change is happening, so we had best get beyond this religion vs. science thing
right now, so that we can come together to address reality.
truths should not conflict with religious truths – and in any case, what makes
scientific truths true is that they are constantly being tested and
refined – just as religious ideas are constantly being refined – just as even
our understanding of God is constantly being refined.
given the inordinate pressure being placed on science by people ostensibly representing
religion, we must stand tall in defense of science. And we at TBE are doing just that.
from our ongoing conservation efforts, including our garden, our green building
and our nationally recognized solar panels, our current campaign’s master plan
for the building emphasizes sustainability.
We are also starting a new program for young children called Teva Kids, “Teva”
meaning nature, with a focus on having our children learn about their deep
connection to the world around us. Enrollment
has been superb.
addition, save the date of Dec. 14, when I’ll be bringing scholar in residence,
Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman to speak here on a Friday night. He is founder of the startup, “Sinai and Synapses,” whose goal is to bridge the religious and scientific
worlds, offering people a worldview that is both scientifically
grounded and spiritually uplifting.
Mitelman believes there are four common orientations toward science and
religion, which he terms the "conflict," "concert," "contrast,"
and "contact" models.
conflict model makes the most headlines, championed both among religious
literalists on one side, and on the other, extreme secularists, who see no use
for religion. But most Americans do not
reside at those poles. A Pew survey
shows that 61 percent of all Americans say that science does not conflict with
their religious beliefs.
the concert model, people try to directly reconcile science and
religion. You know, like those who try to show that the Red Sea split
because of a lunar eclipse. I find that
problematic because it assumes that we need to prove that the Bible’s narrative
is scientifically verifiable. I find the
Exodus story incredibly compelling without the eclipse.
contrast model posits that science deals with the “hows” and religion
with the “whys.” It’s true that religion
tends to take over where science leaves off, such as with questions revolving
around life after death. But that’s
overly simplistic. For instance, Jewish
tradition has theories as to how the world came into being that work
very well alongside the Big Bang Theory. And science is now talking about the whys
of morality and meaning, as scientists explore the intricacies of the brain.
there’s the contact model, favored by Rabbi Mitelman, which allows
science and religion to remain in their own spheres, while also placing them in
conversation, predicated on the understanding that both are intended to help
humans solve the mysteries of nature and give our lives meaning.
great example of this is the concept of memory.
Recent scientific discoveries show that the most crucial reason we
remember some things and not others is because we tend to remember the things
we think about most frequently. When we learn something new, it takes a while
for the synaptic connections to strengthen in our brains. The operative phrase
in neuroscience is, “Cells that wire together, fire together.”
is exactly what the Torah teaches. We are commanded to remember through acts of
repetition. Think of the
Passover ritual, or the commandment to remember Shabbat to keep it holy, or how
we will remember at Yizkor tomorrow.
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf said, “the idea of memory as will is
uniquely Jewish. Memory is not seen as something that befalls a passive
consciousness. It is something purposefully appropriated in awe and love.” And
the Baal Shem Tov taught that “Redemption lies in remembering.” As Mitelman puts it, ‘We remember the good
and the bad so that we can make tomorrow better than today and yesterday.”
there is a perfect example of religion and science marching hand in hand. Here
are some more:
Morality: World religions have
been teaching the Golden Rule for 2,500 years.
Now we have an ally. Evolutionary
psychologist Steven Pinker shows scientifically how our deepest moral
convictions, such as altruism, empathy, and justice, are all products of human
evolution. While he is no great fan of
organized religion, he acknowledges that spirituality can elevate life if it
“consists in gratitude for one’s existence, awe at the beauty and immensity of
the universe and humility before the frontiers of human understanding.”
Failure – Rabbi Mitelman emphasizes why the process
of scientific experimentation necessitates failure, and that failing should
therefore not be seen as a tragedy, but part of the path towards eventual
success. Well, welcome to the High
Holidays. Teshuvah is simply the
scientific method applied to the human soul. Life, like any scientific
experiment, is simply a matter of trial and error.
3) Curiosity and Rigorous questioning – If
you are wondering why so many Jews become scientists, just ask yourselves what
is the first religiously Jewish thing a Jewish child typically does? That’s right – Jewish children are taught
from day one to ask questions.
Four of them, to be precise.
Patience. One of our TBE kids, Jordan Wolly, spent a
few weeks this summer at a science camp based on Jewish values. One of the core values taught there is savlanut,
or patience, a concept which Jordan patiently explained to me when he got home.
During a Torah study session at camp, a rabbi showed the kids clips of Star
Wars characters talking about the importance of patience. These clips were
followed by quotes from Proverbs, the Talmud, and other Jewish texts, showing the
parallels between Judaism and Jedi-ism.
The evolution of ideas – Religion
and science both rest on unanswerable questions and the questioning of prior
answers. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad had
their answers, which differed from the answers of their ancestors. Religion
scholar Phyllis Tickle writes
that “every 500 years or so, the Christian church has a sort of rummage sale of
spirituality, where we get too comfortable with worldly power and influence,
and we upset the whole thing, flipping it over, and figure out what we want to
keep and what we want to get rid of, as we rediscover this original ancient
about God have also evolved, often in response to scientific discoveries. It’s not that science disproved the idea of
God throwing lightning bolts from Olympus, it’s that human civilization evolved
to new stages, where both religion and science refined their assumptions. Hand in hand.
Not in conflict. We no longer
believe that God likes to inhale the smell of burnt offerings made at the
temple. And indeed, when Judaism evolved
by necessity away from sacrifices and toward prayer, the rabbis endorsed that
move, even as they mourned the loss of the temple. The answers are always changing, even if the many
of the questions remain the same.
Order and Chaos. Here’s an interesting one. Physicists insist that, from standpoint of the
universe, things are falling apart. It's
the Law of Entropy. Religion would
contest that it gets better, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward
justice, as we work toward the fulfilment of some kind of messianic vision. Chaos and order seem to be in perpetual
conflict, but in fact they are complementary.
a distance, there is harmony,” penned Julie Gold in the song that eventually
became a Grammy winner in 1991. This song, written by a Jew, echoes that most
Jewish of hopes, for unity and harmony, a vision that grows in the heart of
everyone who has ever recited the Shema. From a distance, it all makes sense. Think of the satellite photo of last week’s
hurricane, taken from space. On earth,
there is no force more chaotic and destructive.
When viewed from space, nothing looks more orderly and perfect than a
fully formed hurricane. Order and chaos,
all at the same time.
speaking of that view from space…
7) Wonder. Back in 1948, British astrophysicist Fred
Hoyle predicted that, “Once a photograph of the earth, taken from the outside,
is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” This coming December, we will recall the
fiftieth anniversary of when that happened. At the end of a catastrophic year,
1968, and just seven months before the moon landing, there was the flight of
Apollo 8; we still don’t fully appreciate what it meant for humanity to see,
for the first time, the earth rising, as the spacecraft emerged from the dark
side of the moon. (HOLD UP EARTH BALL) And
what did these awestruck astronauts do at that moment? They read from chapter one of Genesis, the
story of creation. “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God
is to me impossible,” John Glenn told reporters in 1998, just after
returning from his final trip to space at age 77. “It just strengthens my
while back, as the space race was winding down, a group of astronauts and
cosmonauts came together to create a unique book called “The Home Planet,” a
collection of their perspectives on what they alone have seen, the vision of
earth from a distance. For Edgar Mitchell, an American astronaut, a revelation
occurred when “looking at the earth and seeing the blue and white planet
floating there, and knowing it was orbiting the sun, seeing that sun, seeing it
set the background of that very deep, black and velvety cosmos, seeing –
rather, knowing, for sure – that there is was a purposefulness of flow, of
energy, of time, of space in the cosmos, and that it was beyond man’s rational
ability to understand. I suddenly
experienced the universe as intelligent, loving and harmonious.”
Artykin, a Soviet cosmonaut said, “It isn’t important in which country see you
observe an oil slick, or in the forests of which country a fire breaks out. You
are standing guard over the whole earth.”
another cosmonaut said “One morning I woke up and decided to look out the
window, to see where we were. We were flying over America and suddenly I saw
snow. I’ve never visited America, but I imagine that the arrival of autumn and
winter is the same there as in other places, and the process of getting ready
for them is the same. And then it struck me that it doesn’t matter what country
you look at; we are all children of our earth.”
the words of Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, an astronaut from Saudi Arabia: “The
first day or so we all pointed to our country, the third or fourth day we were
pointing to our continents, and by the fifth day we were aware of only one
Oh how I wish we could all get a single
glimpse of what they have seen, of our fragile sacred ball of life. How I wish
it. For if we could, there would be no more fear, no more hatred. No more war. In Hebrew, man is Adam and Earth is
Adama. We are one with our planet and
with all who share it with us.
(EARTH BALL IS PASSED AROUND) Yom Kippur is a day of at-one-ment, a day of
communion with our neighbors and with God, and with our planet too. As part of that process, this earth will be
brought to the back of the room, and I ask that you pass it from person to
person, from row to row, from back to front, for the remainder of this service.
No, this is not the bleachers at Fenway
Park, where we used to play with beach balls.
This is a mindfulness exercise. And as you hold it, take a moment to reflect
on how precious our living planet is – and how connected we are to all that is
around us – and to one another. Look at places you’ve been, or where you would
like to go, or where we are now, and imagine that you are an astronaut, looking
down at it. Take a look at the Carolinas. At California. At the Great Barrier Reef, which is in grave
danger. See tiny Israel and how its
quests for renewable sources of water and energy have been game changers. Check out the shrinking polar ice caps. And here is where science and spirit become
Say a blessing – Baruch Ata
Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha-Olam, Oseh Ma’asey Bereisheet. Blessed are you, Source of All, Architect of
As Socrates said back in 400 BCE, “Humans must rise above the
Earth…to the top of the atmosphere and beyond. For only thus will we
only took us twenty-four centuries to do just that – and now we understand.
is what Albert Einstein wrote in his reply to Rabbi Marcus, after the rabbi’s
son succumbed to polio.
Dear Mr. Marcus:
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe", a part
limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as
something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his
consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue
of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the
way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
With my best wishes,
Einstein, the greatest scientist of
our times, thought that much of what we experience is an illusion. He believed in the unity of all things – a
belief shared by Kabbalists and mystics of many faiths. Ours is a religion of interconnectedness. Everything is connected. In one Israeli city, Ra’anana, Einstein
Street intersects with Abarbanel, one of the great medieval rabbinic commentators,
which intersects with Buber and Rabbi Akiva.
Philosopher, scientist, rabbi.
And a short distance away is Rambam Street – and Maimonides was all of
these in one.
And we are one with everything
around us and within us.
Call me kooky, but I always loved
John Denver’s songs, especially this refrain from his Season Suite.
oh, I love the life within me, I feel a part of everything I see.
And oh, I love the life around me, a part of everything is here in me.
mentioned Hurricane Florence before.
Well, we don’t have to look at her in a photograph from space. She’s right outside our window! Let’s wave!
fact, she’s in here too. Florence doesn’t
need a ticket. We are breathing her
in. And she is part of us.
we are one with all of Florence’s victims too.
We grieve with their families.
And We are one with the family of Ari Fuld, the American Israeli
murdered this week in Efrat, while saving a mall worker from a similar fate.
And with the terrorist’s parents, who tried to stop their son by informing
security officials. We are all part of a
single whole. Some call it the
Universe. Others call it God. The ultimate mystery is also the ultimate
months after receiving his letter from the great Einstein, Rabbi Robert Marcus
died suddenly of a heart attack. He was
41. I wish science could explain how
this could occur in a just universe – that a man who had done so much good for
so many, and a man who had suffered so much, so unjustly, could be cut down at
such a young age, much like his beloved son before him.
will gladly sit next to my colleague the scientist and together, each of us
will shake our heads and wonder why.
I am hoping that Rabbi Mitelman’s visit will just be the
beginning of a lengthy and fruitful dialogue and I’m calling upon people of
science in our congregation to step forward and participate. Let me know if you are interested. There are so many areas to explore – and “Sinai
and Synapses” is fostering similar dialogues in a number of congregations. We can sit together as Hillel and Shammai did
in rabbinic days. It is said in the
Talmud of these great ideological opponents, “They practiced affection and
camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love truth and
peace” (Zechariah 8:19).”
That unbounded search for truth can bring us together and
should never be allowed to drive us apart.
I hope that I have proven my hypothesis, that religion and
science are indeed partners in this expanding universe of knowledge and
questioning. And I hope I’ve made my
point that the partnership needs to be strengthened. We should be wary of any groups, including Jewish
groups, that refuse to accept the validity of science. The
future of our planet is at stake.
I close with a poem by the great Indian writer Rabindranath
the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, Heavenly Parent, let my country awake.
the coming year bring us closer to a world of peace, harmony, unity and truth.
Yom Kippur Day 5779 - #UsToo
by Joshua Hammerman
five days after last Yom Kippur, on October 5, the first day of Sukkot, we woke
up to a different world, though at the time we didn’t realize it. The New York Times published a front page story detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment against
Rosh Hashanah it was written. On Yom
Kippur it was sealed. And on Sukkot it
That story opened the
floodgates. Actress Alyssa Milano
encouraged victims to speak out using the #MeToo hashtag, an idea that was
originated a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke, who said, “It was a
catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they
were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and
This tsunami crossed all boundaries
of party, philosophy, profession, income and renown. Incidentally, I must add that this sermon was
all-but finished long before this week’s allegations, which will not be
discussed here – so you can all exhale. There’s
enough to talk about without it. Over
the past year, so many big names have been implicated, a list that includes
trusted journalists, adored entertainers and popular politicians of both
parties. The cultural infrastructure of
America has come crashing down like a house of cards. And the old order has been replaced by the
sprouting of a new culture guided by a whole new set of rules – rules that are
only beginning to be written.
And not just in America. #MeToo
quickly became a global phenomenon.
As one might expect, the #MeToo
tsunami has also reached into sacred spaces. As author Cathleen Falsani wrote, “The
shameful roster of spiritual leaders who have been accused of committing acts
of sexual misconduct and abuse, or enabling others to commit such acts, or both,
has left many souls who looked to them for instruction, discernment and
direction to sift through the wreckage wrought by their malfeasance.”
The Religion News Association
reports, “Powerful evangelical pastors in places as famous as the Willow Creek
megachurch outside Chicago, are facing new or renewed allegations of covering
up sexual abuse ranging from harassment to rape. Mormons have been prompted to denounce
"nonconsensual immorality" and to allow a second adult to be present
in interviews by male leaders of teen girls on sexuality. Muslim women who have
experienced sexual harassment during the Haj, the holiest of pilgrimages,
started #MosqueMeToo. Similarly, female clergy and lay women, have reported
abuse and harassment through #ChurchToo, as they’ve shared their first-hand
stories of assault, harassment, manipulation and abuse in religious settings,
and how they and their faith communities have responded.”
As for the Jewish community, when Larry David opened a monologue
on “Saturday Night Live” by joking about the “very disturbing pattern” of
Jewish men among the accused, he was slammed by the Anti-Defamation League for
being both “offensive” and “insensitive” and got an earful from the
Twitter-verse. But as #MeToo survivor
and Brandeis professor Keren McGinty wrote recently, “It’s time for the Jewish
community to face its own #MeToo crisis. If we want to create positive cultural change
for ourselves and for our daughters, women must speak out and the Jewish
community must act— regardless of the individual’s position or influence.”
These are very disturbing times. Or perhaps not. As result of #MeToo, so many positive things
have been happening, including the exponential increase in women’s political
activism. And because many of the
grievances go back years, and it’s only now that people are gaining to courage
to air them, one could argue that this has been a better year than most.
Predators have looked at what happened
to Weinstein and so many others, and realized that if you have something to
hide, it’s not so safe anymore to, say, run for senate in Alabama, or be a
morning show host, or even hawk Jell-O Pudding Pops. If you’ve been abusive to women – and in a few
cases, to men, there is no place to hide.
This hasn’t been the year of the crime so much as the commencement of
And that is precisely what Yom Kippur is all about. The very word “Kappara” from which we
get “Kippur,” means cleansing. So today is
the day to talk about this. If Jews have been part of the problem, now we can
be part of the solution too. We look for
guidance from Jewish sources while confronting three key questions,
focusing on past, present and future.
How do we look back
at history through the prism of this new reality? Should we judge it – and even rewrite it –
based on our new criteria; to what degree do we need to accept that the Mad Men
and Talmudic rabbis lived in different times?
How do we move
forward? What are the new rules that
will govern the relationships between men and women – in the office, at home,
and in places of worship?
And finally, after
addressing the past and the future, let’s zoom right in on the present –
today –and the question that is most relevant to this holiday. Is there a path to repentance for the
perpetrators and is there a proper time for forgiveness by the survivors of
These are enormous questions, fitting for a time of massive social
upheaval. Given the extreme sensitivities
surrounding this issue, and the propensity of anyone who tries to address these
things to put his foot in his mouth, it would take an absolute lunatic to bring
up #MeToo in a Yom Kippur sermon. What
kind of rabbi – a man, no less - would dare wade in these waters?
Private Lunatic, reporting to duty! And if my foot ends up in my mouth, well, I’m
getting a little hungry anyway. But I do
want to state that I am doing this with great trepidation and humility. And I ask your forgiveness in advance. I will quite possibly offend some of
you. Or even all of you. But hey, this is why you give me the big
bucks – which, I hope, incidentally, would be the exact same salary if I were a
woman. And why didn’t you hire a
If we ignore this topic, we get nowhere. And if not now, when? It's that important. I can’t promise to solve all of the world’s
ills in one sermon, but in addressing these questions today, I hope to help set
us on that path. Because Judaism has a
lot of wisdom to share.
And that concludes our sermon….
So let’s begin with my first question. Let’s look at the past.
need to alter or reinterpret cultural touchstones to make them more acceptable,
and more relevant to our times? This
year on Broadway, the classic musical “My Fair Lady” was revived, with a new #MeToo-friendly
ending that brought the musical closer to its origins. No spoilers here – since we have a group
going to see the show in November – but let’s just say that Henry Higgins won’t
be getting as accustomed to Eliza’s face as he might have hoped.
And what’s with that song,
anyway? It’s brutal, when he talks about
her anticipated return.
Poor Eliza. How simply frightful
How humiliating! How delightful
How poignant it'll be on that inevitable night
When she hammers on my door in tears and rags
Miserable and lonely, repentant and
Will I take her in or hurl her to the walls,
Give her kindness or the treatment she deserves?
Will I take her back or throw the baggage out?
So, do we need to change the lyrics to some of old favorites to
make them more amenable to the #MeToo era?
You know, something like this:
Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just
you wait!….I’ve hired Gloria Allred!
Do we even need to rewrite nursery
“Georgie Porgie puddin’ pie, kissed the girls and made them cry….and
then he got a memo from HR.”
Eating her curds and whey.
Who sat down beside her – in his bathrobe,
And frightened Ms. Muffet away!
And as she escaped, the spider ran to the door and shouted, you’ll
never work in Hollywood again!”
We don’t need to obsess about what to keep and what to
discard. The marketplace will take care
Another classic and problematic Broadway musical was revived this
year – “Carousel.”
Like “My Fair Lady,” it also features abusive treatment of women,
but unlike the other “Best Revival” nominee, with “Carousel” they didn’t do
much to minimize the problematic scenes.
So guess which show closes this week?
Not “My Fair Lady.”
But that’s Broadway. It
remains to be seen how #MeToo will impact the often-vicious world of hip-hop,
or even country music. But in general,
what we know already is that that corporate sponsors are terrified of being on
the wrong side of history, and right now, #MeToo is riding a historic tidal
But can we, should we, rewrite history?
All biblical figures are thoroughly flawed and human, and that is
the Bible’s great strength. On the one
hand, there was David, whose abduction of Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11-12) could fit
neatly into the #MeToo stories that have been coming out this year. The power imbalance could not have been
greater. With the help of the prophet Nathan,
the Ronan Farrow of his day, David truly saw the errors of his ways and
repented, but not without paying a steep price – the loss of a child.
But on the other hand, there was Moses, who defended a Midianite
woman named Tziporah when she was being bullied at a well in Sinai. As Rabbi Jeff Salkin has noted, it’s no
coincidence that Moses’ was inspired in his formative years by the guidance of
strong, loving women, from Miriam, his sister, to his mother Yocheved, to
Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued and raised him – even to the heroic Hebrew
midwives who birthed him and saved him.
The Bible also gives us the horrific treatment of Dina, Jacob’s
daughter, at the hands of her own brothers and others – but then it gives us
Boaz, Mr. Sensitivity, who protected and loved Ruth the Moabite.
This past July, on Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, I strolled with
some of our group through the German Colony and we stopped at a corner – it was
the intersection of Rachel and Ruth streets.
First of all, you gotta love it. Only
in Jerusalem can you stand on the corner of Rachel and Ruth.
A couple of years ago, a Jerusalem resident became fed
up with the fact that on the street sign, Ruth was identified as the wife of
Boaz and the great-grandmother of King David, and not a great heroine in her
own right. She campaigned, for Ruth and
other women who have streets named for them, like the Talmudic heroine
B’ruriah, and she won. So now the street
sign tells us who Ruth was, and not who owned her – even though
Boaz was a nice guy. (See the articles "Feminist Updates Jerusalem Street Signs" and "Jerusalem Street Signs Get a Feminist Makeover.")
The rabbis of the Talmud were amazing and wise leaders, but they
lived in misogynistic times that colored their own views of women – and of
men. The rabbis both revered and feared
women, seeing women as mysterious and dangerous creatures and men as weak and
susceptible to temptation. What they
feared most was their own lack of self-control. So, they proceeded to create barriers to keep
themselves and other men from succumbing. Unfortunately, most of those barriers
came at the expense of women.
But in some ways the rabbis were quite progressive for their
time. Here are three key examples:
The marriage document, the Ketuba, was
designed to protect women from abandonment, something that was widespread at
Second, Ashkenazi Jews banned polygamy long before
it was banned by cultures around them.
And last but not least, there is overwhelming consensus in Jewish law that the life of
the mother always takes precedence over her unborn child. A fetus is a life, but not yet a human
life, and therefore abortion is not murder. With all the meshugas that goes on with
the rabbinate in Israel, abortion has never been controversial. If the
US Supreme Court were to ban abortion and declare that a fetus is a human life,
it would enshrine another religion’s perspective as the law of the land and dismiss
our view on when human life begins. …Talk
about religious freedom! (This is a church-state issue if I ever saw one) (For more, see my article "Abortion and Capital Punishment: Developing a Jewish Culture of Life")
Author Judith Plaskow writes in the seminal work, “Standing Again
at Sinai,” “Like women in many cultures, Jewish women have been projected as
Other…. Women are Jews, but we do not define Jewishness. We live, work, and
struggle, but our experiences are not recorded, and what is recorded formulates
our experiences in male terms.”
But that is changing. For
the past generation, women have been busy reinterpreting our sacred sources
through a feminist lens. In the book of
Numbers, Miriam’s skin turns white with leprosy and she is banished from the
community for gossiping about Moses. God
is furious with her. Meanwhile, Aaron
gossips too but barely gets a slap on the wrist. Miriam was the Serena Williams of her day –
and yes, it looks like a double standard.
Shoni Labowitz writes in “God, Sex and Women of the Bible: Discovering
Our Sensual, Spiritual Selves,” …that the Hebrew words for “anger” and
“sparked,” vayechar-aff could also mean “linger” and “glow.” Perhaps God wasn’t angry at Miriam at all;
rather, God’s glow lingered, as a lover would who had just heard the song of
the soul of their beloved…Miriam was overtaken in a spiritual epiphany, and her
skin became white as snow because she had just seen and touched the likeness of
God and felt overwhelmed.
So Labowitz has reinterpreted this problematic verse so that it’s
not about leprosy or a punishment at all, but instead reflects Miriam’s deep
The first chapter of Genesis sets up a partnership of equals
between man and woman. But in chapter
two, that equality is upended. A
Not at all, states, Mijal Bitton, in her article for the Forward
last October, “The Genesis of #MeToo.”
Genesis 1, she says, was written from God’s point of view, and
“Genesis 2 describes the way men experienced and interpreted Genesis 1;
it is all about… our social construction of gender, society and human culture.”
She’s saying that the subjugation of women was not God’s plan at
all – and we just implemented a very good vision very badly – until now.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, our Torah reading contains a list of
forbidden sexual relationships found in Leviticus. This list is problematic to many modern
readers, but the idea behind it is one we should embrace – and reinterpret. For us, the ultimate forbidden relationship
would be one based on coercion and power rather than consent – an idea that is
completely consistent with Jewish tradition.
You might recall that at Jewish weddings, the ring presented to the
bride cannot be adorned with precious stones. That’s to make it clear that the
bride is not being coerced or bribed into the relationship by a power imbalance.
So you can see that when stripped of the outer shell of misogyny,
Judaism has a lot to teach for the #MeToo era.
We need to plumb its depths rather than reject the whole rabbinic
enterprise, simply because some of that outer shell is problematic.
But while I am agnostic about whether to condemn past attitudes, I
am a zealot when it comes to righting past wrongs in our day. We cannot maintain old traditions simply
because they are traditional, if they promote the inequality of women, which so
often leads to their mistreatment. Even
the simplest degradation, like the refusal to hear a woman’s singing voice,
should be recognized for the humiliation that it is and not be acceptable in
the public domain. Feminism has been a
thorn in the side of patriarchal tradition for a long time. #MeToo is amping up that challenge
So, getting to my second question, what are some of the new
rules that need to be written for the #MeToo era? Actually, some of them have been on the books
– our sacred codes of behavior
- for many centuries.
Leviticus 19:16, which states that you must not stand idly by the blood of your
neighbor. This is the biblical version
of “If you see something, say something.”
is important for survivors of harassment to come forward, if they possibly can
and for the rest of us to facilitate that by making it safe to do.
According to the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kaplan, the great 19th
and early 20th century ethicist, and a man whose life work was to
eliminate gossip – there is one instance when we are actually obligated to
gossip, and that is to warn the world of a predator’s harmful character.
Chafetz Chaim would also be telling us that no longer is it acceptable to say,
“boys will be boys” or to dismiss abusive behavior as “locker room talk.”
And it NEVER is acceptable to blame the victim, even while exercising due
diligence while examining the facts.
onto my third question, and easily the most challenging: Let’s talk about forgiveness,
reconciliation and healing. Three different pleas for forgiveness and
healing are used in our confessional prayer – the Al Chet. And they are – selach lanu, mechal lanu
and kaper lanu. Here’s how I
interpret them for this age of #MeToo.
first, selach lanu, is about our asking forgiveness for our own transgressions.
taught that true teshuvah can only happen when the perpetrator
feels authentic contrition and begs the person directly for forgiveness –
that’s face-to-face, and not via a press release from a publicist or lawyer –
and then, when he has the opportunity once again to do the same wrong, doesn’t. Those are the general guidelines, but every
situation will be different. It’s a
long road to rehabilitation for the sex offender and power abuser.
is primarily up to the perpetrator to initiate the process of reconciliation, but
the survivor needs to play an active role in effecting her own healing. That’s
mechal lanu, the second level of the process of teshuvah – we
need to promote the healing of the survivor, especially when the perpetrator is
not taking the initiative. The path to
healing often demands precisely what has happened so often this year, the calling
out of predators.
Rosenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which is creating an archival collection of Jewish #MeToo
stories, wrote recently in the in the Forward about the dangers of vigilante justice and
our “call out culture.” “Calling out is a blunt instrument,” she writes. “It is
the ultimate din: Judgment is rendered in the accusation itself,
with no trial, no jury, no process for assessment of deserved punishment. In a
context in which our justice system is broken, perhaps individuals have a
responsibility to step up and render (this kind of) judgment.
When do we wait for the system to right itself,
and when do we refuse to stand by while violations continue? How do we
navigate the rocky terrain between judgment and justice?”
an ideal world, judgment would be meted out with compassion, not fear, anger,
or pain. There would be no place for
shame or shaming in the pursuit of justice. But this is not the world in which we live.”
Rosenbaum asks how we can best deliver what
she calls “compassionate justice.”
some point, she states, a true cry of contrition, from out of the depths, needs
to be heard.
we must recognize that in some cases, no amount of teshuvah, no matter
how heartfelt, will be enough. Rachel
Silverman wrote an essay called “The Harm of Tshuvah: A Letter from
an Abuse Survivor,” and we need to hear it.
writes, “To the rabbi who gave me a pamphlet on forgiveness when I was in
inpatient care for childhood trauma:”
then inserts a two-word expletive, with the second word being “you.”
you have any idea how that small act broke me, how I cried, wracked with guilt
and self-loathing, because your “spiritual wisdom” were the same thoughts that
put me there in the first place?
you told me how important a child’s relationship with their parents is, did you
not know that my Hebrew school teacher saying, “honor thy father and thy
mother” played over and over in my head as a child as I sat in my room too
terrified to call for help?”
fellow Jews,” she continues, “now that the High Holidays are here, it’s time we
had a little chat.
to you may be just another time of year is one I dread for months.
have always been told that not forgiving someone is a sin. This haunts me every
year when I hear sermons and read about the importance of teshuvah
(repentance) and granting others forgiveness.
am told it is not just for the good of the perpetrator, but for myself. People
view forgiveness as the secret to healing, as if it isn’t a long painful
process of flashbacks, relapsing, shame, medication, and therapy, as if there’s
some easy way to heal that I have been too prideful to consider.
view forgiveness as the apex of survivors’ progress trivializes each person’s
individual struggle. I have had to accept that my path to healing is cyclical
and one of self-acceptance.
are we more focused on making victims forgive, than we are on supporting and
adds, “We must also be accountable to how Jewish customs can be used to
perpetuate victim blaming. Look at the number of Hasidic women who do not
receive help from domestic abuse because of their community's culture values
respecting the father and husband over women and children's safety.”
Rachel Silverman, Yom Kippur is “a time to practice radical self-forgiveness
and acceptance,” and “a celebration” of how she has progressed and grown. For
those in this room who are choosing this path and are using Yom Kippur as a
vehicle for personal healing, please know that you have our full support and
please forgive us – and I beg you to forgive me – for any lapses in the support
that you so richly deserve.
is not easy stuff to talk about – or listen to.
So, while acknowledging that repentance is complicated, and forgiveness
is never “one size fits all,” let’s move on to the third level of teshuvah. We’ve had selach lanu, the genuine
contrition of the perpetrator, and mechal lanu, the healing and often
necessary “calling out” by the survivor, whom we must support.
real reconciliation will only happen when we create a new structure, a transformed
culture, where these offenses will stop happening. That is kappara – the full at-one-ment,
the collective cleansing that our society needs. Kaper lanu!
here's how our tradition suggests we get there:
Christine Lemba wrote in the Washington Post that the task for the next
generation is to develop a sex ethic that is not just a set of rules but also
truly respects the human person. At a time like these, maybe the best
advice is to stop treating other human beings as objects, in the office,
online, at home — or anywhere.
Martin Buber believed that one meets God
through one’s encounters with other human beings. He said, “When two people
relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that
surges between them.”
people cease to treat others as objects, relationships can be three dimensional
and authentic, rather than manipulative.
In that environment, even office banter that might be perceived as slightly
flirty might not be an excuse to take out that can of mace.
also need to restore a sense of equilibrium between the sexes, as it was way
back in the beginning, in Genesis 1, when men and women were created simultaneously,
as equals. The Hebrew words for he and
she, Hu and Hee, are almost identical. Just a little break in the letter vav. Often in the Torah, the two words are often interchangeable. Sometimes it’s written as “hu” but
Kabbala, the emanations of God are both masculine and feminine, and there is a
yin-yang type of balance between masculinity and femininity in the
universe. That balance has gotten all
out of whack.
it’s not just about men and women.
Binary thinking is so 20th century. And it’s not Jewish. I bet you didn’t know that in rabbinic
Judaism, there are actually six genders – not two. Along with male and female, there are four
other categories that reflected the real-life world of the rabbis, a world of
gender fluidity where some people possessed androgynous physical features. For those who are curious about that, I’ll put a link in the transcript of this sermon.
need to grow beyond the old gender stereotypes. European Jews took the German word
for masculinity to mean someone very different from the musclebound “Ubermensch”
of German mythology, one whose manhood is measured in his conquests, particularly
of women, and the number of notches on his belt. For Jews, a real “mensch” is rather someone who
is kind and caring, a person of integrity and honor, someone who might occasionally
you want to learn more about being a mensch, I’ve got a great book to
recommend – and Mensch·Marks has gone live on Amazon (though publication is still several months away).
by the way, a true mensch would never use a Yom Kippur sermon to hawk
his own book!
got a lot of work to do, as we re-calibrate what it means to be a man, and
what it means to be a woman. A woman can
be a mensch too – a wo-mensch - and in fact should aspire to that. But the #MeToo revolution of this past year has
compelled us to do just that, and to prepare to live in a very different world,
one where women are assuming a much more significant role in public life, as we
are seeing in the number who are running for office.
there you have it. My clumsy, first
draft of an effort to address this #MeToo moment from a Jewish perspective.
me end with one more bit of advice to tie together my messages from the past
you are woman – let’s hear you roar.
you are a man, you are not necessarily a pig.
But don’t try to impress your friends by being one.
you are more fluid, take pride in your fluidity, and know that you will always
have a home here.
if you define yourself as Jewish or Jewish-adjacent, be proud of that too. Be proud of it, because Jewish wisdom is a
bottomless source of inspiration that can help us to find moral grounding in an
untethered world. Be proud of who you are – and who we
are at TBE.
who are we?
This. Is. Us.
are advocates of a Judaism that Matters.
We embrace kindness and truth, justice and love. We protect children,
the ones in caves and the ones in cages, and the ones squirming next to us with
sticky chocolate on their fingers. We work
for reconciliation with neighbors, and recognize the power of a few kind words,
like the ones that transformed Issam Sa’ad from a full-blown anti-Semite into a
peace activist. We fearlessly engage
with the world - the world of ideas, the world of science and the world of
faith, and we see it all coming together in an underlying unity. Ours is not a Judaism obsessed with its own
survival but with reaching out to others.
We are congregation of windows and not walls. And ironically, the willingness to look beyond
ourselves is precisely what will ensure Jewish survival - and Israel’s as
well. You know, in Israel, one of the
first Hebrew hashtags for #MeToo was “Gam Anachnu,” which means
literally “US too.” Perhaps the
key to the kind of cultural transformation that #MeToo imagines is for us to
think a little less about “me” and a little more about “too.”
we enter this year of “Tet,” of goodness, let us all pledge to bring more
goodness into our world. Let us make
5779 a year when we make a great leap forward, for ourselves, for America, for
Israel, for the world – for our children and grandchildren, and for one little standard
poodle puppy who’s coming home next week.
May we all be sealed for life, good
health and a better world.