Friday, September 25, 2020

In This Moment: Sept. 25, Shabbat Shuvah: Why Rabbis Must Speak Out

 In This Moment

Shabbat-O-Gram for Shabbat Shuvah, Sept 25, 2020

Links for last week's Rosh Hashanah events:

TBE Sound the Shofar 5781
TBE Sounds the Shofar, Live and Socially Distanced
(Thank you to James Hyman for the video)


Can't wait to bless those babies, virtually on Yom Kippur, including Hannah Miller, seen here enjoying her first virtual Rosh Hashanah and below her, Meira Sussman


Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Tov (a "final, good sealing")
The sad news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing, just minutes into the new year, was a particular jolt to American Jews.  So many admired her and took such pride in all she accomplished.  I join so many who have sung her praises these past several days.  Her deeds will be her most lasting memorial.

The response we've received from last week's services has been heartwarming.  I must admit, it's really nerve-wracking watching myself lead a service: Whenever I instructed myself to rise or be seated, I was perplexed as to whether I should heed my own directives.  

Who am I to tell me what to do? 

And who am I not to listen to the rabbi, even if he happens to be me?

Very confusing.

For this weekend's to-do list, join us for Shabbat Shuvah services on Friday night at 6 and Shabbat-in-the-Round on Shabbat morning at 10, featuring a d'var Torah by Rabbi Gerry G.

We always say, "Have an easy fast."  No one wants a fast to be especially difficult -  in fact, if you are suffering from Covid-19 or other illness, you shouldn't fast.  But this year, I'm going to wish you not an easy fast, but a meaningful fast.

Have a meaningful fast.

(As the death toll in the US from the coronavirus just passed an unfathomable 200,000, we approach Yom Kippur with an increased sense of responsibility. fueled by sadness.  Here's a list of updated Ashamnu sins):

Ashamnu - We have ignored rules of social distancing when it suited our needs or whims of the moment.

Bagadnu - We have glossed over our own symptoms, or our child's, when filling out forms to enter a school or public place.

Gazalnu -  We have robbed people of the comfort of our company, by failing to make an effort to connect by phone calls, FaceTime, or letters.

Dibarnu dofi - We have spoken poorly of people as people, rather than taking issue with their ideas.

He'evinu - We have hoarded supplies, precluding others from getting the things that they also need.

V'hirshanu - We have done wrong by not wearing masks in proximity to others.

Zadnu - We have assumed that everyone around us has the same level of privilege that we do.

Hamasnu - We have done violence to the idea that we are all one people, regardless of our level of Jewish observance, the color of our skin, or our religion of birth.

Tafalnu sheker -  We have not told the truth about having taken Covid-19 tests, or awaiting results.

Yaatsnu ra - We have hosted gatherings that we knew ran the risk of people being too close to one another.

Kizavnu - We have allowed people in our presence to share incorrect information about Covid-19 without confronting them.

Latsnu - We have discouraged other people from wearing masks.

Maradnu -  We have gone out in public even while we, or someone in our household, were awaiting Covid-19 test results.

Niatsnu - We have spoken indelicately about the pandemic in front of children, without considering the fear we might engender with our words.

Sararnu - We have failed to listen to the words and warnings of virologists, epidemiologists, and medical professionals.

Avinu - We have failed to comply with our state's rules on quarantining after traveling to other states.

Pashanu - We have not washed our hands enough, nor have we enforced our childrens' handwashing strictly enough.

Tsararnu - We have been silent in the face of Covid's disparate effects on poor communities and communities of color.

Kishinu oref - We have been complicit in spreading disinformation.

Rashanu -  We have posted pictures on social media of our noncompliance with social distancing

Shichatnu - We have cut corners, moved residences, and established workarounds to benefit our own households, forgetting about those who are left behind

Tiavnu - We have failed to adequately comfort those whose losses are too great to bear alone.

Tainu - We have not sufficiently offered help to those who so desperately need our help.

Titanu - We have not encouraged others to take up their responsibility to help others who desperately need our help.

Why Rabbis Need to Speak Out

At this time of year, questions often arise as to the proper parameters of advocacy from the pulpit.  How freely should rabbis share what's on their minds?  It's not a question I take lightly.  The decision, for instance, to "take a knee" at the end of the sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah was one that I made with due consideration of the dramatic impact it would have, one that could overshadow - as well as amplify - the words I was speaking.
The Jewish Journal reported this week on an incident that took place on Yom Kippur 1942, when the most famous rabbi in America, Stephen S. Wise decided not to share some information he had received about massacres of Jews taking place in Nazi-occupied Europe, including eyewitness reports of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Here's an excerpt from Rafael Medoff's  "The Yom Kippur Sermon Stephen Wise Didn't Give."  
Most alarming was the report that landed on Wise's desk on Sept. 20, the morning before Yom Kippur, presumably just as he was preparing his remarks for that solemn occasion. According to that day's JTA Bulletin, "Massacres of Jews on an unprecedented scale are now taking place all over Nazi-occupied Poland," as part of Germany's strategy "of total extermination of the Jews in Poland."
Wise's annual High Holy Days sermons at his Free Synagogue in Manhattan, attracted the largest audiences of the year, as well as the possibility of coverage by the "New York Times" or other news media. It was a prime opportunity to call attention to the issue that most concerned him. And as the name of the synagogue indicated, Wise founded it on the principle that the rabbi should be completely free to speak his mind.
Yet when he rose to speak on Kol Nidrei evening, the issue Wise chose was not the escalating persecution of the Jews in Europe, it was the compatibility of Judaism and American citizenship. Others might find themselves confounded by "conflicts of loyalties" between their religion and their country, but not the Jews. He assured his congregation, "We have long known that there is no such conflict for us, that our own is an utterly undivided and indivisible allegiance to our country.
Wise was unquestionably a great rabbi and leader, but his reputation will be forever tainted by this act of omission.  Here's more from the article:
On Aug. 25, 1942, Wise had received a telegram from his trusted colleague in Geneva - World Jewish Congress representative Gerhart Riegner. Citing an informant connected to "the highest German authorities," Riegner reported that the Nazis intended to deport "all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany" to locations in "the East," where they would be "exterminated, in order to resolve once and for all the Jewish question in Europe."
Wise immediately contacted the State Department, where Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles pretended to be surprised. In reality, he and other Roosevelt administration officials had received Riegner's information days earlier, but suppressed it for fear it would cause Jewish leaders to press for U.S. intervention. Welles said he would investigate Riegner's message and asked Wise to withhold it from the public in the meantime.
Wise's agreement to temporarily suppress the telegram has been the subject of much controversy ever since. Several factors need to be considered. First, it is clear from Wise's private correspondence that he believed Welles would be able to confirm or deny the news in a matter of days. Second, Wise had no way to independently confirm the information and he did not want to risk spreading news that might turn out to be false. He also feared that defying Welles's request would jeopardize his relationship with the State Department, whose assistance he might need in responding to the mass killings.
Yet Wise went much further than Welles requested. The undersecretary asked him only not to reveal the Riegner telegram but didn't ask him to refrain from discussing any other Nazi atrocity reports. In the weeks to follow - the three and a half weeks leading up to Yom Kippur - there were many such reports. Yet Wise chose to hold his tongue about them, too.
A cynic might say that Wise might have told a 1942 version of Bob Woodward that he didn't want to "cause a panic."  But when the house is burning, you must take action.  Those Jews deserved no less.  

Wise finally broke the news to the public on November 24.  While it is easy - and correct - to be critical of this crucial decision to withhold information, a full accounting of his magnificent career gives the complete picture of a worthy and influential leader.

The question each of us must ask is, if we had received the telegram below, and if we knew that the eyes of the world would be on my pulpit as I spoke on Yom Kippur, would I have "given away my shot" in order to speak about how wonderful life is for Jews in America?

The house was burning then.  And it is now.  Which is why I speak out, as I did last week and I will continue to.  After all, it's what I promised you I would do four years ago.   

The response to last week's sermons has been very gratifying. Not a single person walked out (a great advantage of sermonizing remotely). But frankly, it wouldn't matter to me if people had.  

And I received emails like this one, from a TBE millennial: 
What you said struck a chord with me. To see such a meaningful statement made by a spiritual leader who has been in my life for as long as I remember was indescribable. As I watched you speak with such conviction, I had a moment of immeasurable pride knowing that you took a stand. Throughout the rest of the day, I shared your sermon with my community of friends, talked about it with my sisters and friends, and sat on what I can do during this high holiday season to further educate myself and my students on social and racial issues.

And this, from a TBE adult:
...Your sermon on the first day was particularly forceful. I believe that at difficult times like these we needed look to those leaders who truly lead us, and that was exactly what you did by speaking so strongly about those things that matter so much. The vision of you taking a knee in your rabbinic robes stays with me as a vision humility and inclusion.


Al chet shechatanu lifanecha b'imutz ha'lev; 
v'al chet shechatanu l'fanecha b'v'li da'at. 
"For the sin of commission and for the sin of omission...

We'll read this in the litany of sins, time after time on Yom Kippur.  When you arrive at these two lines, think of Rabbi Wise, who unwisely neglected to embrace the urgency of the moment, when his voice - amplified by the urgency and holiness of Yom Kippur - could have made a difference.  It could have spurred our reluctant (or worse) State Department to take action.  It could have brought hope to the victims. It could have put American Jews on alert.

The house is on fire now.  There is no "vli da'at" (lack of knowledge).  We know exactly what's happening. It's up to those with the power to speak out, people of conscience, whether they be clergy, whistleblowers, or other other people with a megaphone, to do so.

Let's pray for strength and wisdom through these Days of Awe, and beyond.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: In Memoriam

A TBE family member went over to the Supreme Court after RBG's passing least weekend, and found this quote of hers inscribed in chalk on the ground, a quote that explains precisely why she was such a modern-day hero, and why Jews everywhere are grieving this loss.  In Israel, a kibbutz temporarily changed its name in her honor.

And a synagogue in Maryland shared this clip of RBG reciting the Prayer for Our Country, a prayer our country could certainly use now, with many expressing grave concerns over the future of our democracy.

Prayer for Country by Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Prayer for Country by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from the Jewish Womens' Archive

Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal commentator at 
Martha Minow, former Dean of Harvard Law School
Mirah Curzer, past co-chair of the Sex and Law Committee at the NYC Bar Association
Karla Goldman, director of University of Michigan's Jewish Communal Leadership Program
Marcia Greenberger, founder of the National Women's Law Center
Ariela Migdal, lawyer at the ACLU Women's Rights Project from 2007-2015
Linda Hirshman, author of 
Sisters in Law
Drew Tulumello, partner in the Washington office of Gibson Dunn
Allison Lauterbach Dale, legal history scholar and Privacy Counsel at LinkedIn.
Nikki Horberg Decter, labor lawyer
Julie B. Rubenstein, lawyer in Washington, DC
Jed Handelsman Shugerman, professor at Fordham Law School

Also see this article from the Forward, "For America, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a new kind of Jew." And finally, with the focus to turn to filling the Supreme Court vacancy over the coming days, with a particular interest in the future of Roe V. Wade, it's worth sharing with you the National Council of Jewish Women's "Abortion and Jewish Values Toolkit."  Download it and save it for future reference.

G'mar Hatima Tova!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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