In Response To Questions About My Sermon On The First Day Of Rosh Hashanah 5778

I am not a regular Facebook user (my sermons post automatically from my blog), but I have received messages from a number of concerned people alerting me to the conversations taking place on the Sinai page over the past 24 hours.

First of all, I am proud of the conversations that have been taking place in response to my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We need to be able to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully. I cannot respond to every single issue that has been raised. Instead, I’ll share some broad thoughts.

First of all, this sermon was not delivered as a response to any earlier sermons.  As I wrote on my blog entry, I got many of the ideas from a Board of Rabbis of Northern California pre-High Holiday sermon seminar for Rabbis in late August.  I try to attend every year, and I often come away with thoughts that I incorporate into my remarks.

As someone who gets up in public most weeks to share my ideas with others, I have developed a number of principles for myself. Here are a few:

There are three sermons that I give each week: 1. The sermon I write. 2. The sermon I deliver. 3. The sermon that each individual person hears. Of course, this last one is different for everyone, as evidenced by the wide spectrum of reactions to this year’s Rosh Hashanah I sermon.

I am always speaking to myself. My sermons are the products (often incomplete) of my wrestling through difficult questions. The challenge of trying to communicate those thoughts to others forces me to try to organize and clarify my ideas in ways that others can understand. I focus on a wide variety of subjects, including Jewish textual interpretation, practice, thought, and belief, contemporary social or political issues, and more. Every time, I am striving to work through issues that interest me personally. I tell all of my B’nei Mitzvah students, “If you are boring yourself, you are probably boring your audience.”

Speak as a Rabbi. I am not a journalist, politician, or psychologist. I draw my authority to speak from the rabbinic tradition. Like everyone, I have lots of opinions. But when I speak from the pulpit, I need to do so rabbinically, relying on the teachings of Jewish tradition.

Be honest about Judaism. Jewish tradition is three thousand years old. In that time, Jewish thought and teaching has undergone tremendous changes. To claim that ancient sources provide direct support for contemporary issues is often disingenuous. For example, there is nothing in Jewish sources that explicitly posits communal obligations to provide universal health care. If I wanted to respond authentically to this issue (and I have), I would bring up that there are laws directed specifically to doctors, obligating them to care for anyone who needs it while prohibiting them from charging above-market prices for medications. I would point to those laws, along with other sources dealing with equal treatment of rich and poor, compassion, and human dignity to argue that in a society with sufficient means, Judaism should support the idea of “universal health care.”

Expect to receive a variety of responses to each sermon. A sermon is a tricky mode of communication. Listeners bring a lot of expectations – especially on the High Holidays.  I try to adhere (sometimes unsuccessfully) to the advice of my rabbinic mentor: “Give people space to disagree with you.” If I take a particular stance on an issue, I know that two things are certain to happen: 1. About 80% of the people in the room will agree with me. Some might even tell me it was a great sermon. 2. About 20% of the people in the room will disagree with me.  They might even get angry. I am reasonably certain that no minds will be changed. As a Rabbi, it is not my job to stand up and say things that confirm what 80% of the people in the room already believe. That does not accomplish anything. My job is to try to get 100% of the people in the room to think about an issue in a more in-depth way, and specifically from a Jewish perspective. For examples, check out a sermon I gave six years ago on abortion, or last year on immigration. Personally, I have plenty of opinions about individual issues. My weekly sermon is not the proper forum for me to share them.

As I go through life, my opinions and beliefs will change. One of the great (and often stressful) aspects of being a Rabbi is that I am exposed to a lot of (mostly) constructive critiques of my ideas by people with different viewpoints. It helps me grow tremendously. When confronted with a different opinion, I try to always ask myself “What is this person saying?  What from his or her experience leads him/her to say it this way? And what can I learn from this?” That said, in looking back on some old sermons, I realize that I have been pretty consistent over the years. I urge you to compare this year’s sermon to my Rosh Hashanah sermon from last year on how to argue, as well as a sermon from several months ago on being willing to change one’s mind,  and from five years ago, right after Obama’s second election victory, about talking with those with whom we disagree . I think you will find a similar theme running through all of them.

One issue that has been raised is whether the synagogue should be taking public stands and making statements on political issues. Historically, Sinai has never been politically active as an institution. It is not part of the culture of the synagogue. We do not have a social justice committee, and the systems to be able to have conversations with the community and make decisions about policy statements do not currently exist. As a Rabbi, I have freedom of the pulpit, meaning I can personally back any position I choose. And I have, sometimes publicly. See my sermon after the violence in Charlottesville, my speech advocating the abolishment of the death penalty, and my invocation this past January at the San Jose City Council meeting.

The Sinai mission statement begins “Congregation Sinai connects Jews to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.” I think we have done a pretty good job of keeping that mission at the center of our activities as a congregation. People come to Sinai for community, learning, and praying. Without a doubt, Tikkun Olam has become an important Jewish value over the last century.  Our synagogue, for its size, runs a healthy number of social action activities each year that I strongly support.  I wish we did more.  As I quoted Rabbi Tarfon towards the end of my sermon, “It is not for you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”

There are other synagogues that embrace, as part of their core missions, a commitment to social justice (which is not the same thing as social action). Those synagogues tend to be larger and better resourced. If Sinai members would like to form a social justice committee, I would support their efforts, provided that it is consistent with the mission of the synagogue and that it properly engages with all members of our community. We do not need to have unanimity, but we do need to make sure that all our members feel like they have the opportunity to express their views and be listened to respectfully. We should also be aware that synagogues that take political stances risk alienating segments of their community. Speaking directly, do we want synagogues to be known as either “Republican Synagogues” or “Democratic Synagogues?” It is already happening to some extent, dividing up between Orthodox on the right and Reform and Conservative on the left.  Personally, I see this as an unfortunate trend.

We are fortunate that there are plenty of opportunities for people to express their political viewpoints, including within the South Bay Jewish world. Locally, our Jewish Community Relations Council has done a wonderful job of getting our Jewish voice out into the public conversation. I encourage all of us to think deeply about the central issues of our day, being sure to explore all sides with open minds, so that we can formulate our own informed opinions, and then fight like mad for them, while always recognizing that those who disagree with us feel just as adamantly that they are right.

I am reassured to see that the conversation on Facebook has been conducted with passion, respect, and a willingness to learn from each other’s perspectives. This bodes well for us as we begin the new year.

Please respect that I prefer to have one on one, or emotional conversations face to face rather than in public forums. My door is open to anyone who would like to discuss this further.

Shanah Tovah.

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