Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.
Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history. It was four years into the Civil War. The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later. Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.
He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims. How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.
This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it. The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.
In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.
As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac. At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.” (Genesis 21:6)
Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…” And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”
When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die. It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.
In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.
What does God stand for in this story? Life. The flourishing of human potential. Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern. They cannot see the world as God sees it. Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action. Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.
And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing. God enters the story at three critical points. The first is to bless Sarah with fertility. The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own. God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope. Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.
These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known. We are not so blessed.
We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris. It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.
As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society. There is so much partisan hatred. People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before. It is tearing the social fabric apart.
Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me. It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are. They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”
Consider the following:
A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.” In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races. Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.
We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states. But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood. Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion. A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.
Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality. And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love. This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.
The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party. Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.
It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics. The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:
Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day. You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent. When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.
[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.
We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!
This trend affects the Jewish world as well. Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation. Synagogues have split in half over politics. It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together. Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.
But God does not have a party. God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”
As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm. As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role? What should Sinai’s role be?
Should it offer an apolitical respite? Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?
Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding. Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”
Some congregants urge me to get more political. Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.” Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned. Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.
I would kind of like it to be both. A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity. Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot. And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.
The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.
Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong. They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us. They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live. Of course, religion plays a huge role.
Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints. Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry. There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs. The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent. I must do something about it.
That should lead me to take a political position. What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry? Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not? Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?
While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation. They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.
This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal. This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty. The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.
This is how it should work: our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.
Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards. Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.
The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals. When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it. And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.
It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views. After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.
Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience. In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness. This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps. The left has been particularly drawn in.
The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative. Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible. Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur. It is beautiful and inspiring:
This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty. The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years. Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message. At no time did a prophet ever say: “You guys are doing a great job.” At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.
Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated. There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded. They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.
Think of Jeremiah. He runs around speaking truth to power. He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption. He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness. There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right. He was living in a society that had lost its way. He could see the righteous path forward. But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings. He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.
The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral. If you are not with us, you are against us.
This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.
When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai! “Whoever is for God, to me!” There is no in-between. The Levites heed the call. At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.” Three thousand die that day.
The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition. Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)
Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty. The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments. There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.
Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal. Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.” The term has been applied differently over the millenia. At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law. Later, it took on mystical aspects. The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation. In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.
And this is a problem.
To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like. What does that say about someone who does not share my vision? And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?
Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?
A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders. “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?” “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it. But what do people worship? The sun, moons, stars, and planets. Should God destroy the universe on account of fools? Rather, olam k’minhago noheg. The world pursues its natural course…” (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)
We live in an imperfect world. It is never going to become perfect. There is no “fixing” the world. The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot. Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah. “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Avot 2:16) The world remains a work in progress.
The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility. It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us. It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah. But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.
It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.
Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion. We would do well to embrace his words.
… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.