When I was a student at Hebrew Union College, I had a professor who once said to us that all rabbis have only one, or two, or, at the most, three sermons that they just keep giving over and over again, but in different forms. I have been a rabbi for 37 years, and I have delivered sermons for 40 years, if you count my student pulpits. And I am probably as guilty of that analysis as any other rabbis. If you have been paying attention, you probably have already figured that out. I can look back over these 40 years and recognize some consistent themes, motifs, and messages. The danger is, when you do that, you sometimes discover that you were wrong.
Over the years I have taught that life is complicated. It is full of nuance and ambiguity. Life is lived in the in-betweens, the liminal spaces of doorways that force us to accept a world of balance, not black and white, but gray. I always argued against absolutism and certitude.
But as I read from Deuteronomy this morning, from Nitzavim, it is clear that the Torah makes no such subtle distinction. The Torah says there is good and evil, life and death. Choose life. Choose the good. Reject evil. Choose!
Perhaps it has taken me too long to acknowledge that there really is evil. I began to change my outlook after 9/11. I realize that there were some who were offended by what I said that year. I placed all the blame on the terrorists. Some did not hear me acknowledge the role that colonialism, imperialism, American capitalism and the export and imposition of western bias played in creating the world view of the terrorists, but my message then was, evil was evil. But overall, I remained committed to the idea that we must live with ambiguity.
Like many of you this week, I have been riveted to the PBS series by Ken Burns: Vietnam. I think my questioning of the absolutes of good and evil can be traced to my own personal experiences of that time period. The other night, the Vietnam series focused on the year 1968. I remember it well. I graduated high school on June 6, 1968, the morning Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. I turned 18 at the end of that summer. My birthday dinner that night ended in a major family battle in reaction to my announcement that I had no intention of being drafted for the war in Vietnam. My father was not known as a man who was “slow to anger.” I lived out the “generation gap” during those subsequent years.
We were young people battling parents who had experienced World War II with the clarity of knowing it was a fight between good and evil. It was a war of the Allies versus the Axis powers. Our fathers came home from the Great War, and they knew they had beaten back evil. But in the 1960’s, the lines were not so clear. We were confronted with a far more ambiguous war. It was difficult to know who, if anyone, was all good or all bad. As the Burns documentary teaches, good, smart, well-intentioned people made horrific mistakes and lied to us. Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey waged a war that nearly tore America apart.
Vietnam demonstrated to many of us that life had become complicated and that good and evil were not so easily categorized. Many of us even began to question the accepted shibboleths of the previous generation. In hindsight, even World War II was not so black and white. FDR had kept the doors closed to Jewish refugees. Japanese American citizens on the west coast were interned in concentration camps. There was the bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We questioned the heroes we were raised to venerate.
That sense of doubt and ambiguity helped shape me and form my world view of the
grays and nuances. But perhaps I have grown a bit and matured. Sometimes the choices are clear. There was no equivalency then. Franklin Roosevelt was flawed, but Hitler was evil. They were not even in the same universe. Yes, Japanese Americans were unjustly interned in concentration camps, but they were not systematically murdered on an industrial scale. The Nazis were demonic. Hitler and the Nazis were unique. Anytime someone is cavalierly compared to Hitler, it diminishes the evil that was embodied in that man. There are no comparisons, and there are no equivalencies.
So now let me turn to Charlottesville. This was a truly shocking event in American history. We had a visceral reaction to a torch-lit parade, an organized phalanx of marchers in formation, united in their chants: “Jews will not replace us!” “Blood and Soil!” This took place on a Friday night in front of a Reform Synagogue meeting in Shabbat worship. It happened in America? Our America?
Charlottesville shocked America, and it especially shocked American Jews. Last week Reverend VanSlyke talked about our trip to Israel/Palestine as part of the Interfaith Partners for Peace initiative. As she said, rabbis and Protestant ministers spent ten days together travelling, studying, and exploring the many issues in that part of the world. But, for me, one of the more unusual aspects of the trip was the presence of a significant number of African American Protestant clergy. In all honesty, most of my interfaith work on the North Shore has been largely with white colleagues. When you travel with a group for ten days you become rather close, and you can speak honestly with each other.
One afternoon we were studying together at the Hartman Institute, when an African American minister turned to some of us rabbis and asked: “When did Jews become white?” That might seem a surprising question, but the answer was not always so clear. Today American Jews typically live lives of privilege and social and economic security. There might be instances of minor social anti Semitism, but there is no
institutional anti-Semitism, even at the highest levels of our society, not in commerce, or the universities, or our legal system. When Joe Lieberman was the vice presidential nominee in 2000, his religious background was not an issue at all. There are three Jewish Justices on the Supreme Court. There were no anti-Semitic attacks after the 2008 economic crisis. But have we been complacent or blind? Has it all been wishful thinking? Perhaps Charlottesville was the moment when—at least for some Jews—we no longer felt quite so “White.”
Charlottesville exposed a frightening, ugly underbelly of anti-Semitism and racism still alive in America. We watched the marches and riots, the violence and death caused by the KKK, the Nazis, and white supremacists. I know there are those who would balance left wing violent anarchists against white nationalists and Nazis, but there is absolutely no equivalence there either. The AntiFa group may resort to violence and mayhem. They are provocateurs and anarchists. They need to be placed outside acceptable left wing action, just as the Weather Underground was in the 1970’s. But their goal is not to deny other Americans their basic rights. The
KKK, Nazis, White Supremacists have a clear agenda: to attack African Americans, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, and the LGBTQ members of our family.
Evil is Evil. Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, white supremacists are in a category
unto themselves. They are not just about violence and intimidation. Their message is one of bigotry, hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. They seek to deny others basic human rights and equality. The white nationalists are seeking to create an exclusively white Christian America, not a Catholic or main stream Protestant America, but theirs is a perverse racist notion of Christianity, completely contrary to the true teachings of Christianity.
The call for condemnation is non-partisan. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians have all voiced their outrage. But not everyone has made those clear distinctions. Those who would hesitate to call evil, evil, help perpetrate, enable, and legitimize those forces and attitudes antithetical to American values.
“Fine people” do not march along side torch-bearing KKK members, for as soon as they join into that mob, they too are white supremacists, Nazis and Klansmen.
Nazis and Klansmen are evil. Make your choice. There are no excuses. Evil must be named and called out. Choose your sides. Know what is evil. Expose it. Condemn it.
Our Torah begins in Eden. Adam and Eve are shown the Tree of Knowing, knowing good and bad. The human charge is to distinguish between the two. And the Torah nears its conclusion with today’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, from Deuteronomy. Moses teaches: I place before you good and evil, life and death. Make your choice.
Choose good. Choose life.
Perhaps I have learned something since 1968. Maybe I have matured a bit. A few years back I visited Normandy. Standing at Omaha Beach reminded me that life is not always all gray and ambiguous. Sometimes there is no nuance. If you haven’s been to Omaha Beach, perhaps you have seen “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers.” I know that some of you here today have even been on the Honor Flights to the World War II Memorial in Washington.
My trip to Normandy was extraordinarily powerful. It reminded me that perhaps my father was right. There is good and evil. I stood on Omaha Beach and picked up some stones, pebbles, and put a few in my pocket. (Hold up stones.) This afternoon, prior to the Yizkor service, I will place one of these stones on my father’s yahrzeit plaque, for he served as a medic on Omaha Beach. He and his band of brothers defeated evil over seventy years ago. They could never have imagined Nazis marching in the streets of an American city. Even more, it would have been inconceivable that their evil would not have been condemned from the highest office in our nation.
That “Greatest Generation” defeated the forces of evil. Let us not permit this present generation to doubt, excuse, or deny through false equivalencies the reality of hatred, bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism. We must name it, condemn it, and defeat it! We must choose! Choose life, justice, equality, human rights, and dignity. As we are taught: “It is your life and the length of your days. Then you shall endure in the land which the Eternal One has promised to you.”
Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon
September 30, 2017
Yom Kippur 5778
Zachor: History and Memory
Yom Kippur is difficult. It is a challenge to relate to this observance. It is not the same as the other Jewish festivals, and yet we are all here, gathered in the unique numbers that are the evidence of its power to move us. Yom Kippur is removed not only from the earthly, but also from time. Yom Kippur has no real historical narrative or memory. In contrast, it is often easier to relate to the other Jewish holidays. They are primarily defined by a compelling story.
Passover retells the exodus from Egypt. Shavuot commemorates standing at Mt. Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments and the Torah. At Sukkot, we remember the forty years of wandering in the desert wilderness. On Purim we read of Esther, Mordecai, and Shushan in Persia. Hanukkah takes place in Modi’in and Jerusalem and recalls the war of the Maccabees against the Syrian Greeks. Tisha B’Av marks the destructions of the First and Second Temple. And modern events are commemorated at Yom HaAtzma-ut—Israel Independence Day and Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day.
But Yom Kippur is largely removed from any historical context, which might seem a bit strange given the fact that Judaism is so deeply tied to history. In Judaism, God is experienced through history. Without that sense of history we are left with Universal Monotheism, a theology in complete agreement with Deism, Universalism, or Ethical Culture. Especially Reform Judaism is consistent with most enlightened forms of faith. But, in addition to the universal, there is also the particular, and that is what sets Judaism apart.
We are defined by historical experience. Yes, we are children of the One God, but we are also children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. Jews are obsessed with history. We retell the stories of ancient Egypt, the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE, of Rome after the year 70, or Spain of 1492. We study the communities of North Africa, or Ashkenaz of Central Europe of the medieval era. Many of us relate especially to Eastern Europe of the backward Shtetl or of cosmopolitan Warsaw. History also took the Jews to Amsterdam and the New World of the Americas. More modern history focuses on the Holocaust and Israel. It is impossible to remove the Jewish experience from its historical context.
One of most important, defining, seminal works of intellectual thought is a modest book, Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, by Yosef Haim Yerushalmi of Harvard. It points to the difference between what is history and what is memory. History is fact. It is what happened. Memory is how we remember, interpret, and create a narrative. Take for example the Egypt story of the Torah. Did it happen? Was it a fact? Were we slaves? Did Moses exist? Which Pharaoh experienced the Ten Plagues? Those might be questions of history.
But memory is different. It helps define our attitude to the present. We recall the slavery in Egypt as a warning to not enslave others. We are taught: You were slaves in Egypt, therefore always remember, and always fight against oppression and slavery. You were strangers in a strange land, therefore defend the stranger. Treat the stranger in your midst as the native.
So too, our memory of immigration and Ellis Island helps us understand the truths we learn. This summer, when DACA was overturned, in our service that Friday night I turned to Psalm 126: A Song of Ascents—Shir HaMa’alot. To some of you it’s familiar from summer camp or Birkat HaMazon, grace after meals for Shabbat.
Its origins are in the memory of the ancient exile in Babylon. “Shir HaMa’a lot, b’shuv Adonai, et shivat Zion, hayinu kiCholmim.” “When the Eternal restored the fortunes of the exiles from Zion, it was if we were Dreamers!”
Both history and memory matter. They help define our values, what we stand for, how we think of ourselves. But history is objective fact. Memory is the way we contextualize and understand experience, and it can be used or abused. Memory can help to enlighten the future or distort the reality of the past. It can expose truth or misused to support lies and rejected ideologies.
The battle over narrative became very real this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. I will have much more to say tomorrow about those events. I think that Charlottesville demands more that one 12 minute or 15 minute sermon. But tonight I want to focus on the conflict over history and narrative. The statues of Confederate heroes were the catalysts, excuses for the racist march on Charlottesville. It was a perfect example of the use and abuse of memory. Charlottesville exposed the desire of some to remember the past as well as their desire to forget and pervert that history. In Charlottesville, a certain specific reading of history was used to divide us. Its purpose was to continue to feed the resentment of the “lost noble cause” of the Confederacy. It nurtured the fantasy of a better time when whites were privileged because blacks were oppressed.
Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson were not only military commanders, but they led a revolt against our nation. There are no statues in America to Benedict Arnold.
There should be no false equivalencies drawn between them, on the one hand, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, on the other. Washington and Jefferson were imperfect humans, as are all of us. They were slave owners, but that did not define them. Washington was the founder of our nation, and Jefferson was the author of immortal words of human rights and equality. Washington and Jefferson were Virginians and Southerners, but they were not traitors.
Let me share with you some of the words from a speech by Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, at the removal of Confederate statues from that city’s center. Landrieu said: “The Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal---through monuments and other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”
Those statues were first erected nineteen years after the Civil War. Landrieu continued that they were meant to “rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. These statues are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictionalized, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror it actually stood for.”
This past spring, I had the opportunity to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. At its dedication, President George W. Bush stated: “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.” That is the purpose of this remarkable museum. It teaches about the inhumanity of slavery, the murderous evil of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings, and Jim Crow. There is a special room set aside to tell the story of Emmett Till. Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman are honored, as are the young Sunday school girls who perished in the bombing of the Birmingham church. There is a remarkable interactive exhibit of the Woolworth lunch counter. This museum of history does what it is supposed to do: expose and confront history.
A few weeks ago, I was in Berlin, Germany visiting our friends at IsrAID. We participated in an art therapy class for pre-school and kindergarten children who were Syrian, Afghani, Yazidi, and Albanian refugees. But, as is so often the case, when I returned to the States friends asked me how I could go to Germany and Berlin after the Holocaust. My answer is that it is especially in Germany that I find a nation that is willing to face, confront, and acknowledge the sins of its past. I can contrast that attitude to what I have experienced elsewhere. In Vienna, Austrians try to portray themselves as victims of Nazism. In Poland, at Auschwitz and Birkenau the unique suffering of the Jews has been overlooked. That has been the case in Kiev at Babi Yar. Especially under Soviet rule, the Holocaust was de-Judaized. Even in Paris, the French do a good job of hiding their complicity. In so many places I have found a desire to paper over or distort history.
To me, Germany, especially Berlin, is different. Instead of denying history, German leadership has chosen to expose and confront the most shameful events of its people’s past. If you have been to Berlin in recent years, you have undoubtedly visited the Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Even the name itself is an act of acknowledging the truth. It sits right next to the Brandenburg Gate, centrally located, impossible to miss. There is also the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind. There is the Topography of Terror exhibit in the former SS Gestapo headquarters, and in Potsdam you can visit the Wannsee Villa where the Final Solution was planned.
But of all these museums and sites, I have been most moved by the most mundane, ordinary, easily overlooked commemoration. It is a simple subway station—U-Bahn train station in Wittenbergplatz in the central downtown shopping district. It really is no different from any other well-located U-Bahn station, but outside the station there is a board listing various local train stops. It is similar to what you might see at Ogilvy Transportation Center, listing the Metra stops for the North Shore. In Chicago the sign would read: Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Indian Hill, Winnetka, Hubbard Woods, and Glencoe.
But in Berlin, the sign outside the Wittenburgplatz station lists:
- Bergen Belsen
Above the sign, it reads: “Places of terror that we should never forget”
The other moving remembrances of the Holocaust are the stolpersteins, stumbling stones that you happen to “stumble” upon on your daily walks. These are brass plates set in the pavement, usually in front of homes, apartment buildings, sometimes work places. These small brass plaques list the names of those who had once lived or worked in those places but perished. The purpose is to insure that these murdered individuals are never to forgotten. You can’t walk by and ignore their deaths and eradications from their own homes, neighborhoods, and communities. You are forced to stumble over that history.
You now can find stolpersteins in France, the Netherlands, Italy, and elsewhere. This summer we were in a small Italian village in Puglia in southeast Italy, and there, unexpectedly we “stumbled” upon one of these brass markers in memory of a villager whom the Nazis had rounded up in Rome and executed in a mass killing.
The goal of the stolpersteins is to expose history so that we forced to remember it, learn from it, and prevent the recurrence of future acts of inhumanity. Statues and memorials can help us remember, but they can also help us forget and distort and deny. Recall my sermon of last year, “The Heresy of Narcissism.” I tried to offer a contrast between Pharaoh and Moses. What are we to learn from the fact that Moses died alone? Moses has no grave or memorial. Pharaoh is the opposite. He built pyramids, sphinxes, and tombs. Not Moses. The contrast is intended to caution us to beware the idolatry of a thing or place or statue.
I am not denying the power of the Lincoln Memorial, or Washington Monument, or Jefferson Memorial. I visit the new Martin Luther King, Jr. statue and the FDR and Vietnam Memorials. But the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has always inspired me, that Jews sanctify time, not space.
Maybe that is why Yom Kippur is removed from history, removed from the earthly. On this sacred day we are to focus on ideas and immutable truths. On Yom Kippur what matters most are our values, not our histories. We are reminded of timeless teachings: Always know what it felt like to be the outcast, the slave, the stranger. Remember, but for a purpose, to inspire action and commitment to build a just world, based on equality, respect, and freedom.
Yes, there is the physical obelisk of the Washington Memorial in DC, but, on this Yom Kippur, following the divisiveness and trauma of this summer, we need to listen to
George Washington’s immortal words: Let us hear this prayer, this blessing, this promise, this affirmation. Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, saying:
“The government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his [and her] own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid.”
In this New Year, may we be blessed by those words, to live in a land of equality, freedom, security, and peace.
Rabbi Samuel N Gordon
September 29, 2017
Kol Nidre 5778
Who By Fire, Who By Water
2017 - 5778
Each year I come back to this central prayer of our High Holy Day liturgy---Unetaneh Tokef. This Medieval prayer represents the most troubling theology. I know that people leave this service with the impression that this is Jewish thought. The words imagine a vindictive, judgmental God who rewards and punishes, meting out illness and death, based on some twice checked list of who has been naughty or nice.
Over the years I have tried to contextualize the prayer by applying it in a non-supernatural way to our own personal lives. These are not the rewards or punishments of a saintly or sinful life. They are only a recognition that at some point, this coming year, the next, ten years in the future, thirty or forty… something will happen. Cancer, heart attack, a stroke, an accident. It’s going to be something. That is the inevitability and nature of our mortality. It is what defines us as humans. No matter how nobly and righteously we may act, at some point along the way we will face illness and setbacks. Death is what happens to us. We pray that it is not this year, but sometime, even if far in the distant future, we will need to confront that reality.
This year I approach this prayer a bit differently. Yesterday’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Tuesday’s devastating earthquake in Mexico City are on the list of recent natural disasters that includes Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Irma in Florida. And to that list we can add the wild fires of the Pacific Northwest and Montana.
We just finished reading the words of Unetaneh Tokef. This prayer asks: Who by Fire, Who by Water, Who by Hunger, Who by Thirst, Who by Earthquake, Who by Plague? This has been a year of devastation and loss. The hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and fires have been indiscriminate. Rich and poor alike have been affected. Privilege has been no barrier and offered no protection. These disasters reminded everyone in their path of how vulnerable and precarious life can be. It is frightening to feel so helpless and insecure in one’s own home, whether that home is a simple fishing shack on St. John, Virgin Islands, or a luxury villa in Naples, Florida, or a condo in a downtown tower in Houston, Texas. Far too many people suffered near total losses.
In following the news reports, I was especially struck by the human interest stories of what people saved. What was most precious? What mattered? Many rescued picture albums, or a love letter, a Ketubah; some more wisely took a flash drive. The reports help remind us of those things we value, want to hold onto, that we consider most precious. Throughout the interviews with the hurricane and flood survivors, there was a recurring theme: they were most grateful for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, and the objects they rescued were universally not the most valuable in monetary terms, but sentimental, personally meaningful, irreplaceable because of the emotions attached to them. A child’s hand-made birthday card. A single tea cup from a china set belonging to a grandmother. A wedding album
They didn’t hold onto things, but emotions, memories. That is what they truly treasured.
These decisions are not only made at times of disaster. Many of you know that my wife, Patty’s, mother died this Spring at the age of 100. She was the last of her entire generation. Both of Patty’s parents have passed away, as have all of her uncles and aunts. So too in my family, my parents and all their siblings have died. That means for both of us, and all our siblings, and all our cousins, we are the next last generation.
With that reality comes the task of cleaning out the house. Patty’s mother saved everything: receipts, tax returns, report cards, every letter and note—post cards from summer camp, blue airmail letters from trips; letters from her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. There were boxes and boxes of pictures, out of focus snapshots of people and places we couldn’t identify to the more formal photographs accumulated over the years.
What do you do with all of it? My mother was acquisitive in a different way. She loved things. She held onto mementoes of travel or experiences. There were vases, glassware, a piece of this or a piece of that. They served as evidence of various trips—a piece of Delftware from Amsterdam or a Limoges china box from France, or a set of Moser glassware from Prague. And she owned every imaginable ritual item from Israel. What do you save?
I know some of you are in the midst of downsizing from a home in the suburbs to an apartment or condo in the city or in the local village. It is not easy cleaning out the family home, but your children might have said to you what my children have said to me: ”Promise us you won’t make us do this when you die.” You’ve probably read the articles entitled, “Your children don’t want your tchotchkes.” Authors have written about the spirituality of decluttering. There is the popular book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” by Marie Konod.
So what do you do with it all? We used to play a values clarification game in confirmation classes, or in youth group, or on college retreats. It went like this. You are the last survivors on earth, after some terrible disaster. You are given the chance to get on a rocket ship to the moon or Mars. You are tasked with taking one Jewish thing with you that will insure the survival of Judaism in this new colony in space. What is the one thing you would rescue and take with you? Typically, someone might say their grandmother’s Shabbat candlesticks that were carried from Europe to Ellis Island. Another person thought a Torah scroll was the most important. Someone else argued for a copy of the prayer book. Another suggested the book, “Altneuland,” by Theodore Herzl.
I was once on an adult retreat, where the same game was played. When asked what was the one thing to take with you in order to insure Judaism’s survival, a cynic called out: “An anti-Semite!”
Many of you are collectors of some sort, whether art, books, antiques, other objects. Perhaps some of you collect watches. If so, you are probably aware that the Holy Grail of watches is about to come up for auction at Phillips Auction House on October 26th. It might be the most expensive watch ever sold. It is not made of precious metal. It is not platinum or gold, just stainless steel. It is not encrusted with diamonds or bejeweled with rubies or sapphires. In watch collector terms, it has few complications, the various extra dials and functions that often add value to expensive timepieces. It has stop watch function.
The watch is a Rolex Daytona, but even so, it is not all that rare, a few thousand or so were made. The Rolex Daytona is known as the Paul Newman watch, because in numerous photos he was shown wearing that type of watch. But on Oct 26Th Paul Newman’s own Rolex Daytona is being auctioned off.
The story of the watch is this. His wife, Joanne Woodward, bought the watch for about $300 in the late 1960’s when Paul Newman started racing cars. On the back of the watch she engraved: “Drive Carefully, Me.” The watch disappeared for about 45 years. No one knew what had happened to it. It turns out, Paul Newman’s daughter, Nell, brought home a college boyfriend. He was working on a tree house at the Newman home in Westport, Connecticut, when Paul Newman asked if he knew what time it was. The young man explained that he didn’t own a watch. Paul Newman went into the house, took the watch, tossed it to him, and said: “Here kid. Keep it.”
And so he had kept it for nearly 45 years. Some experts have estimated that it will sell for as much as ten million dollars. Most of the proceeds will go to the Nell Newman Foundation. But it got me to thinking about why is this watch so valuable? It’s not about the watch itself. Paul Newman was a wonderful actor. We loved him as Ari Ben Canaan, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy. But the truth is, he was not Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, or Kenneth Branagh. Indeed, there is a whole new generation that thinks he is famous for salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, olive oil, and popcorn. It does give me great joy to know that my three-and-a-half year old grandson loves the character, Doc Hudson, in the animated children’s movie, “Cars.”
I think the answer to the value of the watch goes to the iconic nature of Paul Newman, based on far more than his acting, but rather on his character and values. The watch itself is a relatively modest, simple object. It’s just a thing, but not a thing. He was an extraordinary role model of a life well lived with an impact that went far beyond his acting fame. He will also be remembered for his philanthropy, establishing the Hole in the Wall camp for children battling cancer. He was a man of humility and humanity. He was loved.
So now return to Unetaneh Tokef. Who by fire, who by water, who by thirst, who by plague? After the fires, and the floods, the storms, and earthquakes, what’s left? The prayer answers:
Teshuvah—Repentance. In its broader sense, humility, the ability to acknowledge one’s own imperfections and mistakes and seek forgiveness.
Tefillah—Prayer. This is introspection, being thoughtful, self aware, but also acknowledging that there is something greater than just ourselves.
Tzedakah—Charity. Giving, helping, generosity.
If Unetaneh Tokef forces us to confront our mortality, our vulnerability and the precariousness of our world, the prayer also helps us define the nature of immortality, what lasts. Hurricanes and floods force us to assess, be self-aware. When staring down fire, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, we have to determine what matters and what counts. Unetaneh Tokef reminds us that it could all be washed away in a flood or lost in a fire or destroyed in a hurricane, but the physical possessions don’t really define our lives.
So now, at the beginning of this New Year, what will we take with us into this next year? For each one of us, these are tens days of accounting, adding it all up. Cherish that which is most precious. Protect that legacy. Nurture those memories. They are the most important items we carry with us into this New Year. And may it be a New Year of Blessing, Sweetness, Goodness, and Peace.
Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon
September 21, 2017
Rosh Hashanah 5778
Embracing Dissent: Moving Beyond Our Filter Bubbles
Rabbi Carlie Weisbrod Daniels
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 5778
We are living in an age of personalization. Amazon uses data to predict what we'll like and places these items at the top of the web page, and recommends other items that we might like based upon our search and order history. Since I use Amazon for both my personal and work life, my Amazon home page is currently filled with plastic table cloths, school supplies, blackout curtains for my Rosh Hashanah house guests, and oh yeah, about 100 books that might relate to the topic of this sermon. But the personalization of technology goes even deeper than just e-commerce sites like Amazon. Even Google personalizes our search results. To do a quick experiment, both my husband and I Googled the same word, “Florida,” on our separate devices, and each returned different results. In today’s world, even though we have seemingly unlimited choices in what we are reading and watching, we really have much less control than we think.
The online world is now tailored to each individual based on algorithms that track and calculate our preferences based on searches, content clicks, and other data collected as we surf the web. In his 2011 TED talk, Eli Pariser, the founder of the website Upworthy, coined the term filter bubble. Pariser explains, “The new generation of Internet filters looks at the things you seem to like— the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like—and tries to extrapolate. They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you’ll do and want next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us”— what Pariser calls “a filter bubble”—which, in his words “fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.”
Pariser points out that unlike the editors of a newsroom that served as the gatekeepers to the information we received in the past, there are no “embedded ethics” within algorithms. At the end of his TED talk, Pariser implores web developers, “We need the new gatekeepers to encode that responsibility… we really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them the sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility… We need [the internet] to connect us all together, to introduce us to new ideas, new people, and different people. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a web of one.” Thus, the over personalization of today’s internet might just 2 leave us isolated instead of connected.
In an article written in January of this year, five years after Pariser’s TED talk, Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft research, submits that the filter bubble has now expanded further. Boyd claims that social media sites like Facebook compound the trend of self-segregation, a trend “that is enabled by technology in all sorts of complicated ways.” Boyd reasons that in order for the US to function as a healthy 3 democracy, we must find a way to “diversify our social connections …and weave together a strong social fabric that bridges ties across difference” instead of isolating ourselves by only choosing to associate with those whose viewpoints we share.4
The concept of self-segregation goes beyond social media and the internet. Data supports that we self-segregate when we choose where to live. We also 5 self-segregate when we choose with whom to socialize. In fact, 66% of consistent conservatives say that most of their close friends share their political views, and consistent liberals are more likely to end a personal relationship because of politics.6
We even prefer to self-segregate when it comes to marriage. According to a 2014 Pew Study, “Three-out-of-ten consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law.” In 1960 these 7 percentages were at a mere 5% for republicans and 4% for democrats. The statistics 8 are astounding, yet we still continue to self-segregate at an increasingly alarming rate. Our society allows it, even encourages it, and our smartphones and devices- the tools and resources we increasingly rely upon - encourage us to further segregate ourselves into our neat “bubbles” within our world.
In contrast to our “bubble societies” of today, the rabbis of antiquity built a strong social fabric where debate and dissent were welcomed. They spent their days in the Beit Midrash, house of study, engaging in machlochet, debate and dialogue, with one another. It was a culture of learning and understanding, and even disagreement. The oral arguments were later written down, compiled and redacted into what we now call the Talmud. The Talmud expresses many perspectives, with many conflicting points of view often assembled on a single page. The dominant opinion alongside the minority opinion. Many of the great debates recorded in Talmud are attributed to two schools of thought Beit Hillel (House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (House of Shammai). One of the most famous debates between Hillel and Shammai showcases Shammai’s more literal view of the law and Hillel’s more hospitable and welcoming interpretation:
When a person of a different faith came before Shammai and said to him, “take me as a student for conversion, but on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while standing on one foot.” Shammai instantly drove him away with a builder’s measuring rod he happened to have in his hand. When the same person came before Hillel with the same request, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Later when the person had become a Jew, he met two other converts who had experienced similar treatment at the hands of the two sages. They said to one another, “Shammai’s severity drove us away, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.” Hence the sages say: A person should always be as flexible as Hillel, not as inflexible as Shammai. (BT Shabbat 31a)
The majority of the time our tradition follows Hillel’s view point. Yet, Shammai and his disciples continued to study and debate with Hillel’s disciples. Just because we do not favor what we now label as the dissenting opinion does not mean it just goes away. In fact, Shammai’s opinion helps us to understand and decipher why Hillel’s teaching became “law.” The danger in our society today is that we often choose not engage with a dissenting opinion.
The issue of marrying outside of party lines was even a subject for our Talmudic sages. The Talmud teaches:
“Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed, the House of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the House of Hillel, nor did the House of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. This is to show you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:16).” Yevamot 14b
Even though the schools of Shammai and Hillel disagreed on certain aspects of the laws of marriage, they did not forbid their people from marrying each other. This Talmud passage quotes a Bible verse which states, “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.” This text 9 teaches us that we need to speak the truth to one another. The rabbis understood that they may not always agree, but that we must listen to the truth, self-segregation is not the answer.
It seems all of the potential solutions to self-segregation do not call for new algorithms or boycotts of social media, rather, it involves our own willingness to step outside of ourselves and engage with other people. We have to be aware of the filter through which we perceive the world. The title of a 2014 article in the New York Times says it all, “Polarization is dividing American society, not just Politics.” Self-segregation, is a problem for everyone. This issue goes beyond politics. It’s about examining our filter-do we know people and talk to people who come from different backgrounds and have differing views and opinions? It’s about raising our children to appreciate multiple points of view, and to learn how to develop solutions, not just arguments.
With the seemingly unlimited access to information we have in our world today, there is huge potential to have a world that is more open and understanding of others. Yet, our society today has forced many inward instead of outward. We may have the information, but we don’t have the conversation. In the book #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein writes, “At its best, I believe, a system of communications can be for many of us a close cousin or counterpart to a great urban center… For a healthy democracy, shared public spaces, online or not, are a lot better than echo chambers.” Sunstein suggests that we must maintain a society – 10 on and offline – “...where people are exposed to things quite involuntarily.” He uses the metaphor of street corners or public commons as a way to illustrate the need for a multiplicity of voices, reminding us we should not live in an echo chamber where we are only exposed to voices and ideas in which we agree.
The Talmudic world embraced a multiplicity of voices. Talmudic study was the antithesis of the concept of an echo chamber. The difference of opinions sometimes even led to years of disagreement. As it is taught:
“Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed. Hillel said the law is in accordance with us, and Shammai said that the law was in accordance with us. A heavenly voice emerged and said. “Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the law is in accordance with the House of Hillel.” Eruvin 13b
“Both are the words of the living God.” Here the rabbis imagine God, through the heavenly voice, lifting up both sides of the disagreement. The two points of view both have meaning and importance.
Rabbi Hillel taught, “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” Do not separate yourself from the community.” How does this tweetable statement speak to us today? 11 Hillel calls us to the street corners and public commons instead of living in our filtered bubbles. We need to spend more time with others, and we need daily exposure to a great urban center of communication. That is the beauty of technology, we have the benefit of access to different kinds of people, opinions, and knowledge at our fingertips.
The only way the world is going to become less divisive and polarized is if we start talking to each other. We must have face to face conversations– it’s not enough for a liberal to read a conservative newspaper, or a conservative to peruse a liberal blog. Writer David French summarizes one of Tyler Cowan’s arguments in his book, The Complacent Class, French writes, “The Internet brings all of human knowledge to our smartphones, but rather than using it as a tool for outreach and understanding, we’re using it to find and live with people just like us. In other words, we’re sorting.”12
Our online world does enough sorting for us whether we realize it or not. The risk of not having these conversations will continue to increasingly isolate us from one another. Soon, we will live in a country with no tolerance for opposing views. We must talk to people, whether we know if they agree with us or not, we must have the conversation. We need to talk about solutions to fix issues that are plaguing our society. We need solutions, and solutions will only be possible if we begin to have conversations. When we isolate ourselves from those who have differing opinions we run the risk of categorizing those we with disagree with as bad people or stupid people. Not discussing serious issues with people we agree and disagree with goes against our tradition of debate and dissent.
How can we achieve this today in our self-segregated world? Talk to your co-workers or classmates about something besides work or school - about serious issues. Specifically talk to those whom you know or assume have a different opinion. Even if they have the same opinion ask how they came to develop their thinking. Go to a local city council meeting or school board meeting to listen and participate in dialogue about an issue you care about. Choose to do a social justice project that connects you to people you may have never met otherwise. Ask them about their life. Ask them about what keeps them up at night.
The internet and social media will continue to create filter bubbles that will cloud our view of the world. As we begin a new year, I urge all of us to take a step outside of our self-segregated bubbles. To engage with people, talk to people, listen to people, hear people. If we do this, we can and will create a more perfect world.
1 1 Pariser, Eli (2011-05-12). The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think (p. 9). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Pariser, E. (n.d.). Beware online "filter bubbles". Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles
3 Boyd, D. (2017, January 13). Self-segregation: how a personalized world is dividing Americans. Retrieved September 09, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/13/self-segregation-military-facebook-college-diversity
5 Cohn, N. (2014, June 12). Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/upshot/polarization-is-dividing-american-society-not-just-politics.html?mcubz=3
6 Terán, L., & Emmers-Sommer, T. M. (2017, July 20). Larissa Terán. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12119-017-9453-7
7 Suh, M. (2014, June 11). Political Polarization in the American Public. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/
8 Sunstein, Cass R. (2017-03-07). #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (p. 17). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
9 Zacharia 8:16
10 Sunstein, Cass R. (2017-03-07). #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (p. 17). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
11 Pirkei Avot 2:5
12French, D. (2017, June 08). We're Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from y http://www.nationalreview.com/article/448385/liberal-conservative-divide-americans-self-segregate-culturally