Yom Kippur, 5782
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
What a year it has been!
On the bright side, we are thankfully over the worst of the pandemic. A year ago at the High Holidays we were still in near complete lockdown. We livestreamed the service from an empty sanctuary. Now we are mostly vaccinated. We have reopened, albeit with capacity limits and other restrictions. Children are returning to school. We are not back to normal as we knew it, but we have turned the corner and are heading in that direction.
So too most of us would say that politically. The presidency, at least, is back to normal. The administration in Washington is functioning more or less as we expect. Though Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads, key legislation is squeaking by Congress. The economy is improving; employment is slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels. Again, we are not back to normal as we knew it, but here too we have turned the corner and are heading in the right direction.
That’s on the bright side. Now for the dark side.
The pandemic is not over. The virus is still wreaking havoc here and in far corners of the world. Variants and the unvaccinated still pose a threat. Re-openings are still fraught with challenges. The economic recovery is highly unequal, with the already well-off benefitting the most. Congress is hopelessly dead-locked. One of the two major political parties appears to have gone off the rails. The threat to our democracy has not gone away. If the Jan. 6 insurrection was overt, the attempts to undermine our country are now covert. But they are happening.
Racism in all its manifestations, is alive and well. Anti-Semitism has seen another spike. Anti-Asianism has skyrocketed.
Israel experienced another war with Hamas, which this time included anti-Jewish rioting within Israel by Israeli Arab citizens. Israel experienced four elections in two years and none has resulted in a viable governing coalition. The Jewish State is as divided as never before and the Jewish people are as divided as never before.
Then there is the present debacle and tragedy in Afghanistan.
Not to mention, hurricanes, wildfires, and a climate crisis that is growing exponentially and existentially.
Wait a minute, you’re saying. Having devoted about a minute to the bright side, is the rabbi going over to the dark side? Is this going to be all doom and gloom?
Well, mostly yes. What better time to commiserate than on Yom Kippur? We’re supposed to get down and dirty⏤about our sins that is. We’re supposed to ruminate on the dark side… in order to repent on our way back to the bright side.
I think I am not different than most of you as a proud, and as a deeply concerned, American citizen. I’ve always felt the need to be politically aware, to be reasonably well read and reflective. But since the election of 2016 I have been consumed by what is happening to our country. Politically speaking, I have not had a good night’s sleep since that November earthquake five years ago. And my sleep is still disturbed.
And I think I am not different than most of you as a proud, and as a deeply concerned American Jew. That means worrying about all things Jewish and all things Israel. Here too I lost much sleep.
In my line of work, I suppose I am fortunate that I get to voice my concerns out loud more than most people. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have opined about what is happening to America, to Israel and to the Jewish people.
And here I go again. Why? Because things are not getting better and it is Yom Kippur and because my friend, the prophet Isaiah, says in the Haftarah portion of this holy Day of Atonement that we should, raise our voice like a shofar.
I’m still haunted by the last words of Heather Heyer, the young women killed in Charlottesville in 2017, who was not Jewish, but said something in the spirit of Isaiah. She posted on Facebook that fateful morning: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. So what should we be outraged about? What is lacking our attention?
This morning I can only focus on one issue. As much as I would like to talk about the Jewish people, I’m not going to do that now, because of the urgency I feel about talking about the American people.
Here is what keeps me up: I think democracy is dying in America in plain sight. I think it is dying and we are letting it happen. There are two paths forward in this crucial post-election period. The first path is labelled diversity. The second path is called disunity.
The path of diversity will save our democracy. The path of disunity will kill our democracy.
The path of diversity teaches us to respect our differences. The path of disunity teaches us to exacerbate our differences.
The path of diversity strengthens community as we realize we are all on the same team. The path of disunity threatens community, since we no longer believe we are on the same team.
Respected columnist Thomas Edsall minces no words when he wrote this past May:
[We] confront an adversary willing to lie about past election outcomes, setting the stage for [Republican] legislatures to overturn future election returns; an opponent willing to nurture an insurrection if the wrong people win; a political party moving steadily from democracy to authoritarianism; a party that despite its liabilities is more likely than not to regain control of the House and possibly even the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. (NYT 5-19-21)
What is at stake is civil society as we know it. Here’s the thing: in any relationship, if we can’t talk reasonably to one another, the relationship breaks down. In a marriage, the relationship breaks down and divorce ensues. In a congregation, the relationship breaks down, and the congregation splinters and dissolves. In a country… well, what happens? At the most extreme, there is civil war. On the way, there is civil strife. Unrest. Insubordination. Insurrection. Micah Goodman is a leading Israeli intellectual. I know him personally, having published his first book in English. Here is how he describes our toxic political discourse:
Across much of Europe and the United States, political debate has stopped functioning. What is meant by a “functional” political debate? A disagreement between people each of whom believes the other is wrong: I think you are wrong, and you think I am wrong. That’s how a good political debate ought to work. But what if I think you are not only wrong but evil? Reasonable disagreement collapses. Social media tend to amplify this dynamic. People are increasingly concerned with labeling others, instead of thinking about their arguments… When each side thinks that the other’s beliefs are not only wrong but illegitimate, the capacity to listen vanishes, and reasonable disagreement collapses.
Goodman goes on the conclude that the basic purpose of politics has metastasized:
Politics is no longer the field in which [citizens] express their positions. Politics has turned into the field in which they [proclaim] their identities. Political discourse no longer pits idea against idea, but tribe against tribe. When politics ceases to rely on arguments and stops offering ideas, all it can do is channel identities. So it was that the disintegration of ideas of the left and right… did not abolish the rift between the two camps⏤they aggravated it.
It’s sad and it’s scary that so many Americans now view politics as a zero-sum game. A recent national opinion poll posed this question: Do you think the goal of politics is more about enacting good public policy or ensuring the survival of the country as we know? Almost half of Democrats (47%) said policy, yet a significant number (38%) said survival. But among Republicans it was the reverse, with 46% saying survival and only 25% saying policy.
And it’s sad and scary that if I’m honest with myself I’m not even sure how to answer. Let me put it this way: I’m a liberal. But I respect conservatives, who act out of principle. I don’t agree with them. They are my opponents but not my adversaries. I have this respect because we agree to abide by the same set of rules. Not only do we love our country, but we are sworn to uphold our Constitution and protect our democracy. We are not in it to win in any way, but to win the right way. But if you are not going to play by the rules, if you are willing to trample democracy and trash civility, how can I deal with you?
That is our dilemma. How can we deal with our fellow Americans who are forsaking democracy by perpetuating a big lie, refusing to prosecute an insurrection, restricting voting access, and setting the stage for overturning the next election, if it is not in their favor? Yet how can we not deal with our fellow Americans, who comprise wide swaths of a major political party? How can we give up the search for common ground and the quest for the common good?
Here is how I respond in the brief few minutes I have remaining. While I will resist every action that is anti-democracy, I will engage in every effort that is pro-democracy. I will call out every action that is racist and unjust, but I will listen to every critique of my own views. I will defend those who are powerless, but I will hold my nose to compromise so we can live together.
I will do this in the spirit of tolerance and diversity that is the best of America. And I will do so in the spirit of worthy debate that is central to my Jewish heritage.
The great debate of the Talmud was between the school of Shammai, which would equate to modern day conservatism, and the school of Hillel, which would equate to modern day liberalism. The debate went on for centuries. Shammai and Hillel and their disciples disagreed on just about everything. Yet time and again the view of Hillel prevailed in Jewish law. Beit Hillel was able to convince the majority to side with them over and over. The Talmud itself poses the question: how could this be? And the Talmud itself answers its own question in a now famous passage:
Elu v’elu divrei Elohim hayimm, begins the passage. These and these are the word of the living God. Both schools of thought have their place. Both are precious; each is to be valued. How about if we could start there in our modern political discourse?
But the reason Beit Hillel prevailed, the passage goes on, is because they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted. “And when Beit Hillel taught the law,” says the Talmud, “they would teach both their own statement of position and the statement of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own, in deference to Beit Shammai.”
How about that! The House of Hillel cited their opponents before themselves. They showed honor and respect to those they disagreed with. They refused to engage in negative campaigning. They actively listed to the other side, and in some cases, were ready to compromise or amend their position.
Is political civility like this dead? Is decency dead? Is compromise dead? Not if we are determined to affirm that eilu veilu divrei elohim hayim; that a spark of divinity resides even in our cantankerous and contentious neighbor, that I might not like my neighbor but I most learn to love my neighbor as myself.
That same fundamental teaching of the Torah, from Leviticus 19, the holiness code, also says to rebuke your neighbor when the need arises. “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Love your neighbor. Rebuke your neighbor. Love your neighbor again.
Let it be said that we chose love and that we chose diversity over disunity.
Let it be said that in the famous words of President George Washington to the Newport Hebrew Congregation in 1791, that we gave to bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance.
Let it be said that we sought the common good; and that in the words of the prophet we did not rest until, every person shall sit under their vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.
Let it be said in the midst of darkness we brought light; that in adding our light to the sum of light, a new day dawned in the America we love.