Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shacharit l'Yom Kippur 5776

Message for Yom Kippur Morning
Social Justice and Ritual

High Holy Days is a time to think about where we have been in our lives. Throughout the year a reading, a conversation, a lecture, or even an opera or a concert suggests to me a new interpretation or approach to a Jewish text or idea. This past summer, I spent some rewarding time studying with colleagues in Jerusalem. The topic for this year’s seminar was tzedek umishpat, which means “righteousness and justice.” These two words usually appear together in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.

In one of the classes, a new insight into this morning’s haftarah reading came to me. Finally, I can share it with you. First of all, let me remind you that the haftarah reading that we just heard is recognized and hailed by many as the paradigm of social justice. The words tzedek umishpat appear in Is. 58:2 where we read “as if they were a nation that does what is right, tzedakkah, and that has not abandoned God’s law mishpat.”

Until this past summer, when I studied this text with Prof. Michah Goodman, I thought that the meaning of this passage was clear: Social justice is the essence of prophetic Judaism, and prophetic Judaism is the essence of Judaism, therefore, ritual is not central to Judaism. I would guess that many of you would agree with me.

Are we supposed to believe that the Talmud prescribed the read these verses on Yom Kippur believing that Judaism was about social justice? Let me remind you that the Talmud dedicates the majority of their time discussing Halachah, Jewish law. Jewish observance is central, so social justice is not a substitute for keeping kosher and Shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur. So, why did they include this text our liturgy for Yom Kippur?

The answer I discovered this summer helps me understand better what Isaiah is saying, and why we read this text on Yom Kippur. In order to understand Isaiah and what he means, we first need to look at another prophet, Jeremiah.

According to the Hebrew Bible, God asked Jeremiah to stand in by the gate of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and proclaim the following:

“Hear the word of Adonai, all you […] who enter these gates to worship Adonai! Thus said Adonai of Hosts, the God of Israel: if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice (mishpat) between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow […] [Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.] […].” (Jer. 7:1 ff)

I agree with Jeremiah. The Temple in Jerusalem lacks meaning to me, I mean, what is left of it, the kotel, the Western Wall. I must confess that I have very little personal appreciation for the Western Wall. For me, the kotel is not a spiritual place. It does not help that the kotel is not a welcoming place for women, LGBT people, and other “strangers” either. But even if it were, it is just a building, just stones; granted, old stones, but nothing else.

The error of the Jews in times of Jeremiah and Isaiah was to think that God would not destroy Jerusalem. Why would God destroy his own house? Their mistake was to keep the Temple hostage, so that God would protect them. Jeremiah thinks this is a false theology –I agree.

In 1968, a year after Israel regained access to the kotel, the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ever fond of controversies, said in an interview:

“The rites at this Western Wall are revolting. This lighting of candles, the notes... It is a farce that they go up there and blow shofars.”

As you can imagine, he was hardly criticized for doubting the “holiness” of the kotel, but I find myself agreeing with him now. Leibowitz was part of the prophetic tradition that started with Isaiah and Jeremiah: We should not put our trust in a building, but in God. Unfortunately, like in times of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the kotel is an illusion, and those who wish to turn Israel into a religiously fanatic place at the expense of justice and righteous are a great danger to us all. Tzedek umishpat, justice and righteousness must be central to what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state, because those are the values God requires from us. It is simple: There will be no peace without Justice for everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike. The kotel will not save us.

Jeremiah calls the services at the Temple in Jerusalem divre sheker, illusions, literally “lies.” So, what’s the alternative? True Judaism is to be found in the pursuing of social justice. In other words: Pursuing social justice would work as well as attending shul. But wait, what did just happen? Did I just say that you should pursue social justice instead of coming to services? That can’t be right …

It is a misunderstanding to suggest that the ancient prophets proposed substituting the cult, the rituals of the ancient Temple, and by extension, all rituals, with acts of social justice. I take issue with that too.

Neither the prophets of Israel nor I, as your rabbi, want you to hear the haftarah reading and walk away from our service thinking, “Well, as long as I work for social justice, then I don’t need Judaism, or this congregation.” I know that many of you grew up with the idea that the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism represents the essence of Judaism. While it has great value, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the new director is a friend, I cannot agree with that. I believe that the rituals we perform, the prayers we say, the melodies we sing are essential to being Jewish, Reform or not. Synagogues are not just another non-profit agency.

Now we can answer the question: Why is this chapter from Isaiah read on Yom Kippur? Because it provides a counter balance to the many prayers and rituals we observe during the High Holy Days. On the holiest day of the year, we must hear that being holy, kadosh, is something we must also do outside this sanctuary. We need to embrace the holiness of this day, and carry holiness into the world with us as we leave this sanctuary.

I try to learn from everyone, so last week, I was listening to an interview with Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor at House of All Sinner and Saints, in Denver, Colorado. She was being interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross. Terry asked about her church’s involvement with social justice. Rev. Bolz-Weber explained that although it is true that her congregants are highly involved in the care of the poor, the homeless and victims of abuse. Indeed, she noted, many of them have been victims themselves. The fact of the matter is that their congregants live social justice daily, and come to church to take part in the holiness of coming together to partake the rituals of the Eucharist and other sacraments. This is exactly the other pole of what Isaiah is saying. All social justice and no ritual is also not what God “desires.” Social justice is not a substitute for feeling forgiven, for feeling loved, or cared for by God. It is never a matter of “either or,” that is the mistake that Isaiah is highlighting.

Our traditional includes both: A heritage of social justice AND a rich and complex ritual and observance life. So, a life dedicated to the values of our tradition necessitates constant care of both aspects. Yom Kippur is not about the piety we show in here alone, but also about how these rituals and readings from the Torah and the prophets affect our lives. I cannot tell you or be responsible for how these rituals and values speak to you. This I can say: Judaism is not empty prayers and void rituals. It is not merely showing up weekly, or annually, and reciting the proper prayers, but also acknowledging that the God of Israel is the God of the oppressed, of the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, at all times.

Today, and everyday, we have a choice to make: How to live our life as a Jew? What aspect of Judaism are we going to stress? What part of Judaism speaks to us most? Judaism, like life, is a balancing act, and our Sages summed it all up beautifully when they teach:

“There is no limits to the fulfillment of these mitzvot: leaving the corners of your fields for the needy; giving to God the first fruits of your harvest; gathering with the community for festivals; acting with kindness and loyalty. And striving for knowledge of Torah.” (Pei’ah 1:1).

As we begin a new year, let us hear the cal of our prophets and sages. May we all find our very own balance between social justice and ritual; between caring for others and taking time to nature our souls. May we do so with the realization that our balance depends on talmud Torah, on Jewish wisdom. G’mar hatimah tovah, may you be inscribed, and sealed, for a good year!

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