Kol Nidre 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Kol Nidre 5778

Shabbat Shalom
Good Yom Ttov
Gmar Chatimah Tovah

This is the only time of year that I get to speak to all of you. I can’t possibly speak about all of this. In this tradition, there is so much from which we can learn, and from which our lives can be shaped. The words give meaning to what we are and who we are.

On the most essential level, we see that our learning tradition is based on disagreements and dialogue. There’s a realization that we don’t all agree on things; in fact, we disagree on most things, but our disagreements are to be civil and respectful. We stay in conversation. And we learn how to be in that conversation. We listen to each other. I read this week that 50% of one political party in this country do not want their children to marry someone affiliated with the other party! And the stories of thanksgiving gatherings this past year were pretty embarrassing! By the way, in the other party it’s only 30%!!!

I think there are too many people who think, “how great this world would be, if everyone agreed with me!” The problem points to a lack of humility. People live with a certainty that they are correct, and if they are always right, then the other is wrong! And it’s one thing when that comes from your obnoxious uncle, it’s another thing when your lawmakers and leaders portray that attitude. And so it gets more and more difficult to move a society forward.

And so much of all of this is found in both the Jewish tradition of learning and the intellectual traditions inherited by our culture. But it seems that people are too busy giving their opinions, who does the research? Who studies? Who reads anymore? People believe what they hear on FOX or on CNN…and that becomes the bedrock of their position.

So this year, I wrote more than a few sermons. Some, I will admit, I really liked. And they were about us, and some were about our machzor, and our readings and Israel and Jerusalem. But inside of me is something burning. And I feel that I would not be legitimate, if I didn’t give it voice.

You know on Rosh Hashanah I spoke about empathy. And I heard that someone said: “The rabbi is too political.” I think about that a lot. I wonder where empathy becomes political. If you’re concerned about human rights, and express it, is that too political? And, I know also, as a rabbi, that I come from a tradition that never wanted its learning to exist in a vacuum. It calls on us. Our tradition is a values tradition. Have we not preserved the prophets for 2,500 years? Who were they, if not the social conscience of a society? What is the Book of Leviticus, if not an expression of how holiness is lived out in real terms, if not a social contract about how to structure an economic framework for a just society? That’s Torah, that’s Judaism.

And sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes it makes us all uncomfortable. There are times when I want to see religion as a retreat from the troubles around us. As if to say, “come into the sanctuary, feel safe, get away from the world that is so troubling. Let’s meditate and sing songs that touch are hearts, and bring us back to some yesterday where all was good and well with the world.”

There is a place for that. AND, sometimes that’s exactly what religion is meant to do. Faith should soothe us, make us comfortable.

I love the thought of the late great American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes. He once said that religion has two obligations. One is to make those who are distressed and uncomfortable, comfortable. The other obligation of religion is to make those who are comfortable, uncomfortable. We know what he meant. Religion should challenge us to be better and to do more.

I’m of the generation of those who came of age in the sixties. We saw our society begin to confront racism and war, and we know that amongst those at the forefront of those struggles were rabbis. I know of rabbis who lost their jobs because they protested racism. But inspiration came to me from the rabbis who marched against it. In the tradition of the prophets, they saw injustice and violence and they protested, in word and deed. And, for this rabbi, they became models of religious leadership.

I know that there needs to be care, because for many issues there is not one way to respond. Don’t we all agree that hunger which is a result of poverty needs to be alleviated? I truly believe that except for the few callous and the heartless, we all agree. But, I also know there are different approaches to solve that problem. I’m not certain about them all. They need each other.

On this evening, there is something urgent to talk about.

My concern is that, because of messaging and emails and Facebook and the 24-hour streaming of the news we are so distracted that we lose sight of issues that are really significant and will have lasting impact. Combine that with a political conversation that moves from one thing to the next, so quickly we forgot the last issue and what happens is that, the really urgent becomes less important.

There are a number of important events. But unless we remain focused, changes take place as we sit with our heads spinning not knowing how to respond and therefore being complacent and complicit. And, while we do that, people suffer. I’m not concerned about a little pain. I’m concerned about devastating destruction.

Perhaps we should be particularly tuned in, because we have seen, the Jewish people have experienced what happens when the whirlwind of hatred goes unchecked.

I’m referring to that day which I will refer to as the black Sabbath, August 12, 2017. It took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of neo-Nazis showed up to protest the removal of a confederate icon. Don’t forget, it was a statue of one who fought for the preservation of slavery.

What pursued was the ugliest expression of public antisemitism, Jew hatred, that we in America had seen in our lifetime. The news stories have moved on…sort of. The impact and the response has not. And we need to look at that. Because the implications are huge for us and our people and America. I have to speak about it.

We have seen our culture decline in many ways. Popular culture is filled with trashy images and stupid portrayals. But, additionally, we have seen the permissibility of hateful language and the objectification of people, be they disabled, or of different gender, or immigrants. We have seen the violence perpetrated against people of color. And, in that openness, we have also been witness to anti-Semitism unlike anything that has been seen since Hitler. In all of that, Jewish journalists and writers and scholars and public figures are consistently hammered with the ugliest forms of anti-Semitism on web sites. Acts of vandalism against Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and JCC’s have gone up exponentially.

I don’t think we’re naïve. We always knew that anti-Semitism is present. We’ve seen it from the left and the right. But something has changed which has given a license for expression and emboldened Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo Nazis, and other far right haters. I’m sure, like me, you trembled and feared watching salutes of Seig Heil, Swastikas on arm bands, torches held by marchers screaming about the purity of this land and that “Jews will not replace us”. This was an attack in every one of us.

But it was more than that.

And sadly, it has receded into the background.

This was evil. We saw the evil.
I cried for the people here who experienced this before; they thought they would never see it again. Not here. I trembled for the Holocaust survivors, some of whom sit with us, numbers tattooed on arms who may have thought this would never happen here.

The rabbi at the synagogue in Charlottesville, fearfully and appropriately took their Torahs out of the back door of the building. Congregants huddled like Jews in the thirties listening to chants outside their shul…“Burn it down.”

And what was needed was a clear, powerful unequivocal condemnation of Nazism and the Klan and hatred, from the leader of this land. And it didn’t come.

There was a statement about bad dudes on both sides! Then a clarification and then later a return to equivocation Why? Was it because of the alt right’s political support? Because of the base?

Let’s make it clear. There were some bad actors on the left. But there were also good people, including many rabbis. But let’s make it clear every single person who affiliates with Nazism and these organizations is evil. We can say that! We can be in conversation between the right and the left and those who disagree about so much. And we can hope that everyone can grow and change. But there is a place where evil is evil. And it needs to be called out!

It begins with leadership. But we must enter this battle. And not leave it. Don’t forget, Hitler and his followers, started small in the 1920’s and they had setbacks; but they continued and under the right economic situation their power grew and grew. Hitler was democratically elected because he promised to make Germany great and prosperous and pure and powerful and respected in the world. We know this. We have heard this over and over. What do we learn from it?

A famous Jewish comedian a few decades ago was once asked: What would he say if he had the opportunity to speak to a Nazi. His response was, you don’t speak to Nazis, they need to be destroyed.

The Reverend Martin Niemoller, of the Dutch Reforming Church, opposed Hitler and spent seven years in a concentration camp. He wrote a poem that has become so famous that we’ve lost something of its power.

First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His point was obvious, that Germans, and in particular, he believed the leaders of the Protestant churches—had been complicit through their silence. That too must be responded to with “Never Again”.

We understand antisemitism. We all agree that Nazism is evil. But here there are deeper challenges.

We in the interfaith community did a vigil a few days after Charlottesville and 21 leading clergy men and women came together in Boca. There were Christians and Muslims and Jews; blacks and white and people of all ethnicities. And there were about 300 people. It was a good expression.
But in this community? 300 people come together when Nazis are out again??? That’s a Shanda. There should have been a thousand. Neimoller understood how easy it is to be complacent and we see that.

But something more than that.

And here’s where we need a mirror. That’s what we do on Yom Kippur.

A poet, philosopher, and conscience of the world died last year. Elie Wiesel was a survivor who taught us all and taught the world so much.
He wrote: I’m obsessed with silence.
Because of the silence of the world.
I don’t understand why the world was silent when we needed an outcry
I always come back to that problem
Where were the humanists, the leaders, the liberals, the spokesmen for humankind?
The victims needed them.
If they had spoken up the killers would not have killed or would have killed less
The slaughter would not have succeeded.

Elie Wiesel spoke out against anti-Semitism. He spoke to power. Remember when he told then President Reagan not to attend the ceremony at the cemetery in Bitburg. Boldly he said: Mr. President, this is not your place; not the place of the leader of America!

Why? Because there were Nazis buried there and he knew the power of the image of our president being there.
Who our leaders are with, who they speak with? And what they do, makes a difference.

Elie Wiesel understood what happened, and drew messages, not only for Jews, but for the ear of humankind. And that’s why Elie Weisel spoke out against the persecution of Cambodian Refugees, he spoke for the protection of Miskito Indians. His notion of “Never Again” was not only about Jews. It was about being bystanders to evil. He spoke out and protested Rwanda, and screamed for help for Darfur and he cried for the victims in Syria. He took up the causes of refugees and displaced people.

On this day when we hear important truths we have to listen to the words of Niemoller. We must understand, we must know, we must realize that if they are coming for us…it is not us alone.

In Germany and Poland and throughout Europe, we were the other.

Here in the United States it has become so easy to be complacent because we are mostly white and we are mostly comfortable and we share the privileges of that. We are part of the structure of leadership, big business, the government and the ruling elites of this country.

We know what it feels like to be considered and seen as different? Could we imagine if we still wore yellow stars? When one has black skin, it cannot be put away.

Everyone who sees you knows that you are different.
Are we willing to confront the impact of the history of racism, on every level and understand that it still exists?

We were slaves, immigrants, outsiders` and we give thanks to this great country for absorbing us.

But today…can we imagine the plight of those who simply have to get away from persecution and death?

Charlottesville opened our eyes only to the Nazis and KKK who want us gone. It should have opened our eyes to the larger forces that oppress and hate others too. Because they are going after immigrants, and socialists, and people of color…and gays and yes…Jews.

And we hear that warning. And we must look into our own hearts. And see who we are and what we can do.

We must get involved in the larger community too. We must speak out for others. We must read about the experiences of others.
And we must demand clear language from our leadership!

This day is not meant to put us asleep. This day is a call to wake up.

Tomorrow we will read two prophetic readings.
In the morning, we will read Isaiah’s response to our ritual and our fast. And the prophet will challenge us: We will hear Isaiah’s cry: Is this the fast that I desire? “A day for people to starve their bodies?
No, the fast I desire is to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke to let all the oppressed go free!”

That’s what our rabbis chose for our people to recite on Yom Kippur.

And later in the day we will recite another Haftorah from the prophet Jonah.
Jonah just wanted to get by. Jonah wanted a good life, not to be disturbed by the wrong doing of others.

And so, he receives this call one day. He’s told to prophesize and help the Ninevites change their ways.
NO THANK YOU…he says. I don’t want to get involved.
And besides…they are not us. They are different then us.

So he hops on a boat…He can run but he can’t hide. He’s thrown overboard! He’s swallowed by the fish and then he is spewed onto the very land he is called to help.

There the people change their ways. What a story. On this our most sacred day. The rabbis have us telling a story about our responsibilities to others. This is why we are here.

Hillel said it best:
If I’m not for myself who will be?
But if I’m only for myself what am I?

It’s easy to condemn Nazis…but what about those who because of their words, actions or lack of them are complacent and complicit? It’s easy to see those who want to kill us, but what about those who allow hatred and discrimination and violence to continue against others?

This is urgent.
This is our time to stand for what we believe…and perhaps more importantly take what we have learned and see, if it can change us, even a little bit. That would matter.

Shabbat Shalom
Gmar Chatimah Tovah…

May we all be written and sealed for a very good year!