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There is a Debate Raging

Here is my sermon: June 23, 2017/1 Tammuz 5777  Shabbat Evening @Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA

There’s  a debate raging.  It’s been going on in the Jewish Journal for the last few weeks.  Rabbi David Wolpe  of Temple Sinai here in Los Angeles wrote an article about why he doesn’t preach politics from the pulpit. He claims that the synagogue should be a politics free zone.  Synagogue in his view is an escape from the worries of the day. A place of prayer and study.  He wrote that the Synagogue should not be divided in these highly contentious times.  Wolpe wrote these words “You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction”


Our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, our denomination wrote,  a reply to Rabbi Wolpe’s article.  He claimed that it is not politics to speak on moral issues of the day. But that our study of Torah and prayer lead us to action and toward shaping our faith. And therefore it was incumbent upon rabbis to use their voice to instruct on moral and ethical ideals as they apply to the issues of our times.  Rabbi Jacobs wrote this: “Sermons that “speak up” on the great moral issues of our world and our lives may address politics and policy as a means of addressing such moral issues but they are not about politics. On the contrary, they are about our Jewish values; the values we teach and the values we pass on to our children; the values that have kept us together as a people for centuries.”


Both are right.


I think you all know I don’t shy away from addressing the moral issues of our times.  Like Rabbi Jacobs I believe the Torah is our guide.  It is not just some ancient book to be read but not lived. For me, the prophets of old, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah are not just to be read but to be taken seriously. When they call for justice and equity they are speaking not just of their times but of our own.  We assert the timelessness of Torah, the eternal nature of the message of our tradition.  And so when the issues of our times confront us, the poverty, racism, and inequality that are so evident and the corruption that seems ever present in our government and institutions we have to give voice.


That is not politics it’s called morality.


Rabbi Wolpe’s large congregation maybe more diverse in its political outlook than Kol Ami. We are a small congregation in a progressive city of West Hollywood. But to shy away from issues of morality is I believe to put one’s head in the sand about the world around us.  But Rabbi Wolpe makes an important point about divisiveness. And that has no place in the synagogue.  The vitriol that inhabits the public square, the online forums and the media has no place in shul.

As you know I don’t  endorse political candidates. I talk to both sides of the aisle. I meet with Republicans and Democrats and Independents.  And I don’t buy party lines.  Because my line is the Jewish line.


I think the challenge that Rabbi Wolpe and Jacobs should address is  a call for everyone take it down several notches. We can disagree on solutions to large issues but the ad hominem attacks must cease.  All conservatives are not bad.  And all liberals are not bad.  But to read twitter depending on whose tweets you see it will reinforce that message.
The challenge in our day and time is to learn to disagree lovingly.  To honestly care about each other as part of the human family.  To see in each other eyes our humanity.  This is what our great Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber taught us all.  To have I-Thou relationships.  To have real encounters with people rather than use them in some utilitarian way.  What Buber calls the I-It.  You see the incivility, anger, and rage-are symptoms of a greater ill—refusing to see another person’s humanity.

That is the core of the problem.  We dehumanize each other.  Right and left, Republican and Democrat.  This is why it is so painful and hurtful.  We traumatize one another because of the slights and erasing of human dignity.  We denigrate individuals’ experiences in the world.  We imagine that everyone experiences what we do and invalidate someone’s differing perceptions. This transforms itself into policy as well.   And so we can get 12 rich white men locked in a room making health policy-without input from women, or people of color, or poor people because their experiences don’t matter-inconsequential.  And let’s be honest whether it is health care or ensuring the US continue to stand by Israel—the utilitarian mode rather than the human mode remains dominant because money is the God—rather than God being God.


Oh there is a lot of God-Talk.  Lots of self-righteousness on both sides of the aisle.  But in a synagogue our job is to come together to study Torah, discuss it, chew on it, come to some conclusions based on the best in our tradition, the best of our teachers and then to live it out.  And yes that will mean that different people live out their religious ideals differently.


For the Torah is multi-valent; meaning it speaks with many voices.  You can read the Torah literally and come away with the understanding that slavery is allowed and the death penalty is permitted.  But if you only read and study the book of Exodus you are not understanding the force of our teachings.  Both were outlawed by our rabbis.


And that is why deep engagement with Torah study is so necessary.  Most Jews today only know a little bit.  Jewish education is lacking.  We have to as Rabbi Wolpe believes, engage and study more Torah to help shape our moral views.  And it is as Rabbi Jacob’s believes that the Toarh and our tradition’s teaching urge us to speak up and loudly.  Silence is not an option.  Because our tradition does have some important conclusions about how we are to treat one another and the responsibilities of society to help those in the least powerful positions of society.


But most importantly when we disagree with our fellow congregant –we have to take them seriously and not simply write them off.  After all Judaism is a religion of relationships.  We must encounter the other and we are called by God to be part of the community, not separate ourselves out. Al tifrsoh min hatzibut, do not separate yourself from the community the Talmud teaches.


But there is so much incivility in the world around us. And it is built in the idea of that to disagree we must attack one another.  The politics of our times is based on this kind of dehumanizing attack that is I believe the root of our problems.  We have to learn to look in the eyes of one another-see each other’s humanity.


And we have to see our common bond with each other that we are part of each other’s lives.  There is a collective basis for our commonality.  By this I mean that – we are dependent on each other.  Our wellbeing depends on each other.  Not so easy in a society that teaches independence.


I believe this is what we have lost in our political discussions and in our communication with each other whether on line or often in person.  We pull away, and hide behind our screens rather than try to build real relationships in real time with each other.  The Jewish demand to pray with a minyan-to pray in community is designed to help us engage and not isolate from each other.


It forces us to interact with each other and with God.  Praying together in community is a way that we remind ourselves that our collective is a necessary component to our spiritual wellbeing.


It is not the ego driven I that matters –but the “we”. And it is the “we” that can transform our own lives and the life of the world. The collective power of community to engage in tikkun olam.


And so while I applaud Rabbi Wolpe’s reminder of the need for the synagogue to be a safe place, a place of prayer and reflection, a place of sanctity that heals the divisions of the outside world.  I also know that Rabbi Jacob’s vision that the synagogue must be a moral voice for good in our world.


At Kol Ami we believe deeply that all are created in God’s image. That is why we worked so hard for LGBTQ equality in this congregation, why we go to Guatemala to help the impoverished, why we work at Sova, why we partner with our non-Jewish church friends.  When the world and our government policies seem to forget our humanity, women’s humanity we have to speak to that.  God created us not to sit on the side lines but to live.  As our Torah teaches  Chai Bayhem—live by them.  And so it is not politics that we address—but policy and humanity.



This week’s Torah portion is Korach. After the rebellion led by Moses’ and Aaron’s cousin Korach is put down, God instructs Moses to take the staff of leadership from each of the chieftains of the 12 tribes. Each must write the name of their tribe on their staff. Aaron will write the tribe of Levi on his staff.  The 12 staves will then be placed in front of the Holy Ark and left over night.  It is a test of leadership.  God says that staff that blooms will be the head of the tribes.  And so they gather the staves, and the next morning miraculously—the staff of Aaron blooms beautiful almond blossoms!  It is a sign, a miracle that reaffirms Aaron’s leadership and that of the Levites to serve.


We have no Levites that serve in the holy Temple. But our service now is in service of holy relationships with one another and God.  That was in part Aaron and the Levites role—to help ensure our relationships were in balance.  I pray that we continue to blossom as did Aaron’s staff of old-signifying our leadership on these issues of our time.


I pray that our congregation continues to be a place that speaks up together. But also speaks to each other with kindness, humility on our lips engaging in discussion together about how we can live out the Torah and the prophetic ideals of peace, justice and equality.    Ken Yehi Ratzon  So May it be God’s Will


Rabbi Denise L. Eger   1 Tammuz 5777


1 thought on “There is a Debate Raging”

  1. Gut geschribben!

    Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein
    University Synagogue |
    P: 310-472-1255 | F: 310.476.3237
    11960 Sunset Boulevard | Los Angeles, CA 90049

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