Rabbinical School Confidential: “New Year Resolutions”

"The rabbi owes to his people not only his industry but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serves them if he sacrifices it to their opinion; a rabbi who asks only whether a thing is popular or unpopular instead … Read More

By / September 27, 2006

"The rabbi owes to his people not only his industry but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serves them if he sacrifices it to their opinion; a rabbi who asks only whether a thing is popular or unpopular instead of seeking to know whether it is right or wrong, is a coward to begin with and a menace always." –Rabbi Leo Jung

A student hated one of the sermons I gave this year. Let me repeat that.

He HATED my sermon. I mean, he found it so offensive that he wrote an email to folks at the Union for Reform Judaism and to my bosses at NYU suggesting that they should "take action" because of what I'd done. Which means fire me. What had I done?

I said that the people who had disproportionately suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were poor and black. I said that the government had failed New Orleans. I quoted New York Times articles. I quoted New Orleans residents. I quoted my sister, a New Orleans refugee. I said that the federal and local governments had failed. And I fact-checked everything with a lawyer friend of mine who has done substantial work in the area. "I don't want to point the finger at the wrong people," I wrote him an email a few weeks ago "Can I say that the Army Corps of Engineers failed?" I asked. Yes, he wrote back. Unquestionably, given all the evidence, yes.

I presented the facts on the ground, and in the newspapers, and I talked about what I'd seen when I spent a long weekend visiting New Orleans last year, six months after the fact. What did I see? What looked like a war zone. (And this from someone who's spent time in the West Bank and unsavory parts of Sri Lanka.)

I talked about accountability, and renewal, two of the most important themes of Rosh HaShanah.

The student called me divisive. He said I had politicized his Rosh HaShanah services. He talked about how he left angry and offended. He said that I had blamed the government (You're damn right. Even George W. Bush blamed the government). And then he wrote something that I'll never forget: "Religion and politics shouldn't be mixed." He doesn't want to hear about society when he goes to Rosh HaShanah services. (Presumably, he wants to hear about himself). And he wants to leave feeling good about himself. (Um, I'm not sure that's what Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are about.)

Anyone who tells you religion in America is not also politics in America is lying, or not paying attention. Anyone who reads the papers and watches TV, and doesn't understand the power of the Christian Right and the appropriation of Christianity and "Christian values" by the Right is missing the boat. And this student, who wrote in his email that the Reform Movement was apolitical, couldn't have been further from the truth.

We were the first movement to ordain women and to ordain out gays and lesbians. Apolitical?

In a post-facto staff meeting with my boss, I explained that one of the major reasons that I came back to Judaism after a rogue 8 years as a wannabe Buddhist (which, to be fair, I still am. More a JUBU these days…) was that Judaism is so overtly political, so unapologetically engaged with the world. It's because of people like Rabbi David Saperstein, the Director of the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C. It's because of my Rabbi father, who used to head up the Illinois Coalition for Abortion Rights, and his board members, who were nuns and Rabbis and priests. It's because my Judaism informs my politics, and has, largely, shaped who I vote for, and why. It's because Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. It's because the first abolitionists in America were preachers. It's because of Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, who spends half her time leading Rabbis for Human Rights, and the other half bringing American Jewish leaders to the West Bank to speak to Palestinian peace activists. It's because, as Rabbi Jung once wrote: "The purpose of the Rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

It's because prophecy has never been non-partisan. It's because religion matters in American politics, more than it ever has before.

It's because, if I had to give that sermon again, I'd say the exact same thing.

(To read a copy of my inflammatory Rosh HaShanah sermon, email me here).

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