Sunday, December 15, 2019 -
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Sermons: unity, not politics


What was American Jewry’s greatest failing in 5778? With Rosh Hashanah approaching beginning on Sept. 9, we should all have some ideas about where we stand, both individually and as a community, in terms of living up to our ideals and obligations.

The month of Elul, which concludes as the religious New Year begins, is the period of four weeks that Jews traditionally spend engaging in a cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of our souls.” This is a time of introspection during which an honest evaluation of where we fell short on proper behavior is necessary.

But for 21st-century Jews where do we find the mental space to think seriously about the past year in a 24/7 news-cycle culture in which everything that happened the day before yesterday is considered ancient history?

That’s the challenge that rabbis should be contemplating as they polish their High Holiday sermons.

For many rabbis, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provided them with their best opportunity to make an impression on their congregants. This is particularly true for Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues whose attendance on those days is far greater than at any other moment during the year.

Often, rabbis use these occasions to rally their listeners to support a specific cause or issue.

That’s why many American Jews should be bracing themselves for a thorough dose of advocacy about President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netan-yahu in the coming days.

This is par for the course in liberal congregations whose members are adamantly and overwhelmingly opposed to the Trump administration, and view the current Israeli government with similar animus.

The same applies to the temptation to use the High Holidays to criticize the State of Israel.

Arguments about pluralism are rooted in genuine resentment about policies that offend the non-Orthodox segment of North American Jewry.

There is far less to be said for claims that Israel has become an “illiberal” country that has supposedly discarded Jewish values.

It may be that the divide over Trump — the Israelis appear to appreciate a leader on their side, albeit one disliked by most American Jews — may have done more to widen the gap with the Diaspora than settlements, the peace process or even religious pluralism.

But if the point of the Days of Awe is self-evaluation, then perhaps what is most needed now is less politics and more healing, as well as commentary about a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood and a love for one’s fellow Jews.

The danger here is not so much the criticisim of Trump or Israel. The problem with politics on the pulpit is if it exacerbates the partisan divisions that are taking on the same unyielding characteristics that used to be associated with religion.

Tolerance of political disagreement is essential to any free society. But we should be just as worried about engaging in apocalyptic rhetoric in which differences on even important issues are falsely interpreted as a harbinger of a new Third Reich or Holocaust.

On Israel, the measure should not be whether we disagree with Netanyahu. The real issue is whether our communities understand that such differences are insignificant when compared with our obligation to stand with the Jewish state as it remains under assault from those still determined to destroy it.

If we are to honestly evaluate the spiritual health of our communities, I don’t think many of us would conclude that we haven’t played a  role in fueling a divisive political culture that has coarsened our society.

At a time when there is no shortage of screaming for and against Trump or arguments about Israeli laws and security decisions, the question is whether rabbis can speak in a manner that heals, rather than worsens, a sick political culture.

The challenge for rabbis this year is whether they can uplift a nation and a Jewish community desperately in need of an alternative to toxic divisiveness.

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