An Election Season of Anger and Idolatry

Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5777 

Here’s what I remember from that spring day.  I can tell you because I witnessed it happen.  The young people had gathered for ostensibly peaceful reasons, but things quickly got out of hand.  Pretty soon a group of them, a few “bad apples,” were lighting fire to a parked car and, when the fire engine arrived to extinguish the blaze, they began to throw bottles at the truck and the firefighters – simply for trying to do their job.  Rage quickly became vandalism and violence.  For the first time in decades, police in riot gear were called in, and the young rioters were dispersed or arrested.  A small consolation is that no one was killed, but the property damage was extensive.

This is my firsthand account of the Mifflin Street Block Party in Madison, WI, my sophomore year of college.  The block party began in 1969 as a protest against the Vietnam War.  By the 80’s it had become a community gathering for various political or social causes and by the 90’s it was an excuse, while police looked the other way, for thousands of college students, to party largely uninhibited outdoors. (I was just walking by, of course). Anyway, after the rioting, the city shut down the event.  It didn’t happen again for several years, and it’s now a shadow of its former self.  People remember the Watts riots and the LA Riots, the Crown Heights Riots, the Baltimore Riots of ’68 and 2015.  Few people recall Madison’s Mifflin Street riots from ‘96 perhaps because its perpetrators were almost exclusively white, or perhaps because there was no cause, not societal issue for which they were fighting.  It wasn’t a civil rights battle.  It wasn’t a reaction to police brutality.  It was a bunch of drunk and high kids, doing stupid stuff right?  Just like the two young white guys, Raider’s fans who came from New York to last Sunday’s Raven’s game and pummeled a 55-year old ex-marine, putting him in the hospital – they were just inebriated and lost their cool, right?  Will they be held accountable for their crime?  Maybe.  But is anyone looking beyond that stadium brawl, beyond the Mifflin street block party, beyond the ubiquitous rise in spiteful and hateful online comments? Beyond licentiousness and demagoguery. Could it be that all of these are part of something larger, something more insidious going on in our society?  Have we noticed there seems to be an epidemic of fear and anger in our country, not exclusively but certainly among white men?  The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) says, kol hakoeis k’ilu oved avodah zarah, anger is the equivalent of idol worship.”

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the shofar as an analogue for sacred space.  Today is Yom Kippur, and I want to talk with you about t’shuvah and trust – and about anger.  But to do so, I want to share one more shofar story: One Rosh Hashanah the Chozeh of Lublin was unable to leave his study for t’ekiat hashofar.  He was embarrassed and heartbroken, he felt utterly unqualified believing himself not to have even one zechut, one meritorious act, to his credit that year.  Who was he to fulfill such a mitzvah of blowing the shofar!  He thought and thought.  Is there anything for which I deserve to stand before the community and sound the horn? 

Finally, it occurred to him; during the course of the year, the Chozeh had not spoken one word in anger.  He had been tempted. On one occasion an attendant had forgotten to prepare a vessel of water next to his bed so he was unable to wash his hands for netilat yadayim in the morning.  He was about the scold the man when he recalled the warning of the Sages: “kol hakoeis k’ilu oved avodah zarah, anger is the equivalent of idol worship.”  The Chozeh said to himself: “For the sake of washing my hands in the morning, I’m going to make myself (God-Forbid) an idol worshipper? So he held his tongue.  And recalling that incident and other times throughout the year when he felt angry but didn’t lash out, the Chozeh felt sufficiently qualified to stand before the community and sound the shofar.

Some of you, no doubt, have been wondering what if anything I will say about the election this year.  Articles have been circulating about how difficult the decision for rabbis has been.  This election cycle, I’m sure you’d agree, is like no other, perhaps in American history.  And, yet, we as a congregation are bound, I am bound, to certain restrictions and respecting them is essential.  So let me just put it out there.  The decision of what not to say has been easy for me.  I will endorse no candidate from this bima.  The law exists for good reason, and I am a fierce believer in the wall of separation between church and state, and that value is much bigger than any election, even this one.  But I also believe in the values of our congregation, and it’s always been my contention – as it was our founders’ – that Beth Am is a big-tent community.  Shul doesn’t always need to be easy.  Here, we can “afflict the comfortable even as we comfort the afflicted.”  We can talk about 800 pound gorillas, and I’ve been honored for over six years now to have been able to raise hard questions and share my perspective with you, Shabbos and Yuntif, on relevant topics like marriage equality, structural racism, Anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel, Interfaith family synagogue membership, the Iran deal and much much more.  But, no matter what policies or legislation we might discuss in this room, we must strive, I must strive, to maintain its sanctity and a sense of safety – for Democrats, Republicans, Independents.  Whatever your political convictions, you are a part of this eclectic and wonderful Beth Am family, and we are grateful for each of you in your totality.

And having said that, I believe if we get through the holiday cycle and don’t address, in any way, the thing that is on all of our minds, that would be a disservice to you and an abrogation of my rabbinate, my role as your teacher.  As Parker Palmer, one of my favorite educational philosophers puts it, “The highest form of love [is the] love that allows for intimacy without the annihilation of difference…. good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (The Courage to Teach, p. 57, 13).  The minute I can no longer be me; the moment I no longer create space for you to be you is the moment we have a relationship in name only.  That’s not what I want and I hope it’s not what you want either.

So, today I will not talk about the election, but I would like to offer some thoughts about the American electorate, our society.  Because this cycle has revealed a profound ugliness in our country.  The depth and breadth of hatred, the cavalier dismissal of difference, the erosion of mores and brazen mockery of civility are reaching epidemic levels.  There is so much anger and so much despair.  So, we must talk about anger, and to honor Palmer’s challenge I want to make it personal, start with my own identity.  Because I really don’t know how it feels to be black or brown.  I don’t know what it feels like to be gay or trans.  I’ve never been a woman.  But I do know what it is to be a Jew and how it feels to be a white man, and I am concerned with what far too many white men think about black, brown, Jewish or queer people, and how so many of us think about and treat women.  Anger is a normal human emotion, It’s ok to feel angry.  Even God gets angry in the Torah.  But our rage, white rage, male rage, by virtue of its being anchored in power and privilege, is wreaking havoc on our country, and I as someone who happens to have been born white and male have been struggling to figure out why.

The problem isn’t being unaware; we know bias gets wielded as a cudgel against the weak or vulnerable, but we so often shrug it off, chalk it up to ignorance.  We lost Gene Wilder this year.  Blazing Saddles is one of my favorite movies.  You remember what Wilder’s Jim says to Cleavon Little’s character?  Sheriff Bart has been appointed head law-man of this small town in the Old West which is not surprisingly pretty racist.  Bart is, also not surprisingly, slow to be accepted by the townspeople, all of whom seemed to be named Johnson.  And trying to console him, Jim says, “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny’? ‘Make yourself at home’? ‘Marry my daughter’? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

But (brilliant) comedy aside, when we do this in real life, when we’re dismissive of statements and attitudes, even moronic ones, when we don’t sufficiently grapple with their prevalence and pervasiveness, we miss opportunities for societal growth.  And then we slip back into the same vicious cycles of action and reaction, thesis and antitheses without arriving at any useful synthesis.  One of the better opinion pieces last year was Andrew Sullivan’s in New York Magazine (“Democracies End When they are too Democratic”).  There have been real achievements of late for those who want a more equitable society – legal same-sex marriage in fifty states, the first African-American president, three women (two Jews and a Latina) on the Supreme Court.  And some people, a lot of people it seems, are mad as hell.  Good old fashioned bigotry is no one’s fault but the bigots – But the anger? Sullivan thinks some of that is due to lack of graciousness and empathy by the victors for the vanquished. “For the white working class,” he says, “having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome.”

Is it fair?  Is it people of color who should placate racists when blacks are given their due – especially because really they haven’t been, and the gap between actual and perceived progress is gargantuan.  Is it women’s role to pacify angry white men?  What about someone who lost his job to a woman he deems inferior when women in America are still making 78 cents on the dollar and black women 68 cents?  No.  It’s not fair at all.  But justice can’t be achieved in the heat of passion; it requires reconciliation which requires patience.  Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar taught: al ter’atzeh et chaveirach bish’at ka’aso, Do not placate your friend when he’s angry… v’al tishtadel lir’oto bish’at kalkalato, and don’t intrude upon him at the time of his disgrace” (Pirkei Avot 4:23).  The morons are having their moment, and they would really appreciate it if we stop thinking of them as morons or worse and notice, in their acting out, that most of them aren’t evil; they’re flawed and foolish and scared to death, just like everyone else.  Sullivan writes, “Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well.”

It says in Mishlei (24:17-18), “binfol oyiv’kha lo tismach, do not rejoice at your enemy’s downfall.  Why? “Lest God see it and be displeased and lash out at you [next].”  When achievement only comes at the expense of another, when every win necessitates a loss we end up with a society of losers.  That’s what I learned from my good friend Ron Shapiro: good negotiators anticipate and consider the other party’s needs along with their own.  Because, as we all know, the agony of defeat is infinitely more powerful and longer lasting than the thrill of victory.  Wounds are slow to heal, and they always leave a scar.  As author Brene Brown points out: “We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated,” she points out, “with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying” (Daring Greatly).  And this is exactly what’s happening with white, male America today – more drug use, more depression, higher suicide rates.  We’re a mess!

And what happens when shame is synecdoche, when enough individual Americans feel collectively abused or misunderstood?  Democracies trend toward tyranny over time; that’s the point Sullivan is making and what Plato taught 2400 years ago (The Republic): that hyper-democratization weakens the intelligentsia and leads to what Tocqueville would later call the “tyranny of the majority.”  The masses become the mob.  Which is perhaps why so many white guys, feeling both threatened by women and minorities and collectively ashamed of their own failures, are so very angry.

This is the point Carol Anderson makes in her new book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide (2016).  While many opined about black rage after Freddie Gray was killed or Trayvon Martin or, more recently Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher, Anderson argues that white rage is a much bigger problem for American society.  White people are perfectly capable of rioting, of course – I learned that on Mifflin Street in ‘96 – but, more often white anger is more insidious, simmering beneath the surface, latching on to policies and embedding itself within the legal system.  In Anderson’s telling, black advancement has been the single greatest reason for collective white rage over hundreds of years of American history.  From rolling back reconstruction after the Civil War and instituting Jim Crow, to preventing African American migration from the South, to emasculating Brown v. Board and continuing school segregation, to upending civil rights achievements by eviscerating the Voting Rights act, among other things, to propagating a libelous claim of non-citizenship (and therefore illegitimacy) against the first black president, powerful white men, men who look like me, have lashed out against scapegoats.  African Americans, other people of color, LGBT people, sometimes Jews and plenty of other group have, like the Yom Kippur scapegoat of old, been exiled to some wilderness in order to appease those of us who, by dint of our appearance alone, enjoy some measure of privilege and power.

Anderson speaks mostly about race, not gender, but I feel obliged today to touch not just on white anger and its progeny– racism, xenophobia, nativism, but also male anger and the way it undergirds structural, institutional and pervasive sexism.  If I hear one more pundit, athlete, politician-dad talk about how he’s concerned for his daughters… gentlemen, we need to be concerned for our sons.  Misogyny is a men’s problem.  Violence against women is a men’s problem.  We are responsible for judging women differently by what they wear, or how they walk or talk or their body type.  We subject them to double-standards and objectify and degrade them.  The degree of misogyny apparent in our society today, forty-five years after Gloria Steinem started Ms. Magazine, ninety-six years after suffrage, is to my mind unconscionable.  And… no doubt, we as a society will no sooner overcome the stain of sexism by shaming men, than we will the scourge of racism by shaming whites.

There was a group deeply appreciative of men’s capacity for shame and retribution, and while making some great strides toward female advancement, as Judith Hauptman has shown, still used this awareness to keep women in their place for centuries. They were our Sages.  The Talmud is clear: there is no halakhic reason, for example, why women should be banned from reading Torah.  Why, then, have they traditionally been forbidden to do so? Meshum kevod hatzibur. “For the dignity of the community” (Megillah 23a).  That is to say, if a woman gets up and reads from the Torah, how will that feel for men in the room who can’t?  Were the Rabbis wrong?  Yes, I believe they were wrong.  Were the Rabbis pragmatic; did they understand the tyranny of the majority, even as they were to party to it?  Also, yes.

What, then, should we do?  Do we say white supremacists were right to take back 40 acres and a mule during Reconstruction because it helped America heal?  Do we say Chazal were right to keep women off the bima?  Or much worse, do we say Kristallnacht was inevitable because Germany was smarting from post-war depression?  Of course not.  Real healing is not done at the expense of the vulnerable, on the backs of broken.  But if possible it should be done with some consideration for those who must begin to relinquish their power.  This is Yom Kippur, a time for t’shuvah, and t’shuvah is about “turning.”  We turn toward God.  We turn toward those we have hurt.  But there can be no healing unless, somehow, we find the courage and strength to pivot toward those who have hurt us as well, and to recognize that they too are broken and ailing and so consumed with their own pain as to be devoured by anger approaching idolatry.  Avinu Malkeinu, sh’lakh refuah shelaymah l’cholei amekha, God, grant a full healing to your ailing people.”

But that’s really hard: to turn our face toward someone when his face represents persecution, marginalization or even violence, when our completely justifiable fantasy would be, at a minimum, to turn a cold shoulder. And in this moment, we should remember that our tradition does not necessarily demand forgiveness, at least not for those who have truly wronged us with sins of commission not omission.  For the latter, perhaps we should find a way to move through our own biases.  But for those who curse and maim, who belittle and berate, for those who commit violence, forgiveness without t’shuvah feels hollow and may even exacerbate our problems.

But, my friends, while we may not have to forgive, it is upon us to try to understand.  Remember the church shooting in Charleston, NC?  How could we forget?  When a young white man murdered nine African Americans, men and women, young and old, at Bible study, simply for the crime of being black.  “I have to do it,” he said. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”  He reloaded five times. I don’t know about you, but when I heard the families of several victims forgive the shooter, I was at once in awe and deeply unsettled – because I couldn’t do that.  And without judgment of those who could forgive, I would suggest that’s not our job.  But if we stop there, if we pretend Dylann Roof is an animal and not a real person or just chalk his behavior up to mental illness without examining the culture that put hate in his head and a Glock in his hand.  If we don’t try to understand his rage, we as a country will struggle for generations more to heal and to grow.  Anyone who’s ever experienced trauma knows there’s no getting over it, no moving past it, there’s only moving through it.

Cain killed his brother Abel and so we learn hashomer achi anochi, we are our brother’s protectors.  We are our sister’s keepers.  But more, we are the keepers of their narratives, their stories.  We must turn toward one another this year, especially after the election is over.  We must listen to each other’s concerns and grant them the dignity of being heard – not abided, surely not every moronic opinion accepted or laughed off, but heard and responded to with, whenever possible, patience and kindness and grace.  And I can say this: I’ll be trying right along with you, because it doesn’t come naturally to me either.

So let me pivot for a moment, and ask this final question because, for all of our problems, there is so much good in this world and, despite it all, I do love this country.  So here’s my question: how many of you have taken an Uber or stayed in an Airbnb?  One of the things I love about 5777 and recent years is the advent of the sharing economy.  Who would have thought, just a few years ago, that complete strangers would be stepping into each other’s cars or sleeping in each other’s homes?  Nevertheless, as Airbnb’s founder likes to point out, tonight almost 800,000 people in nearly 200 countries will be sleeping in a stranger’s home or welcoming a stranger into theirs.  That’s extraordinary.  We look around the country this election season and it seems like people are more divided than ever before, and in some ways that’s true.  But, simultaneously, we have an emerging culture that reclaims the best of an ancient and nearly forgotten world – a world before stranger-danger and Halloween candy scares, a world where hospitality somehow trumped fear of the unknown.  That was Abraham’s world, Sarah’s world.  The Midrash says Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all four sides so that they could see guests coming from a distance.  Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming.  That’s what we do at Beth Am.  That’s what we strive for when new-comers enter our walls.  That’s the world we’re trying to create here in Reservoir Hill, where people of different backgrounds and perspectives find common ground and develop trust through shared interest and increased understanding.  That world isn’t a fantasy.  In fact it’s more real than the boogeymen that are scaring so many American’s into a posture of self-preservation and sometimes rage.  But we don’t have to be so angry.  And when we feel angry, we can choose to act otherwise.

How did Airbnb do it?  How did they get random strangers to cohabitate?  Two key things: they designed an effective system for reviews and, in doing so, they were honest about social biases that exist.  They understood that it’s completely normal to trust someone who is more like you – same race, same gender, similar age or faith tradition.  But they also understood that my not trusting you doesn’t make you less trustworthy.  I just need help working through my prejudice and giving you space to work through yours.  So, if you go on Uber or Lyft or Airbnb you’ll see reviews.  And a Stanford study showed that if someone has at least ten good reviews, people are significantly more likely to stay at his or her home despite their differences.  Abraham and Sarah had a reputation, not just a well-designed tent, but their well-designed tent allowed them to live out their reputation.  This afternoon, after Martyrology and the Open Forum and before Mincha, we will be hosting here in the sanctuary our neighbors B. Cole and Aisha Pew of the Dovecote Café.  Anyone been there?  (Hopefully, not today…I asked them to send me a list)… Dovecote just celebrated their first anniversary, and I’m happy to say just won City Paper’s award for best café in all of Baltimore, and I do feel a little guilty for doing this on Yom Kippur when they can’t bring treats.  But if you read the review, the food and coffee are praised but secondary.  The first line reads as follows: “There is absolutely no way you can walk into Dovecote Café, located in Reservoir Hill, and not feel welcomed.”  Aisha and Cole are black and New Yorkers by way of Northern California and they’re women and Queer, and I’m none of those things – and they’re my friends.  And I don’t say that because I want you to think I’m cool.  (I do want you to think I’m cool, but that’s not why).  I say they’re my friends simply because it’s true, and we need fewer people to say “some my best friends are fill in the blank” and more people to say this is my friend Shirley or Kiara or Mahmed, or Deyvon or Dave.  Because there is great capacity in this country for shared vision and purpose, for understanding another’s stories and perspectives and for inviting others to understand ours, for hospitality, compassion and love.

And when this election is over, and the dust settles, we, all of us, will have to begin to pick up the pieces and move forward.  Every conversation we have and don’t have, every tweet or social media post we make or don’t, every email we send or think better of and then delete, every true but needling thing we say or refrain from saying will either add a thread to the fabric of this country or help in some small way to unravel it further.  We, each of us, is the Chozeh of Lublin and must demonstrate our worthiness.  We, each of us, will have a thousand thousand opportunities in the coming months to act with pettiness or magnanimity. And between the moment when the shofar sounds this evening and the moment it sounds again on Rosh Hashanah 5778, we as a nation will decide to be more worthy or less.  May we, each of us and all of us, be more.