Reading from: Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, by Samuel G. Freedman
The Destruction of the Second Temple
In the first century of the Common Era, as the Roman Empire reigned over Judea, the tiny nation rose in revolt. For several years Jewish revolutionaries drove mighty Rome into retreat, seating their own regime in defiance. Yet at the very time that the empire’s counterattack demanded the utmost unity from the insurrectionists, they fell into a virtual civil war. The Jewish resistance fragmented between upper and lower classes, the priestly caste and the masses, fundamentalists and progressives.
As the Romans advanced through Judea, the Jewish forces guarding the holy capital of Jerusalem turned their swords against each other. The high priests led a siege against Zealots encamped on the Temple Mount; the Zealots, victorious, executed their foes. Thus divided, the rebels could not even agree on how to defend Jerusalem. Titus and his troops reconquered the city and burnt the Second Temple to the ground. — p. 13
…The First Temple had been razed by Babylonian forces; the Second Temple, Jews came to believe, was lost less to the Romans than to their own sinat hinam—pure hatred, groundless hatred. — p. 14
From the suburban streets of Great Neck to the foot of the Western Wall, I have witnessed the struggle for the soul of American Jewry. It is a struggle that pits secularist against believer, denomination against denomination, gender against gender, liberal against conservative, traditionalist against modernist even within each branch. — p. 23
This civil war, while building for nearly a half-century, has reached its most furious pitch in the final years of the millennium. In November 1995, a yeshiva student named Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin amid a climate of theological approval developed partly by American rabbis. — p. 23
In March 1997, an association of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the Adudath Harabonim, declared that the Reform and Conservative movements, which collectively represent about two-thirds of American Jews, were ‘not Judaism at all.’ Less than three months later, the first of the haredi attacks on egalitarian and mostly American worshippers at the Western Wall occurred. — p. 24
The strife wracking American Jewry, unique though it is in many respects, also reflects a history of discord among the Chosen People. — p. 29
The Book of Exodus describes Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments only to discover that his brother Aaron has fashioned a Golden Calf for the Jewish encampment to worship. Moses shatters the tablets and order the faithful Levites to “put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gat to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor and kin.’ — p. 29
…Irving Howe told a college audience six weeks before his death in 1994: ‘For some thoughtful Jews, those who want to remain ‘Jewish Jews’ but in all seriousness cannot yield themselves to religion, the result is a sense of profound discomfort, perhaps desperation. I think that those of us committed to the secular Jewish outlook must admit we are reaching a dead end.” — p. 358
Sermon: October 8, 2000
“Arguments For the Sake of Heaven”
Let’s begin with a story which I first heard from David Ariel, president of the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. It’s a Talmudic story with the fundamental lesson we need to learn and relearn, to visit and revisit again and again.
Ariel’s point in telling this story is to hold up the Jewish tradition of argumentation as a good and positive thing. It’s also intended to draw a distinction between arguments for the sake of heaven, and arguments that are not for the sake of heaven and should be avoided.
In the above passages from ‘Jew vs. Jew.’ Sam Freedman recounts how the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 A.D. They had occupied Jerusalem for some years and there was a delicate tension between the Jews in Jerusalem and the Romans who occupied the Holy City, not unlike the situation today between Jews and Palestinians.
David Ariel’s Talmudic story begins in the year 66 A. D.—four years before the destruction of the temple:
One of the leading citizens of Jerusalem decided to give a party, and he sent out invitations to all the prominent people in the City.
An invitation intended for a man named Kompsa was mistakenly delivered to a man with a similar name: Barkompsa.
Barompsa, as it turned out, was not only the wrong person but he was a man vehemently hated by the host of the party. Barkompsa was of course surprised to get an invitation. But he took it as an opportunity, perhaps, to heal old wounds—a Yom Kippur opportunity. It was also an chance to hob-knob with the Jerusalem’s elite.
When Barkompsa arrived at the party the host was outraged and ordered him to leave immediately. Barkompsa pleaded with the host and even offered money to allow him to stay and to avoid the humiliation of being thrown out of the party in front of the City’s leading rabbis and most influential citizens.
The host insisted that he leave, and had him unceremoniously thrown out. Barkompsa was humiliated and outraged. To bring his revenge on the host and those who stood by and watched, Barkompsa went to the Roman authorities and he concocted a story, telling them that the host and the rabbis did not accept Roman law, and were plotting a rebellion against the Romans.
The Roman governor believed Barkompsa’s story and thus began the war which ultimately led the destruction of the Jews of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A. D.
In his helpful book ‘Spiritual Judaism’ David Ariel offers a line from Chayyim Bialik: “Every renewal is nothing less than a return to first principles.”
I always hope we can take a new look at the old stories, the old questions, the old issues—to return to first principles to gain deeper insight and understanding.
There’s nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes says, but there is always a new way of looking at the old things.
I heard a colleague describe his experience of returning from a six-month sabbatical saying, “I felt completely renewed, ready to dig into the old issues with new eyes.”
T. S. Eliot’s line comes again to mind: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Eliot and Bialik provide an introduction to this sermon, since it’s my intention to go back to the starting point—to the basics about our Jewish/Christian heritage, and to see something new or as if for the first time.
This Yom Kippur sermon is for those in our congregation who have religious or ethnic roots in Judaism, which I’d guess to be about 25% or so. Maybe more.
It’s also for those in our congregation whose Christian upbringing may have lacked an adequate, in-depth education in the basics of Christianity’s roots in the Jewish religion. I know I grew up with little appreciation that Jesus was a practicing Jew and that what we called the New Testament is nothing but a theology of the Old Testament — until I was in seminary no one told me that there was nothing ‘new’ in the New Testament.
I’d also add that this and every Yom Kippur sermon is for those among us who have neither Jewish nor Christian roots but want to learn more and to reflect on the basics of the Jewish and Christian approaches to the central questions of life.
My working assumption is that we are Unitarian Universalists, in part, because we want to better understand what makes us tick; we want to look again at our own personal history so we can clean the slate, so we can understand or know ourselves and so that we can live a better life.
I’m fully aware that we have members of our congregation who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu… and we even have a few life-long Unitarian Universalists!
Our hope is that each of us can have some sense of returning to first principles—to continue to explore, to go back to where we started and to know or appreciate the place as if for the first time.
That, of course, could be said about any and every sermon or service conducted in this sanctuary.
The High Holy days of Judaism begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and end with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
Rosh is the Hebrew word for head or beginning; sana is the word for year: the head of the year, the New Year, celebrates the creation of the world 5761 years ago.
No one in this room today believes that world was created 5761 years ago, or that it was created the way the Bible story says: in six days, by an anthropomorphic god.
More importantly, however, is the notion of the annual cycles and the need to clean the slate at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. No one in this room today doesn’t have some soul-cleaning work to do.
This, I think, is one of the first principles. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be you? Here? Now? How do you want to be in the world? More specifically, what’s on that slate that needs cleaning?
The High Holy Days, if they are to truly mean anything at all to any of us, must somehow help us to get at that basic or first principle—the sacred or ‘holy,’ which dwells within each of us.
The Hebrew word Yom means day, and kippur, which means atonement, comes from the Hebrew verb to cover-, as in covering a debt or paying the bill. Thus the day of atonement is intended to provide the opportunity to make amends, to be reconciled with God and with one another.
This is the idea, and it’s a concept easy enough to grasp, but let me say at the outset that the deeper, religious or spiritual meanings of the High Holy Days, or of religion in general, cannot and will not be reached by the head alone.
Maybe that’s why observant Jews keep their heads covered, as a sign of the head’s tendency to get in the way of the religious or spiritual aspect of life.
This is an idea that struck me for the first time as I was preparing this sermon. It’s an example of continuing the exploration and ‘knowing the place for the first time.’ So it has a personal meaning for me. I’ve never heard anyone suggest the symbolism of keeping the head covered as a reminder not to be ruled by the intellect alone.
In preparation for the sermon I watched the movie The Chosen, again, and I listened carefully to the Hasidic rabbi’s comments about his son, who was a child prodigy, who memorized complete pages of books when he was four years old.
His son is now a young man who wants to study psychology rather than become a rabbi as his father had assumed he would, but secretly feared he wouldn’t. The rabbi was thinking back, reflecting on his thoughts and feelings when his son was four years old and he saw that his son had such intellectual prowess. He told his son, by talking to his son’s friend, that he had prayed: “Master of the universe, a brain like this I need for a son? No, a heart I need for a son, compassion and kindness I need from a son. Not a brain without a heart.”
In other words, to be a rabbi one must have kindness and compassion more than mere intelligence.
I’ve heard the tradition of keeping the head covered as a sign of respect for God, a sign of humility. Now I see it as a symbol of putting limits on the intellect—the head, while affirming the heart, the emotional aspect. Without that ingredient there is no spirituality. The human spirit is nurtured first and foremost with the heart.
To Disagree For the Sake of a Deeper Discussion
One of the central and most meaningful aspects of Judaism, the religion, is its lack of creedalism. Judaism does not require a system of belief, in a theological sense. It does, however, require thoughtful reflection which is stimulated by discussion, the exchange of ideas.
Discussion is often a polite word for disagreement or argumentation.
The Torah—Hebrew for instruction or law—is the basic and most sacred source of guidance for the observant Jew.
The word Torah, the scroll containing the five books attributed to Moses, is in a more general sense the entire body of religious law and learning including not only the sacred writings but the oral tradition.
When Jews refer to the study of the holy books, then, they mean the study of Torah and Talmud.
The Talmud is the collection of ancient writings or interpretations of the learned rabbis; interpretations of the stories—the myths, if you will—in the Torah.
The word Talmud means learning or instruction, from the verb to learn.
Discussion, disagreement and argumentation are central to one’s growth in the Jewish faith tradition. It’s expected. It’s essential. It’s basic to deeper learning.
The rabbis distinguish between arguments which can be called arguments for the sake of heaven, or for the sake of one’s spiritual growth, individually and collectively, and arguments which are not for the sake of heaven; arguments which are divisive and destructive. Arguments that are not for the sake of heaven destroy relationships and they destroy the holy temple we call self-respect or integrity.
Arguments that are divisive and destructive, the rabbis say, are based on fear, insecurity, prejudices, and narrow-mindedness. Groundless hatreds fuel the flames of passion and tear apart relationships, tear apart families, tear apart communities.
Sinat hinam is pure, groundless hatred.
Arguments which are not for the sake of heaven lead to the ultimate forms of violence and destruction; they contain the seeds war.
Jews must build a strong tolerance for disagreements, then. The insightful, committed Jew knows that disagreement is important and necessary and helpful to one’s education—if it is done in a respectful way.
Disagreements for the sake of heaven help to draw things out of the person, as the word education—to draw forth—suggests.
Disagreements that are not for the sake of heaven are attempts to stuff something down somebody else’s throat. These arguments quickly turn into personal attacks, calling into question the other’s person’s character. When this happens, the argument is not an argument for the sake of heaven. It becomes a form of abuse, a kind of interpersonal violence.
This is what Samuel Freedman talks about in his provocative book, Jew vs. Jew: The struggle for the soul of American Jewry.
Since I’m not Jewish I run the risk of crossing an important line into territory I’ve no business treading. I can’t become too involved with what my beloved friend and colleague, Rabbi Bob Orkand, calls ‘a family squabble,’ warning me not to get tangled up in their fight, since I’m an outsider.
I appreciate his advice.
But I am a step-child in the family of Judaism. My wife Lory is Jewish, and my darling step-daughter, Carlyn, attends Hebrew school and is, at nine years old, very conscious of being Jewish. My brother-in-law and my father-in-law who have become so dear to me are Jewish.
I spent two weeks with them in Israel this summer as they dug into their roots and I felt privileged to share part of that religious/ethnic archeological project. I wasn’t simply watching what they were doing, I was part of the dig.
Even before my marriage to Lory I’ve had an affinity for the Jewish approach to religion and life, seeing the close similarities between Reform Judaism and our Unitarian approach.
I studied Old Testament at Boston University and learned that the stories in the Old Testament were not intended to be taken literally—they are helpful guides we can use to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be an active, not passive, part of Creation, and to feel more deeply connected to our fellow humans and therefore more deeply connected to this essential thing we call the soul.
There is a great deal about the Jewish approach to life, and what I understand to be the basic tenets of Judaism, that I have embraced for thirty years.
At the same time I know that I will never be Jewish, I will never be part of the inner circle of the larger Jewish family.
To those who think I’ve already become too Jewish, as they put it, let me say, as clearly as I can, that the more I learn about Judaism and the condition of the Jewish people today, the more I am reminded why I’m a Unitarian, and why I appreciate so deeply what our Unitarian Universalist faith has given to me.
When I returned from Israel this summer I wrote about that in a letter to you. I wrote that my feelings of appreciation for our Unitarian Universalist approach were reinforced. It is a burden to be a Jew today, for lots of reasons.
I do not say this by way of an apology to those who think I’ve become too Jewish. I say it merely as clarification and a return to first principles. For the record, I’ve been told I’ve become too Christian after some December services; I’ve been told I’ve become too Buddhist after extolling the virtues of the Buddhist way.
Those concerns can provide opportunities for discussion or ‘arguments for the sake of heaven,’ but you have to present them to me directly. Otherwise they can sound divisive—arguments that are not for the sake of heaven.
The best that is in Judaism is a foundation stone for the best in Unitarianism. The same can be said about the best in any and all of the world’s religions.
Our task is to pan for the gold—to fill the basin by the stream and swish it around, washing the gravel from the gold. Time is the stream beside which we stand, into which we sometimes step or put in our canoe and go with the flow.
Yom Kippur, like the Sabbath, is a time to step out of the fast-flowing stream, catch our breath and filter the gravel out of the gold of our lives.
How will it pan out?
Each of us carries a lot of gravel—old stones that weigh us down and make the journey more strenuous than it needs to be.
The gold is the best in all the world’s religions—it’s that unutterable essence or sacred ingredient which in each of the world’s religions. The gold nuggets in each of the world’s religions look, essentially, the same.
To see that essential sameness, however, we must return to first principles.
Before drawing this to a close let me say that there are certain aspects of Judaism that I see as diametrically opposed to my personal beliefs and our Unitarian ideals.
It is beyond the realm of possibility for me to think I could ever possibly accept the idea of a God who chooses favorites among his children, and I mean this in a metaphorical, not literal sense.
Fundamentalist Jews seem to believe in this kind of God, and so do fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.
I could not possibly embrace the idea of a God who would ask Abraham to kill his son, and then to hold Abraham’s willingness to do so as an ideal of the blind obedience he wants. I could not possibly believe in a god who would have his son crucified for the sins of humankind, which is a retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story.
I am puzzled that the Holy Mount for Jews and Muslims is the rock on which Abraham laid his son with knife drawn. I am puzzled that the cross is the ultimate sacred symbol of Christianity.
There are countless examples of things in Western religion as presented so loudly by the extremists and literalists that I find abhorrent and offensive…belief systems which inevitably lead to the baseless, groundless hatreds so active in the world today.
Our world is at a crucial turning point and we need to grow out of the ancient primitive ways of thinking—the tribalism that our ancient forebears needed to survive. The tribe we need to belong to is the Big Tribe we call humanity.
On the other hand, the more I learn about Jewish thinking, Jewish scholarship, and the deeper meanings in the stories, the more I appreciate Judaism’s tremendous contributions to the moral and intellectual development of humankind.
I can say the same about Christianity’s contribution to the ethical, moral, spiritual development of our human tribe.
So, I’m invested, both personally and professionally, in learning as much as I can about the Jewish and Christian approach to life, about all the religions of the world.
The Destruction of the Temple in our time
The Holy Temple is the human personality, this thing we call the human spirit or soul. It is destroyed, again and again, by inner thoughts of hatred, anger, prejudice, fear, shame or a sense of inadequacy.
Yom Kippur is intended to rebuild that temple; to clean the slate by mending broken fences, by meeting face to face or by phone or by letter or email to apologize for our own part in whatever problem there has been between us and others.
The rabbis say that you should not attempt to do this if you think your effort will not help, but may make matters worse. Timing is important. You may have to wait until next year, or five years from now.
The rabbis make a distinction, too, between things that need to be mended between persons, and those things that they call offences against God, which can be mended only by soul searching and through prayer.
For me the High Holy Days serve as a reminder of the internal work in which we need to be engaged all the time, not simply once a year.
In the Jewish spirit, we Unitarian Universalists are not expected to agree on issues that are ‘for the sake of heaven,’ or our own understanding. There’s no hierarchy where edicts are handed down from on high and we’re told what to believe.
We hope to be able to distinguish between arguments for the sake of heaven, and arguments that are not for the sake of heaven—arguments that will only divide us but do us no good in the end.
At the same time, we’re challenged to build a tolerance for those disagreements that can help us to grow, that can help us to clarify what it is we think as individuals, and to build a deeper sense of caring community.
Remember how our Universalist forebear Hosea Ballou put it: “Where there is love no disagreement can do us harm; where there is not love, no agreement can do us any good.”
Arguments that are not for the sake of heaven come from unresolved inner issues revealing the enemy within.
Remember how Chief Yellow Lark put it in his famous prayer with which I’ll close:
O Great Spirit whose voice I hear in the winds, hear me. I come before you one of your many children, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people, the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.