Yom Kippur Morning

 September 18, 2010 / 10 Tishrei, 5771

Rabbi Charles K. Briskin


There’s a brief but memorable scene in the 1980 movie comedy, Airplane. The flight attendant, Elaine, asks an elderly woman if she’d like something to read. “Do you have anything light?” the woman asks. Elaine responds, “How about this leaflet; Famous Jewish Sports Legends?

While few of our people—Mark Spitz and Sandy Koufax notwithstanding—are legendary athletes, we do have some talented coaches and successful owners, and to be certain, legions of great fans. I was never able to hit a fastball, dunk a basketball, or toss a football very far but that never stopped me from cheering wildly for the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots throughout my childhood. I’ve always stood by my teams, through the good years and the bad, and still do to this day.

Had we lived over two thousand years ago in ancient Palestine, we might have spent the afternoon in a Roman style coliseum. The “national pastime” was not baseball, but rather gladiator fighting. Two swordsmen, dressed in the regalia of their sport, one arm supporting a heavy iron shield, the other a sharpened sword, fought—often times to the death. Today’s mixed martial arts pales in comparison. Back and forth these ancient warriors sparred until one was killed or laid down his shield conceding defeat. If the defeated gladiator was still alive, the spectators were asked to judge: Had he fought valiantly?  Did this gladiator deserve mercy?  Did he deserve to live?

If so, the people raised their voices, calling out “release him!” thus sparing the gladiator’s life from the sword of his opponent. If the people thought otherwise, they voted with a quick gesture. . . the downward thumb. This vote of disapproval signaled the victorious warrior to slay his opponent in the presence of all the spectators.

The rabbis who lived in ancient Palestine were appalled by this barbaric sport. In fact, most of them prohibited Jews from attending this spectacle. They strongly believed that Jews—who value life above all and consider each human being to be a gift from God—could not be spectators at an event where life was so callously disregarded.

Rabbi Nathan disagreed. He believed that those in the stands had a critical role to play. Their vote would decide the fate of the defeated gladiator. Rabbi Nathan demanded that Jews be there, in the arena, if only to make their voices heard and save an endangered life.

Rabbi Nathan took a bold and unpopular stand against the prevailing opinion of the day. These gory spectacles were an integral part of Roman culture but sitting in the stands of a coliseum was not quite like watching a game at Dodgers Stadium (except, perhaps in the Top Deck section when the Giants are in town.)  The atmosphere in these death fights was fraught with sheer terror.

Today, when a football player lies injured on the field, the fans are hushed, gravely concerned, until they see the reassuring thumbs up from the fallen athlete. But when a gladiator was stabbed by his opponent, the spectators cheered wildly, calling for more blood. Yet, Rabbi Nathan insisted that Jews be present in these frightening battles because the consequences of their absence would be so devastating.

Two thousand years have passed, and the gladiators have receded into history. But Jews today face a question not unlike the one rabbi Nathan faced long ago. When should we be present and take a stand for something we truly believe in? How loudly should we raise our voices in the arena, with the words of our prophets and sages as our guide?

These should not be difficult questions. After all, Jews have been raising their voices for millennia. Just think of the words that the prophet Isaiah proclaims to us in the haftarah: “Is this the fast that I look for.?  A day of self-affliction?  Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice. . .to let the oppressed go free?” (Isaiah, Ch. 58). The ancient prophets of our tradition spoke the word of God. Their prophecies were often unpopular and often times ignored by the people and the leaders who needed to hear them most. Even so, they took a stand.

The prophetic voice has inspired Jewish leaders since then. Within the last one hundred and fifty years, we’ve heard the contrarian opinion of Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore preaching against slavery from within the slave state of Maryland prior to the Civil War and abolition.

We’ve heard Rabbi Steven S. Wise, a leading Reform rabbi advocating for a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1920s, long before Zionism was normative among Reform Jews. We’ve heard the great and revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King to bring about full equality between blacks and whites.

There are, however, two crucial differences between the prophets of our tradition and the prophetic voices of our era: First; Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah spoke the word of God. Einhorn, Wise and Heschel interpreted the word of God. They filtered their ideas through the lenses of our entire tradition, including the ancient prophets, and they incorporated their own experiences into their advocacy as well. They rooted their messages in a three-thousand year old tradition of justice, mercy and compassion and applied it to the pressing matters of their day.

Second, when the prophets of our tradition spoke, the message often fell on deaf ears. When these modern-day rabbis spoke, people listened. They filled lecture halls, theaters and even arenas with eager people absorbing every word, ready to act.  They stood for freedom, Zionism, justice, equality and peace, all deeply rooted within a Jewish context.

Einhorn, Wise and Heschel inspired others to stand with them. Who do you stand with today?  And what do you stand for?  This question is important on Yom Kippur as our sacred texts of this day reveal. This afternoon we read the narrative of Jonah who was punished for his failure to raise his voice in the arena. When God told him to warn the people of Nineveh of their impending destruction, he fled. This afternoon’s Torah portion, the Holiness Code of Leviticus reminds us of our sacred responsibility to care for our poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In this morning’s haftarah, Isaiah chastises the people for their lack of business ethics, despite their punctilious ritual observance.

The Torah portion that we will read shortly gathers the entire community of Israelites to enter into the covenant that God is giving to them, and to us. These verses and all of today’s texts inspire us to take a stand and make our voices heard.

Atem Nitzavim Hayom, kulhem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem—You stand here today, all of you, before Adonai your God.”  So begins this morning’s Torah portion. The choice of the Hebrew word for stand, nitzavim, is unusual. The more common form for standing is omeid, which is used a few verses later, as the entire community stands together, eagerly awaiting their charge from Moses. Omeid suggests waiting for something to happen, letting the action come to you. It’s passive. Nitzvaim is active. We see this form in the Book of Genesis too, when Abraham hastens to take care of his three visitors. Nitzavim suggests being prepared, ready to leap into action, being more proactive. It also means standing your ground, remaining strong and resolute.[1]

Omeid and nitzavim. On this Yom Kippur, how do we move from the more passive form of standing, omeid to the more active form, nitzavim?  What do you stand for? I hope you’ll join me in standing for two important values: tolerance and diversity.

Do you stand for tolerance?  I hope so, because we need all the tolerance we can muster. Too many are far less tolerant of other ideas, opinions, and people. We harbor such deeply ingrained stereotypes of others, and others of us that we reduce individuals to caricatures. We attribute negative qualities and prejudicial attitudes that are viewed as acceptable yet seem to justify terrible behavior towards others. We Jews have been the object widespread intolerance. We, too, have objectified others. We’re all guilty of this in some respect. I know that I’ve had to overcome this attitude myself.

One group has helped me is the Peninsula Interfaith Fellowship, a group of clergy and other professionals who work with faith communities. I am one of the leaders of this group. We meet monthly for food, camaraderie and learning. Over the past several years I have developed close relationships with my colleagues including Catholic priests, Presbyterian ministers, a Unitarian pastor and a Sufi Muslim. Conversations about controversial issues that might be difficult to have with others are much easier and more forthright with this group because we know and respect one another, even when we don’t always agree.

Despite some valuable interfaith work, we’ve not yet developed our relationships with local Muslim leaders. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invitation of my friend and colleague Reverend Reinhard Kraus to join last week at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church for an hour of Qur’an study with Christians, Muslims, and a few Jews. I had to overcome my misgivings. Reverend Kraus organized this community gathering in response to the Florida Pastor who threatened to burn the Qur’an. Kraus thought that studying the Qur’an was a better choice.

My trepidation quickly vanished once I arrived. It had been quite some time since I was with such a diverse group of people. The Muslims in the room were from Pakistan, India, Syria and Houston. The Christians from Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills Estates. I saw just one other Jew, that I recognized, at least. Some Muslim women covered their heads, others did not. There were young people, older people, American born and immigrants. Men and women studied together and learned from one another.

This one hour of learning reminded me powerfully that dialogue with others creates greater understanding, appreciation and mutual tolerance. It was an important first step especially because too often we treat the entire Muslim community as a single monolith. We base our prejudices on a single caricature that many of us continue to see. We stereotype the entire Muslim community as extremist Arab Wahabis who are out to conquer the West through acts of violence and terror. Unless of course we’re friends with a Muslim; then we see the person, not the caricature. It’s our personal relationships with others that make us more tolerant because it’s harder to demonize a friend.

The Muslims I met at St. Luke’s were born and raised in America, or emigrated from elsewhere. Some were Arabs, most were not. They were all faithful to their tradition yet moderate in their expression of it. I can just about guarantee that no extremists were present because, after all, extremists don’t do interfaith dialogue. Extremists don’t engage; they demonize.

Reinhard Kraus helped us move one step forward in breaking down the barriers that separate our communities. He helped us recognize the diversity of our community which is, in pockets at least, comprised of tolerant people of faith.  Those who gathered want to learn from and better understand one another. We want to reduce our shared suspicions of one another and better appreciate one another’s aspirations. Those who participate in interfaith dialogue know that the conversations are not always easy. We recognize that our disagreements will persist. However, if we can begin first by uncovering shared understandings, then move our conversations forward by discussing our differences openly, safely and face to face, only then can we make progress in building a more sustainable culture of tolerance and mutual respect.

Reinhard Kraus stood up for tolerance. He raised his voice in the arena and fought against intolerance and extremism with words and dialogue. I stood with him because I know and respect him. I’m not sure I would’ve attended had it not been organized by someone else. But my relationship with him helped me overcome some of my own biases, not only what I thought of them, but also what I perceived they thought of me.

Do you stand for ideological diversity?  Can you respect, like or even love people who express ideas that are very different than yours?  Or who make choices for themselves than you may not choose to make for yourself?  Accepting ideological diversity requires patience, a willingness to listen to one another, and a commitment to respect the other person even if your beliefs are fundamentally different.

I have come to understand much about this congregation in the last five years. One is that we express a wide range of values and attitudes. One person shared with me a conversation he had with another congregant at an oneg Shabbat a few years ago. The first was mentioning something he had heard from the conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager. The other congregant looked at the first one and said cautiously, “You listen to Dennis Prager?”  The first congregant braced himself, not sure what the other person was thinking. He was put at ease quickly when the second congregant whispered to him, “I do too. I love him.”

Temple Beth El is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, the national organization representing Reform congregations. The URJ is known for its historical commitment to liberal and progressive values, born out of its leaders’ interpretation of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, an increasingly large number of Reform Jews including a significant percentage our congregants do not consider themselves liberal; far from it.

The ideological diversity within our congregation leads to passionate and sometimes heated exchanges. People have been known to get quite upset. Many of you appreciate when I take a stand on a pressing issue of the day whether it is the health care debate, immigration reform, or gay marriage. Nevertheless, I know that many people prefer I just sit down and lower my voice. I’m sorry I can’t do that. I wouldn’t be true to myself or to my rabbinate. Yet, I respect and will listen to the opinions of others who disagree with me. That’s the Jewish way.

I expressed this in a recent e-mail exchange with a congregant. I told this person that one of my many rabbinic responsibilities is to speak publicly to the pressing issues of the day, as viewed through a Jewish lens. It is what rabbis have been doing since the time of the prophets. It’s what Einhorn, Wise and Heschel did. It is what many of my colleagues continue to do. We represent our three thousand year old prophetic tradition to the people we serve. We take a stand and raise our voices in the arena.

I pride myself on being fair and reasonable when I preach on contemporary issues. I ground my teaching within Jewish texts, both ancient and modern. My primary goal is not to convince or convert but rather to initiate a conversation among smart and thoughtful people who don’t often agree, yet are willing to look at a different side of a familiar issue. I don’t imagine I’ll change one’s mind; I just hope to open it a bit more.

We will always have a seat in the arena, raising our voices for the principles and values that matter most to us. It’s what Jews do. We’ve been doing so since the time of Rabbi Nathan. My hope and prayer for our entire community is for us to take a stand, yet to be mindful and tolerant of those who choose not to stand with us. I want us to raise our voices to issues, yet refrain from raising our voices against the individuals with whom we disagree. Our community is big enough to accommodate a variety of opinions and ideas. So, as we move through this new year of 5771, I humbly ask; can we find new and helpful ways to create an environment of tolerance and mutual respect?”  Is that really asking too much?


My thanks and appreciation to my friend, Steve Beitler for his thoughtful analysis, and to my friend and colleague Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba, Culver City, CA for our fruitful exchange of ideas in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

[1] Thanks to Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein for sharing this interpretation of nitzavim and omeid in her d’var Torah on Parashat Nitzavim prepared for the American Jewish World Service and referenced on the website, www.myjewishlearning.com