Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport
Rosh Hashanah 5758
This is an old sermon. I have given it before. In fact, Rabbi Diamond preached this sermon long before I came here. It is actually a rather historic piece, given first in the Reform movement by none other than Isaac Mayer Wise and passed down from rabbi to rabbi since then. In fact, if you listen carefully on Yom Kippur morning, you will hear what I believe to be the original version of this sermon which was delivered by Moses himself to the Children of Israel as they stood on the banks of the Jordan river ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses called it Atem Nitzavim, and it’s all about the future of Judaism. Like I said, this is very old stuff.
But the really fascinating thing about this sermon is that prophets and priests and philosophers and rabbis have been giving this same sermon for more than 3,500 years. And yet we keep convincing our unsuspecting audience that this wisdom is somehow uniquely suited for the struggles which our generation of Jews must face, here and now, in order to preserve this fragile thing called Judaism for yet another generation beyond our own. It has taken our greatest Jewish leaders three millennia to perfect this “sermonic slight of hand” and then some fool confessed it all to Alan Dershowitz.
He, of course, wrote the whole thing down and published it under the title “The Vanishing American Jew” which ruins everything. Not because he had the Chutzpah to cut himself in on the longest running case of plagiarism in human history, but he didn’t even bother to change the title. And anyone knows that if you don’t change the title people will begin to figure this out. Particularly since “The Vanishing American Jew” was used on the cover of Look Magazine back in 1964 and there are still people alive today who remember that issue. (I was only seven in 1964 so some of you probably remember this stuff even better than I do.)
OK, sure he updated the piece a bit and he added some pretty good Jewish jokes to keep it interesting, but look here– Same title, same theme, same predictions of doom if we don’t repent… people are beginning to talk. He probably planned this all along and who is going to sue Dershowitz for copyright infringement. As a matter of fact, anybody who uses this sermon from now on is probably going to have to pay him royalties. So, I’ve decided that the only thing to do is come clean and tell you the whole story.
The truth is, this sermon is the closest thing to pure biblical prophecy you are ever likely to see. The facts are undeniable, the stakes are incredibly high– Jewish Survival Itself hangs in the balance. It is a classic “repent now for the day of your destruction is at hand” message, perfectly suited for the High Holy Days. And yet somehow in every generation, we escape these prophecies of doom which means, of course, that the sermon is still good for another run the next time you really need it.
This is how Dershowitz tells it, which is, I must admit, a pretty good spin on the old tale:
The future of Judaism is in a state of crisis. The survival of our ancient people has never been more clearly in doubt.
(This, of course, is the most difficult part to sell in the modern age, since just about everyone knows that the American Jews of today are the largest, freest, best educated, most politically and economically successful Jewish community in the history of the world.)
Dershowitz knows this, too, and he knows we know this, so this is his approach: instead of arguing against the obvious, he first proves the apparent case against him beyond a shadow of a doubt. He argues essentially, that never in all of human history have we as a Jewish people been more safe and secure. And, as you can imagine, he pulls together a pretty impressive case.
Anti-Semitism in America has been marginalized to the point of near irrelevance. That is not to say that it doesn’t exist or that the potential for its resurgence in harder economic times may not be real. But for most of us and for most of our lives we no longer live in fear of violence or overt discrimination. The attitudes of anti-Semitism may remain in the minds of some, but without the support of government, church, educational or business institutions to enforce such bigotry, it will remain where it resides in the rantings of the ignorant fringe.
Legal barriers to our entry have been stripped from every field. Jews are now over represented in many of the same board rooms and professions which once excluded our very presence.
Jewish attendance at Ivy League colleges is running at about 10 times our percentage of the population. There once was a time when the president of Harvard questioned openly whether having “too many Jews” on campus would be good for Harvard or good for the Jews. Dershowitz now teaches at Harvard and the new president acknowledges openly that the University simply could not survive without the incredible support it now receives from its philanthropic Jewish Alumni.
Of America’s Nobel Prize winners in science and economics 40% have been Jews.
On a list of America’s 200 most influential intellectuals, half are what Dershowitz describes as “full Jews” and 76% have at least one Jewish parent.
For the first time in history two of the nation’s 9 Supreme Court Justices are Jews.
Countless members of the Clinton Cabinet are Jewish and while it may still be some time before there is a Jew living in the White House, we have for the first time seen an American President and his family praying in a synagogue on the High Holy Days.
There are now 10 Jewish Senators and 31 U.S. Representatives serving on Capitol Hill. And most of these men and women were elected from areas with just a tiny population of Jews. Just for the sake of comparison there are only 9 women Senators and the one African American in the Senate is also one of those nine.
Jews represent 10% of America’s Business Movers and Shakers which is a far greater number than any other ethnic group.
Jewish Charities far outstrip their general counterparts. With Just 2% of the population to draw from, United Jewish Appeal raised more money in one year than any other charity in the nation. More than the Salvation Army, more than the Red Cross, more than Catholic Charities, more than the American Cancer Society. And most of the Jews who give to the UJA are among the strongest supporters of these general charities as well.
Dershowitz presents an overwhelming barrage of statistics until even the most skeptical must concede that in all of Jewish history we have never had it this good.
And yet for all our material success as individual Jews, he argues just as effectively that Judaism and the Jewish community as a whole are facing a crisis beyond any proportion in our long history of exile and oppression.
He states the issues with the clarity and precision of a brilliant jurist:
“American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality. As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, as well as ‘the lowest birth rate of any religious or ethnic community in the United States,’ the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may soon be coming to an end.”
And then he launches again into a barrage of facts the weight of which seems almost crushing in its force:
The Birth rate for all but the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community ranges between 1.5 and 1.6 children per couple, far below the 2.1 “replacement level” necessary for our survival as a community. The rate of unaffiliation among Jews in our urban population centers of New York and Los Angeles is now nearly 75%. Intermarriage rates have crested over 50% and for the first time in American Jewish history there are more Jewish children being raised as Christians than as Jews!
The paradox of our power and our powerlessness is all but perfectly portrayed.
If you play out just those numbers over the 1000 or so people in this room, for just one generation of such dismal expectations, we would lose 250 to low birth rate, another 325 to intermarriage and if this were New York or Los Angeles another 250 to unaffiliation leaving just 175 committed religious Jews left in the room one generation from now.
Now I could argue with those statistics, most of which do not apply to the people who are actually sitting in this room. You are all obviously affiliated with a religious congregation. You wouldn’t be here if you were not. The rate of affiliation in Louisville is about three times that of Los Angeles. Religiously identified Jews have a much lower rate of intermarriage, a higher number of children per family and a much higher rate of successfully raising children who are clearly identified with their Judaism. We could end this sermon now by simply saying that Dershowitz is right HE has a problem. Because for unaffiliated secular East Coast Jews like Dershowitz all of the predictions above do apply directly and it is that stark reality which occupies the next 300 pages of his book.
What would American Judaism look like in the next generation if, like lemmings to the sea, the entire secular wing of our community were to vanish beneath these waves. According to Dershowitz we would be unable to sustain our national prominence amidst the rise of other ethnic and religious communities. The insular orthodox community of Hasidic Judaism would become much more dominant and the few Reform and Conservative Jews who remain committed to involvement with the broader community can, at best, hope to establish themselves as something akin to the small but respected Quaker community of today.
The Dershowitz prescription for the multitude of ills which now befall us is an interesting if sometimes impractical collection of programs and ideas which he groups together under the slogan: Let My People Know! Better Schools, an even more open community, a recognition of secular Jews as an essential element in the leadership of our future, a broad ranging publication project to make all of Jewish learning accessible in English language translations. The establishment of a 24 hour Jewish Television Network somewhat akin to the History Channel which would emphasize the cultural and communal heritage of our people. My favorite suggestion was that we migrate all our communal institutions to the Internet establishing virtual study groups or even prayer services for far flung communities across the globe.
These will not stem the tide, even by Dershowitz own estimates, but they may perhaps salvage a Judaism which will be smaller, less unique, and considerably less significant for its broader impact on American life.
This all assumes, of course, that we are lemmings– unable to resist the self destructive instincts which have set us on this hapless course. Which brings us to an interesting fact which I Iearned from my seven year old son, who is fast becoming a recognized expert in all things related to the animal world. Did you know that lemmings don’t actually run to the sea with the intention of drowning? Actually, they are just very bad swimmers! No, really. When the population of lemmings in a particular area grows beyond its ability to sustain itself on the available food sources, a migration begins which whenever it encounters water, will attempt to swim across. And since lemmings are not particularly well suited for swimming, many invariably drown in the process.
There was a point to that digression. One which Mr. Dershowitz for all his brilliance and insightful suggestions seems to have missed. That having charted a course toward our inevitable destruction we are not somehow honor bound to continue on that path to the sea. A more knowledgeable Jewish community led more directly by our more secular educated elite might well be a worthwhile suggestion, but with no offense meant to Mr. Dershowitz, College professors like him are among the most educated within our ranks and yet they are also among the least affiliated, the least charitable, and the least committed Jews on the planet!
Alan Dershowitz was raised in an orthodox background which he rejected half a lifetime ago and like many “used to be orthodox Jews” he harbors just enough nostalgic memories of those years to make him disdainful of any other branch of Judaism in the alternative. When he chooses to visit his religious past, he visits it where he left it, in an orthodox congregation, for state occasions like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What he finds when he returns are pleasant moments which are, nonetheless, totally irrelevant for the rest of his modern life.
At one point he complains that he has attended more than fifty Yom Kippur services at which the famous Haftarah from Isaiah was dutifully chanted aloud: “Is this the fast I desire, a day for you to starve only your bodies?… No this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness,…to let the oppressed go free,… to share your bread with the hungry, and take… the poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe them and never to ignore your own kin.” And yet never has he heard a rabbi “emphasizing that the Yom Kippur fast is a hollow gesture unless it is accompanied by a commitment …to share your bread with the hungry, to take the outcast poor into your home, to clothe the naked and assist the less fortunate.” The religion he sees is totally insular to his sense of pressing social needs, which all but demands from me the response: Where do you go to services and what there do you hope to find? Certainly no one has ever accused your rabbis of ignoring any opportunity to preach to you about our pressing social needs. He could hear that sermon year in and year out if he would attend any Classical Reform congregation in the country. But at a Reform Temple he would lose that childlike sense of nostalgia he craves, so he rejects his religious heritage entirely in favor of a secular Jewish cultural heritage which provides for him a sense of pride, and a wealth of material from which to teach his Harvard courses, try his cases, and write his best selling books. But a more spiritual, socially driven Reform Jewish experience seems somehow impossible for him to consider.
In a separate section on Reform Judaism, Dershowitz spends several pages lambasting Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment Magazine and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. He likes Leonard and respects much of the work he has done, but he finds his connection between Jewish Religious Values and Social Action to be a prime example of everything that is wrong with Reform Judaism. Social Action is not Judaism he says, it is Feinism– a liberal political agenda which he agrees with, but from which he derives no sense of religious authenticity.
I had the opportunity to discuss this with Leonard Fein just last week (don’t be too impressed, I don’t often get the chance to have conversations with such personalities) and he shared with me an insight which I thought I might share with you as well. He said that “the life of the Jewish people is a Midrash on the text of Jewish law” and that while he agrees that our broader concern for the communities in which we live is unique to Reform Judaism, that there is a nexus between Judaism and Social Action. The world is not working as it was meant to, as God intended it to be, and it is an essential part of our Religious heritage to repair that breach with our own hearts and hands. Because for Leonard Fein, as for many Reform Jews, Judaism is not a culture alone, it is a Religious Culture which provides values and direction for our lives.
And though secularists like Dershowitz may have a perfect right to cling to the agnostic Jewish culturalism which has defined their lives until now, this “proud secular heritage” is not a Judaism which is particularly well suited for swimming in the turbulent waters which he so eloquently points out on our horizon just ahead.
The Talmud teaches that there are three obligations of every Jewish parent, and that among them we must teach our children to swim. It is time to teach the lemmings how to swim. The motto for our coming age should not be “Let My People Know” however nicely that may rhyme with the original, the motto of a Judaism which will survive through the next generation of intense social change must be “Let My People Care!”
We don’t need to know an amorphous body of facts or theories to keep us Jewish. It couldn’t hurt, it might even help. But the ultimate answer to the problems we now face isn’t how much we know about our Judaism. It is how much we care!
If we cared enough about our Jewish life — Intermarriage would represent a net gain. Because we would be committed Jews who would marry people committed to Judaism by birth or by choice or by their commitment to raise our children as committed Jews. Because Judaism would be so important to us that anyone who loved us would want to fulfill that essential part of our soul.
If we cared enough about our Jewish life –Unaffiliation would become unthinkable because our Jewish Community would offer so much to us spiritually, relationally, communally, an practically that we couldn’t imagine living without it.
If we cared enough about our Jewish life — Raising the next generation of Jewish children, our children, our children’s children, our congregation’s children, and our community’s, would become a priority which we would not only speak about, but commit ourselves to providing the time and talent and funding necessary to truly educate and enrich the lives of each and every Jewish child.
If we cared enough about our Jewish life — then studying our own Judaism wouldn’t require the candy coating of 24 hour TV, or the allure of cyberspace, just the commitment to provide the highest quality educational programs available from cradle to grave.
So let me ask you, do we care enough to survive? To build for our Jewish future? To give of our resources and our time to insure it? To empower this and every congregation as the proven institutions of education, affiliation, spiritual growth and social outreach to allow us to not just survive, but to flourish in the coming age? Do we care enough to commit our affluence, our influence, our vast education and our boundless abilities as a people, to the cause of our own survival as a free people in a free land. Simply put, if we care enough, then we will. And having done so, we will live on as a blessing for many generations yet to come. May this be our chosen path and may this be our certain destiny.