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Jews: Prophets, Outcasts and Critics (Yom Kippur Day 5784 09/25/23)

Jews: Prophets, Outcasts and Critics


Light the corners of my mind

Misty watercolor memories

Of the way we were

Scattered pictures

Of the smiles we left behind

Smiles we gave to one another

For the way we were

Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Or has time re-written every line?

If we had the chance to do it all again

Tell me, would we?

Could we?[1]

Sometimes, we wish we could go back in time, “The good old days, it was better then.” But was it really better? Furthermore, was the task at hand all that different?

So, if we had the chance to do it all again, to go back in time, would we?

Here’s a picture from Jewish life 2,000 years ago. It’s Yom Kippur, and the righteous Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, immerses in a mikvah, a purification bath, dons white linen garments, and enters the Holy of Holies while incense burns.

At the same time, a deputy Cohen would lead a goat bearing all the Jewish people’s sins into the desert’s barrenness.

A crimson string attached to the Temple entrance turns white, and all bear witness to the renewal and forgiveness of the Jewish people.

The High Priest, in the Holy of Holies, then prays: May it be Your will, Adonai, our God, and God of our ancestors, that this year approaching us and all Your people, be a year of plenty, a year of blessing, a year of good decrees, a year of grain, wine, and oil, a year of profits and success, a year of Your Divine Presence in our Temple, a year in which our offspring and the fruit of our land will be blessed, and a year of peace and tranquility.

Ah, so divine. So, if we could do it all over again, would we?

Amazingly, 2000 years later, we’re still honoring this powerful day.

Yet we have no offerings other than our empty stomachs.

We have no High Priest or goat to expiate our sins. It’s just us and our machzorim.

The only things to turn a crimson string white are our fists pounding on our chests and our pure intentions.

Yet, we have faith that we’ll be transformed by the end of the day. We’ll be forgiven, purified, and renewed.

So, if we could return to Temple times, would we?

Back then, the Romans controlled our country and dominated our lives. When women’s rights were unheard of, and our primary means of connecting to God was through vegetable and animal offerings. I think most of us would be happy to stay where we are.

But what if we could go back to the early 1800s before the Jewish enlightenment, the Haskala, before Mottle wanted to marry Tzietle for the sake of love? Would we? Life was so much easier then. If you could withstand the next pogrom, it wasn’t so bad. With everyone knowing their role, life was simple and happy. So, if we could go back, would we? Probably not.

Ah! What if we could go back to a time when some of you were young children? To the 50s, the heyday of Jewish life in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Back then, monumental synagogues were packed to the brim with eager faces, austere rabbis, and sublime cantors. Summers were spent frolicking in the Catskills, and Jewish dances ensured everyone found proper matches.

Yet, not everything was perfect back then. Discrimination against Jews was rampant. Country clubs, Wall Street firms, and law offices were closed off to us. The great hospitals: Mount Sinai, Maimonides, and Long Island Jewish are testimonies to a time when Jewish doctors needed a place to work, and Jews, a place to heal. If you’re a woman, you have the right to vote, but careerwise, you only have three options: nurse, teacher, or secretary. So, what do you say? Are we going back in time?

Now, in the year 2023, women are closer to reaching equality. And Jews are everywhere: tech billionaires, actors, singers, comedians, supreme court justices, members of Congress and Senators, and even sons-in-law to numerous presidents. While antisemitism and racism are rising, Jews consistently receive the warmest and most positive ratings among religious groups in America.[2]

On the other hand, Jews identifying as Jewish and affiliating with a synagogue are at the lowest rates they’ve ever been in America. Hebrew school is down to one day a week at most places, and the average Jew is marrying someone who is not Jewish.

Scholar Daniel Schiff notes: “Modernity opened the door to Jewish emancipation and erased the barriers to full participation, but it simultaneously challenged Judaism to demarcate a path that was differentiated from its surroundings.”[3]

Complete emancipation raises a piercing question: Now that we’re not forced to be Jewish, why should we be?

Reform and Conservation Judaism has been striving to answer this question for 150 years. The problem is that the more Reform and Conservative Judaism embraced modernity, the more difficult it became to articulate the case for a distinctively Jewish approach.

Nonetheless, we are here, praying together on Yom Kippur because we feel Jewish in our gut. Judaism has something to add to our lives personally and the world at large.

Writer Daniel Gordis has pinpointed one of the most crucial elements of Judaism and why we should be Jewish in 2023.

In his book, “Does the World Need the Jews?” Gordis writes, “Jewish tradition has always claimed that Jews need to be different so that they might play a quasi-subversive role in society. A Jew’s role is not to second every motion of society but to second guess society’s priorities. It is not only that Jews have an alternative position to espouse; the tradition occasionally insists that Jews be prophets, outcasts, and harsh critics of prevailing social mores.”[4]

Think about it: most of our major holidays are about rebellion.

Chanukah was an insurgency against the Syrian/Greeks. We wanted to be able to choose our faith and be rulers over our land, and we overcame tremendous odds to do so.

Passover is a revolution against slavery and mighty powers. It’s the belief that all people should be masters of their fate. That freedom and free choice are innate components of human life.

Purim is an uprising against the powers that be. Mordechai would not bow to evil, and the Jewish people would not concede to their demise.

And we’ve preserved this Chutzpah up into modernity.

Israel’s War of Independence was fought against six neighboring nations for over a year. Jews from all over the world either fought in it or donated to the cause.

50 years ago, after the Yom Kippur War, 30,000 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai desert were surrounded and cut off from their water supply by the IDF. Golda Meir was ready to make an army of widows and orphans. These soldiers would have died of thirst unless Sadat agreed to recognize the State of Israel and return every Jewish prisoner of war. Nixon and Kissinger were not happy, but Golda stood firm. In the end, Sadat conceded.

Netanyahu’s Wall: whether you like it or not, it stopped Israelis from dying. Against global protest, he held firm in preserving Jewish life.

Likewise, last year, Kanye West, aka Ye, went on a tirade against Jews. Hatred was spewing from his mouth.

Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the ADL, called up Rupert Campbell, the CEO of Adidas, and told him straight out, “If you drop Ye’s fashion line, we will support you, but if you don’t, we’ll dog you until you do.” Even though Adidas had to write off a loss of more than one billion dollars, Adidas took a stand against racism by dropping him.

Judaism’s founder, Abraham, was known as Avraham HaIvri. HaIvri means “the Hebrew,” but our rabbis perceived a deeper meaning. Ivri comes from the Hebrew root, עבר, to cross over. When the rest of the world was mired in paganism, Abraham crossed to the other side of the river to preach monotheism. That there is only one living God, and that Being demands we love each other. HaIvri implies that it was Abraham against the rest of the world, and we’ve been keeping that charge up for the past 3,500 years.

Of all those who have served on the Supreme Court, which one has the moniker “the notorious” attached to her name? A Jewish one!

Is it an accident that the President of Ukraine, the one man uniting his underdog nation against the Russian Bear, is Jewish?

Elie Wiesel charged us with taking a stand:

“We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers.

None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness.

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”[5]

Growing up Orthodox but living through the Holocaust, Wiesel questioned his religious beliefs. Yet he never wavered in his Jewishness.

We are gathered here today as a congregation in our most significant numbers of the year. We vary in how often we attend services or observe ritual law, yet we all have this spirit of rebellion in our DNA, or identify with it, and have chosen to marry someone with this DNA.

Antisemitism is rising, but we can view it as a good thing. It means we’re speaking up, trying to make a change for the better. Change begets resistance.

We come down this earth to live for a short time. Why choose to be a Jew? Your soul could have chosen to be Anglo-Saxon, Asian, or African.

We are here, as Jews at this critical juncture in human history, because we’re sent to speak out, to stand against the tide. The planet needs saving. Abraham crossed over the river to make a stand, and we, his descendants, must continue to do so.

Two thousand years ago, when the High Priest donned pure white linen and entered the Holy of Holies, we were subservient to the Romans. They despised our religion, especially the Shabbat, our taking off from work one day a week. They called us lazy. Nowadays, modern Romans are monotheistic and take two days off a week. We won out in the end. And we must continue to do so.

Memories are great, and nostalgia tends to forget the bad times. Certain things were better way back when. Yet, even if we could, we would not choose to return to an earlier period of Jewish life. But it makes no difference; the charge remains the same:

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Use your mind, your visualization, your voice and body, and be the spirit of progress. The world still needs the Jews to be prophets, outcasts, and harsh critics of prevailing social mores. Let’s live up to our calling!

Shanah Tova!

[1] The Way We Were: Marvin Hamlisch / Marilyn Bergman / Alan Bergman


[3] Schiff, Daniel, Judaism in the Digital Age, Palgrave Macmillian, 2023. p.53

[4] Gordis, Daniel. Does the World Need Jews? Scriber, 1997 p.177

[5] Hope, Despair, and Memory. Elie Wiesel Nobel lecture, December 11, 1986.

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