According to multiple news outlets, President Trump will announce tomorrow that the United States officially and formally recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and that he will begin the process of moving the embassy there. President Trump has been clear that he is not committed to a two state solution, and that makes the move enormously symbolic in the eyes of Palestinians and their supporters. Not surprisingly, the Muslim world and Palestinian Authority President Abbas have uniformly condemned the idea, and threatened Israel and the United States with the specter of violence and conflict in response. A peaceful political move is immediately opposed with threats of violence. I believe that this is one of those moments where you see everyone's true colors.
The truth is, as a matter of established and objective fact, Jerusalem is the capital of the Modern State of Israel.
The parliament meets there. The prime minister lives there. The government's offices are there. The law of the land has established itself there. The people of the democratic nation of Israel overwhelmingly support it. By every measure of objective and subjective fact, Jerusalem is a modern thriving city functioning in every way as the capital of the State of Israel.
President Trump is not creating a new reality, he is describing an existing reality. As a statement of truth, no matter whether you love or hate Israel, Jerusalem simply is the capital of the country.
Now, there are those in the Palestinian side of the conflict who reject this idea. There is no basis in law, history, or pragmatism to deny Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Even the divided city of 1948 had a Jewish Quarter. Even since 1949, the Kenneset has met in the New City outside the old city's walls. Even before Israel conquered the entire city after Arab attack in 1967, and unified it under Israeli rule, Jewish self government already took place there. If you recognize Israel, you recognize Jerusalem.
And there's the rub. The only ones who have a logical argument to deny Jerusalem as the actual capital of Israel, are those who deny Israel itself.
Can the argument run the other way? Sure. Palestinians (under Jordan) had control of much of Jerusalem from 1948-1967, and surely they have legitimate claim to Jerusalem as their capital as well. Let - under a genuine treaty of peace - their neighborhoods, and their towns, the seat of their university and government be recognized and also be a Jerusalem and their capital. Two Jerusalems for two countries. Only those who deny the Palestinians a right to a state would deny a Jerusalem as their capital as well. It is exactly parallel.
But that is not what they are shouting for. They are shouting against the Israeli Jerusalem, not for a Palestinian one. Listen closely, and realize that it is the fact of Israel's existence that is the essence of their grievance. Given that stance, forgive Israel if they moved ahead with peaceful living, legitimate sovereignty and independence while hoping for peace one day.
Do not fall prey to the argument of "provocation" that would blame anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. violence on us for making this move. The abuser always seeks to blame the victim. Let's be clear: anyone who responds to peaceful politics - like building an embassy - with violence is a terrorist. Watch them show their true colors. That is not to say that there is no validity to Palestinian grievance or aspiration. Surely there is. But intifada is always the answer, instead of peace.
Now, as for moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem, that should not happen. No, the argument against moving the embassy is that it would be a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars. The embassy in Tel Aviv is a huge structure, employing hundreds of people. It also houses a tremendous secure infrastructure for not just diplomatic, but military, intelligence and economic interests and agencies. There is no need to replace or duplicate that structure at the expense of hundreds of millions of dollars just to make a symbolic point in support of Israel. We don't need it, and we shouldn't build it, because it is not in our own best interests.
Yes, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. No, that is not anything new. And no, that does not preclude a future with Palestinian dignity and independence, or even with their own capital of Jerusalem. But Mr. President, do not waste my money by dragging the embassy and all its contents and activities to Talpiot. We have better things to spend our money on.
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Thursday, September 28, 2017
White Supremacy on the Rise
Rabbi Robert L. Tobin
B’nai Shalom, West Orange NJ
Fall 2017, Rosh Hashanah 1
Shanah Tovah. This morning I want to talk not just about Charlottesville, but what was behind it and what we need to do about it. White supremacists are on the rise, and they are rallying under the Nazi agenda of Jew hatred in America. No matter what your politics, you have no luxury to stand aside. You must know, and you must act.
As you know, on Friday August 11th and Saturday August 12th a large white supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville, VA. The rally was called, “Unite the Right.” They recruited their protest under the legal protections of the Bill of Rights, to express opposition to the removal of Confederate statues from public places. But that was the rallying cry. As they walked through the University campus, they chanted “Blood and Soil,” the Nazi slogan of racism natural superiority and supremacy over the fatherland - now recast as America. And if you know our history, and theirs, you will understand how dangerous they truly are. This is how it starts. This is how it has always started. And it must be stopped.
The forces behind the rally run much deeper than the removal of statues. Right-wing extremism, including white nationalism and white supremacy, is on the rise, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And a string of killings in recent months raised the specter of far-right violence well before last weekend.
The real goal was to unite and grow racist white supremacy in this country under an American Nazi umbrella. That goal, to unite a patchwork of previously unorganized and competing groups of far right racists into a common movement, is a seriously troubling development which we must oppose effectively if the lessons of our past are to protect America’s future.
First, we must understand that America is, and has from its founding been, a society of racial conflict and prejudice. Yes, we have come a long way, and yes, the civil rights movement has produced complete protection under law for all races. But we must not be fooled into thinking that only the Nazis are racists. As Audre Lorde wrote in 1991: “Racism cuts a wide and corrosive swath across each of our lives.”
There are two institutional origins to racism in our country: slavery and immigration.
First, the legacy of Slavery. Not surprisingly, in the year prior to Charlottesville, those were the conflict points in American culture which dominated the news, the political primaries, and the presidential election. From Fergusun MO, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, or the sniper attacks in Dallas, institutional conflict between government in the form of police, and black communities dominated the news. Equal treatment under law is a hard sell in the Black community when nearly one in three African American males between 20 and 29 years of age is under some form of control by the criminal justice system (Mauer, 1999; Pattillo, Weiman & Western, 2004). And given the scope of inner-city educational institutional failure, the cliff drops off precipitously. Among African American men who are high school dropouts, 58.9% - nearly 6 in 10 - will spend some time in prison during their lifetime. The comparable figure for White dropouts is 11.2% (Lily, Cullen & Ball, 2015). The fact is that an African American male is very likely to have negative experiences with failing schools, suspicious merchants, frightened suburbanites, ever-present police, and a criminal justice system that incarcerates a third of the people like him at some point in their lives. While slaves were freed, blacks have yet to find functional equality in America, and that institutional disadvantage spills over in any conflict point.
The second legacy of institutional bias in America is our history of immigration. From the 1500’s until the late 1800’s, immigration to America was open and encouraged. We wanted workers. We wanted farmers. Emma Lazarus got it right:
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" (the New Colosus)
In the late 1800’s a post civil war fantasy of an earlier America combined anti-immigrant sentiments with Confederate resentments at reconstruction in the south.
Post-confederate feelings of superiority and resentment at their loss, were suppressed under Yankee reconstruction, and generations of institutional white supremacy in the south continued to simmer and organize. The Ku Klux Klan was born to use violence and terrorism against African American leaders, and to mythologize the Southern White Man.
At the same time, waves of immigration began from Ireland, Southeastern Europe, and Eastern Europe to the Atlantic seaboard - New York, Philadelphia, Boston. In California, enormous numbers of Asians, Chinese, arrived to build cities, work farms, and work the hard labor of the new railroads, cities and infrastructure that was crossing the west and building the nation. Rather than Protestant homesteaders, we now had millions of Catholic, Asian, and Jewish immigrants crowding cities or working as wandering labor without a home across the western territories. The city of Chicago, for example, had 4,100 people in it in 1833; by 1890, its population had risen to 1 million in just 57 years. By 1910, just twenty years later, it was over 2 million people. As cities grew, urban blight resulted in social breakdowns and dysfunction, crime and separatism became associated with immigration as neighborhoods pushed out of the cities and wealthier Americans began to settle in suburban zones. Institutional geographic urban blight became the reality of the American dream. Permanent poverty, social separations, immigrant cultures and groups were viewed as foreigners - poor and dirty. And into this exact environment came millions of poor Jews seeking a better life.
Jewish immigration to America began in almost quaint terms with the Sephardim in New York in the 1700’s. In the 1800’s, skilled German Jews arrived and set up shops and a network of dry goods stores across the growing west. But with the new immigration came the Russian and Eastern European Jews who were more often uneducated and poor, and more likely to stay in the new urban environments. Eastern European Jews began to immigrate to the United States in large numbers after 1880. Pushed out of Europe by overpopulation, oppressive legislation and poverty, they were pulled toward America by the prospect of financial and social advancement. Between 1880 and the onset of restrictive immigration quotas in 1924, over 2 million Jews from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania came to America. Once again, the character of American Jewry was transformed, as the Eastern Europeans became the majority. And as American sentiment turned against the new immigrants, American Racists found a new enemy in the Jew.
The Ku Klux Klan had a rebirth in the time between World War I and World War II. No longer merely racist, it was anti-black, anti-Asian, but also developed a specific religious tone becoming anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. And, now far enough away from the civil war, it began to adopt a mythology of America that elevated the white supremacist elements of the founding fathers - many of whom were indeed part of a culture of Protestant White Male slave-owners. But by recasting the characters of the American Revolution as heroes of the white right, they entered a culture war that stakes claim to what it means to be an American in the United States of America. As such, it was no longer the south that was in play, but the country.
The upheavals of World War I, massive waves of poor and uneducated immigrants, and the bursting of urban blight created both labor movements and anti-immigrant protectionist movements in America. For the first time, Congress defines and limits immigration based on country of origin - specifically targeting the Chinese and Eastern Europe in a series of laws, ending both Asian and most Jewish Immigration with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. Quotas, Literacy Tests, and provisions against the poor were designed to preserve and protect as sense of American homogeneity - a common white Anglo culture that was at serious risk of being overrun.
With the rise of anti-Communist fascism in Europe, and the Nazi party in particular, a group called the American Bund formed right here in New York. In 1939 they held an infamous rally in Madison Square Garden, adopting the full anti-Semitic language of Adolph Hitler. “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America” was the primary theme, though the rally was called to celebrate the birthday of their hero - George Washington - whom they called America’s first fascist. The American Nazi party would not be formed until the post war years, but Nazi propaganda and sentiment could fill the Garden in 1939.
But the racists couldn’t really get their act together. Some hated Catholics. That meant white Irish and Mediterranean Italians. Some hated the North. Some hated Blacks especially as their lost slave force and subhuman servant class. And, as Tom Lehr famously coined, “and everyone hates the Jews.” Institutional racism and the civil rights movement is recent enough, that we don’t need to summarize it here, but with the victory of MLK’s I have a dream speech comes frustration in the face of institutional racial disparity and ongoing conflict between both Black America and the patchwork of immigration - legal and illegal - that continues to define American opportunism.
For the racist in America, the 1960’s was a series of losses at the same level as the destruction of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Institutional white supremacy in the form of segregation, voting rights, closed towns and college admissions fell like trees in a forest. Malcom X and others could point to gross abuses like the Tuskegee syphilis study to prove that America was anti-Black and always would be. Racial tensions on the extremes grew even as a new National consensus of racial equality was adopted by the country at large. And Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and Johnson pushed a civil rights agenda that included ultimately the complete elimination of quotas from the immigration laws of the United States. Never again would a country of origin be a reason why you can’t come to America. Only an ability to contribute to the common good and to not be a burden on society would be qualifying characteristics. Anti-immigrant sentiment was dealt another loss. Anti-Catholic sentiment was defeated as JFK became a national martyr and a symbol of American strength and unity.
But hate was still disorganized. The were shadow groups, and internal conflicts kept them off balance. The leader of the American Nazi party was assassinated by one of his own, and each ran its own way. Fast forward past the Arab boycott, Iranian Revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11 and the growth of American interest and conflict in the Muslim nations of the Middle East and Asia.
2016. America is preparing to say goodbye to its first Black president. No matter that he was as white as he is Black. Unlike anywhere else in the world, in racial America one drop of Black is Black. Advances in civil rights, tolerance of peaceful illegal workers, and acceptance of Muslim refugees are all rallying points for the far right racists. America under Black and Jewish domination is clearly being destroyed in their view. Anti-immigrant sentiment and the mainstream policy debate is largely focused on Muslim refugees and undocumented Latin-Americans - commonly lumped together in lazy fashion as “Mexicans.” Legitimate anti-terrorism language and Homeland Security issues overlap with questions of American power and safety and security concerns. American policing practices and inner city race conflicts merge into law and order debates, and support for our troops. Pride for the overseas soldier, and the city police officer conflate in some circles, but with that combination the conflict in those systems also brings together other concerns which are not normally in harmony. Anti-Muslim sentiment is empowered by anti-terrorist feelings at large. Despite the fact that the majority of hate crime in this country, and the majority of terrorism in the country is NOT Muslim nor is it international terrorism, but domestic terrorism, the political winds of anti-immigration and anti-Muslims blow together to create a perfect storm.
Now, if you are anti-black and anti-urban, you have a positive cause in supporting the police. We all support the police. That is a legitimate objective. But some come at it now from a racial basis. Now, if you are anti-Muslim you have a positive expression for it not only in supporting our troops, but in protecting our cities from terrorism. We all support our troops. We all fight terrorism. But some come at it from a racial and prejudicial basis. Now, if you are anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican, you have a positive expression for it in protecting our workforce from cheap and illegal labor. We all want legal labor and worker’s rights - a safe workplace, civil rights and a living wage. But now you can come at it from a racist bias if you want. So, racists, xenophobes and fascists have suddenly found legitimate and mainstream causes to rally around. The causes are indeed legitimate topics of debate for the civilized society in America. But some can come at it from and racist basis. When we talk about empowering the radical right, that is what we are saying. It is real. And it is as American as Apple Pie. It is born from two hundred years of history, and we are living in a perfect storm for its growth.
2017. Charlottesville. It all comes together for the Racist far right. The symbolic power is preservation of southern culture and history in the image of the Confederate statue on the town green. Who doesn’t value history and culture? The rallying cry is free speech, to unite the right, to embrace and celebrate the Bill of Rights which gives all political and social opinion the right to gather and express what they believe. Who doesn’t like the Bill of Rights? And who is suppressing their rights, and destroying their culture? You got it. The liberal Jewish media, the international Jewish banking conspiracy, the inferior black criminal mob, and the mongrel hordes of immigrants who are here to not only steal your jobs but to attack your wives and children. By rallying to the American flag, protecting Confederate imagery, proclaiming freedom, and clearly defining the enemy (especially everyone here today), the Charlottesville organizers have done what none of their predecessors have been able to do. They have won the stage of equality for their hate in America. They have turned bickering groups of unorganized racists into a common cause.
Among the far-right groups engaged in organizing the march were the clubs of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, The Right Stuff, the National Policy Institute, and four groups that form the Nationalist Front: the neo-Confederate League of the South, the Traditionalist Workers Party, Vanguard America, and the National Socialist Movement. Other groups involved in the rally were the Ku Klux Klan, the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Identity Evropa, the American Guard, the Detroit Right Wings, the Rise Above Movement, True Cascadia, and Anti-Communist Action.
Prominent far-right figures in attendance included National Policy Institute Chairman Richard Spencer, entertainer Baked Alaska, former Libertarian Party candidate Augustus Invictus, former Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke, Identity Evropa leader Nathan Damigo, Traditionalist Youth Network CEO Matthew Heimbach, Right Stuff founder Mike Enoch, League of the South founder Michael Hill, Red Ice host Henrik Palmgren,Right Side Broadcasting Network host Nicholas Fuentes, YouTube personality James Allsup, AltRight.com editor Daniel Friberg, former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson, Right Stuff blogger Johnny Monoxide, Daily Stormer writer Robert "Azzmador" Ray, Daily Callercontributor and rally organizer Jason Kessler, and Radical Agenda host Christopher Cantwell.[4
Numerous armed, right-wing militia groups were present at the rally, claiming to be there to protect the First Amendment rights of the demonstrators. Groups involved included the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, the New York Light Foot Militia, the Virginia Minutemen Militia, the Oath Keepers and the 3 Percenters.
By all accounts, this was a fantastic success for the racist extremes in America. They even have a new, legitimate mainstream name: the alt-right. So legitimate, that the President of the United States could talk about the alt-right and immediately ask, “what about the alt-left?” (!!). Equivocation, and gross misunderstanding of the nature of the event and the nature of the threat left us all agape and appalled. Do NOT use the term alt-right. It names and defines them as a legitimate part of the American discourse. They are not. Name the Nazis as Nazis. Name the racists as racists. Name the white supremacists as white supremacists. They do not get to stand on a podium in front of a picture of George Washington, as the Bund did in 1939, and wave the American flag.
And they hate you. Make no mistake. They hate you. If given the chance, they will follow every law and path that Hitler did. Attack civil rights. Attack voting rights. Attack minorities, foreigners and Jews. Unite the right is genuine, and don’t think it can’t happen in America.
The Jew in America has no luxury to let Nazis organize and grow unopposed. The Jew in America has no luxury to allow immigrants and refugees to be demonized. The Jew in America must not let the old hacks of Jewish controlled media, banks and international conspiracy to be legitimized in any portion of the American debate. We have to speak, and we have to act. Join the committee, follow its actions, get involved, stay involved.
I admit that there are traps for us here at B’nai Shalom in opposing the new coalition of racist Americans. Many people will feel that this is Republican versus Democrat. It must not be. Go be Republicans and Democrats and make sure that racists are not part of your coalition. But here, in this synagogue, we stand against the Nazi Racist movement in America, and will stand for the rights of equality in law which all of our people must enjoy and protect. We must respect each other, not fall into partisan politics, and concentrate on the core issue here that unites us.
We will form a watchdog group, and I need volunteers, to track and publish the actions of the newly empowered racists of America. To push out the messages of the organizations that research and publicize their actions. Rallies must be published and attended. Letter-writing and political advice must be engaged. And most of all, sane reasoned and determined opposition must be created. When the news media hungers to cover the radicals who punch a Nazi on the street or block a Nazi parade with violence, we must work even harder to present an overwhelming majority and a reasonable and peaceful response. The Freddie Gray riots were stopped in Baltimore when mainstream peaceful people held arms, sang prayed and sat down between the mob and the police. We need to be those people who proclaim and experience our unity in America. This is what did not happen in Germany in the 1930’s. This is what must happen in America now.
L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu.
The Law in Conservative Judaism: Criminals and Social Bonds.
Rabbi Robert Tobin
West Orange NJ, B’nai Shalom
Rosh Hashanah 2 - 5778
Shanah Tovah. This morning we are called to hear the call of the shofar, to examine our deeds and to inaugurate the 10 days of repentance leading to Yom Kippur. The Shofar blast is the sound of Mt. Sinai, the cry to battle, and the aching of the human heart. The Torah does not call today Rosh Hashanah - the New Year. It calls today yom teru’ah - the day of shofar blasts.
The musaf service today will proclaim that God is not only real and involved in your life, but is three very important things for us. First - a king. God is a powerful sovereign, ruling our universe and our lives. Second, God is the ultimate data base. God remembers all that we have ever done as a people and as individual people. Third, God is a social architect. God rallies us to the redemption of all humanity in peace and harmony, asserting that human fulfillment and social justice can be achieved.
These three ideas - malkhuyot kingship, zikhronot memory, and shofarot calls to action - are big promises, and our response to these ideas will define our lives as Jews. But we have a problem, we Conservative Jews. Our ability to hear, internalize and express these ideas has been hampered by a very modern conflict, especially in America. We generally don’t want a king. We have very selective memory. And we only want to do what we want to do. We are in charge.
There is a word for an authority, commanding recording and demanding conformity to its norms. That word is Law. America is one nation, under law. And in Judaism, in classical mode, God is like the author of a constitution, and the rabbis have been the supreme court and the congress, interpreting the meaning of the law and expanding its provisions for the past two thousand years and more. But with law comes criminality. With norms comes deviance. No society is immune from the tensions between citizens and system. If Judaism is indeed a system of law, then we must understand the lessons of modern criminology to support it.
The Torah, the prophets, the writings of our sacred literature and two thousand years of rabbinic Judaism are deeply defined by one simple concept: halakhah - Jewish Law. They declare, cajole and lament about our adherence to Jewish law, and insist that it has sway over our lives. Judaism was founded as a people of laws, and has always defined Jewish life as a complex structure of commanded actions and beliefs. Medieval law codes have been condensed to simple how-to guides for Jewish living, and with the internet you can just ask Rabbi Google what you should do and how you should do it.
The modern world of western enlightenment traditions has undermined that concept of Jewish Law. Personal freedom and autonomy have become the essential nature of human society for many, and freedom of religion is often freedom from religion. So Law, as a religious category, is a real problem for many Conservative Jews. I say Conservative Jews, because we live as a spectrum of Jewish behaviors and beliefs in the middle of the spectrum of American Jewish life. We have Orthodoxy, whose acceptance of Jewish Law defines the essence of their identity. And we have Reform, whose rejection of classical modes of Jewish Law defines the essence of their identity. And we have everyone else in the middle, reflecting broad and contradictory approaches to Jewish Law.
Conservative Rabbis are trained to be lawyers of halakhah. We are firmly committed to observance in all of its standard modes, and we work on the assumption that it is not just rabbis - but the community as a whole - that should live accordingly. The synagogue, which represents us all, is shomer shabbat, shomer kashrut, shomer mitzvot, shomer middot. It is shabbat observant. Kosher observant. Mitzvah observant. And ethically and morally observant. In synagogue life, the public standard is set, knowing that the actual people of our synagogue are a wide variety of observances and beliefs. We embrace that diversity as a strength. We engage different backgrounds as a call to learning and personal growth. So what is the Law, if everyone is equal no matter what they do?
Rabbis, as experts in the law, run a grave risk. And that risk is that by rightfully insisting that Judaism is law, and by setting community standards accordingly, we unavoidably and subtly define most of our people as criminals. Some are minor criminals, breaking laws here and there. Some are career criminals, living contrary to nearly every norm of the legal system that is being presented. And all are present here today. How will people respond to a system that labels them deviants, using negative terms like “unobservant” to describe them? How do you, or I feel when told that we are breaking the law? Can we view Jewish norms with the same ethical seriousness that we have for secular law?
Of course in medieval communities where rabbis had actual legal authority in society, and coercive power to punish, adherence to the law was not a question. And in ghetto or shtetl societies, where social norms meant being accepted in the only community that will have you, adherence to the law was unquestioned. But in our open society, with toothless laws that have no coercive power, how will our traditions survive?
Our strength in Conservative Judaism is also our weakness. Our commitment to unearth the true history of our people underneath the mythology, and to accept the findings of science, archeology, literary criticism and other social sciences makes us the most intellectually honest form of Judaism. We are not shrouded in fundamentalist ideologies that deny the reality of the world. But we are not defined by a blind love of modernity, no matter what it happens to be. We are grounded by history, covenant, and the broad and diverse expressions of Judaism throughout the ages, seeing ourselves as yet another iteration of eternal truths and commitments to God Torah and Israel. But by debunking certain myths of our peoples history, myths which have to strength to set clear and uncompromising legal controls, we are vulnerable to people drifting away, picking and choosing, or rejecting the traditional norms altogether.
Jewish Law, real halakhah as authority in our lives, is a problem for us in this time and place in Jewish history. I believe that how we talk about halakhah is the essential weakness of our movement, and is the main point of disconnect between people who agree with the moderate and reasonable approach of Conservative Judaism but have difficulty with the norms of Jewish behavior that we teach. We basically create a system of criminality, as a sociological condition. We actually undermine the authority of the tradition, create a sense of irrelevance, and doom the system that we are trying to preserve. How can we save the system of Jewish Law, the essence of our history and religion, while being relevant in our modern lives. The answer lies in our social bonds, and our consistent application of halakhik norms in the community setting.
The study of non-conformist behavior in secular law is of course called criminology. What warnings might criminology teach the Conservative movement, given our broad gap between theory and practice?
First, criminal behavior is defined by social context. What is acceptable, and what is deviant, is defined by the culture in which the law lives. This seems contrary to the idea of halakhah, eternal Law from God. But it is not. Social context changes how the law is lived by us, but does not change the essential values and norms underneath. For example, our current social context empowers women to be equal to men. but the commanded norm of regular prayer, tallit, teffillin and torah reading do not change. When we let women ascend the bima and read from the Torah, we are fulfilling the law in a changed social context, not breaking the law. We do not break the halakhah when we empower women to observe the halakhah. Quite the contrary. The secular world is the same: When America allowed women to vote, it did not destroy the essence of democracy.
But social context is a double edged sword. The social context of the haredi world in Monsey is different from ours. Since we are talking about halakhah, and our expression of Judaism contradicts their social norms, we are seen as nonconforming Jews and are basically criminals in their minds. The will not eat our food, recognize our rabbis, or –given the choice – marry our children.
Second, we know that social bonds help to create more stable and law abiding individuals. Social bonds create a form of control and accountability that reinforces legal norms. Criminality is most often accompanied by the breakdown of social controls. Strong social bonds, theory says, creates law abiding citizens.
For Judaism, this is where the law must live today. We don’t have the coercive control of a religious criminal justice system. We don’t have the coercive control of closed communities and the threat of excommunication. Our people seek meaning in relationships, and in a sense of harmony between their synagogue life and their secular life. So the synagogue must teach, represent, and enforce all aspects of halakhah in the communal sphere as we gather and work as a community. But our programs, our actions, our investments must be in things that strengthen and grow those social bonds. The sermon is important. The Kiddush is more important. Adult education is important. Classes and groups of people learning together are more important. Sisterhood. Men’s Club. Hazak. Kadimah. USY. These are the vehicles that must embody the halakhah as lived Judaism in social norms. If there is a trend to the handful of people who have left the shul in the past year, it is this: t
Judaism is a religion. It has cultures. It has sociologies. It has ethics and morals. But it is a religion. And our religion is a religion of laws to observe. When we say, I observe the holidays, that is law. When we say, I treat my neighbor with respect, that is law. When we support the poor, champion the cause of the widow the orphan and the stranger, that is law. When we make a minyan, that is law. When we say kaddish, that is law. When we choose kosher choices, that is law. When we set Shabbat aside from the week, that is law. When our family gathers for Rosh Hashanah, that is law. When we circumcise a child, that is law When we mark to moments of our lives in sacred rituals, that is law. It is all one system. Very little of Jewish law is private to the individual. Almost everything that is commanded is commanded as part of a social relationship with the other members of our community. It is not possible to move to rural Wyoming and live a complete and observant Jewish life. We need each other.
Yes, there is a strong sense of Judgment and criminality that can come fro a system of law. But Judaism is not here to coerce and enforce legal norms on you, threatening punishment and sanctions if you deviate from the norms. Judaism is here to bind you in relationships with others who share common values, traditions and practices. Judaism will flourish when our social context is imbued with those practices in rich and vibrant ways. And that is what the synagogue does for us in this day and age.
The synagogue is answer to the challenge of modernity. Are we adrift, each person establishing their own norms, defining Judaism personally and abandoning centuries of proven effective meaningful practices? Or can our diversity find common identity in celebrating obligations to form minyanim, keep Shabbat, seek social justice, in the context of friendships, family and associations that give our lives control and meaning?
Yes, we are on some level all deviants and criminals in the eyes of the halakhah. But our laws customs norms and celebrations are more than worth pursuing without a sense of guilt or judgment. They are part of an expression of purpose, identity and hope for a world in which God and humanity achieve a just and lasting system.
We have a problem in Conservative Judaism, and it is in part the language of observance - and it is a problem we rabbis have helped to create. We talk about Judaism as a system of traditions, when the fact is that it is a system of laws. The laws - the covenant - are still in effect, but labeling imperfect adherence to the law as only empowers the extremes to the right and left of us. If we are to live and thrive as citizens of Judaism, it is the social bonds that we create in the synagogue community within the law that will give our lives purpose and meaning, and keep Judaism alive for the next generation.
So we do declare, that God is King in Malkuyot. We do assert that knowledge and memory matter more than blind faith or modern rejection in Zikhronot. And we know that the call to action is experienced together in Shofarot. May this year bring you ever closer to the practices of Judaism that will forever sustain us in time.