Happy Birthday, Temple Sholom Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5778/2017
How one hundred and fifty years young we are!
Many here today have been loyal members and great supporters of Temple Sholom for a good portion of this time. Please know how indebted we are to you. Thank you! The success of Temple Sholom is due in no small part to your loyalty to and love for this congregation. God bless you!
You know, one hundred and fifty years ago, in 1867, some amazing things happened in the world.
January 9, 1867: African Americans in D.C. are granted the right to vote.
February 13: the Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss premieres in Vienna.
March 2: the US Department of Education is formed.
March 29: the US Congress approves the building of the Lincoln Memorial.
June 12: The Congress that serves the Austro-Hungarian Empire votes to give Jews in the Empire political emancipation. From this vote countless doors will open to Jews in Austria and the Germanic States.
September 12: the 2nd synagogue in Curacao, Emanu-El of Willemstad, is inaugurated.
September 27: the North Chicago Hebrew Congregation is formed. And that will become Temple Sholom of Chicago!
Later events that year include the opening of the first Jewish college in America, Maimonides, and the beginning of the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson.
But back to September 27 and the beginning of our congregation.
I would like to think that our founders would be excited to see what we have done with the congregation in the last 150 years.
You should know that a congregation that would last this long was not a sure thing. When the original founders of the synagogue met in a lecture room on North Clark Street in 1867 to establish our synagogue they agreed on the fact that Chicago needed a synagogue north of the river. When they dedicated the first modest building on September 27 of that year — it cost a whopping $6000 — they were in agreement that the location was convenient. The outstanding issue that divided them was what kind of Judaism would they practice.
The first senior rabbi, Adolph Ollendorf, who was paid a salary of $100 a month, only lasted for two years. Many think he left because the congregation was divided between those who wanted to practice a traditional Judaism of ritual and observance, and those who favored social justice and the reformation of Judaism.
This tension would not quickly give way and there are those who argue that the next senior rabbi, Aaron Norden, who lasted for decades, ultimately left the congregation for the same reason. The congregation couldn’t decide what kind of Jews they wanted to become.
Although eventually the North Chicago Hebrew Congregation would evolve into Temple Sholom of Chicago and align itself with Reform Judaism, the tension between those who valued rituals such as keeping kosher and Shabbat observance and those who preferred the social action of prophetic Judaism remained and to some extent still remains.
Of course, the Jewish elements that the synagogue later discarded, such as head coverings for men, Torah study instead of sermons, prayer shawls, and bar mitzvahs, have all made a comeback. But the early message of social justice is still strong among Temple Sholom members.
I am proud of our social justice tradition. While researching Chicago Reform Jewish history in preparation for this year I came across a dramatic story of a labor strike at the clothing company Hart, Schaffner and Marx in 1910 that pitted poor immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe against a wealthy Reform Jew. Hannah Shapiro, an 18-year-old Russian-born worker, led a walkout in response to a wage cut at a Hart, Schaffner & Marx factory. Within weeks, nearly 40,000 others joined the strike. After four months, Joseph Schaffner, a German-born Jew, settled with his workers in a landmark agreement that established a wage increase of ten percent, a 54-hour work week, and an independent arbitration committee to resolve labor disputes.
Schaffner only agreed to settle the strike when his rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch, convinced him that his establishing a more just place to work was the Jewish thing to do.
This was a great moment for Chicago.
When we celebrate our congregation’s momentous birthday, we should be proud of our legacy of social justice allied with our Jewish heritage.
God knows we need social justice now more than ever. The old English major in me keeps being haunted by W. B. Yeats’ famous lines, written a century ago but oddly relevant:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Here’s my question: If “the best lack all conviction,” then won’t the worst “with passionate intensity” have the field to themselves?
Who are the worst who are filled with passionate intensity? I will let you make that determination for yourselves.
As for me, I want to be clear: We need actively to share our values with our beloved country. 150 years of American Jewish life North of the River should be celebrated as a blessing but also recognized as a mandate. The freedom we have enjoyed comes with certain responsibilities. These include fighting for the rights of others as if we were fighting for our own rights.
Let me get more specific: As American Jews it is essential we should express outrage and condemnation of the executive order announced recently that repeals Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA was instituted by President Obama in reaction to years of failed immigration policy, giving many young people who had spent most of their lives in the U.S. hope for the future. I know there is some doubt this drastic and harsh order will be carried out but our task is not to be lulled into complacency.
We American Jews have no choice but to support these immigrants. With vigilance.
We are a nation of immigrants. And as Jews, we are all immigrants. The young people protected by DACA are part of the fabric of our communities and of our country. Their story is the story of our people as well. We know what it is to be strangers. We know the hard work and extraordinary fortitude that is required to succeed as immigrants. And we know this: We must maintain this country’s long tradition, and the principles it was founded upon, as a welcoming country, a leader of nations, and a safe haven.
The assault on immigrants is a dangerous precedent and incompatible with both our core Jewish values, and our core American values. We need policies that do not tear families apart, that aren’t created out of hate and baseless fear, but that lift up our shared humanity.
The young immigrants affected by DACA are the future of this country. We cannot turn our backs on them. We call for legislative action that provides protection for DACA immigrants and all those who come here seeking a better life for themselves.
Let us then urge our Senators and Representatives to immediately pass the Dream Act of 2017 (S.1615/H.R.3440). Congress must act now to protect DACA recipients from deportation or detention. The bipartisan Dream Act would grant DACA recipients permanent residence status and provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers who attend college, work in the U.S., or serve in the military.
We need to support this bill because it is enmeshed in who we are.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the Religious Action Center, and a future guest this year at Temple Sholom, recently offered this pledge:
We will not be indifferent when a woman of color fears for the safety of her children.
We will not be indifferent when a young man is at risk of losing his essential health care.
We will not be indifferent when take home wages hold millions in poverty or when mass incarceration rips apart millions of American families.
We will not be indifferent when transgender Americans are denied the chance to serve their country.
We will not be indifferent when a sheriff sworn to protect the community abuses the law and preys upon people instead.
We will not be indifferent because we believe so deeply in the power of people of faith to act together and transform our society.
We will not be indifferent because we know
that when we stand with one another,
when we love one another as neighbors,
Then we can hold our leaders accountable
to a higher moral vision
that transcends any political party
and any political moment,
And redeem the soul of our nation.
There are so many other social justice issues. Our Sholom Justice Committee under the leadership of Rabbi Conover, Matty Major and Marla Gross, need your help. We should be proud of all that is being done.
And yet, I fear that too many of us today subscribe to the social justice side of Judaism but have never indulged in the larger view of Judaism, rejected for a time by our Temple Sholom ancestors, but embraced by many in the years that have passed.
Why does this matter?
For one thing, social justice does not equal Judaism.
Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, and what we usually call social justice, is vital to our mission at Temple Sholom in particular and as Reform Jews in general, but it is does not stand alone at the core of our ancient faith. World-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, is nothing more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect.
To put it another way: It’s been said that saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system.
Don’t misunderstand me: I personally align with progressive values, and I believe that they have a place in Judaism. In fact I celebrate the confluence of many liberal and Jewish values.
But progressive values—or conservative convictions, or libertarian streaks, or any other variety of ideological sentiments—only have a place in our religion if they spring from our corpus of Jewish texts and especially our theology.
Our sacred task as Reform Jews is to teach and reflect the authentic values of our liberal Jewish heritage. They are the values that come from the Torah, the ancient prophets, and the compassionate insights of the classical Sages.
Our 150 year legacy as a congregation– not to mention our 4000 year Jewish heritage — should not be watered down into a vague notion of social action. Unfortunately the term “tikkun olam” has become a general motto of most American Jewry, and like other Jewish words such as “chutzpah” it has entered English vocabulary without translation. American politicians readily invoke it.
Ironically the term did not always refer to social justice work. In medieval Jewish philosophy, the word “tikkun” was often applied to human self-development, and to the quest for human “perfection,” self-actualization or moral/spiritual improvement. It was about self growth.
Even in the 1960s the term was not popular. Although he was no stranger to social action or to the teachings of the biblical prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel did not use the term “tikkun olam” to describe either of them. Heschel advocated the application of a particularly and authentically Jewish way of thinking both to Jewish and universal social, ethical and spiritual issues. Unlike contemporary views of tikkun olam that begin with universalism drawn from non-Jewish ideologies, Heschel advocated the application of particularly Jewish… ideas to universalistic issues.
Simply put, our world does need repair. But so do we.
So this is what I ask of you on this special birthday: allow Temple Sholom to repair the world but also repair ourselves. The need is out there and we’ve got the cure: Jewish wisdom and practice.
Consider, for instance, Shabbat. I understand that Saturday worship was difficult for generations of Temple Sholom members. Many had to work on Saturday. One response in the early days was to make Sunday the Sabbath. Temple Sholom tried this for years. Then again, many over the years only came twice a year and did not visit the synagogue at all on most sabbaths.
But today is not one hundred years ago, and the demands on our sanity have never been greater. In short Jewish practices that may have seemed irrelevant to our Temple Sholom ancestors are pretty timely now.
We need time away from work, from our smart phones. We need prayerful meditation and the insights of ancient but timely texts.
Temple Sholom offers all of this. In honor of our 150 or in light of our crazy world, I plead with you to take this part of Judaism seriously too.
Working the Monday meal is amazing. Studying on Saturday and Sunday is also a gift, one that I urge you to consider. Being members of this incredible temple gives us a kind of Jewish authenticity that is hard to beat, but there is more that most of us can do to practice Judaism in its fuller sense.
The brochure you have spells out a myriad of opportunities, including studying our Reform Jewish heritage and the teachings of the classic prophets. Please take them home!
In short, we all know that America has many faults that must be repaired. I pray that we find a way as a country to do this work together. We must, as Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during a 1965 commencement address for Oberlin College, learn to live together as brothers and sisters. Or, we will perish together as fools. But such work does not start in the streets. It starts in the classroom and sacred space. We repair the world first by repairing ourselves.
In conclusion, consider the insight of a Jewish ethical sage:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
My friends, the new world beckons, the year of celebration begins and the world more than ever needs our help.
I pray we will rise to the challenge, buoyed by our noble and righteous heritage, inspired by the dedication and legacy of the giants who walked before us.
Happy Birthday, Temple Sholom.
Now let’s get busy!