Extremists for Love – Yom Kippur 2017

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In June 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke before a large crowd in Detroit. In his speech, King argued that, despite the dangers of nonviolent resistance, “there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

What, if anything, do we hold so dear and so precious that we are willing to die for? That’s the question Yom Kippur forces us to ask ourselves. There’s even a whole section of Yom Kippur services devoted to the topic. It’s called “Eleh ezkereh,” these I recall. Some refer to it as “the martyrology.”

In the martyrology, we recount those who have died “al kiddush Hashem,” for the sanctification of God’s name. We tell the stories of sages like Rabbi Akiva, holy men who were executed for the “crime” of teaching Torah. We recall the men, women, and children who have been murdered throughout the centuries, solely because they were Jewish and refused to abandon their faith. We venerate those Jews who refused to succumb to crusades and pogroms, suicide bombers and genocide, violence, torture, and death, who held fast to the God, Torah, and people of Israel in the face of unspeakable dangers.

Why do we recall our martyrs on Yom Kippur? Wouldn’t another occasion, Tisha B’Av perhaps, be more fitting? The answer is because on this day, a day in which we recommit to being the Jews and the human beings we have always been called to be, we remind ourselves that truly caring about our faith, truly affirming the values our tradition seeks to advance, means being willing to give of ourselves, even to risk suffering, for them. How much we care about something is evidenced by how much we are willing to sacrifice for it.

And yet, many of us moderns struggle with the martyrology. I get it. It’s a downer. And the traditional liturgy, with its vivid descriptions of gruesome executions, can be stomach-churning. It doesn’t have any of the good music, and it’s not especially soul-stirring.

But I think our ambivalence about the martyrology may be deeper than mere aesthetics. Perhaps we struggle with it because we are uncomfortable with the very concept of martyrdom.

Martyrdom, after all, requires believing in something so strongly that we would be willing to give our lives for it. It is in this sense an inherently radical position to take, which no doubt makes most of us uneasy.

The discomfort comes from an honest place. Modern history has done little to commend the virtues of martyrdom. Usually, those who espouse these values are not good guys. The 9/11 hijackers and Dylann Roof don’t have much in common, except for the fact that they all considered themselves martyrs.

In our age of violent extremism, we know full well the dangers inherent in being too convinced of our own rightness, in believing in things so strongly that we would be willing to die – or kill – for them.

We also recognize what we gain as individuals and as a society when we reject extremism and respect cultures and perspectives that are different from our own. Diversity makes us stronger. Encountering other points of view, appreciating and learning from the beauty and wisdom of other cultures, provides us with perspectives we may have never before considered, pushes us to examine the foundations of our own beliefs, and helps us refine our own understandings. In fact, I would argue that our country’s tradition of pluralism is one of the factors that has contributed to America’s historically unique ingenuity and progress.

Moreover, a society that honors diversity is best positioned to enable all of its citizens to flourish. Nowhere have we Jews, and minority groups of all stripes, thrived more than in this open, diverse, tolerant, and free country.

At the same time, in our current “post-truth,” era, our new normal of social media echo chambers, “fake news,” and “alternative facts,” we are right at this very moment reckoning with the opposite challenge. If we are too open-minded, too tolerant of a multiplicity of perspectives and ways of being, we can ultimately lose our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil. It increasingly feels as though we’re all driving together on the same highway, but no one agrees on the rules of the road. Someone’s bound to get hurt. Some already have.

Where, then, does that leave us? How do we embrace pluralism while simultaneously remaining firm in our convictions, knowing and doing what we believe to be right? That’s a complex question. I’m proud to announce that we will be spending the year at Temple Beth-El exploring this question under the rubric of our educational theme “The Dignity of Difference.” We will have classes, lectures, and programs all year long dedicated to exploring Jewish approaches to diversity, considering its possibilities and its challenges. Please see the Fall Program Guide in your seat pocket for information about some of these opportunities.

But for now, I want to share a talmudic story (B. Eruvin 13b) that offers one meaningful answer:

In ancient Israel, there were two great rabbinic academies, the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. According to the Talmud, these two schools used to engage each other in passionate and heated debates about Jewish law. Hillel’s School would say, “Our views are right!” And Shammai’s School would reply, “No, our views are right!”

Once, when the two schools were debating a point of law for three long years, a voice boomed forth from the heavens: ‘These and these are the words of the living God, though the law is in agreement with Hillel’s School’.

As Hillel’s School celebrated victory, Shammai’s School was incredulous. “Wait a minute!” one outspoken student exclaimed. “If both of our views are God’s words, then why does the law follow Hillel’s School?!”

A reply came back from the heavens, “Because they are kindly and modest, they study both their own rulings and yours, and even mention your opinions before theirs.”

This story is instructive on a number of levels. First, both schools believed fervently in the rightness of their own positions. Jewish tradition by no means advocates for “wishy-washiness in what one believes” (Dorff, 58). It affirms that each of us is entitled to, indeed required to, take firm stands on issues that matter, even to fight and die for our values if necessary.

However, it is important to note that the two schools engaged in conversation and debate about their positions. Debate requires two or more parties committed to engaging with each other. We can hold strong positions, but we must also respect others enough to entertain and discuss their beliefs. The validity of our views is diminished – indeed, irrelevant – if they force us to deny another person his or her dignity.

Debate also requires the common language of logic and reason. One cannot debate, at least not very well, if one cannot devise a rational argument in defense of his or her position and in opposition to the views of his or her fellow. That means, insofar as we have fervently held beliefs, we must be expected, and we must expect each other, to support them with facts, ground them in reason, and root them in shared understandings of reality. Our beliefs must be able to withstand challenge and counterargument. If your beliefs collapse under the weight of rational argument, then they cannot be held as valid. Our views are credible only if they can stand up to the light of reason.

The requirement of debate is also a mandate for intellectual humility and ideological pluralism. We must be able to believe passionately in our own views while recognizing that we might be wrong. All human beings are imperfect. Only God is perfect. God alone knows ultimate truth, absolute right and wrong. When the Divine Voice says “These and these are the words of the living God,” it is underscoring the reality that neither school has a greater claim on God’s truth than the other.

Similarly, none of us has a greater claim on knowing the universal, indisputable truth than our fellow. Since none of us is God, we must always bear in mind our own intellectual fallibility, the possibility that our understanding is wrong and that others also may be right.

The School of Hillel understood this imperative better than the School of Shammai, which is why they studied the teachings of Shammai’s School alongside their own, and prioritized teaching the opinions of Shammai’s School.

And yet, the text does not teach that “anything goes.” In the dispute between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, there is ultimately a decision. The voice from heaven calls out that we are to follow the opinion of Hillel’s School. In the Jewish hierarchy of values, normativity – having an established and agreed upon standard of behavior – is more important than ideological pluralism.

If a community is unable to determine how its members should behave, what people can expect of each other, and how people can anticipate each other’s actions, then it risks chaos, conflict, and even violence. The biblical Book of Judges paints a gruesome picture of what society looks like when there is no social order, when every person “does what is right in his or her own eyes” (Judges 17:6). The rabbis of the Talmud echo the wisdom, urging, for example, that we “pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2).

Pluralism at its core is the affirmation that each individual has the right to live in whatever way they feel will maximize their ability to flourish. But such flourishing is only possible if there is social order. Each of us as individuals requires a cooperative community in order to thrive. While pluralism is an important value, social order is a higher one (Haidt, 314-316).

However, while maintaining social order may hold a higher place on our hierarchy of values than pluralism, there is a higher value still.

Consider for a moment that there are many different ways to achieve social order. Fascist societies are very orderly. The biblical kings also created social order (Cf. I Samuel 8:19-20, et. al.), but the Bible nevertheless condemns them in no small part for routinely trampling upon their subjects in the process (Cf. II Samuel 11-12, et. al).

Herein lies the deep wisdom of this talmudic passage: the debate between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai is settled because, at the end of the day, people need the rules to be clear and binding upon everyone equally. But the law follows Hillel’s school, not because they were more right, but because they were more kind.

Since Jewish tradition values both pluralism and social harmony, it strives to ensure that the laws which create harmony are those promulgated by individuals who best embody the values that make pluralistic societies possible, namely kindness and modesty (Haidt, 317).

In other words, our tradition affirms that social order, crucial though it is for a functional society, is ultimately a means to an end. The ultimate goal is not harmony for its own sake, but rather for the sake of securing each individual’s ability to flourish.

The infinite worth of each individual, then, is the highest ideal. The law is decided by those voices who affirm and embody that ideal. We recognize those voices by their intellectual humility – they honor the views of others – and by their interpersonal kindness – they act in such a way that shows they believe every person is worthy of love, respect, and concern.

True, a Divine Voice settles the debate between Hillel and Shammai’s schools. But in so doing, the text bequeaths to us God’s methodology, how God decides which opinion gets enshrined as law. Of primary concern to God is human dignity.

Thus, the text implies that the equal and infinite value of each and every human being ought to be our primary concern, too. It ought to be the thing that guides our interactions with each other. It ought to be the thing that guides our social policy and that directs the words and actions of our leaders. And it ought to be the thing that, to borrow King’s phrase, we are to hold dear and precious; the thing that, if push came to shove, we would be willing to die for.

In general, we are to abhor extremism. With one exception. This exception. We must be unyielding, uncompromising extremists for human dignity.

Last spring, our congregation was privileged to host world-renowned Jewish artist Mordecai Rosenstein. During a weekend filled with learning, community, and creative exploration, Mordecai began work on an original piece of art for our congregation. We received the completed piece this summer. I’m proud to unveil it today. It features a quotation from the biblical prophet Micah (Micah 3:6-8):

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

God has told you, O human, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only this — do justice, and cherish kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

I love this text. It attempts to boil down 613 commandments to just three. All God really wants from us, according to Micah, is to do justice, cherish kindness, and walk humbly with God. In the end, God doesn’t care whether or not you are right, or whether or not you know ultimate truths. While God may care whether or not you read real news or fake, or whether you have fact-facts or alternative facts, all of that is ultimately secondary.

First and foremost is whether you’ve made your society more fair and equal, whether you’ve improved the situation of those in need, whether you’ve lifted up the downtrodden, And, because God encompasses and is reflected by all humanity, whether you’ve had the intellectual and cultural humility to engage with diverse people and perspectives. In answering these questions, there can be no subjectivity, no hedging, no dodging.

Micah’s message calls to mind something else King once said. From a jail cell in Birmingham, just two months before he gave the speech in Detroit with which I opened this sermon, King took the opportunity to respond to colleagues who had criticized his Civil Rights activism as “extreme.”

King replied, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

Similarly, Micah calls us, in effect, to be extremists. Extremists for justice, extremists for love, extremists for pluralism, extremists for human dignity. In pursuing and upholding these core sacred values, we are called this day to pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. They are ideals, we are reminded in our worship today, that many of our ancestors have died for. They are ideals, our tradition affirms, that are worth dying for.

And if we commit ourselves to them, then we will be truly fit to be inscribed for life in the year to come.

 

References:

Elliot N. Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics

Jonathan Haidt, ​The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Kurt Anderson, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History

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