Purim and the Responsibilities of Privilege

When Queen Esther contemplated whether to approach the King of Persia, uninvited, to ask that the Jews be spared, the stakes were high. Stay silent, and her people would be slaughtered. Speak up, and risk death herself at the hands of a capricious ruler.

Ultimately, her uncle, Mordechai, persuaded her with the following argument: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis!” (Esther 4:13)

Those who occupy positions of privilege often feel insulated from the challenges confronting others. When it’s not impacting me directly, it doesn’t feel like my problem. So why would I risk what I have to speak out on others’ behalf?

Mordechai, however, reminds Esther that her welfare is ultimately intertwined with her people’s welfare, just as our wellbeing is bound up in the wellbeing of everyone else. We cannot be truly safe, truly free, truly prosperous, until everyone is safe, free, and prosperous. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

We usually think that privilege is about comfort, achieving a position free of concern. On the contrary, Mordechai reminds Esther that privilege is about responsibility.

If you are reading this column, chances are good that you are among the ranks of the most fortunate people to ever live. Mordechai‘ s challenge to Esther is, therefore, our challenge as well. When there are those in our world, in our country, whose lives are at risk, do we stand by, fearful that speaking up will cost us our position? Or do we remember that our fate is bound up in their fate, too, and perhaps we have attained our privilege for just such a crisis?

This was the question of Esther’s time. This is the question of our time. As we celebrate Purim, let us honor Mordechai’s challenge, and recall Esther’s heroic response.

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Virginia House of Delegates Invocation, February 23, 2018


Mekor ha-hayyim, somkeh noflim, matir asurim—

Champion of the downtrodden, we ask that, today and every day, You show our leaders how to walk Your paths:

Enable them to see Your image in all people, eradicating all forms of bigotry and furthering Your cause of inclusion and equality.

Embolden them to welcome the immigrant, to support the refugee, and to uphold the hopes of dreamers.

Soften their hearts to know the suffering of the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged.

Source of life, we pray that, today and every day, You empower our leaders to be true champions of life:

Move them to ensure that everyone in our Commonwealth has access to quality, affordable healthcare.

Call them to safeguard us from the millions of guns, legal and easy to buy, that threaten our children at school, at the mall, at the movies, at concerts.

Grant them the will and the courage to put the lives of vulnerable citizens above the concerns of well-funded special interests. Guide them to do everything they can to preserve our health and to prevent shamefully common, uniquely American, man-made tragedies.

God of freedom, we ask that, today and every day, You strengthen our leaders’ resolve to protect the free ideals and democratic institutions that are the glory of our Commonwealth and country.

Grant them the humility to engage in respectful debate and disagreement, forging consensus where possible, yielding when necessary. Above all, remind them of their power to foster the common good, and their responsibility – above ideology, party, and political calculation – to wholeheartedly pursue righteousness and justice.

Hear our voices, God, and with compassion, receive our prayers, for we affirm that you are a God who listens to prayer. And as You bless our beloved Commonwealth and these dedicated public servants, help us all recall that, beyond supplication and petition, above all song and praise, You are a God who loves deeds of righteousness. May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and, most importantly, the actions of our hands, be acceptable in Your sight, bringing your love, your presence, and your peace ever closer. And let us say: Amen.

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Inauguration Benediction

I was honored to have been invited to deliver the benediction at the Inauguration Ceremonies for Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring at the Virginia State Capitol, January 13, 2018. Below is the text of the blessing I offered.


Ribbono shel olam, Majesty of space and time, bless and protect our new Governor, Ralph Northam, our new Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, and our Attorney General, Mark Herring. Look with favor upon them, their families, and their administrations. Deal graciously with them and grant them peace.

Creator of all life, we pray that You guide our leaders to faithfully serve you by caring for all those who dwell in our Commonwealth. Enable them to see Your image in all people. In the face of resurgent and resilient hatred, xenophobia, and racism, embolden them to eradicate bigotry and inaugurate a new era of inclusion and equality.

Confronted with unprecedented assaults on the structures of our democracy and the norms that support them, fortify our leaders’ resolve to secure, strengthen, and advance the ideals and institutions that are the glory of our Commonwealth and our Republic.

May You, who hears the voices of the voiceless and knows the hurt of all hearts (Jeremiah 17:10), grant our leaders the wisdom to discern the “silent agony” of the unseen and unheard, the “plundered poor” and the passed over (Abraham Joshua Heschel, “My Reasons for Involvement in the Peace Movement).

Just as You champion justice for the wronged, free the bound, lift up the downtrodden, protect the stranger, and encourage the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146), empower our leaders to uphold the cause of the impoverished, the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the oppressed, ensuring equal opportunity and justice for all.

In this moment, when ‎the cause of the just is too readily sold for silver, and the needs of the poor are betrayed to benefit the wealthy (Amos 2:6), give our leaders strength to discharge the duties of their offices with honesty and integrity, withstanding the temptations that, as Scripture warns, “blind the clear-sighted and subvert the cause of the righteous” (Exodus 23:8).

God, help us, too. Help us remain mindful of the extraordinary gift of freedom, attained by our ancestors at great expenditures of toil and blood, that we have been blessed to inherit. Work through us so that we may dutifully fulfill our responsibilities to one another as a self-governing people. Where we see degradation or persecution, move us to march. Where we see tyranny, rally us to resist. And where we see despair, grant us the audacity to hope. Help us, in the words of our ancient rabbis (Mishnah Avot 5:23), to be “bold as leopards, light as eagles, swift as deer and mighty as lions” as we remind our leaders whom they serve, and before Whom they stand.

Help us remember that, regardless of the shade of our skin or the place of our origin, regardless of whether we were born in privilege or in poverty, regardless of the anatomy with which we were born or the language we speak, regardless of our gender identity or our sexual orientation, we are all brothers and sisters, destinies intertwined, called upon by our Heavenly Parent to safeguard one another (Genesis 4:9) and to dwell together in peace (Psalm 133:1).

As we leave these hallowed grounds, inspired by this hopeful day, we pray that you ready us to join together in that spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, bound by common cause and shared destiny, to make “justice well up like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24), and to speedily bring about the day when “nation will not take up sword against nation, and they will never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, Adonai, our Rock and our Redeemer.

And let us say, “Amen.”


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Statement about the President’s Islamophobic Tweets

Tuesday morning, President Trump retweeted several outrageous (and, reports indicate, phony) Islamophobic videos from a fringe British ultranationalist group. The outburst represents a continuation of a disturbing pattern. President Trump routinely targets and vilifies Muslims. The pattern seems to intensify when the president finds himself in political danger or when he wants to fire up his base and/or change the subject.Why the president shared these abhorrent videos is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the president is nervous that the Special Counsel investigation seems to be closing in on him and his inner circle. Perhaps he sees it as an avenue to buoy his abysmal approval rating. The tweets came on the heels of his endorsement of alleged sex criminal and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and in the midst of a larger cultural reckoning over sexual abuse by prominent, powerful men. Maybe he’s trying to direct scrutiny away from the fact that he too stands accused of a similar pattern of behavior. Or maybe it was a ploy to divert the media’s attention away from the Republican tax reform plan, a measure that will redistribute the nation’s wealth from the poor to the rich. The plan is extremely unpopular, and for good moral, as well as practical, reasons. Congressional Republicans are in a hurry to pass the bill, because they know the more Americans learn about the bill, the less popular it will become. The president and his Republican majorities in Congress know they need to demonstrate a legislative win. Perhaps the president surmised that he could send inflammatory tweets to divert the media’s attention from tax reform, giving congressional Republicans cover to pass an unpopular bill with less than full scrutiny. Or, maybe the timing is entirely coincidental, and the president, animated by his demonstrated bias against Muslims, happened yesterday to see some tweets that confirmed his prejudices and, as many of us sometimes regretfully do on social media, impulsively shared them.But Twitter is a public forum, especially when the person using it is the President of the United States. And when the president makes a public statement, whether on Twitter or any other medium, and however petty or cynical the motive, the consequences are grave. To imply, as the president has through these tweets and other previous statements, that practitioners of Islam are bloodthirsty savages, untethered from the laws and norms of civilized society, poised to overturn all that Western civilization holds good and sacred, is to spread bigotry, to foment hatred, and to incite violence.A central tenet of the Jewish tradition is that words have consequences. Indeed, words create worlds (at least according to the Book of Genesis, in which God speaks the world into existence). And, to borrow a metaphor from the Midrash, like an arrow loosed from a bow, a harsh word cannot be retracted once spoken, and bears the power to do great harm. Passionate about my tradition’s call to pursue justice, affirming my tradition’s foundational principle of the equal and infinite dignity of every human being, and cognizant of the extraordinary power of words, I want to state clearly: I reject the president’s Islamophobic rhetoric and actions in the strongest possible terms, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends and partners in the Muslim community here and abroad against prejudice, bigotry, and hate, especially when it emanates from the most powerful office in the world. I am dedicated to building a country where the divinely-ordained dignity and equality of every person is affirmed, and we therefore resist calls to vilify each other. I urge the president and his supporters to end their assaults on the Muslim community and to take steps to ensure Muslims at home and abroad are treated with fairness and respect.I further call on my fellow Americans from all walks of life, and especially those who purport to be guided by religious values, not to be distracted by the president’s naked attempts to deflect attention from matters like tax reform. Rather, we should renew our commitments to be vigilant and informed citizens, active participants in the democratic process, working together to ensure a more perfect, and a more just and righteous, union.

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Pray for Healing, Fight for Justice: A Response to the Sutherland Springs Mass-Shooting

I am heartbroken over the news of yesterday’s mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. 26 people, ranging from toddlers to retirees, including eight members of a single family, were murdered in cold blood.

I extend my heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families, the First Baptist congregation, the community of Sutherland Springs, and the State of Texas. I pray for comfort, healing, and peace.

At the same time, even as someone who believes in the power and importance of prayer, I know that prayer alone will not solve the American gun violence epidemic that claims 30,000 lives each year. We need legislation that keeps guns from dangerous people. So long as the slaughter of innocents is tolerated and enabled by popular lethargy, political cowardice, and corporate greed, the next tragedy is not a matter of “if,” but of “when?” and “where?”

True, there are factors that contribute to gun violence besides guns: the expense, inaccessibility, and stigmas of mental health treatment; the fact that kids in our broken education system become more likely to live lives of poverty, violence, and crime; the link between rising poverty and deepening economic inequality and violent crime.

There is also the fact that most perpetrators of mass shootings are men, and many have prior histories of violence against women. It is critical that we address the cultural norm that equates masculinity with violence, and the misogyny, sexual assault, and domestic violence that remains rampant in our society. We cannot solve the problem of gun violence without seriously addressing these and other issues, too.

However, let these factors not distract us from the central issue: the guns. From Sutherland Springs to Sandy Hook, from Las Vegas to Aurora, from Virginia Tech to Columbine, the one thing all these mass shooting events have in common is guns. To end them, we have to deal with the guns.

Indeed, tragedies like these are a uniquely American horror. In no other industrialized nation besides ours do mass shooting events occur with the frequency and intensity they do here. The distinguishing factor is that those other countries have common-sense regulations on gun ownership, and we repeatedly fail to enact even the most basic of reforms.

Some will point to the fact that the “bad guy with a gun” in Sutherland Springs was ultimately stopped by a “good guy with a gun.” That individual is indeed a hero and undoubtedly saved many lives. But if the “bad guy” didn’t have a gun in the first place, there would have been no need for an armed good samaritan. Moreover, even when “good guys” have guns, bad things happen. A gun in the home is more likely to harm the people inside than it is to protect them. There is also a strong link between access to guns and gun deaths. Additionally, armed defense is not a guarantee of security, and dangerous people with access to weapons are, well, markedly more dangerous.

But we are not resigned to this fate. The Torah commands us to choose life (Deut. 30:19), insisting that it is in our power to create a society where everyone can go to school, attend church or synagogue, and enjoy their lives without having to fear random eruptions of violence, carried out with easily accessible weapons of war. It is time for us to end this scourge.

The biblical prophet Amos said that God will reject our prayers until we make “justice well up like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” (5:24). Let us then not only pray for the people of Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, and so many others whose lives have been shattered by gun violence. Let us demand justice and righteous change, for them, and for all the people of our land.

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Welcome Akiva Betzalel Knopf


We are proud to announce that we have named our son Akiva Betzalel. With your indulgence, we’d be honored to share a little about the names we’ve chosen, and about Akiva’s namesakes.

The poet Carl Sandburg once said,  “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” Akiva Betzalel, we believe you are God’s stake in the future of our people and our world. We have given you your names to inspire, guide, and prepare you for that sacred purpose.

First and foremost, it’s impossible to name a child Akiva Betzalel without evoking the most famous figures who have borne those names. And, indeed, we chose Akiva Betzalel because we deliberately wanted to link our son with those spiritual ancestors.

Akiva ben Yosef was among the greatest, and best known, of the ancient rabbis. The Talmud is quite literally filled with his teachings, maxims, and legal opinions. He reared many students, a number of whom subsequently became extraordinary sages themselves. No wonder the Talmud refers to Akiva as “Chief of the Sages.”

Of the qualities Rabbi Akiva embodied, we were most inspired by his passion for Torah and his resistance to tyranny: his determination to do what he saw as right, regardless of the consequences; his refusal to abandon his convictions, even in the face of great persecution.

The Talmud relates that, after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (a brave revolt against the evil empire of Rome that Akiva himself is reported to have supported), the Roman authorities forbade Jews from teaching, learning, and practicing Torah (B. B’rakhot 61b). Rabbi Akiva, however, continued to convene assemblies in public for Torah study. A colleague said to him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire?” Akiva bravely answered, “More than I fear the Romans, I fear abandoning Torah.” I like to think he used these acts of civil disobedience to expound upon the verse he saw as the Torah’s greatest principle: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Ultimately, Akiva was arrested and executed by the Romans for his “crime” of teaching Torah. It is said that he was reciting the Shema during his execution, and that his soul left his body as he uttered the word “ehad,” one; fitting for a man who devoted his life to the notion that, above all, we are called to love each other.

Akiva, like your namesake, you have similarly been born into a world where evil is rampant, ascendant, powerful. These are dark times. They call for fulness of faith and courage of conviction; the determination to know right from wrong, good from evil, and to be steadfast in doing the right and good. Even if it is unpopular, even if there are negative consequences, we pray that you remain unafraid and undeterred.

As I taught just two days ago on Yom Kippur, our tradition, honoring your namesake’s legacy, demands we be “unyielding, uncompromising extremists for human dignity.” While we of course want you to be smart and safe about the ways you fight for what is right, we nevertheless pray that you live up to the sacred call of our tradition, as did your namesake.

We’ve also named you for the biblical Betzalel, the architect of the mishkan. Betzalel is the person charged by God to ensure the fulfilment of the divine command, “Make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you.” This verse is frequently understood outside of its normal context to mean that God’s presence – the manifestation of universal justice, kindness, and peace – will only come to dwell in our world if we make of our world a vessel to hold it. In other words, we have the ability to make this world into a place fit for the indwelling of the Divine Presence. Our destiny is in our hands. Betzalel is thus the person primarily responsible for creating that structure.

Similarly, Akiva Betzalel, we pray that you see yourself as the person primarily responsible for making this world a place that can hold God’s presence. Because, if not you, then who?

We have also named you Akiva for Adira’s Tante Kathy, Kathy Green, who died just a few short weeks ago, well before her time, after a heroic struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

Kathy was gracious, kind, humble, and fiercely intelligent.  A serious spiritual seeker and a gifted educator, she had a gift for making people feel at ease, and was genuinely interested in what others thought and felt. She was also disarmingly funny, and could catch you off-guard with her dry-as-gin wit. Most inspiring to us was how Tante Kathy faced the illness that plagued her later years and ultimately took her life. She did not become embittered or hopeless. She quietly forged ahead, facing each challenge with strength and gratitude. As my brother-in-law Rabbi Or put it, “Kathy possessed an unusual combination of resilience and acceptance, and she held that tension with uncommon grace.”

Akiva, we pray that you, too, like your Tante Kathy of Blessed Memory, will face life’s trials with resilience and grace; kindness, generosity, humor, and dogged determination to magnify and sanctify each moment that you have on this earth.

Finally, since Adira tells me that you will be our last child — jury’s still out, in my opinion — we also wanted to squeeze in a few more honorable mentions. These aren’t “namesakes,” per se – a namesake is, after all, believed to be a reincarnated soul, and we don’t want TK’s soul to get crowded in there – but beloved ancestors who inspired our choice of your name, and whose memories we hope inspire you.

Rabbi Akiva was understood in Jewish tradition as having been the spiritual heir of Moses (B. Menahot 29b). Moshe was the Hebrew name of your great-grandfather, my Zaide, Moe Farrow, of Blessed Memory. My Zaide, like your namesake Akiva, risked his life to fight tyranny. My Zaide was a simple man, a butcher and a grocer, dedicated to yiddishkeit and his family, who owned a small store in an impoverished part of Miami. But his simplicity belied the greatness of his heart and the expanse of his moral vision. An immigrant himself, he epitomized the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). He gave away food to anyone in need, even if it hurt his bottom line. He refused to abide by Jim Crow laws, and taught his children about the evils of racism and segregation. I pray his memory and example instructs you as it does me.

Akiva is a variant of Ya’akov, the name of the Jewish patriarch who was later renamed Yisrael. Yisrael was the Hebrew name of your great-grandfather, my grandfather, Jay Knopf, of Blessed Memory. Your great-grandfather was thoughtful, intelligent, and funny. He, like your namesake Akiva, and like my Zaide Moe, risked his life to fight tyranny. But I remember him most like this: he was always singing, and he was passionate about Jewish life and Jewish community. He taught me the importance of holding beliefs passionately while being open to the views of others, of learning for its own sake, of contributing to the wider conversation through the written word, of encountering life with a balance of seriousness and silliness. I miss him every day, and pray his memory and example inspires you as it does me.

Akiva Betzalel, you are the heir of a great spiritual legacy. We pledge to do everything we can to raise you to be worthy of the names you bear.

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Extremists for Love – Yom Kippur 2017


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.



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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