The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Rosh Hashanah Drashah – September 21 2017

It is a fundamental principle of Judaism – in fact Shimon ben Azzai, in the 2nd century, taught that it is the fundamental principle of Judaism – that all human beings are created in God’s image. It is the very first thing that the Torah tells us about human beings. In Genesis chapter 1, as God considers creating people, God says: “Let us create humanity in our image, after our likeness.” Then two more times, the book of Genesis repeats the same thing, that we human beings were created in the image of God.

What are the practical implications of that claim – that human beings are images of God? One implication is that all human lives have equal value, equal dignity. If, as images of God, we all have an importance that cannot be quantified, that is beyond measure, then no one can be more or less.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson expressed that idea – that all human life is of equal value – in more secular language. He wrote:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident that that all men [we would say ‘all people’] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” What made Jefferson’s version of that claim more secular is that he appealed not to the authority of the Bible but to the authority of human reason.  He claimed that that insight should be obvious to any thoughtful person. But the truth is that the main reason why the equality of all human beings was self-evident to Jefferson and his peers was because they were heirs to the Biblical tradition. Jeffersonian universalism was a new, more secular brand of universalism, to be sure, but it bore the DNA of the Biblical universalism from which it was derived.

For Ben Azzai, that we are created in God’s image is the bedrock principle of the Torah. But we could argue that that principle rests on an even deeper bedrock claim, the claim that there is only one God in the universe.  We are equal because we are images God, but more specifically, because we are images of the same God. We are all one – we are all brothers and sisters – because God is one.

That deeper religious claim on which our radical equality depends – that God is one – is the over-arching theme of Rosh Hashanah. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy is full of royal metaphors and imagery. Over and over, we declare that God is melekh al kol ha-aretz – king of the entire world. What the authors of the liturgy were trying to say by comparing God to a king is that, just as a king rules alone, God rules alone. Just as a king has no peers, God has no peers either. That is what the metaphor of kingship meant to our ancestors. And that becomes clear in the climactic moment in the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf service, the culmination of Malkhuyot, in which we crown God king. How do we do that? – by declaring:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” At the beginning of each year, on this day, we go back to the most basic claim that our tradition makes: that there is one God, and that therefore we human beings, we images of God, are one as well.

As Americans – let alone as Jews – we might feel that the idea that all people are created equal is so basic that it hardly needs to be restated. Jefferson’s secular version of that ancient Biblical claim is so deeply embedded in our vision of ourselves as a society that we take it for granted. That all people are created equal sounds so obvious that we often treat it as a cliché. But it is anything but a cliché. The truth is that there are plenty of Americans who deny it, who think that their type of people are inherently superior to other types of people and deserve greater respect, just as there are plenty of people in every society who think the same thing.

In fact not only is the belief that all people are created equal not obvious, but many people would say it is not even natural, that to believe in the equality of all human beings goes against the wiring of our brains. They point to evidence from evolutionary biology to argue that we human beings are by nature tribal, not universalist. When we were evolving as a species, the argument goes, our survival depended on tightly-knit family and tribal units. Those who were most loyal to family and tribe, and most suspicious of everyone else, were the most likely to survive. Therefore tribalism and suspicion of outsiders came to be encoded in our genes.

Of course, they would admit, we sometimes rise above our natural tribalism. At times, we are open to the humanness of people unlike ourselves.  But they would argue that the openness that we exhibit at those times is a fair-weather openness, that it depends on our feeling prosperous and secure. Take away our prosperity and security – they would say – put us back into a harsher world where resources are limited, where we feel vulnerable and insecure, a world more like the world in which we human beings originally evolved,  and watch that thin veneer of universalism peel away. Watch how we revert to a more primitive mind-set, in which everything is about us versus them.

There is a lot of evidence to support that pessimistic view of human nature. The tendency to revert to a more tribal mindset when the going gets tough is something that we see everywhere. We see it in our own community. Think about the visceral way in which we react as a community when Israel is under attack. We close ranks, which is a good thing as far as it goes. But sometimes we close ranks so tightly that we forget some of our own important values. We forget that internal dissent and disagreement are not the same thing as disloyalty. We forget that our external adversaries are human beings too, that they have their grievances just as we do, that they have a narrative of their own which is very different from ours, and which we ought to make some effort to understand, even if we cannot entirely support it. Our outlook becomes black and white. It becomes all about us versus them. That – many people would say – is the natural hard-wiring of our brains reasserting itself. It is our DNA talking.

We cannot deny that there is plenty of evidence for that view of human nature. Very often, we human beings do become more tribal and less open when we are under threat.

But the good news is that there is also evidence – including evidence from our own tradition and history – that tells us that it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact it can be the opposite. Sometimes human beings respond to trauma and vulnerability, not by narrowing their vision but by broadening it, not by becoming more closed but by becoming more open. When we feel threatened as a group, sometimes we respond by expanding our vision of human dignity.

Let me give you an example, the first great example in Jewish history – maybe in the history of Western culture as a whole. Historians of religion tell us that the idea that we re-affirm each year on Rosh Hashanah, the idea that there is only one God in this universe and therefore all human beings are brothers and sisters, is an idea that grew out of our first great national trauma, the destruction of the first Judean state by the Babylonian empire in 586 BCE.

Before the destruction, expressions of true monotheism in the Hebrew Bible were few and far between. In the oldest layers of the Bible, the theology that we see most often is not monotheism, but what scholars of religion call henotheism. That is the belief that, while there may be any number of gods in the universe, there is only one God for us. Other nations worship many gods, but we worship only one, who is greater than all of the others. For the most part, those early layers of the Bible teach, not that other gods do not exist, but that we must not serve them, which is not the same thing.

Think about the passage from the Song of the Sea, our song of thanks to God for rescuing us from Pharoah at the Red Sea, which we refer to every morning in the blessing after the recitation of the Sh’ma. We sing “Mi kamokha ba-eilim Adonai, mi-kamokha ne’edar bakodesh. Who is like you among the gods, O Lord, Who is like you, magnificent in holiness.” Those words reflect that older Jewish belief that other gods exist, that our God lives “among the gods,” but that we worship Him alone.

Most of the early prophets, who lived before the destruction, seem to have believed the same thing. For the most part, they did not deny that other gods exist. In fact much of what they said makes sense only if they did in fact believe that other gods exist. They railed against idolatry because they saw serving other gods as a betrayal of our God. But how could we betray our God by going astray after other gods if those other gods did not actually exist? You can’t cheat with someone who is not actually there. Apparently they believed that other gods were there.

So when did we become true monotheists? When did we learn, not just that other gods are off limits to us, but that they do not exist at all? Many scholars say that it was during the dark period after the destruction of the first Judean state, the period of the Babyonian exile in the 6th century BCE. It was during that time of deep distress that we gave the world its clearest vision of one God who is the God of all humanity.

That insight grew out of a deep spiritual crisis. According to the old belief –  that there were different gods for different peoples and places – the conclusion that we would have had to draw after the destruction is that the gods of Babylonia had defeated our God, and that, now that we were living in the land that those gods ruled, we ought to serve them. At the very least, we would have had to wonder how we could serve our God in a place that was ruled by other gods. Psalm 137, the psalm that begins “By the rivers of Babylon, we lay down and wept,” comes from that period of exile. And it asks exactly that question:  “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

For the exiles, that was an urgent, existential question. They needed an answer. And in time, a prophet arose among the exiles who responded to that question with a new religious vision. He was perhaps the greatest prophet in our history. We call him the Second Isaiah because his teachings are recorded in the second half of the book of Isaiah. He taught that we can indeed sing the Lord’s song in a strange land – in fact we must sing the Lord’s song in a strange land – because our God is the only god that there is. “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he said, “God’s praise from the ends of the earth.” When we worship other gods, he taught, we are worshipping literally nothing. Idolatry is not so much a betrayal of God as a pathetic error, something worthy of ridicule.

It was in exile, in a time of deep spiritual trauma, that our people laid the spiritual foundation of Biblical universalism.  When we were at our most vulnerable, when our collective sense of self was most deeply threatened, we responded not by turning inward, but by turning outward, by making a new spiritual claim whose implication was that all human beings, as children of one God, are brothers and sisters.

So it is not always true that, when the world feels harsh, we narrow our horizons. Adversity does not always make our vision narrower. Sometimes it makes our vision broader. It does not always cause us to turn inward, to deny the humanity of those outside our circle. Sometimes it leads us to more deeply affirm the humanity of people unlike ourselves.

There is plenty of bad news in the American Jewish world today. To take one example that has been on our minds, recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere have made it just a little harder for us to take for granted the security that we have long felt in this country. They have shaken our sense of at-homeness. But among the bad news, there is good news too. One piece of good news is that, in the face of that threat to our sense of security, a threat that dredges up some of our deepest, primal fears, we are following in the footsteps of our ancestors of the first diaspora, the Babylonian exile. Our sense of vulnerability, our sense of being thrown off balance (even traumatized, especially for those closest to the events) is bringing out the best in us instead of the worst. Instead of reverting to tribalism, we are asserting a renewed Jewish universalism.

In recent months, it has been hard for us not to relive old nightmares. As we watch White Nationalists marching in public, heavily armed in full Nazi regalia, and shouting “Jews will not replace us,” it has been hard not to wonder how that can be happening in our country, the place where Jefferson declared “We hold these truths be self-evident.” We know that, the more success those people have at breaking into the American mainstream, the more we will feel like exiles in our own home.

I should be clear about what I am talking about when I refer to White nationalism, and what I am not talking about, since the term is used in different ways. I am not talking about the many millions of ordinary white Americans who take pride in their European cultural heritage, and are not fully comfortable with the rapid pace of demographic and cultural change in this country. White nationalism in the strict sense, the sense that I am speaking of, is something so much more extreme that it is really different in kind, not just degree. It is the belief that non-white people ought to be excluded from positions of power in white society, and ideally ought to be excluded from white society altogether. It overlaps with Neo-Nazism to the extent that sometimes the two movements are virtually indistinguishable. White Nationalists have lived in the shadows, on the margins of American society for many decades. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Federal building in Oklahoma City two decades ago was a White Nationalist. Dylann Roof, who massacred nine worshipers in an African American Church in Charleston, was a White Nationalist. They have been around for a long time. But what is different today is that they feel permitted and empowered to assert their views more openly and publically, with the goal of intimidating people like us. They want to test the limits to see how far they can go in forcing themselves into the American mainstream.

White Nationalists target all kinds of people, most visibly people of color. But in a unique way, they target us. Anti-semitism is at the core of their world view.  Eric Ward, who has studied White Nationalism and Neo Naziism for decades under the auspices of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Ford Foundation and other organizations, published an article recently in which he offered a window into their thinking. He explains that, for White Nationalists, a key perplexing question is: How is it possible that non-white people, whom they consider obviously inferior, have risen to positions of authority in this country? How is it possible that brown and black people could become leaders in this society? How could something so unnatural occur? Their answer is that it can only be because of the Jews. It is the Jews that have facilitated it. Jews are the most dangerous people of all, they say, because Jews are smart and subversive, and hard to spot. Far from being white, they are the most dangerous enemies of White America. They are rootless internationalists who undermine White civilization by making it possible for non-white people to usurp what rightfully belongs to White people alone. That is what they mean when they shout “Jews will not replace us.” Their brand of anti-semitism – which portrays Jews as alien and subversive and undermining – is very similar to that of the original Nazis.

When that kind of anti-semitism raises its profile in this country, it is bound to dredge up old anxieties for us. We cannot help but wonder if, perhaps, we shouldn’t feel as comfortable and at home in this country as we were raised to feel. And when our sense of security, of being at home, is threatened, it would not be a surprise if we reacted in the way that some claim we human beings are hard-wired to react when we feel threatened: by turning inward. It would be understandable, under the circumstances, if we were to revert back to our old, defensive tribal narrative, if we were to tell ourselves – as Jews have often told themselves – that anti-semitism is a an incurable disease that never goes away, that it can flare up anywhere, at any time, and therefore we can never feel at home in the larger world, that, in the end, we have no friends that we can count on. It is us against everyone else. It would be understandable if we reacted in that way, by closing ranks against the world, as many people claim we human beings are biologically programmed to react.

But what I think is noteworthy – and deeply heartening – is that that for the most part we have not reacted in that way. We have responded to this threat not by turning inward, not by writing off the larger world, but by turning outward. In recent months American Jews have pushed back against bigotry not just as a threat to our particular tribe – although it certainly is – but as a threat to the America that we care about, that we are an integral part of. We have responded, for the most part, not by disinvesting in the larger world but by doing the opposite: renewing our most universal principles, our commitment to inclusiveness, equality, and respect for differences, standing up with our brothers and sisters for the principle on which America was founded – the principle that all people deserve equal dignity. And we have done so as proud heirs to the religious tradition that put in place the spiritual underpinnings of that principle.

Over 2500 years ago, as homeless exiles in Babylonia, we reacted to our first great national trauma by learning and teaching the spiritual principle underlying Biblical universalism:  that there is only one God in this world, and hence all human beings are brothers and sisters. I believe that today, in our own way, we are doing something similar. We are responding to anxieties that – because of our particular history – are uniquely ours, anxieties that others cannot feel as we do, by asserting our most universal message: that all human beings are created in God’s image. Instead of narrowing our vision in response to a threat that dredges up our own unique nightmares, we are broadening our vision. We are affirming the core message of Rosh Hashanah: that there is one God in the world, and that therefore all human beings, all images of God, are of immeasurable value

I point this out because, during the Days of Awe, it is important not only to think about the things that we are ashamed of, but to think about the things that we are proud of, or ought to be proud of.  Perhaps tribalism and exclusivism are the natural state for human beings, particularly when we are under stress. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make a choice to take a different path, a more generous and open-hearted path. That is the message of Rosh Hashanah too – that we always have a choice, that we are not controlled by nature. We are not just products of our DNA. We can choose. As images of God, we have that freedom. And when we make a choice that does us credit, that affirms the core principle of our faith, we should note it.

There are plenty of ways in which we American Jews fall short of our highest ideals. We have lots of failures to answer for. We can talk about those another time. But it is just as important to note what we do right, because recognizing that can help us find the strength to do even better. Acknowledging what we ought to be proud of reminds us that we have it in us to be worthy heirs to the Jewish past, that we, today, have Torah to teach the world as well – and then to go out and continue modeling and teaching it.

In our first diaspora, the Babylonian exile, we learned and taught a Torah of inclusiveness and universal human dignity.  Today, in our American diaspora – the largest and most vibrant diaspora that our people has ever known – we are building on that same tradition. Let us note that, as we face the challenge of doing more.

There is much more work to do because what Thomas Jefferson claimed was self-evident – that all people are created equal – and what the Torah tells us in its very first chapter – that all human beings are images of God – is really not self-evident or obvious at all. The rabbis of the Talmud understood that. They taught that it is only in the Messianic age that everyone will understand what we declare on Rosh Hashanah – that there is one God in the universe, and that we are all children of that God. Our challenge is, little by little, tiny step by tiny step, to bring that time closer. We do that work – in our words and in our deeds, in our shuls and on the streets, in the prayers that we recite and in the way in which we treat each human being that we encounter during the day – by bringing to life the principle that we reaffirm each year on this day:  that all human beings are children of the same God. May we do that work in joy.