The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Yom Kippur Drashah – October 8, 2019

Good Yontiff, Gmar Hatima Tova.  Tonight, I want to remind you of a story I shared some years ago, but with a slightly different take from when I shared it the last time.  This is the story about what happened when the Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef died.           

“The funeral procession arrived at the monastery of the Capuchin monks, where the members of the Hapsburg dynasty were traditionally buried. The gates of the monastery were locked, as if no one was expected there on that day.

The Royal Master of Ceremonies stepped forward and pounded on the gate with his ornate staff. From within, a monk called out: “Who is that, demanding to be admitted?” The Royal Master of Ceremonies, uniformed and standing at attention, answered loudly and distinctly, stressing each syllable, so that the monk should not misunderstand him:

“This is His Royal, Imperial, and Apostolic Majesty, Franz Josef the First, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, King of the Lombards and Venetians, King of Bohemia, King of Galicia, King of Croatia and Slovenia, King of Jerusalem, Prince of Silesia, Prince of Bukovina, Prince of Styria, Salzburg, Carinthia, Carniola, and Windsnark, Count of Tyrol, and Ruler over Trieste”.

The voice of the unseen monk came back: “We know him not.”

Again the Royal Master of Ceremonies came forward and knocked on the gate, this time more gently. This time he spoke more quietly, and he announced a more condensed and modest list of the titles of the deceased.  And again, the monk inside answered: “We know him not.”

The third time the Royal Master of Ceremonies came forward and tapped on the door. And this time he said, in a low and humble voice: “A poor, sinful man seeks admittance.”  This time, the monks replied: “We know him,” and they opened the gate.”

On Yom Kippur, we are like the deceased Franz Josef before the gates of that monastery: As we stand before God, even the most advanced degrees from the most elite universities, or the most impressive awards from the highest authority – none of it helps us to gain entrance.  When we come before God on Yom Kippur, we have to spiritually remove our titles and honorifics and all our hats so we can see who we truly are, and recognize the imperfect human beings we are, because like Franz Josef, only then will the gates open for us.  On Yom Kippur, only if we own our imperfections can the gates of growth open for us.

But even if we’re able to look past all of our titles and all the hats we wear, our vision is partial at best.

In the first book of Samuel, God tells the prophet Samuel to go see Jesse of Bethlehemite, because God has chosen one of his sons to be king.  Samuel must anoint the new king.  Samuel goes, and at first he sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliav, who was probably a tall, handsome young man, and he thinks to himself, “surely the Lord’s anointed stands before me.”  But God who hears Samuels thoughts, says to Samuel – “pay no attention to his appearance or his stature.  Human beings don’t see the way God sees.  A human only sees what is visible, but God sees into the heart.”  And Samuel has to go through seven sons, until they bring out the youngest, David, and God says “rise, and anoint him, for this is the one.”

Our vision – human vision – is partial at best.  We can’t see everything as God does.  We have some built-in limitations.   But sometimes we compound those built-in limitations, by adding voluntary ones; we choose to avert our eyes when in fact, if we stretched ourselves, we could see.

The rabbis in Pirkei Avot teach us:  Al tistakel bakankan elah b’mah she-yesh bo.  Don’t look at the container, but rather look at what’s inside it.  Sometimes we put our own limits on our vision because we see a container we don’t like, so we never even bother to look inside.  Whether it’s someone’s religion, or skin color, or political views, or country of origin or sexual orientation – instead of remembering that those are all just the container, we write off the person or the group – we’re not interested in the contents. 

It happens all the time.  In a class I’m teaching this fall, we are reading short stories by a Yemenite Israeli woman, Ayelet Tsabari, and her experience growing up in an Israel that at the time was very much Ashekazi- centric, and Sephardi phobic.  And she describes in heart-breaking detail of how Yemenite Jews were judged wanting by the veteran Ashkenazim, because of where they came from, because of how they looked, and because of how they spoke.   One group of Jews treated another group of Jews the way the world often treats all Jews.

Over and over again, in different situations, places, and times, we repeat the mistake of misjudging people because their containers are different from our own and seeing that difference negatively, we never even try to look inside. 

In a 1963 essay called “The Art of Discrimination”, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, wrote:

“To members of a minority group, discrimination is a fighting word.  It conjures up quotas, gentlemen’s agreements, economic barriers, exclusive country clubs and hotels.  …  As one of its frequent victims (at least until the late 1960s), a Jew knows only too well the injustice and the pain discrimination inflicts. 

And yet the Bible repeatedly calls upon us to exercise the art of Discrimination.  We are urged to discriminate between the sacred and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Thus the bible reminds us that the capacity to discriminate, to distinguish, is one of the most precious human endowments.

As a matter of fact, discrimination is something we have to practice every hour of every day.  We have to be discriminating in our choice of activities and in the pursuits in which we are going to invest our time.  With limited time we cannot do everything…If we are going to invest our time wisely, we need a fine sense of discrimination.”

Then Rabbi Greenberg goes on to point out the problem.

“We don’t have unlimited time, and our minds cannot harbor all thoughts.  If we clutter them up with prejudices and hatreds, with pettiness and poisoned memories, we are abusing a delicate and precious instrument.  The art of discrimination involves great care in the choice of thoughts in which we grant a seat in the arena of our minds.”

In other words, if we allow ideas like “I just don’t trust Muslims,” or “ all Orthodox Jews are fanatics,” or “all elderly people have no patience,” or “Hispanic people are all criminals,” or “Reform Jews always take the easy way out” or one I used to hear in middle school, God forbid, “the only good Arab is a dead Arab,” if we allow those kinds of ideas to have “a seat in the arena of our minds,” we move away from the way God wants us to see the world.   We are misusing our powers of discrimination and perhaps far worse.

It is the rare person who doesn’t fear or look down on some group of people who are different from him or her.  Looking at our own biases takes courage and changing our thoughts takes effort.  But it is possible, if we act. 

In the first few years after I was ordained, which were also the first few years in which women served as rabbis in the Conservative movement, I encountered people who were belligerently resistant to the idea of a woman rabbi.  This was not a matter of religious denomination – they were not Orthodox Jews, they were Jews who had never met women rabbis and never wanted to.    Most memorable, when I was a rabbinical student, was the wealthy gentleman who came over to me and said:  I would pay all the money in the world to make sure you never get a job.

What I learned in those early years was that need can overcome fear, and experience can overcome antipathy.  Not every time and not in every situation, but sometimes.  In other words, I met people who wanted a male rabbi, but there was no male rabbi to be had, and they needed help, and I was there, and I was willing to help – and so they stretched.  What had been unacceptable before became grudgingly acceptable.  And then, having had this experience with one woman-rabbi, it made harder to write off all women rabbis.   

I share this experience with you not because we can force anyone to engage with someone they are afraid of or have cultivated a dislike for, but rather because we can challenge ourselves to grow beyond places where we are narrow,  we can liberate ourselves from our own constraints.  If I don’t trust Muslims, maybe I should attend an interfaith program run by our Jewish Community Relations Council or go visit a mosque or watch when they join us to stand by us, as they did after Pittsburgh.  If I think all Orthodox Jews are fanatics, maybe I should go visit an Orthodox synagogue and listen to a d’var torah there.  If I’m afraid of Arabs, on my next trip to Israel, maybe I should get in touch with an organization like Seeds of Peace or B’tzelem and dip my toe into meeting an Israeli Arab, or a Palestinian.

There is deep and broad anxiety over how fragmented our country is, and how divided our global Jewish community is.  And we can’t force other people to be more open, but we can choose to stretch ourselves.  We have to put on a pair of God glasses, and look beyond the container, into the contents.  

And what will we see?  Good people – not all, but many – in very kind of container, with virtues and faults like all the rest of us.  And if we do that for others, we can hope that God will do that for us too.

On this Yom Kippur, and every day of our lives, may we feel the call to do that, and have the courage to respond in kind.  So may it be. 

 [With thanks to Rabbi Shamai Kanter z”l, for the Rabbi Sidney Greenberg essay and to Rabbi Jack Riemer for the story of the Capuchin monks]