If Not Now, Then When?

September 29, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Rosh Hashanah 5780

Let me tell you, it’s never been easy to be the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, beginning with our founding rabbi, Edward Benjamin Morris Browne. Hungarian-born, fluent in six languages, Rabbi Browne was known as “Alphabet Browne” due to his penchant for signing his name with the letters of all his degrees (LLD, AM, BM, DD, MD). In the 1880s, he was the rabbi of Congregation Gates of Hope, which merged in 1882 with Agudat Yesharim, which became the congregation you and I know as Park Avenue Synagogue.

In addition to his leadership of our community at its founding, Rabbi Browne was a friend of Ulysses S. Grant, General of the Union Army and eighteenth president of the United States. Rabbi Browne visited Grant regularly as his health declined and, on the Shabbat of Grant’s passing in 1885, declared from the pulpit: “The Jews have lost a great friend in the death of General Grant.” Browne elevated Grant’s stature even above that of Moses, proclaiming: “Moses liberated 3,000,000 of people, his own brethren, from Egyptian bondage. Grant liberated 3,000,000 of people, a race not his own, from American bondage,” and concluded with the call for the entire congregation to rise to recite kaddish. Not surprisingly, Rabbi Browne was asked to be an honorary pallbearer at the funeral set to take place in New York City. (Jonathan Sarna, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, p. 139)

Rabbi Browne’s unrestrained outpouring of grief for Grant was far from a given among American Jews. Grant, a Republican, was not an uncontroversial figure. His personal life was marked by excess and indulgence; his business record, checkered; he was elected president despite lacking prior political experience; and his leadership was marked by political and economic scandal, a legacy that continues to be debated to this day. For American Jews, Grant was forever dishonored for his having signed General Orders No. 11, “the most notorious anti-Jewish official order in American history,” issued in 1862 during the Civil War. In a story best told by historian Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Grant called for the expulsion of “Jews as a class” from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. In the eyes of many Jews, Grant’s infamous decree, though quickly rolled back by Lincoln, forever labeled him an enemy of our people.

Things came to a head in the election of 1868. Browne’s former mentor, the nationally renowned Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and fierce critic of abolitionists and their repeated use of antisemitic rhetoric and tropes. Wise believed that the cause of African Americans came at the expense of American Jewry and that to vote for Grant was a betrayal of Jewish self-interest. (p. 55) Others, such as Louisville attorney Louis N. Dembitz, uncle to the future Justice, sought to rehabilitate Grant, believing that Grant’s efforts on behalf of reconstruction more than mitigated his earlier anti-Jewish missteps and the latent antisemitism of progressives. (p. 60) Besides, as Rabbi Liebman Adler, rabbi of Chicago’s oldest synagogue would argue, American Jews must vote not as Jews but as American citizens. In Adler’s words: “If the party in whose hands I believe the welfare of the country . . . was the safest, were to place a Haman at the helm of state, and the opposite party, whose non-existence I believe would be better for . . . my country, were to place [the] Messiah at their head . . . Moses the Chief Justice, and . . . the Patriarchs to the cabinet, I should say, ‘Prosper under Haman, my fatherland, and here you have my vote, even if all the Jew in me mourns.’”(p. 74)

American Jews faced a conundrum. There were Jews who believed, as Jews, that their priority must be their parochial well being. There were also Jews who believed, as Jews, that they were obligated to prioritize the progressive Republican agenda over their own. Should a Jew vote for a party he or she considers bad for the country to avoid voting for a person perceived to be bad for the Jews? Should a Jew prioritize the progressive agenda if doing so runs contrary to Jewish self-interest? What is the self-interest of the Jewish community anyway and who gets to decide?

Grant was elected in 1868 and then again in 1872, but his leadership continued to split American Jewry. Whether due to pragmatism, principle, or penance, Grant’s administration included more Jews than any of his predecessors. Grant intervened to assist Jews abroad facing persecution and pogroms, making the unprecedented decision to appoint a Jewish consul to Romania. Grant was the first president to attend a synagogue dedication – all three hours of it! Post-presidency, Grant was the first American president to set foot in Jerusalem. By many metrics Grant was good for the Jews; by others, no way. American Jewry was fiercely divided over what their Judaism called on them to do.

So you can only imagine the stir it caused when my predecessor was called on to serve as one of honorary pallbearers at Grant’s funeral. In addition to Grant’s disputed legacy among Jews, and in addition to other New York rabbis being annoyed that Browne, rabbi of an upstart uptown synagogue, was picked to represent all of American Jewry, there was the small matter that the day of the funeral – August 8, 1885 – fell on Shabbat. Reform rabbi though he was, Browne was a traditionalist at heart, a proud Jew and opponent of the then-movement to shift Shabbat to Sunday. On that day, representing all Jews, there was no way that Browne would ride in a carriage and break Shabbat. Browne’s congregation, like American Jewry as a whole, was split. Like most rabbis, Browne didn’t mind the limelight; like most rabbis, Browne didn’t mind having a job. Should he or shouldn’t he participate in the funeral procession? What, oh what, would our founding rabbi decide to do? (See J. Rothschild Blumberg, Prophet in a Time of Priests: Rabbi “Alphabet” Browne 1845-1929)

But before I tell you: Happy New Year! Shanah Tovah to each and every one of you! Today is Rosh Hashanah, our new year, our annual check-in and checkup, the day we are instructed to take the pulse of the Jewish people, reflect on our place within our wider humanity and the roles we must play in order to strengthen our people and our world in the year ahead. The headlines, we know, are not good, not for the world and not for the Jews. We have had a year of environmental crises, a year of gun violence, a year of refugees across the globe and at our own border. A year of rising antisemitism, with violent attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, Brooklyn, Europe, and elsewhere. A year of a progressive left increasingly inhospitable to the pro-Israel community and the Jewish community. Another year of conflict for Israel: a proxy war with Iran and the prospects of peace between Israel and her neighbors, a two-state solution, as elusive as ever. Impeachment proceedings just announced. Not one, but two elections in Israel (and maybe a third), which, whatever the outcome, have served to spotlight the growing divide between American Jewry and Israel.

We do not lack for crises. I have my list and I am sure you have yours: real problems, global and local, increasing in intensity. And our Jewish community stands in the midst of the whirlwind, Jew pitted against Jew, our already small community fractured further over the question of what is in the best interest of our people. Jews who believe, as Jews, that they must express outrage at the erosion of progressive values, who are demanding, as Jews, that we redouble our liberal commitments to mend the world, in America, around the globe, and Israel. And there are other Jews who believe, as Jews, that the aforementioned Jews are delusional, that those progressives are no friends to Jews. As Jews, our concern is the security and safety of the half of our people who reside in the Jewish state. It is the self-interest of our people, not the environment, gun control, the right to choose, the composition of the Supreme Court, or anything else that must be our priority. And because ours is a chilling era of intersectional politics, ideological purity, and public shaming, we have lost the ability to do the one thing that Jews across the spectrum have always prided themselves on doing: talk to each other – in our politics, within our communities, and even around our dinner tables. We call each other out as self-hating or disloyal, questioning each other’s allegiance. An ugly schism in our ranks that has spilled into public view. And at the core of it all, no different than in the time of Rabbi Browne, is the question of defining Jewish interest. What exactly, as Jews, are we called on to do? If we believe something or someone to be good for the Jews but bad for the country, or bad for the Jews but good for the country, which takes priority, which gives way to which? Us or them? The particular or the universal? Given the imperfect choices available, which path shall we choose?

As long as Jews have been Jews, this struggle to order our priorities toward ourselves and toward others has shaped the contours of our being. When Abraham was first called on by God, his charge was two-fold: On the one hand: lekh l’kha, go to the promised land, a specific promise for a chosen people with a unique destiny. On the other hand: v’heye brakhah, “and you shall be a blessing” – you will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. In our Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, Sarah, fearing for the safety of her child, prioritizes her household and casts out Hagar, only for Hagar to be saved by God from certain death. The Exodus from Egypt, our particular story of national redemption, is also the story that reminds us to care for the stranger for we were once strangers in a strange land. And consider today’s very celebrations: Rosh Hashanah. Hayom harat olam, “today the world was created.” Not the first Jew, but the first human, the ancestor of collective humanity. But we also have another new year, in Nissan, the month of Passover, commemorating the birth of the Jewish nation and the beginnings of peoplehood. Our parochial commitments are affirmed alongside our universal ones today and every day of the year. This is the dialectical tension embedded in every Jewish soul since our very beginning.

Some call it a tension, some a contradiction, some . . . a hyphen. Call it what you will, it is this concomitant commitment to our universal imperatives and particularistic responsibilities that is the double helix and defining strength of Jewish DNA. It is what inspired some Jews in the 1880s to come to our country’s teeming shores inspired by the vision of Emma Lazarus, and other Jews, during the same years, to go to the shores of Palestine, inspired by the Zionist vision of Leon Pinsker. It is why 1948 marks not just the declaration of the State of Israel, but also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both drafted by Jews. It is why every organization committed to civil rights over the last 100 years – the ACLU, Amnesty International, the NAACP – has had a Jew in the room at its founding. (J. Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century) This is the secret sauce of our people – concern for ourselves and concern for others. Nobody put it better than our great sage Hillel, who himself lived during a time of social upheaval as Jews had to prioritize their commitments to themselves and their obligations to the world around. Some people love to quote the first part of Hillel’s famed aphorism: Im ein ani li, mi li? “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” Some people love to quote the second part: U-k’sheh-ani l’atzmi, mah ani? “If I am only for myself, then what am I?” Both groups are wrong. To be a Jew is not one or the other, but both, or more directly, it is the pause, the breath we take between the two statements. Amor Mundi (Love of Humanity) alongside Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Israel) – this duality is the core of our Jewish self-understanding.

This year I seem to have arrived at the disorienting and undoubtedly fleeting state of seeing my children actually living the values that I have been drilling into them throughout their lives. One daughter is in Israel for a gap year before arriving at the other promised land of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Another daughter has taken on a more observant Jewish life, taping the light of the refrigerator to the “on” position over Shabbat, double-checking the kashrut of everything brought into our home, and davening . . . well . . . a lot. I am reminded of what my father said to me when I told him I wanted to be a rabbi: “Elliot, you know we always wanted you to be a proud Jew. We just never thought you would take us so seriously.” My son, at least for the time being, is darn near perfect. But it was my second daughter, the one presently applying to college, who caught me off guard the other week. We were sitting in the college counselor’s office, reviewing “the likelies,” “the targets” and “the reaches,” when my daughter straightened up, lifted her head, and said: “We are forgetting one option: that I make aliyah and join the IDF.” Talk about “be careful what you ask for!” The look on the college counselor’s face was priceless – probably mine too. Shall my daughter direct her passions to pursue a humanities degree on a liberal college campus, or lean into Jewish history by defending the Jewish state? She is torn, I am torn, and it doesn’t help that the Zuckerman kid just made aliyah. I have no idea how her story will turn out. But I will tell you this: I am proud, deeply proud. I am proud of her struggle; I am proud she is torn; and I am proud to have both voices in her head and at my dinner table.

My concern, in a sentence, is that we have lost our ability to countenance, embrace, and take pride in the dual aspect of what it means to be an American Jew. Somewhere along the way, this very strength of ours has been turned against us – by us. We have forgotten that the Jews demonstrating on behalf of the environment, the Jews protesting what is happening at our borders – the Jews acting as Jews in the name of our Jewish values – they are us and we are them, and we should be proud of them and support them. We have also forgotten that the Jews fighting for the safety and security of our people, at home and abroad – they are also us and we are also them and we should be proud of them and support them and the values they are acting on. We need Jewish Democrats outraged by antisemitism emanating from the left just as we need Jewish Republicans outraged by antisemitism coming from the right. We need Jews in all camps, in positions of leadership, correcting the abuses and excesses on both sides. Most of all, we need Jews who refuse to let the world make us choose between the universal and the particular. We need Jews willing to stand proudly – as Jews – on behalf of our people and our shared humanity.

So what, some of you may still be wondering, did Rabbi Browne decide?

Initially, Browne requested that he be allowed to walk and not ride in the procession – a request that was refused. But given the friendship, the Grant family interceded and gave Browne special dispensation to “foot it,” which is exactly what Browne did – all seven-and-a-half miles from City Hall to Riverside Park – with the whole city watching. The Jewish community, including this community, not surprisingly, was divided. Some lauded Browne for having honored Grant and the Sabbath. Others excoriated him for having participated in the procession at all.

But something else also happened on that fateful day as Browne walked the length of Manhattan. Browne’s public display of his faith and patriotism – his picture on the front pages – caught the imagination of the public, who sat up and took note of this Jew who embraced and affirmed his people and his country, the particular and the universal at one and the same time. It was something that nobody, of any background, thought could be done. What Browne did wasn’t important just for him, or for that matter, American Jewry. What Browne did that day was important for an America that didn’t know it was possible to be loyal to one’s faith and one’s nation, one’s kinsman and one’s countryman, at one and the same time. America desperately needed a model of how to negotiate the multiple and often competing loyalties tearing away at its soul, and on that day, it was a Jew, our rabbi, Rabbi Browne, who provided the model for all Americans.

Which is basically what Rabbi Browne’s great-granddaughter told me when I spoke to her this past summer. At 95 years old, Janice Rothschild Blumberg is not just the great granddaughter of Rabbi Browne, she is also the rebbetzin of the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta (of “Driving Miss Daisy” fame), the one that was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1958 due to her husband’s friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and outspoken leadership in the civil rights movement. At 95 years old, the rebbetzin is sharp as a tack, regaling me not just with her views on Israeli politics, but with stories of her great-grandfather. My favorite is her telling of a game they played when she was a little girl. She would jump repeatedly into his arms to be caught, until he didn’t catch her, and he said: “Now you know never to trust a Hungarian – even if it is your own great-grandfather.” With her permission, I would like to share with you her reflections on Rabbi Browne’s decision and the enduring legacy of her great-grandfather.

The rebbetzin told me that all American rabbis and for that matter, all American Jews, are asked to choose between being a proud Jew and being a proud citizen, between their faith and their patriotism, between their particular commitments and their universal ones. Rabbi Browne was asked to choose, just as the rebbetzin’s late husband, Rabbi Rothschild, proud Zionist and proud advocate for civil rights, was told, by way of a bomb, that he had to choose. Every Jewish generation is told that they can’t have it both ways. The legacy of Rabbi Browne was that he rejected the choice, or, more precisely, chose both. He took a stand and walked the seven and a half miles to punctuate the point. After all, the most important part of Hillel’s aphorism is not the first part – “If I am not for myself”– and it is not the second part – “If am only for myself” – nor for that matter is it the breath between the two. The most important part of Hillel’s aphorism is how it ends: V’im lo ahshav, eimatai? “And if not now, then when?” The enduring lesson of Rabbi Browne is that he refused to sit on his hands and do nothing. He took his commitments to his faith, to his country, to his people, and to his shared humanity, and he wore them all proudly for all the world, and people of all backgrounds, to see.

That is the legacy of Rabbi Browne, and that is the DNA of this community, and that is what it means to be an American Jew, and that is the calling of the hour. The stakes are too high, on too many fronts, for any of us to sit this round out. When you walk into this synagogue, you may hear a sermon about the threat of antisemitism and you may hear a sermon about the threat of climate change; you may be asked to mobilize on behalf of Israel’s defense; and you may be asked to mobilize regarding the humanitarian crisis at our borders – and you should be proud to hear all those messages from this pulpit and you should mobilize. Depending on the company you keep, you may find yourself with Jews leaning this way or that way, questioning the loyalties of Jews who think otherwise. Be the upstander, be the person who stops that conversation mid-sentence to say: “You may disagree with their views. I may disagree with their views, but their views are rooted in Jewish sources and a love for the Jewish people.” And should you be told that you need to choose between the particular and universal – or, more likely, if you are just so exhausted and confused that you are tempted to throw up your hands because it is just too complicated to take a stand, fight that urge!

“If not now – then when?” Now is the time to stand up for justice. “If not now – then when?” Now is the time to stand up to antisemitism. Now is the time to take up Israel’s cause. Now is the time to address the climate crisis. If we, in this room – blessed as we are with the political, social, and philanthropic wherewithal to move the needle on the urgent issues of the hour, representing, more or less, the sane center, the moral ballast of the American Jewish community – if we abdicate our role in the unfolding dramas of our time, then we will have failed not only our forebears, failed not only the calling of the hour, but we will have failed our children and grandchildren. “If not now, then when?” If you ever wondered what you would have done if you were alive in the time of the civil rights movement, in the time of the Six-Day War, in 1942, in 1882, now is the time to find out. If there is one message of these holidays, it is that we have a limited amount of time to make a difference in this world. Now is the time to lead by way of example.

Ours is not the first era in which Jews have openly wrestled to define Jewish self-interest. Ours is not the first hour that the Jewish commitment to our people and the Jewish commitment to our shared humanity must be negotiated. This is not the first Rosh Hashanah that Jews have been called upon to take a stand on the issues of the day.

So let us resolve to do what must be done. To stand up for our beliefs, wrestle with them openly and honestly and in respectful dialogue with those who differ. Let us debate ideas and not allegiance. Let us judge each other generously, as we ourselves would wish to be judged. In the words of Lincoln: “We are not enemies, but friends . . . Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” This is our time to lead, to serve as an example for all of American Jewry, and for all of our country, which once again, is in such desperate need of healing.