A Sense of Decency

September 10, 2018
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove
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Rosh Hashanah 5779

There are people, explains the Talmud, who koneh olamo b’sha·ah ehat (Avodah Zarah 10b), who “acquire eternity in a moment,” and for Joseph Welch, that moment occurred on June 9, 1954. The context was a post-war America unnerved by fears of Communist influence and subversion. Seizing on the popular mood, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy famously brandished a list of supposed Communist agents within the federal government and set into motion a crusade that would dominate American politics for years to come. McCarthy’s panels and hearings spread far beyond any single list of government employees, stigmatizing and sanctioning thousands of law-abiding teachers, screenwriters, housewives, lawyers, and other public citizens. The combination of McCarthy’s zeal, the complicity of men and women who condoned the violations of civil liberties as an acceptable evil relative to the perceived Communist threat, and the timidity of so many others who either feared risking their own political or financial self-interest or being perceived as soft on Communism, or both, provided an ample platform for McCarthy’s crusade to take hold. As for the Senator himself, even in the estimation of his own inner circle, it was political opportunism more than ideological conviction that drove his agenda. McCarthy was an ambitious, superlative-loving, bellicose showman and provocateur who could pull on the levers of the public imagination, and most of all, had mastered the media. As historian Jon Meacham writes: “McCarthy needed the press and the press came to need McCarthy.” (The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels) Between 1950 and 1954, the number of TV sets in America quintupled from five to twenty-six million and McCarthy’s crusade came to dominate the rhythms of public consciousness.

By 1953 McCarthy’s sights had turned to the defense establishment, a move that prompted a showdown with an Eisenhower administration and Pentagon which would not countenance attacks on Army morale in the midst of the Korean war. The public spectacle of the Army-McCarthy hearings was carried live on television as the Army Counsel, a Boston lawyer named Joseph Welch, withstood the bully tactics of McCarthy and Roy Cohn, an ambitious young lawyer whose Jewishness, incidentally, served to protect McCarthy from charges of anti-Semitism. On the thirtieth day of the hearings – June 9, 1954 – the denouement arrived. McCarthy sought to impugn a young lawyer on Welch’s own legal team as having ties to a Communist organization. Famously, Welch responded “Until this moment, Senator, I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy barreled forward, Welch stopped him, uttering the immortal lines: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Even Cohn signaled to McCarthy it was time to back off and the session came to an end. It was at that moment that the tide turned, and Welch entered the annals of history. His words, among other factors, prompted McCarthy’s support to evaporate. The Senate, led by the senior Senator from Connecticut, Prescott Bush, voted in favor of censure, with twenty-two of the Senate’s forty-four Republicans voting to condemn McCarthy. Ignored by the press, ostracized by his party, McCarthy was finished. A heavy drinker, he died of an inflamed liver three years later at the age of forty-eight, a broken man.

Some people believe that ours is an unprecedented era – a dystopian society, the likes of which we have never seen, worthy of a Philip Roth alternate-history novel. Others point to past precedent, the McCarthy era, the Japanese internment camps of WWII, the combustible events of 1968, the Sedition Act of 1918; our nation’s history does not lack for the Longs, Lindberghs, Wallaces, and Coughlins and the movements they represented. Some claim that our moment is an aberration that will soon pass, while others contend that the last seventy years was the aberration and our moment signals a return to the norm. Regardless of your historic sensibility, whether you believe history repeats or merely rhymes, the challenges of our age are self-evident: the toxic discourse, the media feeding frenzy, the peddling of fear and hate-mongering, the populist strain of nationalism, the attacks on our institutions of democracy, the blurring of lines between dissent and disloyalty, between truth and untruth. As we usher in this new year and take the pulse of our country, we know that the diagnosis is poor, that our fears far outweigh our hopes.

My concerns, to be clear, are not directed at just any one individual. McCarthyism did not begin with McCarthy, and our present challenges neither began with any one election nor for that matter will they end at the conclusion of any given political cycle. There are hyperboles and hatreds, here and abroad, emanating from all sides of the political spectrum. I read the news and am reminded of Ghandi’s response when asked what he thought of Western Civilization. “I think,” he replied, “it would be a good idea.” But more to the point, in a democratic society, be it here, in Europe, Israel, or anywhere, to assign blame solely to any one person is to abdicate our responsibilities as citizens – the voters, enablers, and bystanders who make possible elected leadership. To live in a democracy means that we concede that the fault is not in the stars but in ourselves; our leaders are symptoms, not causes. As Harry Truman once said, “We get the government we deserve, and we deserve the government we get.” We are all contributories – our actions and inactions calling us to account today. Today my concerns are not directed at any one person, nor for that matter at any one policy. My concern is more fundamental, as an American, as a Jew, as a human being, and most of all, as a father of four, saddened and distraught at raising children in an age of which it can be asked “Have you no sense of decency?” Ours is a vulgar age, with a public square lacking in moral leadership. On our watch there has been a degradation of discourse, in the value of truth, and in the belief in the infinite worth of every human being. We suffer from a paucity of decency, of acts of kindness, and most of all, of holding fast to the fundamental importance of being a mensch.

There are two – at least two – remarkable things about giving a sermon about the importance of decency. First, that we live in a time when to remind people to be a mensch may be understood to be a partisan political act. Second is the very fact that such a sermon needs to be given at all! “Rabbi,” I imagine someone here thinking, “for this you went to rabbinical school? . . . To tell us to be kind? Today is Rosh Hashanah; there are people here in this room but once a year. Tell them to support Israel, teach them to light Shabbat candles, encourage them to give to Jewish causes. With such a small window, is this really how you want to allocate your leadership capital? To being decent?”

My answer, having stipulated that you should all support Israel, light Shabbat candles, and give to Jewish causes, is yes, absolutely. There is no more important message for you to hear this year. “What is it that the Lord requires of you?” asks the prophet Micah, if not “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before the Lord?” This is the calling of the day – to make manifest the goodness of humanity, to cause decency – ours and that of others – to emerge.

If for no other reason, on this Rosh Hashanah, we need to be reminded to be decent and kind because it is a message that is not being championed with the frequency and volume that it demands. We are living through a perfect storm of forces, giving rise, to adopt Harvey Milk’s turn of phrase, to a conspiracy of silence, where the very people who should be calling for decency have ceased to do so. It is not just those individuals who, for reasons of self-interest or political survival, have, despite possessing the political or financial capital to make a difference, chosen to remain on the sidelines. Let someone else do it, they say, the markets are up, it is an election year, better to play it safe. But religious leadership, too, for a variety of reasons, has been rendered mute. The Catholic Church, we know, has their own tsuris of late, diminishing their ability to elevate our nation’s moral discourse. On the other side is the deafening silence or even outright support from so many in the Evangelical community who have made a utilitarian and ultimately Faustian bargain in abdicating their moral pulpit in order to secure judicial appointments or other packages of political benefits. Of these leaders, we are left to wonder, as one ancient (sort of) Jew rhetorically asked: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the world and lose his soul?”

And lest we Jews make the mistake of misplaced schadenfreude or smug self-congratulations, we too have our own fair share of moral reckoning to do. No different than the Church, we have sins of commission and omission for which we must answer. Jewish leadership has proven just as capable of carrying out all the abuses of our #MeToo era and worse. But it goes further. Far too many in the Jewish community, like the Evangelicals themselves, have provided moral cover and absolution to those individuals, no matter their indecencies and ethical lapses, as long as they remain committed to the security of Israel. Finally, and perhaps most perniciously, is the emergent and increasingly audible riff that Jews must make a choice between observance and ethics or, if you like, survival and moral decency. That it is somehow untoward for a Jew to champion deeds of kindness, to seek to mend the world and work to improve our common humanity. It is an Orwellian hijacking of Judaism, nothing short of a McCarthyism within our ranks, that if you are committed to decency and humanity as a whole, then your commitment to the Jewish future must be suspect. Such thinking is dangerous, and, no different than for our Evangelical friends, risks the possibility of our one day waking up to a Judaism and Jewish people that are no longer worth defending.

It is wrong, morally and historically, to pit Jewish observance and decency as antithetical to one another. It has never been “either/or”; it has always been “both/and”! The High Holiday mahzor teaches that it is repentance, prayer, and tzedakah that avert the evil decree, not Jewish law or Jewish defense. On Yom Kippur, the prophet Isaiah makes clear that we have a commitment to observe the fast and feed the poor. The nineteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi Israel Salanter founded the Mussar movement in response to Jews of his own era who, though they would never think of eating non-kosher food, would be unscrupulous in their business practices. Mussar was a movement of ethical renewal, driven by a desire to promote a life of both mitzvot (Jewish observance) and middot (character traits), such as anavah (humility), savlanut (patience), tzedek (righteousness), emet (truth), nihuta (calmness), and metinut (deliberation), among others. Each of these character traits is as important as any other aspect of our faith. Mitzvot and Middot, Torah with Derekh Eretz. The story is told that once during the Days of Awe, Rabbi Salanter encountered a pious Jew who was so engrossed in prayer that he failed to greet Salanter, whereupon Salanter chided him: “Because you are so pious, does that give you the right to deny me a simple ‘Good Morning’?” One does not acquire middot overnight. Life is a constant battle between our good inclination (yetzer ha-tov) and our evil inclination (yetzer ha-ra). It takes study, reflection, practice, and constant self-correction to make sure our good inclination – in Lincoln’s words, our “better angels” – carry the day.

About a month ago I was running errands up and down Lexington Avenue on a Friday afternoon, cell phone at my ear as Debbie gave me a list of even more errands to complete before the arrival of Shabbat. Still on the phone, I was swiping my credit card at the Duane Reade, not even looking up at the cash register guy who was asking whether or not I wanted the receipt in the bag. For reasons that I am still unpacking, I stopped, took a breath, put the phone down, looked at the human being in front of me, and said something to the effect of “And how is your day today?”

He smiled, looked at me and said, “I dig that lavender. It goes with your jacket.” I looked down, noting that he had noticed my shirt and sports coat combination.

I smiled, and said, “You just made my day. In fact, if you really like this combo, why don’t you tell the woman who picked it out?” At which point I handed him the phone so he could pass on the compliment to Debbie, who was still on the phone.

He passed on the kind word to Debbie, handed me back my phone, we smiled, and as I walked away, he said, “Hey, buddy, your yarmulke – it matches, too!”

I turned back with a big grin and said: “Shabbat Shalom.”

The entire exchange lasted less than a minute. It was as brief as it was mundane. One small step for the Jewish People, one huge leap for humanity – mine, his, all of ours. We can all be more decent, we can all perform acts of kindness. As Anne Frank famously wrote: “…no one need wait a moment before making the world better.” The power of an act of kindness, when it serves no ulterior purpose, is, in the words of a dear friend, that it is a “net happiness aggregator.” Both the person doing the kind deed and the person receiving the kind deed feel better for it. It causes a ripple effect and virtuous cycle that knows no end. It could be something momentous – like the sound of the shofar, u-vashofar gadol yitaka, or it could be the still small voice of a quiet deed kol d’mamah dakah yishama. It is the hours I recall my mother willing to spend with a friend in need. It is my memory as a child, of watching my father perform CPR on a man in the parking lot of Dodger stadium. It is the bit of advice, counsel, and maybe an introduction you give to a young man or woman looking to get a foothold in this world. It is the act of tzedakah you extend to help someone make ends meet or maybe even go to college.

Some sources argue that the highest form of kindness is when it is done anonymously. We may be familiar with of the Talmudic tale of the Lamed-vovniks, the thirty-six people whose selfless deeds of kindness, performed in anonymity, sustain this world. Myself, I believe there is a place for both private and public acts of kindness – not because of the need for recognition, but because conspicuous role models are also important. These days people are wondering who will step up and lead by example. Someone needs to be first, a someone who may be you. As Rabbi Salanter taught: “. . . when there is much evil in the world, and people are in great need of models of goodness, why would a truly righteous person want to keep his acts of goodness hidden?” (Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics: Vol. 2, p. 148).

Being decent is not necessarily easy. It takes strength and courage. It is not just about being nice. It means doing things that make you and your interests vulnerable. Decency is Senator John McCain in that 2008 town hall meeting grabbing the microphone away from that woman making racist remarks. Decency is Senator Abraham Ribicoff going off-script in order to stand up to the Mayor Daly machine at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Decency is the unprecedented move of Teddy Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington for dinner at the White House no matter the political cost. It is Israel’s President Rivlin announcing that if as president he must sign the recently passed nation-state law – the one demoting Arabic as an official language – then in protest, he would do so in Arabic. Decency is not only the refusal to gossip about another, but the act of telling the gossiper that you want no part in what they are doing and that it is wrong. It could be as simple as a kind word or a gracious and undeserved act of forgiveness. It could also be telling someone you love a truth that he or she needs to hear – not, God forbid, to cause them hurt, but because better they hear it from you – someone who loves them – than from someone who doesn’t. Acts of decency will not necessarily make you popular; they can be impossible calls of judgement that force us to dig deep. Lest we forget, the abiding image of these holidays is Abraham, who was asked to sacrifice that which was dearest to him in order to serve the calling of the hour. As Martin Luther King taught: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Or, if you like, and a bit closer to home: במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש, b’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.”

Is it enough? If each of us in this room commits to acts of kindness, small and large, mundane and extraordinary, anonymous and public, will it turn the tide? I don’t know, and I can make no promises. But given the state of play in our world today, it is as good a place to start as any. It was Rabbi Salanter who once wrote:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world . . . Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself . . . But I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country, and we could all indeed have changed the world.

Friends, years from now our children and grandchildren and our history books will ask what we did in this decisive hour. We have arrived at synagogue today to dig deep, knowing that we are living through history. We seek to be reminded not of who we are, but of who it is we aspire to be, our best self, and we commit to being that person. We commit to taking that commitment into our families, into our city and into our world. Today, tomorrow, and the next day, in private and public, to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be – and in so doing, to make this indecent world of ours a little more decent.

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