Something to Say

September 06, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


Not once, not twice, not three times, but more times than I can count this past summer I was struck by the thought, “Thank God I am not preaching this Shabbat.” Summers at Park Avenue Synagogue, construction notwithstanding, are a delightfully quiet time. We move services out of the Sanctuary, our children go off to summer camp, the steady stream of Bnei Mitzvah takes a hiatus, and the clergy, both rabbis and cantors, take well-deserved down time. Should you be around during the summer, you should make a habit of coming to shul. It is one of the sweetest and most heimish times to be here: you get a nice davening, connection to community, and a cookie on your way home. No choir, no organ, no livestreaming . . . and no big sermons.

And because world events made the summer, well, the train wreck that it was, it was a relief to not have to preach every week. We had, and continue to have, an immigrant crisis at the border. There were shootings in Virginia Beach, El Paso, Dayton, and just last week, in Odessa, Texas. A climate crisis felt by all that is actively playing out in the Amazon. Trade wars, crises of democracy around the world, and stand-offs between nations. For Jews, things have not exactly been quiet either. Anti-Semitism – both at home and abroad – on the rise. A hot proxy war between Israel and Iran. A second Israeli election and a primary season in America that are bringing out the worst in all parties on both sides of the ocean. An American President counseling an Israeli Prime Minister to disallow US Congresswomen from entering Israel – a gut check for American Jewry the like of which I have not experienced in my lifetime. It was an exchange made all the more testing by the presidential suggestion that any Jew who supports the Democratic party is disloyal. The list goes on and on, one crisis snowballing into the next, and through it all, I said to myself, “Thank God I am not preaching this Shabbat.”

And now, the summer is over. And now, I have something to say.

The name of this morning’s parashah is Shoftim, which means “Judges.” No surprise, the Torah reading begins with the commandment to Israel to appoint judges in all its territories in order “to govern the people with due justice.” (Deuteronomy 16:18) But that is only the beginning. Our parashah is about far more than the judiciary and the principles by which it adjudicates law. While our nation has three branches of government, Ancient Israel was divided into four branches. First, as noted, the judiciary, which interestingly, as in the cases of Samson and Deborah, also came to include military leadership. Second, the monarchy, perhaps the most prestigious of the four authorities. Israel had an early form of constitutional monarchy: a powerful king subject to God’s law, of which a copy was to be kept literally at his side. Third, as a religious society based on sacrifices, Ancient Israel also had a priestly authority, leaders with oversight over matters of worship and cult, descending entirely from the tribe of Levi. The fourth and final authority, the one I want to focus on today, is the office of the prophet. Navi mikirbekha . . . yakim l’kha, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your people. . . .” (Deuteronomy 18:15) In the royal court or not, for Deuteronomy the prophet was the most important authority, the channel of communication to God. Part oracle, part healer, part messenger, the prophet was endowed with a divine intimacy, able to convey God’s will, and most importantly, to serve a critical function vis-à-vis the three other authorities. As in the case of King David and the prophet Nathan, the prophet legitimized the monarchy or denounced its moral lapses and offenses. As in the case of Isaiah, the prophet corrected the excesses or oversights of the priests. The prophet was the ancient system of checks and balances, watching, naming, and when necessary, checking both the abuses of Israel’s leaders and the Israelites themselves when they violated the terms of the covenant. (J. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy)

The prophet was all this and so much more. In his 1962 book The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel begins his study by asking the question “What manner of man is the prophet?” Heschel explains that the prophet is an individual willing to say “no” to his society, “condemning its habits and assumptions . . . [and] complacency.” The prophet reminds Israel that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The prophet is a warrior for morality, a champion contrarian, willing to go against the grain, refusing to be neutral in the face of evil even if it means, as is often the case, living a lonely and deeply unpopular life. Essentially, the prophet is the voice of dissent. And while the formal time of the prophets may have ended with the close of the Hebrew Bible, the prophetic voice continued to be a vital part of the project of Judaism. By this telling, prophecy is not located in any one person, class, or generation, but is an essential attribute, part of the DNA of the Jewish people. From the very first Jew, Abraham, arguing with God as the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah was at stake, through the time of the prophets, to Heschel himself, who fought on behalf of civil rights and protested the Vietnam War, it is the ability to take a moral stand, to refuse to let the abuses of an age become normalized that is the hallmark of our faith. As Heschel wrote: “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” (“Dissent,” in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 106)

Our era does not lack for crises. At home, abroad, some self-inflicted and some, as in the devastation in the Bahamas, horrific acts of nature. I have my list; I am sure you have yours. But for me, the most terrifying crisis of all, the one that impacts every area of my concern, is that somehow, somewhere along the way we have lost our prophetic voice; we have lost the will to dissent. We have turned quiescent, morally timid – indifferent to the callings of the hour. For some, it is a matter of political expediency, for some a matter of self-interest, for some just plain laziness. So-and-so is good on Israel or the economy, and so we give a pass and fail to express outrage when our sense of decency is affronted. So-and-so is good on progressive causes, and so we refrain from condemning bald expressions of anti-Semitism. We shame people who dare voice an unpopular opinion, attacking their character instead of arguing the merits of their ideas, bullying them into silence. Jews who object to the Israeli government are marked self-hating Zionists and Jews. Jews who object to the present administration are labeled disloyal and unpatriotic. The causes are manifold, but the effect is one and the same – we are forsaking the birthright of our prophetic voice. I think of a comment Martin Luther King made on his era: “History will . . . record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” We have lost the mojo that makes Jews – Jews.

And it is not, mind you, only as Jews that our self-audit proves lacking; it is also as Americans. You can tell the tale of our country in a variety of ways – as God’s New Israel, as a melting pot of immigrants, and otherwise – but as the historian Robert Young writes: “Protest is one of the consummate expressions of ‘Americanness.’” Even before our nation was established, religious dissent was the calling card of the English Colonies. It was rebellion that led to the birth of our nation. It was the steady stream of dissenters who demanded the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, rights for Native Americans, for Latinos, for African Americans, reproductive rights, and gay rights. Every single war back to the War of 1812 has had its dissenters. From the Puritans to protests against the Patriot act, from the anthems of Pete Seeger to Zucotti Park, it is the radicals, reformers, reactionaries, and revolutionaries who have made this nation the great nation that it is. And I would be remiss if I failed to point out that dissent has many faces – some that may not reflect the liberal leanings of the Upper East Side. The Tea Party and Religious Right also understand themselves as countercultural dissenters in the classical sense. And then of course there is the delicate question of the means we employ to give our dissent expression. Be it John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond or Martin Luther King in the Birmingham Jail, the question of when and how one breaks an unjust law in order to serve a higher law is a question deserving of careful inquiry. (R. Young, Dissent: The History of an American Idea)

But to stay silent? To not say anything? That is something that, as Americans and as Jews, we cannot, dare not, and will not do – not anywhere, and especially not here in the synagogue. As a mentor of mine once taught me: the function of a house of worship is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In our era where the political and business communities seem more and more disinclined to object to the outrages of the day, it is increasingly incumbent upon the religious community, this religious community, to take up the prophetic mantle that is our patrimony. Yes, we enter this room for sanctuary, both literally and figuratively. Yes, the first obligation of a synagogue is to bring people closer to Torah, to tradition and community – to be an incubator of Jewish identity. But as I have said many times from this very spot, we come to synagogue not to hear about the world as it is, but as it ought to be. We come to synagogue to be reminded that the task of creation is not yet complete and that we are partners with God to help repair a deeply fractured world. We come to synagogue to be challenged, to hear the prophetic voice of our tradition and to be inspired to find our own prophetic voice. The social contract of a synagogue is not that you agree with everything stated from the pulpit. The social contract of the synagogue is that you will leave here knowing better what our tradition says about the issues of the day and better able to model for yourselves, your children, and the world how to engage respectfully and civilly with views that differ from your own. We come here in order to be inspired to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be and to act upon the prophetic voice embedded within each of us.

As Jews and as Americans, it is neither unpatriotic nor disloyal to voice dissent, regarding our government or the government of Israel. If there is one message of these weeks leading up to the High Holidays, it is that criticism and love are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. Whether it concerns our family, our country, or the State of Israel, to voice dissent from a place of love is arguably the most Jewish, most loyal, most Zionist, and most important thing an American Jew can do.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) Famously, the rabbis ask why the word tzedek, justice, is stated twice. One time would have been enough. Of the many explanations, I find myself moved by the thought that the pursuit of justice is twofold: tzedek when it is easy, and tzedek when it is hard; tzedek both when convenient and tzedek when, perhaps especially when, it is inconvenient – when we have something to lose. Friends, summer is over. It is time we say something. More importantly, it is time we do something.