Sunday, October 5, 2014
High Holiday Sermons & Rabbi's "Office Hours"
Erev Rosh Hashanah, September 24
"Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hypocrite"
Rosh Hashanah morning, September 25
"The Closing of the American Jewish Mind?"
Kol Nidrei, October 3
On Suicide and Mental Illness
Yom Kippur Morning, October 4
"Aliens and Islands"
Sermons are meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not the last word. They should be suggestive, not exhaustive (and certainly not exhausting!).
In that spirit, please join me at one of my Rabbi's Sermon "Office Hours" coming up in mid-October. Check the congregation calendar to confirm times and locations. Or, as always, contact me to set up another time to meet.
- Tuesday, October 14, 12:30-3:00 pm
Victoria's Cafe, Aspen (Durant & Galena)
- Thursday, October 16, 12:30-3:00 pm
Saxy's Cafe, Basalt (Midland Spur)
Saturday, October 4, 2014
Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5775 • 04 October 2014
Aliens and Islands
The year is 2050, and an unidentified vessel lands in Washington, D.C. A humanoid figure emerges, who can only be described as what you’d expect an alien to look like. He’s taken to a secret bunker under the White House where they question him.
“What are you?” they say.
“A Martian, of course.”
“Do all Martians look like you?” they say.
“Are you all green?”
“Yes we are.”
“Do you all have those antennae coming out of your heads?
“And do you all have those little round hats?”
“Well, no, not the goyim.”
Like an onion, this joke has layers. On one level, there’s Jewish anxiety about fitting in: Jewish Martians are just like other Martians…almost.
On another level, this joke also speaks to Jewish pluralism. It pokes fun at the idea that “wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish” (Rabbi Larry Milder). In reality, we know how few Jews there are and that there aren’t any on Mars. Unlike a missionizing faith that seeks to convert others, Jewish theology makes room for other faiths, other paths to God. We don’t believe that salvation awaits only the Jews, nor do we expect everyone to be Jewish. The practice of other religions is not an insult to ours. So if we discovered aliens, we wouldn’t need to throw out our tradition. We would likely be compelled to learn about their culture, and maybe ask if you can get a good bagel on Mars.
It’s ironic that we might be less threatened by aliens than we are sometimes by our fellow Jews who look, worship, or believe differently than we do. But we Jews have a history of getting in our own way. The rabbis explained the destruction of the Second Temple by way of a story involving two Jews who snub each other while the sages stand idly by (Talmud Gittin 55b-56a). The insulted Jew goes to the Roman authorities to rat out the offending Jew, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to Rome’s siege of Jerusalem. For the rabbis, this is a cautionary tale against the danger of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, among Jews.
On the lighter side, there’s the old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island. When rescuers arrive, they find he’s built two synagogues, and they ask him why. “Well, this is the one where I daven,” he says, “and that’s the one I’d never set foot in.” ‘The synagogue I’d never set foot in’ has become a trope, a lens through which we process Jewish communal dysfunction. (As I said at our Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar event last February: In Aspen, the Jews have not one, but two synagogues we’d never set foot in — that’s how Jewish it is here!)
Joking aside, this morning I’d like to address some of the dynamics in the Jewish community of Aspen and the valley.
I think it will help to begin with the past. Historically, the Aspen Jewish Congregation (or Aspen Jewish Center, as it was known) was the only Jewish game in town, so to speak. Since the mid-1970s, it was the destination for Jewish gathering here in the valley. A Hebrew School of more than 120 students at its peak offered a fun and engaging Jewish education. I myself remember attending Shabbat evening services led by Gideon Kaufman during the summers my family spent in Aspen in my childhood. It was and is a special community, and I never imagined I’d be blessed with the privilege of leading it and living here.
As the population of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley grew and demographics shifted, the demands changed. As in every Jewish community, the congregation didn’t please everyone — an impossible task, in any case. For the last decade and a half, Chabad and later Neshamah have offered other Jewish options. In most communities, that’s normal, even healthy.
But the response of some, a minority, to be sure — and I confess that I include myself here — has been competitive and territorial. This way of thinking leads to anxiety about market share, “losing” kids to other Hebrew Schools, and big givers and big buildings that aren’t “ours.”
I think I get it. It’s hard to go from being the unified gathering place of the Jewish community to being one of three options. It is a loss, and it deserves to be mourned. If people in this community are still hurting from the fragmentation, let’s address it directly so there can be healing.
I think I also get how I, a young rabbi right out of school, felt like I had to prove myself, stake my ground, assert authority and credibility and individuality within this community. It’s harder to cooperate and share when you’re insecure about who you are. I know that now, from experience. I regret any role I played in driving our communities apart, or not doing enough to bring us together.
The rabbis have warned us about the dangers of competition, especially among those with a spiritual calling. In the Talmud (Yoma 22a-23a), they tell the story of what happened when the priests on duty in the Temple vied for the privilege of removing the ashes from the altar. They would race up the ramp to the altar, and the first one there got to do the job. One time, two priests were running neck-and-neck up the ramp. One of them pushed the other, who fell and broke his leg. The High Court saw that rivalry between priests resulted in bodily harm, so they instituted a lottery system for the removal of ashes from the altar.
The authorities had to step in because the priests lost sight of their mission. They were supposed to devote themselves to the holy work of the Temple, where the Israelites met the presence of God. Instead, they sought their own personal victories, at the expense of their fellow priests and their holy purpose. As a result, people got hurt.
A common pitfall, for individuals and organizations, is to focus too much on whether we’re doing better than the next guy. We start to see our neighbors as rivals, a standard against which to measure ourselves. Synagogues are not immune. We ask: Are we raising as much money, getting as good attendance, feeling as much momentum? Is our marketing as sharp, our Hebrew School as much fun, our b’nei mitzvah program as engaging, our community as welcoming?
It is human nature to compare ourselves to our fellow Jews; to take a zero-sum approach to our Jewish community; to view one group’s success as necessarily tied to another’s failure; to fight over slices of a shrinking pie, rather than to try to grow the pie together.
Of course, we want to be a thriving, successful congregation. Of course, we should hold ourselves to high standards, evaluate ourselves critically, and continue improving. Of course, we should continue to deepen relationships, reach out to the less connected, bring more meaning to more people’s lives.
But the success of our neighbor congregations does not mean we’re failing at these goals. If a family chooses to send their kids to a different Hebrew School, or choose a different option for bar mitzvah or High Holidays or Shabbat, what if our first response were, “Thank God they’re choosing a Jewish life!”? Let’s not forget, the real challenge we face is not “losing” people to Chabad or Neshamah, but rather a shared reality confronting all of us: waning interest in living a Jewish life at all, and indifference to there being a Jewish community. In the service of addressing that challenge, we are allies, and never rivals.
In the final reckoning, we don’t win by elbowing others out of the way. A midrash (Talmud Sota 36b-37a) recounts a tale of Jewish rivalry that took place at the Red Sea. The tribes vied with one another saying, “I will be first to go down into the sea!” — “No, I will be first!” As they stood there wrangling, the Benjamin tribe jumped ahead of the others and raced down to the sea. Out of jealousy and anger, the tribe of Judah started throwing stones at them.
Needless to say, that’s not the kind of Jewish community we want. In their threshold moment of redemption, on the verge of the miraculous parting of the sea, the Israelites were consumed by competition. Rivalry blinded them to their miraculous role in history. So they sought to tear each other down.
We, too, stand at a threshold of redemption, every day. We have much work still to do in this community: simchas to celebrate, losses to mourn, care to provide, learning to do, justice to achieve. We stand today in a position of strength, ready to undertake this holy work. Craig Navias spoke so beautifully, so perfectly, already this morning about what the Aspen Jewish Congregation is, and what we strive to be. We don’t have the time or the need to keep looking over our shoulder. We “win” by being good at what we do. We “win” by staying true to our mission: building relationships and enriching lives, bringing Jewish tradition and learning to life. And the community wins when Chabad and Neshamah are good at what they do. We win when we all win.
Consider the Hasidic tale of the rabbi named Zusya who died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous, thinking that his life didn’t measure up. He worried that God would ask him, “Why weren't you Moses?” or “Why weren’t you Solomon?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren't you Zusya?”
Even as we shift our posture from rivals to neighbors, we needn’t shy away from discussing the beliefs and practices that delineate us. Pluralism means that our differences can enrich the greater whole, not that we pretend we’re all the same. We hold different views on theology, liturgy, halachah, egalitarianism — these are all real pillars of belief and worthy of mature engagement and study. But the lines that separate us needn’t be the whole substance of our interactions. With trust and respect, we can learn from our differences and be enriched together. We can, God willing, start seeing allies where we might have seen rivals. We can reframe how we think about our community, from fragmented to vibrant and thriving with choices. Pope Francis gave an interview this summer in which he offered 10 rules for finding happiness. He included the Roman saying, “Campa e lascia campà.” It means something like “live and let live,” or maybe better yet, “Move forward and let others move forward.” It’s good advice.
I want to close with the words of a local family, Lysa and Tim Reed, that appeared in the program for their daughter Taylor’s recent bat mitzvah. First, they thanked each of the three sets of Jewish leaders in the valley — Rabbi Mendel and Lieba Mintz, Cantor Rollin and me, and Rabbi Itzhak and Dalia Vardy — for being part of their family’s Jewish journey. Then they said, “We are so lucky to live in a Valley with so many fabulous Jewish organizations and feel so blessed to have been touched by all of them.”
What a beautiful vision for what our community can be, for what it already is in our best moments. This is not a naive call to ignore our differences; we should explore them and learn from each other. This is, rather, a reminder that no Jewish community is an island, and that our fellow Jews are not aliens. It’s an invitation to recognize what makes each of us unique as we all share in building a brighter Jewish future.
G’mar hatima tova, may our entire community be inscribed for a good year.
Special thanks to Rabbi Jennifer Gertman, whose senior sermon at HUC-JIR (NY) provided the inspiration and some of the source texts for this sermon.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Kol Nidrei 5775 • 03 October 2014
“To be read at the opening of DPS (Dead Poets Society) Meetings: I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life! To put to rout all that was not life… And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… H.D.T.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
Robin Williams, in the role of English teacher John Keating in the (1989) film Dead Poets Society, weeps at his desk as he reads these words. They’ve been inscribed by hand in a copy of the poetry textbook for his English class. The book belongs to a star student, Neil, a theater and poetry enthusiast. Neil is also a member of the Dead Poets Society, a student group that meets secretly to discuss great poetry and the meaning of life. Neil struggles against an imperious father who wants him to attend Harvard and become a doctor, despite Neil’s love of literature and the arts. When this scene takes place, Neil has just taken his own life, and Mr. Keating mourns.
Confronted with this tragic death, the private boys' school reacts defensively, almost cruelly. Spurred on by Neil’s angry, grieving father, they investigate the Dead Poets Society. They blame Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) for encouraging Neil’s impudence toward his father and even for causing Neil’s suicide. It is, of course, a profoundly misguided way to understand and respond to suicide.
This is not an easy topic to discuss, but discuss it we must, with open eyes and an open heart. The fact is that suicide is very difficult to understand. It does not result from a neat, linear cause-and-effect chain. In more than 90 percent of cases, it is a result of a diagnosable (if not actually diagnosed) mental illness. One in four Americans — one out of every four of us in this room — will be affected by some form of mental illness during our lifetime. That can include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Substance abuse aggravates all of these conditions. Suicide is not a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or a cowardly act. It is the tragic result of a complicated mix of “factors such as hopelessness, impulsivity, and traumatic life circumstances” (Harpel).
Simplistic and reductive misunderstandings of suicide are all too common. When Robin Williams died by suicide this August, we heard some of the usual misconceptions:
“But he was so funny and full of life!”
“It’s such a selfish act.”
“How could anyone choose to do this?”
“How could he cause such pain to his family?”
“It was a coward’s way out.”
If we haven’t struggled with depression ourselves, it is hard to understand what it feels like. Martha Manning, in her book Undercurrents, tries to describe her disease of the mind:
The emptiness of the depression turns to grief, then to numbness and back again. My world is filled with underwater voices, people, lists of things to do. They gurgle and dart in and out of my vision and reach. But they are so fast and slippery that I can never keep up. Every inch of me aches. I can’t believe that a person can hurt this bad and still breathe… It’s not that I want to die. It’s that I’m not sure I can live like this anymore. (Manning, 99)
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is a world-renowned expert on bipolar disorder and the author of numerous books on mental illness and suicide. She has suffered from bipolar disorder most of her life, and here is how she described the mental state behind her own suicide attempt:
No amount of love from other people — and there was a lot — could help. No advantage of a caring family and fabulous job could be enough to overcome the pain and hopelessness I felt… I knew my life to be a shambles and I believed — incontestably — that my family, friends, and patients would be better off without me. (Solomon, 265)
The first thing I want to say, probably the most important thing of all, to anyone who has had these thoughts, is that your family and friends — and we, your community — are not better off without you. If you hear echoes of yourself or someone you know in these descriptions, help is available.
You can call 800-273-TALK for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline wherever you are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also contact the Aspen Hope Center’s 24-hour Hopeline at 970-925-5858. There are trained crisis counselors on call at all times. (The Hope Center has also provided some printed resources for our community, so please take some with you as you leave tonight.) You can ask a friend, teacher, colleague, relative, rabbi for help. We will do what we can and will do our best to refer you to the professional who has the skill to help you most. As one mental illness expert said, “Empathy is important, but competence is essential” (Jamison, “To Know Suicide”).
The vast majority of the time, mental illness does not lead to suicide. We can’t predict with certainty when it will, although we can try to look for warning signs and risk factors. Nationwide, someone dies by suicide every 13.3 minutes. The rate among men is four times that of women, and higher among Whites than any other ethnicity. Rural areas with above average substance abuse and gun ownership show increased suicide rates. The Western states, including Colorado, have the highest rates in the country.
Pitkin County averages four suicides a year, and our Jewish community has been touched by this tragedy. How many more untold stories are there of people who struggle in the shadows, invisible to those whose help they need? Tonight is an invitation to you to stop suffering alone, in silence. Tonight we invite you to reach out for help, to know that it can get better, to have faith that it will get better. We, your community, might not always say the right thing, we might not fully understand how you feel, we might even seem uncomfortable talking about it — but we still care. We can still help you find the help you need.
Tonight is also an invitation to all of us, whether we’ve dealt with mental illness personally or not, to be that hand to reach out to, that shoulder to lean on in someone’s time of need.
There are four mitzvot, four Jewish calls to action, that can help guide our understanding of and response to mental illness: Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life), Nichum Aveilim (comforting mourners), and Halvayat HaMet (accompanying the dead). The first two speak to the kind of community we should strive to create to make it easier for those struggling with mental illness to find relief and healing. The second pair speaks to the way we should respond as a community when the tragedy of suicide occurs.
The first two mitzvot, again, are Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) and Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life). Bikur Cholim encompasses visiting someone in the hospital, taking food to the homebound, offering help and presence when a crisis interrupts daily life. When it comes to illnesses of the body, we are pretty good at this. It’s easy to mobilize a Mealtrain schedule for someone undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from back surgery. Sadly, it’s not as natural when it comes to depression. We might whisper about it, but we rarely address it openly. We might express our disbelief that someone could be suffering so deeply when they seem so happy on the outside. At our worst, we suggest that someone with depression should just “perk up” or “snap out of it.” As a rabbi who struggled with depression wrote, “It is no more possible for the depressive to emerge from his depression than for the cancer patient to will away his tumor or the diabetic to magically lift his own insulin level by wishing it upwards” (Helfgot).
Pikuach Nefesh, the principle that saving a life trumps almost every Jewish law, demands that we cure our ignorance, break through our superficial understanding, so we can learn to be present for someone who is choleh — ill — with a disease of the mind or spirit. We should be proactive in creating a community where it is safe to ask for help. We should check our judgment at the door when we realize it could help save a life.
Our culture values individualism, which is good up to a point. But too often we make a false idol out of the virtue of individualism. We act as if self-sufficiency is the goal in all things, as if reaching out for help is a sign of weakness and failure. I believe that the suicide rate is higher among men, in part, because our image of masculinity leaves little room for vulnerability. But regardless of gender, our culture tells us to look down our nose at people who need to lean on others rather than take care of themselves.
If we take seriously the value of Bikur Cholim and Pikuach Nefesh, of being present for the ill and rescuing a soul, we can change the culture. We can create a community where we don’t avert our eyes or stare in judgment when someone suffers from mental illness. We can cultivate a thick network of real relationships, so that we notice when someone is withdrawn, struggling, lonely, lost. Signs to watch for include someone who talks of hurting himself, sleeps too much or too little, withdraws from activities, and other marked changes in behavior or mood. As the experts say, trust your gut. If you’re concerned, it’s always better to say something than to let it go. It is a myth that asking someone if they’re suicidal is dangerous; it’s not. It’s more dangerous to say nothing.
Even when we do this well, even when we notice warning signs and minimize risk factors, sometimes it is not in our power to fix it, to prevent the unthinkable. As Martha Manning wrote, “I realize that if love were the cure, I would have been healed a long time ago.”
The second pair of mitzvot teaches us how to be present for the survivors of a loved one who dies by suicide. Nichum Aveilim (comforting mourners) and Halvayat Ha-Met (accompanying the dead) demand, like the first mitzvah pair, that we check our judgment at the door, and that we show up. We accomplish Nichum Aveilim by bringing food to a shiva home and participating in a minyan, by checking in with a mourner days, weeks, months later. We fulfill it when we give mourners the space to reminisce, question, struggle, and cry with us. We perform Halvayat Ha-Met, accompanying the dead, by attending a funeral, hearing a eulogy, saying the Kaddish, throwing a handful of dirt into a grave. In my experience of this community over the past four years, we are ready, willing, and able to show up for each other in times of mourning.
There are certain classical Jewish texts that ban funerary practices for suicides — no shiva and no burial in a Jewish cemetery. Imagine the pain, the shame, felt by families already struggling with grief and shock, as well as the anger and betrayal often associated with surviving a suicide loss. Mercifully, that ban was not mainstream and is rarely if ever practiced today. Let’s make sure we haven’t created an emotional or social banishment for survivors of suicide loss because of our misconceptions about it. Let us practice empathy rather than avoidance; let us bring blessing and not lay blame.
* * *
As the students in Dead Poets Society learned, words matter. How we talk about mental health, whether we talk about mental health, affects how we treat it. We must be willing to talk about it; it must not be taboo. What we say in someone’s time of need may be life-changing. Please, God, let us be present to others in need. Please let our words at moments of vulnerability be words of life, words of inclusion and restoration, and not judgment. Please let those who suffer with a disease of the mind trust us to be their lifeline. Let them find the strength to reach out from their darkness — and let us be there to bring light.
At the end of Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character Mr. John Keating prepares to leave his classroom for the last time. The powers-that-be at the school blamed him for the tragic suicide of his student and fired him. As he makes his way to the door, one by one the boys in his English class stand on their desks and declare, “O Captain! My Captain!” in tribute to their teacher. They speak out of their pain and guilt over the death of their classmate; they speak out of love and respect for their beloved teacher, wrongfully blamed and banished. They speak out because they’ve learned that silence can lead to darkness. Their words and their actions affirm life; they aspire to a life of meaning and impact.
I want to close with part of that poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” which Walt Whitman wrote in 1900 in memory of President Abraham Lincoln. In Whitman’s words we hear grief for the loss of a life mingled with gratitude for that life’s legacy.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
These mournful words, like all eulogies, articulate the legacy of the deceased, the impact of his life, that he lived, that he was and remains loved. He is missed because he mattered. Those of us who struggle with depression, whose spirits suffer in darkness — and, in truth, all of us — need to hear words like these while we still breathe and walk the earth. Like Thoreau, we need to know that we have “lived deep” and “sucked out all the marrow of life.” We need to be reminded that we matter.
We can’t do this alone. At the end of the day, the purpose of a sacred community is to create a space where it’s safe to be ourselves, and where we matter to each other and to the world.
The rest is commentary. Let us go and live it, for however long we have left.
Sources and Recommended Reading
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, www.afsp.org.
- Durkheim, Emile. On Suicide.
- Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response to Suicide, http://www.elijahsjourney.net/.
- Harpel, Joanne. “Food for Thought on Yom Kippur: Suicide and Mental Illness.”
- Helfgot, Nathaniel. “Dimensions of Torment: A Young Man’s Story of Surviving Depression,” Jewish Action, Fall 5762/2001.
- Jamison, Kay Redfield. “To Know Suicide.”
- Jamison, Kay Redfield. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.
- Manning, Martha. Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface.
- Ross, Tova. “Breaking the Jewish Community’s Silence Around Suicide.”
- Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.
- Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.
I’m thankful for sermons and advice from the following rabbinic colleagues: Elka Abrahamson, Ariana Silverman, Jen Gubitz, Ronne Friedman, Yaron Kapitulnik, and Jonathan Kligler. Thanks to Julie Wagner, Goldie & Werner Knurr, Or Mars, Jamie Bornstein, Rabbi Daniel Crane Kirzane, and Rabbi Anne Lewis for their helpful suggestions and recommended reading. And many thanks to Joanne Harpel for her wisdom, expertise, and editorial help.
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5775 • 04 October 2014
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah
My name is Craig Navias, and I am here this morning to invite all of you to continue your Journey with me and all of those who care deeply about our Aspen Jewish Congregation once these High Holidays are over.
I have been a member of this wonderful congregation since 2010, when my family and I moved from Dallas to this place we are now fortunate enough to call home. In Dallas, our Jewish lives consisted of enjoying weekly Shabbat dinners with our family, and attending our synagogue on high holidays.
When we moved to Aspen, my wife Esther suggested (very strongly I might add) that we go to Friday night services at the little Chapel which was not too far from our house. I reluctantly agreed. We were fortunate enough to start attending services at the same time as Rabbi David and Cantor Rollin (who are both greatly admired by all for reasons you are discovering for yourselves during these high-holiday services), and Friday nights and the Aspen Jewish Congregation have now become a very valuable and very beautiful part of my family’s lives.
While I cannot tell you that I am a more Jewish or a more religious man as a result of my families very strong connection to the Aspen Jewish Congregation, I can tell you that my life has been enriched through the wisdom and teachings of our brilliant young Rabbi and through the inspirational and beautiful melodies of our wonderful Cantor, and, more importantly, I can tell you that I have discovered something that was unknown to me previously – the blessings of a very strong community. Every Friday night, I look forward to seeing people who I have grown to care about deeply and who I know care deeply about me – I look forward to being with my community.
Whether it is people I see every Friday or second homeowners who I may not see for several months at a time, the connection is equally strong. For as many second homeowners who are such an integral part of our congregation will tell you, they are typically closer to this community than they are to their primary congregations. Why they feel closer to this community is something I invite all of you to find out for yourselves, but I suggest that it has little to do with these high-holiday services we all attend a few time a year. For while I am sure we all find meaning and fulfillment in these very beautiful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, the true essence of our Congregation manifests itself every Friday night during our service and Oneg and through the many outdoor activities we enjoy as a community. I hope you all got to enjoy the beautiful second day Rosh Hashanah outdoor service at the Meadows, or that you have enjoyed a Mountain Minyan during Ski Season, or one of the many hikes or bike rides we continue to do as a community. If you have not, I urge you to find one of our outdoor events that appeals to you.
I was invited to speak here this morning simply to tell you my story and not to ask for money, but, fortunately for us, my story now includes ensuring the continued success of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, which requires your support. So I am going to ask each of you for your participation and for your financial help. Jewish enrichment, while a very necessary and I think very beautiful part of our lives, is unfortunately not free. While I don’t pretend to understand our sustainable member ship model, I do understand that the Aspen Jewish Congregation cannot exist without your generous support. Now if you are wondering whether I am speaking to the person in front of you, behind you, or to the person on either side of you – the answer is yes. But more importantly, I am speaking to you. We need the support of everyone.
Please know that I am not simply asking you to blindly write a check, I am inviting you to come to a Friday night service, to meet our Rabbi and Cantor and our congregation in a more intimate setting, and to be open to the possibility that you can be part of the kind of community that I have described. I invite you all to be there for and to support the Aspen Jewish Congregation, and, more importantly, to learn how the Aspen Jewish Congregation can support you.
I invite all of you to consider the possibility that the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be for you the great blessing that it continues to be for me. I believe strongly in what we do, and I support what we do – I hope that you will support us too.
I hope also that you will all have an easy and a meaningful fast, and that the coming year will bring blessings and peace. May it bring more of what each of us desires, and may it bring more of the Aspen Jewish Congregation into all of our lives.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5775
25 September 2014
The Closing of the American Jewish Mind?
Once upon a time, not long ago, there was a young man named Joe. Joe was a nice Jewish boy from Anywhere, USA who did well in high school and got accepted early to one of his top choice colleges – let’s call it University of Middle America, or UMA. As Joe’s high school graduation approached, he found it hard to focus on homework and class, often lost in thought about what campus life would be like.
Joe daydreamed about the wealth of classes and professors he’d have at his fingertips; he daydreamed about learning that would happen in and out of the classroom through the open exchange of ideas. That’s what college is for, right? he asked himself. Not avoiding disagreement but seeking it out? Intellectual sparring with students and faculty? Joe had always excelled at that. It’s part of why he did so well in high school: by offering his own ideas to be crystallized and honed in the crucible of debate. He knew that’s how real learning occurs.
Needless to say, what happened around UMA’s commencement that spring surprised and disappointed Joe. He was finishing high school while closely following events on the campus he was about to call home. The University had invited a prominent leader to address the student body at graduation. But then a well-organized group of liberal students and faculty, who opposed the speaker’s political views, started a petition. Their outcry led to the disinviting of the speaker from that year’s commencement. Joe’s politics tilted liberal, but he was troubled by the bigger picture at stake here. On a university campus, of all places, a small vocal minority was able to stifle someone’s ideas simply because they were disagreeable? And this wasn’t the only campus where a speaker with “unpopular” views was disinvited. What did that say about the state of these supposedly “liberal” institutions of higher learning that their students and even some faculty couldn’t stomach hearing dissenting views? Nothing good, thought Joe.
The press was all over these disinvitations. One Jewish observer wrote, "College was once about preparing boys and girls to become men and women, not least through a process of desensitization to discomfiting ideas. Now it’s just a $240,000 extension of kindergarten" (Stephens; see also Wisse).
And a Yale law professor wrote:
In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas… Your generation, I am pleased to say, seems to be doing away with all that… How marvelous it must be to realize at so tender an age that you will never, ever change your mind, because you will never, ever encounter disagreement! How I wish I’d had your confidence and fortitude. I could have spared myself many hours of patient reflection and intellectual struggle over the great issues of the day. (Carter)
Troubled by the developments on campus, Joe spent the summer packing for college, meeting his roommates online, and registering for fall semester classes. Though worried about a lack of real debate on campus, he took some comfort in knowing that he would always have a home among the Jewish community at Hillel. There, he knew, he’d find willing partners for debate. His childhood rabbi had always encouraged thoughtful dissent. They’d even studied Jewish texts about it, how the rabbinic tradition was founded on engaging seriously with your opponents’ positions.
With the Jewish community on campus, Joe looked forward to engaging in the age-old practice of chevruta study – arguing over texts and ideas, challenging your fellow learner and inviting him to push back, elevating your mutual learning together.
Needless to say, what happened at Hillel that fall after Joe arrived on campus surprised and disappointed him. The Hillel’s Israel Task Force had invited a speaker to address the campus community. This speaker was a Jewish educator who would speak about his attempt at reconciliation with the Palestinian family of the terrorist who bombed the Hebrew University cafeteria in 2002. That attack had killed two of the speaker’s friends, and nearly killed his girlfriend, too. He had gone on a personal mission to find the killer’s family because he wanted to see where such misguided, murderous hatred could come from.
As it turned out, the speaker had also written a blog post about BDS – the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. The BDS movement is especially active on campuses, its members ranging from progressive Zionists who want to end the occupation, to anti-Semites who want to delegitimize Israel. The speaker’s blog post said that BDS is a legitimate form of nonviolent protest against certain policies of the Israeli government. When this came to light, the Hillel rabbi informed the speaker that a pro-BDS stance disqualified him from speaking at Hillel because of the parent organization’s Israel Engagement Guidelines. Although Hillel promises to “encourage students’ inquiry” and welcome “a diversity of student perspectives” in a “pluralistic community,” they also set limits on speakers allowed to appear under Hillel’s name. That includes barring anyone who supports “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”
Bound by these guidelines, and backed by a small but vocal group of Jewish students, Joe’s Hillel rabbi disinvited the speaker. Joe didn’t get it. He didn’t support BDS himself, but he wanted to hear what this thoughtful, committed Jew had to say. Joe was on campus to learn and grow, and he could handle himself in an argument. He was not afraid to be provoked to think critically, even — or especially — about Israel.
When Hillel withdrew its invitation to the speaker, the Muslim Student Union stepped in to host him instead. Joe had reservations about that group’s intentions, but this was a conversation he wanted to be a part of, so he went to the event. The speaker stated his support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a dual commitment demanded by his Zionism. As he started to say that the occupation threatens Israel’s democratic character, and therefore violates his Zionist principles, a group of pro-Israel students stood up and shouted him down.
Joe had seen similar behavior when Palestinian students shouted down pro-Israel speakers. He and his fellow Jews would dismiss them as thugs who couldn’t handle having their ideas subjected to actual debate. Now Joe’s fellow Jews were using the same tactics. Ironically, these Jewish students were violating another of Hillel International’s guidelines, barring individuals who “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
Joe was fed up with the hypocrisy on both sides. He had considered a degree in international relations with a focus on Middle Eastern affairs, but he decided in that moment to major in something less controversial, like particle physics or underwater basket-weaving. He never really set foot in Hillel again, except occasionally for the High Holidays, and he lost his passion for discussing Israel, too. There were too many lines drawn in the sand, everywhere he turned.
* * *
Joe’s story is fictional, but not by much. Last spring, a long list of colleges disinvited speakers because of “unpopular” views. Blistering critiques were written about college students’ need for intellectual coddling. At the same time, Hillel has been embroiled in a national debate about what qualifies as a sufficiently “pro-Israel” event to bear Hillel’s name. Speakers have been invited and then disinvited when deemed out of bounds (e.g. at Harvard). The tension came to a head last December when students at Swarthmore publicly rejected the parent organization’s guidelines and named themselves the first “Open Hillel.”
The organized Jewish community is sending a message, a mixed message, to our college kids: we want you to engage in stimulating intellectual debates, get involved in the open exchange of ideas, challenge your views — but just not when it comes to Israel. On that topic, you’re either with us – unconditionally, uncritically – or against us.
Let’s consider for a moment what one critic said about all those disinvited commencement speakers, and apply his thinking to the context of Hillel, even though the author wasn’t writing about that situation:
Ladies and gentlemen, you are graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict. There are corners of the globe where violence and war and abject oppression still dominate… Traditional societies are caught in an increasingly desperate struggle between the perils of fundamentalism on the one side and the perils of modernism on the other. Given your generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom you disagree, I am assuming that you have no intention of playing any serious adult role in mediating those conflicts. And that’s fine. We should leave the task of mediation to those unsophisticated enough to be sensitive to the concerns of both sides. (Carter)
One of the main reasons we don’t foster a healthy Israel conversation among college students, let alone within congregations, is that we have substituted pro-Israel advocacy for Zionism. Zionism’s goal was to change the status of Jews in the world with regard to power, agency, and responsibility. “Statehood was a means to that end, not an end in itself” (Goldberg). Now we can’t see past the question of supporting or criticizing the state, as if that’s the substance of Zionism. We’ve forgotten, or never learned, that Zionism is not just about Jews having the power to defend ourselves – it’s also about Jews having the responsibility to treat others who live within our power in a Jewish way. It’s not just about creating a Jewish majority – it’s also about shaping that society to reflect the values of Jewish tradition. It’s a conversation, I’m proud to say, that we had for nine weeks this summer with the help of the Hartman Institute’s iEngage curriculum: 20 Jews around a table, arguing, disagreeing, pushing back, but sharing a commitment to respect each other as we studied our tradition’s views on power, sovereignty, self-defense, war, and human rights.
Peter Beinart wrote on Monday that during these High Holidays, American rabbis should not speak about the Jewish state, but rather about Jewish texts. The real crisis facing our community, he says, is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but illiteracy about Judaism. In other words, we are so alienated from Jewish tradition that we aren’t ready to have a real conversation about Israel, let alone Zionism. So we cling to defensive pro-Israel advocacy, at the expense of a richer engagement with Zionism and the future of the Jewish people.
College campuses are ground zero for this problem. The organized Jewish community pours money and energy into defending Israel on campus, sometimes from real enemies but often at the expense of building Jewish community or cultivating students’ Jewish identity. Rabbi Oren Hayon, Executive Director of the Hillel at the University of Washington in Seattle, experienced this firsthand. He spent two years gearing up to fight BDS legislation at the university, and fight they did. Reflecting after a successful campaign to defeat BDS, Hayon asks us to consider the cost of these victories. He said, "The moment a BDS resolution is introduced on a college campus, a mighty political advocacy engine roars to life and, before long, the entire community becomes characterized by a relentless scorched-earth approach” (Hayon). This machine is distracting and alienating. It forces Hillels to forego more substantive programming, and it shuts out students whose questions about Israel get them banished from the tent.
Rabbi Hayon compares this approach to the Akeidah, the famous binding of Isaac, which we will read later this morning. In the case of Abraham, his own son Isaac became a tool in his quest, the means to prove his faithfulness to God. Hayon says, “When we fail to treat college students as persons, and instead relate to them as objects to be manipulated for our political or ideological goals, we hasten our own downfall.” Rather than calling students “thinkers, partners, or colleagues,” activists on both sides of these campaigns refer to them as troops, vessels, and assets. What does it say about us that we treat students as pawns in our own defensive game, and not as the future leaders of our community? What kind of leaders will they be?
And what will become of our hypothetical Joe once he graduates, if this was his experience on campus? If Joe had been encouraged to learn and grow in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and rigorous debate, wouldn’t he be a stronger Jew, poised to confront the complex challenges of his generation? On the other hand, if Joe is brushed aside as not pro-Israel enough, then what do we expect? Why would he want to live Jewishly, if that’s the shallow Jewish identity he’s been sold? Why should he join a synagogue, or support a Jewish organization, when his experience of the organized Jewish community is that you either fall in line or get out of the way? What gifts of Jewish leadership, what potential contributions to the ongoing story of our people, are we sacrificing on the altar of pro-Israel advocacy?
Zionism calls us to imagine and enact the ideal Jewish future. It demands a proactive vision for the state of the Jewish people, not a defensive apology for the status quo. Jewish tradition challenges us to balance self-defense and the rights of others, to take care of our own without diminishing our moral commitment to humanity. As Rabbi Hillel himself famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Upholding these dual commitments is not childish or naive — it’s exactly the kind of sophisticated Jewish leadership we urgently need.
It’s time to let go of our insistence on simple answers to complex questions. It’s time to study, argue, and act — like adults.
Sources and Recommended Reading
- Genesis 22 (the Akeidah)
- iEngage: Foundations for a New Relationship (Shalom Hartman Institute; selected classical and contemporary texts)
- Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. “Here’s What I would have said at Brandeis”
- Avishai, Bernard. “Is Liberal Zionism Impossible?”
- Beinart, Peter. “American rabbis, these High Holidays, talk about Jewish texts, not the Jewish State”
- Cannon, Benjy. “Five things Jewish-American leaders must know about college students”
- Carter, Stephen. “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me”
- Cohen, Ben. “The Anti-Zionist College Ploy”
- Fein, Leonard. “From Gaza to Sderot, Trauma Marks The Past — And The Present”
- Fingerhut, Eric. “Hillel President Responds to Swarthmore College Hillel Resolution”
- Goldberg, J.J. “Summer's Missing Question: What Is Zionism?”
- Haaretz. “Us Jewish group accused of McCarthyism after publishing list of pro-boycott professors”
- Halevi, Yossi Klein. “At Rosh Hashanah: Grief, fear, hope”
- Halevi, Yossi Klein and Abdullah Antepli. “What Muslims and Jews should learn from Brandeis”
- Harris-Gershon, David. “I’m Now Another Jew Who Has Been Barred from Speaking in a Jewish Building (in America)”
- Harris-Gershon, David. What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? Oneworld Publications, 2013.
- Hartman, Donniel. “To be a peaceaholic: a new year’s resolution”
- Hayon, Oren. “After BDS victory, tending a scorched campus community”
- Hillel International. Hillel Israel Guidelines.
- Jick, Zoe. “The blood bucket challenge: too fast, too furious”
- Kurtzer, Yehuda. “For Israel Engagement on Campus: Coaches, not Cheerleaders”
- Rosen, Joseph. “The Israel Taboo”
- Stephens, Bret. “To the Class of 2014”
- Swarthmore Hillel Board. “An Open Letter”
- Wieseltier, Leon. “Israel and Gaza: A Just and Unjust War”
- Wisse, Ruth. “The Closing of the Collegiate Mind”
- Yoffie, Eric. “Muzzled by a Minority”