17 Sep Rabbi Hillel Skolnik’s Sermon For Rosh HaShanah Day 1 5776 Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
There is a famous story in the Talmud about a wealthy man who decided to host a party and asked his assistant, his ancient party planner, to be sure to invite his good friend Kamtza. This may seem to us like a small request but this particular host was known to have an ongoing dispute with another man whose name was Bar Kamtza and so this instruction to invite Kamtza as opposed to Bar Kamtza was actually quite important. The assistant, who the host trusted, took copious notes and went about planning the party. Came the night of the party and the host walked in to see not his friend Kamtza but his rival Bar Kamtza instead. The host walked over to Bar Kamtza and said to him, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but I want you to leave right now!” Bar Kamtza, who admittedly was surprised at the invitation but nonetheless had taken it as a sign that the host wanted to put their past behind them and find a new way to coexist, was stunned. “Please don’t embarrass me like this,” he replied. “I’ll pay for whatever I eat and drink but please don’t make me leave in front of all these guests, many of whom I know.” But the host would not be swayed. “Get out!” he stated again. “I beg of you,” replied Bar Kamtza, “this would cause me tremendous embarrassment. I’ll pay for half of your party, just please don’t make me leave.” But again, the host could not be convinced. “I will say this for the last time, get out!” he shouted. “What if I pay for the entire party?” pleaded Bar Kamtza. “Will you then let me stay?” “There is nothing for which you can pay, nothing that you can say which will convince me to allow you to remain in my home one second longer.” And so Bar Kamtza left mortified, to the looks and stares of people whom he knew, people whom he cared about, people whom he had respected and people whom he had thought respected him.
When the rabbis talk about the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, they note well that the Jews of the time had sinned greatly before God and that at the end of the day it was the Romans who destroyed God’s home on this earth. But the rabbis are also exceedingly clear that a fair share of the blame must be laid forth at the feet of the Jewish community not simply for sins committed against God, but for the sin of sin’at chinam, of senseless hatred toward one another. And when they do so, they look right at the story you just heard. Because of moments like that, when all that happened was a secretary got confused and invited Bar Kamtza, instead of Kamtza. And instead of understanding and compassion Bar Kamtza was treated with contempt and unneeded hatred, not to mention the fact that not one of the invited guests, includng a number of rabbis in attendance, stood up to defend him – instead leaving him to be embarrassed as he was. Because of these actions, the Talmud explains, because of this sin’at chinam, this senseless hatred, the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed.
It is now nearly two-thousand years since that story would have taken place and quite clearly, Judaism has survived. Everyone here today, everyone in every synagogue around the world today, and even those who aren’t at a synagogue on this Rosh HaShanah are proof of that. The Judaism that centered around sacrifice and localized worship at the Beit Hamikdash gave way to Rabbinic Judaism which we continue to practice. The offering of sacrifices became the recitation of prayers and we learned to live by the saying that we read often times as our text study at the beginning of our Shabbat morning services which was spoken by Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai to his disciple Rabbi Yehoshua who looked at the Temple ruins and was in despair. Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai said to him, “be not grieved me son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of loving kindness, for it is written ‘loving kindness I desire and not sacrifice.” And so our tradition and our people survived by being the leaders in performing acts of loving kindness and working hard to set aside sin’at chinam. But even while our people has made it to this very day, so did the transgression of sin’at chiman, senseless hatred.
The sad truth, and it’s one that I believe we all know, is that the main way that sin’at chinam has made it into the 21st century is on the backs of our ancestors who throughout the centuries have suffered through acts of anti-Semitism and the were victimized by truly senseless hatred towards our people. That hatred so often led to violence, destruction and death, and it continues to do so to this very day.
Yet in our time this is not the only kind of sin’at chiman that this world faces. Actions are spurred on by words and in the technological world within which we all live, words are a plenty. To be sure, many of the words shared in person, in writing, and on the internet are thoughtful, appropriate and even helpful. Every day I find myself inspired by poems and prose that I would never have read had it not been for the closeness of our world thanks to modern technology. But every day as well, I see examples of the too many, the way too many words that are wasted in the act of sin’at chinam, of senseless hatred. People who use social media and the protections of free speech that we enjoy in this country as an open invitation to be unnecessarily mean, hateful and incredibly hurtful. Just because you can say anything you want doesn’t mean you have to say anything you want. And frankly what amazes me, at the same time as it causes me tremendous concern, is that these posts, articles and sometimes videos are instantly incredibly popular precisely because sin’at chinam is so rampant in our society. We have made an art form out of taking senseless hatred and using it as a publicity stunt to get rich and famous.
As much as it pains me to see people unnecessarily and incomprehensibly hate their neighbor, and it pains me greatly, what concerns me even more in these opening moments of the new year is that in the past few weeks and months we have started to see a vicious reemergence of sin’at chinam by Jew against fellow Jew. We are all now witness to moments of Jewish people saying the most awful of things against their fellow Jew, purposely trying to cause public shame and embarrassment in a way that is eerily similar to what happened to Bar Kamtza all those years ago.
On any Rosh HaShanah I could use this as an opportunity to speak out against the sin’at chinam shown by members of the ultra-Orthodox community against those affiliated with the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism, and those who do not affiliate at all. These members of the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whom live in Israel, are protected by Israeli soldiers and yet don’t serve in the Israel Defense Forces have made it their job to enforce their particular brand of religiosity in some of Judaism’s holiest places and in doing so have shown what I can only understand as senseless hatred. I don’t know how else to comprehend throwing dirty diapers on people who are simply trying to pray according to their practice or throwing chairs at the Women of the Wall who are forced to sneak a Torah into the Women’s section at the Western Wall when they have their minyan at the beginning of each month. Calling it senseless hatred is the only way I can wrap my brain around it because it is senseless. But like I said, sadly I could give that sermon every year and the people who really need to hear it are not sitting in this room, nor do I think they ever will be.
So instead, I choose to speak out against the sin’at chinam that we have seen committed by members of the Jewish community against Jewish public figures as a response to their decisions on whether or not to support the well-known and controversial deal with Iran. Much as I wish the biggest Jewish community in the United States were in Orlando, in truth it is still in New York, so let’s talk about two examples related to politicians from New York. After what I do believe was much thought and certainly heavy lobbying, Congressman Jerold Nadler, who represents New York’s 10th district which constitutes much of the Upper West Side of Manhattan where Sharon and I lived for several years as well as other sections of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, made public his decision to support the deal with Iran. Not surprisingly, and exercising their constitutional right to do so, many of his constituents almost immediately began speaking out against his decision, writing articles, organizing rallies and demonstrating against this decision both in an effort to convince him to change his mind and to display loud and clear their dissatisfaction in his decision. They reacted exactly as we are supposed to in this country when we disagree with the actions of our elected leaders. The aforementioned internet makes that job even easier. When our politicians do something we disagree with we have both the right and the responsibility to speak out against it in public forums. And ultimately, we speak most loudly at the polls. But when it reached the point that the Anti-Defamation League, which defends Jewish people and organizations from acts of anti-Semitism, had to step in and defend Congressman Nadler from fellow Jews because be was being compared to a Nazi collaborator, that is no longer protest and that is no longer free speech. Disagree with him and his position all you want, God knows I do, and by all means, vote for someone else next November. But that is hatred of a senseless nature.
And lest we think that it is only one side engaging is such attacks, Senator Charles Schumer, who back when he was Congressman Schumer representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens was in attendance the morning I was called up to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah and who I heard saying to a group of people at Kiddush, “when the Rabbi’s family has a simcha, everyone has a simcha”, he too has been subject to attacks of a harsh nature by parts of the Jewish community because he ultimately decided to oppose the deal, also after a great deal of thought and heavy lobbying by members of the Jewish community. Perhaps the words spoken and written were not quite as grotesque, but were senseless to be sure and meant not to sway an opinion or publicize a disagreement but to embarrass and cause hurt.
In that light I’d like to share with you a story I heard from a colleague a few weeks ago who told of a congregant that approached her during Kiddush one Shabbat this summer. The congregant wanted to explain to he why he had not been at services for the past several weeks. “It’s not because I wasn’t in town or couldn’t make it,” he said. “It was because I was worried that I might find myself in a discussion about the Iran deal and inadvertently say something I would regret, something hurtful.” As he shared with his rabbi, he didn’t want to say out loud the words that were in his head – that he internally compared people on the opposite side of the argument to Nazi sympathizers of the Second World War. He wanted to make sure that those words didn’t come out of his mouth and so he stayed home.
Ever since she shared that encounter with me I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. My first reaction, and in truth I still feel this way, was to be taken aback that such a comparison is so common-place that people in our own synagogues feel that way. I had hoped, probably too naively, that such thoughts were reserved for the true extreme members of our Jewish community, the people who would post something awful on Facebook or go out of their way to spew sin’at chinam. But eventually my reaction turned from the thoughts this person had to the actions he chose not to take. He acted on the value that even if we have a right to say something hurtful, it doesn’t mean that we have to, it doesn’t mean we should. He took a deep breath, put a few rational thoughts together and realized that he was not going to be able to have a reasonable conversation with a person who held an opposing view and so he chose not to put himself in a position where he might commit the act of sin’at chinam. And by making that decision, I firmly believe that he helped save the Jewish world.
But in order to truly save it, we have to recognize that not being able to have important conversations with each other because we fear we might say something hurtful or be hurt ourselves is a crisis in and of its own right. We have to, as a Jewish community on the grand and small scale, find a way to get back to the idea that Jews can disagree with each other and still live together the way that the rabbis were able to back in the days of the incredible debates that line the pages of Rabbinic literature. Many rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud had what was called their “bar plugta”, their constant opponent in matters of Jewish law. But they didn’t hate each other, they learned from each other as did the famous pair of Reish lakish and Rav Yohanan. These brothers in law disagreed constantly but the Talmud teaches that when Reish Lakish passed away Rav Yohanan was inconsolable. You might have thought that he would have been of course sad, but perhaps a bit relieved that he would no longer need to argue with the amazing Reish Laksish. But instead he insisted that his arguments would never be as well formed as they had been because Reish Lakish had challenged him at every step, made him work harder and forced him to raise his game.
Of course the most famous example of two rabbis who can’t stop arguing with each other are the disagreements between Beit Hillel, the house of Hillel and Beit Shammai, the house of Shammai. I have taught on a number of occasions in this very room of famous disagreements these two had, from the order of the blessings we recite as part of Kiddush, to the number of candles that are lit on each night of Hannukah. Their arguments are legendary. But to me what makes them legends is that in all my learning on the disputes of Hillel and Shammai not once have I ever heard that they spoke out meanly or harshly against each other. They disagreed to be sure but their arguments were based on Jewish law and reason, not on some mean spirited mud slinging campaign. Hillel never called Shammai a Roman sympathizer and Shammai never said a bad thing about Hillel. They just disagreed. And when the daughters of Beit Shammai married the sons of Beit Hillel and vice versa they celebrated together with all the happiness in the world.
I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way we as a society, and we as a Jewish community lost that ability to have a discussion, agree or disagree and then go on with our lives without needing to hate the person with whom we disagreed. At some point it became only about winning and losing and doing whatever it takes to win. And if that meant slander and acts of senseless hatred then so be it. None of us is to blame for this change, but it is up to all of us make sure that 5776 needs to be the year when that trend comes to an end. We don’t have enough Jews in the world that we can afford to be hateful towards any of them. And we don’t have enough friends in the world that we can afford to turn off any potential new friends by displaying the kind of infighting and language that would make a person stay away. It doesn’t mean sit down and stop talking or for us to stop fighting for what we believe it, not by a long shot. We must continue to do everything we can to win battles that we know in our hearts need to be won. Rallies need to be organized, articles need to be written, and minds need to be changed. But we are a light unto other nations precisely because we know what it means to use our words for good, for the power of persuasion but not the power of insult. My opinions on matters religious and secular have not been formed by only ever having conversations with people who agree with me, they have been formed by speaking both with people who agree and disagree with a position I’ve taken. And when I talk to someone who thinks differently than I do about a topic it forces me to be more articulate and more educated about how I feel. When we hear and actually listen to what someone else says, our opinions become more refined and every once in a while they do change.
We ought to be able to have those kinds of conversations without fear of judgment, ridicule or sin’at chinam. We should be able to have those conversations here in our synagogue. We need to have them in our society. But it can only be done in a place where we are the ones to stand up for Bar Kamtza and either insist that the host allows him to stay or get up and leave with him. It can only be done in a place where we value our community and those within it and are willing to make the commitment to hear and listen to each other. It can only be done in a place where we realize that Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai was right, that God wants us to display acts of senseless loving kindness, not senseless hatred. It is my fervent hope and prayer that in this new year we can set a new example of how conversations must take place and that by opening up and speaking with each other, we too can do our part in saving the world.
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
1 Gittin 55b
2 Siddur Sim Shalom, page 68
3 Baba Metzi’a 84a