Of Football Fields and Pulpits: Doing Justice, Loving Hesed and Walking Humbly

A sermon by Rabbi Ruth A. Zlotnick at Temple Beth Am, Seattle WA, on Yom Kippur, September 2017

This week, our country has been embroiled in a national debate. Are the football players who take the knee during the national anthem exercising their constitutional rights to protest racial injustice, or are they unpatriotic professional athletes who should focus on their job and leave politics off the field?

Maybe you caught the poignant Op Ed in The New York Times by Eric Reid, the San Francisco 49er, who explained why his faith led him to join his teammate Colin Kaepernick early on. Reid felt compelled to act after speaking with Kaepernick about systemic oppression against people of color. As he wrote, “We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the N.F.L., to speak for those who are voiceless. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

There’s a culture clash at the center of our national conversations and we are all caught up in it. In our divided country, there’s very little space for impartiality. Do politics belong on the football field? Yes or no. You either believe it does or it doesn’t. There’s very little in between.

Far be it from me to compare myself to a professional football player, but, in truth, rabbis
attempt to “tackle” this same question, and people feel equally divided about the answer. This spring, Rabbi David Wolpe opened a debate in the Jewish press declaring that politics should stay off the pulpit. He believes that when rabbis raise political questions during sermons we do disservice to Judaism’s tradition of deliberation and compromise; it’s too easy, he suggests, for rabbis to use Torah to support personal opinion. “All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for
something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not Pence and Pelosi.”

Many rabbinic colleagues disagreed, and suggested that Rabbi Wolpe paints too blunt a picture. They assert that it’s possible to preach about socials ills for which there are differing political solutions without undermining the pulpit or our sacred texts. After all, they argue, our central sacred myth, the Exodus, is inherently political. How else would you characterize an enslaved people who rise against a tyrant and demand freedom? Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of our Reform movement, put it this way: “I want to suggest that although one can certainly love Torah and follow different political paths, one cannot claim to be a lover of Torah and not care about how our society treats those in need, the weak, the vulnerable, the stranger and the oppressed.”

The athlete on the football field, the rabbi on the pulpit—what is the cost of speaking up? What is the cost of silence? I believe history has proven that the cost of silence is too high.

In 12th century Spain, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra taught, “The status of those who observe oppression and remain silent is equal to the status of those who commit the oppression themselves.”36 times—more than any other commandment—we read in Torah that we must care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, because we were strangers in Egypt. To care for the vulnerable in society is the moral imperative of Judaism. If we speak up, we fulfill our eternal obligation as Jews. However,
if we are silent we bequeath a legacy of shame to future generations.

For example, as a Jewish community, we’re horrified by the Christian leaders who were silent in the face of Nazism in Europe. Kristalnacht, the night of shattered glass, occurred on a Wednesday evening; no moral outrage was heard from the pulpits of German churches the following Sunday. As historian Robert Ericksen has written, “Support of the Nazi regime was common among Christian [leaders], and the vast majority failed to raise any objection to Jewish persecution. Silence, in this case, speaks loudly.” We can imagine what our world might look like today, if only those faith leaders and their congregations had resisted the injustice of their world and protected the Jews of Europe.

Our congregation is rightly proud of Rabbi Emeritus Norman Hirsh for his civil disobedience during the Civil Rights era. By doing so, Rabbi Hirsh put his physical safety and his professional success on the line, because not everyone favored his activism back then. Today we have the luxury of hindsight to know that Rabbi Hirsh was on the right side of history. Sadly, he was also in the minority—how would American history look different if more religious leaders took the same risk and spoke out on behalf of racial justice in the 1950’s and 60’s?

From a Birmingham jail cell, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged religious leaders in Rabbi Hirsh’s generation to take a stand and he was met with resounding apathy. In Dr. King’s words:

“I [thought] when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership that white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, a few have been outright opponents…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous, remaining silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. [They] stand on the sidelines and mouth pious irrelevancies…[committing] themselves to an otherworldly religion which makes a strange distinction
between the sacred and the secular.”

I believe some moments are so dark they require the light of moral leadership. These examples from the recent past beg us to remember that it takes courage to speak up, to resist, to be a gadfly to the status quo. Judaism obligates us to awaken our conscience and work toward a fair society for all, especially in service to those who are most vulnerable. We do this in every generation, in every political context. In 12th century Spain. In 20th century Europe. And in 21st century America.

These first decades of this century have been a time of heartbreak and volatility for most Americans, regardless of political leanings. We are a nation in pain. Currently, our polarization feels insurmountable. On one side of the political divide, there’s profound fear of systemic racial injustice which endangers the lives of people of color; of Islamophobia which threatens the well-being and individual rights of Muslim Americans; and of increased discrimination and hatred against members of the LGBTQ community. On the other side—there has been anguish over the economic insecurity of Americans squeezed out of a job market impacted by globalization; over the lethal opioid plague that has become a health and crime epidemic; and over the rise in world-wide terrorism creating a need for safe and protected borders. Where we stand on the divide determines how we view our current presidential administration, our media, our prospects for the future.

And yet, for many of us, regardless of political affiliation, Charlottesville was a watershed moment; a boundary that was breached. To have Nazis marching in an American city seeking the death of Jews and people of color, culminating in the actual murder of a young woman, was, for many of us, beyond the pale. What made the experience especially hurtful was the inadequate response of the President in the days after the violence. For rabbis of all stripes, it was a decisive moment. The
professional rabbinic organizations of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, plus some independent Orthodox rabbis, boycotted an annual call with the President. Rabbi Wolpe, the Conservative rabbi who questions bringing politics into the synagogue, condemned the President from the bima: “How could we live in a nation whose leader would wait; finally condemn; then equivocate, insisting that some who marched alongside Nazis are “very fine people”? In this dark moment,” Wolpe preaches, “we needed to hear a leader’s voice. And for that failure, the Trump administration should perhaps consider the Jewish mitzvah of teshuva, repentance.”

Rabbi Wolpe’s change of heart is a reminder that all who are connected to Jewish life—clergy and congregants alike—must wrestle with the same issue: how do we bring Torah to bear witness on this chaotic national moment? Judaism offers a counter-cultural critique, a prophetic voice. And that is what politicians need. At our annual rabbinic conference, the Mayor of Atlanta, Kassim Reed, spoke to a ballroom full of Reform rabbis and challenged us: “Politicians, regardless of political party, need faith leaders for the moral framework. Justice is simple. Justice is clear. Love your neighbor as yourself. You faith leaders have the opportunity to give us moral boundaries and then to let us know when we’re out of bounds. We need you to remind us what is unacceptable. Justice requires clarity and this moment in history requires clarity.”

For Reform rabbis, something extraordinary happened after the events in Charlottesville. We heeded Mayor Reed’s challenge and created a unified message that scores of us are sharing from our individual pulpits across the country. We’re calling it our One Voice 5778 Message. I will share some of that message with you now. Please know some of it has been edited to reflect our Seattle experience.

“As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. Today we speak words of protest across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. Something crumbled inside us when we watched Charlottesville’s streets become filled with hate-spewing marchers. [The wound reopened here in Seattle when our friends at Temple De Hirsch Sinai and the Muslim Association of Puget Sound were victims of vandalism, and when white supremacists marched in the streets of our downtown.] How many more incidents of vandalism, how many more clashes, which other cities? We cannot become inured and believe this is “normal.”

Let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Jewish leaders must be dedicated to equality, engaged individuals must be advocates for enduring kindness between diverse peoples, and political leaders; progressives and conservatives alike, must rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country.” Then we will fulfill the prophet’s
call, tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue. I’ve been eager to share this statement from the Reform rabbinate because I believe it supports our learning theme, olam hesed yibaneh, the world is built with loving-kindness. In 5778, Temple Beth Am will be a source of hesed to each other and to the world around us.

Within our congregation, we’ll work to ensure that all our members feel seen and heard and valued, no matter who you are. Our congregational family includes folks across ethnic, racial, gender, religious, sexual, economic and, painfully given this polarized environment, political lines. To help us walk the talk of honoring differences, we have invited April Baskin, the Reform
Movement’s Vice President for Audacious Hospitality to be our Scholar-in-Residence this year. Baskin’s expertise is in guiding communities to enhance their inclusivity so that no one feels like an outsider in their own congregation. As a young Jewish woman of color, Baskin’s personal story is compelling and the wisdom she’ll share from her professional work is profound.

Outside of our congregation we’ll bring acts of loving-kindness into the public arena. It has been said that justice is what love looks like in public. This year, we’ll focus our energies on building alliances, welcoming the stranger, and educating ourselves about groups who’ve been targeted with hate and discrimination.

I’m so proud to say that thanks to the tireless work of some lay-leaders and the moral vision of our Board of Directors, our Board has unanimously endorsed renewing our 35-year-old commitment as a Sanctuary congregation. We’ll join with other churches and synagogues in the North End and participate in protecting undocumented and at-risk individuals in need of safety and support. We also have several initiatives to help us deepen our relationships with and understanding of our
Muslim neighbors. Finally, I’m very excited to announce that in late June, I will lead a multigenerational Civil Rights tour of the American South to help us glean lessons for combating racial injustice in our own day. To seal our commitment, we’ve signed the Religious Action Center’s Brit Olam, a covenant with the world, which creates a network of Reform congregations working together to pursue justice. Information about all our activities will be on the website.

The prophets of ancient Israel warn us that our most sacred rituals lose their sanctity if they aren’t coupled with ethical actions. It all boils down to the words of the prophet Micah: We know what’s good and we know what’s required of us and it is remarkably simple: Asot mishpat, ahavat hesed, v’hatz’neiah lechet eem elohecha. We are required to do justice, to love hesed, and to walk humbly with God.

I believe, regardless of how we may interpret the politics of the football field, the intent of the players and their supporters who take the knee is to accomplish just this: doing justice, loving hesed, and walking humbly with God.

And this is our task, too: on the bima and off; within our congregation and beyond; between ourselves and with others—in the year to come, let us do justice, love hesed and walk humbly with God. Then, when we gather next Yom Kippur, perhaps our prophetic hope will come to pass, bayom hahu yiheyeh echad—on that day our congregation, our country and our world will be one.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of an individual and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Faith Action Network. FAN is an interfaith organization, committed to celebrating and embracing the diversity of faith traditions. If you have questions about FAN’s position on any public policy issues, please feel free to contact the FAN office at (206) 625-9790 or [email protected].
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