Monday, September 21, 2009

That Partisan Rosh Hashanah Sermon

In traditional Judaism, sermons are given during religious services twice a year. Once on the Sabbath before Passover, Shabbat HaGadol (the "Great" Sabbath), when the rabbi is supposed to instruct the holy congregation on the laws that apply to the Passover observance. The other time is on Shabbat T'shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentence), when the rabbi is supposed to instruct the holy congregation on the laws that apply to the "great white fast" on Yom Kippur. At other times during the year, there might be a short D'var Torah (words of Torah), which is supposed to be a short talk or study session related to the Torah portion of the week. There are also separate times for Torah study and discussion throughout the week.

The idea that a rabbi should get up and give a sermon each and every week during worship services, and that he has the knowledge and the right to instruct congregants on matters political in a forum in which they have no room to dispute his words or to reply, was borrowed from the Christians, and particularly from those Christians who imbue their priests and ministers with a quality of holiness that comes from their office and that is greater than the holiness associated with the congregation itself.

To be clear, in normative Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher and decisor of Jewish law, but otherwise has no more claim to holiness than the humblest day laborer who is a member of the congregation. A rabbi is learned in Jewish law, but is not to be regarded as one would a priest or prophet or king. Those three offices are considered to be in abeyance for Jews since the destruction of the second temple, and among orthodox Jews, it is believed that they will be restored only by the coming of the Messiah. Traditionally, being a rabbi, a teacher and decisor of Jewish law, was not a job, but a calling. The rabbi was supposed to make his living doing something else. Thus, rabbis were merchants, shoemakers, and in the case of the beloved Rabbi Akiba, a shepherd and revolutionary.

Of course, in the modern Jewish movements such as Reform, the synagogue has been unpegged from Jewish law to one extent or another, and so the primary responsibility of the rabbi has become that of "professional Jew"; a provider of religious services and religious-based counsel, roles that traditionally belonged to every adult Jew. This role-change has had the unintended consequence of making most adult Jews less than adult in their understanding of Judaism and of their rights and responsibilities in the synagogue. Add the political Vision of the Annointed to this mix, and the results are positively ugly.

And this (finally) brings me to the notorious (yes, already) Rosh Hashannah morning sermon that caused a number of congregants to walk out and those who were left to become very quiet indeed.

Unfortunately, I do not (yet) have a written text of the sermon, though I have looked for it online, and requested it from the rabbi. Since yesterday was still a holy day, there may be some delay in getting it. Therefore I will not be going through the sermon to discuss each point. In any case, I am not that interested in arguing specific claims the rabbi made, because the thing that made this sermon so egregiously wrong was the structure of the talk itself, which lead to a smear* made from the pulpit against those Jews who disagree with the healthcare proposals of the current president of the United States and his party.

*A smear is an implication of guilt by false association. It is a logical fallacy in the category of presumption. The art of the smear is the art of conflating an unpopular idea espoused by a person or group with a stigmatized group or idea, thus ruining the reputation of the first, without actually addressing the disliked idea. In this case the rabbi conflated opposition to Obamacare with Social Darwinism.

The rabbi began his sermon by telling us it was going to be about politics. At that point a number of people got up and walked out, and frankly, I should have done so as well. It would have saved me a great deal of aggravation. However, in my defense, last year he gave a very good sermon about political argumentation. The point of that sermon was an admonishment against the demonization of those with whom we politically disagree.

Unfortunately, the rabbi must not have gone back and read that sermon again before writing this one, because that is exactly what he proceeded to do. Oh, it was demonization by implication rather than direct insult, but the implication was made clear by the structure of the sermon. There were thus two overall problems with this sermon. One was the structure of it that led to that demonizing implication, and the other was with the lack of a rigorous defintion of a concept, which in turn allowed the smear. I will deal with the second problem first, and then turn to the smear itself.

The rabbi began by telling a joke in which a lost gorilla is found at the New York Public Library study room with both a Bible and a copy of The Origin of Species open in front of him. He says he is trying to figure out if he is his brother's keeper or his keeper's brother. Not terribly original, as we have heard it at least twice before, but it got a laugh. It was the last one of the morning. The rabbi then proceeded to a discussion of Social Darwinism, but he did so without defining it accurately. I do not have his exact words in front of me, but he did imply that Social Darwinism was an idea conceived to explain why the rich are rich and the poor are poor in the service of maintaining this status quo for some undefined period of time. (Because in the United States, people enjoy much social mobility, this statement itself is open to question, but that is a another essay). The rabbi then rather subtly implied that Social Darwinism is a fault of the political Right. (I detest that artificial political divide, but that's still another blog).

The rabbi's definition is woefully incomplete and a half-truth at best. The term Social Darwinism can be applied to any of a number of collectivist ideologies that posit that competition among groups or nations leads to "social evolution." This idea requires an acceptance of group selection, and it also requires a social definiton of fitness rather than a biological one. For the record, the modern synthesis in biology defines the unit of selection as the individual. (This is axiomatic because it is the individual that reproduces and passes on genes). Fitness is defined as the ability to survive to maturity and to reproduce oneself. On the genetic level, the fitness of each gene is measured by it's frequency in the breeding population, using the Hardy-Weinberg equation. On the individual level, it is measured by number of offspring because offspring are the carriers of the genes in the next generation. Evolution is measured in a population by the rate of change in the gene frequencies. To put it into one pithy statement: Natural selection acts on individuals but it is populations that evolve. A population has a strict definition in biology and should not be confused with the more nebulous term 'society'.

Social Darwinism is pseudoscience. Historically, the Social Darwinism pseudoscience has been the impetus for many of the social programs put forth by the progressives, including American programs such as eugenics, the principles of which were enshrined into American law by the Buck v. Bell SCOTUS decision written by the liberal and progressive jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was also the inspiration for the National Socialist (Nazi) race theory, and it is well to remember that this fascistic movement was statism, another form of collectivism. Sans the race theory, this same kind of nationalistic socialism in Italy was hailed as progressive by American progressives of both major parties until WWII commenced. Historically, constitutional conservatives, libertarians and constitutionalists have opposed Social Darwinism not so much on the grounds that it is not even wrong scientifically, but that it is inimicable to individual rights.

(For historical information, please see American Progressivism: A Reader by Professors R.J. Pestritto and W.J. Atto, or for a more popular but well documented account, see Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. For information on the American eugenics movement from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, see The Mismeasure of Man by Steven J. Gould. For information on the soft eugenics in American education, see An Underground History of American Education by J.T. Gatto, or go to his sources, such as Democracy and Education by the progressive John Dewey. From these you can follow the sources and read the American socialists and progressives in their own words).

Now on the structural problem in the Sermon of the Smear.

Essentially, the first half of the sermon was, as I have said, a poorly defined discussion about the Social Darwinism pseudoscience. The second half of the sermon was an argument in favor of two things: 1) federal health-care legislation (Obamacare by another name) and 2) that when Congress votes, opponents of the decision are obligated to "sit down and shut up." (A paraphrase of the POTUS and erstwhile messiah-in-chief). Since the rabbi's argument for Obamacare was in favor of a plan that doesn't exist all in one place, it was of necessity based on a collection of disputed statistics, and a number of generalities designed to appeal to emotion rather than reason. The second argument, so fallaciously counter to the American ideal of freedom of speech, speaks for itself. No American should ever be persuaded to stop speaking out against an unconstitutional (and thus unlawful) legislation. This is all objectionable in itself, and when I have the text of the sermon in front of me, I may write a second part to this entry, outlining all of these problems.

The big problem was that no clear transition was made (at least in the spoken sermon) from the first part on Social Darwinism to the second part about Obamacare. This left the listener to conclude that the rabbi was arguing that anyone who opposes Obamacare is not only a bad Jew who wants poor uninsured babies to die on the streets, but that we are also Social Darwinists. Here is the Vision of the Anointed in spades. Don't argue an idea on its merits or lack of them, argue it on the basis of your moral self-righteousness as opposed to your opponent's moral depravity-- a moral depravity determined by his opposition to your "enlightened" idea.

If I were a betting woman, I would bet that there was not one person in that sanctuary who wants poor uninsured babies to die for lack of care*. There was not one person in that sanctuary who would not give from his or her own largesse to help a neighbor or friend in dire straits. However, there were a substantial number of people in that sanctuary who are opposed to the federal government taking over healthcare because it is unconstitutional. But the basis of the rabbi's smear was not our argument, but the fact that we were opposed to a policy that he supports. Therefore, by definition, we must be the benighted ones who need to be enlightened. (I suppose that our enlightenment is to be accomplished by this rabbi's tacit approval of taking our own property away from us at the point of a gun to be used as he and his anointed colleagues in government see fit. We will be "free" to do what they tell us to do).

*For the record, for many years, my children were among those poor and uninsured children, and I did not qualify for the help my tax dollars funded. I was at that time a tax-paying member of the "working poor." But my kids did not die in the streets for lack of care. I insured myself--all I could afford--and then paid out of pocket for their rather ordinary medical expenses. The medical crisis I faced was a diagnosis of breast cancer, and I was darn lucky to have my own private medical insurance. Under Obamacare I would not have had the option to insure only myself without paying a bill of attainder tax (unconstitutional) for not insuring my children. With my private insurance I got excellent and timely medical care, care that has historically not been available to those dependent on socialized medicine.

Although there were people who nodded all through the rabbi's sermon, (either because they did not catch the logical fallacy of presumption but agreed with the conclusion, or because they agreed with the logical fallacy) there was relative silence after the sermon. I saw people sitting back with their arms crossed, and others fled the sanctuary at the first opportunity. I stayed for the choir anthem but I cannot remember what it was about. Certainly, my focus was no longer on Rosh Hashanah or on improving myself. Rather, I was contemplating civil disobedience at that particular point. I hate being placed in the position of seeing a false characterization and not being able to counter it. I fled right after the Kaddish, not being of a mood to participate in the rabbi's hand-holding "Kum-Ba-Yah" moment with him because of the ugliness of what he did when he smeared those who disagree with him on a political issue.

I badly wanted to stand up right then and there and challenge him to put his money where his mouth is**. If he really practices what he preaches, he should eagerly allow us to force him forgo his raise in order to "spread the wealth around" to those members of the congregation who are unable to pay full dues or religious school and/or pre-school tuition. Maybe we should vote not to raise his salary until all these needs are met. And maybe we should vote to impose a special temple tax on his salary for this purpose, because he makes far above the average income in New Mexico, being a member of the CCAR, which is essentially a rabbi's guild. If "soaking the rich" is morally superior in his eyes, shouldn't he be happy to comply? The majority rules, right? (My point is not that he does or does not choose to give to worthy causes, it is that he apparently believes that it is a moral virtue to force others to give to causes they would not choose).

**From my own personal experience, I know of once case in which he did not abide by his stated moral code with regard to a person experiencing financial difficulty due to a health issue.

Alas, I am either too polite or too lacking in the prophetic characteristics of my more fiery ancestors. And frankly, who wants to end up like Jeremiah?

The sermon ended with the rabbi's earnest assertion that "we are our brother's keepers." In the actual story in Genesis, Cain uses a different phrase in a question, asking, "Am I my brother's guardian?" But the meaning in the context of the story is clear. Cain is using the statement to evade responsibility for murdering his brother. In B'reshit (Genesis), the question is appended to a lie told in response to a direct question about Cain's dead brother's whereabouts. It is twisting the context to imply that it means that every individual should be forced to surrender the fruit of his labor for the support of every other. That would be involuntary servitude. In B'reshit, the Eternal does not bother to answer the question, but instead confronts Cain with the evidence of his act of murder. "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground." Cain's crime was that he murdered his brother. It is not a crime to refuse to enter into involuntary servitude.

Enslaving someone is in itself an immoral act. Using the federal government as the agent of enslavement makes it no more moral. A majority vote by our representatives in Congress makes it no more moral and no more legal. One cannot vote away one's own rights or those of another. Individual rights belong to human beings by virtue of their nature, and are thus said to be given by G-d. This is why the Engineering Geek and I have agreed not only to walk out on any future political sermons, but also to seriously consider whether it is moral for us to continue to support the synagogue if our money is going to causes that support this rabbi's words. And even if not, should we pay to provide him the bully pulpit he is using to call us Social Darwinists?

Unfortunately, my daughter has mistaken the actions of this rabbi and the climate that he has created in our synagogue with Judaism in general, and that is why she is leaving the faith. (See Zichronot). She cannot imagine raising her children in that environment, where they will be taught that it is appropriate for a rabbi to practice or condone bullying and smearing. She is a smart, strong woman who sees through the twisting of justice that these practices entail. What she does not see is that they are also a twisting of Jewish values. She does not understand that this is a perversion of the Holiness Code of Leviticus.

I know better. Rabbis come and rabbis go, it is the congregation that is holy. Many important life-cycle ceremonies have taken place for me at that Bimah, and there are many people I love in the congregation. At the same time, the Engineering Geek and I believe that we have the moral duty to make our complaints known and to withdraw our support if they are not answered. This is not the first time this rabbi has used his pulpit to assert the moral superiority of the current adminstration's political policies. And it is not the first time he has said or implied that one particular political stance is the only proper stance for Jews. We know that this is not so.

I think that this rabbi needs to make amends with the holy congregation for the implications he has made in this sermon and in other such sermons that there is only one Judaically correct political viewpoint, and for making false statements using the art of the smear; that is bringing shame upon a person or group by conflating his/their position with that of a stigmatized group or idea. A smear is a lie.

In the meantime, I will not, I cannot sit still and listen to anyone who has a political viewpoint that differs from that of the rabbi being smeared from the pulpit. Although I can, and have, used my right as a Jew to interrupt services in the face of an egregious problem that affects the shalem--the wholeness--of the community, I do not think that this would be useful in the large High Holy Day gathering. Therefore, I will make public my opposition to such public smears through my blog and by other means.

And to get back to the beginning of this post, I really think we ought to revisit the role of the sermon and restore it to twice a year. I go to the synagogue to pray. I go to the synagogue to study. I go to the synagogue to talk to Jews. I do not go to the synagogue to be indoctrinated with the political dogma of a particular rabbi or even of a particular Jewish movement. And I certainly do not go to hear hard-working, tax-paying Jews smeared by the rabbi whose high salary (by local standards) our dues support.

Edited to add links and correct typos.


silvermine said...

ly, few people understand the theory of evolution as well as you do. Excellent summary of it.

And it blows my mind that anyone could try to pin social darwinism on the political right! But hey, these days, it probably works. Few people understand history or science.

Activities Coordinator said...

How you stayed in that seat I'll never know. I get this from time to time with visiting priests (Episcopal). It's very hard to control the eye tic.

"What she does not see is that they are also a twisting of Jewish values." This is not limited to the Jewish faith. Look at Christianity. Any time you mix humans with the divine, the result will be a distorted version of holy.

Retriever said...

I probably wouldn't have been as polite as you, Elisheva! Grrr! A huge problem in previous churches of mine, too. How dare he!

When I was in seminary, I was surrounded by snotty PC peers who viewed it as their mission NOT so much to nourish people in the love of G-d and service of others as to promote a particular liberal political agenda, and to set those ignorant people in the pews straight. Seriously!

My present church views a minister as a servant of the people. We value an educated clergy because of a specialized skill set we want to draw on. We like sermons, so want a minister with much study, knowledge of Scripture and good public speaking skills, to edify and stimulate our own thoughts and prayers. But we certainly wouldn't look to our minister for advice on things political, and he would be pushed out if he tried to advance a particular agenda.

I was taught by ministers I respected that every time you stake out a political position as a minister, you are alienating every member of the congregation who thinks differently. A minister (and, I think, a rabbi) is a servant, serving and not bossing or bullying their congregation. A valued and loved servant, but no better than the people.

And now I understand why your daughter is so disgusted, I have faith that she will return when she finds a spiritual home without such a political type in charge. Ministers (and rabbis I think) are NOT: political rabble rousers, shrinks, but rather people who have devoted much time, energy to study and preparation so that they may nourish and spiritually equip the people of G-d (who will then transform the world into one more pleasing to G-d). But it's all about G-d and building a loving community, never about drumming up votes or supporters for secular agendas.

You should check out Assistant VIllage Idiot again (remember how we all met discussing on The Doctor is In?) as he just had a piece taking off from the NOrman Podhoretz book on liberalism in Jewish thought.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Silvermine: Thanks. I studied many years in graduate school to obtain the depth of knowledge that I have. Yes, it is amazing. Social Darwinists, whether on the so-called left or right are all statists at heart. They confuse evolutionion, a directionless natural process with a religious, teleological view that "society" is moving in a direction--at their direction. Although I have seen some Social Darwinists on the right (Christian Identity comes to mind), the most vociferous ones tend to be on the left Marxism has a Social Darwinist element however "international" they pretend to be. They will have to wipe out biological variation in the species in order to get the social conformity they so prize.

Activities Coordinator: Thanks. It took some willpower! Being Jewish, of course our little group made our displeasure clear in other ways more obvious than the eye-tic. Imagine snorts, whispers and hand motions more eloquent than those of Sicily. Fortunately, the rabbi has a large voice or I would not have been able to report on the sermon as I heard it.
Believe me, too, when I say that the silence that followed the sermon was, in a Jewish setting, extremely telling.

Retriever: Thanks. You said: "My present church views the minister as a servant of the people." Amen! This is what I was trying to convey about the traditional viewpoint in Rabbinic Judaism. Although rabbis are to be decisors of Jewish law, they were also to find some gainful employment. This accomplished two things. 1)The rabbi was not overhead to the community, but was actually productive. 2) The rabbi was not cut off from what it meant to work for a living in the ordinary way, and could understand the real problems of the people whose legal questions he was called upon to judge.
In the Reform movement, and particularly among this generation of rabbis, we have created a religious elite who expect to be supported no matter how they act. Only those who can afford to spend a year in Israel can afford to become a rabbi. They often go to HUC right after college, and so rarely have any real experience in the world. Thus, they see themselves as superior to us, rather than as servants who are hired to provide specific services. Reform has also lost its focus on ethical monotheism, and has become, rather, a forum for whatever fashionable, leftist cause is currently in vogue, regardless of it's impact on Jews. (The left has been notoriously anti-semitic since the Six Day War, if not before). I think this progressivism has become an idolatry in Reform, and that it is the religion that a lot of secular Jews practice.
Perhaps we'd be more comfortable in a more traditional Jewish setting.
By the way, I picked up Podhorwitz's book the day it came out. I knew a lot of the history, but I am fascinated by his interpretation of it vis-a-vis the Jewish preoccupation with leftist-statism. I am about 2/3 of the way through it, and will review it here when I am done.

jacsuza said...

We have recently switched from a Reform to a Conservative shul for many reasons, some of which parallel your complaints. A couple of years ago, the rabbi at the local, very large Reform synagogue used the Rosh Hashana sermon to advance an extremely leftist agenda. It was SO far left, that even some fairly liberal aquaintences of our felt compelled to jump ship.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Jacsuza: Yeah, I have a blog friend, Judy at Consent of the Governed Blog, who also left her synagogue last year for similar reasons. Only her synagogue was conservative.