Moral Leadership, Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5778

on Monday, 25 September 2017. Posted in Rabbi

Moral Leadership

During Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address in 1971, after he became the governor of Georgia, he announced: “The time of racial segregation is over.” Many in the crowd gasped in disbelief.

Carter wanted to clearly differentiate between himself and his predecessor, the arch-segregationist Lester Maddox. Had this been like most elections, Carter could simply have declared “out with the old and in with the new,” but Carter had a challenge: Maddox had just been elected lieutenant governor.

Maddox was infamous for his deeply racist views. In the early 1960s, he harassed and intimidated African Americans who sought to eat in his restaurant. With the Confederate flag as his symbol, he was elected governor in 1966.

In the 1990s, Maddox recalled that Carter asked him to the gover­nor’s office three days after the inauguration. Maddox walked into the meeting vowing to help Carter implement state policies. But that wasn’t what Carter wanted. Instead, Carter tore into him, saying, “Lieutenant Governor Maddox, I didn’t call you into my office to find out when and how you were going to support me. I called you to tell you [that if] you ever oppose me, I am going to fight you with the full command and resources of this office.”

Maddox added, “My daddy whipped me and things like that but he never talked to me that mean, that vicious. If I even opposed [Carter] on one issue, … he was going to crush me.” Maddox was instantly afraid of the governor and stayed away from him for the rest of his life.

By slapping Maddox down, Carter showed that true leaders take bold steps to render powerless those filled with hate. A leader does not court anti-Semites and racists, playing them for their support.

Carter isn’t the only past president to demonstrate moral leader­ship when members of a persecuted minority fear for their safety, for their very lives. President George W. Bush’s message to America’s Muslim community following the attacks of September 11th have been extolled similarly. He said:

“Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear [head] cover[s] must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know.”

Historian Barbara Perry wrote, “George W. Bush rose to the occasion ... to go to those who were of the same religion but certainly not of the same political persuasion as the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11, and Bush modeled the kind of behavior that we would want to see in this country. I think he should be given all credit for virtually no violence breaking out against American Muslims at that time.”

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.”[1] As Jews, we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One medieval commenta­tor teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent.

We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of the President who fuels hatred and division in our beloved country. This is not a political statement. We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action.

We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man, and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all of the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and especially in these times, compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice. 

The first shofar blast is t’kiah, the sound of certainty. As rabbis we are speaking, from sea to shining sea, 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. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets, and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors.

We call on our political leaders, progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal.

We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. On this first day of the New Year, we are “Proclaiming liberty through­out all the land.”[2]

The second shofar blast is sh’varim, the sound of brokenness. Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened the too many examples of the swastika etched into benches and doors, or otherwise dis­played right here in New Hampshire during the past many months.

It also reminded us of the attacks on the New Americans here in our community over the past few years. How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances, and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities.

Silence, complacency, waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event – these are not options for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward anyone. Let us interfere as rofei lishvurei lev, healers of the broken hearted, and m’chabeish l’atzvotam, binders of their wounds.[3]

The third shofar blast is t’ruah, the sound of urgency. The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Mishnah teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.”[4]

But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we had learned and forgotten only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.

The final shofar blast is the t’kiah g’dolah, the endless pursuit of justice. Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, the Eternal God, give to you.”[5] Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness among the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in this New Year. For when our nation lacks moral leadership in the presidency – described by Franklin D. Roosevelt as “preeminently a place of moral leadership,” we must take up that mantel.

Why us? Shouldn’t we be looking to members of Congress and state and local officials? Yes and no. We are warned in Pirkei Avot to be wary of relying only on the government. The text reads, “Be careful about the government, as they approach a person only when they need that person. They seem like good friends in good times, but they don’t stay around in the time of a person’s trouble.”[6]

Perhaps, ironically, we can look to leaders of corporate America. The very people who never live with the worries that you and I have – taying bills, making sure we have medical coverage, arranging child care – are the people who have demonstrated moral leadership, as many from the corporate world quit presidential advisory boards in the wake of the President’s morally repugnant response to the events in Charlottesville.

At the same time, according to authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their 2010 book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, members of a religious community may be uniquely positioned for moral leadership. According to what the authors found, “By many different measures, religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans – they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

Why are religious people better neighbors and citizens? Putnam and Campbell surveyed people about religious beliefs and religious practices. They found that beliefs and practices mattered very little. Whether you believe in an afterlife, pray, or identify as Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon – none of these things correlated with taking up moral leadership and caring for others.

The only marker that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how connected people were with others in their religious communities. Friendships and group activities, done in the name of religion and morality, brings out selflessness. They reach a conclusion found 100 years earlier by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim: “It is religious belong­ingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

And Jews, who have reached higher echelons of our society than any other persecuted minority, may be here for a reason. We find this lesson in the book of Esther:

“If you keep silent in this crisis, … you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have attained to the royal position for just such a crisis.”[7] Like Esther, we have the moral responsibility to speak out, especially given the many positions of leadership and power we have achieved in this country.

Being the voice of moral leadership – demonstrating the ability to make the morally correct decision – isn’t easy. Our Biblical prophets knew that. Martin Luther King knew that. Every kid who stands up to a bully on the playground knows that. And we know that.

In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote these words about the very first humans:

[Adam and Eve] became human…

They entered the world of the knowledge of good and evil,

a more painful, more complicated world,

where they would have to make difficult moral choices.

Eating and working, having children and raising children

would no longer be simple matters…

They knew they would not live forever.

But most of all, they would have to spend

their lives making [moral] choices.”[8]

Such is the human condition. And for Jews, it has been, in many ways, the foundational way in which we navigate the world.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz was a rabbi in Germany. In 1926, he assumed a pulpit in Berlin. Even before Hitler came to power, he under­stood that there was no future for Jews there.  He wrote, We Jews, urging them to leave. He was expelled by the Nazi regime in 1937, and he and his family came to the United States.

In August of 1963, Prinz was the President of the American Jewish Congress. He was among the ten leaders of Dr. King’s March on Washington. Speaking before an estimated crowd in excess of 250,000, 25% of whom were white, he said:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned … was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.


“A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act from the President, down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the image, the idea, and the aspiration of America itself.”

This Rosh Hashanah, let us commit ourselves to the words and vision of Rabbi Prinz. We have painfully learned that we cannot look to our current president to be the moral leader of our country. Thus, the responsibility falls to us, each one of us. If you do not think you are up to the task, heed these words of the poet Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves,

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will for us all. Shanah tovah.


[1]Shabbat 54b

[2]Leviticus 25:10

[3]Psalm 147:3

[4]Sanhedrin 5:4

[5]Deuteronomy 16:20

[6]Pirkei Avot 2:3

[7]Esther 4:14

[8]Page 88

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