Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Envisioning an American Upswing
Rosh Hashanah 2021 5782
First Day September 7, 2021
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
We are so not where I thought we would be this Rosh Hashanah. Earlier this summer, I was hopeful that by the time we got to these High Holidays my sermon would be a chance to look at the pandemic from the rear-view mirror and to reflect on lessons learned. The reality of the past month or so has been truly disappointing. We had tasted and were starting to enjoy our growing freedom now that so many of us have been vaccinated, but with the sudden onset of the Delta variant things have sadly taken a turn for the worse. We are seeing hospitalization and even death rates in our country paralleling last year, because not enough of us have been vaccinated, and not enough of us have taken seriously the need to mask, especially indoors and when in the midst of large groups of people.
I am grateful that here at Adath Jeshurun, we have showed so much good sense in the face of the pandemic and that our people have taken the needed precautions so seriously. People at Adath Jeshurun have really lived up to our Hebrew name, which means “the gathering of the righteous” by being so supportive of our decisions to prioritize people’s health and safety above all, as we have adjusted to these challenges. It has required an extraordinary effort of shuls, schools, medical centers, really anyone with responsibilities for keeping people safe and has surely tested everyone’s resilience.
We can be proud that our Jewish community nationally has been highly responsible in the face of this pandemic. You may have heard of a survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute in late July indicating that Jews have, “the lowest levels of vaccine “hesitancy” of any religious group in the country…with 85% vaccinated or planning to get the shot — compared to 71% of all Americans. https://forward.com/news/473643/jews-accept-covid-vaccine-religious-groups-survey/
The Jewish approach to the matter is captured beautifully in an article published in January by my rabbinic colleague Micah Peltz, who serves as Senior Rabbi of a prominent Conservative shul in New Jersey. Micah grew up here at Adath and is still closely connected to our congregation. Rabbi Peltz wrote a teshuvah (a rabbinic response), unanimously approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He concludes definitively that, “vaccination is a Jewish imperative when recommended by medical professionals.” He further observes that this conclusion is shared by all mainstream Jewish religious movements. https://www.jewishexponent.com/2021/01/28/getting-a-covid-19-vaccine-is-a-jewish-imperative/
This is not something we can take for granted. Despite the willingness of the majority of Americans to follow necessary public health practices, we are still in a difficult place because too many people have chosen to ignore medical evidence by resisting mask mandates and refusing to be vaccinated, which they see as an infringement on their individual rights. I understand that my speaking about this issue touches on politics, which makes some people uncomfortable. The reality is that it is quite impossible to separate moral issues from the realm of politics. To suggest we should not touch on politics is to assert that clergy should be silenced on the great moral issues of our day. To be silent, or avoid speaking about tough issues, would leave us “standing idly by the blood of your neighbor, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa,” which our Torah explicitly forbids. To do so would be a betrayal of Jewish tradition in which religious figures, whether it was the Biblical prophets, or our ancient sages, did not shirk the heavy responsibility of speaking to the real-life situations faced by people, which invariably have a political dimension. Certainly, we are obligated to be respectful of differences of opinions and conflicting values. Certainly, we must stay above partisanship, because no party has the corner on truth. Still, we have a moral and Jewish obligation to address issues even when they touch on politics where people may disagree.
It pains me to say it, but the truth is that the extreme assertion of individual rights and liberty in the political and social life of our country have had deadly consequences for this country and for the world this past year and a half. Literally hundreds of thousands of people in this country have died needlessly because of the denial of developing scientific understandings and recommendations for best health practices related to COVID-19.
The extreme assertion of individual rights and liberties is very much at odds with how Judaism views the place of individuals and community. My teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a leading thinker of our Conservative Movement, illuminates this issue in his outstanding book To Do the Right and the Good- Fundamental Principles that Guide Jewish Social Ethics writing that, “Jewish tradition places strong emphasis on the worth of the individual. Human worth derives first from being created in God's image. Dorff, p. 5.
While affirming the sacred value of each individual, Rabbi Dorff goes on to explain that Judaism is fundamentality communitarian in its approach. He cites the legal philosopher Milton Konvitz who captures the normative Jewish view, which I quote, without adapting to our normally egalitarian approach:
“The traditional Jew is no detached, rugged individual…He is an individual but one whose essence is determined by the fact that he is a brother, a fellow Jew. His prayers are, therefore, communal and not private, integrative and not isolative, holistic and not separative.... [Konvitz goes on to write]
This consciousness does not reduce but rather enhances and accentuates the dignity and power of the individual. Although an integral part of an organic whole, from which he cannot be separated, except at the cost of his moral and spiritual life, let each man say, with Hillel (Sukkot 53a), "If I am here, then everyone is here." (Dorff, p.20-21)
What a powerful point Konvitz makes based on a less well-known teaching of our ancient sage Hillel:
"If I am here, then everyone is here." אִם אֲנִי כָּאן — הַכֹּל כָּאן
that on one hand when I am here, I am here on behalf of everyone.
In the Talmud Sukkot, Hillel goes on to say
“And if I am not here who is here? וְאִם אֵינִי כָּאן — מִי כָּאן”
, which can be understood to be teaching that no one is expendable to a community. As Hillel conveys in this and his other teaching I introduced earlier, the community and the individual in Judaism are inextricably linked.
This view of the world is consistent with an approach to American Democracy called Communitarianism developed in the 1990s to push back against excessive individualism and narcissism in asserting that citizens have a responsibility to uphold the common good.
It should come as no surprise that many of the scholars who advanced this concept of communitarianism have deep Jewish roots, such as the respected political thinkers Amitai Etzioni and Michael Walzer. Another is Michael Sandel, the distinguished Prof of Law at Harvard University. Forgive me for expressing some Adath pride in noting that Sandel spent his early years in Minneapolis and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Adath in 1966, before his family left Minnesota.
I want us to consider the work of yet another champion of the concept of communitarianism, the American social thinker Robert Putnam. Putnam did not celebrate his Bar Mitzvah at Adath. Still, his is an important voice for us to hear. His now classic book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), published more than twenty years ago documented the significant decline in America of communal organizations and activities, as the title suggests, people were becoming less inclined to join bowling leagues and instead did things alone, or with a small circle of family and friends. Putnam provided us with an early warning about the consequences of this trend. This past year he finished a new book, co-authored with his student Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.
Here Putnam and Garret carefully review the economic, political and social data of the last 100 years to support their claim that we are living in a time that is the most radically individualistic since the period that extended from the 1870s to the end of the 19th century known as the Gilded Age. That was the age of the robber barons, when great fortunes were amassed by those who led the way on the latest technologies at a time of mass industrialization. The Gilded Age was a time of unbridled individualism in which the few benefited at the expense of the many, in which there was rampant inequalities of wealth. Putnam and Garret powerfully make the case that this country has returned to a state where similar conditions exist doing enormous harm to the fabric of our country and to the wellbeing of so many. Like that of the Gilded Age our time is also marked by:
Dramatic economic inequality
Lack of compromise in politics
Less cohesion in social life
Less altruism in cultural values. Does all of that sound familiar?
So what is the upswing to which the title of Putnam and Garret’s book refer? Charting diverse economic and social trends, they illustrate how the excesses of the Gilded Age began to be reversed from about 1895 until the 1960s when a spirit of progressive reform took hold in this country. In every area of American life, from bottom to top, there emerged a sense of revulsion for the rugged individualism that did so much harm to this democracy and replaced it with an ethos of people committed to working for the common good. During that period- about 65 years long- greater economic equality was achieved, there was more cooperation in the public square, a stronger social fabric developed, and there was a growing culture of solidarity. Putnam and Garret reveal that beginning in the 1960s, that progress started to be dismantled, a downswing began and we have now sunk back to low points, by all kinds of measures, equaling the worst excesses of the Gilded age.
Thankfully, Putnam and Garret do not leave us with just a lament about what has transpired. They also offer a message of hope. At the start of the 20th century Americans of all kinds and from every quarter pushed back against the focus on the “I,” rampant individualism and selfishness of the Gilded Age that had corroded the country. People across lines of party began to commit instead to the “We,” the widespread adoption of communal norms and values that resulted in the upswing they ably document. Their book is a call for Americans to once more stand up for each other and for the common good. They reject radical solutions, calling instead for a different kind of politics that once again allows for compromise to achieve the greatest good. Putnam and Garret assert the need to champion the rights of all over the rights of some, in keeping with the principles of communitarianism championed by thinkers such as Sandel, Etzioni and Walzer.
This communitarian ethos is very much in the spirit of how Judaism views the world in which we honor the value of every individual, created in the image of God, while joining together in a communal covenant for the sake of the common good. This view grounded in the teaching of our ancient sage Hillel has always been at the heart of Conservative Judaism, which is respectful of individual difference and individual conscience, while urging us to join together as a community and as a Jewish people to work for the perpetuation of Jewish values and practices and the betterment of the world.
Putnam and Garret’s book, published last year, may have come at just the right time when the devastating pandemic has shown us how damaging the assertion of individual liberties can be when promoted at the expense of the greater good. Perhaps his pandemic will provide the needed wakeup call to the dangers of radical individualism, which has done enormous damage to the fabric of our society and literally cost the lives of so many.
Only time will tell whether we will embrace a commitment to community and the wellbeing of all and witness a new upswing as the decades unfold. We stand ready as an Adath Jeshurun Congregation to realize that hope and to support that vision. It is the vision taught so powerfully by the ancient sage Hillel-
If I am here, then everyone is here." אִם אֲנִי כָּאן — הַכֹּל כָּאן. And if I am not here who is here וְאִם אֵינִי כָּאן — מִי כָּאן?” teaching us that the community and the individual are inextricably linked and that we are each responsible one for the other. Let us stand together and see to it that this necessary shift happens soon and in our times. And let us say Amen.
Intro to RH Musaf RH Day 1 5782 Sept 7, 2021
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share