Rosh Hashanah – The Blessing of America

The Blessing of America A sermon delivered by Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon for Congregation Beth Jacob on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5780 During this […]

The Blessing of America

A sermon delivered by Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon for Congregation Beth Jacob on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5780

During this long morning of prayer, has anyone’s eyes occasionally wandered to either of our national flags? 

(walk over to the Israeli flag and unfurl it)  What emotions do you feel when you look at the  Israeli flag? (pause to let people look at the flag)  For many of us, this flag evokes an upswell of pride.  After two millennia of being cast about, the children have come home.  If you will it, it is no dream.  

(let the flag drop) But for some of us, this flag evokes ambivalence. The young Jewish state has faced significant moral challenges in its first 71 years. 

(return to the table at the center) I have spoken many times from this pulpit about my love of Israel.  It is a love that is deep enough to acknowledge faults and still hold true.  And I believe that if we embrace a Jewish identity, we must also engage with the Jewish state.

But today, I feel an urgency to speak about the other flag that adorns our sanctuary.  

(Unfurl the American flag)   What emotions does the American flag stir in you? (pause to let people look at the flag)  One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(Return to the center)

Sometimes, we become so accustomed to our blessings, they are invisible to us until we  face the possibility of losing them. 

This summer, I picked up two books by scholars on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both expressing fears for the future of our democracy.  These books shook me. The first was “Identity”, by Stanford Professor Francis Fukuyama, writing from a fairly conservative perspective. Next I read “How Democracies Die”, by more liberal Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

All three of these political scientists are alarmed, rightly or wrongly, by the divisive behavior of our president, because it comes from the most powerful position in the land. But they all see these behaviors as a symptom of much deeper problems. Fukuyama levels most of his criticism at the Democratic party. Levitsky and Ziblatt lay more of the blame on Republican lawmakers. But at the core, all three scholars fear that America has become a house divided. 

Once these issues were on my mind, I started seeing everywhere fear for the future of our democracy.  Some blame racism, some blame leftist intolerance. Some fault the “left-wing” media, and others fault the “right-wing” media. Fingers are pointing in all directions, almost a caricature of a people torn apart by squabbles.

So this morning, I want to put our division aside. I want to step back, and remind us of the blessing of America.  A blessing that is ours to preserve.

In fact, I want to start by stepping VERY far back.  I want to imagine, for a moment, what this country would look like to the great Jews of the past, whose words we still study for guidance today. 

Imagine if the great philosopher and legal codifier Maimonides could see our democracy.  He lived at a time when the most tolerant governments were Muslim, but not all Muslim governments were tolerant. In 1148 an extremist Muslim sect conquered his hometown of Cordoba, Spain. The choice was to convert or die, and at about age 10, Maimonides and his family fled.

More progressive Muslim societies of the time granted Christians and Jews dhimmi status, which guaranteed protection for their basic human rights, but also required them to pay special taxes and often restricted the professions they could pursue. Maimonides ultimately landed in Turkey, where he famously became the personal physician of the Sultan. But even in that high status position, he was still dhimma, a second-class citizen.

If Maimonides, who spent much of his early life on the run, could see that nothing on my American passport marks me as Jewish. If he could have lived under a government that is mandated not to privilege a particular religion, but just the opposite, to safeguard the free practice of ALL religions. If he could have known about the separation of church and state, and the separation of powers, and free elections, and the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

In the year 1263, the great Torah scholar and Jewish leader Nachmanides was coerced into a public debate with five Christian scholars, presided over by King James himself. The Christian scholars attempted to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, and Nachmanides used Jewish texts to argue that Jesus was not. Sadly, he argued too effectively. The king ordered our texts destroyed.  Cartloads of manuscripts, each one the product of hours and hours of scribal labor, went up in flames in the public square. Nachmanides himself ultimately had to flee.

If Nachmanides had known the freedom of expression we enjoy today!  Did I really a moment ago criticize the president of our country, in the name of three political scientists, at least one of whom is Jewish? Did I do that speaking to a room full of Jews? And I’m not concerned about repercussions for our community? Do you understand what that means!?!

Consider one more great Torah scholar from our past: Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel.  Abarbanel was the financial advisor to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. When in 1492 they ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain, he pleaded with them to cancel the order. They denied his plea, but they did offer that he could stay behind as their financial adviser. He refused, and joined his brothers and sisters in exile, to watch thousands of Jews die before they could settle in new host countries.  

The Inquisition – it lasted a total of 600 years.  The last auto da fe – literally “act of faith” – punishing heresy with execution by fire – occurred in Valencia in 1821. Not that long ago. 

If Abarbanel could see that our government-funded schools, and private American Catholic schools, warmly welcome Jewish children today!  If he could see the extent to which Jews, and Muslims, and people of color, and sexual minorities – in short, folks who may look or act in various ways different from the majority —  are welcomed in universities, government, corporate leadership, in every profession and at every level of success.

Our ancestors dreamt of living with the kinds of freedom that many of us take for granted.  They prayed for God to deliver it to them, because such freedoms were far beyond the horizons of what they could imagine in the political orders of the past. And our ancestors wrote about their dreams.  

Here is a quote from Maimonides: 

The great advantage that will come in the era (of the Messiah) is that we will have respite from oppressive regimes, that prevent us from doing all the mitzvot. Wisdom will grow, as it is written “The land will be filled with knowledge” 

And here is a quote from Abarbanel:

There will be no suffering by enslavement to oppressive regimes, for it will be the time of the Messiah, and there will be no enslavement at all.  

Yes, I am quite sure that if Maimonides or Abarbanel could get a glimpse of our lives today, they would assume the Messiah had come.

But they would be wrong, of course.  If they stayed to spend much time among us, they would soon see that not all Americans are living a Messianic life.  That a “great peace” has not yet “embraced the whole world”, and all people are not yet one.

When I lifted the American flag a few moments ago, there were many different emotions in this room.  Some felt an upswell of pride and loyalty, and feel blessed to live in the greatest nation on earth. Some felt more dissociated, perhaps grateful to our country but not feeling it as their core identity. For some, a new ambivalence has slid into your hearts.  A subtle question mark after the American Dream. And for some, there is an ambivalence that is neither subtle nor new. Some are thinking that America has not lived up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence from the moment it was penned by slave holders, and are, perhaps, yearning for that future in which flags and nations fade away and all people are one.

Yet here we are, in one community, with deeply different reactions to our flag. The intensity of that diversity is hard.  It’s uncomfortable. But it is so important to be able to sit with it, especially now. 

That promise of unalienable rights would make a good Messianic script. But the American Dream is not a Messianic ideal, because the Messiah would be a gift from heaven, transforming the entire world in one miraculous generation.  The American dream is something we the people are continually working to create.   

In the Orthodox community where I grew up, belief in a Messianic future was doctrine. At NCSY teen conferences, we would belt it out – ani ma’amin – I believe with full belief in the coming of the Mashiach.  But how many of us really believed it, be’emunah shelemah, through the depths of our conscious and subconscious thought?  I don’t know.

But the American Dream?  Well, that I did not have to be taught. Not as doctrine. Because my family had lived it. 

For my family — as for many of you in this room — our Jewish story is the reverse complement of our American story.  As Jews, we were the wandering people, migrants repeatedly driven from place to place, never allowed to call any country our own. America is the country of immigrants – welcoming all kinds, to make this country their own. 

All four of my grandparents were born in Poland or Russia, but they never thought of themselves as Poles or Russians. Though they could speak the local language, their mama loshen was Yiddish.  They came to America in poverty, with only a religious education, and aspirations for a better life for their children.

Today, nearly every one of my grandparents’ children and grandchildren holds a graduate degree from an American university.  Our native tongue is English. And though we continue to identify as Jewish, and allegiance to Israel is strong across my family, we also – for the first time in centuries – identify proudly as citizens of the country where we live. We are American.  

And THAT is the American dream.  The freedom to change ourselves, to rise out of poverty and alienation and become prosperous.

But the American Dream has never yet been open to all. Even at the height of the Holocaust, America was denying access to most refugees. Eleanor Roosevelt tried to support a bill to bring in just 20,000 additional child refugees.  But her husband did not put his weight behind it. He was too concerned for opinions of those like his close cousin, Laura Delano, who is on the record saying, the “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” The bill never even made it to the floor for a vote.

In total, only about 200,000 European refugees made it into the US during World War II, the vast majority of them Jews. But, the US accepted more refugees than any other country at that time.  

Today, with 70.8 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, the US plans to accept no more than 18,000 refugees in the coming year. 

And even for the lucky few who are admitted to our country, we all know that success is not guaranteed. Half of Americans will experience poverty at some point in their lives. Half!  

America has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. 

Among the world’s 20 wealthiest nations, the US also has the highest child mortality rate. What’s more, our blessings and hardships are not distributed evenly among us. Children born to the two groups that were historically oppressed in our country, African-Americans and Native-Americans, are twice as likely as any other American children to die in infancy.

So what do we do with an America that falls short of its divine ideals?  We roll up our sleeves, and we work together to make it better. And we don’t lose sight of our blessings and our progress. 

You know, the God of Israel split an ocean, led a tribe of slaves safely across, and drowned their tormentors in the sea. And still, it took the Israelites 40 years of mannah from heaven before they were ready for freedom.  America has no Moses and no Messiah to lead us, and yet we have made remarkable progress since George Washington took the first oath of office. 

Here are a few facts to chew over:

  • Despite what I said about child mortality, even a child born into the most vulnerable groups in our country today, African-American or Native-American, stands 4 times better chance of surviving to adulthood than ANY child born in the decade my parents were born. 
  • Across the board, our standard of living has gone up dramatically. In the year 1920, only 1% of US homes had electricity and plumbing. In 1940, over a third of US houses still did not have a flush toilet. Today, 98% of Americans live in homes with electricity and complete plumbing.
  • 90% of Americans graduate from high school today, and over a third of American adults hold college degrees.
  • When my grandmothers came to this country, women had only recently earned the right to vote. When my parents attended college, women were called “co-eds”, and very few were admitted to elite schools or graduate programs.  Today, the vast majority of colleges are gender balanced, and more than half of all US graduate degrees go to women.

None of these changes came easily. And some of them required conflict.  Sometimes angry conflict. Disagreement is at the heart of democracy, as it is at the heart of rabbinic Judaism. 

As surely as our country deserves our loyalty, our country deserves our anger. Without anger, we will never progress on certain issues. But not the finger-pointing rage that closes off listening. That type of anger comes from alienation, or disillusionment – a fundamental loss of hope that anything can really change. Our country deserves loving anger.  Anger that is directed towards teshuvah or change, with the core relationship never in question.

Dr. Martin Luther King, even as he advocated for civil upheaval, always preached of the redemptive powers of love. “You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you,” he taught, “Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them.”

We need more of that today.  When we stop listening to each other, when we elect leaders who pull out restraints and go for scorched-earth politics, what we are really doing is putting party loyalty over loyalty to the health and future of our country. We must not let our anger divide us. When Americans are estranged from each other, we are all estranged from America. No matter how wrong the other side seems, America is worth holding back for.

Never forget that no generation of Jews has been as blessed as ours. After centuries of wandering with no flag, we now have two to be proud of.  The Messiah has not yet come, but we human beings have written our own ideals, in the form of an American dream that is still emerging. As American Jews, we must now be part of this project, to continue to make those ideals closer and closer to reality for all.

Shanah tovah!