Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Kol Nidre Sermon 5773: A Jewish Culture of Life

Kol Nidre 5773 -  A Jewish Culture of Life
by Joshua Hammerman

Last March at the AIPAC Policy Conference I had the opportunity to listen to Yair Lapid, one of Israel’s best known TV journalists, who left his prime time spot to enter the fray of Israeli politics.  How well he does remains to be seen, but like his late father Tommy Lapid, his mere presence in the political arena will really shake things up.  Yair was speaking of his new book, a tribute to his father called “Memories after my Death,” and he told an incredible story:

It was Feb. 1945, and Tommy Lapid, 13, lived with his mother in a basement in the Budapest Ghetto.  Early one Monday morning, the Germans started liquidating the block Lapid’s family lived on.  At one point, as the Jews were being forced to gather in the square, a squadron of Russian planes buzzed over head, and in the commotion, Tommy Lapid hid behind a small public lavatory painted in green.  His mother pushed him inside and told him, “You need to pee now.”  The boy was scared, but he listened to his mother.  It’s hard to pee when it’s cold and people are shooting all around you, but he did.  And she closed the door behind him.  The convoy left without them. 

A few minutes later, of the 600 Jews who had gathered in the square, 598 were dead under the ice in the Danube River.  And Tommy Lapid and his mother stood in the street in Budapest, free.  But he had no place to go to.  So they went back to the ghetto, to the same basement, hoping only that the Russians would arrive before the next convoy was rounded up. 

Many years later, in 1986, Tommy Lapid went back to Budapest with Yair.  It was the first time in 40 years that Tommy had been there.  They were walking on the street and suddenly Tommy burst into tears.  There was nothing there – except for a small public lavatory, painted in green.  He said – this is the place.  And there they were, two grown men, stroking the peeling green walls of a public lavatory.  And the Hungarians were walking and glancing at them warily, Yair says. “They must have thought we were nuts!” 

“But we were not nuts!” he adds. “We were a statistical error.  My father was supposed to be dead and I was never supposed to be born.” 

That green bathroom became their Wailing Wall, a holy place, a symbol of the precariousness of life.  To be that close to death is something that most of us cannot imagine.  That was the precise point where life meets death – where heaven and earth intersect.

Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of religion, calls that point an axis mundi, a cosmic axis – a place holier beyond all others precisely because it is where life is elevated and death defeated.  In some cultures, it is the highest mountain, like Mt. Fuji or Mt Kilimanjaro.   In others, it is a man made structure, like the pyramids, or a pagoda, a steeple or a minaret, all reaching for the heavens, all seeking to transcend life and defeat death.  And in some cultures it is not a place, but a time – like Yom Kippur. 

Yom Kippur is the holiest time, when the holiest person, the high priest, would enter the holiest place – the Holy of Holies in the temple and utter the holiest sound – God’s ineffable name.  And at that moment, that person, in that place, hovered between life and death.  No one knew if the Cohen Gadol would survive.  No one else could go in with him, so they tied a rope around his ankle so that if he died in there, so they could pull him out. 

There is no known occurrence of a high priest actually dying on Yom Kippur, so the odds were in their favor; unlike the fictitious “Hunger Games” where, in a dystopian, Darwinian setting, two dozen teenage children are selected by lottery to fight to the death, with only one allowed to survive.

Yom Kippur is the Jewish version of the “Hunger Games.”  The hunger is real, but fortunately, our flirtations with death are purely symbolic, and the opponents we battle are not other people, but our own inner demons. The white garment we wear, the kittel, is, symbolically, a death shroud.  Anthropologists suggest that white is symbolic of death because the lifeless body turns that color. It also symbolizes our purification in this day long trial by fire.   And the synagogue is bathed in white on the Day of Awe.  The Torahs, the table coverings, some wear special all white tallises. 

In many ways the opposite of white is not black, but red.  Red is the color of blood, and blood is the stuff of life.  But with life comes temptation and sin, with blood comes bloodshed, and with bloodshed comes impurity.   Isaiah states (1:18) – “Even though your sins be like crimson, they can turn snow white. Red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.”  

And so, on Yom Kippur, the fast becomes a day-long purification ritual, a dangerous journey right up to that third rail, that place where life and death meet, and the fast becomes a means toward a simulated death, a death of all things physical – and the prelude to a rebirth at day’s end.  On Yom Kippur we are born again, as we are on the wedding day, a day when it is also traditional to fast, when our old selves die and something very new is born.

In a sense, our task on Yom Kippur is to channel those moments of death and rebirth that have molded us, and return to that place, that bathroom in Budapest, the place that in our lives marked the nexus between life and death – our own personal Holy of Holies.  That moment in time when death was nearest, when we realized how precious life can be.  We’ve all had that place.  We’ve all had that time – when we saw the colors of the world with extreme clarity.  And then we thank God for life, and we cling to it all the more earnestly, we hold on tight.  We are that goat, the one that won the lottery and escaped death, hence its name, the scape-goat, the one sent out to the Wilderness.  And we realize that purely arbitrarily and through sheer luck, we survived the lottery that was Auschwitz.  How lucky we are.

Tommy Lapid went into a urinal to pee and he lived.  My grandparents decided to come to America, and I lived.  And because of that, I was born, while six million died, and because of the accident of my birth, I have a responsibility to appreciate life and to choose life.
Time and time again, Moses says in Deuteronomy, “Choose life, so you and your children may live.”  That, in a nutshell, is the message of Yom Kippur. And in this post Holocaust era, we chose life because we were selected for death- and we lived.

Somehow, in our day, this reverence for life has gotten all mixed up in partisan politics – so it is time to step back and take another look.  At this moment when we are all closest to death, if only symbolically, we need to affirm that reverence for life is too precious to be politicized or outsourced to any interest group.  It is an overriding value, and it belongs to us all.

As I mentioned last week, I visited Colorado this summer, and on a whim one afternoon in the Denver area, we decided to visit Columbine.  Another holy place, for the saddest of reasons.  April 20, 1999.  Twelve students and one teacher gunned down.  The memorial is lovely, a peaceful, beautiful homage on a hillside facing the Rockies. 

For each victim, there is a large plaque with an inscription written by family members.  On one plaque, memorializing Daniel Lee Rohrbough, age 15, a question appears: “Dad.  I have a question.  Why?”  And then the answer, written in stone:  “Son, in a Nation that legalized the innocent killing of children in the womb…in a Godless school system your life was taken….Dan, I’m sorry.” 

So, for this father, Daniel’s murder had less to do with two crazed killers named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold than on a ruling handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973. 
I tried to put myself in the position of this father – the anger he must feel – anger at a country that has let him down.  And I tried to understand that.  I’m sure I would be angry too.  If I were one of the bereaved parents of Columbine, I would be angry too.  I would be angry at a country that seemed not to value the life of my child enough to make it safer.  For me, the issue would be the guns – the guns and the hatred of anyone who is different.  For him, it was all about abortion.  For both of us, though, there is a common denominator.  We have a common complaint.  Life has become cheap in 21st century America. 

We have become numb to all the killing.  Whether the video games or the bullying or abortion or a society that has gone insanely gun-crazy, or whether it’s simply because we don’t see death the way our ancestors did – back in the day where we didn’t sweep the frail and sick  away to die in isolation.  Or maybe we’ve just gotten numb to seeing wars on TV or in the movies, where you push a button in New Mexico and an unmanned drone kills someone in Afghanistan… where fantasy and reality blend to the point where they are unrecognizable one from the other, where one second an evil killer is massacring people on the streets of Gotham City on the screen and the next, a real life Joker is spraying a movie theater with automatic gunfire. 

Oh sure, we all pretend to be shocked.  But are we really?  Or have we simply forgotten how precious life is.  Have we become numb to all the killing?

We need a reaffirmation of a culture of life.  It’s really not about abortion or guns or euthanasia or smoking or video games, or Hollywood or capital punishment or teen suicide or drugs or alcohol: It’s about all of them, and then some. It’s about life.

Our Torah demands it: Choose life!  But can we find common ground?  Can this seeming 
unbridgeable canyon be spanned?

We all know that the issue of life has dogged every presidential campaign, in one form or another, for decades.  We can’t seem to shake it.  And it’s only getting worse.  It was a rude awakening for me to drive through Middle America this summer and see enormous billboards of dead fetuses where one would expect to see an ad for Motel 6 or Wall Drug. 
But maybe there is a way.

Last April, Connecticut became the 17th state to eliminate the death penalty in future prosecutions, the fifth in the past five years.  Nationally, the tide appears to be turning away from the death penalty, as even some capital punishment supporters are beginning to be troubled at the extent to which human error has claimed innocent life.  Since 1973, 138 prisoners sentenced to death were later exonerated. And those are only the mistakes that were caught in time. We have no idea how many were not.

Judaism has much to teach on that score, and some of those lessons could help bridge the gap between social conservatives and liberals.

Since the days of the Bible, Jews have always been reluctant to impose the death penalty. The Torah mandates it for 36 offenses, ranging from murder to kidnapping, adultery, incest, rape, idolatry, apostasy, disrespecting parents and desecrating the Sabbath. But during the rabbinic period, the sages effectively abolished capital punishment, understanding that while most convicted murderers may indeed be guilty, if only one innocent person is hanged by the state, all citizens of that state are guilty of murder.  

In Israel, where Jewish law is taken quite seriously, not even terrorists with blood on their hands are put to death. Only those convicted of crimes against humanity can be executed (thus far, only Adolf Eichmann).  But otherwise, we always need to err on the side of life.  Judaism is, in the truest sense of the term, “pro-life.”
So back here in Connecticut, T.R. Rowe, a Republican, crossed party lines to support the death penalty repeal. While siding with the Democrats, he then challenged that those who protect the “worst of the worst” should also protect the ones who are most innocent of all, as he put it: those not yet born.

In this polarized political climate, one legislator’s crossing of the aisle is nearly as noteworthy – and miraculous – as the crossing of the Red Sea.  Rowe is to be commended for pushing us to step out from behind political and denominational barricades and seek a bipartisan dialogue, and also an interfaith conversation that aims to protect innocent life while also safeguarding our precious liberties.

We can find that in the Jewish approach. Judaism always seeks to defend the imperiled, even to the point of allowing the desecration of the Sabbath when it can save a life.  But the threat to life must be immediate, not potential or theoretical.

Even were capital punishment proven to deter potential murderers – and that is not the case – the prospect of potentially saving a life in the future is trumped by the very real possibility that an innocent life, that of a wrongly accused prisoner, might be taken now. A Jewish culture of life would demand that the death penalty either be repealed or, if remaining on the books, rarely be implemented.

But what of abortion? Here too, for Judaism, the immediate trumps the theoretical. The sages did not advocate abortion on demand. They just simply made it clear that when the choice is between saving a real human life, in this case the mother, or a potential human being, the unborn child, the real takes precedence over the potential. The prevailing Jewish view is that a fetus is not a fully realized human being until it is born. Since it is not human at conception or while in utero, a culture of life would imply, from a Jewish perspective, that the focus be on the life of the mother until the moment of birth. For many rabbis, that concept extends to less immediate but still perilous threats to the mother’s physical and mental health.  As long as the fetus remains in her body, it is the mother’s life and health that matter most, though as a pregnancy progresses toward birth, more consideration is given to the life of the fetus, much like Roe v. Wade.

To repeat, a culture of life would imply, from a Jewish perspective, that the priority be on the life of the mother.  And on this, there is little debate among the different Jewish denominations.

It is possible for our society to promote a culture of life, but only when there is first a culture of dialogue and consensus building. Rep. Rowe has courageously demonstrated that such potential exists, even in this polarized environment. Religious groups can set an example by engaging in vigorous interfaith dialogue rather than latching onto one political party or another and attempting to impose their own parochial vision on the state.  Where there is first consensus building, religious values can inform public policy-making.
There is a broad consensus that the state must protect innocent human life. No government should be guilty of allowing innocent human beings to die.  I think we can all agree on that.  It’s a good place for a respectful dialogue to begin, one where religious groups can be active participants, as voices of conscience and wisdom, promoting reasoned argument rather than partisanship.

But the state should not attempt to define conclusively when we become human beings, when human life begins, since there is no possibility of consensus on that issue. That is a matter between pastor and congregant, a question of personal conscience and faith rather than public law.  The government should never play favorites on matters of faith.
A culture that reveres life is a worthy goal. To get there, we must first cultivate a culture of dialogue.

America is ready for that.  In a recent CNN poll, only 15 percent of the population wants abortion to illegal in all circumstances.  88% say it should be legal if a woman’s life is in danger.  83% when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.  But only 35% say it should always be legal, under all circumstances.  So the majority is looking for middle ground, and there is middle ground to be had.  A Gallup poll reports similar results, and the numbers have not changed much going back to 2004.

We need to get beyond the notion of Pro Life and Pro Choice, as if those in one camp reject all choice and those in the other are insensitive to life.   After all, Deuteronomy included both sides in one phrase.  The verse says “Choose Life.”

Is there a middle ground on gun control too?  I hope to God there is, though no one seems to want to talk about it.  You know, in Israel there are hate crimes, there has been terrorism and war, there is more pent up frustration and fear than we can imagine, there are definitely crazy people, and you see soldiers with guns all over the place.  But you don’t see random mass killings of the type we see here.  Maybe it’s because, ironically, Israelis are happier – as surveys have shown.  Maybe it’s because they feel more connected, that their lives are more purposeful.  I don’t know, but we need for our society to choose life.

Is there common ground on other sensitive life and death issues, like euthanasia?  Fortunately, this is one issue that has receded from the realm of public hysteria.  There are no Karen Ann Quinlans or Terri Schiavos engulfing us at the moment in this country, and in Israel there is consensus on the proper course of treatment for Ariel Sharon, who has been comatose for 5 1/2 years – so maybe this is an opportunity for reflective conversation.

Brain death is one of the most discussed halachic issues of our times.  Tradition demands that we preserve life but also that we show reverence to the dead.  These values conflict, especially when other lives are at stake.  If a brain-dead patient is still considered alive but we harvest his organs, have we not killed him?  But if we don’t harvest his organs, aren’t we condemning someone else to death because of our inaction?  The Conservative Movement accepts medical definitions of brain death as sufficient to declare a patient dead, but recently there has been a growing dispute among Orthodox rabbinic groups.  (A recent article describes how) In 1991, the Rabbinical Council of America adopted the brain death standard, which America’s ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel opposed.  And “in 2010 the RCA published a 110-page brief effectively reversing its previous position. Though the document declares that it is “not intended as a formal ruling,” its thrust is that an observant Jew should donate organs only after the cessation of breathing (by which time many organs are medically unusable).”

These halachic disputes can get pretty intense, but from a rabbinic standpoint, it is possible for more than one option to be acceptable.   That’s because our tradition recognizes something very important that every religious system and government should recognize: we aren’t God.  We really can’t know when life truly begins and ends.
That boundary.  That boundary between life and death.  Despite all our scientific advances, life remains the ultimate mystery.  The ultimate curiosity.  That rover we landed on Mars this summer is fittingly called “Curiosity.” It’s doing a lot of research but it really has one task and one task only – to see if life ever existed on that lonely planet, even billions of years ago, when its atmosphere might have made life there more sustainable.  Such proof will go a long way toward determining whether or not we are truly alone in this universe. 

Life is so hard to produce. Ask any couple trying to get pregnant.  It’s not so simple.  Think of that panda in Washington.  Maybe that’s why God had to make and destroy many worlds before settling on ours, to return to that Midrash I quoted last week. Maybe it was not a moral universe that God was striving and failing to achieve – but one that could simply sustain life.  The fact that we remain the only known speck in the universe where life exists serves as an additional reminder that life is so holy and precious. 

That is why we revere those who are willing to risk their lives for the sake of others. 
When we traveled out west this summer, Columbine was not the only place we visited where life and death have intersected.  In South Dakota, we decided to take a long detour, several hours out of our way, to a remote place near the Badlands of South Dakota.  A place called Wounded Knee.

On that spot, on December 29, 1890, the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded an encampment of Native Americans on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  A shot was fired, we don’t know why, and in the ensuing melee, the 7th Cavalry opened fire indiscriminately from all sides, killing men, women, and children, including some of their fellow troopers.  A few of the tribal leaders had guns and fired away as well, emboldened, according to the marker at the site, by a tribal practice at the time called “Ghost Dancing,” where they believed that they were wearing magical garments that would protect them from the white man’s weapons.  They believed that they could defeat death, that a messiah would raise them all up from the dead.  By the time the dust had cleared, up to 300 Lakota were dead, and Army fatalities stood at 25.  When the surviving Lakota fled unarmed, many were hunted down and killed.

The bodies littered the ravine below the road, and although most were later removed and buried in a cemetery at the top of the hill, the ravine still has a lumpy, unnatural look to it, reminiscent of the mass graves of Maidanek…  Or maybe the banks of the Danube near Tommy Lapid’s Budapest.

This description of events on the sign at Wounded Knee was disturbing to me – it conveyed a sense of blaming the victim.  Was this massacre in fact caused by some primitive cult of death, this so called “Ghost Dancing?”  A local museum points the blame at the big city newspapers, which, looking to boost circulation, painted the tribe and this practice as bloodthirsty and savage for practicing what the called a “primitive cult of death.”  Other historical accounts downplay the impact of the ritual.  But the sign that I read, endorsed by the tribal leaders, makes clear that “Ghosting” will remain part of the official story of Wounded Knee.  In effect, they were taking some responsibility for a massacre perpetrated upon them. 


What does that mean?  It means that the very descendents of the Lakota who were massacred were looking to teach their own children, about the need, above all else, to choose life, to avoid risky behavior, much like how we warn our kinds about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. The crimes done to Native Americans will forever be a stain on our nation’s conscience.  But despite it all, the message of that memorial, for all of us, is that we need to embrace a culture of life.  And a culture of life is a culture of responsibility.
“Lo ha metim yehalleu yah,” the Psalmist says, “The dead shall not praise God.” There is nothing that we can do to change the past.  But there is much that we can do for our children. That is what amazed me at Wounded Knee.  They chose life, so that their children may live.

Over the next 24 hours, this is that sacred place where life and death will intersect, where others have died but we have been granted a reprieve, the miraculous gift of more time here on earth.  Never forget the real cult of death that we experienced seven decades ago.

As we journey though this day, may we recall those sacred places - Tommy Lapid’s green lavatory, the classrooms of Columbine and the ravines of Wounded Knee. The Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, the crowded cabins of the ships that brought my grandparents across the sea, and wherever your life was saved, whatever brought you to this place and time.  For the next 24 hours, this sanctuary becomes our holy of holies.  It becomes that place where we rediscover the precious gift of simply being alive.

Legend has it that the Book of Life will remain open throughout this sacred day, only to be sealed at nightfall tomorrow.  And that sealing of the book will mark not our deaths but our return to the realm of the normal. But even as we reenter the day to day world, as we break the fast and end these Hunger Games, we will sit down to round foods, nourishing our bodies with the earth’s bounty.  The round foods, the egg, the hallah, the bagel, they will bring us back into the cycle of normalcy, of life.  And they will remind us, always, that ours is a culture of life.  And they will remind us, always, that – even as we protect the right to choose – we must choose life, so that our children may live. 

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