Rosh Hashanah 5780 Day 1: Faith Over Fear
I had many expectations for going in to this first year at KTI and of my rabbinate. I expected to celebrate happy moments and mourn during sad ones. I expected to learn and to teach. I expected to meet lots of people and bring them into my life.
But I did not expect that, only a few months into the job, I would have to throw together a vigil in response to the worst act of antisemitic violence in American history. I did not expect to have to help the synagogue’s leadership figure out what our security protocols should be and how to pay for them. I did not expect to have intermittent, low-grade anxiety that my workplace, this synagogue, could be the next target.
And yet, here were are. In recent years, and in the last year in particular, we have seen a disturbing rise of antisemitism at home and around the world. There were the unprecedented violent attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway. There is the steady drumbeat of harassment and assaults on Orthodox Jews across New York City, and yes, this is something that needs to concern us, even though these Jews do not look or pray like we do. There is an increasingly toxic political discourse in our country, in which Jews and the State of Israel are tossed around like a football, as each side appeals to its mostly non-Jewish base. And there is the ongoing de-legitimization of Israel, in which reasonable criticism often slides into baseless hate.
As unexpected as all of this feels, to anyone with a Jewish historical consciousness, it is actually not that surprising. Antisemitism is just as much a part of Western culture as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. It may change forms, it may go underground, but it never actually goes away.
Antisemitism emerges in moments of great technological, economic, and cultural change, moments like our own. In such moments, antisemitism serves a useful function. It offers a conspiracy theory that explains those changes and assigns blame for them to a small, identifiable group. For this reason, antisemitism is consistent with basically any ideology. To the question, “why does the world not look the way that our beliefs say it should?,” an easy answer has always been, “Because of the Jews.” And, as new political, moral, and cultural paradigms emerge, we should not be surprised that among the first questions to be addressed is, “What about the Jews?”
So what do we do about this worrying reemergence of public antisemitism? I could devote my whole sermon today to the politics of antisemitism, but for reasons I will explain later, I am not. For now, I will only make the following two comments. First: as satisfying as it may feel to call out the antisemitism of your political opponents, doing that rarely changes anything. If you really want to fight antisemitism, fight it among the people you agree with about other things. You will be harder to dismiss as a partisan hack, and other Jews who do not share your political commitments will nonetheless respect your courage.
And second: antisemitism does not exist in a vacuum. Rare is the person who hates Jews, but thinks that other minorities are just wonderful. Hatred of other minorities and perceived outsiders, be they asylum-seekers at the border, or Muslim Americans, or people of color, can easily be redirected toward us. This means that we have to join together with other groups that have found themselves under attack for who they are. It is the right thing to do, and it is also in our interest. If we want other groups to take our persecution seriously—which sometimes can be a challenge—we need to take their oppression seriously in turn.
But I will let the organizations and commentators who focus on antisemitism fill in the details of what we can do to directly disrupt it. Instead, I want to talk about our spiritual reaction to this upsurge of anti-Jewish hate. Let me say it plainly: I am afraid. And I know that many of you are too. Do not raise your hands, but who thought twice about coming to a synagogue today, in a way that perhaps you never have before? Or about wearing a Jewish star, or otherwise identifying yourself as a Jew in public? I have, and I imagine many of you have as well. Sure, we take reasonable precautions. We remind ourselves how unlikely it is that we personally will be the subject of antisemitic harassment or violence.
But the fear is there nonetheless. I still feel generally safe and happy as a Jew in America. But then a little voice in my head reminds me that the Jews of medieval Spain and Czarist Russia and 1920s Germany felt just as safe, until suddenly they were not. And so we are afraid. Our specific fear as Jews sits alongside the fears many people carry around. Some of these are those same fears about our rapidly changing world, to which hatred of Jews offers a crude and false response.
Fear is natural. Fear is one way our brains keep us alive and out of dangerous situations. The problem is when fear makes us incapable of acting, or consistently tense, or unable to focus on anything else but the things we fear. Fear as a human emotion, and the triggers that bring it out in us, are not going away. So our spiritual challenge is to learn to live with fear, to control our fear rather than letting our fear control us.
Of course, we are not the first people to feel fear. More than eighty times in the Bible, God tells people not to be afraid. God told that to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses, to Joshua, to each of the prophets. In this morning’s Torah portion, God tells Hagar not to be afraid precisely at the moment when she, cast out into the desert with her young son and an empty container of water, feels most hopeless.
Why all of these reassurances not to fear? I do not think it is because we have nothing to fear. Nor do I think it is because God will magically swoop in and solve all our problems for us. No. God tells people not to fear because a life dominated by fear is no life at all. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Fearful people cannot be happy. Fearful people cannot be generous, charitable, or forgiving. Fear constricts the soul and keeps us from being as fully human as God would like us to be” (Kushner 23).
It is actually a commandment, a mitzvah, according to the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, not to fear. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses commands the people, saying, “When you take the field against your enemies, and see…forces larger than yours, have no fear of them, for the LORD your God… is with you…Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them.” (Deuteronomy 20:1-3). Maimonides explains (Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative Commandment 58) that these verses do not prohibit feeling fear. Nor do they mean that we can rely on God to rescue us miraculously. Rather, the commandment is not to allow that fear cause us to run away from our enemy before the battle has even begun. Overcoming our fears such that we can squarely face the task ahead is what living with real faith means, Maimonides explains.
So, the antidote to fear is neither denial nor despair, but faith. It is, as Rabbi Kushner puts it, to “acknowledge that the world is a dangerous place and at the same time maintain the faith that God has planted in us the capacity to contend with those dangers and to overcome them” (Kushner 22).
Faith is not the same as belief. My teacher Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky distinguishes between belief, which implies near-certain knowledge, with faith, which is what we desire or sense, with room for doubt. When it comes to the mysteries of existence, we cannot know anything for sure. Claims of certain knowledge easily lead to dogmatic fanaticism. But faith, Rabbi Kalmanofsky suggests, “may lack certainty, but it incorporates hope. Expressions of faith offer a hopeful vision of what can be.”
Faith, and not belief, is our response to fear. Faith does not mean we know everything will be all right. Faith is not a truth claim. Faith is an attitude, a way of being in the world. Faith is the hope, the intuition, the yearning, not because of the evidence but in spite of it, that there is more than meets the eye in whatever comes our way. That we are more resilient than we supposed. That the arc of history is long but it bends, however tentatively, towards justice.
As we gather today on Rosh Hashanah, the dawn of this new year, one of the things we are here to do is not to reaffirm our beliefs, but to renew our faith. Accompanying us through these days of awe are the words of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my rescue. Whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s stronghold. Of whom should I be afraid?” On their face, these words sound confident and assured. But perhaps the speaker’s repeated insistence that he has nothing to fear actually means that he does feel fear, but has gotten to a place where his faith has counterbalanced that fear. As Rabbi Kushner writes, the speaker’s “faith comes from…God, not a God who protects him from all trouble and danger but a God who stands with him in a time of trouble and danger, so that he never has to feel that he is facing his problems alone.” (Kushner 162).
The liturgy of these holy days spells out the nature of this faith, of this Divine presence that stands with us. In a short while we will recite the high point of today’s liturgy, Untaneh tokef, with its famous passage that says “who will live and who will die” in determined on these days. Then comes a list of dangers that reads like the obsessive worrying of a person with an anxiety disorder: who by fire, who by water, who by sword and beast and famine and thirst and earthquake and plague. We list almost everything that could possibly go wrong in the year ahead, every possible fate that might be waiting for us in this new chapter of our lives: serenity or anxiety, ease or affliction, poverty or wealth, humiliation or exaltation.
If the prayer stopped there, we might feel hopeless and helpless. We could let our fear drive us into denial of the reality of these misfortunes, or despair that we could ever do anything in response to them. But of course, the prayer does not stop there. Nor does the prayer say that if we just press the right buttons on some Divine vending machine, then miraculous protection from all misfortune will come out. Instead, we say that “repentance, prayer, and deeds of righteousness can transcend the severity of the decree.” This is not belief, but faith. To live in a world where terrible things happen, to not know what this new year will bring, but nonetheless to commit to working on ourselves, to strengthening our connection with God, and to taking practical action to help others—these are acts of faith. We list off all of our fears, which itself deprives our fears of some of their power. Then we lay out a path of faith for overcoming fear.
What would it mean to walk the path of faith in response to the threat of antisemitic violence and harassment? Faith means not letting our fears deter us from living fully and proudly as Jews. The Torah called our ancient ancestors a stiff-necked people, which was not a compliment. But that stubbornness stayed with us throughout the ages. Every place we went, there was always an out for people born as Jews, whether it was conversion to another religion or, in modernity, secularization. In fact, there was often relentless pressure on Jews to exercise those options. While we do not like to talk about this, all along the line there were plenty of Jews who abandoned Judaism, if only to make their lives easier in hostile surroundings.
What this means, then, is that we, those of us who are still here, are the biological or spiritual descendants of the Jews who were stubborn enough not to abandon Judaism. That was a choice that flew in the face of any pragmatic considerations. It has always been easier not to be Jewish. And yet here were are. Our ancestors, in the face of persecution, nonetheless stuck with their traditions. That is faith.
The impulse to run away from Judaism is understandable. If being Jewish is the source of so much aggravation, if Judaism itself feels limiting or parochial, if the difficulties of being different are just too much to bear, it seems logical to try to run away. The problem is that strategy has never actually worked. Assimilated and pious Jews went side by side to the gas chambers. The shooter in Pittsburgh did not stop to ask his victims their opinions about the Israeli government. The Jews who collaborated with Stalin to round up Zionists and religious Jews were eventually themselves purged by Stalin. Trying to solve antisemitism by running away from Judaism is like trying to cure a disease by murdering the patient.
Instead, we have to do just the opposite. We have to double down on everything that makes us who we are. Let me clear. We are not doing this just to be anti-antisemities. Baby Boomer Jews, in particular, were often told as teens that they needed to stay Jewish to spite Hitler, to not finish what Hitler started. Many found that a wholly uninspiring reason to be Jewish, and went looking for community and meaning anywhere else. Other Jewish educators have tried to increase “Jewish pride” in response to antisemitism. But that does not seem to be our problem. Surveys show that 95% of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. And yet antisemitism remains a concern.
So I am not asking you to be Jewish out of spite or out of chauvinistic pride. I am asking you to be Jewish, I am asking you to have faith, because Judaism grew and evolved to support our ancestors through some very difficult times, including antisemitism much more threatening than anything we see today. I am asking you to be Jewish because Jewish practice sanctifies time and space, and time-tested Jewish wisdom guides us through the thickets of life. I am asking you to be Jewish because our story reminds us of what is possible when we live with faith in the face of fear.
If we do that, we will not let our haters define us. We will not allow ourselves to shape our whole existence as Jews around fighting off the people who want us dead or gone. We and we alone will define ourselves, for ourselves. We will tell a story in which we are the subjects and not the objects. That, by the way, is why I did not devote this whole sermon to the politics of antisemitism. Since last Rosh Hashanah, our haters took away the lives of 12 holy Jews as they gathered in prayer. They took away our sense of security and much else besides. And I will be damned if I let them take away Rosh Hashanah too.
We were all reminded this year in the worst possible way that our tradition calls the Torah a Tree of Life. Our tradition celebrates life. We toast happy occasions with to life, to life, l’chayim. Our tradition helps us affirm life in the face of death and affirm faith in the face of fear. We do not deny our fears or despair before them. Instead, we maintain the stubborn conviction that we are strong enough to meet our fears head-on.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav was an influential Hasidic master of the 19th century. Perhaps his most famous teaching is this: “kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikkar lo l’fached klal. The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is have no fear at all.” There is a well-known song to these words which we will sing in a moment. The problem, though, is that Rebbe Nachman did not actually say that. His real teaching, found in his masterpiece Likkutei Mohoran (II:48), says, “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.” Lo yitpached—a reflexive verb. Do not make yourself afraid. Do not turn yourself into your fear.
Our spiritual task is not to never fear. That is impossible. Our spiritual task is to feel our fear but then cross that narrow bridge of life anyway, with faith, courage, and dignity.
Please join Cantor Sklar in singing Kol Ha-Olam. The words can be found on the inside back cover of the guidebook.