Tikkun Olam: Making Our Voices Heard

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

September 10, 2018

Or Chadash

Rabbi Joseph M. Forman


Shana Tova — Happy New Year. It’s wonderful to be with all of you this morning. Last night I shared with you a story about Abraham Lincoln and our need to be called upon to do something great. Today I have just such a task for you, but first I’d like to share with you a true story.

In 1861, in Baltimore – a city that was then in a slave state – Rabbi David Einhorn delivered a sermon in which he called slavery a “deplorable farce” and argued that the institution of slavery in the South was inconsistent with Jewish values.

He went on to criticize those who used the Bible to justify slavery, raising the ire of his congregants who were sympathetic to it. Remarkably, in the synagogue itself, a riot broke out in response to his sermon, and many tried to tar and feather him.

Under the cover of darkness that night, Rabbi Einhorn fled for his life to Philadelphia where he subsequently became the spiritual leader of Keneseth Israel, a synagogue at which I served for nearly a decade. For the record, there were no riots in the synagogue when I was there, and no one was ever tarred and feathered.

Rabbi Einhorn’s son-in-law, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, shared this passion for social reform. Rabbi Kohler helped write the first statement of principles of the Reform Movement adopted in 1885 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and they declared:

“…[W]e deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.” It is our duty, the Reform Movement declared, to solve the problems in our society.

It is now 150 years later. We continue to encounter innumerable problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society. Reducing gun violence, managing the challenges of immigration, confronting the persistence of racism and its consequences, responding to our impact on the environment — the list is endless. And on matters of religious concern or economic inequalities or the incendiary political activities in Israel, it’s clear that there is still so much work to be done. What is also clear is that Jews don’t all agree with one another on how to resolve these matters. What a surprise! Two Jews, three opinions.

But despite our diversity, there have been trends within the historic Jewish community that speak to shared values which have defined us as a group.

Last month, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed by Steven Weisman (August 19, 2018) offering his explanation for why America’s Jews have traditionally “stood up for the underdog and voted for liberal[s]….”

He credits the influence of mainstream Protestantism of the 19th century that substituted human agency for God’s work. Jews, as part of a pattern of assimilation, Weisman wrote, turned away from ritual and religious practice and instead embraced Judaism as a “devotion of core beliefs.”

Until the 19 th century, Jews had left redemption to God and only busied themselves with ritual and prayer. But then, he asserts, American Jews replaced a reliance on redemption from on high with a self-reliance to fix the ills of society. I’m not so sure he’s correct. Either are some other knowledgeable scholars.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has stated that:

“Our Jewish tradition has ALWAYS taught that WE are responsible for the survival of the least fit: the orphan, the poor, the lonely, and the stranger, to name just a few. …In Genesis… we are told that every single human being is divinely gifted and deserving of dignity.”

From Abraham and Joseph to Isaiah and Jeremiah our people have seen themselves as responsible for fixing whatever ills our world endures. We have not relied on heaven to solve the problems of earth. In fact, we have a tradition of speaking truth to power and demanding justice.

So, since when did Jewish leaders challenge public leaders and public policy? Actually, it goes back pretty far. At least as far as back as the time of King David.

Most of you are probably familiar with images of King David playing his harp, or you recognize the phrase: “a Psalm of David”, as he is linked to the composition of the book of Psalms. But you might be less familiar with the story of David and the prophet Nathan.

Nathan was a friend of David’s, but also a leader within the Jewish community. And Nathan was not pleased with David‘s actions.

When King David was out on his balcony, he spotted the woman Bathsheba, the wife of another man who was away in battle. David had her brought to his palace, impregnated her, tried to cover it up and ultimately had the husband sent to the front lines to meet certain death.

And we thought we had problems with our political leaders.

Nathan knew all of this, and he challenged the king, reminding him of his moral responsibility to own up to his behavior. Ultimately, David did, and he expressed regret, remorse and ultimately sought forgiveness. Nathan took it upon himself to fix what was wrong – beginning with the highest seat of power. This morning, as we welcome the New Year, our task is nothing less. Judaism calls upon us to repair the brokenness all around us. Our tradition calls this Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world.

Perhaps not coincidentally, if there were any day most suited to learning about Tikkun Olam, it is Rosh Hashanah. Because the story of Tikkun Olam is a Rosh Hashanah story.

This now well-known phrase first appears in Jewish literature about 2000 years ago in the Mishna, the first collection of rabbinic teachings. The phrase in the Mishna is:

Mipnei Tikkun Olam – which really translates as: for the sake of social policy.

But Tikkun Olam was to encounter several radical transformation’s over the next 2000 years. The first of these occurred in the 16th century. Rabbi Isaacs Luria was challenged by the problems of his day: evil and sorrow and the exile of Jews from their homeland. “Why?” he was asked. And he gave his answer in the form of a story, a myth that is repeated even to this day

According to the Talmud, in Rosh Hashanah 27a, Rosh Hashanah is not only the new year, but also the birthday of the world, creation if you will allow.

Rabbi Luria wrote that on the first Rosh Hashanah, on the eve of creation, God withdrew from the expanse of the universe to make room for the existence of our world. God then filled ten vessels with light, but the fragile nature of the vessels and the magnitude of the divine light led to them shattering. The shards of those shattered vessels along with the holy sparks they contained were scattered all over the world like grains of sand.

In order for the world to reach the perfection God had intended, the shattered fragments and the sparks of holiness had to be gathered up. And so God created human beings and scattered the descendants of Jacob all over the world to engage in the process of Tikkun Olam — repairing the brokenness of those shattered fragments. When enough of those sparks are gathered, Rabbi Luria taught, the vessels will be repaired, and the world will return to a state of perfection.

Rabbi Luria’s story addressed several concerns of his day. It offered an explanation for the imperfections of God’s creation. It explained the reason that Jews were exiled from their homeland and dispersed around the world. And his story explained why it was our responsibility to fix the brokenness of our world.

Over the centuries, the mystical notion of Rabbi Luria’s version of Tikkun Olam was secreted away in esoteric Kabbalistic writings. But in the 1950s, buoyed by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Tikkun Olam returned to the consciousness of the American Jewish community — this time reappearing in its original form as acts of social justice and philanthropy.

Today, Tikkun Olam is considered one of the defining ideas within Jewish life. And raising our voices to speak truth to power, like the Prophet Nathan did to King David, has become a hallmark of Reform Judaism. Consider the existence of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., which lobbies Congress in pursuit of legislation that reflects Jewish values, or the presence of Jewish involvement in so many of the agencies that defend those who cannot defend themselves.

Raising our voices to those in power does not mean, however, that Jews speak with one voice.

Rabbi David Einhorn, the abolitionist from the 19 th century, was not the only famous rabbi to speak out against government policies he disagreed with.

You might be surprised to learn that another 19 th century rabbi, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Reform Movement in America, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis — no slouch, Rabbi Wise — also spoke out against political leaders with whom he disagreed. Rabbi Wise took to his pulpit in Cincinnati, Ohio, to publicly criticize President Lincoln and then presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant. Over what issues?

Rabbi Wise was no friend of the newly founded Republican party. In fact, he sympathized with the institution of slavery! Imagine, disagreement over profound issues of social justice within the Jewish community!!

Where Wise and Einhorn did agree was in the Prophetic tradition of raising their voices like a shofar. They both saw a responsibility within the Jewish community to speak out to the government and add their voices to the cries for righteousness — however differently they saw it. They both believed their course was the way to gather the sparks, to repair the shattered vessels; they both fought to make whole what was to them the brokenness of their day.

On this morning of Rosh Hashanah, we come together in celebration of the New Year, marking with our ancestors the birth of our world and taking note that we are responsible for its eternal repair. It is a great task.

On this sacred day, may we find the strength to lift up our voices and take our places among the repairers of the world.

Tikkun Olam. It is also an eternal task. And today we begin the work …again.