This Op-Ed was originally published for The Forward on October 7, 2020. You can read the original version here.
The Torah demands of us: “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). We are not told to sit back and wait for justice to come to us. In fact, midrash in Sifrei Devarim explains that this biblical verse means that we should strive to achieve justice specifically through the finest of courts.
As our nation continues to mourn the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon who spent her entire career fighting for gender equality, President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, has sparked the latest fight to define what justice looks like in this country. Barrett’s views are antithetical to my own, and certainly the polar opposite of what Ginsburg stood for. The President has a constitutional right to nominate a replacement and the Senate is also required to hold confirmation hearings and vote.
We know that this seat will greatly shift the make-up of the highest court in the land for a generation and issues that are at the core of what I believe as a progressive rabbi, such as access to affordable healthcare, reproductive rights, marriage equality, and treating immigrants humanely, may very well be upended. News that Saturday’s press conference announcing Barrett’s nomination may very well have been a coronavirus super spreader event may delay the confirmation process, especially if Senators and Barrett herself need to quarantine following President Trump’s positive COVID test. Still, with justice hanging in the balance, many Democratic strategists are contemplating what’s next.
One solution Democratic activists have offered is to expand the size of the Supreme Court if the party takes control of the White House and both houses of Congress. There is historical precedent for this: The Supreme Court began with six justices in 1789 and at different times the size has increased and decreased to seven, nine, 10, back to seven, and back to nine, where it currently stands. There is no mandate requiring a certain size of the court. Rabbinic tradition would side with these Democratic activists, suggesting that expanding the court helps us pursue justice.
Tractate Sanhedrin, the section of the Talmud that focuses on legal systems and court structures, begins with a declaration that the most basic cases are decided by a court of three. Some cases are debated with five or seven judges. More extreme cases are decided by a court of 23 judges. The most important cases were determined by the Great Sanhedrin, a court of 70 judges. When determining the makeup of the court, be it three judges or 70 the rabbis understand the importance of balance. In the third chapter of this tractate, the Talmud clarifies that in a three person court, one judge is picked by each side and the third and final judge is picked by the other two judges.
The Supreme Court is not balanced. It has become increasingly right-wing in the past 20 years, which doesn’t accurately represent this country. Two-thirds of the justices (including the current nominee to fill Ginsburg’s seat) were nominated by Presidents that did not win the popular vote. The Republican-majority Senate which is determined to confirm Barrett before election day received 12 million fewer votes than their Democratic counterparts. The right-wing court doesn’t represent the will of the people and certainly doesn’t represent our biblical command to pursue justice. Only a true balanced court does that.
The beit midrash learning style of chevruta pairs, learning partners, suggests that one should learn with another person who holds a different perspective. Tractate Taanit (7a) explains that two Torah scholars sharpen one another. By learning with something who has different life experiences and may hold a different perspective and worldview allows one to gain a new understanding of the text and see Torah in a new light. Being surrounded by those that agree with you doesn’t accomplish that. Only by learning with a sparring partner does one truly understand the text. If this is true for Torah, then it must also be true for the United States Constitution.
When judges are added to the court that share the same perspective, and the court tilts to extremes, that denies those justices the ability to firmly understand and comprehend the truest meaning of the sacred founding documents of our nation. Only a balanced court does that.
Expanding the court isn’t radical or unprecedented. It is just! And when Republican Senators make up their own rules to sway the court in a direction that is contradictory to the views of the majority of Americans, then any change in court structure that focuses on a more balanced system, and in the process pursues a more just society, should be applauded and encouraged. Even if it expands the court to 70 judges like the Great Sanhedrin!
Rabbi Olitzky delivered a sermon for Kol Nidre 5781 entitled “We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident”
We hunkered down during these months of staying at home, and chose to use this time at home wisely, and potty train our youngest child, Hannah. Admittedly, the potty training of our older two children was usually accomplished with a weekend trip to the grandparents. They would return wearing underwear. But with that not being an option during a pandemic, we tried conquering this challenge. And like any three-year-old who tries and fails and is weary of change, our daughter would hide and squat in the corner. We would ask her if she was going to the bathroom. She looked at us and would simply reply she wasn’t, lying about exactly what was going on in that moment. But that is what we expect from young children. They test the limits of telling the truth. They see what lies they can get away with, and then it’s on adults, teachers, parents, and caregivers, and society as a whole, to teach our children why the truth matters.
I remember gathering for basement birthday parties as an adolescent, the first without parents around, although adults would be hovering at the top of the stairs thirty feet away. We’d sit in a circle and take turns playing Truth or Dare, as if for the first time, without adult supervision, we were going to break all the rules. Personally, I always chose dare – not because I am some adventure who lives on the wild side. Far from it actually. But I always preferred Dare over Truth. Truths were personal and once you put them out there in the world, it was real.
We began this evening with the Kol Nidre prayer, in which we tell the truth. We began by admitting that we are going to break promises and make mistakes. On this day when we are committed to telling the truth, we put the truth out there before God – we are honest with our mistakes and past transgressions. We are honest with God, and we are honest with ourselves. Because we understand the weight of the truth. Without truth, nothing matters.
At an early age, we are taught about the importance of truth – to tell the truth and to understand that there are certain truths. The founding of our very nation is based on the idea that there are some truths that are very much fact and non-negotiable: “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” But even that truth was not true at the time.
The prophet Jeremiah declares “God is Truth” (Jer. 10:10). In fact, on commenting on a teaching from Tractate Shabbat in the Babylonian Talmud that mentions that Truth is the seal of God, the commentator Rashi acknowledges that the Hebrew word for truth, Emet, consists of Alef, the first letter, Mem, the middle letter, and Tav, the last letter, suggesting the Truth is full and all encompassing. In our own liturgy, we declare that the fundamental truth is our relationship with God. We say Adonai Eloheichem Emet.
I am God, your God, the God of Truth. Yet, we connect these words to the liturgy that follows, V’Emunah Kol Zot, that we believe in this affirmation. Our words of prayer juxtapose the concepts of truth and belief, suggesting that they are different. Yet, what I believe to be true is true because of my beliefs. Belief is not based on fact. Belief is not based on evidence. Belief is what I feel in my heart and no one can take that away from me. That is beautiful and powerful when it comes to theology – I believe in a God and in a relationship with God that no one can change or convince me otherwise. I believe in a mission to be God’s partners in this world, and no one can change that call to action. But what happens when we only define what we believe as true? What happens when there is no longer objective truth?
Fifteen years ago when comedian and late night talk show host Stephen Colbert launched the satirical Colbert Report, he introduced the word “truthiness.”
He defined this word as a belief that a statement is true based on intuition, regardless of lack of or contrary evidence or logic. Truthiness was meant to be satire. But it has become reality. On the day after the 2017 Inauguration, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, was being interviewed on Meet the Press. When the interviewer pressed her about the administration preaching and promoting falsehoods, ones that could be easily fact-checked, she responded by saying that the administration was given alternative facts. This is the same President who throughout the campaign trail – and since – declares any news that is critical as Fake news. There is no such think as objective journalism anymore when anyone can declare that something they disagree with as a lie. There is no such thing as objective truth anymore.
Our tradition teaches that disagreement is okay. That disagreement is healthy. Rabbinic literature suggests imagery of chavruta, of learning pairs as sparring partners, that sitting down at the table with someone you disagree with actually allows one to gain greater perspective and to see an issue in a light they haven’t previously seen. But that requires there to be some accepted rules. That requires there to be some facts. That requires some objectivity.
And that is not the world we are living in. Our tradition teaches that truth is one of the pillars that holds up our world. While we may be more familiar with Shimon HaTzadik’s teaching that the world stands on the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim, our Mishnah also teaches the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who taught that the world is dependent on Justice, Peace, and Truth. We cannot create a just world without truth.
We cannot build a world of peace without truth. And without truth, our world falters, society crumbles.
Social media, that thing that I admit I am on too often and all too obsessed with, is responsible for spreading more false truths, otherwise known as conspiracy theories, otherwise known as lies, than any other platform.
You see, I always chose Dare as a kid, because I thought truth meant something. But today, in 2020, truth doesn’t. And we stand here today, this evening, as we begin this Day of Atonement expected to tell the truth. We are meant to tell the truth to God, and to ourselves, to a God that we believe in as omniscient, but how can we tell the truth when we are living in a world where truth no longer exists? When we are living in a world that promotes lies and celebrates liars?
How can we do the hard work, but necessary work of telling the truth to God during this Day of Atonement when everything around us suggests that truth is meaningless? We are seeking a renewed soul and a clean slate, but really, we are seeking a renewed world, and that begins by defining our truths.
I was having a recent conversation, if that is what they can be called, with someone on Twitter, an account that others may define as a troll. While it was an argument of 280 characters, I chose to treat it as a Machloket Lashem Shamayim¸ a disgreeement for the sake of Heaven. The anonymous account was critical of statements I made as a rabbi, challenging how I could believe Judaism supported them. I finally concluded that while we both might be Jews, it seemed as if we were practicing two totally different religions. And I think that is true. While the Psalmist declares that “Torah is truth” (Ps. 119:142), Torah is ultimately subjective.
Torah, meant to be the core ethics, values, and lessons to live by, is subjective. If we believe that Torah is a living document, to be interpreted and reinterpreted, then what Torah teaches us is up to each of us. Even if Torah is truth, as the Psalms suggests, what our truths are are ultimately up to each and every one of us.
Truth ultimately only matters if we define our truths. Truth is only important if we declare what we stand for, who we are, our ideas of what is right and what is wrong. For as long as we declare our truths, no lies from those with the loudest megaphones, no tweets with FAKE NEWS all in capital letters, will deny our truths.
Our towns have some sort of obsession with lawn signs, signs that declare one’s values printed on a 15 by 20 piece of plastic, staked in the grass.
Among the many lawn signs I regularly see on walks throughout the neighborhood, an important opportunity for fresh air, when spending so much time indoors, is one that reads:
Ín this house, we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, Kindness is Everything.
It got me thinking about what truth really is. Truth is what we stand for. Truth is what defines us. What truths are on your lawn sign?
We are committed to sharing our truths with God on this holiest of days, but I want to invite all of us to declare our truths to each other. What are your truths? What do you put on your lawn sign?
I begin this day of judgment, this day of atonement, standing before the Almighty, declaring some of my truths:
The Truth is: I care about kindness. Kindness goes a long way in telling me about who you are and who you strive to be. We are all flawed, but striving to be kind is an example of the better version of ourselves that we all constantly long for.
It is True that We are all made in God’s Divine Image. That means we are all holy. The way we treat each other is a reflection of how we treat God. Any law that suggests one is less than another, or any system created to suppress another is at its core, a desecration of God.
My truth is that God centers me. God is not Omnipotent and everything that happens is not God’s will. But God is my partner and I am God’s. If we are to hold God accountable for the realities of this world, then we must also hold each other accountable, for we are God’s messengers.
It is true that the way the world is today, is not the way it will always be. Dream about tomorrow and a better reality, for we are all prophets.
My truth tells me that we cannot create sacred space unless we create safe space. We must build synagogues and schools, public spaces, and even and especially now, when all feel at home.
For me, it is true that family comes first. They are my everything. And I will spend my life teaching them to care for others, for as Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself what am I?”
It is true that creation is ongoing. Each and every day creation is renewed. It is a chance to begin again. It is a chance to change.
I want to invite you on this Yom Kippur to declare your truths. If we believe that this world rests on truth, for truth holds up the world, then you need to tell God, tell yourself, and tell the world, what truth define your world. Ultimately, truth is subjective. Maybe our world is too divided to have us all come to the table and agree on certain truths.
And maybe we fail when we spend too much time focusing on another person’s truths. Focus on your truth. At a time when lies are spewed and when objective truths are challenged, when evidence is ignored, and facts are denied, no one can take away your truths. For Emet is supported by Emunah. Truth is guided by belief. And at this holiest of moments, even and especially in a world which doubts certain truths, declare your truths.
I will never stop teaching my children to always tell the truth – and I will never stop calling them out when my youngest daughter squats in the corner and tries to convince me she isn’t having an accident. And I will always continue to choose Dare over Truth. Because I understand the importance of declaring our truths to the world. It is not meant for an adolescent party basement game. It is a holy act. And at this holiest of moments on this holiest of days, act accordingly. Gmar Chatima Tova.
Rabbi Olitzky delivered a sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5781 entitled “Never Give Up Hope”
Lying in bed with my son Noah one evening this past Spring while preparing for bedtime, we spent time talking about what he missed. He missed school; he missed his friends; he missed his synagogue; he missed seeing family. I totally understood. He looked up at me with the inquisitive look of a six-year-old, trying to understand how I am emotionally surviving a pandemic, and he asked: “what was it like for you as a kid during pandemics?” I chuckled. You see, he assumed that they happened every so often, like blizzards, and with him only experiencing six years on this earth, COVID-19 just happened to be the first he experienced. I smiled and explained that this too was my first. He hugged me even tighter and said in a soft voice, “this must be hard for adults too.” He was right. I told him that this is hard for all of us. He looked up at me and asked me how I am able to get through it, expecting his rabbi dad to have all the answers. But I didn’t. Because I too, like so many of us have been struggling each day. I was silent and thought about it for a while. But he just sat there, staring at me, with his curious eyes wide open.
“How are you able to get through it?” he asked again. I finally responded. “Hope,” I said. “Hope” is how I get through everything.
I remember listening live to Barack Obama’s speech following the results of the 2008 New Hampshire Primary. It was an election he had lost, a set back following a surprise victory in Iowa. The campaign could have spiraled. But despite the disappointment, he spoke about hope. In the late hours of that early January Tuesday night from Nashua, the soon-to-be President said, “We have been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.” I listened to that speech again and again. There has never been anything false about hope. Hope became the mantra of his campaign. But hope has always been the mantra of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg often says that hope is the greatest gift the Jewish people have given the world. When the Israelites were finally freed from slavery, it was after 400 years of back-breaking labor, centuries of endless tears. We should have given up. Logic tells us that things would only continue to get worse. And when Moses finally banged down Pharaoh’s door and demanded Shalach et Ami, ‘Let my people go so that they may worship Me,’ Pharaoh added to their hardships, and made their work more intense. Still, the Israelites continued to hope. They believed things would get better. And that belief carried them through 400 years of servitude, through leaving in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs; that hope led Nachson to continue to walk into the Sea of Reeds until the waters split, and that hope carried the Israelites through the endless wanderings of the wilderness, including and especially when they needed to re-center themselves while stumbling on the journey.
No plague or burden took that away from them. No pandemic or amount of separation will take that away from us.
And that is what we need right now. For too long, I was looking for the finish line. Let me know when this strange reality will be over, let me know where the finish line is, so that I can hunker down and get through this. Tell me to stay inside all spring so that summer can be normal, and I’ll do it. Cancel sleepaway camps, so that fall can be normal – fine by me. Now in the fall, where I am speaking in an empty sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah morning, and I wonder how long this will go on for. I made the mistake of looking into the future and wanting answers. Hope allows us to believe the future will be better in order to conquer the present. Hope allows us to find slivers of light in the darkness of this moment. Hope allows us to share that light, to spread that light, to those who need it most.
The Jewish People are a people constantly waiting for Mashiach, not just for Messianic Redemption, but for a Messianic Era – not just for a being to save them, but for a reality in which the world will be better. Even at the worst moments in human history, our tradition teaches us to believe that it’ll get better, to wait for the Messiah. Because all we have is belief. When Jews were marched into the showers at Auschwitz like cattle awaiting slaughter, they slowly sang: Ani Ma’amim b’emunah sheleimah b’viat Hamashiach, ‘I wholeheartedly believe in the coming of the Messiah.’ Moments away from imminent murder, they believed life would get better. The book of Proverbs teaches us (24:16) that a righteous person falls down seven times and gets back up. Being a Tzaddik, living a just life, is not about the blessings we receive, but it is about our perception, and our ability to get back up again — our ability to believe things will get better.
HaTikvah, the national anthem of the State of Israel, which literally translates to “The Hope” declares ‘our hope is not yet lost, the 2000 year old hope, to be a nation free in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” The words of this anthem are powerful, as the modern miracle of the establishment of the state of Israel 72 years ago was a return to Jewish sovereignty in the land after almost 2,000 years of exile. However, what makes the words most powerful as where they come from. Naftali Herz Imber, a poet from Zolochiv, Poland, in modern-day Ukraine, wrote this text in 1878, as part of his poem, Tikvateinu, Our Hope. He wrote it while facing persecution and pogrom; he wrote it 70 years before this hope was realized, a lifetime before this dream was fulfilled. The words of Israel’s national anthem would be powerful under any circumstances, but is all to more so powerful, because Imber writes about hope as a time when his dream seems impossible. His very poem, his hope, inspired him to immigrate to Ottoman-ruled Palestine only a handful of years later.
Admittedly, there have been days over these past six months when it has been hard to get out of bed, like we are stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, repeating the same challenging day again and again and again, waiting for that day when we wake up and life will be better, and life will look different. And as tempting as it is at times to stay in bed, it is hope that gets me out of bed. It is hope that leads me to believe that tomorrow will be better. As the Psalmist taught, ‘we may cry ourselves to sleep at night, but joy comes again in the morning.’ Our entire tradition is based on the idea that tomorrow will be better. Despite the low points and dark days throughout Jewish history, at the core of who we are is the belief that tomorrow will be better. That hope is what gets me out of bed. That hope is what keeps me going.
I could focus on the 6,000,000 Americans who have contracted COVID-19 or I could focus on the almost 200,000 Americans dead, victims of this deadly virus;
We could think about the members of our community who we’ve lost far too soon, and our relatives who we haven’t been able to properly mourn. We could focus on those of us who have been laid off, struggling to find work, or who have had to scale back or close our businesses and now worry about our next mortgage or car payment; I could focus on missed proms and graduations, missed move-in days to dormitories and missed first days at new schools; missed date nights and vacation trips; summer camp memories never made and b’nai mitzvah celebrations that have been delayed. I could focus on all of this, but when I do, I spiral deeper and deeper into the black hole of despair that is 2020. I only see the darkness and anxiously await the joy that will come again in the morning. Hope pulls me out. And hope allows us to pull each other out as well.
During these Yamim Noraim, these days of Awe and Amazement, we begin every day, and conclude every evening reciting the words of Psalm 27. “God is my light and my help, so I have no fear.
God is the strength of my life. I am unafraid… Hope in God. Be strong. Take courage. And hope in God.” In the weeks leading up to this day, and to this new year, we reaffirm every morning and every evening our hope that life will get better. Today we declare that we are unsure who will live and who will die. We accept that so much of life is out of our control, but we hope it’ll be better. Hope doesn’t solve anything. Hope doesn’t make things better. But hope allows us to handle the present. Be strong. Be hopeful. Hope in each other and hope in God. Take courage in each other and in God.
The Prophet Jeremiah refers to God as Mikveh Israel, the Hope of the People of Israel. Midrash on the book of Psalms explains that just as a Mikveh, a ritual bath, returns us to a spiritually pure state, so too does our relationship with God. But Midrash then adds, so does hope. Despair keeps us stuck in that steep, deep, dark hole.
Hope helps us get out. Hope purifies us, sustains us, and gives us life, much like the living waters of the ritual bath. Hope allows us to see the world again in its purest state.
Time Magazine annually prints a Time 100 list – 100 of the most influential people on the planet. This year, the news publication offered an alternative to the list: 100 ways to find hope during a pandemic. And each influential person interviewed for the issue, shared their own thoughts. Ballerina Misty Copeland stressed the importance of taking things “one day at a time.” Olympic Athlete Chloe Kim shared that “all of my best life lessons have come through difficult times.” Ugandan Presidential Candidate Bobi Wine reminded readers that “tough times never last, but tough people do.” Comedian Hasan Minaj suggested doing a physical activity after reading the news.
“You’re going to feel panic and anxiety; do something physical to burn it off. It’ll give you clarity.”
I invite all of us, as we begin this new year of 5781, to share with each other, to share with the Holy One, and to share with ourselves what we are hopeful for. Not as a new year’s resolution, because some things are beyond our total control. But simply as a hope, as a belief, that 5781 will be better. Because believing it will be better, believing it gets better, is truly what the high holidays are all about. We pray, O God, that we together can change the harshness of this reality, we hope for a better world. I hope for the time when our sanctuary is packed again, when I see all of your faces in our pews, rather than on screen. I hope for the time again when our children are crawling up the stairs of our bimah and swinging off the railings in our lobby, for the return of long lines at kiddush buffet tables, waiting for lox and tuna salad.
I hope for more babynamings, and fewer funerals, for more opportunities to celebrate, and less of a need to mourn, and I hope that when our community members are in mourning, we can support each other as we should. I hope for a better time, for a better world, for a return to what I dream of as normal.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom makes a point that “so many Jews are economists fighting poverty, or doctors fighting disease, or lawyers fighting injustice, in all cases refusing to see these things as inevitable.” He adds: “Judaism is a religion of details, but we miss the point if we do not sometimes step back and see the larger picture. To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate.
Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story.”
Since that initial conversation with my son Noah a few months ago, our pandemic bedtime routine has evolved. Each night, lying in bed, before we sing the words of the Shema together, we share what we hope for the future. Some are practical, and so important in the eyes of a six-year-old: “I hope my friends will be able to come to by birthday party.” Others are silly, but bring joy to a young child, joy that is so needed right now, like: “I hope the new Marvel movie comes out in movie theaters soon!” Some seem impossible, but that is the beauty of hope: “I hope we can travel in a spaceship one day and visit another planet.”
Others demonstrate how even young children understand how serious this moment is: “I hope we find a cure for coronavirus, and people stop dying from it.” That is the power of hope. The world that we seek may not come today, or tomorrow, or even be fully realized in this new year of 5781, but still nonetheless, Kaveh El Adonai, chazak v’yametz libecha v’kaveh el Adonai, we hope in God. Be strong. Take courage. And hope in God. Shana Tova.