Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2017

Below is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot at Temple Oheb Shalom in Sandusky, Ohio on September 21st, 2017.

When the year 5776 began two years ago, I was living in Israel, beginning my rabbinical school journey. During that year, I was learning about the basics of our faith, the history of our people, and, most intensely, about life and society in Israel. One of the elements of the year that I found particularly intriguing was that my time in Israel overlapped with the American Primary Season. I was, in a way, getting to experience the American election from the perspective of an outsider. I was getting to see how the world saw us, and how our decisions as a nation had an impact on our allies.

By the time I got home to America in May, the primaries were essentially over. The year, in retrospect, could be fairly significantly defined as a year of polarization. Our nation had divided itself into camps. You had those who identified with Bernie, those who were Trump supporters, those who were With Hillary. What years ago had been impolite to discuss was now unavoidable. To ignore the politics of the world was to appear ignorant or disengaged.

Well, the year 5777 began almost exactly before the election of 2016. What came next was, in many ways, defined by an election in which one candidate received a significant victory in the electoral college, the other receiving a victory of the popular vote by a wide margin. The polarization from the year before was about to shape the coming year.

Thus started the year of reaction. It seemed, over the past 11 months, as if every day came with a new reaction to something going on around us. Donald Trump was sworn in as president, the next day saw the women’s march on Washington. News media outlets published pieces and the White House restricted access. Countless executive orders and bills were brought forward and the public ran to their keyboards to express their frustration and their indignation. Even when our enemy was nature, we reacted, rushing forward to offer donations of time, money, and shelter to those affected by the hurricanes of this past month.

Overwhelmingly, this year of reaction has been difficult to process. We have struggled with a lack of control amidst a world that continues to move in ways that we don’t see coming, surprising us and driving us to actions that, in some cases, we never thought we would have to take. I never thought I would have to explain why participating in climate change agreements were important, yet we did this past year. I never thought we would have to debate what “real news” is, because all of a sudden the foundations of truth have been uprooted by the spread of mislabeled opinion. I never thought that on Rosh Hashanah morning, I would have to be discussing the fact that yes, Naziism is wrong and that Jews would have to live in fear in this nation, one founded on equality and liberty and freedom, of those who seek to destroy us because of our faith that is different from theirs.

We are living in a time of change in the way our society functions. We have easier access to information than ever before, and it is, in some ways, growing difficult to hide from the inundation of data streaming in. With every update, we react. With every news blast, we react. We have gotten to the point where, in the time it takes us to process what has just happened, the world has already moved on, forcing us to grapple with the next dilemma, the next challenge, the next scandal.

The year 5777 has been exhausting, confusing, and difficult. Which is why, in 5778, as we begin anew today, we must turn this year into the year of action, rather than reaction. It is time that we change our focus away from the ever-changing cycle of reaction in favor of proactively making the world a better place.

We know, after all, what this feels like. When we have an experience thrust upon us, a difficult and trying day, we feel that frustration and exhaustion from the loss of control and the demand to catch up. But, when we know what we are about to set out to do, when we have our marching orders before we embark, we feel like we’re accomplishing something, like we’re making a difference. The ownership fuels us. The action inspires us.

What does that look like, though? It can start in the simplest of ways. In Cincinnati, like many communities, we have a high population of homeless and hungry people, asking for money on street corners. They stand on the highway off ramp and ask for handouts. It was in my fourth month in the city that I finally got frustrated with the constant feeling of inadequacy. I wasn’t able to clothe them or shelter them or help them in all the ways they needed. What could I do? How could I become part of the solution?

I finally decided that I would buy a box of granola bars that I would keep in my car. I can’t be giving money every time someone needs help, but I can help ease a little bit of hunger for today. Maybe it’s granola bars. Maybe it’s a few blankets or hand warmers as the days grow colder. We, as individuals, have the ability to look at those who need help around us and to reach out and make their lives easier. The assumption, of course, is that if I make this tiny little effort, than everyone else will join with me. In our tradition, Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that it isn’t our job to complete the task, but we aren’t free to ignore it either. We have a difference to make, and we each have to do our part to make it happen.

Now, not all help has to be financial, but sometimes a donation of money is the best way to help a specific cause that we’re passionate about. When you make your donation, though, don’t do it alone in your home. Tell people about it! Share it on social media. Organize games and activities around making donations to causes that speak to you. Maybe you make a bet on football. For every loss by the Browns, you donate to your favorite charity (and there will be many of them). Maybe you ask your friends to sponsor your daily walk; for every mile you traverse, your friends will donate to the cause of your choice. Find friends who will match your donations and partner in your work and all of a sudden, your giving grows beyond what you can afford, and your ability to make a change grows too. It may sound like bragging about the good you’re doing, but in reality, it may be an inspiration to someone else to do their own version of good.

A huge part about taking intentional action to make the world a better place is about wearing your values on your sleeve. So many of the problems we are facing today are as a result of the animosities and resentments people are holding in their heart. We are experiencing racism, sexism, bigotry, religious intolerance. While I am only able to control the way I think and feel, I am able to share that with other people. Letting someone know that you are there for them, that you care, that you respect them as an individual is a powerful thing, something that we all too often overlook. These outward expressions of support are subtle, but they could go a long way toward letting someone in your life know that they are not alone in their fight against oppression, and that they have a partner on their journey.

One of the inherent problems with my theory, of course, is that if everyone listens, not everyone will be taking action in the same direction. If I go out and do, and someone who opposes me goes out and does, then we are pushing against one another. But, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, “decisions are made by those who show up.” We need to be present, we need to stand up, and we need to go out and fight for the world we wish to create. When that happens, truth and righteousness have a way of rising to the top.

Proverbs teaches us that “a person who runs to do just, good, and kind deeds attains life, success, and honor.” But we are meant to go run to do that work. The days of sitting back and waiting for the world to change around us are over. We have spent a year reacting, allowing others to decide where we are going to put our attention and our energy. Now is the time that we must take ownership of the places and the things that we want to exert our influence, the ways that we want to make an impact.

Rabbi Hillel famously asked the question: “If not now, when?” 5778 is the year for us to take action. 5778 is the year for us to go out and busy ourselves with the repair of the world. 5778 is the year that we take control of our task. May we all work together to fight for a brighter future.

Shana Tova.

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July 11th: What Mega Churches Have to Teach

Growing up, I was fascinated with Joel Osteen. The televangelist was able to reach an audience on a weekly basis that blew me away, and his words were able to have an impact that was so incredibly powerful and moving. I had always wondered: what could we, as the Jewish community, learn from seeing his success and the way he has run his community?

I finally went to find out. My father and I traveled to Houston last week to experience a service at Lakewood Church, the largest church in America. Built out of the remains of the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets had once played, the church was a cathedral of modern religion. Throughout the service, there were some powerful lessons in things that the Megachurch is able to do that Jewish communities need to emulate, and others that we need to be very careful to avoid.

Things the Jewish community needs to learn from the Megachurch:

  • Lifestyle of church attendance

From the very start, the church was clearly selling a lifestyle. Church isn’t viewed as a luxury of time, something to do only when it’s convenient. No, the church is a place to go on a regular basis, as many as three or four times a day. The programming they offer matches everyday needs of modern people, from seminars on maintaining a healthy marriage to discussion groups on meaningful and pertinent topics. The church is selling the idea that participation in programs is a route to a more meaningful and fulfilling life, something that anyone with a passion for religious community can understand. Jewish communities have been offering worship services and religious school for generations, but we have a long way to go as a collection of congregations in terms of making participation on the temple an essential part of the experience of life. Going to church isn’t a question, just like going to the grocery store isn’t a matter of “if I have time.” We, as Jewish communities, need to figure out how to sell people on the idea that participation isn’t a luxury but a necessity for meaningful living.

  • Music

It would have been hard to tell if the prayer service we experienced was church worship or a rock concert. Between the full band, the lighting, and the smoke machines, the vibe was that of a party, of a celebration of the greatness of God and community. This sure beats the droll, traditional music that too many places of worship occupy. Of course, not everyone can afford a full scale band and performance caliber musicians, but the central idea is that worship doesn’t have to feel dogmatic. Innovation and enthusiasm speak volumes about the experience that they are attempting to create. And it was far more spiritually moving. It wasn’t just that it was fun to watch or listen to, it was the sensation that a community coming together to celebrate life at its finest can feel like a real connection to the divine. We need to take a note from this book and figure out how to turn services into celebrations of the greatness of life and of God, rather than an act of repetition of a thousand years of ritual practice.

  • Modern message with religious context

The sermon that we heard at Lakewood dealt with the importance of perseverance, overcoming the challenges of daily life in order to strive for your goal. And the anecdotes and lessons the preacher shared were relatable, were powerful, and were able to touch a nerve for everyone listening. There was substantive sourcework for biblical passages to support her ideas, and she was able to make her point about life while using a fascinating mixture of scripture and real-world application. While Jewish communities are doing better than ever before at this, it was a powerful lesson in the way a message can hit home when the lessons of our tradition are applied to the world around us. We have to learn how to offer something fresh, something that feels modern and applicable. By combining our texts with the world around us, we are able to provide guidance and help that our congregants desperately need, while giving them a service that they can’t get anywhere else. Only religious institutions are able to combine the moral backdrop for grappling with modernity in this way. We need to grow more comfortable with grappling with our texts and asking the vital question: how does this make sense in my life right now?

 

The dangers of the Megachurch:

  • The Relationship with Money

A Megachurch is only able to work because of the profound income they create by way of tithes and contributions. They have created a system where church attendance comes with a weekly financial contribution, one that comes with a not-so-subtle subtext: if you contribute to the congregation, God will take care of you. A significant portion of the service was dedicated to this message. By giving your money to the church, they reasoned, God would smile upon you and would make the money you had left to multiply. By giving your money to the church, you were not only facilitating the good work of the church, but you were also creating good-will with God for yourself, with the promise that God will turn around and give you more than you already have. This message, delivered by a woman holding a brand-new iPhone and wearing a multi-thousand dollar watch, is a dangerous one when presented to a great many people who don’t have enough for themselves. Everyone wants to believe that, by giving money to God, God will take care of you. But, for the general public, this results in a large percentage of money going into the church, leaving congregants with even greater financial challenges when they walked in the door. Anyone selling the idea that you need to buy your way into heaven needs to be considered with caution, and can be a dangerous message for people who are desperate for a better life.

  • Indoctrination

This was the place where church got a little bit scary. At one point, the preacher was talking about when obstacles come along and try to get you to stop your pursuit of your dreams. She said that this doubt was the devil whispering in your ear, telling you you can’t do something, and that all thinking is the work of the devil. When that thinking happens, you’re supposed to turn your brain off, open your bible, and drown out the voices in your head. I struggle with any ideology that tells me that independent thinking and asking questions is the work of the devil. The entire experience called for a kind of repetitive rote performance of life, following the instructions of the church leaders and of the bible while preventing the kind of independent thinking that leads to trouble. Of course, this derives from the idea that human beings are inherently sinners and in need of guidance away from our natural inclination for sin. This is a fundamental difference between the work of Judaism and the work of Christianity. Judaism doesn’t believe in this kind of thinking; in fact, questioning and grappling are inherent to understanding one’s faith and understanding of their Judaism.

 

Throughout the experience at Lakewood, I learned the importance of experiencing a variety of different ways of understanding religion in a modern context. I may have been the first person in that building wearing a kippah in a very long time, but there was so much to learn about the way others communicate message of faith, and so much we can learn about how to get our message out to others. We are all striving for meaning in the world around us, and Lakewood Church is offering a version of that reality that has something to teach as Jewish communities try to express a message of our own.

June 30th: An Obituary for Truth

For as long as anyone can remember, humanity has been recording our version of truth. From stone tablets and cave drawing, people have attempted to understand the world around us through written and visual means, taking stock of the world and attempting to come to terms with the profundity of what it means to occupy it.

Unfortunately, truth has met its untimely demise. Fact has come to an end, flatlining with a dying breath. In its place, we have seen the rise of deceit, of opinion dressing up as the tried and true, pawning itself off as if it believed that if it could just scream loud enough, make itself heard above the noise, than maybe, just maybe, we would let it occupy the same place in our heart that honesty and knowledge has vacated.

To blame it on any single individual or group would be folly. No, you see, it is actually the cacophony of voices that has caused this downfall. Anyone with an IP address can write their own version of fact, anyone with an internet connection can publish their own views of the world. What was created as an attempt to give people access to the profound knowledge that humanity has created has instead become its very undoing, the very vehicle by which it has met its end.

Truth and justice were diagnosed with a case of “fake news” in the wake of an election that shocked the world. “Fake news” was held responsible for polling data that told us that this would never happen, COULD never happen. What we thought was a diagnosis in fact turned quickly into a weapon, a kind of bullet in the gun for those who wished to see the end to honesty and integrity. At that moment, “fake news” became the strongest tool to dismantling the foundation of truth and knowledge.

What ensued was a Press Secretary who refuses to answer questions. What followed was a President who gets to decide who gets an interview and who is left sitting in the dark. What came next were reporters who were told they could not use video recordings or written notes about briefings, for fear that they might expose a truth that was abhorrent to the values of those in power.

We tried to save it. We used our statistics and our data and our reason to attempt to ease the suffering that truth was enduring. But no facts or figures are as comforting as a baseless opinion is, nothing as easy as a deeply held belief.

The demise of fact was not reserved for press rooms and the Oval Office. No, truth has met its end in the homes of all Americans. 50% of the country believes one thing, 50% believes another, and it doesn’t matter what the data says, but only that we believe it, so it must be our own personal version of truth. We argue online and we argue in restaurants, bus stops, offices, and living rooms. We would rather surround ourselves with people who share our opinions, rather than be confronted by a notion of truth that would be displeasing to our ears and our minds.

So with that, we put truth to rest in peace. We will, of course, continue to write and draw and speak, the habitual behavior of a society mourning a loved one. But they will be only the sad musings of a people trying to grapple with our own identity and failing to see anything beyond the scope of our own blinded view.

May the memory of fact continue to live on in our hearts, and may those who have seen and loved it continue to think wistfully of a day when truth and fact’s vision for a more honest world, a world with more integrity shall come into being.

Amen.

June 13th: The Jewish Whiteness Question

I took a Southwest flight for the first time this past week. I experienced the fierce battle that is finding an aisle seat with a priority spot in the B section, and waited, while the rest of the plane filled up around me. Finally, a man and his 10-year-old daughter sat down in the two seats next to me with a smile and a head nod, and everything seemed to be going just fine.

As we began to taxi toward take-off, I took off my Cubs hat and put it on my knee. As I did, I noticed the man’s face next to me change as he discovered the kippah on my head. The man didn’t get upset, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t get aggressive. But he was most definitely uncomfortable. What he had thought was a perfectly normal traveling companion had turned out to be an “other,” someone different than what he expected. He remained quite polite, still treated me just fine, but the look on his face told me that my ability to pass as a white person had disappeared in the flash of a moment.

In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence into the evaluation of the whiteness of Jews, perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman (played by an Israeli woman), or perhaps simply because it’s about that time of year again.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that, unlike other minority groups, a large percentage of Jews are light-skinned. This allows many Jews to “pass” as white, fitting into the majority without any outward signs of their ‘otherness’. This means that, if they so choose, many Jews are able to pick and choose when they identify themselves as Jewish, and when they get to fit in with the rest of society.

Yet, at the same time, we are only 75 years removed from a time when it didn’t matter what color your skin was. Jews were murdered for their identity, regardless of their outward looks. Sure, a small percentage of Jews were able to hide their beliefs in favor of fitting in with the rest of the German people, but that didn’t stop the extermination of 6 million Jews, having nothing to do with the color of their skin. We can discuss and debate and argue all we want about our whiteness, and someone else can snatch it away in an instant.

The vital piece here is that it doesn’t matter what the outside expressions are: the moment one’s Judaism is exposed, their ability to pass disappears, just as mine did on the airplane last week. Sometimes that comes with questions, sometimes it comes with distrust or anti-semitism, and sometimes it is simply cataloged away as fact. Jews are only able to enjoy the privilege of whiteness so long as their “true identity” remains hidden, which, in turn, means that it isn’t true whiteness.

The truth, though, is that Jews shouldn’t be debating about their whiteness. Our ability to pass is seen by many as the opportunity to fade into the background, to be able to turn on and turn off our role in either community. I posit, rather, that we, as white Jews, have an obligation to maintain our membership status in both the “white” and “minority” communities, in order to create a better world for those around us who don’t have the same privilege. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be lights unto the nations, that we are supposed to protect the stranger because we too have been strangers. We need to use our outward appearances to bring other white members of the majority into a willingness to listen, to understand, to embrace the diversity of other members of our communities. If I am using my whiteness to hide, I am fundamentally misunderstanding my privilege AND my faith. As a white Jew, my privilege is that I have the tools to force the door open and make the world a more inclusive place for others who don’t have the same foot in the door.

One of the greatest challenges of this conversation is that, by confronting the notion of whether or not Jews are white, it actually is forcing the issue of putting people into boxes. When we force a label on a group of people, we are asking them to bend their identities to match your understanding. Instead, we need to embrace the indeterminacy. We need to stop trying to identify whether or not someone IS a particular category and need to start embracing individuals. We need to stop treating all Jews as the same, all whites as the same, all blacks as the same, all of any group as experiencing the same issues. A Jew of color knows that their experience is very different from my own. When I meet a Jew of color, I don’t want to assume things about them, I want to learn about their experience and their identity. I hope that, even as a white Jew, I can be given the same opportunity.

It is always difficult to write something like this, knowing that I open myself up to the immediate disregard by someone saying “well, you have white privilege, you don’t get it.” I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to be anyone else, or to have struggled like anyone else. All I am pursuing is a deeper understanding of identity than simply the demographic groups we fall into. If we really want to get to a point where we are creating spaces of inclusion and welcoming, we need to be doing so with the understanding that we human beings are complicated jumbles of identity, and that, in some cases, we need to be willing to understand that we are not always going to understand. When we don’t understand, we have the obligation to ask, and the opportunity to learn.

March 12th: Purim Shows Us the Beauty of Standing Up Together

The following is a transcript of the sermon delivered by Austin Zoot at Temple B’nei Israel in Kokomo, IN.

Purim is a rabbi’s dream holiday for giving in a sermon. It seems like every year, the values of Shushan can be applied to the world around us. This year is no exception.

The story of Purim starts with a man, Haman, who, as advisor to the king, wishes that every man bow before him. When a Jew, Mordechai, refuses to do so, Haman becomes furious. Rather than taking his anger out on the individual, though, Haman decides that it should be all Jews who are killed. He plans to destroy all Jews, because of his qualms with one he didn’t like.

When Hama approaches the king to tell him of his plan to destroy the Jews, he doesn’t identify the Jews by name. Instead, he tells the king that there is “a people” living in the kingdom who are different, who have their own customs and rules. He claims that they are responsible for the ills of the kingdom, that they are the problem that keeps the country from greatness. The King, knowing little about the “enemy” tells Haman to do as he sees fit, giving him keys to do as he wishes. This is a classic case of scapegoating. We see it in Shushan, we see it in Medieval Spain, we see it in Holocaust Germany. In every case, it was the Jews who were blamed for the problems of the entire country.

Well, that faceless enemy receives a face when the king discovers that Mordechai the Jew had once saved his life. Through an interaction that showed the honor and bravery of the Jews, the king was able to have an example to offset all the stereotypes, to have experience that would later call into question the detail-deficient claims of hatred that Haman levied against them.

Well, the one thing Haman hadn’t counted on was a Jew who had found some power. Esther, the queen, who had used her beauty and her bravery to gain some standing in the court of the king, was able to stand up for herself and for her people. She revealed her identity to the king in order to show that the faceless people Haman hoped to destroy. She was willing to stand up and risk her own safety, her own ability to pass, in exchange for standing up for those who didn’t have the same opportunity.

Listening to the story of Purim this year, it rings true in the political landscape of America. We live in an America where a leader attempts to convince us that it is because of “others” that things are bad. Immigrants from Mexico and Muslim countries are the problem, and that without them, our lives would be so much better. Well, the truth is, if we got rid of Mexicans and Muslims, the problems would still be here. Instead of trying to find solutions, we have found ourselves finding scapegoats.

In our country, we are more siloed than ever. Social media certainly doesn’t help. We spend so much of our lives talking to people who look like us, sound like us, act like us. We lose sight of the diversity in the world because we are so able to find communities that match our own identity. This leads us to have far less contact with the “others” that we are sold to believe are the cause for the problems we face. Yet, we know what it feels like to meet someone of another identity and learn that they don’t fit into the boxes we’ve established for them. We meet an individual who doesn’t match the stereotype, and we are forced to confront the fact that maybe we don’t fully understand this other, that maybe there is more to other people than their religion or their culture of origin.

Having been in this position time and time again, Jews have a moral obligation to stand up for scapegoats, both those we know and those we don’t. Many (not all, but many) Jews have the ability to “pass” as white, to choose whether or not to display our identity. We have an obligation to ensure that America does not become Shushan, that we do not allow the “other” to become a scapegoat for the problems that we are too lazy or too distracted to actually confront head on.

In that regard, we have three role models in the Purim story.

We must be like Esther, who used her little bit of power to stand up for others. She refused to sit idly by and watch as her people were destroyed. She used her voice to defend those who had no voice of their own.

We must be like Mordechai, and be good emissaries to the rest of the world. Mordechai was able to represent the best of Judaism, and serve as an example, showing the rest of the world the good things that Jews can do. By living ethical, moral lives, we can become examples of what it means for Jews to be productive and cherished members of society.

And, most underrated in the Purim story, sometimes we need to embody King Achashverosh. You see, when the king discovered the plot that had been created behind his back, he was able to learn, to broaden his understanding of those living around him, and to allow the space for the society to expand to include others. It would have been simple for the king to ignore what was going on, to hide behind the bureaucratic process. But instead, he acknowledged he didn’t know something before, and demonstrated a willingness to change his behavior when he had learned more. We have the same chance. As we continue to learn more about the people around us, we have the chance to adapt, and to expand the way we think.

Everyone’s favorite fun-fact about Purim is that God’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the Megillah, the story of Purim. The entire story happens without any divine intervention or involvement. The symbolism is quite beautiful. It would be easy to sit back and wait for God to swoop in and fix the world, to take the ownership away from us. But that isn’t how it works. Instead, it is on us to make sure that we are preventing the kind of scapegoating and blame that threatens our society. If we wait until someone else will save us, someone else will stand up for others, it may never happen.

May we stand up for others like Queen Esther. May we be good representations of our own people like Mordechai. And may we continue to change and grow as we learn more and know more like King Achashverosh.

Chag Purim Sameach. Happy Purim.