December 26, 2012

As We Begin -- 9/6/74

With this posting, a sermon entitled As We Begin, we ironically come to the end of this centennial tribute to the life and words of Rabbi Sidney Ballon. I hope these selections have captured the depth and breadth of his lifelong message to the congregations he served. Sidney Ballon loved Judaism—its principles, its history, its people. He was passionate about the State of Israel. He was deeply concerned about the future of the Jewish people, wanting to preserve it, as much as for any other reason, to sustain its unique set of values.

What follows is not his final sermon, though it was delivered only weeks before his death. His last evening in the pulpit and presumably the last sermon he delivered was November 8, 1974. In his remarks that night he commemorated the centennial of the birth of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader and the first President of the State of Israel. It was a scholarly depiction of an historic Jewish figure. Nonetheless, rather than reproduce those words here, I have chosen the first sermon that Rabbi Ballon delivered at his new “retirement” pulpit in Brunswick, Georgia. These were his thoughts as he set out on a new, albeit short and final chapter of his life. He was filled with hope and optimism, and beautifully expressed some of his basic values to introduce himself to his new community.

As we begin, let us resolve to come to this place often, to pray devotedly, to study faithfully and to be inspired by community togetherness. May this synagogue be for all a source of strength as the synagogue has always been the strength of our people in the past, and in the words taken from the Torah reading this evening, “May God command His blessing upon us— b'chol mishlach yadecha—upon all that we put forth our hands to do.”


Rabbi Levi Yitschak of Berditchev[i] was a saintly rabbi of the 18th century. The story is told that just after the morning service in his synagogue had been concluded, he shook hands with several of the participants and spoke to them saying, “Shalom aleichem, shalom aleichem,”  and he greeted each one of them as though they had just returned from some faraway place. These congregants were puzzled and looked at him with a questioning expression on their face, and he said to them,

Why are you so surprised? Anyone could see that you were just now far away. You, my friend, were thinking about a vacation. And you were in the marketplace. And only when the prayers ended were you all back again. You had returned from your mental journeys, so naturally, I welcomed you with shalom aleichem.

Like Levi Yitschak I greet you all now with “Shalom aleichem,”[ii] however, not for the same reason. I do not at all mean to imply that your minds were wandering during the service. But you have now returned for your first gathering for worship after the inactivity of the summer and this is the first service I conduct as your rabbi, so it is appropriate for all of us to greet each other with shalom aleichem. Greetings! And may these new beginnings develop into a meaningful experience and a happy relationship through the coming year.

As we begin together, it is only natural also to raise the questions, “What are our expectations? What are our objectives?” The answers are not difficult to find. The synagogue throughout the ages, wherever it has been located, has had three traditional functions that we want to fulfill here in Brunswick also, to the best of our ability, even though the community be small. These three functions have been indicated by the three separate terms with which Jews have always referred to the synagogue. One of these terms that have been applied to all synagogues in general, you have even used as the specific name for your synagogue here, Beth Tefilla, House of Prayer. In so doing, it has, perhaps, been indicated that the founders of this congregation put a special emphasis on the need to assemble in the synagogue for prayer, even though, I am certain, that they did not at all intend the other two functions to be neglected. This emphasis on prayer is, perhaps, not as strong today as it once was. Many Jews today do not pray as often or as fervently as their fathers or grandfathers did, but the importance of prayer remains.

The significance of prayer becomes clearer when we analyze the meaning of the word. In Hebrew, the word to pray is l'hitpalel. The root of this word is closely related to another Hebrew word, nafal, meaning to fall. Thus prayer is quite naturally connected with prostration and bowing and kneeling. It indicates reverence for the power above upon whom we are dependent. But the Hebrew word to pray is also related to another Hebrew word, palal, which means to judge. What is most interesting of all is that the word to pray in Hebrew is a grammatical form, peculiar to Semitic languages, which indicates a reflexive action. Thus the root palal means to judge, but the word to pray, l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb meaning literally to judge one's self. Thus the Hebrew concept of prayer is that it is an act of self-judgment. Approaching the High Holy Day season, as we do now, it is pertinent to point out that every time you pray, it is as though a touch of the High Holy Days is involved. In prayer one articulates goals and ideals and measures himself against their standard. He compares himself as he is to what his conscience tells him he ought to be. He speaks to himself as much as to God, and the answer to his prayer comes in the extent to which he betters himself and comes closer to the ideal. Samuel S. Cohon,[iii] for many years, professor of theology at the Hebrew Union College wrote, "Prayer makes our shadowy ideals shine forth like radiant stars... and shows us the role we are to play in life. We learn to judge ourselves in the light of these ideals."

Sherwood Eddy,[iv] a Christian theologian was of a similar opinion. "Prayer is not to change God," he wrote, "but our own ignorant and sinful hearts. It is like the pull of a rope from a small boat upon a great ship at anchor. It is not the ship that moves but the little boat."

Thus, the implication is that prayer is not to be considered as a request for supernatural intervention in behalf of our personal wants, but rather the effort to lift ourselves above selfish concerns and to reach up toward the highest and finest ideals with which we would like to be identified. The objective of Temple Beth Tefilla as a Bet Tefilla is to develop that reach.

The synagogue has also been called the Beth Hamidrash, the House of Study. In Jewish life study was also a form of worship. In the Ethics of the Fathers we are told that an ignorant man cannot be a pious man.[v]  The Jew without knowledge was always considered to be a contradiction in terms. Being Jewish was never a matter of blind faith in the Jewish conception of God. Being Jewish involves an awareness of the Jewish past, and hopes for the future. Being Jewish involves knowledge of procedure and conduct, which one gains from the study of Jewish texts. Being Jewish is like being in a profession. We would never expect a physician or an attorney to practice without adequate background in medicine or law. So also is background essential to Jewishness. Take all the virtues and put them together, said the rabbis, and “talmud Torah k’neged kulam— Jewish knowledge equals them all.”[vi]

The poet Bialik[vii] paid a beautiful tribute to the synagogue as a house of study when he wrote, in part,
If thou wouldst know the mystic fount from whence
Thy tortured brethren drew in evil days their strength of soul
If thou wouldst know the fortress whither bore
Thy sires to haven safe their Torah scroll
Go then into the House of Study grown old...
Thy heart will tell thee then
That thy feet tread the marge of our life's fount.
That thine eyes behold the treasures of our soul.

It is our hope also that this synagogue will continue to be for us a source of strength of soul, a storehouse of spiritual treasure.

And the third title the synagogue has carried is as the Beth Knesset—the house of assembly. The implication of this term is that the synagogue is the center and the rallying place for every activity of Jewish interest. It is the institution through which we find fellowship with other Jews and best express our Jewish identity. True, there are other organizations and institutions through which individuals may engage themselves in a Jewish activity, but it is interesting to note that in a community such as this, our other organizations have not taken hold. Only the synagogue has maintained itself. That is because the synagogue is an historic institution deeply rooted in the past and represents all the eternal values of Judaism and not merely certain specific, immediate projects. The synagogue provides not only a means of association with our Jewish neighbors of the community in which we live, but also a spiritual unity with all of the Jewish people throughout the world and throughout all time—past, present and future. The common loyalty of Jews to the synagogue is the strongest force which binds Jews to one another and makes for Jewish survival. Therefore, Jews of Brunswick and vicinity must look upon this synagogue as a place where we seek out our fellow Jews and associate with those who share our common heritage. We seek here to give inspiration to one another and to strengthen each other in our Jewish loyalties.

Of course, we have all undoubtedly met with individuals who say they can function very well as Jews without finding their way to the synagogue. They tell you they can pray in the corner of their home, and it is just as meaningful. They can read their own books and gather knowledge in private. They can find their fellow Jews, if they want to, in secular activities. And what they say is partly valid. Jews are certainly not discouraged from praying privately in their homes, but Judaism does make a special virtue of public prayer. It has always been considered preferable to pray with a minyan. The Talmud says, "One who does not attend the synagogue to pray, if there is one in his town, is not a good neighbor.” Maimonides, likewise, offered the opinion that it is necessary for every person to join with a congregation in prayer as long as there is the opportunity to join in community worship.

Nor are Jews discouraged from studying by themselves, but the Ethics of the Fathers advises, “Asay cha rav uknay l’cha chaver—get yourself a rabbinic teacher and acquire a companion”[viii] against whom to sharpen one's wits. One learns more in a good setting with a teacher and companions than by relying on oneself alone.

And, of course, we can find our fellow Jews in secular Jewish organizations as well as religious, if there are any in our community, but Jewish activity which does not recognize our basic character as a religious people and the motivating power of the religious ideal, is lacking a basic element of Jewishness. If we want to be complete Jews, if we have any concern for a Jewish future, we must turn to the synagogue for direction and staying power.

We now approach the High Holy Days and it is a time for serious thoughts. The fact that you and I also begin tonight a new period in the story of this congregation adds to the significance of this Sabbath. As we begin, let us resolve to come to this place often, to pray devotedly, to study faithfully and to be inspired by community togetherness. May this synagogue be for all a source of strength as the synagogue has always been the strength of our people in the past, and in the words taken from the Torah reading this evening, “May God command His blessing upon us— b'chol mishlach yadecha—upon all that we put forth our hands to do.”


[i] Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Ukraine (1740–1809), was a Hasidic rabbi and one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He authored the Hasidic classic Kedushas Levi, which is a commentary on many Jewish religious books and laws, and is arranged according to the weekly Torah portion.
[ii] Shalom aleichem is a greeting in Yiddish and Hebrew, meaning "peace to you." It is first found in Genesis 43:23. Only the plural form is used even when addressing one person. A religious explanation for this is that one greets both the body and the soul.
[iii] Samuel Solomon Cohon (1888-1959), Reform rabbi, former chair of theology at the Hebrew  Union College -Jewish Institute of Religion. His writings include What We Jews Believe (1931) and The Theology of the Union Prayer Book (1928). He edited the Revised Union Haggadah (1923), the Rabbi's Manual (1928) under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union Prayer Book (1945).
[iv] Sherwood Eddy (1871-1963) was an American Protestant missionary, author, administrator and educator. He served as a traveling evangelist from India, China, Japan, and the Philippines, through the Near East to Turkey, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and then to czarist and later to Soviet Russia.
[v] Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 2:6, Hillel used to say: “A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.”
[vi] "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam—the study of Torah is greater than them all." (Mishneh Peah 1:1, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a): These are duties whose worth cannot be measured—honoring one’s father and mother, acts of love and kindness, diligent pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, celebrating with bride and groom, praying with sincerity, consoling the bereaved, making peace where there is  strife, and the study of Torah leads to them all.
[vii] Chaim Nahman Bialik (1873 –1934, was a Jewish poet who wrote primarily in Hebrew but also in Yiddish. Bialik was one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry and came to be recognized as Israel's national poet.
[viii] Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 1:6, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perachya says, "Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably."

December 6, 2012

Rabbis Debate Mixed Marriages -- 1/14/72

In an otherwise evenhanded and rational exposition of the merits of both sides of a controversial issue, Rabbi Ballon not only reiterates his stand against performing mixed marriages, he also drops an “H-bomb.” For many, it is quite painful to hear the suggestion that mixed marriages are akin to doing “Hitler's work.” Moreover, thinking among the Jewish community has evolved in recent times, providing a more welcoming attitude toward mixed marriages, often seeing the glass half full when some Jewish identity is preserved. With apologies to those who find his choice of words painful, I nonetheless felt compelled to include this sermon as an important component of Ballon’s philosophy of that era.
There are compelling arguments on both sides and no rabbi believes that the weight of the argument is 100% in his favor, but the majority of us do believe that there must be standards in Jewish life and that we cannot countenance an attitude that almost anything goes even in an all-Jewish marriage.


The Association of Reform Rabbis of New York and Vicinity had a double length meeting this past week, in the course of which several speakers presented papers directed to the question, “Shall Reform rabbis officiate at mixed marriages?”—a very delicate subject. This program was scheduled because of what happened at the last meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the national body of the Reform rabbinate. There the proposal had been made by the outgoing president that the Conference go on record as opposing the mixed marriages and, being opposed, also to any of its members performing a mixed marriage. By mixed marriage or inter-marriage, another term that is used, is meant the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew, who has not converted. If the partner to the marriage who was originally non-Jewish has converted to Judaism, then there is no problem involved. Both parties are Jewish, and it is a Jewish marriage in all respects. The question applies only when the non-Jew does not convert.

When this matter came up before the last conference, it was voted that no statement be passed at that time, in order to avoid hasty action. It was suggested that the matter be held over for the next conference and that in the meantime it be discussed during the year at the various regional meetings that members of the Conference hold throughout the country. And so it was done. And so it came to pass that we in this area devoted a special session to the subject this past week.

The question has a history. This was not the first time the matter had been brought up at a session of the Conference. In 1909 the Conference had considered the matter, and the following resolution was adopted: “The CCAR declares that mixed marriages are contrary to the tradition of the Jewish religion and should, therefore, be discouraged by the American rabbinate.” The matter was again brought up at least twice in subsequent years. There have always been those who wanted the Conference to say bluntly that a rabbi ought not to officiate at such a marriage rather than merely tried to discourage. But each time after discussion, a change was rejected and the 1909 resolution remained the official position of the Conference.[i]

It is interesting to note that in 1947 a committee report recommended there being no change in the Conference stand and said that:
…if the Conference were to state that no rabbi ought to officiate at a mixed marriage, it would imply that rabbis actually do officiate at a considerable number of such marriages and that we are trying to put an end to an evil situation. But that is not so. It rarely happens that one of our colleagues officiates at such a marriage. When it does happen it is under unusual circumstances. What should we do when under unusual circumstances which seem justifiable to him? One of our colleagues does officiate at a mixed marriage. Would we expel him from our conference, or in some other way discipline him? Surely it is sufficient if the Conference declares its unequivocal opposition to mixed marriages and calls upon its members to discourage them.

The question arises again, however, in the 1970s because some new changes are taking place in American society. The statement just read that it rarely happens that one of our colleagues officiates at such a marriage is no longer true, even if it were true then. There is an increasing incidence of mixed marriages and more rabbis perform them, possibly as much as a fourth or even a third of the Reform rabbinate. According to one estimate, mixed marriages have increased as the American Jewish community has become more acculturated and such marriages are less objectionable to non-Jews than they used to be. There have been increased opportunities for young people of different faiths to meet. In years gone by mixed marriages more often involved a Jewish boy and a girl of lower social and economic level, and she was generally agreeable to conversion to satisfy the boy’s family. More recently there is no difference in social and economic level, and more frequently Jewish girls are marrying non-Jewish boys. There seems to be less pressure for conversion. The non-Jew often does choose to convert but not necessarily because pressured into it. More and more also there is a desire on the part of young people themselves to have a religious ceremony even though there is no conversion. They do not want a civil ceremony and so many come to a Rabbi. Another significant change today has been in the attitude of the Catholic Church. The church now permits mixed marriages without any prior conditions, and even welcomes other clergy to stand with a priest in performing the ceremony. This is quite different from what used to be, and it applies pressure to the rabbinate. Previously it was more or less accepted that rabbis would not perform a mixed marriage. Neither did the Catholic priests, but now because the church has yielded the public feels that rabbis ought to yield also. And something else seems to be happening in some places. Whereas previously it was the rabbi who performed a mixed marriage, who was considered out of step, today, some congregations are actually specifying to the rabbinic placement committee that they want a rabbi who will perform next marriages. It is not the rabbi who performs the mixed marriages who is on the defensive. It is the rabbi who does not, who is often called upon to defend his stand.

In view of what has just been indicated, there are some in the Conference who would like to make the Conference statement on mixed marriages a bit stronger. They want to make the fact of opposition clearer and to forbid members of the Conference to perform such ceremonies. This really would not make much difference to the individual rabbi who still wants to perform such a ceremony because the Conference has no binding authority, but it would strengthen the hand of those who do not perform the ceremony. If there should be some conflict with congregations. Congregational members would understand that the rabbi’s position is not an on justifiable rigidity on his part but is the standard of the Reform rabbinate.

What is the reasoning for and against? First of all, it must be pointed out that both sides agree that it is preferable that Jews marry within the faith, and both sides are realistic enough to know that in an open society such as we presently live in a certain number of mixed marriages are inevitable.[ii] Where there is frequent social contact, and our college campuses, in particular, revived such contact, then it is inevitable that such contacts, leads to marriages, some of which will cross religious lines. Both sides agree that the perpetuation of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people is a desirable goal and that mixed marriages threaten this perpetuation. I think also that both sides agree that the chances for a happy marriage are greater if husband and wife, from a similar background. The disagreement is which course of action with regard to appreciating best serves these purposes and to whom the rabbi has a greater responsibility, to the individuals concerned or to the Jewish people at large.

Those who would perform mixed marriages suggest that to say that mixed marriages are contrary to Jewish tradition is no real argument for Reform rabbis. We do go contrary to tradition in many other ways. How, therefore, can we appeal to tradition on this point. I am inclined to agree with this. The very nature of Reform is such that it is guided by tradition but not bound to it. Therefore, to say that we must do anything solely because it is traditional has no force. We have gone against tradition in other important respects, such as kashrut or the wearing of the hacked at services or the use of the kit tuba at a wedding and if deemed advisable we could choose to go against tradition in this matter as well. It is further suggested that we may gain more for Judaism by performing the ceremony that by refusing. The non-Jew who is willing to be married in a Jewish ceremony is already somewhat receptive to Judaism, and it may be that after marriage and after more contact with Jewish life, the non-Jew will come forward voluntarily and ask for conversion. We would be helping a couple maintain a relationship with the Jewish community rather than sending, perhaps, into the church, for their ceremony. If conversion is demanded in advance of the ceremony, it is argued, we are taking advantage of the non-Jew by making conversion the price of the ceremony and bringing about a conversion under pressure, which in the long run may prove meaningless. It may be something ignored immediately after the ceremony because there was no sincerity in the first place. We, as rabbis, if there is a conversion may be therefore helping someone violate his own integrity. If we refuse to marry without conversion we may be driving away a couple from Judaism who otherwise might have become part of it. Most rabbis who do perform mixed marriages do demand that a promise be made that the children will be brought up as Jews. Some do so without any conditions. But by asking that the children be brought up as Jews, the rabbis who asked for this promise feel that they are assuring Jewish survival and fulfilling their obligation to the Jewish future.

Rabbis who refused to officiate at mixed marriages look at it differently. It is recognized that any individual has the right to arrange his life as he chooses. If he chooses to marry outside of the faith that is a decision the individual has a right to make, but if he does so, he must accept the consequences and not ask a rabbi to give it his blessing and thereby imply that nothing contrary to Jewish standards or Jewish interests has taken place. The rabbi is not denying marriage to such a mixed couple, only a ceremony according to a religious procedure which one of the partners to the marriage does not accept. In this country a couple may have recourse to civil marriage, and those who choose to go against their religious norms may avail themselves of it. When a rabbi performs a ceremony, he gives the impression that what he is doing is completely acceptable from a religious point of view. The function of the rabbi is to preserve Judaism and by his own life to set an example of what is best for Judaism. He ought not do what he believes in the long run is harmful to the preservation of the Jewish people. The rabbi may know that such a stand, to be realistic, will not stem the tide of mixed marriage and he may have the utmost sympathy and understanding for individuals who find themselves in love and are impelled to enter into a mixed marriage. He knows that not every such marriage represents a loss to Judaism but he is a rabbi. He has a responsibility to Judaism in general and he must fulfill this responsibility in the manner he deems best. By asking for conversion in advance of a ceremony one does not necessarily contribute to hypocrisy. Conversion is after study and it is hoped that after studying Judaism, the non-Jew may come to a sincere acceptance. The rabbi who feels that he is fulfilling his responsibility to the future merely by asking that the children be brought up as Jews has no more assurance that this will be done sincerely than the rabbi who asks for conversion. As a matter of fact they non-Jewish parent will surely make it psychologically, if no other way, more difficult to raise a child as a Jew then would a unified household. And surely to ask a non-Jewish groom to say to a bride or to ask a Jewish groom to say to a non-Jewish bride, behold, thou art consecrated unto me in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel is also to run the risk of hypocrisy.

As you are no doubt aware my own position in this matter is with those who do not perform mixed marriages. I confess to you that it is not an easy decision to make. No rabbi makes his decision as to where he will stand without deep thought, and even pain. There are compelling arguments on both sides and no rabbi believes that the weight of the argument is 100% in his favor, but the majority of us do believe that there must be standards in Jewish life and that we cannot countenance an attitude that almost anything goes even in an all-Jewish marriage. We are pained by the seeming disintegration of Jewish life in America, by the great apathy that exists among Jews with regard to their Jewishness. What Hitler failed to do under Nazism, what Russia is trying to do under communism, we are doing to ourselves in a democracy. As rabbis we feel that we cannot even indirectly seem to give it our acquiescence.

What kind of statement the CCAR will make at its next meeting is uncertain, but one thing is certain. The Conference is in for a very warm session.

[i] July 3, 2012  “The movement has “moved away from the debate of whether we should or should not officiate,” said Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement that represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America. “It's part of the world we live in. The question is how do we engage these families into our synagogues,” he said. CCAR does not have statistics on how many of its 2,000 Reform rabbis in North America officiate at intermarriages, but when pressed, Rabbi Hara Person, director of CCAR Press, said it's about half.

[ii] According to the General Social Survey, 15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith in 1988. That number rose to 25 percent by 2006, and the increase shows no signs of slowing. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 reported that 27 percent of Jews, 23 percent of Catholics, 39 percent of Buddhists, 18 percent of Baptists, 21 percent of Muslims and 12 percent of Mormons were then married to a spouse with a different religious identification. If you want to see what the future holds, note this: Less than a quarter of the 18- to 23-year-old respondents in the National Study of Youth and Religion think it's important to marry someone of the same faith.

According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.

November 22, 2012

Is American Jewry Secure? -- Rosh Hashanah, 9/19/71

One of the most frequent themes in Rabbi Sidney Ballon’s sermons over the years is that of Jewish survival and threats to it from within and without—from the most virulent forms of violent Jewish oppression over the ages to subtler forms of anti-Semitism. Despite the relatively secure position of Jews in American society, in a post-Holocaust world he did not take such security for granted and cautioned vigilance in maintaining a strong Jewish community and robust Jewish institutions as hedges against the undying specter of anti-Semitism.

The fact is that in spite of our full citizenship in a democratic country, in spite of our feeling of at-homeness, there is an "otherness" to the Jewish people, which leaves us forever vulnerable.

To neglect [our synagogues, educational system, religious faith, cultural institutions, charities, and especially our link with Israel] is to make the task of the anti-Semite easier and to do his work for him, to let ourselves dissolve as a community into nothingness.

Whenever we come to the beginning of a new year it has been usual to think of the problems which confront society as a whole or the Jewish people in particular. For a number of years now, we Jews have been fairly relaxed about one of these problems that has troubled us in the past, but the question of anti-Semitism and the Jewish position in this country seems to be once again pressing upon our consciousness. In recent times a number of reliable observers of the Jewish scene have expressed concern with regard to the future position of the Jew in America. Following World War II, under the impact of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel, anti-Semitism in this country reached its lowest ebb. A smitten conscience, a new respect for the Jew because of his accomplishments in Israel, economic well-being, all combined to create an attitude toward the Jew more favorable than ever before. But today there is the feeling among some that our gains have been eroding, and that the future could bring us problems.

Morris Abram,[i] formerly president of the American Jewish Committee[ii] and also of Brandeis University, at the last biennial of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said that peace in Vietnam without an American victory might generate a wave of conservative-rightist resentment and thus trigger a resurgence of anti-Semitism. "When a major power cannot justify its war losses,” he warned, “it then begins the search for a scapegoat, and Western history has a favorite scapegoat at hand — the Jews." There may be as many non-Jewish doves as Jewish ones, but it is the Jews who would be singled out for blame, and actually it makes no difference if Jews are doves or not. They can just as easily be blamed for being hawks as doves.

In the August issue of Commentary Magazine the editor Norman Podhoretz[iii] writes that he and some of his intellectual friends have begun to feel "a certain anxiety." Two major events have contributed to this anxiety. One of these is the reaction to Jewish victory in the Six-Day War. During the Six-Day War we all know how much concern Jews suddenly showed for their fellow Jews. It was a revelation even to Jews to note how closely identified they were with one another regardless of how dormant their Jewishness may have been up to that moment. But Jews also discovered how difficult it was for many people to accept the thought of a Jewish victory. There was deep sympathy for the Jews while they were the underdogs, but they were not supposed to win. When they prevailed over the enemy that threatened to push the Israelis into the sea and that seemed to have the power to do so, then the Jews became the imperialists and aggressors, the oppressor of the Arabs, unreasonable in their desire to protect themselves, unjust because they would not return the gains which would enable the Arabs to start their threatening actions all over again. A wave of anti-Zionism swept over the intellectual community and a longtime taboo against expressing open hostility toward Jews was broken.

Podhoretz speaks of intellectuals, but he might also have referred specifically to churchmen as well. The Protestant clergy, in particular, resented the Jewish victory because they simply could not abide the thought of a completely Jewish Jerusalem. When the Arabs desecrated synagogues and cemeteries of the Old City there was silence. When the Arabs violated the agreement in 1948 to internationalize Jerusalem there was silence. When Jordan violated the truce agreement to permit Jews to visit their holy places, there was silence. But when the Jews gained control and made it possible for everyone to visit the holy places without restriction, there was an uproar and a clamor for internationalization.

The second cause of anxiety mentioned in the Commentary article arose out of the teachers' strike of 1968.[iv] This strike brought to the surface a disturbing picture of black anti-Semitism, and what was even more disturbing was the apparent willingness of what is called the white power structure to sacrifice Jewish interests for the sake of buying peace with the blacks. The anti-Semitism of the blacks may not have been any more prevalent than anti-Semitism among whites, but it seems to have been explained more and excused more, and has brought sympathy for blacks rather than condemnation of anti-Semitism. Whatever the problem, whether it be Israel, the teachers, or anything else, there would seem to be an insensitivity to Jewish needs and Jewish accomplishments. It is the Jew from whom sacrifice is demanded, the Jew who is wrong and unreasonable. Hence the anxiety.

We can, of course, make a good case for the fact that these fears for the future are exaggerated and unfounded. There have always been anti-Semitic irritants in this country, and it is unrealistic to expect that they will completely disappear. In spite of them we can say that American Jewry has become the largest Jewish community the world has ever known. Whatever economic handicaps may have existed have not prevented us from becoming also the most affluent Jewish community there has ever been. The separation of church and state has worked to our advantage and the government guarantees Jewish rights to the same extent that it does the rights of all of its citizens. We live here without legal restrictions or anti-Jewish legislation. There is no record of pogroms or physical violence as in many places of Europe. Our young people are among the best educated. We attain high political positions, and there is complete freedom of the ballot. We build our synagogues and institutions as we will. Our government has been a mainstay for the State of Israel from its very beginning, and so on. Certainly the position of the Jew is safeguarded here better than it has been anywhere else. What is there to fear?

It would seem then that American Jews may, indeed, have full confidence as we face the future, that nothing of a serious nature to disturb us is possible. And yet history bids us to stop and think. History teaches us never to forget that the seemingly impossible may, nevertheless, come to pass. Unfortunately, there is the example of history to keep us watchful.

We read in our history books of the Golden Age of Spain, but it ended in tragic expulsion. The French Jews were the first to be emancipated in modern times, but this did not prevent Jews from being denounced as traitors after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War[v] nor the suggestion by de Gaulle[vi] in more recent times that Jews were disloyal to the state. In Germany Jews attained the highest degree of acculturation and many considered themselves Germans of the Mosaic persuasion, but they were blamed for World War I and Hitler was encouraged in his efforts to make Europe Judenrein.[vii] The record of America is surely not so dismal, but the dividing line between the rational and irrational in man is very thin, and the history and laws of our country might not be enough of a barrier in a time of national adversity and despair. The fact is that in spite of our full citizenship in a democratic country, in spite of our feeling of at-homeness, there is an "otherness" to the Jewish people, which leaves us forever vulnerable. Those Jews who may have lost their awareness of otherness had it revived for them during the crisis of the Six-Day War. They found themselves passionately concerned with the survival of their people. As for non-Jews, they have been conditioned to feel this otherness of the Jews by centuries of Christian history, which have looked upon the Jew as a rebel against truth and as a wandering people punished for its rejection of the truth. We Jews live in two communities. We will not permit anyone to tell us that we are not part of the American community, but at the same time we are involved in a worldwide Jewish community. This makes the Jew different from the rest of the population. The rest of the population ignores this difference when times are good, but reacts to it irrationally when there is discontent in the land or social problems to disturb the peace.

We need not be embarrassed by this otherness. Its presence is a lesson to the world. (It acts as a barometer of the world's condition.) The Jew affords an example of a people living on its own soil and being part of the world as a whole. Only when the Jew can accept this without complaint, only when the world can rise above its tribal nationalisms and do likewise, will the world be at peace. It is this factor, however, in the makeup of the Jew, which makes it impossible to predict a totally secure future for the Jew, whether it be in America or any other place.

This is not to say that the Jews of this country need be pessimistic about the future—far from it. The Jewish Defense League[viii] has warned us all to leave but there has been a tendency to do and say that which captures the headlines. But it does nonetheless mean that we ought not take that future for granted. We may well have faith in America, but at the same time the Jew as American must ever be vigilant with regard to the protection of democratic principles. The civil rights and freedom of all groups in our country must be our concern, not only because our religious ideals tell us to be concerned with the welfare of our neighbors, but also for the very selfish reason that if other groups are made to suffer abuse and indignities, if other groups are oppressed and treated unjustly, we shall become the targets of their frustration. The Jew thrives best in democracy, and we must be actively concerned with the preservation and advancement of democracy in America.

On the other hand, we must not be so concerned with the welfare of others, that we neglect our own well-being in the process. We are faced today for example with the phenomenon of the radical left, which has attracted a great deal of support from Jews, because of the unusual Jewish concern for liberal principles. A peculiar feature of the radical left, however, is that it is concerned with everyone's problem except the Jews. The Jew is always expendable. If it is teachers we deal with, the Jew must give up seniority and positions earned by merit to make way for a quota system, which would drive them out of the profession. If it is Israel we speak of, the Jew must yield to the Arabs even if it means that Israel would thereby be destroyed. If it is black-Jewish relationships we speak about, the radical left condemns prejudice where it exists among Jews, but explains and justifies anti-Semitism where it exists among blacks. If a Jew expresses some concern with regard to a Jewish problem, he is advised that it is more important to think in universal terms and that it is petty and selfish to have any special concerned for fellow Jews. Our young people who have become enamored of the radical left need to be reminded that the history of left-wing movements shows that ultimately these so-called universalistic movements consumed the Jews that support them. There may be some pretense that Jewish problems also will be solved by them, but the usual method of solving a Jewish problem is to eliminate the Jews. These movements soon expelled from their ranks even those Jews who support them most faithfully, as witness what has happened in Russia and Poland. There were once Jews in Germany who supported Hitler in his early days and were reputed to have shouted, "Down with us!" Jews who partake of the radical left do the same, and also are in effect shouting, "Down with us!"

But it is not only outside factors that need to be considered in securing the American Jewish future. To do so we need also to build an authentic Jewish life in America, that is, to create a Jewish community with the self-knowledge and self-respect which will keep it from doing harm to itself. It must be a community that does not neglect any factor of its existence which has a survival value, that is, its synagogues, its educational system, its religious faith, its cultural institutions, its charities, and especially its link with Israel. To neglect any of these is to make the task of the anti-Semite easier and to do his work for him, to let ourselves dissolve as a community into nothingness. We must make a conscious effort to assert and enhance our Jewishness, and not let it wither away by default. If we thus contribute to the establishment of justice in the world at large, if we speak up in our own behalf for justice to ourselves as Jews, if we nourish and sustain a Jewish spirit in our own ranks, then our faith in the future of American Jewry will be warranted.

On this day of Rosh Hashanah we take stock of ourselves and our Jewishness. Let this self-searching not be routine. Let us resolve earnestly to fulfill the duty which is ours by virtue of the covenant of Abraham, our father, and Moses, our teacher, and let us so live as individuals that the Jewish people as a whole will live, that Judaism will survive. Let us say with deep conviction and resolution Am Yisroael Chai — the Jewish people shall live.

[i] Morris Berthold Abram (1918 – 2000) was an American lawyer, civil rights activist, and president of Brandeis University. Abram was deeply affected by the Holocaust and later became an ardent supporter of Jewish causes.
[ii] The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is an international Jewish advocacy group. It was established in 1906 with the purpose of safeguarding the welfare and security of Jews worldwide. It is one of the oldest Jewish advocacy organizations in the United States and has been described by The New York Times as "the dean of American Jewish organizations". Their mission is "to enhance the well-being of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, and to advance human rights and democratic values in the United States and around the world."
[iii] Norman B. Podhoretz (born, 1930) is an American neoconservative pundit and writer for and former Editor-in-Chief of Commentary magazine.
[iv] The New York City teachers' strike of 1968 was a confrontation between the new school board — an experiment in community control over schools in the largely black Ocean-Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn — and New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Thousands of New York City teachers went on strike when the school board of Ocean Hill–Brownsville abruptly dismissed a set of almost all white and Jewish teachers and administrators. The strike dragged on from May 1968 to November 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days and increasing racial tensions between Blacks and Jews.
[v] The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War, (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), was a conflict between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia.
[vi] Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle (1890 – 1970) was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969. He is considered by many to be the most influential leader in modern French history.
[vii] Judenrein ("clean of Jews") and Judenfrei ("free of Jews") were Nazi terms to designate an area cleansed of Jewish presence during The Holocaust. While Judenfrei referred merely to "freeing" an area of all of its Jewish citizens, the term Judenrein (literally "clean of Jews") had the stronger connotation that any trace of Jewish blood had been removed as an impurity.
[viii] The Jewish Defense League (JDL) is a Jewish far-right organization whose stated goal is to "protect Jews from anti-Semitism by whatever means necessary". While the group asserts that it "unequivocally condemns terrorism" and states that it has a "strict no-tolerance policy against terrorism and other felonious acts," it was described as "a right-wing terrorist group" by the FBI in 2001. According to the FBI, the JDL has been involved in plotting and executing numerous acts of terrorism within the United States. The JDL's website states that it rejects terrorism.

November 8, 2012

Remarks on the Death of Robert F. Kennedy -- 6//7/68

In a few days, on November 11, we mark the anniversary of Rabbi Sidney Ballon’s death in 1974. As has been my practice for nearly four decades, I will illuminate the darkness with a small memorial light and recite the Mourners’ Kaddish.[i]  Hence, it seems timely to share the following words, not a sermon, but some poignant remarks my father offered just before his congregation rose to recite Kaddish on Friday evening, June 7, 1968, two days after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.[ii] Posting this just after the Presidential election of 2012 is all the more meaningful. Say what you will about the long, bitter, and costly campaign we have just endured, we must at least be grateful that for the most part it was orderly and peaceful. Once again, Sidney Ballon’s words of grief, outrage, hope, and ultimately faith continue to resonate.

The need of today is … the prophetic prescription of a lev chadash,[iii] a change of attitude, a genuine willingness to deal with the basic causes of unrest and unhappiness among our people, to discipline our prejudices, to convince all Americans we are genuinely concerned about each other.

We cannot let this evening go by without a reference to the tragic loss this week of Robert F. Kennedy, senator of our state[iv] and presidential candidate,[v] and perhaps this moment before we rise to recite the Kaddish is the appropriate time to make it. It is, however, most difficult to know what to say at this moment to truly make sense. Once again our nation has been robbed of a great personality. Once again we find ourselves gripped in a deep national sorrow. In the face of the new tragedy which is taking place, certain people are expected to say things, to make statements which will express grief, which will offer some explanation, which will attempt to lift our spirits. Newspapermen are writing, politicians are eulogizing, sociologists are explaining, and the clergy is expected to give comfort. I have listened, as have you, to many words in the past couple of days, but the situation is so depressing, the reawakened memories of similar terrible episodes of the recent past are so disturbing, what is happening in our country today is so unbelievable that very few of the multitude of words that have poured forth are really meaningful, and I do not profess be able to do much better.

What is being said today is very much like what was said when the life of John Kennedy[vi] was taken; the thoughts of today are very much like what they were when the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.[vii] was snuffed out. The same things, to a large extent, are being repeated, but now they have become trite, they have lost their comforting effect. They only add to our despair. I feel a sense of total frustration and can only agree with John Reston[viii] who wrote,

The problems of our society are too big for the words we have at our disposal to deal with, too complex for us to be able to communicate with each other. We need to find new ways to say new things.

A terrible state of affairs has come to pass in our land. The lives of leaders who have courage and imagination, who have a charismatic effect on numbers of people, who impart youthful enthusiasm and offer a sense of purpose and hope in confronting difficult problems—these lives are being snuffed out, and we seem powerless. Is it always going to be only at the peril of assassination that men who are willing to speak out (and whether we agree with them altogether or not is irrelevant), but is it always only at the peril of assassination that forthright and forceful men are to speak prophetic words to America! Is there to be safety only for mediocrities and men who use bland words which will offend no one and therefore mean nothing to anyone! Are we going to be able to maintain law and order in our land? Shall we be unable, henceforth, to solve our political problems in a peaceful democratic manner? Are we unable to prevent not only personal assassination, but public rioting and looting and violent disregard for duly constituted authorities?

I am afraid I cannot go along with the rationalization that it is unfair to blame all America for the assassinations that have been committed, that it was after all just the violent deed of a single mad personality or even a plot concocted by groups of sinister people. It is happening too often and these individual mad personalities and these groups of extremists, if such be responsible, express their madness and this extremism in the context of their environment. It is because we are becoming a desensitized nation, a nation that verbally protests violence but unhappily, is becoming used to it and condones it and has not really done enough to come to grips with its causes and to try sincerely to end it, that these mad people and extremists increasingly express themselves in such violent deeds.

We have become a nation that stands out as a symbol of violence throughout the world because of what we have done in Vietnam, and because of what we have not done at home to solve the problem of human rights and degrading poverty in our own country. One or two more political assassinations and we may not even react against them, because we will have been emotionally drained and lost our capacity altogether even to grieve and to mourn and to feel for our fellowman at all. This is the tragedy of America today, and is evident in the official reaction of President Johnson to the assassination of Robert Kennedy. With all due respect to the President, he reminds me of the presidents of the average lodge or congregation or some other local organization. He had a problem and so he formed a committee. We are now going to have another commission to study the causes of violence, and what may we ask Mr. Johnson, did he do with the report of the Kerner Commission[ix] that studied the causes of rioting in our urban centers? And now what will this new commission find out that the other did not? We cannot improve America by filing reports! We do indeed need to find new ways not only to say new things but more significantly to do new things!

The need of today is not another commission but truly rather the prophetic prescription of a lev chadash,[x] a change of attitude, a genuine willingness to deal with the basic causes of unrest and unhappiness among our people, to discipline our prejudices, to convince all Americans we are genuinely concerned about each other. We need a willingness to spend for peace what we are willing for war. We need to clean our own house before we try to tell others how they should live. We need to reestablish our nation as a true symbol of democracy, and then mad people, living in a more healthful environment, will not be so mad and will not be moved to such irrational and violent behavior.

Robert Kennedy has joined his brother John on the list of American martyrs. His energy, his forthrightness, his enthusiasm and even his ambition which some have criticized will be missed. Again a youthful spark which aroused the passions of so many in the interest of social causes has been extinguished. Again a distinguished family that has devoted itself so wholeheartedly to public life is smitten with deep anguish and pain, is so ill repaid for the public service it has sought to render. Whatever our political convictions we share the pain of this bereaved family. We pray that they will find comfort in some form of good that may perhaps ultimately result either from the life of this public servant or from his tragic loss. We pray that God will grant healing unto our nation and that the rule of reason will be reasserted. And in the spirit of our Jewish tradition, even in a moment when things seem so irrational and unreasonable, even in a moment of great sorrow and despair, we can but declare our faith; and thus, as we remember our own dear ones who have passed away and at the same time think of the national tragedy of this week, let us all rise to recite the Kaddish together.

[i] "Mourners' Kaddish" is said at all prayer services and certain other occasions. Following the death of a parent, child, spouse, or sibling it is customary to recite the Mourners' Kaddish in the presence of a congregation daily for thirty days, or eleven months in the case of a parent, and then at every anniversary of the death. It is important to note that the prayer does not mention death at all, but instead praises God. Though the Kaddish is often popularly referred to as the "Jewish Prayer for the Dead," that designation more accurately belongs to the prayer called "El male rachamim," which specifically prays for the soul of the deceased.
[ii] The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, a United States Senator and brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, took place shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles, California. After winning the California and South Dakota primary elections for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, Kennedy was shot as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and died in the Good Samaritan Hospital twenty-six hours later. Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant, was convicted of Kennedy's murder and is serving a life sentence for the crime.
[iii] Lev chadash, Hebrew, literally “a new heart,” may be taken from Ezekiel 36: 26: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.”
[iv] Following his brother John's assassination on November 22, 1963, Kennedy continued to serve as Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson for nine months. In September 1964, Kennedy resigned to seek the U.S. Senate seat from New York, which he won in November.
[v] In March 1968, Kennedy began a campaign for the presidency and was a front-running candidate of the Democratic Party. In the California presidential primary on June 4, Kennedy defeated Eugene McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Minnesota.
[vi] Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.
[vii] King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
[viii] It is possible that this should have been attributed to James Barrett Reston (1909–1995), nicknamed "Scotty," who was a journalist for many years with The New York Times.
[ix] The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, was an 11-member commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations for the future. Johnson appointed the commission on July 28, 1967, while rioting was still underway in Detroit, Michigan. Mounting civil unrest since 1965 had stemmed riots in the black neighborhoods of major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles (1965), Chicago (1966), and Newark (1967).
[x] Lev chadash, Hebrew, literally “a new heart”— The prophetic prescription referred to may be that of Ezekiel 36: 26: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.”