August 5, 2012

Blowin’ In the Wind — Rosh Hashanah morning 9/19/63

The following sermon is one of the few from half century ago that I can legitimately say I remember hearing! With the spike in Civil Rights consciousness that grew out of the August 1963 March on Washington[i], Sidney Ballon spoke on the topic a few weeks later on Rosh Hashanah morning. While he was acutely aware of the tempo of his times in all eras, he was hardly a fan of the popular music of the younger generation. So for him to demonstrate that he was not only aware of the voice of Bob Dylan, but also clearly moved by the message, was very memorable for his teenage son. 

As is often the case throughout reading these archives, one cannot help but notice that the language, especially regarding race, was very different in that era. Despite what is now outdated terminology, the sincerity of Rabbi Ballon’s plea for equality among all people is unmistakable.  
How could we possibly retain our integrity as Jews, if we did not become involved in this effort to advance the cause of justice for others today when we have so long pleaded for it and yearned for it so deeply for ourselves in the past?

There are many topics that are fitting for discussion from the pulpit on the sacred occasion of Rosh Hashanah, but it seems to me that on this particular Rosh Hashanah there is one which is inescapable. On this day of judgment when we search our conscience with respect to our moral behavior as individuals, when we pray that all hate and oppression shall vanish from the earth, when we speak of the coming of God's kingdom and the time when all men will be united in brotherhood and peace, surely we cannot help but make mention of the challenge which presently confronts us with regard to the establishment of justice and freedom of opportunity for the Negro citizens of our country. During the past year the effort of the Negro to lift himself up and to acquire in full the human rights to which any citizen in a democratic country is entitled has quickened its pace in spectacular fashion and has developed the full force of a revolution. Whatever our attitude may have been in the past, however much or little attention we may have paid to the problem in previous years, this revolution has gathered momentum. It is a quiet revolution for the most part, but occasionally violence breaks forth and it has its potential dangers. It has spread throughout the nation. It is in our own backyard, and it dare not now be ignored.
Just about three weeks ago there took place in Washington one of the most spectacular public demonstrations in all of history, the March on Washington to petition for freedom and jobs for those of the Negro race and to ask that Congress pass the pending legislation on civil rights. I was happy to be there to participate in it and to witness it, but you hardly need any description of it from me. The newspapers reported it in full and television gave everyone in the nation an opportunity to see what took place, even without taking the trip. This is one of the great occasions when television compensated for the many hours of nonsense with which it normally fills the air.
I doubt very much whether anyone would really have believed or could really have appreciated what took place in Washington on that unique day were it not for the fact that television made it possible for all to see for themselves this magnificent challenge to the conscience of America. There were many who questioned the wisdom and propriety of this March. They were afraid of the possible violence that might result. They thought it was not proper to pressure Congress in this manner. They had visions of a vast unruly throng lingering in Washington and bringing chaos to the nation’s capital. Even many ardent sympathizers with the cause were opposed. It was a great tribute to the earnestness, sincerity, and responsibility of Negro leadership and the understanding of Washington officials that none of the fears were realized. The march took place in peaceful dignity. Congress could look upon it only as a heartfelt petition which every American has a right to submit to his legislators, and the mass of petitioner's went out of the city even as they came in—orderly and quietly except for the songs which spoke their spirit.
Next to the mood of these marchers what was most impressive was their wide variety. This was no protest merely by professional battlers for Negro rights. This was a broad cross-section of the nation. It was thrilling to see the multitude of young people both Negro and white, and this gives us hope for the future. And what I particularly want to call your attention to at this time is the tremendous interest that was shown by the religious groups of our country, on the part of both clergy and the layman—Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. This interest has been somewhat tardy in expressing itself, but at last it has slowly built up great strength. There is great satisfaction in noting that prominent among the religious organizations present was the representation of our own Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) with its banners in Hebrew as well as in English. And don't take too seriously the report in one of the newspapers of the congressman who said that the fact that there seems to be a lot of clergymen there meant only that there had been a great amount of clerical garb rented by costume supply houses. Even if this were so, collars do not tell the story. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) reports that about 75 Reform rabbis alone were present and they did not have any collars.
Why were we there as Jews—not only the UAHC and the CCAR, but the Synagogue Council of America and other organizations? The answer was there to be seen on one of the Hebrew-English placards carried by the Union, which recalled the commandment of the Torah reading, “Ukrawsem Dror Baw-aretz l’chol yoshveha—Ye shall proclaim freedom in the land to all the inhabitants thereof." The commitment of Judaism to racial justice needs hardly to be argued. Judaism was born when our people were fresh out of slavery, and the memory of that experience never faded. It was reflected in the words of Torah, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof—Justice, justice shall ye pursue;" in the chastisement of the prophet, “Are ye not as the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel, saith the Lord;” in the poetry of the psalmist, "Righteousness and justice are the foundations of God's throne;" in the preaching of the rabbis, "The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed;" in the Jewish version of the Golden rule, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man." This, of course, is only a meager sampling of what Judaism has to say about social justice and the dignity of man, but even if it had no more to say, there is the Jewish experience through history, of oppression in so many times and places that has sensitized us to the wrong that man often does his fellow man, and has made us above all people realize that the security of no man is safe when the security of any man is threatened.
The words of Martin Luther King spoken so magnificently in Washington should serve to remind us as Jews of our own historic involvement in the problem. This reminder was not at all intentional, but when Dr. King spoke of not being satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” these were the words of our prophet,[ii] and when he referred to the ghettos of the northern cities that need to be changed, he was of course thinking of Negro ghettos, but this is a term taken from the Jewish experience of segregation in the middle ages. How could we possibly retain our integrity as Jews, if we did not become involved in this effort to advance the cause of justice for others today when we have so long pleaded for it and yearned for it so deeply for ourselves in the past?
It must be admitted that in spite of our tradition and experience, we as Jews have been no different than other religious groups with similar ethical values and have not heretofore done all that might have been done. But today there is a new mood in the land and there are new opportunities to speak up, and we must stand up and be counted. The new mood has come largely because the Negro has increased his own effort. There is truth in the old saying that God helps those who help themselves. Our rabbis expressed this thought all so long ago when they discussed the Exodus from Egypt. The Red Sea parted before the Israelites, they said, only after the Israelites had jumped into the water first.[iii] Today the Negro has jumped into the water, and he has, therefore earned and is obtaining more than ever before the help of others. Today, consequently, our religious groups are confronted by a challenge as never before, to live up to the doctrines which they teach. We are now faced with the acid test of our religious sincerity.
Many wonderful words were spoken in Washington, but perhaps what has been considered by many as the most impressive statement of all was made by Rabbi Joachim Prinz when he spoke of his own experience in Nazi Germany. "The most important thing," he said, "that I learned under those tragic circumstances, is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence." This is indeed something to think about. We who profess to believe in democracy can no longer be silent. We who preach religion can no longer be silent, and we whose heritage is the Torah must now also join the other religious groups in shouting away the silence.
Of course, it is sometimes difficult to know what to shout. It is easy to come out against sin and indicate a general support of the Negro effort to achieve his just rights. But the problem becomes quite complex when we are confronted with a specific issue on a personal and local basis. While there may be agreement in principle with regard to integration and civil rights there may quite possibly be difference in opinion on the question of techniques in obtaining them. There will be issues on which even those who are friends of the Negro will disagree with the Negroes, also moments when Negroes will differ among themselves as presently in Lakeview.[iv] We are faced with a difficult decision when confronted with the proposals to transport children out of their own neighborhood area in order to avoid de facto segregation in schools. We are confronted with a difficult decision when it comes to establishing a quota system for employment or preferential treatment in order to redress some of the past wrongs that have been done to Negro workers. There may be some questioning of sit-ins and boycotts. We as Jews may even be concerned about the anti-Semitism that occasionally shows itself in some parts of the Negro community. I cannot pretend to have the perfect answer to these problems, and even the courts are having difficulty in reaching decisions with regard to some of them. But even though these matters may cause much debate and may have to be worked out over a long period of time, even though the solution may be difficult, and not always to our liking, we must not let the difficulty affect our basic attitudes, and we must not abandon the effort to restore racial justice to our American democracy. The Negro may often seem impatient with the progress being achieved, but we must understand this impatience which has, after all, taken one hundred years to build up. It is difficult sometimes to convince him that our disagreements are not rationalizations of leftover prejudice and intolerance. Nevertheless, we must not be sidetracked from the major goal. We must not permit our support to be embittered. With constructive effort, imaginative thinking, and genuine goodwill the obstacles will be overcome.
It is most important, furthermore, that the religious aspect of this Negro struggle for dignity be encouraged and strengthened. The religious character of the Negro revolt is its most important asset. It is because Negro leadership has couched its appeal in religious terms that it has become so difficult for this nation to shrug it off. It is because Martin Luther King speaks of meeting physical force with soul force that his words are so compelling. A nation which professes to be religious cannot in all good conscience turn away from an appeal to its religious sensitivities. It is also because of its religious basis that the protests have been so peaceful. Violence has been resorted to on the part of those who have opposed the Negro effort, but it is significant how little retaliation there has been even under such a provocation in Alabama.[v] Had there been retaliations, the opposition would have found justification, and chaos would have been the result. In order to avoid chaos and to make it all the more likely that Negro resistance will continue its nonviolent character, it is incumbent upon all religious organizations to encourage and to sustain by their support the spiritual quality of the Negro struggle.
Our own Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the CCAR are very definitely committed to the establishment of full equality for all persons in our nation and the social action commission which is sponsored by both of these organizations jointly has on a number of occasions joined the Jewish and non-Jewish religious groups in making its feelings known. It has now gone a step further and issued a general call to all our congregations and individual members to take a stand based on our religious precepts in this racial crisis. It has made some very definite proposals which our own social action committee will undoubtedly call to the attention of our membership. These include the insistence on a support of nondiscriminating policies in our own Temple administration, the inculcation of respect for all races and creeds in our teaching, cooperation of our congregation with other organizations working for racial justice, the practice of nondiscrimination by individual congregational members in their businesses and personal life, the refusal to deal with people who do discriminate, the active support of legislation which protects civil rights, and even the signing of a pledge to work for conditions of equal opportunity for all persons in every phase of American life. It is highly to be desired that Reform Jews will respond to this call in the prophetic spirit which motivated its founders to create the movement.
There is a folk song that I heard played often on the radio during the summer when there was time to listen. It caught my fancy because it seems to come from the hearts of people who are laden and bewildered. In the form of a song were put some of the basic questions that we must contend with in our day, and implicit in the song was the warning that the answer cannot long be delayed. Let me read some of the more pertinent lines to you. They make a fitting conclusion to what we have just been saying.

How many roads must a man walk down before he's called a man?
How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?
How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?
How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? 
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind.[vi]

Yes, all about us the winds of change and crisis are blowing, and within the turbulence an answer is being fashioned to the many questions that disturb us. What kind of an answer will it be? Will it be an answer that brings frustration and destruction as if blown by the wind of the hurricane, or will we have the wisdom to harness the winds so that they will yield an answer that will contribute to the well being and dignity of all men. At every service throughout the year we pray that God grant us peace and that he strengthen the bonds of fellowship and friendship among all the inhabitants of our land. May we, indeed, particularly on this Day of Judgment, resolve that this shall also be the spirit of the answer that we shall wrest from the blowing wind.

[i] The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (or "The Great March on Washington") was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history and called for civil and economic rights for African Americans. It took place in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech advocating racial harmony during the march. The march is widely credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
[ii] Amos 5:24 But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
[iii] Nachshon was, according to the Book of Exodus, the son of Amminadab; descendant in the fifth generation of Judah, brother-in-law of Aaron and an important figure in the Hebrew's Passage of the Red Sea which according to the Jewish Midrash he initiated by walking in head deep until the sea split.
[iv] Lakeview, Long Island, NY is a small predominantly African-American community adjacent to West Hempstead and Malverne, two predominantly white communities in the 1960’s and presently. In 1963, the New York State Education Commissioner responded to complaints by the NAACP and Black parents living in Lakeview that the Malverne School District was racially segregated. He ordered the reorganization of all of the district's elementary schools to insure that they were integrated. The proposed plan assigned different grades to each of the district's three elementary schools and required that children be bused away from their neighborhood schools. Because of the threat of forced busing "white parents started pulling their kids out of public schools and sending them to Catholic or other religious schools. They also protested by electing school board candidates who took their side and voted down school budgets which included money to fund busing.
[v] This is likely to be a reference to the bombing of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which was used as a meeting-place for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. Tensions became high when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) became involved in a campaign to register African American to vote in Birmingham.  On Sunday, September 15, 1963, a white man was seen placing a box under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Soon afterwards, at 10.22 a.m., the bomb exploded killing Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14). The four girls had been attending Sunday school classes at the church. Twenty-three other people were also hurt by the blast. Civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, for the killings. Only a week before the bombing he had told the New York Times that to stop integration Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals."
[vi] Blowin' in the Wind, written by Bob Dylan in 1962 was released on his album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963. In 1999, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004, it was ranked #14 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

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