This is my eighteenth Rosh HaShanah at Agudas Achim. If I make it to next year - and I have every expectation of doing so - I will become the longest-serving rabbi in the history of this congregation. It still makes me a kid compared to some of you who have seen many more seasons pass in this congregation, but a record is a record. And since I am no Michael Phelps, I will take what I can get.
After eighteen years, I have about run out of things to say that you haven't heard before. You should have gotten a hint the year I announced that I was going to give the same sermon four different ways over Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. But this year, I mean it. This year I had a richness of topics from which to choose - I have been collecting them all year - but they all come down to one subject. It is a decidedly middle-aged subject, but then I am decidedly middle-aged.
I have made very few great decisions in my life. One was asking Ann to marry me and another was seeking this position 18 years ago. For those decisions, I claim a certain amount of extraordinarily dumb luck. But among the few decisions of which I was a part in which I actually felt wise was the one I made while serving on the search committee for The Interfaith Alliance, one of the three political organizations to which I devote some of my time. Years ago, we interviewed candidates for our first full-time executive, now called the President. We hired a Baptist minister from Monroe, Louisiana named C. Welton Gaddy. Dr. Gaddy has turned out to be one of the finest and most articulate people I have ever met. Even when I don't agree with him, I cannot help but admire him. On the basis of this choice alone, I can lay claim to being a good judge of people.
One of the things I admire about Welton is his creative spirit. He has just published a book entitled, I Give You My Word. The book has a wonderfully simple concept behind it. Welton contacted leaders in a myriad of human endeavors - Pat Robertson, Bill Clinton, Melissa Manchester, Arun Ghandi and Joe Paterno to name a few - and asked them for a word that inspires them or guides them. They were permitted to explain it (and those explanations are contained in the book). But they had to distill their contributions to one word. My favorite came from Roberto Goizueta, the late chair of Coca-Cola. His word, without explanation, was, "Coca-Cola."
I started reading the book during spare moments on my sabbatical. And as I read, I wondered what my word would be. I knew that at various times in my life, the word would be different. At eight years old it probably would have been "television." At 12, it would have been "baseball." At 17, it would have been "sex." At 25, entering seminary, it would have been "God" or "torah." A couple of years later, "aliyah." And so on and so on, until at age 52, I found myself reading this wonderful book as I was contemplating what question was in my heart to address with you over these High Holy Days.
And it dawned on me. But before I tell you, I am going to pause, because now you are wondering what word you would have picked for inclusion in this book. So think for a moment, and then make a mental note.
Allow me a moment to read your mind, all thousand of you. Your very first thought was, "I hope he isn't going to ask me to tell everyone my word!" You thought that thought even before you first picked "chocolate," or "money" or "scratch."
And then you began considering the possibilities. Well, it's Rosh HaShanah, so I should pick something religious, like "tzedakah" or "repent." Or maybe I should pick something lofty, like "generosity" or "compassion" or "vision." No, if I am going to be truthful about it, I should pick "love" or "family" or "security," the things that really matter to me.
Then you began to bargain with yourself and shape the rules a little bit, thinking, "if I use a hyphen, I can get two words for the price of one, like that Coca-Cola guy." So you considered compounds like "passionate-integrity" or "wise-freedom" or "South-Beach." Most of you probably settled for a moment on "World-Peace."
And then, as the twelve seconds of panic was interrupted by my yammering, you become conscious again of the brand-new undergarments you are wearing for this brand-new year, and you went back to "scratch."
Well, I am going to tell you my word. I am not going to make you wait until the end of the sermon, because then I would have to give the whole sermon without using the word. And since I will wind up talking about it for the next ten days, and maybe the next 18 years, there is no use in concealing it. My word is nuance.
I am going to talk to you today about nuance and the coming elections in this country. I am going to talk to you tomorrow about nuance and the State of Israel. And on Yom Kippur, I am going to talk to you about the nuances of your soul.
One thing I do not wish to leave to nuance is my own bias. I have not changed my politics since you heard me last, even if it has been a year or more. But I have written these remarks with scrupulous attention to the message, which is entirely non-partisan, with one exception I will mention in a moment. I will not try to tell you to vote for Kerry or Bush. I will not try to tell you whether to support Likud or Labor. If you are a Republican, you will certainly find my remarks to reflect a Democratic slant, and if you are a Democrat you will surely find my remarks to betray Republican leanings. Get over it. That nuanced I do not intend to be.
The one bias you will hear from me unambiguously will be a message of support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. It is probably inappropriate to offer this message from a pulpit, but I don't care, as you will discover, because of the nuance surrounding the recent attacks on the integrity of the organization. Some of you are uncomfortable with AIPAC for all sorts of reasons, ranging from your liberal politics to your conservative approach to Jews influencing public policy. Argue with me another time. As I will say tomorrow, the success of AIPAC asks the question of America, "Do you take yourself seriously?" Today, I lay the groundwork for that question.
A story from my sabbatical: There is a Holiday Inn next door to Citizen's Bank Ball Park in Philadelphia. You can walk from the hotel to the ballpark in about two minutes. So when I discovered that the Cubs would be in Philadelphia over a July weekend, I booked a room and got tickets to the Friday night and Saturday afternoon games. A friend got me great seats, 2 tickets. I had someone planning to join me for the weekend.
At the last minute, my traveling companion canceled, so I had an extra ticket for each game. As I was standing in line waiting to check in, I struck up a conversation with an expatriate Chicagoan who had also driven in from Virginia for the games, another Cub fan. He told me he was still looking for a ticket for the Saturday game. His wife and children were willing to do Friday and Sunday, but they wanted Saturday to go shopping. I gave him my other ticket. He said, "What do I owe you?" I said, "You owe me exactly what I paid for this ticket." His eyes glazed for a minute and he said, "I understand. How much?" I said, "Nothing."
The light came back into his eyes. "Nothing?"
I said, "Are you registered to vote?" He said he was. I said, "All I want is a promise that you will vote in the next election." He said, "Do you care who I vote for?" I replied, "I care very much who you vote for, but that's not the deal. The deal is, you vote." He said, "I haven't missed an election in 35 years." I said, "Neither have I, and I've only been eligible to vote for 31 years." He said, "Being from Chicago, I understand that."
We had a great time at the game, my new best friend Dick and I. We talked politics. We talked shortstops. We talked religion. And if the presidential election were held between the two of us, it would be thrown into the House of Representatives.
Did that conversation change my vote? No. Did it change his? No. But now I will not be able to vote without thinking about Dick and what we have in common, and I don't mean just our immense relief that the Cubs dumped Alex Gonzalez and replaced him with Nomar Garciaparra. Is that consciousness a matter of guilt or affection or nostalgia? I have no answer to that question. But the quality of my vote will be different - better, I contend, because of that conversation.
The quality of my vote will not be better for having endured "Fahrenheit 9/11" or the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Whatever amusement or outrage I may have felt for my exposure to those nattering nabobs of negativity - I waited 35 years for a chance to use that phrase - they did not enhance the quality of my deliberations. Is it because they were nasty? No. It is because they missed an opportunity. And that brings us to the first text of the day. (Eruvin 13b)
This text is the bane of the orthodox world's existence because it is used with abandon by non-orthodox Jews who mostly don't know what they are talking about. So I quote it to you in its fullness, albeit in translation, so that there is no confusion.
For three years there was a dispute between the disciples of Shammai and the disciples of Hillel, the former asserting, "Halakha follows our teaching" and the latter asserting, "Halakha follows our teaching." Then a voice from heaven came forth and said, "Eilu v'eilu divrei elohim chayim; both these and those are the words of the Living God - but halakha follows the teachings of the disciples of Hillel."
The Talmud then asks the obvious question: Since both are the words of the Living God, on what basis did the disciples of Hillel merit halakha agreeing with their teachings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the disciples of Shammai, even mentioning the words of the disciples of Shammai before their own.
This midrash is usually used to promote the notion of pluralism in Jewish life - the notion that different views can be equally valid in God's eyes - but that statement is an incidental part of the story. In a sense, it is included in order to make the real lesson of the story more pronounced. If the teachings of Beit Shammai and the teachings of Beit Hillel are of equal worth, then on what basis does God validate one over the other - because sometimes a choice is necessary. A chicken is kosher or it isn't. An activity is shabbesdik or it isn't. A marriage is valid or it isn't.
The answer is clear from this small section of Talmud - how you decide is at least as important as what you decide. What gave the edge to Beit Hillel was not superior reasoning or greater personal piety or more powerful means of persuasion. The disciples of Hillel were chosen because they offered a nuanced approach to decision-making that enabled the disciples of Shammai to recognize their own victory in defeat.
Mind you, the Talmud does not say that the Hillelites would say, "The disciples of Shammai may say that a tiny sukkah is not kosher, but they are not fit to rule on the subject because we have been chosen by God!" Instead, the Talmud says they were kindly and modest, they studied their own point of view and the opposing view, and they made mention of the good work of their opponents first. In fact, in illustrating this notion, the Talmud gives an example in which disciples of Hillel ruled in agreement with the disciples of Shammai in a public setting. Disapprovingly, the Talmud notes how the Shammaites gloated. Even if the disciples of Shammai were right all the time, no one except a disciple of Shammai would want to live in a society governed by such arrogant partisans. And this world was created in order for people to live in it, not in order for some people to rule over others. That, of course, is the message of both Torah and Jewish history.
At the same time, the midrash makes it clear that the deficits of the disciples of Shammai do not diminish the importance of the teachings of the disciples of Shammai. The Talmud clearly doesn't care if you like Beit Shammai or you don't - the message is not to be dismissed because of the messenger. In fact, it may be even to the greater credit of Beit Hillel that relations with Beit Shammai were so amicable.
And how amicable were they?
That brings us to our second text (Yevamot 1:4). The section of the Talmud known as Yevamot deals with marriage law that seems arcane and irrelevant to us today. But our ancestors took it very seriously, especially in a time when marriage was not the free choice of loving individuals, but a business transaction between two families. In this particular mishnah, there is reported the dispute over the status of childless widows in regard to the priesthood. Never mind the details, they are not important to the lesson at hand. Here is what is important: the disciples of Shammai declared the law to be one way and the disciples of Hillel declared it to be the other way. And though the language is convoluted in its English translation, this is what it says in absolutely faithful paraphrase: They married each other's children and they ate in each other's homes.
To the outside world, and our perch of almost 2000 years later is the outside world, the disagreement between the two parties looks picayune and irrelevant. But at the time, the principles involved were part of the foundation of the entire belief system of the society. In theory, there was no middle ground on which the Shammaites and the Hillelites could agree. If I say your chicken is treif, your Shabbat is violated, your daughter is ineligible for marriage, then boycott and condemnation is the only honorable response if the principles are more important than the people who hold to them.
But the commentary to the mishnah says that out of respect for each other, neither side imposed its rulings on the other. They served fish, or maybe a fruit plate.
What they did not do was publish books entitled Rabbi Shammai is a Big, Fat Liar or How to Talk to a Hillelite - If You Have To. Was there nastiness between them and inappropriate language? I am sure there was. After all they were human beings, not angels and saints. They recognized that the disagreements between them were not for power and glory, but for the sake of heaven. An argument that was won at the cost of half the population was an argument lost by all.
In a world defined by contrasts, that notion is foolish. In theological terms, a world defined by contrasts is a world in which the natural and the supernatural never meet. Revelation and law, such as they are, fall from above like a stone from a cliff, striking down anyone unlucky enough to cross its path.
But tell me if you can where the ocean ends and the shore begins. Point to the place in the nighttime sky where darkness surrenders to starlight. Show me the exact moment when the scent of a rose gives way to a summer breeze. Try if you will - you cannot. You will come up against the principle articulated by physicist Werner Heisenberg, often called the "principle of indeterminacy." The act of observing changes the nature of what you observe.
And therein lies the role of nuance. And therein lies the value of nuance. Instead of saying "your position is impossible to embrace," nuance allows for a sense of possibility without abandoning the genuine need to make a decision.
Sooner or later, it is time to move one. Sooner or later, the unsuccessful argument must give way. Sooner or later, you are on dry ground or in the water.
And that brings us to our third text of the day. At one point in history, it was one of the very last teachings in the Mishnah, toward the end of the fifth chapter of Avot, the original end of that collection. "Every dispute that is for the sake of heaven will in the end persist. And every dispute that is not for the sake of heaven will in the end not persist." My teacher, Rabbi Joel Roth, explains that this teaching comes to reassure the students of mishnah that the unresolved disputes they have studied demand considered deliberation. They persist precisely because both sides represent the words of the living God. They persist because there is something inherent in the debate itself that elevates the participants to a spiritual level.
And what does the mishnah suggest illustrates disputes that are for the sake of heaven? The disagreements of Hillel and Shammai. These two rabbis, loyal adversaries in the very formative years of our tradition, left much of their work incomplete. It fell to Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai - the disciples of Hillel and the disciples of Shammai - to continue the debates and the disagreements until they were resolved generations later. And though we preserve the opinions of Beit Shammai to this very day, there isn't a one of you that lights Chanukkah candles in declining numbers, because, after much deliberation, the matter was resolved.
What does the mishnah give as an example of a dispute not for the sake of heaven? It gives the example of Korach and his cohorts who led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the leadership of Moses and replace him with themselves. The earth opened and swallowed them.
But I want to give you an example that does not require a suspension of disbelief. A dispute that is not for the sake of heaven is the dispute surrounding the work of Moses Maimonides. There is no doubt that Maimonides was an arrogant scholar. When he published his codification of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, he broke with the long-standing rule to cite sources when determining Jewish law. He created a compendium of decisions that claimed as its authority that he was the redactor.
Never mind that he was justified in his arrogance. The result was astonishing. Jewish scholars around the known world banned his books, and some even tried to excommunicate him. This dispute was not for the sake of heaven. It was for the sake of an halakhic oligarchy. The dispute did not last long. The rabbis who attacked Maimonides personally have long since disappeared. Whatever they believed about their motivation, they could not find the nuance to make room for the man who was arguably the finest mind our people ever produced. They were swallowed not by a crack in the earth, but by the disdain of our people and our history. And they were swallowed in spite of the righteousness of their principle: that legal pronouncements should rely on text and precedent. The disciples of Maimonides resolved the dispute by retrofitting his code with citations and cross-references. And if you look at a Mishneh Torah you will find the words of Maimonides in large print in the middle of the page, and the nuanced citations in the margins - but on the same page.
My friends, we are living in a complex world. I don't know that it is more complex than it ever was, but by our very attempt to observe the directions in which we are going we are continually changing the nature of what we observe. Beware of people who want to give us simple - or worse, simplistic - answers to the questions we debate as this nation's history unfolds. Most of you are old enough to remember when this nation was divided into black and white, and the price we paid and continue to pay for pretending that there was a value to declaring one superior to the other.
The division of this country into red and blue is no more desirable than the division of this country into black and white. And if you have a sacred obligation as a citizen to vote - and I believe you do - then you have a sacred obligation as a citizen of faith to vote wisely and not reactively. It is not the case that Democrats or Republicans have a monopoly on truth. The wealthiest nation in the history of humanity has been governed by various combinations of both, and we still haven't managed to eliminate poverty any better than nations who never had a Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan.
Policy must be based on principle, but it must also be nuanced. To ignore the nuance is to abandon the opportunity to enfranchise people across the lines of differing opinion. It closes off conversation and promotes the notion that every conflict is an ultimate conflict, that the only two options are complete victory and utter defeat. And of course, utter defeat is to be avoided at all costs - even the cost of half the population. And a victory won at the expense of half the population is defeat for all.
Jews have never benefited from the all-or-nothing approach. It is true when those ultimate struggles are internal, as they were with Korach and Maimonides and so many others. And it is true when those ultimate struggles attempt to place us all on the side of evil, as was the case with the Inquisition, the Holocaust and, right here in our own day and place, the attacks on our beliefs that Christians missionaries have mounted and the attacks on our political activism that the enemies of Israel have mounted. Do not think that the callous attempts by Republicans or Democrats to pander to the Jewish community will truly benefit us or anyone else, especially if it is a strategy for defeating a political enemy, instead of continuing a dispute that is for the sake of heaven.
The irony is that elections are either won or lost. Nuance, it seems, is a luxury for the winner. So the question you face as you consider the upcoming election is as complex as the world in which it is posed: How do we comport ourselves in ways that will make us like the disciples of Hillel -- kindly and modest, studying our own rulings and those of the disciples of Shammai, even mentioning the words of the disciples of Shammai before our own?
The answer is in the last text of this lesson, which follows the discussion of which of the words of the living God were to be preferred in Jewish law.
"For two and a half years the disciples of Shammai and the disciple of Hillel were in dispute. The former asserted that it would have been better for human beings had we never been created than to have been created, and the latter asserted that it would have been better for human beings to have been created than had we never been created. Finally (and of timely relevance to us), they took a vote and decided that it would have been better for human beings had we never been created than to have been created.
"But (the midrash continues) since we have been created, we should examine our past and future conduct."
Folks, that's why you are here today and why you will be here next week again, because our lives and our souls depend not on certainty, but on nuance. Accept no less from yourself. Demand no less for our country