For the first time in my 38 years as a congregational rabbi during a High Holiday sermon, a visitor to our congregation stood up, yelled out in protest, and slammed the sanctuary door on his way out.
It was Kol Nidre and our Sanctuary was packed with 1200 worshippers. My sermon that so disturbed him is posted on my synagogue website and it can either be read there or watched on Youtube – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQyxdgcspw0 – I ask only that you read or listen to the entire address, which this man did not do.
As I do for all my High Holiday sermons, I spent a great deal of time over the summer thinking, researching, writing, and rewriting. It is important for me to be as clear and considered as possible while being as edifying and uplifting as I can be in these addresses. In this Kol Nidre sermon (“We the People”) I sought to address issues that transcend the daily politics that have consumed and stunned our nation in the last two years and focus instead on the greater Jewish and American values at stake.
I drew parallels between our liberal Jewish values based on the Biblical prophetic tradition, the ethics and compassion of the rabbis, and the values of American democracy, inclusivity, and exceptionalism. I called out the intolerance, bigotry, extremism, racism, nationalist nativism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia of “American Firsters” and drew parallels to a movement of the same name that was supported by 80% of Americans before World War II.
I offered thoughts about the long generational trend in America that put President Trump in the White House, and noted that he is there in part due to the Balkanization of America, the ignorance of American history so rampant in large portions of the population, the dismissal of the virtues embodied by American exceptionalism, and self-centered “me-ism” that Trump reflects in his own life, stokes and encourages among so many frustrated Americans.
Clearly, I hit the right note in my community resulting in a standing ovation at the conclusion.
The man shouted as he left “This is a house of prayer!”
I returned to the microphone to cite the Talmudic requirement (Berachot 34b) that every synagogue must be built with a window so that those praying inside will never be separated with what is going on in the street. I recalled the example of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who joined with Dr. Martin Luther King in a march from Selma to Montgomery during the civil rights era and who explained that by marching he was “praying with his feet.”
After Yom Kippur, a distinguished member of my community and a Jewish leader in Los Angeles told me in an email that for a rabbi not to address the serious conditions of this country today as I did would be nothing shy of “spiritual malpractice.”
When this man screamed out I thought immediately of President Obama when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 2009 on health care. In the middle of the President’s speech, Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina screamed out “You lie!”
I recalled President Obama’s restraint and dignity. I remembered his refusal to be distracted from his message. Following his example, I ignored the man’s outburst and continue to deliver my sermon.
This man’s behavior on the holiest night in Judaism, just as Representative Wilson’s behavior in a joint session of Congress, is exactly what’s ethically and morally wrong with large portions of our own Jewish community and the American population as a whole. The man’s intolerance, lack of civility, and nasty self-righteousness makes dialogue between people who hold legitimate differences of opinion difficult. Hate and rage replaced love and understanding. The lack of civility has replaced respect for the dignity of the other. That this should occur on the holiest night of the year is particularly disturbing but also revealing about our imperfections and need for moral and ethical improvement.
I wrote to President Obama today to thank him for modeling for me how to handle such a situation as a leader. This is what I said to him:
Dear Mr. President:
I write to thank you for … giving me courage in the middle of my Yom Kippur sermon … as what constitutes dignified behavior as a leader.
A visitor in my congregation stood up as I was speaking before 1200 congregants on Kol Nidre and began shouting at me before walking out and slamming the Sanctuary door behind him.
The episode was shocking not only to me but to our community as a whole much as it was shocking when a congressman called you a “liar” in the middle of your address on health care before both houses of Congress before the ACA became law in 2009.
I remember your dignity then, that you paid him no heed and went on with your speech.
… I decided on Kol Nidre to follow your example…and I write to thank you for this and for so much more.
John L. Rosove, Rabbi