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The Danger of Extremism: Rosh HaShana 5762 – 2001

Rosh HaShana 5762 - 2001

During the summer, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City with my older children, Gilah and Tsvi. Among the fascinating exhibits we saw was “The Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway,” which consisted of a spiral walkway around the building, with a timeline showing the step-by-step unfolding of the universe.

My children were as fascinated as I was, and read each display carefully. Gilah and I finished somewhat ahead of her younger brother. I asked, somewhat impatiently, “What’s holding up Tsvi?” “Don’t worry,” she said, “he’ll be here in three billion years.”

According to the latest science, the observable universe began about 13 billion years ago from a single grain, a seed-sized particle that exploded into everything we see. All of the stars, planets and cosmic dust, space itself, came from this single particle. This is what they call the “Big Bang.”

How do they know this? In part, scientists look at what is happening in the universe that they can see, they make a picture of motion in the universe, and then they “run it backward.” And when they run the picture in reverse, they see that everything came from a single spot. That’s pretty amazing! All from one little seed.

Scientists argue about the exact age of the universe. In fact, we noticed that on the exhibit everywhere the number “13” appeared, it had been changed from some other number, I believe 11, or whatever. In the course of a couple years, the universe got 2 billion years older. Give or take two billion years.

It gave us perspective.

Our sages also argued over the age of the universe. It is quoted in the Talmud (Rosh HaShana 10b-11a):

Rabbi Eliezer says: “In Tishrei [when we observe Rosh HaShana] the world was created.”
Rabbi Yehoshua says: “In Nisan [when we celebrate Passover] the world was created.”

Scientists today argue over plus or minus two billion years. Our sages argued over plus or minus six months!

Some Jews believe that the World is 5762 years old, give or take six months. Such people, not prevalent in the Conservative Movement, can be found among the religious leadership of the Jewish People. They believe that the world was created, the sun and earth were formed, exactly 5762 years ago, and that any artifacts such as dinosaur bones or astronomical phenomena suggesting much greater age are here to test our faith or are simply misunderstood. Of course, we know that the age “5762” was made up relatively recently, a few hundred years ago; when the Torah dates an event it is always “so many years into the reign of King so-and-so.” The number 5762 is a recent supposition, nowhere “canonized” or made authoritative in any way. Still, some hold to that date as an essential element of Jewish faith.

Four hundred twenty weeks ago — eight years ago — was my first Shabbat at BEKI. After services, a friendly older gentleman introduced himself, and began talking. He said, “You know, Rabbi, what’s the biggest threat America faces today?”

There were a lot of possible answers: Global warming, nuclear war, economic collapse, overpopulation, AIDS, decadence, to name a few. I wondered, “What’s this old crank gonna say?” “So tell me.”

“Islamic fundamentalism!”

Ten points for you, Sam.

Islamic fundamentalism is perhaps not the single biggest threat we face, but it is surely one of them. Last Tuesday [11 September 2001, the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon] we were shaken by the violent and murderous forces unleashed by fundamentalists.

But Jewish fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, ultranationalism, ultra-racism, and certain other religious and political philosophies are, I believe, equally dangerous, and I would like to say a little bit about this today. We must identify and name the danger.

Let me be clear. Some people might view me as a religious extremist, because I am very serious about God and religious issues and lead a “religious” life. But I am not talking about the level of enthusiasm or commitment. The danger of extremism is of extreme doctrine, and “extreme” in certain respects.

Fundamentalism, and state-empowered religion, of all kinds, is in part what brought you the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Jihad. Our Jewish variety of this brought us Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 30 Muslims at prayer in Hevron in 1994. In our Jewish world, it is what enables Israeli leaders to talk about expelling all Arabs from Israel, or to call Palestinians “roaches in a bottle.” It is also an ideology that allows state-sponsored religious powers to try to impose their religious philosophy and institutions on others.

It is said that a fundamentalist is one who knows exactly what God would want, if only He had all the facts.

Albert Einstein, the great scientist, avoided “organized” religion but was himself a proud Jew and a truly spiritual person. It is said that he was offered the presidency of the State of Israel. Einstein had this to say about fundamentalist religion (and although he was talking here about Christian fundamentalism, the same holds across the board):

A man who is convinced of the truth of his religion is indeed never tolerant. At the least, he is to feel pity for the adherent of another religion but usually it does not stop there. The faithful adherent of a religion will try first of all to convince those that believe in another religion and usually he goes on to hatred if he is not successful. However, hatred then leads to persecution when the might of the majority is behind it.

In the case of a Christian clergyman, the tragic-comical is found in this: that the Christian religion demands love from the faithful, even love for the enemy. This demand, because it is indeed superhuman, he is unable to fulfill. Thus intolerance and hatred ring through the oily words of the clergyman. The love, which on the Christian side is the basis for the conciliatory attempt towards Judaism is the same as the love of a child for a cake. That means that it contains the hope that the object of the love will be eaten up…” (Robert N. Goldman, Einstein’s God, (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson) 1997, p. 51).

And as for Jewish clergy, he called one non-Conservative rabbinic body “fools in clerical garb” for expelling rabbis who disagree with some doctrine.

Einstein believed that we should use all of the powers of science and logic to understand the world, no matter where that investigation leads us. Our sage Moses Maimonides, writing some 800 years ago, said the same thing in his Mishne Torah. One way that we worship God, he said, is to try to know God indirectly through God’s work, which means all of the tools of reason and science should used.

Let’s take a look at a passage from our Torah, from the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 11), the middle passage of the Shema, which is read twice-daily by Conservative and other non-Conservative traditional Jews.

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil — I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle — and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For Adonai’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that Adonai is assigning to you.

This passage seems to be saying that if we are good, the rains will come and we will prosper; and if we are bad, and do not follow the Almighty’s directives, the rains will not come, our crops will fail and we will starve.

How we understand this passage reflects and affects our view of how the world works. It is still in our memory that some years ago a bus full of children was struck by a train in Israel, and a chief rabbi said that it could have been because the mezuzot on their parents’ homes were not kosher. Or last year when former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef suggested that Jews suffered in the Holocaust because they had committed sins.

This gives us insight into what Israeli Labor Party Leader Avraham Burg meant when he said, “The biggest alienator between the Jewish People and its heritage is the Orthodox rabbinical establishment [in Israel].” Burg, who identifies as “Orthodox” himself, is the son of a prominent leader of the National Religious Party and former minister in Israel. Of course, we know that Burg is a “closet” Conservative Jew — his kids went to Ramah and he davens at a Masorti shul in Jerusalem.

A recent expression of this same kind of thinking comes from (your favorite and mine) the Rev. Jerry Falwell, commenting on the atrocity of last Tuesday, as reported in the New York Times (Friday 14 September 2001 p. A18)

Rev. Jerry Falwell was quoted as saying that “The ACLU, with abortion providers, gay rights proponents and federal courts that had banned school prayer and legalized abortion, had so weakened the United States spiritually that the nation was left exposed to Tuesday’s terrorist attacks.”

Mr. Falwell said he was making a theological statement about how various groups had so offended God that the attack could occur.

So what are we to make of the passage from the Shema? The Reform Movement many years ago eliminated it their liturgy, on the grounds that it represented an antiquated idea of Divine Retribution. Must we also abandon this part of the Shema?

Actually I believe that the passage in the Shema is quite true, and even scientifically demonstrable.

In an earlier stage of the development of human civilization, people had to face the terrifying and uncontrollable “forces of nature” that meant life or death for them. If the rains failed, if earthquake or locusts struck, it meant certain death. This was a commonplace in the ancient world, and every society lived with that terror of the “forces of nature.”

In an attempt to understand and control or influence these forces of nature, many peoples came to believe that (false-) gods or (false-) deities were responsible for them, and that if we could only appease these (false-) gods, they would have mercy. It meant makings animal sacrifices, doing the right dance, chanting the correct spell, throwing sufficient virgins into the volcano. If the volcano erupted anyway, it might have meant they needed to throw in more virgins. Magic, ritual and sacrifice, they believed, determined their fate.

Along comes the Torah of Moshe and says, no, it is not magic formulas or rain dances that affect the weather. Rather, it is the One God responding to the ethical conduct of the people. It is adherence to Divine Will, that is, our fulfillment of the mitsvot (ethical religious obligations) that determine whether the rains will fall in due season. It was ethics, not magic, that determined our future.

We might say that this was a significant step in human development. It was now our ethical actions, not magic or capricious (false-) deities that affected our future. However, with the advent of the “Enlightenment” and modernity, this notion, too, became unbelievable to many. Instead, nature was seen as a force to which we must adapt or respond but not control.

In the last half of the twentieth century, we began to understand that humanity could in fact affect forces of nature. We could induce rain to fail, cause crops to fail, change the weather and even the climate. And now we even understand which mitsvot are connected to this control. If we deforest, overcultivate or burn massive amounts of fossil fuels in violation of the rules of halakha such as bal tashhit against wanton destruction, we may cause global warming. If we detonate nuclear weapons in violation of the rules against the killing of innocents or against environmental destruction, we may induce “global winter.” There is a long and growing list of mitsvot pertaining to the environment and economic equity that we now understand to be directly linked to the “forces of nature.” The Shema describes both Theology and Science.

This gives us an additional insight into Maimonides call to understand the Almighty through understanding the creation. Through science we can clarify certain halakhic (practical legal) requirements of Jewish life and better understand the sacred texts.

For example, in that same Law Code of Maimonides — and also reflected in the sixteenth-century law code Shulhan Arukh which serves as the standard starting point for modern legal discussion — there are certain foods or combinations of foods that are prohibited because they are thought to be harmful. Exactly what is on that list will change over time as science (or nature itself) advances or changes. The law itself stays the same — that we are to refrain from harmful substances — but what we must do to comply with that law changes over time as our knowledge changes. In the 1950s, when a man had a heart attack, he was told to rest for a few weeks in bed and eat good foods like sausages and eggs to regain his strength. And if that was the doctor’s order, it was considered a requirement of Jewish law as well. Today, the prescription would be just the opposite, and it would equally be a fulfillment of Jewish law.

Smoking, too, is now prohibited as a violation of the prohibition agains doing harm to oneself. As our knowledge of the world develops, what we must do to comply with Jewish law and ethics may change.

Even though we know our understanding may one day change, we have to act on the best knowledge we have today. As the Talmud says, “A judge decides based on what he sees with his own eyes.”

One of the beautiful things about science is that it gives us a common language with all humanity, at least in a small way. It can gives us a common base of knowledge and a procedure to evaluate and understand others.

Interpretation of the Torah text is not the only source of potentially extremist positions. There are some people who hear “voices.” I am not among them, but there are those who hear them, and I accept that there is more to this world than meets the eye. If you hear voices, I would be happy to talk with you about them. I know that [Rabbi] Alan [Lovins] would, as well, and if you go to see him your insurance might even cover it.

Our sages cautioned us against listening to voices. The story is told in the Talmud (Baba Metsia 59b) of the Oven of Akhnai:

If a stove is taken apart and sand strewn between the sections, Rabbi Eliezer declares it is clean, the sages say that it is unclean. It has been taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought all the proof in the world, but they did not accept it.

So he said to them, “If the law agrees with me, this tree shall prove it!” The tree got up and walked a hundred meters and planted itself back in the soil.

They said to him: “No proof can be brought from the tree.”

Then he said to them, “If the law agrees with me, this stream of water shall prove it.” The stream began to flow backward. They said to him, “No proof can be brought from a stream.”

So he then said to them, “If the law agrees with me, the walls of the house of study shall prove it.” The walls of the house of study leaned over, as though they were about to fall…. But still the sages would not listen to him.

Then he spoke to them again: “If the law agrees with me, Heaven itself shall prove it!” A voice sped forth from heaven, saying: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer – the law agrees with him in every case!”

Whereupon Rabbi Joshua arose and said, “‘It is not in the heaven.'” What did he mean by ‘not in heaven’? Rabbi Jeremiah says: The Torah was given on Mount Sinai; the voice from heaven does not concern us. For it is written in the Torah on Mount Sinai: “After the majority must one incline.”

The law is decided by majority vote. But what if you really are hearing voices? How do you know if they are to be followed? There is a simple test. If the voices is telling you to do something that is in accordance with Jewish law as taught by our sages, then go do it. If it is saying something contrary to halakha (Jewish law) or ethics, then do not listen to that voice.

So what do we do about fundamentalism in our own camp? How do we address fundamentalism among our own co-religionists? My answers are simple, perhaps simplistic, but they are a start.

Where there is darkness, shine a light.

That means, study torah yourself so you don’t have to rely on others to tell you what “Judaism” or “Torah” says. There are many opportunties at BEKI and in Greater New Haven to study. Go to a class, join a study group, open a book.

It means supporting our Religious School at BEKI, Ezra Academy, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Conservative Yeshiva and other schools. Continue to produce a large and growing body of Jewishly educated people, and continue to make these schools available to as many people as possible. Someone has got to teach Judaism, and it may as well be, and indeed had better be, us and those who share our understanding of Torah.

It means talking with other Jews, and intelligently sharing your views. Know what to say to your extremist cousin or friend. Be secure in your knowledge and able to calmly explain it.

Beyond that, it means being part of the political struggle to reduce the control of fundamentalists over the tools of state and communal power in America and Israel. That means registering and voting in the upcoming World Zionist Organization elections. It means supporting certain parties in Israel. It means continuing our serious involvement in Jewish communal life in America.

Fighting fundamentalism around the world means supporting universal education. It means promoting economic and political development so that people can democratically exercise control over their own lives. That is simple to say, but very difficult to implement. But as we now know, our lives depend on it.

An in New Haven, it means building relationships with other communities beyond BEKI’s sanctuary; promoting public education and economic development; fighting racism. It means getting involved in the political process. So many in our community are doing that, at least as individuals, and it makes a difference. It also means, in particular, building bridges of understanding with local Muslims and Arabs, as well as African-American Christians and others of our neighbors. I am so very glad that our Education Director Lauren Kempton is working with our youth groups and in our school to make that happen; a Muslim cleric who will visit our Congregation this coming Sunday, to help our families meet real people instead of TV stereotypes.

Judaism is a religious philosophy that seeks the truth, not one that “has” the truth or imposes the truth. Sure, there are things we are certain about, but overall we are seekers and debaters, not dictators. We value human life in this world very highly. We believe in learning to live with our neighbors, not converting or conquering them.

If we are going to be simplistic and divide the world into two groups, then, I would divide it into those who have a vision of peace, who believe in the sanctity of life and who uphold human rights, on the one hand, and those who don’t.

Our Universe is probably at least 13 billion years old. We walked down the 360-foot “Cosmic Pathway” at the Museum of Natural History, trying to grasp the enormity of the universe. Each step represents 75 million years. When we got to the end of the exhibit, we saw a display, with a line the width of a human hair. The width of that line represented, to the scale of this exhibit, the entirety of human history. We are just beginning.


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