Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Our Words: Prayers, Perspectives and Promises – Kol Nidre/Erev Yom Kippur - September 25, 2012

      I looked at their signs almost every day for 15 years.  I would drive by the various locations around town where they appeared and marvel at what new message might be added to their repertoire of hateful expressions.   GOD HATES AMERICA!  THANK GOD FOR IED’S (IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICES)!   As I drove on the side street that led to Temple Beth Sholom in Topeka on Friday nights, the the gauntlet of picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church would greet me and other congregants with the special sign they made just for us, TEMPLE BETH SODOM.  More recently this same group has unveiled signs declaring THE JEWS KILLED JESUS, GOD HATES ISRAEL, and GOD HATES JEWS.    People who have witnessed this group organized around Fred Phelps, Sr. and his family wonder when their members will ever get a life.   But this is their life – bigotry and hatred that they justify as  fire and brimstone preaching that only they can deliver because they are, in their words, God’s elect, God’s chosen few.   

     I spoke openly and often in that community about standing up to hatred by engendering understanding between people of different faiths and backgrounds.  Yes, it did work; yes, it was possible.  Yes, I could have a calm discussion about Middle East politics with a local physician who headed the Islamic center in town.  Yes, my Christian clergy colleagues and I could find common ground, from the most conservative to the most liberal.  That happened after years of working together, talking with each other, and building trust in general, even when our disagreements on certain issues were as wide as the Grand Canyon.  
       I wonder if Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar would have made some of his negative statements about Reform Jews this year if he had engaged in study, at any time, with rabbis and scholars from a wide spectrum of approaches to Judaism.   Such ongoing relationships might have prevented him from asserting that Conservative and Reform Rabbis are “uprooters of Torah” who have to answer for the damage they are doing to the Jewish world.  He might not have advised that it would be better for a secular Jew who was away from home this year on Rosh Hashanah to pray by himself rather than pray in a Reform congregation.     I can’t say that those words don’t hurt, but it is a position I expect.  Still, I am not one to give up on developing mutual respect or, at least, sharing a small slice of the truth. During Passover in 1977, I accompanied a college friend on a trip organized by his Yeshiva to a site in the Judean hills.   I eventually told one of the American Yeshiva students on that trip that I was a Reform rabbinic student living in Jerusalem that year.  He was puzzled, thinking I believed in a different religion than he did. So he asked, “On Yom Kippur, I fast and pray all day in synagogue in order to atone for my sins.  What do you do on Yom Kippur?”  I replied quickly – “I do the same thing you do.”   I would like to think that I brought just a little light of understanding into his world. 
     I still receive the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle to maintain connections with the community that raised me.  This weekly newspaper, during every election cycle, features op-ed articles and letters-to-the-editor that urge people to vote for one candidate – or one party – or another.  Sometimes the rhetoric gets testy, so much so that it elicited this letter a few weeks ago: “When members of our Jewish community write a letter to this newspaper to express a political opinion, they should not be subjected to personal attacks. Is a reasoned response, such as ‘I disagree with so and so’s opinion because…” too much to ask, without resorting to name calling? It doesn’t matter what side of the political aisle you’re on; it’s clear as day that some recent letters have lowered the level of civil discourse in this community. Personal attacks by one member of the community should be condemned by people of all political persuasions. I’m not in favor of censorship, but for the sake of peace in the community, this newspaper might want to refrain from publishing such letters in the future.” 
       I have seen newspapers in the communities in which I have lived print pointed expressions from readers without hesitation.  When I would write a letter in response to sentiments with which I disagreed, I made sure that it was about the topic, not the person.  I tried to couch my language in such a way that people from a wide range of opinions could hear it and think about it. In one case, I was involved in a series of back-and-forth letters-to-the-editor about the right of a local pastor to pray in a way that was particularly Christian in the state legislature (which I opposed).  The other letter writer and I eventually had a face-to-face meeting – he was a deacon at a local Church of God in Christ and came by his view honestly.  He spoke intelligently and without hostility to me.  At the end of our meeting, we were able to agree to disagree.  This man became a regular participant in an interfaith dialogue group where we continued to disagree agreeably and to listen to and reflect on our respective views.
     This is a night that is about our actions but it is, especially, about our words.  What we say can create or destroy a world, where that world may be a relationship between two people or many people.  Words can create expectations that may or may not be met.  Words can express the complexities of our thoughts and opinions on crucial issues.  They can also give voice to personal passion for a particular perspective.  Such passion is well placed as long as it doesn’t prevent a person from hearing crucial information or another opinion that might deserve consideration.
    How we say what is on our minds and in our hearts does matter.   We do use our words to express our opinions but, also, to promise to give or do something either for ourselves or for the benefit of another person or an entire community.   One aspect of human nature that hasn’t changed over the centuries is that, sometimes, we can’t fulfill such promises.  Other concerns and tasks may intervene in a way we didn’t expect.   The rabbis acknowledged this reality, but as much as they discouraged people from making promises they couldn’t keep, their community members did so anyway.  A prayer very similar to KOL NIDREI became popular because people wanted to be unburdened of the guilt of past unfulfilled promises so that they could feel that they were truly forgiven. The original prayer that annulled vows of the previous year was a problem for some rabbis, who felt that we still needed to be bound by the words we spoke  in some significant way.      About 1000 years ago, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, the son-in-law of the great sage Rashi, proposed that the KOL NIDREI prayer be modified to annul in advance any vows people might make in the coming 12 months, from this Yom Kippur to the next.  That is the wording that we chanted during tonight’s service.  Admitting that we might, in the future, make a promise we can’t keep, could make us think before we speak so that others will be able to trust what we say.  There is a large dose of forgiveness for our humanity built into this prayer.  We make mistakes.  We try to use our words wisely, but we don’t always succeed.  Sometimes we just need a break. KOL NIDREI takes away the feeling that we have to be perfect.  It allows us to be who we are: human beings striving to get as close to perfection as possible. 
    Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman compiled a wide variety of reflections on the Kol Nidre prayer in his book, ALL THESE VOWS.  In one chapter of this anthology, Rabbi and Psychologist Ruth Durchslag specifically addressed the power of words.  She began her chapter in the book with this declaration: “In my life as a psychologist I rely on words to heal.  In my work as a rabbi I rely on words to inspire.  When I write, I rely on words to communicate.  As a mediator, I have learned that words mean nothing at all.”  She noted that KOL NIDREI, on one level, suggests that words don’t really count.  Then she noted that words do count.  In the Torah, God used speech – words – to begin creation by saying “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” The Torah says that God didn’t just write the Ten Commandments on stone, God spoke those words.   Rabbi Durchslag explained that when we recite a blessing, the words we have spoken change our way of being in the world.   She noted how silence, the absence of the spoken word, can also create something new.  Silent reflection on a difficult situation can change a “no” to a “yes” once we have deeply pondered our own feelings and values.   In our silence, we might hear the words we have spoken in the past as harsh or meaningless.  From a place of no words, we may feel a desire to take back some of what we have said.  A moment of meditation or introspection may allow us to better understand how to carefully craft our words so that they will be meaningful and affirming.  The Kol Nidrei prayer gives us permission to feel regret, even in advance, for words indelicately spoken.  It reminds us to speak as though even one phrase or one word can change the state of the universe and the course of history. 
      At most any time in public life, words are flying in countless directions, whether from leaders or news commentators, or proponents of one ideology or another.  Parker Palmer, author of Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, lamented the state of public discourse in a Huffington Post article with this statement: “Want to undermine American democracy? Start by making citizens so distrustful and dismissive of each other -- especially of those who are "different" in their political/religious/philosophical convictions or their sexual orientation/ethnicity/race -- that the power of "We the People" dissipates as we tear each other apart….Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It's about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences. The civility we need will come not from watching our tongues, but from valuing our differences and the creativity that can come when we hold them well.” 
    In his book, The Third Alternative, Stephen Covey suggested a path that can effectively lead individuals or groups in conflict to a peaceful and productive resolution.   Covey directs people to seek out those who espouse an opposing position and truly listen to their viewpoint.  Listening means to hear clearly what the other person is saying, all the while remembering that he or she is not an enemy, but a human being who deserves respect.  The goal of conflict resolution is not victory for one position or another, but transformation for both sides, so that they can ultimately see that they are really on the same side, bound together as members of a community.
    For Parker Palmer and Stephen Covey, and for us, words can and do create worlds.  The words shared by many of you with me about creating a civil society offer a meaningful guide to how we can say what we need to say in the best way possible. How can we state our perspectives in such a way that they will be heard and understood, as if we are members of the same team?   Listen now to your wisdom and counsel:   
·  Listening and caring matter, being aware that we all make mistakes and can  unconsciously hurt  others perhaps because we ourselves are hurting...and the words "I'm sorry" should be enough matters that we accept each person for who they are and don't try to mold them into what or who we think they should be, but rather celebrate the fact that we are all individuals.
·  Dismissing another’s ideas to promote your own is not a way to discuss issues.
·  Before I judge another's words or behavior, I think about myself on the worst day of my life and try to give that person the break that I needed on that particular day.
·  To have meaningful, collaborative relationships with others you need to think about what you say in the context of the audience you address.  This is true with an audience of thousands or an audience of one.
·  Remind yourself: You Want To Continue A Relationship With This Person Beyond This Conversation: think about maintaining ties, not scoring points or dismissing someone with views that differ from your own. It is possible to have respectful, educated disagreement. It's important that we not view a difference of opinion as inherently problematic!
·  Within the Jewish community, acknowledge and respect that the Torah and Jewish law are open to many interpretations that affirm a wide range of views on tough subjects.
·  Actively listen to what another person has to say. Even if you disagree with it, make sure you understand the meaning before expressing your own ideas, and use that understanding to emphasize common ground.
·  Listen carefully to what is being said.  Don't argue.  Rather, pause before answering and answer softly, sincerely, and succinctly.
·  By completely focusing on notions that make a lot of sense to you, making no attempt to see the other person's point-of-view, that's how evil comes about.
·  Respect others--their values, viewpoints, and overall importance as human beings. All discussions should be at a conversational, low-decibel auditory level. Ask : What do you think/What is your opinion?", do not interrupt as  you listen to the answer, and then say "Thank you"
·  Always consider this question when speaking to another person: “How would I feel if you said to me what I'm about to say to you?”
·  Message content aside, never engage another person using a mean-spirited, hateful tone or abusive language to which you yourself would not favorably respond.
·  Reasoned dialog between disagreeing persons is possible if the discussion is tempered with the realization that unfettered emotions tied to a certain point of view will distort facts and lead to false  accusations and name calling, resulting in a  shouting match.    Perhaps enforce the simple principle of waiting your turn to speak, and speak with respect.   
·  One person is not superior to another and each deserves equal respect.  Where there are ears that truly listen and hearts that truly hear, there is hope for a civil society.
      Through what we say and how we say it, we can hold out hope for reaching true understanding. The KOL NIDREI prayer reminds us to make our words count before we even say them.   Before the T’FILAH, we pray a verse from PSALM 51, “ADONAI S’FATAI TIF’TACH UFI YAGID T’HILATECHA, Eternal One, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.”  We need to remember that when we speak to any person, he or she is created in the divine image.  We are part of the same family. No disagreement or difference can change that, because diversity is built into the human condition.
     The Talmud tells of how the schools of the great sages Hillel and Shammai were in regular conflict.  In one instance, the debate became so heated that only a heavenly voice could stop their verbal confrontations. The voice declared, “Both of your positions are the words of the living God – both are valid – EILU V’EILU DIVREI ELOHIM CHAYIM – but the law is in agreement with the students of Hillel.”  “Why one side and not the other?” the Talmud asked.  The passage explained that the students of Hillel were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of their opponents, and they were so humble that they would mention the opinions of Shammai before stating their own views.
     And so, in the coming year, from this Yom Kippur to the next, may we speak with humility, with honesty and with respect.  May the still small voice inside of us guide our speech so that what we say will bring us closer together, giving meaning not only to the words “We the People,” but also to one simple expression of unity - “WE.”   So may it be - and let us say AMEN. 

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