Questioning faith in the parsha
Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim
The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life
CHEVRAH TORAH 5773
Shabbat No’ach…Genesis 6:9-7:8
“It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to separate American from Judaism in the words American Judaism. American Jews are products of American culture and society to the extent that their Judaism is inseparable from American values. As a consequence, the Judaism that American Jews create and observe is shaped and reshaped by their distinctive conceptions as Americans.”
[from Contemporary American Judaism, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, 2009]
HOW is Noah’s righteousness a model for Covenant relationship with God/world?
REMEZ…“Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing [American] Judaism in an attempt to make it…more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.” [J. SARNA]
v.9 This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man—blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.
IBN EZRA… “Eyleh Toldot Noach—This is the history of Noah.” That is, what follows is not a digression from his life, but an important part of his life story…
KLI YAKAR… “These are the descendants of Noah…” One would expect to see the listing of his sons immediately following. Instead, the text tells us: “Noah was a righteous man.”…His righteousness is recorded as his offspring. The sequence teaches us about Noah’s children, and Noah himself.
MALBIM… “tsadik–tamim” The term “tsadik” encompasses exemplary social conduct, while the term “tamim” means that someone acts without the thought of personal gain…For a person may deal justly to gain honor or a good reputation, but if the incentive is removed, he’ll change his behavior. One who is “tsadik—tamim,” however, acts purely out of a love for doing right.
HIRSCH… “Ish Tsadik Tamim”—This is Scripture’s designation of high honor—an ish, like Moses,
Who was “ish HaElohim”…Noah stood the supreme test of being a man, living as an almost solitary figure of righteousness for 600 years in contrast to the moral corruption all around him.
RASHI… “In his generations” There are those among our rabbis who interpret this as in praise of Noah, saying, had he lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been considered even more righteous. And there are those who expound it as deprecation, teaching: According to the standard of his generation, he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered as significant in the least.
MIDRASH TANCHUMA… What is meant by “blameless in his generation—Tsaddik Tamim hayah b’dorotav” ?… Some interpret it to his credit; others to his discredit. Righteous in his generation, but not in others. To what may this be compared? If a man places a silver coin among copper coins, then the silver appears attractive. So Noah appeared righteous in his age. Others understand it to his credit. How so? It may be compared to a jar of balsam placed in a grave which gave off a goodly fragrance. Had it been in the house, all the moreso!
ETZ HAYIM…The Sages of the Talmud debate whether this is a true compliment or qualified praise. R’ Yochanan sees Noah as righteous only relatively, in contrast to the wicked people around him. Resh Lakish, on the other hand, says that anyone who had the moral backbone to be a good person in such an immoral society would have been an even better person in a generation that encouraged goodness. [BT, Sanhedrin, 108a] One emphasizes the power of society to shape the behavior of its members; the other champions the power of the individual to withstand the pressures of society.
RASHI… “Noah walked with God.” Regarding Abraham it says “HitHalech l’fa-nai—Walk before Me” [Gen 17:1] Noah needed God’s support to hold him up, but Abraham strengthened himself; he walked in his righteousness on his own.
v.11-14 The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw…God said to Noah: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh…I am about to destroy the earth. [So] Make yourself an ark…”
SARNA… “chamas”—The term parallels “no justice” in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of falsehood, deceit and bloodshed. It means the flagrant subversion of the ordered process of law.
IBN EZRA… “lifnei HaElohim” The phrase could signify that they sinned in public, or that their corruption was covert, known only to God. They sinned brazenly, like servants who openly defy their master.
RALBAG…“HaElohim” is “leaders,” thus the people sinned defiantly and the leaders did not rebuke.
ZOHAR… “And Abraham drew near and said: Will You likewise destroy the righteous and the wicked?”[Gen 18:23]”—Said R’ Judah: Come and see, regarding Noah, God said: “I will put an end to all flesh…Make yourself an ark” Noah held his peace; he did not intercede…But “Abraham drew near…”
D’RASH…“ In a creative process of collective self-fashioning, Jews reinterpreted their own culture and history to fit the circumstances of American Jewish life.” [B. WENGER]
“Fighting Segregation, Threats, and Dynamite: Rabbi William B. Silverman’s Nashville Battle”
David J. Meyer
On 16 March 1958, the Nashville Jewish Community Center was dynamited by a group calling itself; the Confederate Underground. As a public response, Rabbi William B. Silverman (1913-2001), of Nashville’s The Temple Congregation Ohabai Sholom, delivered a sermon on a Sabbath eve in the days following the attack. This previously unpublished sermon, “We Will Not Yield,” captures the struggles and deliberations of a young rabbi who, with the support of his congregation but under enormous communal pressures, sought to live by the ideals of his faith.
The publication of Silverman’s sermonic response to the bombing of the Nashville Jewish center serves to shed further light on the historic role the southern rabbinate played during this contentious period in American history. His willingness to speak out forcefully in favor of school integration was not completely unique in his era. In prior years, Rabbi William Fineshriber had led a campaign in Memphis from the pulpit and in the press against the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and later continued to articulate a plea for social justice for African-Americans, for the poor, and for war veterans. Rabbi Samuel Teitelbaum supported integration in Arkansas, much to the dismay of his own congregants. Silverman’s leadership echoed the activities of colleagues such as rabbis…Ira E. Sanders in Little Rock; and, especially, Charles Mantinband in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Perry Nussbaum in Jackson, Mississippi. Like Silverman, these activist rabbis fought their battles against segregation and racism on multiple fronts: in the press, through communal activism, and, clearly, within the confines of their own congregations .
But the outspokenness of these rabbis seems to be the exception to a general hesitancy on the part of most southern rabbis to avoid entering the civil rights fracas. Many preferred instead to espouse the more moderate views of their synagogue membership.
We Will Not Yield
The Answer of Prophetic Judaism to Violence, Threats and Dynamite
(Isaac Mayer Wise Memorial Sabbath)
March 28, 1958
During the course of the past week, it has been said the rabbi should STICK TO RELIGION, TO JUDAISM AND THE BIBLE. On this Shabbos Hagodol, on this Great Sabbath before Passover, on this Sabbath when we memorialize Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism in America, on this Sabbath when we consider the implications of the dynamiting of the Nashville Jewish Community Center, the threats against the Rabbi of this Congregation, against our Temple, our House of God—I propose to follow that advice, and to adhere by text and exposition to religion, to Judaism and to the Bible, in order to determine, not my answer, not the answer of a Rabbi, but the answer of prophetic Judaism to violence, threats and dynamite.
Reference has been made TO THE BIBLE. Let us turn for a moment to the Torah portion, assigned for this Sabbath, Parasha TZAV: COMMAND AARON AND HIS SONS: THIS IS THE LAW OF THE BURNT-OFFERING: IT IS THAT WHICH GOETH UP ON ITS FIREWOOD UPON THE ALTAR ALL NIGHT INTO MORNING. This refers to the Tamid, the burnt offering, the continual sacrifice brought every morning and evening in the name of the community. As the various sacrifices are enumerated, the meal-offering, the guilt offering, the peace offering, it is commanded: A PERPETUAL FIRE SHALL BE KEPT BURNING UPON THE ALTAR CONTINUALLY: IT SHALL NOT GO OUT.
Do those who so emphatically urge me to stick to the Bible mean that we should restore and reinstitute the sacrificial system, and place animals upon this altar of God—or will they agree with the rabbis that we must keep a perpetual light, a Ner Tomid, burning continually to remind us of Israel’s identification with what? Sacrifices? Ritual? Or the light of truth, the light of morality, the light of justice, and the light of God?
We turn, then, to the Haftorah for this Sabbath, the 7th Chapter of Jeremiah who, speaking in the name of God, declared: FOR I SPOKE NOT UNTO YOUR FATHERS, NOR COMMANDED THEM IN THE DAY THAT I BROUGHT THEM OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT, CONCERNING BURNT-OFFERINGS OR SACRIFICES. BUT THIS THING I COMMANDED THEM SAYING: HEARKEN UNTO MY VOICE AND I WILL BE YOUR GOD, AND YE SHALL BE MY PEOPLE: AND WALK YE IN ALL THE WAY THAT I COMMAND YOU.
WHAT IS THE WAY that God has commanded us? GOD WANTS OBEDIENCE OF HIS MORAL COMMANDMENTS. GOD WANTS JUSTICE. What is prophetic Judaism if not a dedication to justice, and the implementation of the moral precepts of our faith?
“But that happened over 2500 years ago,” it may be said. “Let’s be practical. Let’s be realistic.” If anyone doubts the identity of modern Judaism with social justice, then let him study the life and the teachings of Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism in America, who declared: JUDAISM MUST DEVOTE ITSELF TO SOCIAL JUSTICE, THE RIGHTS OF THE OPPRESSED, THE CAUSE OF UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD AND TRUTH.
“Stick to Reform Judaism, Rabbi!” Let me quote from the 8th point of the Pittsburg Platform of 1885, the platform of classic Reform Judaism: WE DEEM IT OUR DUTY TO PARTICIPATE IN THE GREAT TASK OF MODERN TIMES, TO SOLVE, ON THE BASIS OF JUSTICE AND RIGHTEROUSNESS, THE PROBLEMS PRESENTED BY THE CONTRASTS AND EVILS OF THE PRESENT ORGANIZATION OF SOCIETY.
With this as background, we turn now to a consideration of the implications of the dynamiting of the Nashville Jewish Community Center. There were three points of view expressed by our Jewish community. Two points of view were extreme to the extent of hysteria, the third, the calm, courageous and dignified reaction of the majority.
What were the two extremes? The first insisted that what happened is undeniable proof that we are in golus, exile; that the community of Nashville is rampant with anti-Semitism; that America is no longer safe for those of the Jewish faith…I refused to listen to those who would have me protest over radio and television…JEWS ARE IN DANGER. Quite to the contrary, when I was asked to appear on television it was my suggestion that the President of the Ministerial Association, the Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, and the Secretary of the Nashville Association of Churches speak and clearly demonstrate that this is NOT a Jewish problem, but a COMMUNITY PROBLEM—a problem of civil liberty, a problem of moral decency, a problem of law and order for the Church as well as the Synagogue, for Catholic and Protestant, as well as for those of the Jewish faith.
I also repudiate the other extreme of escapist jittery Jews. There were those who said—the word “Jewish” should never have been on that building—and that if it had been called the COMMUNITY CENTER, NOT THE JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER, the dynamiting would never have occurred. This same extremist group further stated that I was responsible for the dynamiting of the Jewish Community Center—and that because of my pulpit utterances during the Holydays and my pro-integration stand in the community, all the Jews of Nashville have been and will continue to be endangered.
I say this, not with pride, but with a profound sense of shame, that with the exception of my sermons during the High Holydays last September, and one Parent Teachers Association address wherein I complied with a request to speak on the implications of the bombing of the Hattie Cotton School, I have not made a single public utterance or statement on this subject of integration, and have not been as active in behalf of social justice as my faith demands.
Whether we are silent, or we speak forth in behalf of decency, morality, law and order, the Jew will be attacked, because this has been the historic stereotype of anti-Semitism:–but is this to deter us from preserving the values and ideals that are sacred to Judaism? Does this mean that we must scuttle into caves of cowardice and pull the covers of silence over our conscience, because of bigots, goons and men of violence? Does this mean that we must tremble and cower because we advocate, not only the teachings of our Jewish faith, but the principles of our American Heritage?
I, for one, refuse to yield to threats. I refuse, as a Rabbi and as an American citizen to surrender to intimidation and violence—and I am not alone. We are not alone, because there has been an outpouring of messages, letters, resolutions, from the clergy, from the Christian Church, from the decent, respected citizens of our community expressing shame, indignation, and a sense of outrage.
…Let me first speak for myself, as your Rabbi, and I believe that any spiritual leader who does not speak forth and lead his congregation on moral issues is not worthy of being the Rabbi of this or any other congregation, –and I speak clearly and without equivocation that all may understand: TOGETHER WITH THE CENTRAL CONFERENCE OF AMERICAN RABBIS AND THE UNION OF AMERICAN HEBREW CONGREGATIONS, I FAVOR INTEGRATION—not only because I am a Jew, not only because my religious faith teaches that God is our universal Father, that all men are brothers, created in the divine image…I FAVOR INTEGRATION—not only because of an Amos who asked in the name of God: ARE YE NOT AS THE CHILDREN OF THE ETHIOPIANS UNTO ME, O CHILDREN OF ISRAEL, not only because the Torah commands ‘JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALL YE PURSUE;” not only because of the religious heritage of Judaism that insists upon social justice for white and black, for brown, yellow and red—not only because I am a Jew, but because I am an American—and as an American I not only have the right, but the moral mandate to support the constitution, the bill of rights, the decision of the Supreme Court and the laws of our nation.
WE WILL NOT YIELD TO EVIL. We will not capitulate to fear. We will not surrender to violence. We will not submit to intimidation but, as Jews, we will continue to speak for truth; we shall continue to dedicate ourselves to social justice and to the brotherhood of ALL men, knowing and believing that all men are created in the divine image.
R’ Sh’lomo RISKIN …
…Why even suggest that Noah is second-rate when the plain meaning of the text seems so adulatory? When Abraham is told that the wicked cities are about to be destroyed, he argues with the Almighty…In stark contrast, when Noah is informed of the impending destruction of the world, he obediently goes about constructing a private ark to rescue himself and his family. While Abraham emerges as the missionary who breaks down walls as well as idols—as one who opens the doors of his tent in every direction, Noah would rather cut himself off from all adverse influences in order to erect an enclosure to protect his high-level communication with God.
Rabbi Jacob-Joseph, the famous disciple of the Ba’al Shem, writes that when Torah describes Noah as “walking with God” it is pejorative. Noah walked exclusively with God….but missed the opportunity of bringing God to humanity. On the other hand, the K’tav Sofer, probably reacting to the Haskalah [Enlightenment] and the Reform movement [Hungary, late 18th, early 19th centuries] utilizes the commentary to justify Noah’s turning inwards. Noah had good reason to fear that if he went outside to battle the prevailing winds, his own children might be tossed to the edges, and even cast beyond the pale…
Clearly, there is no singular view in rabbinic sources. However, it is the outgoing Abraham, and not the inreaching Noah, who is declared the first Jew…Our prophets instruct us to be a “light to the nations;” Torah defines our mission as a kingdom of priests, and the Alenu sets forth the vision of perfecting the world under the Kingdom of ethical monotheism….The first responsibility a person must have is to his own family…But he cannot rest on his own laurels, on his own Garden of Eden in the suburbs of New York or Jerusalem, for that matter. The time must arrive in every Jew’s life when he turns that closed ship into an open tent—the Noahide perspective into the Abrahamic ideal… [from Torah Lights—GENESIS, pages 57-61]