Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning

On Rosh Hashanah morning, we read the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac as is our tradition. I suggested, in my commentary to that story, that the incomplete grammar and ambiguity of the text reflects our imperfect and tenuous existence as human beings; our unknowing, our anxiety, our fear and, in sum, our incompleteness and contingency.

And, moreover, conscious of our limitations as human beings, I urged that, this coming year, we may have the moral imagination and strength not to project and dump our pain on another human being or another living creature. The sooner we reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are all, in the grand scheme, quite vulnerable the sooner we can reconcile with and help each other, in our families, in this community, in our nation and, I especially pray, in Israel and Palestine. Human existence may be chaotic and traumatic but, like Abraham, let us struggle afresh for more compassionate visions and let us have the courage to risk living by them.

The Akedah text is suffused with forms of the Hebrew root RESH-ALEPH-HEH, meaning ‘seeing’. Mount Moriah is a place of seeing, a place of vision. That is but one example of the derivations of this root in the text in which Abraham will come to see and understand differently what is demanded of him: more compassion, more courage to change. This is what God demands.

Last night, at our Kol Nidre service, I spoke about forgiveness and especially in relation to victims of trauma and perpetrators of trauma. Even when it is impossible to forgive or to forget, certain forms of reconciliation are nonetheless necessary if life is somehow to carry on in a positive way. And I specified clearly some aspects and conditions for such societal reconciliation.

This morning, I want to remind us that compassion, courage and reconciliation require vision and openness as opposed to willful blindness.

The phrase ‘willful blindness’ has its legal origins in a case in 1861, Crown against Sleep. Here, the judge ruled that the accused could not be convicted for possession of stolen government property unless the jury found that either he knew the goods came from government stores or he had ‘willfully shut his eyes to the fact’. Nowadays, this legal concept is applied typically when it comes to money laundering and drug trafficking cases. Not bothering to ask or check doesn’t ‘cut it’ when it comes to claiming ignorance. As writer Margaret Heffernan has summarized, ‘If there is knowledge that you could have had and should have had but chose not to have, you are still responsible’.

In July 2011, Liberal MP Adrian Saunders used this same definition of ‘willful blindness’ to probe the Murdochs during the committee sessions when they were questioned concerning phone-hacking. The Murdochs claimed to be ignorant of the term ‘willful blindness’ when directly asked by MP Saunders; how very revealing.

Willful blindness, as a human behavior, is all around us. Think of the willful blindness of bankers and financial regulators when it came to the causes of the financial meltdowns of a few years ago. Think of the scandals involving physical and sexual abuse in schools, in churches, old age homes and at Abu Ghraib. It happens all around us. There are all too many examples where terrible things went on repeatedly and even with plenty of warning signs, too. (And, then when revealed to the public, ritualistic displays of shock, horror and chest-beating.)

This is a human problem. Life is hard enough already. We are all just trying to survive. We are afraid of losing our jobs and friends if we speak out. Whistle blowers often have their lives ruined by those in power, those with something to hide.

And, also, we have our sacred cows: institutions, individuals we depend on for our own sense of stability well being and sense of meaning and purpose in life. Not to mention the institutions that do the awkward or dirty things, on our behalf, that we don’t have the skills to do or the will to do ourselves. Even a hint of betraying the status quo –in other words, our tenuous sense of balance– is devastating. Intolerant of cognitive dissonance –clashing thoughts in our minds– we are devastatingly critical and suspicious of the whistleblower or the critical voices. We don’t like boat-rockers, as a rule.

In this regard, London-born Jewish historian Tony Judt, one of my heroes, wrote about his Jewish identity in 2010, not long before he died in at the age of sixty-two from a form of motor neuron disease: ‘Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.’

To be Jewish is to be not silent, not willingly blind, deaf or ignorant. We should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own behavior, of our own people. This is our collective responsibility. This tradition of dissent is the most important tradition that we can keep.

Tony Judt’s understanding of the task of a historian arises out of his Jewish identity: ‘…to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly. A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves’.

Nowadays, when it comes to questions involving Israel-Palestine, for example, dissenting Jews are routinely accused by right-wingers of being self-hating Jews. If to question and to dissent is what it is to be a self-hating Jew, then that is the best kind of Jew.

The attempt to silence ‘real Jews’ happens when the ‘us versus them’ mentality is prevalent. And the us versus them mentality is, in its current dominant form, usually accompanied by a Manichean view where all is seen in black and white terms where the bestial world is forever hating us. The world has no right to tell us what to do because the world tried to exterminate us and they’d be happy to have another shot at it. We are, always have been and always will be embattled and doomed. It is a deeply depressing scenario and, indeed, the self-righteous and pugnacious behavior that arises out of this paranoiac stance is profoundly dangerous.

As Tony Judt said shortly before he died, ‘…[Israel] has gone from genuinely believing itself to be threatened to exploiting that “threat” to serve unworthy and foolish goals. As a result, no one outside Israel takes seriously the threat to its existence, which is bad for Israel should such a threat ever arise. The identification of Israel with Auschwitz (and of its enemies with Nazism) is not only obscene, but self-defeating. Until 1967 it was semi-plausible, despite running counter to the equally self-serving image of “macho Jews” who would never “go like sheep to the slaughter”. Since 1967 it is a ridiculous claim and looks it.’

In 2010, Judt was referring to the disastrous episode of Netanyahu badly over reacting to the Mavi Marmara on international waters and to the ceaseless bellicosity concerning Iran. (In the last few days, the Iranian President Rouhani has given his support to the West’s campaign against ISIS in Iraq. Of course, the commitment to negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear capability must continue, however, if there is to be an eventual satisfactory outcome.)

In recent months, there has been a war known as Tzuk Eytan (‘Strong Cliff’ or ‘Protective Edge’) with both sides contributing to the hugely disproportionate casualties and destruction. Israel’s plans for the forcible relocating of 12,500 Bedouins from just east of Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, the 1,000 acres seized for new settlements near Gush Etzion and more settlers moving into Silwan (an Arabic neighborhood near the old city of Jerusalem) are indeed provocative. The conduct of each of these episodes was driven by a Manichean agenda shared by extremist Orthodox settlers.

On the other hand, we see examples of courage and vision. Thirty-four veteran intelligence officers in Unit 8200 refused to engage in activities that went well beyond the need to provide for Israel’s security. Their extraordinarily articulate statement was borne out of love and a concern for the future of the state as a viable democracy. In interviews, they cited systematic breaches of the safety of particularly vulnerable individuals: for example, blackmailing Palestinian homosexuals unconnected to any extremist activities to either serve as informants or to be outed. The vitriolic reactions to these courageous military veterans indicates to me that there was truth to their claims. If there wasn’t they would’ve been largely ignored. It’s very uncomfortable for many Israelis to learn about such routine behavior on the part of non-combat units and potentially disillusioning for loyal supporters of Israel. So, these decent and caring people are vilified. Some know that their careers as well as some relationships will be ruined but they, nevertheless, could not live with themselves and do what they were ordered to do.

We also see the extraordinary work of the Parents Circle Families Forum, representing over 600 Israeli and Palestinian families that have lost their children to violence. Together, they set up a tent for seventy-one days this summer in Tel Aviv to dialogue and to protest the ongoing deaths of innocents on both sides during the Gaza War. Sadly, those in the tent have endured many hateful and abusive taunts made by right-wing Israelis. (Incidentally, Friends of the Earth Middle East maintains close ties with the Parents’ Circle.)

Those who insist on marginalizing such forms of dissent are themselves perpetuating a reality in which Israel is far and away the single most divisive issue in Jewish politics. I so wish that Israel could be a truly normalizing and uniting factor to our fragmented diaspora. Willful blindness on our part ultimately supports Israel’s divisive course of action as well as her denigration. We are all potentially responsible; certainly morally.

As liberal Jews, we are well-placed when it comes to overcoming willful blindness. There is no excuse as we engage with our non-Jewish neighbors in so many positive ways. We do not live in a ghetto where we regard Israel, in classic Orthodox terms, as a poor little ‘yeshiva-bucher’ at the mercy of the uniformly horrible outside world, as the descendants of Jacob versus the bestially anti-Semitic reincarnations of Esau forever seeking revenge.

More than ever before, we should be strongly supporting progressive elements in Israeli society, including the cause of pluralism in Jewish religious practice; alleviating poverty; and, most of all, building bridges with any Palestinians who are willing and able to engage with us. We can speak out in favor of a negotiated peace rather than silently contributing to stalemate. This Yom Kippur, let us realize our strength not our weakness as Jews… and as human beings.