God vs. Social Action: The Choice is Life

Sermon given the morning of Yom Kippur, October 4, 1995, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

On Rosh Hashanah eve, I announced that I was hoping for Divine inspiration for a topic for today’s sermon. I’m not sure if the inspiration was Divine, but I did get a suggestion from my mother. Her idea was good, but unfortunately, I had already given a sermon on that topic. Then, last Wednesday afternoon, I received a plea from several parents of Hebrew School students. They asked that I please not give them another project in my Yom Kippur sermon; their fingers were already tired from cutting chicken wire to build their sukkot.

So this morning, there will be no project, just a reminder to get to work on your sukkot. Instead, I would like to bring you into the heart of a burning controversy. This debate has been rocking our national Reform Jewish movement for much of the last year, even though we haven’t felt it much here in San Antonio. The dispute, current and modern as it is, has been raging since the birth of Reform Judaism. Indeed, the issues involved are as old as today’s Haftarah reading, first uttered by the prophet Isaiah some 2500 years ago.

In its present incarnation, the debate began when Rabbi Alexander Schindler announced his impending retirement. For over twenty-five years, Rabbi Schindler has been President of our national Reform Movement, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. For lack of a better term, Rabbi Schindler is the “Chief Rabbi” of Reform Judaism. He, more than any other person, has been responsible for Reform Judaism’s openness to interfaith families and converts, or Jews-by-Choice, through the Outreach program which Rabbi Schindler himself founded in 1978. He, more than any other person, has been the voice of Reform Judaism to the larger world. He has forcefully articulated our Reform Movement’s progressive stances on matters as diverse as the Middle East peace process, Affirmative Action, gay rights, and reproductive choice. In short, Rabbi Schindler, more than any other single person, has determined the course of Reform Judaism for over a quarter of a century.

The choice of a successor, therefore, was of the utmost importance. Rabbi Stahl, in fact, was among those invited to apply for the position. He declined, and before too long, the field was narrowed to two candidates.

One finalist was Rabbi Peter Knobel, a congregational rabbi in the Chicago area. He is a scholar who is most learned in matters of Reform Jewish worship, traditional study, and spirituality.

The other finalist was Rabbi Eric Yoffie. He did serve as a congregational rabbi some years ago. However, most of Rabbi Yoffie’s rabbinate has been spent in positions that have allowed him to develop and articulate Reform Jewish positions on a wide variety of social and political issues.

The selection process was frequently discussed in newspapers in New York. As the selection drew near, one paper, the Forward, called the race, “God vs. Social Action.” Rabbi Knobel, the expert in spirituality, was said to represent God. Rabbi Yoffie, the social activist, was said to represent Reform Judaism’s more political wing, as opposed to God.

The following week, the Forward’s headline announced that the Reform Jewish Union had chosen “Social Action over God.” Rabbi Yoffie is now the Union’s President-Elect. Rabbi Knobel, who hesitates to be referred to as “God,” will be with us in San Antonio as our Beldon Fellow in February.

If we listen to the words of this morning’s Haftarah reading, we get the idea that Isaiah would have agreed with the selection of Rabbi Yoffie. Isaiah, like Rabbi Yoffie and other social activists of Reform Judaism, exhorts us to fight injustice, to clothe the naked, even to bring the homeless poor into our own homes. And yet, do we really think that Isaiah, a prophet, a direct messenger of God, would choose social action, would choose anything, over God?

No. In fact, as we study our Haftarah more closely, we discover that there is no tension whatsoever between God and social activism. Indeed, Isaiah insists that God is the One who commands us to work on behalf of the less fortunate in our midst. The tension in the Haftarah, in reality, is not God vs. social action, but rather, ritual vs. social action. Isaiah chastises those who are scrupulous in bringing sacrifices and fasting on Yom Kippur, all the while ignoring and even persecuting the poor in their midst. The prophet teaches us that worship and ritual practice are God-less if they do not lead us to good deeds.

Throughout much of the history of Reform Judaism, Isaiah’s message has been taken to the extreme. From head coverings to dietary laws, a whole host of traditional observances were abolished. Other ritual practices, including building a Sukkah at home and even fasting on Yom Kippur, were expected of only rabbis and the most pious lay people. For most, ethical behavior and the performance of righteous deeds, and of course attendance at High Holy Day services, were all that was required.

God was not absent from the lives of these Reform Jews. Indeed, God was their inspiration, requiring them to behave ethically, to care for the less fortunate, even to become social activists. God was present in their lives, and is active in the lives of the many Reform Jews whose Judaism follows this pattern still today. Some may charge that these Reform Jews have chosen social action over God. In reality, though, they have remained loyal to God and the activism God demands, despite their rejection of traditional observances.

Unfortunately, that Reform Judaism leaves many people cold. Though it inspired one generation, it has proved less meaningful to a new generation which demands deeper connections to our Jewish roots. The rejection of rituals made so much sense to the modern minds of a few decades ago. Today, though, many of us find transcendant meaning, not mere superstition, in religious practice.

So, in our own day, Reform Judaism has moved in a direction of greater ritual observance. Our own introduction of the Tashlich service last Sunday, the fact that head coverings are now available from the ushers at our services, and even the very existence of this Alternate Service, all serve as evidence of Reform Judaism’s reattachment to rituals. Many of us value traditional rituals, because they give us comfort in an often chaotic world. We have become more observant, because rituals give us a greater feeling of attachment to our people, to our history, and to our God. We have taken on more traditional practices, because they inspire us to do the work of repairing the world. Some may charge that we have chosen empty ritualism over social activism. In reality, we have chosen to honor God by adopting rituals which inspire us to help others.

Unfortunately, there are some Reform Jews today whose re-adoption of traditional ritual practice is mindless and devoid of any connection to ethical action. They would fast on Yom Kippur, never thinking to share with the impoverished, who fast involuntarily. They would build Sukkot, never pausing to work on behalf of the millions of Americans who live in even less stable dwellings. They would wear a kipah, demonstrating humility before God, all the while behaving arrogantly toward their fellow human beings. They may believe that they have chosen God over social action. In reality, as Isaiah teaches us, they have chosen ritual over and against the will of God.

In this battle between ritual and social activism, I may seem to favor ritual. After all, I’m the guy who has you cutting chicken wire for your Sukkah. I even made a hakafah, carrying the Torah scroll around the room, today. In preparing this morning’s service, though, I made several decisions against greater traditionalism. Most notably, I could have read the selections from the Torah which are read on Yom Kippur morning in traditional synagogues. Those passages, from Leviticus Chapter 16 and Numbers Chapter 29, focus on the ancient rituals for Yom Kippur Day when the Temple yet stood in Jerusalem. They describe two goats, one to be sacrificed to God, the other to be sent into the wilderness. That second goat, the scapegoat, was to carry the Israelites’ sins far away.

These passages are interesting, and we do read them when they come up in our annual cycle of Torah readings. However, I decided to stick with the Reform movement’s prescribed reading for the day, from Deuteronomy Chapters 29 and 30. Though it is not about Yom Kippur specifically, and it discusses no rituals, it clearly describes an awe-filled moment, a day that might have been Yom Kippur. On that day, the children of Israel had to choose to seal the covenant with God. They were warned of the spiritual death they would suffer if they turned away from God.

Reform Jews today turn away from God when we insist that ethical behavior and social activism are enough and reject the rituals which can bring us closer to our Creator.

Reform Jews today turn away from God when we mindlessly adopt ritual practices without working on behalf of the less fortunate, as the Lord demands.

Reform Jews today turn toward God when we praise God with our rituals and with our actions.

I think even Isaiah would agree. The prophet does seem to reject rituals, but only when they don’t lead to justice. In other passages, he calls upon the Israelites to be faithful in doing all of God’s commandments, including rituals.

I also think that both Rabbi Knobel and Rabbi Yoffie would agree. Focused as he is on fulfilling God’s commandment to repair the world, Rabbi Yoffie does cherish the rituals that inspire us. And Rabbi Knobel’s congregation, known as it is for seeking God through rituals, is also renowned for its social activism.

Fortunately, we here were not on the selection committee. We did not have to choose a new leader for Reform Judaism in an environment sensationalized by a newspaper’s insistence that we would be choosing between God and social action. We did not have to choose between Rabbis Yoffie and Knobel, but we do have choices to make.

Indeed, our Torah portion today charges us to choose, to choose life, not just for ourselves, but for our future generations as well. This year, let us choose life, let us choose God’s way, by heightening our spirituality through rituals and by recommitting ourselves to social activism.

When we fast, we are not merely being ritually observant, we are choosing life. We focus on God’s wishes instead of our own needs. We concentrate on the life of our souls instead of the desires of the flesh.

Just this morning, when we brought our grocery bags full of food for the hungry, we were not merely being socially conscious. We were choosing life by providing the stuff of life for those of God’s creatures who need it most.

When we worship in our Synagogue, we are not merely practicing rituals. We are choosing life by praising the Source of life, seeking God’s will and resolving to do it.

When we cry out for justice, calling upon our national leaders to beat swords into plowshares, to prioritize human needs over weapons of destruction, we aren’t just doing social action. We are choosing life by echoing the prophets’ denunciations of policies that would literally kill the most fragile of God’s children.

When we build our Sukkot, we are not just being observant. We are choosing life by acknowledging God as the source of all of our harvest, the food we eat, the blessings in which we rejoice, the gift of life itself.

When we join together on Mitzvah Day, as we will again next May, to repair our own community, we aren’t merely doing good deeds. We are choosing life, by doing God’s work and spreading our love throughout the life of San Antonio.

When we increase our ritual practice, we choose life, and when we increase our social activism we choose life, as we respond to the wishes of God, the Maker of life.

This year, may we all choose life for today and tomorrow, through our rituals as well as through our special activism. May our observances and our actions be pleasing in the sight of God. Amen.