“Moral Values” and American Public Life

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Eve, 5766, October 12, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Twelve years and three days ago, Amy and Sylvan Lang were married here on this bimah. I spoke on the prior Friday evening, when the couple received their prenuptial blessing. The subject I chose, having nothing to do with Amy and Sylvan, was Jewish views of gambling.

When I arrived at the Shabbat dinner, following the service, several of Amy’s relatives from the East Coast told me that I should have chosen a different subject. They had continually heard these Texans talking about their hunting exploits over the years. Scandalized that Jews would engage in such a barbaric act, they urged me to speak out against hunting.

Well, I never did it. I do like my job.

Seriously, if an important issue of morality arose with respect to hunting, I would not hesitate to speak. I have no desire to go hunting myself, and never have, Texan though I be. Nevertheless, I find no immorality in hunting game that one intends to eat. Yes, Jewish hunters are rare outside of Texas; and yes, the hunters’ method of killing is inconsistent with more humane kosher slaughter, which means that I could easily find Jewish text to support an anti-hunting homily.

I say all this, not to focus on hunting, but to introduce a rather nettlesome topic: What is a moral issue, appropriate for a Rabbi’s sermon? To what extent ought a Rabbi to speak out on matters confronting our city, our state, our nation, or the State of Israel? I’m told, by friends who share such things with me, that one of the chief reactions to the sermons offered from this bimah on Rosh Hashanah was: “How nice that they didn’t talk politics.” On other occasions, responses have been different.

“Moral issues” is a term much in use today, particularly since last November’s Presidential election. The media — left and right and center — focused on one particular finding from the exit polling: Americans, in large numbers, had cast their votes on the basis of “moral values.”

Politicians and pundits widely interpreted that finding to mean that millions of Americans voted for President Bush because he opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Perhaps they were right. Millions of Americans do hold those positions, for moral reasons.

This sermon, though, is not about reproductive freedom and it is not about equal rights for homosexuals. This sermon is about moral values.

Yes, I am a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose. For those who believe that abortion is murder, this issue clearly calls for a moral crusade. Judaism’s teaching about abortion, though, is more subtle. To us, a fetus is not a person, and thus abortion is not murder, even though abortion has profound moral implications. Yet, for most Jews, the legality of abortion in America is not a religious issue, but a matter of American freedom, a question of whether the views of one religion ought to be imposed upon all, particularly when our various faiths offer divergent teachings on the subject.

Reform Judaism and your Rabbis also support the legitimate rights of gays and lesbians. We believe that discrimination against any group threatens all who may find themselves in the minority. Therefore, we particularly oppose the Texas Marriage Amendment, on our November ballot, because it enshrines that discrimination in the State Constitution. Texas law already does not recognize same-sex unions. This mean-spirited amendment goes further, preventing any civil recognition for same-sex couples. Our Temple’s Board of Trustees has declared its opposition to this ballot initiative, on the basis of the principles of Reform Judaism. Equal rights for homosexuals, and for any group faced with discrimination, is a moral issue. I will speak on that matter more fully on Friday evening, October 21.

Now, that’s all I’ll have to say tonight, about either reproductive rights or the Texas Bill of Rights. I imagine, though, that some members of the congregation might be uncomfortable with the little that I have said. Some will ask: Am I not simply the mirror image of those pastors who stood with Governor Perry, that summer Sunday in a Fort Worth Church, when he signed the Constitutional Amendment against same-sex couples and other legislation of importance to the religious right? Even among those who agree with my positions on these two issues, which I believe to be a large majority in this congregation, plenty of folks simply believe that we improperly entangle religion and government when we speak about any issue in the public arena.

Actually, the Governor’s actions aside, those pastors did nothing wrong. Our Constitution affords religious people every right to speak out on moral issues that concern them. If I believed that abortion were murder, or that same-sex unions undermined monogamy, I would loudly cry out against both. Yes, endorsing political candidates or parties would be inappropriate and would jeopardize our tax-exempt status. Addressing moral issues, however, is our duty.

Reform Rabbis and other mainstream clergy really are not all that different from the folks with whom we disagree so fundamentally. We are all following in the footsteps of the prophets of ancient Israel, though we be lesser men and women than they.

The prophets were frequently accused of attempting to place religion firmly on one side of a political disagreement. Most often, the prophets – and those, like Jesus, who came after them – were speaking out against the rulers of the day, be they kings or priests.

And what were those topics, those moral concerns, which drove the prophets? Some of the issues were more narrowly religious. They opposed idolatry, with every fiber of their being. When a king or priest would introduce a foreign ritual, in order to satisfy some political or diplomatic challenge, our prophets would object. They would warn that God would punish the people, the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judea, if they would stray in their ritual practice.

Much more often, though, the prophets spoke out on moral issues. No, they did not decry reproductive freedom, though scholars have found ample evidence of ancient methods of birth control and abortion. No, they did not denounce homosexuality, except in connection with idolatrous cult practices, even though historians tell us that such sexual activity was not uncommon in their day.

Instead, the ancient prophets spoke out against the wide gap between rich and poor. They denounced employers who abused laborers. They articulated their contempt for policies that brought shame to debtors. They did not hesitate to name the king or the priest who was responsible for bringing disgrace on the people of Israel by perpetuating these immoralities. In short, they did not shy away from speaking out on moral issues, even if those matters might be rectified or caused by government action.

Some of our greatest prophets suffered mightily at the hands of those whom they criticized. Elijah fled from the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, fearing for his life. Jeremiah was placed in stocks, flogged and imprisoned.

Blessedly, I face no such fate. No Temple leader has ever attempted to interfere with my freedom of the pulpit. I also don’t believe that Rabbis lose their pulpits because congregants disagree with their sermons. Rabbis are ousted when they fail to care for their members in need, when they don’t treat human beings with respect. I do not fear for my livelihood, let alone my life, when I speak on a controversial subject.

I pray that I will ever be guided by the words of our ancient prophets. Perhaps the most moving example of their strength is found in our Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning, in the words of Isaiah. The prophet castigates the people, even though they are scrupulous in their ritual practice, faithfully observing each fast day. They wonder why God is not good to them in response. Isaiah answers: “Because on your fast day . . . you oppress all your workers.” Then, the prophet, in God’s Name, redefines the meaning of fasting by asking a rhetorical question: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to tear every yoke apart? Surely, it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house: when you see the naked, to cover them, never withdrawing yourself from your own kin.” To Isaiah, in order for fasting to be a legitimately religious ritual, it must lead to the practice of social justice.

On this Yom Kippur, in America, 2005, in the name of Isaiah, I would ask:

Is this not the fast God desires:To alleviate poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth, where the gap between our poorest and wealthiest citizens has widened drastically, during Democratic and Republican presidencies alike?

To assure that every child has an equal opportunity to succeed in this Land of opportunity, by providing excellent education to every child, no matter where he or she lives in this great Land? To break the stalemate in Texas, where public education funding is the laughingstock of the nation?

To provide the world’s best health care, including needed medication, to every person within our borders?

To support the drive of President Bush, Senator Cornyn and Archbishop Gomez, to enact a rational immigration policy that protects our nation, while allowing those lowest paid laborers to enter our country with dignity, and to go home to their families, without fear that they will be unable to return?

If our words will ring out, if we will never fear to speak out on moral issues, whatever our position, then Isaiah’s promise will be fulfilled:

“If you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon; the Eternal God will guide you always, . . . then you shall delight in the Eternal One. . . . For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Ken yehi ratzon, may that be God’s will.