Monday, October 6, 2014

Kol Nidre 5775: The Soul of the World - Shmittah and Climate Change, by Rabbi Scott Perlo

The Soul of the World: Shmittah and Climate Change
Rabbi Scott Perlo

It bothers me when articles from The Onion become primary source material for my sermons. Somehow, America’s best satirical newspaper is capturing the truth more and more.

400,000 people marched for global climate legislation and action in New York a couple of weeks ago. Yet the UN conference that occasioned the protest lasted all of one day. Here’s The Onion:

“In an overwhelming show of support for dangerously escalating temperatures, 7.1 billion people from nearly every nation on earth staged massive demonstrations yesterday in favor of global warming. “Whether they were sitting in their living rooms, watching football at a bar, or just driving somewhere, a sizable portion of the world let its support for climate change be heard loud and clear,” said environmental policy expert Janet Purvis…At press time, the 7.1 billion protesters were reportedly making plans to stage similar rallies every day for the foreseeable future.”

So heartbreaking. So accurate.

I want to talk about the changes to our planet occasioned by our agency, and the danger that we face. But my hope is that this will be a different drash about the environment and climate change than you’ve heard before.

That is because I don’t think that I need to detail the various depredations to our world, nor make a case for the importance of reversing or ameliorating those changes. You’ve heard all the arguments long ago; reports of that damage are in every paper, on every site. You certainly don’t need me to remind you, nor, I think, to cheerlead the cause of environmental justice.

Rather, what I want us to talk about is: given that there’s widespread agreement on the global effects of our way of life, why are we so hampered in doing anything about it? We are the 7.1 billion. We know what we’re doing. Yet our whole lives are built such that we propagate that damage every day. And, were we to be truly honest, I think we feel ourselves completely unable to change our ways because of the practical exigencies of how we live: The food and clothing that I buy is shrouded in acres of packaging. The work that I do produces reams of spent paper – you don’t know want to know how many trees sacrificed themselves for this Yom Kippur. The delicious, delicious air conditioning that I love so squanders obscene amounts of energy.
To change those things, and the thousands like them, would be to change everything[PM1] .

So I want to address the difficulty of such profound change from an entirely spiritual perspective, to try to get at the root of what it means to change from the inside out.

Let us consider three circles, and give thought to the three concentric arenas in which we live. They are the world, the community, and the self. To walk the paths of righteousness is to know, intimately, how our actions affect each of these three spheres. To be a hasid, to have true reverence, is to know how each circle affects us[PM2] . I think that a living consciousness of all three is the apex of the spiritual ideal.
Aware of this, the Torah teaches us a manner with which to live in all three. And in testament to its[PM3]  wisdom and its holiness, our holy words teach us one word with which to regard them all.

That word is Shabbat.

To explain, I’ll work my way from the outermost circle to the innermost, and then back again.

Let us speak of the world. This year is the final year of a seven-year Jewish cycle called shmittah. Shmittah started, in fact, on Rosh Hashanah.

If you’ve not heard of shmittah, don’t be surprised – it’s only observed in the land of Israel, and, until recently, hadn’t been practiced in 2000 years. But don’t let its obscurity to us fool you: shmittah is a central preoccupation in the Torah; it serves as a source of profound spiritual preoccupation for the greatest Jewish minds.

Shmittah is, quite simply, a Shabbat for the earth.

“God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God's sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. [What grows while] the land is resting may be eaten by you, by your male and female slaves, and by the employees and resident hands who live with you. All the crops shall be eaten by the domestic and wild animals that are in your land." 
-Leviticus 25:1-7

This is to say that, for an entire year, there was neither sowing nor planting nor harvesting. Every inch of the land lay fallow, not an acre to be touched.

Imagine the audacity of this mitzvah. The society of the Torah – well into the Common Era, was agrarian. These people were farmers. And for an entire year, they farmed…nothing. The burden on their way of life was immense, the effect on their commerce, profound.

In addition to the agricultural mitzvah, there was a stunning financial mitzvah. In the seventh year, all debts were forgiven. Being rather saddled with student loan debt, let’s just say that the notion appeals.

What is yet more audacious, what’s even crazier, is that they actually did it. This wasn’t theory; Shmittah was practiced.

The question, of course, is why? Why would an entire country give up their normal way of life for a year? What would compel them?

I promise to try to answer the question…but not just yet.

From the world to the community: to be Shabbat observant in contemporary society is to appear insane. There’s a perfectly good car that isn’t used. Perfectly good elevators shunned in favor of walking nine flights of stairs to your friend’s apartment. Perfectly good episodes of Orange Is The New Black that need binge watching.

And I want to cop to it. Shabbat observance is insane.


Except that Shabbat is only insane in relation the rules of the larger society in which we live. Those rules are largely arbitrary, but they are such a part of our lives that we rarely notice their artificiality.

For those in ties - do you really think there’s a compelling reason to wrap that nooselike piece of fabric around your necks? For those in heels, explain to me it’s mandatory that you stand on a few inches of toothpick right?

Only Because.

Football is on Sunday is Only Because the 8 hour work day and 40 hour week created a weekend.
The school year runs September to May Only Because there was a time when children were expected to help their parents with spring planting and fall harvest.
Many of you had to drive to get here Only Because when we started the mass production of the automobile, people of means thought it fashionable to move far out of the city, and suburbia was built to separate private homes from communal and commercial spaces – a move considered by movements like New Urbanism to be a massive mistake, as an aside.

A stunning percentage of what we accept as The Way Things Are – those rules are in fact Only Because.

Except that in the 21st century, today, as the pace of life, increases, frenetically quickens, a pace breakneck and then more breakneck, a forced stoppage is feeling less and less insane.

Shabbat observance creates a very different kind of world: one in which efficiency is the least valued priority; in which people must live in physical proximity of each other; in which stopping, ceasing, is the best thing that one can do. In the context of a mechanized, mobilized, technologically forward society, the choice to do so, even for a day, is a clash against the dominant values. Shabbat is deviant.

Nor can it be done alone. To observe every Shabbat by oneself is a form of torture: the doors to society literally closed against you by the requirement of money or the use of electricity.

Except for the Smithsonian, which is free, so one can go on Shabbat. If you go to the zoo, you can see Bao Bao. That’s nice.

Shabbat demands a community.

Sociologist Peter Berger wrote: “Unless our theologian [religiously committed individual] has the inner fortitude of a desert saint, he has only one effective remedy against the threat of cognitive collapse … He must huddle together with like-minded fellow deviants and huddle very closely indeed. Only in a counter-community of considerable strength does cognitive deviance have a chance to maintain itself…”

The question, of course, is why? Why would an entire community give up their normal way of life, every week, for a full day? Why would they act against the structure of dominant society? What would compel them?

From the community to the self: Shabbat’s negative commandments dwarf its positive mitzvot. That means that the essence of Shabbat is found in not doing, in what I do not do, in from what I prevent myself.

The self chafes against these restrictions. Why again can I not hop on a plane if that makes me happy? What’s the reason I can’t work if there’s work to be done? Why can’t I drive if it’s more convenient? And what is this book that’s supposed to tell me how to live?

Worse yet, when any command - especially a religious one - is forced on us from without, against our will, the resentment that results poisons every fruit that springs from its tree, no matter how well intentioned.

So why would a person submit to restrictions of her person? Why would she limit her way of life, especially when there are so many demands on her? What would compel her?

Shabbat is compelling because it teaches one to stop. If one wants to find God, if one wants to find oneself, one must first learn how to stop, how to cease. I know of no other way[PM4] . Otherwise one is drowned in the hubbub and the busy. To cease is to clean and to clear out, and in that clearing a thing that is delicate, yet absolutely essential, finally has the chance to grow.

My favorite teacher, the great Rav Kook, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, wrote about Shabbat, “This national treasure that is imprinted deep within us, the image of a world that is good, upright, and godly – aligned with peace, justice, grace, and courage, all filled with a pervasive divine perspective that rests in the spirit of the people – cannot be actualized within a way of life that is purely businesslike. Such a life, full of frenetic action, veils the glory of the divine soul, and the soul’s clear light is blocked from shining through the overpowering mundane reality.”

From the self to the community.

As Shabbat clears out the detritus of the self and cultivates the soul, so too does it push us to transcend the “Only Because,” of society’s rules. He says, “There is always a tension between listening to the voice…that calls us to be kind, truthful, and merciful, and the conflict, compulsion, and pressure to be unyielding that surround buying, selling, and acquiring things. These aspects of the world of action distance us from the divine light and prevent its being discerned in the public life of the nation. This distancing also permeates the morality of individuals like poison. Stilling the tumult of social life from time to time in certain predictable ways is meant to…touch the divine qualities inside them that transcend the stratagems of the social order and that cultivate and elevate our social arrangements, bringing them towards perfection.”
Even in the face of tremendous societal pressure, in which every moment, every circumstance pushes us to move forward, the message of Shabbat is to stop. And damnit if it can’t be done; people are doing it. That is the deviant wisdom, the revolutionary brilliance of Shabbat: it imbues into our souls the unequivocal, indisputable knowledge that it can be done, that it can be different.

From the community to the world.

The way that we treat this world demands that we destroy it in order to benefit from it: The disposability of what we own, the waste of materials in how we package, rampant overuse of energy, the continual plumbing of the land for food, resources, without cease.

In destroying the world, we destroy ourselves.

Rav Kook goes on to say, “What Shabbat does for the individual, shmitta,” the land’s Shabbat, “does for the nation as whole.” But that sentiment seems incomplete, for shmitta also belongs to the land, addresses its needs.” However, in his concept, we belong to the land to, and are part of it. And he says, “ The people works with its soul force on the land, and the land works on the people, refining their character in line with the divine desire for life inherent in their makeup. The people and the land both need a year of Shabbat!”

I think that what we are all waiting for, what, deep down, we are all relying upon, is that circumstances will come upon us from the outside that will compel us to act, that will give us no choice but to change the way we treat the planet because there will be such an undeniable connection with how we ourselves are treated by it. We’ll feel motivated, we say, we hope. We’ll be moved to change.

But to wait for those circumstances, I fear, will mean arriving in a global state that is dire in the extreme. We should not wait to suffer before we change. We should not wait for tragedy.

But there is another choice than to be compelled from without. And that is to choose to be compelled from within. To choose to have to; to accept to have to. The element of choice banishes the resentment that accompanies commands from without. The element of obligation ensures that we will not falter from within. Though the demands of climate change are scientific, I believe that it’s time to be religious about how we confront them. Motivation is a fickle thing. “We have to” is the lever that moves the world.

So this is the moment, the moment to ask ourselves: what’s it going to be? What are we willing to give up? Will it be that, one day a week, no matter what, that car will sit in the driveway? Will it be that thermostat never goes above a certain temperature, or below one? Here’s one that’s personally painfully; will it be that there’s No More Take Out.
Ooh. Ouch.
You tell me. Tell me what it’s going to be. But when you tell me, there’s yet one more step, one requirement – even more difficult than the giving up. Whatever it is has to be done in community. An individual isn’t strong enough. The effect of community is exponential.
What I know, with deep conviction in my soul, is that to face the environmental struggle that will define us for centuries, we need Shabbat to teach us that we have not lost the possibility for global change. I believe that after 2000 years, the time for shmittah has come again.

Kol Nidre 5775: Can We Cry Here? by Rabbi Shira Stutman

Can We Cry Here?
Rabbi Shira Stutman

A story. It’s the mid-20th century. A child of immigrants “makes good,” moves to the
suburbs and joins “The Temple.” It’s newly built, a beautiful synagogue, designed by
a world-famous architect. It’s a far cry from his parents’ synagogue in the old neighborhood or the shul in Pinsk, Poland where they came from. The High Holy Days approach and he thinks, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be together at my new synagogue?” But his parents seem less than enthusiastic; they like their shul, their rabbi, and all their friends will be there. Undaunted, he decides he’ll take them for a visit. Once they see how beautiful The Temple is, they’ll surely change their minds and want to come. So, the next Sunday, he picks them up from the old neighborhood and takes them to The Temple. He shows them the beautiful sanctuary, the ark that opens and closes with a remote control, the stained glass. There are many “oohs and aahs,” but he senses that something is wrong and so he asks, “What do you think?” This was their response, “It is lovely son, but can we cry here?”

“Can we cry here?”

When was the last time that you cried in synagogue? This past week, as the comments trickled in from Rosh Hashanah, I heard from a few people about surprising tears shed: when listening to our choir sing, when hearing some of the young professionals read their reflections, when listening the shofar, during the mourner’s kaddish, in the Rosh Hashanah yoga practice on day two, in conversation with a friend in the halls. Me, I always tear up during the grand aleinu, which we will do again tomorrow, and in which we do a full prostration--down to the ground--in acknowledgment of the fact that sometimes, in spite of all desire to the contrary, we are powerless.

I’m a big fan of tears, as some of you know. Brides often say, “just don’t make me cry at the ceremony, Rabbi Shira--I don’t want to ruin my make-up”. Call me a sadist but I just don’t care about the mascara. To overstate the case just slightly, if there are no heartfelt tears under the huppah then it’s just a show, not a transformation; just a wedding, and not the beginning of a marriage.

Consider that in ancient times, on Yom Kippur, the Jews would gather at the Temple in Jerusalem. Picture it: back then, individuals were not called to atone for the sins of the community; instead, the entire community placed their hopes for atonement on the High Priest. He spent the week before Yom Kippur in seclusion and study, preparing to enter the holy of holies in the Temple, to ask for atonement from God.

On the morning of the day before Yom Kippur, he would begin the journey from his chambers to the Holy of Holies. The Ziknei Beit Din, the elders of the Court of Law, find him and implore him to fulfill his task well. The machzor reads: Hu Foreysh u’vocheh, v’heym porshim u’bochim. “And he would turn aside and weep, and they would turn aside and weep.” Then to the mikvah, reborn, clothed in white, as he moves forward to face God.

“Can we cry here?” asks the family in the synagogue, the couple under the huppah, the high priest upon entering the Temple. The answer, in all places, is yes. “Where does God reside?” the Kotzker rebbe is asked. “Wherever you let God in.” Where can we make ourselves vulnerable and cry? Wherever we let godliness in.

We sit here today with the gates of teshuva wide open. Yom Kippur exists in time, of course--most of us will be able to count the number of hours since our last meal, the number of hours until break-fast--but the actual goal of the holiday, one of the reasons we’re supposed to fast in the first place, is to be a time out of time. We are supposed to be doing the work of teshuva, of returning to our truest selves through repentance. Yom Kippur reminds us that change is possible, and gives us a road-map for getting there.

But the change cannot happen if we refuse to make ourselves vulnerable.

I could end the sermon here, but we’re in DC, living our overly busied, high-achieving, Facebook-posting lives, so I have to continue. Because I have to convince you--convince us--that it’s worth it. That showing vulnerability--walking with courage as you reveal yourself to other human beings to such a degree that you are seen as you truly are and not as the mask you put forward--while deeply and profoundly scary, is an imperative for a meaningful life. That “we numb vulnerability, [but] the problem is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. [So] when we numb [vulnerability], we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness." We numb all the emotions that make life worth living in the first place.

The problem for most of us, though, is that to be vulnerable almost by definition requires revealing that you’re fundamentally imperfect. And in our “fake it ‘til you make it” society, that’s just unacceptable. Except it’s also required if we want to grow. In order to be in deep relationship someone has to say “I love you” first, even though it might not be the right time. To learn yoga you have to go to that first class and feel like an idiot. To participate in Jewish services, you first have to sit in them and have no idea what’s going on, learn that cha sound in the Hebrew. Growth requires vulnerability. And that’s the rub.

To live a full Jewish life is to engage in a number of rituals and traditions that force us into vulnerable spots we would otherwise prefer to avoid. Shiva, for instance, is not supposed to be a cocktail party, as it often is these days. During Shiva, mourners are supposed to sit on low stools to be reminded always of their loss. Visitors are supposed to enter in silence and sit in silence, not speaking unless spoken to by one of the mourners. The halakha, the law is designed to guide us into profound sadness for the loss. It is not a celebration of the life of the deceased but instead an acknowledgement of all that this person will no longer be able to bring to this world.

“Can we cry here?” Yes. The ancient rabbis brilliantly understood what many of us today still can’t: human beings need to force ourselves into vulnerability or we won’t do it at all.

When we engage on Yom Kippur we are forced to take off the protective gear, which in the end is a type of armor that keeps people away more than it actually keeps you safe. Take it off, for we are as angels. We can’t armor ourselves with fancy clothing, for we’re wearing white and no leather. We can’t armor ourselves with foodie food or cocktails, because we’re not eating or drinking. We can’t armor ourselves with makeup or perfumes, for they’re forbidden. No one cares about where we work or where we went to college or who we know. All we have is--ourselves.

Here we are, 700 people in this space. Again. And I pose the eternal rabbinic question--why do you come back, year after year, for high holy day services? Why not Simchat Torah or Purim, which are so much more fun? Why not Shabbat--services are much shorter and there’s food! Maybe it’s habit, or guilt, or your partner or parents or children that drag you here. Or maybe there’s also something else, a yearning, a desire for more. Not more money, power, stuff—but more connection, reflection, openness. A conscious or unconscious desire to take off the armor, to be our authentic selves, to have an experience of hishtapchut hanefesh—the outpouring of the soul. But we’re stuck in a catch-22: We are so guarded that we cannot be open to true prayer or change. But we cannot experience true prayer or change without forcing ourselves to be open and vulnerable.

Step one of vulnerability is being vulnerable to your own self. So let’s start right now, moving from a space of ideas to a space of doing. I know--we’re more comfortable with ideas--with intellectualizing vulnerability by studying it in a TED talk or an Op-Ed in the Times. Sorry; cultivating feeling is deeper than having ideas. Sometimes the intellectualizing is just putting on the mask in new ways. Consider: What about yourself are you proud of? What makes you feel embarrassed? What makes you feel ashamed? What gives you true joy? Try to answer authentically; look for the tears.  

There is a teaching by the Baal Shem Tov: “In the King’s palace there are many halls and chambers, and there are different keys for each gate. These keys tend to become rusty if they’re just used by rote. The only simple and direct way to open all the gates is with an axe, which can smash open every lock to that one can gain entrance to all the chambers. A broken heart is like an axe that can break through all the barriers and reach right up to God.” What’s the axe going to be that breaks through your barriers, that opens up your heart, that connects you to yourself? Sometimes it takes a tragedy--sudden death of a young person or a loved one, a health scare of our own, break our hearts wide open. But the Days of Awe are meant to serve this same purpose. The shofar shakes us into consciousness and reminds us that this is all there is.  Don’t miss it.

There is a reason you’re here. There is a reason that millions and millions of people have watched a TED talk by Brene Brown, a teacher, scholar, and writer, on the subject of vulnerability, teacher of many important truths including the one about numbing emotions. How many of you have seen it? It is, just perhaps, to grab ahold of that axe and break your heart wide open, open before God in prayer, open in relation with our loved ones.

The irony is that we love when other people are vulnerable with us because it means that our relationships have deepened. Your friend collapses in front of you, devastated, because she did not get the promotion she wanted. She wonders aloud, “maybe I’m not smart enough for the job?” What is your response? Anger, judgment? Or do you provide solace and support? I’m pushing you, though, to reverse the situation, to put yourself on the line. It’s ironic; we fear that if we make ourselves vulnerable, we risk scaring off people or having them see us differently, but actually being vulnerable brings us closer to people. You are not just there but instead fully, mindfully, present. Jews are the people who say “na’aseh v’nishmah”, we will do and then we will hear/understand. If you find yourself unable to make yourself vulnerable, then keep trying. It’s a skill to learn, just like anything else.

Who are the people you trust not to walk away no matter what you do or say? Begin there. Force yourself--that’s the Jewish way. Practice being vulnerable even if you fear it will make you appear stupid, even if it makes you feel a certain kind of nakedness. Keep it up, even when it’s difficult. Keep it up, even when you feel ashamed. And you will, because showing vulnerability also means opening yourself to rejection. In the book of Genesis, we witness God unabashedly loving the humans, even as they ignore God’s rules. And yet. Notice that in every generation, God chooses to love again. “And Noah found grace in the eyes of God.” God gives Noah a rainbow, a covenant. Noah responds by getting drunk and passing out.

God does not give up. “I will love them freely,” God says in the book of Hosea. Even after the rejection, God chooses to dive in again. So should we. If we succeed in growing our vulnerability, we will be more confident, in deeper relationships, living a more meaningful life. That I can promise. But it’s a rocky path. Finding the people who will accept your vulnerability and love you for it may take time—as will discarding the ones who can’t, understanding that it’s their loss, not yours.

Our assignment during the high holy day period is to peel away the layers. Today, we have no temple, no high priest to effect teshuva for us. We have to do the work ourselves, for better or for worse. We have to place ourselves before the God above and pray that in the year to come, we are granted life, or that as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches, in the year to come we are granted a “length of days” that means that every day of our life be a long one, filled with mitzvot and deeds of kindness to give it “length”. We place ourselves before that of God in the people we love and ask forgiveness, listen to their pain, take off the armor. We acknowledge what is perhaps most difficult of all--that there is a spark of God in each of us--and forgive ourselves for whatever missteps, whatever missed moments, whatever. We allow ourselves to see that we are truly beautiful creatures, each one created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image. We remember, as Abraham Joshua Heschel did, “that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You're not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence." That can only happen, we must acknowledge, through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. The High Holy Days force the reminder, the starting gate, the axe itself. But you have to use it. And it takes some strength, all of which you can gain here, in community.

In the year to come, may we all be blessed to take big risks in relationship, and may these risks lead to great personal growth. May we know that vulnerability can happen in prayer or in prayerful interactions with loved ones. May we be reminded, always, that this is the only life we have--so we had better do it with strength, grace, generosity, and vulnerability.

“Can we cry here?” Yes, yes we can.

Yom Kippur 5775: Judge Away, by Rabbi Shira Stutman

Judge Away
Rabbi Shira Stutman

This past June 20, a newly minted high school graduate from eastern Alabama took a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. She stood in front of the barracks, with an ear-bud in one ear, grinned widely, took a selfie, and tweeted it along with a caption: “Selfie in the Auschwitz concentration camp!” Smiley face.

As you can imagine, the response was tremendous. And not in a good way. Within 24 hours, “Princess Breanna” (that’s her handle) had received more than 6,000 angry tweets, including more than one death threat. She responded to dozens of them, and spoke to numerous news outlets, always with the same response: nope, not really sorry.

All the tumult died away, as these things do, but the question remained--how in the name of all that is good and holy could this young woman think that a smiling Auschwitz selfie was a good thing? And who were these thousands and thousands of people who tweeted back immediately, most of them jumping on the bandwagon of hate and outrage?

It was questions like these that were discussed this past July when a group of us got together to talk about “judgmentalism”. We studied a number of texts: traditional Jewish ones, a few Buddhist teachers, scientific research on what it means to use judgment, legal briefs. Wasn’t unusual for someone to compare the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a 20th c Orthodox scholar, with Allie Brosh, author of the important book and blog “Hyperbole and a Half.” Wasn’t too long before we started speaking very personally. The conversation was wide-ranging and at points profound.

When we had announced this class in the Sixth & I email, it had sold out within days. We had touched a nerve. But why? In the class itself, and in the weeks following, I have tried to unravel what it was that brought us together, what it was that we learned.

Here’s what we already knew: we need to separate the term “judgment” from “judgmentalism”, the latter of which is, in point of fact, not a word. Having judgment is not a problem. We make thousands of judgments a day, many of them quite innocuous, some of them life-and-death. Judgmentalism, on the other hand, is a colloquialism that we can define as forming an opinion, usually negative, about another human being based on your own value system, often because you consider yourself morally superior to whomever you’re talking about. And it’s judgmentalism that is somewhat of a team sport in Washington DC. We sit around with our beer or wine and gain strength from critiquing others. We talk about politicians, we talk about “friends”. We discard nuance in favor or ridicule and critique. Because, let’s be honest, context doesn’t fit into 140 characters.

Often, the most judgmental folks of all are the religious. And to a small extent, that’s warranted. Any religion worth its salt will have positions on certain moral and ethical issues--taking care of the poor, not murdering, not stealing, etc. Adherents will judge those who transgress. The current pope is one of the most inspirational spiritual leaders of our time, but I must admit to being a little disappointed that when he was asked about gay priests and he answered, “who am I to judge?” You’re the pope. You are an arbiter of moral right and wrong. I appreciate the sentiment, which is that he is trying to create a welcoming space in the church for all kinds of people. But he’s judgmental all the time--when he critiques people for wasteful spending or when he chides governments for violent war-time campaigns. One of his jobs is to be a moral compass. One of the tasks of religion is to stand for and against, whether we’re talking about marriage equality or murder.

I spend a fair amount of my time with people who are new to Judaism. If I had a dollar for every time someone makes the following statement, I’d be a rich person: “Rabbi Shira, what I love about Judaism is that it’s not judgmental. The religion I grew up in (or, religion as I see it) is so judgmental. People back-biting all the time, against certain practices or ways of being. But the Jews aren’t like that.”

Ha. From Steven M. Cohen: “Judgment is part and parcel of our tradition, from the Bible, to the the civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties, to present-day Israel, and to Jewish families and synagogues in all times and places. We are a judgmental and argumentative people. A long rabbinic tradition...enjoins us not only to judge, but to reproach and reprove (hochacha).” The Talmud teaches that we are so responsible for each other that if we are able to protest against another’s actions but do not, we are punished for this other person’s actions. We are required, then, to be judgmental (Shabbat 54b), required to call out when someone is missing the mark.

The difference, I am always quick to tell these students, is not between Jews and the rest of the world. The difference is between religious folks of any stripe who make judgments with compassion, nuance, and open-mindedness, and fundamentalists, who do not. If I am your rabbi, I have a right to judge your behavior. That’s why you sit in my office. I do not have the right to consider myself morally superior because of your behavior, though, nor do I have the right to treat you like a bad person even if you made a bad decision. Believe me, I have made enough of them.

The true irony here is that it’s not even like humans judge well when they do make judgments. Study after study has proven what is known as “confirmation bias”, the human tendency to look for/assimilate information that confirms what they “know” to be true. That is why, for instance, we read news sources that agree with what we already believe. Our minds are not as evolved as we would like them to be, so we must be careful. Our judgments often come from deep places that have nothing to do with rational thought. To pretend otherwise is to delude ourselves. There’s just so much noise, so many ways that we can err in judgment; perhaps it’s better for humans not to judge at all.

But God is a different story. One of the predominant images of the high holy day season is that of God sitting in judgment over us. The Talmud teaches that:

All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and the verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur—three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the completely evil, one for the completely righteous and one for everyone in between. The completely righteous are written and sealed in the book of life immediately. The completely evil are written and sealed in the book of death immediately. Those in between stand suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are written for life. If they do not merit it, they are written for death.

This is no jolly Santa Claus figuring out who’s “naughty” or “nice.” Many a child--not only children, perhaps--has had nightmares of a judging, anthropomorphic Gd writing our names in the “life” or the “death” column. Many a congregant has complained over the years about this high holy day image. It is, indeed, a scary one.

But the difference between being judged by Gd and being judged by humans is that Gd is not human and therefore not susceptible to the confirmation bias. The unetaneh tokef prayer reminds us that God is knowledge and God is witness and God is all-knowing, past, present and future. “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place,” Rabbi Hillel teaches us. In other words, humans should be wary of judging at all, because we can never actually stand in someone else’s place. Only Gd has full information.

If we take as a given that we are not God, and we take as a given that human judgments are subject to fallibility, yet we also take as a given that making judgments is not by definition problematic, where does that leave us? Consider the Hebrew grammar construct known as “Smichut.” With apologies for oversimplification, smichut occurs when we take two nouns, change the vocalization slightly, place one after the other, and create a new, often quite similar, word; basically a compoud noun. So the word for bayit, house, and sefer, book, becomes in smichut “Beit Sefer”, or school. Or ooga, cake and g’vinah, cheese, becomes oogat g’vinah, “cheesecake.”

When we talk about passing judgment, then, given our inherent humanness, let us never use the term on its own. Instead, let’s always do it with another, creating smichut, a compound term. Compassionate judgement. Curious judgement. Empathic. Humble. Forgiving. Trustful. Accepting. Discerning. Never just judgment, all on its own.

Or if you’re not a grammarian, consider the “term in carpentry called Sistering. Sometimes an existing joist, which was designed to handle a certain load can no longer handle its load alone….When a builder needs to strengthen that joist, she puts a new member right next to the original one and fastens the two together. Sometimes, two new joists are needed- one on either side….they call that? A Sister Joist.”

What we are doing is not agreeing that we will not judge. For better or worse, we will continue to judge. But we will do it with smichut, we will do it with a sister joint. In that way, just perhaps, we will acknowledge that while we are not God, we can walk in God’s ways. “The Holy One, blessed be God, says prayers,” the Talmud teaches. “What does God pray? “May it be My will that My compassion may suppress My strict judgment, and that My compassion may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of compassion...” (Brachot 7a). God never walks just with strict judgment. God walks with compassion, always, at the same time.

Be Godly in judgments. Do it not just for others but for ourselves, as well. For if I learned a lot of Torah in that classroom in July--and I did--what I was reminded of most of all is that we are our own worst critics, that the person that we all judge most of all and most unfairly is our own selves. “Each of us carries around within ourselves...a critic,” [teaches Corey Fischer,] “an inner tyrant and constant commentator who judges and scolds, reprimands and censures...for...whom we can ever do—or be—‘good enough.’ Some try to silence that...critic...through the use of alcohol or drugs...or the amassing of material possessions; but always, inevitably, these are doomed efforts...if we cannot rid ourselves of that voice, we can, at least, balance its effects, purge its power and its sting.” We can disarm the inner critic by sistering it with the inner advocate. Do it for yourself, and perhaps also do it because it will make you less judgmental towards others.

Research on the connection between how we judge ourselves and how we judge others is quite astounding. In a May 2014 article in The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova writes about “false beliefs” that people hold as very dear even if not factually accurate--that there is no climate change, for instance, or that children should not be vaccinated. It is extraordinarily difficult to get people to change their minds, and offering facts and figures does not help. What does, it turns out, is helping people feel better about themselves. Researchers “propose[d] an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. [R]esearch suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing...On all issues, [including highly politicized ones] attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without.”

This is an extraordinary teaching for Yom Kippur, as we figure out how we, mere humans, should judge others: if we feel affirmed about who we are as human beings, we are able to hear facts better and therefore judge more accurately. But if we feel badly about ourselves then we are more likely not to listen to others and not to judge as fairly. Judging people does nothing to alleviate your own suffering, and it doesn’t alleviate others’ either. If you want to learn how to be less judgmental, then, begin with yourself.

Before we close, let’s return for a moment to Princess Breanna and the infamous Auschwitz selfie. Many of the tweeters, like some of you perhaps, hadn’t heard the full story. Turns out that for some time before the trip, for whatever reason, Breanna and her parents studied the history of the Holocaust together. It was a bonding experience. Brianna and her father scheduled a European tour, including a stop at Auschwitz, a year earlier he had collapsed of a heart attack and died. She still went on the tour, but with her grandmother in her father’s stead. When they arrived at Auschwitz, Breanna realized that it had been one year to the day since her father died. The selfie, the smile, was not a smile of “Awesome! Auschwitz” but instead of “in spite of it all, I’ve made it here. Dad, I’m thinking of you.” Was it in good taste? Fair to say no. But was there more to the story than many of us initially knew? Yes. Even now do we have all the information and the right to strict judgment? No, no we don’t.

In the year to come, judge away, Sixth & i’ers. We’re going to do it anyway. But try, let’s all try together, to do it a little bit less often. And when you do, take heed of a few important lessons. First, and this may be the most difficult, remember that you are not God. Only God has perfect information, so only God is the true judge. You are just...human. But with your human-ness comes your humanity, so if you’re going to judge, then do it in smichut. Do it through sistering. Do it with compassion, with curiosity, with generosity, and without fundamentalism. And do it with insight, noticing when you may be judging unfairly because of some perceived lack in your own self. Judge yourself a little bit less, love yourself a little bit more, and you will do the same for others, as well.

And most of all--to Shadrach, Lisa, Andrea, Mariel, Katherine, Gary, Roxy, Rachel, Chris, Jake, Carla, Ari, Cheryl, Emilie: thank you for all the Torah we learned together back in July. Thank you for sitting on my shoulder, metaphorically, these past months as I’ve processed the conversation. Thank you for teaching me the difference between judgment, which we need, and judgmentalism, which we don’t. Thank you for sharing your experiences of snap judgment, which is not desirable, and loving-judgment, which is. Thank you for reminding me that whatever work we all need to do to eradicate poisonous self-judgement, which is a lot, it is always better when we talk about it, process it and learn from each other, in community. I look forward to studying Torah with all of you, in Sixth & I’s non-judgmental space, now and into the future.

G’mar tov. May we all be signed and sealed in the book of life.