Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann University Public Worship Stanford University 19 February 2017/23 Shevat 5777
(Genesis 1:26-28; Isaiah 56:1-8; Deuteronomy 16:18-20)
I’ve always felt an affinity for Presidents Day, the day honoring Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays. My mother shared a birthday with President Abraham Lincoln and my birthday is the day before. From the time I was little, when February rolled around, someone would invariably remind me that I was, “the birthday gift she couldn’t give back.” So imagine my amusement to discover that President George Washington, born when the British Empire and the colonies were still on the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian one we now use, had a different birthdate. According to the Julian calendar, George Washington was born on February 11. So my mom may have shared a birthday with our 16th President, but, it turns out, that I share a birthday with our first one.
I may not be able to offer birthday cake to the Presidents we honor this weekend, but I never fail to pay them a visit on the National Mall when I am in our nation’s capital. Yad va’shem. A monument and a name. The Washington Monument, with it’s top in the heavens, the Lincoln Memorial, with some of our nation’s most iconic speeches inscribed on it’s walls and some of it’s most powerful words echoing still on it’s steps, make the struggles and triumphs of our nation palpable.
This past December, as Chanukah guests filtered into the White House, we had a chance to view a unique letter penned by President George Washington. It had been written 226 years ago, when George Washington visited the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest place of Jewish worship in America. There, a letter from Moshe Seixas, the warden of the synagogue greeted him. In florid prose, Seixas conveyed the Jewish community’s esteem and welcome for President Washington, but there were anxious questions underlying his words: “Will America be safe for Jews?” “Will we, who have escaped from province to country to continent have to run once again?” “Can we plan to build a life in this new country, free to practice as Jews?” President Washington’s response was unequivocal, inspiring and affirmative.
“The Citizens of the United States of America …All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Washington wrote. “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Our first President continued, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”i
This letter, a ringing reassurance to the Jewish community of the freedom to practice a minority religion by our country’s first president is re- read every year in a public ritual at the Touro Synagogue.
Today, in a moment when Muslims are being targeted even more insistently than are Jews, with hate crimes against both non-Christian faiths on the rise, the question is still timely and insistent. What could we say to a modern day Muslim Moshe Sexias who asks, “Is America safe for Muslims?” How would this president respond? A few weeks ago, as his Executive Order banning refugees and those from seven countries was being both carried out and challenged in the courts, our students stood out in the rain to share stories about how the Executive Order affected them. Standing with them, being touched by their tales, I was reminded of folksinger Si Kahn’s song, “Lady of the Harbor.”
In 1937 with war on every hand, a band of Jewish refugees
sought shelter in this land with Nazis close behind them they sailed their leaky boat
towards the safety of the lady of the harbor But every door was closed to them
no port would take them in
til sick at heart they sailed back home to Germany again
where their dreams were turned to ashes and their bodies turned to smoke
that drifted past the lady of the harbor So if these silent lips could speak what reasons would they say
why some are welcomed freely but others turned away
now as the terror rises a fleeing world awaits
an answer from the lady of the harbor For all along the borders
a nightmare comes again
as homeless, stateless refugees seek shelter in this land
will the lamp be raised to welcome them or turn them back once more
only silence from the lady of the harbor
Today, this question hangs heavily in the air. Silence might lead to contemplation, but we find ourselves in a time of cacophony and conflict. We are in a moment where American values are contested, where we can barely understand the words, worldviews and worries of those different than we are. We are far from the persuasive words of President Lincoln etched in the walls beside his towering judicious figure, offered when our nation was once before torn asunder:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Can we still heed the call to act with malice toward none, with charity for all? Might we, in this moment, achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, let alone with all nations?
How might we remind ourselves that we are all created in God’s image, in the Divine likeness, whether we call that Divine being Allah or Adonai, Jesus or Jehovah? How might we have arguments about our essential values without diminishing dignity and humanity? On this Presidents Weekend, what can we learn from the words, the wisdom, the worthiness of our most famous inhabitants of the White House? How can we heed the precedents of our nation’s illustrious Presidents?
There is a Talmudic text that gives us some guidance to do this. Rabbi Daniel Roth calls it, the “49 vs. 49.” No, this is not the score of a sports team locked in competition. In fact, it’s the antithesis of competition. According to Jewish tradition, when Moses asked for a “clear-cut teaching”, God responded to him by teaching this: Every law must be understood with 49 reasons to rule a matter one way and 49 reasons to rule the opposite.
Being able to grasp the contradictory 49 vs. 49 is challenging, especially for those issues that we feel strongly about, and yet, those very passions signal how essential it is that we pay attention to God’s clear-cut teaching. We need to understand fully what in our own experience brings us to the truth we know—that is, what are our own 49 reasons. But, even a thoroughgoing evaluation of our own perspective is not sufficient. We then need to understand the 49 experiences, stories, concerns and values that constitute our opponents’ truth. This requires respect, curiosity, humanity, deep listening and empathy.
But here’s the kicker. The Talmud teaches that there are 50 gates of wisdom—and only 49 were revealed to Moses. As much as we understand our 49, as much as we stretch to empathize with our opponents 49, there is farther still to travel. No human, not even Moses, and certainly not us, can ever claim to attain the absolute truth. Our view might be impeccably argued, utterly sensible, cogent and clear, but it is still partial. Our opponent’s views, too, are partial. None of us is irrevocably right. There is always a gate of wisdom beyond our path.ii We are always in pursuit of more wisdom, more understanding, more justice.
Deuteronomy teaches, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, le’maan tehiyeh. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may thrive.” “Pursue” is active, a reminder that it is not enough to merely respect justice or to be onlookers to it; it must be vigorously sought. The pursuit of justice entails vigilance, action and engagement.
Last week we learned that this biblical commandment, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may thrive,” is found in three places in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s chambers. On campus, in front of a stained glass window with those very same words inscribed in Hebrew and in English, Justice Ginsburg spoke eloquently about what this commandment means to her. She shared her commitment to strive for justice for all people in society, never losing sight of the human consequences of every law and always trying to understand the other side. She emphasized that differing opinions are opportunities to educate and to be educated. In other words, she held open the 49 gates of wisdom for those on either side of an issue to hear each other.
Justice Ginsburg reminded me of a rabbinic interpretation of this verse. Focusing on the repetition of the word, “justice,” the rabbis teach that the second occurrence of “justice” qualifies the first—that is, for justice to enable a thriving society, one must judge, one must interact, one must live in a just manner.
Our traditions—both civic and religious—provide precedents for creating a society suffused with justice, for acting with malice toward none, for giving bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance. Our traditions beckon us to enter the gates of wisdom and understanding, to respect and cherish each human being created in God’s image. Our religious and civic traditions have given us the tools with which to build a country of high ideals. At this moment in our nation’s history, we must redouble our efforts to employ those tools to insure that the country Presidents Washington and Lincoln loved and led will not permanently lose its way. That would be a fitting way to celebrate their birthdays, to give them yad va’shem, a monument and a name. Here, in this sanctuary, may we take up those tools to build a house of prayer for all peoples and from here, may we be fortified as we put our shoulders to the wheel, redeeming our imperfect world and working to perfect our precious union.
Patricia Karlin Neumann is Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University.