A Sermon for Kol Nidre by Rabbi David J. Cooper (High Holydays 5774/2013)

Tzedakah, Right Conduct, and the Face of the Other

Unetaneh Tokef, a prayer only said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning is a really scary prayer. I remember almost 30 years ago Rabbi Burt and I preparing for some High Holyday service and talking about the love hate relationship we had with it and whether it should be in the service at all. At a first glance it seems to describe people passing before a judgmental God deciding whether they are worthy to live or die. Well, I was ready to chuck it. But I couldn’t. Burt couldn’t. Leonard Cohen couldn’t – and he wrote a classic song based on the prayer.

Maybe I couldn’t put it away because at a second glance, I saw that it wasn’t about God as such, it was about life itself. We will face poverty and wealth, sickness and health, success and failure, glory and disappointment.

What we liked about Unetaneh Tokef was that it touched our vulnerability. At least twice a year we should be in a big room filled with people in our community, our friends, lovers and family, and confess that we are frail. Instead of only saying Halleluyahs, that we take a moment joining our voices together and say “Life is tough.” Life shuffles the deck and we are left with these cards to play.

And after fully affirming this vast uncertainty and after reinforcing all our insecurities, the prayer calls us to recognize that the cards are in our hands to play whether we win or lose. The decrees of life can be harsh, but the liturgist insists that we have the power to at least mitigate the harshness of the decree through Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah.

Now why the author of the prayer insisted on using three words that are so difficult to translate into English must have reflected a rabbi’s compulsion to have something to talk about in his or her sermon.

I considered their meaning to me. Talked with other folks who would know. Well I hope it is as much of a comfort to you as it was to me that there is no consensus on what Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah means to each of us or why they might mitigate the harshness.

Tzedakah: from Societal to Individual
And I have been given the task to talk about Tzedakah tonight, and I find myself compelled to start with a negative. Tzedakah is not charity. Charity is as important in Judaism as it is in other traditions, but it is called Gemilut Chasadim the subject of a different sermon.

Tzedakah is a demand from the prophets to do justice; it’s a requirement to find a way to do the right thing; it isn’t altruistic, it’s an obligation. Tzedakah is a mitzvah; it’s a commandment.

Tzedakah is the feminine form Tzedek which means “correctness” or “rightness.” In the feminine, Tzedakah is the action of doing the right thing. It can mean right-conduct, right-action. When the Israelite prophets demanded that one is obligated to perform the action of tzedakah, they didn’t mean specifically giving alms to the poor, but rather they meant that society as a whole must do the right thing for those who are vulnerable and their prime examples were the orphans, widows, and the immigrants. The prophets believed that a society that allowed the vulnerable to become destitute was an evil society. And any thing that contributed to destitution they considered a major crime: wage theft, bribery, dishonest weights and measures.

Tzedakah in the time of the prophets was an issue of social justice, and the demand for Tzedek was spoken to a Jewish/Israelite society with some sovereign autonomy. But then the Romans deprived them of state power and they were banished into smaller exile communities. Without a people-wide government of their own, Tzedakah as social righteousness went from being a society-wide affair to something more local and something more personal. So one of the only ways that an individual could do tzedakah was by giving alms to the poor. And that is how its meaning became so limited. But today, we are living in a society where we can use our powers to influence social decisionmaking. So we are in an age when Tzedakah must again come to mean what the prophets were demanding, the mitzvah of justice and doing the right thing.

A Prescription for Right-Conduct?
But what is “right” or what is “wrong” and what yardstick are we to apply? The fundamentalist says that God decides what’s right and what’s wrong and God lets us know by writing best selling how-to books about it: Torahs, Qurans, Bagavad-Gitas, Upanishads.

It would be so easy if all we had to do was follow a simple prescription for right-conduct. But it would be an escape from freedom and from responsibility. It would be easy if religions only asked us to follow ritual, say the right prayers, eat the right food, and get to church on time. But if you read the holy books as simple prescriptions, you have misread them. For example, the prophets, as we will see in tomorrow’s Isaiah reading[1], were the first to criticize people for slavishly following the rules of practice laid down by the tradition and disregarding the complexities of making moral decisions.

This brought to mind the sequence in Huckleberry Finn.[2] Huck is on the river with Joe, an escaped slave. Everything that Huck has been taught says that God affirms that slavery is good, and that it is immoral to allow a slave to escape.  He feels terribly guilty about becoming the kind of wicked person who would help a slave to escape. All that he has been taught affirms that he is headed for the everlasting fires of Hell. So he repents, he does teshuvah, and he decides to do the right thing and he drafts a letter to turn Joe in to his slaveowner. As soon as he finished writing the letter, he feels washed of sin for the first time in his life. But then in his mind’s eye, he sees Jim’s image before him and he realizes that he doesn’t have it in him to hand Jim over. Trembling, he has to decide between doing what he was taught was right, or respecting the dignity of another human being. Huck has no doubt that he will go to Hell if he allows Jim to escape. He held the letter in his hand: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’ — and tore it up.’”

Theology & the Transcendent
It seems that Huck Finn, like Spinoza or Immanuel Kant, cannot wrestle with ethics without dealing with theology. And I believe it isn’t because morality depends on God or a belief in God, I don’t believe it does. But if determining what is right and what is wrong is not going to be based on personal self-interest, then it requires something beyond ourselves, some ultimate sky-hook if you will. Huck’s sense of what he needed to do transcended his own fears of Hell, it transcended what he was taught about God. I believe that once we take on the obligation of determining right conduct for ourselves we are invoking something transcendent beyond ourselves and our self-interest. You can call it whatever you want, God, Love, conscience or moral imperative.

And if the issue touches on the transcendent, then we are in the realm of theology. The Torah spends no time on systematic theology, but it tells stories and derives messages from those stories. It tells about an old man living in the days when people believed that the gods required children to be offered up on the altar. As the old man prepares to slaughter his son, he gets a message from the kind of God the prophets would approve of. “Don’t you do a thing to the boy.”[3] Maybe Abraham heard the same inner-voice that spoke to Huckleberry Finn. In any case, child sacrifice switches from being a religious requirement to being a terrible sin.

The Torah tells a story of a people who are immigrants in a foreign land and become oppressed, and then they escape so that they can be their own masters and serve their god rather than a tyrant pharaoh. And one of the first lessons they learn: Remember what it was like in Egypt. Don’t oppress the immigrants, remember what happened to you.[4] Well, that’s the story I read in my Torah. 3000 years later, we can’t get a decent immigration law passed. Go figure.

As I said, the Torah spends no time on systematic theology, it prefers to tell stories. So what we learn about God is not about God Godself, but rather about what we believe is required of us as human beings in order to be a holy people.

And in this community of theists, atheists and agnostics, I actually see a common understanding of what we sense is required of us whether we believe that it is a conscious God that is doing the requiring, or a divine-like process, or a categorical imperative, or a prime directive.

I have been a theologian for about 30 years. It is not a coincidence that that is the same amount of time that I have been involved in Kehilla. My theology isn’t academic. It comes from being with people as they struggle to make sense out of their lives. People getting married, people going through crisis, listening as people try to figure their place in the universe. I learn a lot of theology from Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. They are the best. I learn from congregants as they wrestle with the Torah on a Saturday morning. My moral philosophy has been shaped in a community where people have consciously struggled with racism, homophobia, antisemitism, chauvinism, Islamophobia, ageism, adultism, and disability prejudice. My theology is shaped by being in attendance with people as they face their own death, or are dealing with the death of their loved ones. So if I am teaching theology today, it is derived from the life experience of this community.

And if I think that there are theologians we can learn from, the particular ones I like are the ones who put into words what we have already begun to intuit from our experiences here in Kehilla. Heschel, Plaskow, Arendt, Buber, Levinas,[5] for example. I find that they locate us and then challenge us to go beyond where we are, and then they give us conceptual tools to become more conscious of our process.

Emmanuel Levinas
My current favorite modern Jewish philosopher is Emmanuel Levinas. Born in Lithuania in 1906, he received a traditional thorough Jewish education including Torah and Talmud. Between the wars he studied philosophy in Germany. In the 1930’s, he became a French citizen and was drafted into the French army for WWII. He spent most of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. He lost much of his family in the holocaust except for his wife and daughter who were hidden in a monastery. After the war, he became the director of a Jewish high school in Paris while he continued his writings. He was a lecturer at universities across Europe. He died in 1995. In the last few years there has been a virtual explosion of Levinas studies.

I cannot teach all of Levinas as we stand on one foot. I want to look at the message that Levinas brings into the discussion of what is Tzedakah, what is right-action. He does not use the term Tzedakah in his philosophical writing, but it intrinsic to everything he is teaching.

Like Martin Buber, Levinas is obsessed with moment that we encounter the Other. But he explores it in a different way. Levinas says that every time you encounter the face of the Other before you, an ethical responsibility descends upon you within that moment. We can be aware of the responsibility or unaware of it, we can accept the responsibility or not accept the responsibility, but my very awareness of the Other requires that I must be available to the neediness of the other, and to their suffering. How I function with that responsibility defines who I am. The responsibility before me gives my existence meaning. The encounter calls to me to be present, and Levinas says our response must be “me voici,” which is French for the expression Abraham uses when called by God and called also by Isaac in tomorrow’s Torah reading: “Hineni,[6] here I am. I am commanded to be present without reservation. And who does this commanding? What is its source? Levinas does not feel compelled to say. Prof Hilary Putnam puts it this way in his essay on Levinas:

“I am commanded to say hineni… I am commanded without experiencing a commander
(my only experience of the commander is being commanded).”[7]

So I am commanded to be present and to be responsible. Is there anything that gets me off the hook? What if they don’t respect my neediness? What if they treat me like their enemy? Nothing gets you off the hook. Yes, practice self-defense, but only enough to preserve yourself; but whatever you do, you are still commanded to act with your ethical responsibility to the needs of the Other. If Levinas’ ethics, instead of Stand Your Ground, ruled Florida, either Trayvon Martin would be alive or George Zimmerman would be in prison.

The Asymmetry of Responsibility: The Intruder in the Synagogue
And Levinas puts forward a mysterious idea that your responsibility to the other always exceeds their responsibility to you. Huh? I can illustrate it with a story.[8]

One Rosh Hashanah, not long ago, and not far away, a big man walks into the middle of the service. He has never been in this community before. Doesn’t know the people, and doesn’t appear to want to know them. Maybe he is psychologically disturbed. In a loud voice he starts preaching incoherently about fantastic conspiracies. The community has a responsibility to preserve the spiritual space they have created. He does not care about that. He seems belligerent; perhaps he could be violent. Assuming he is not intending harm, the people envelope him with tender care and they begin to sing a joyous prayer. Peacefully he is escorted out of the sanctuary and out of the building. At that moment the people could have said good riddance, and even the rabbi did. But one of the worshippers, pursuing some call he felt, decided to stay with man. Followed him outside. Learned who he was. Saw that he may have problems. In the days that followed, the synagogue took measures to make their space safer. But they also took a few steps to see if there were social services available to the man and the aged mother he lived with. 
Without having studied Levinas, the community acted on the ethical claim that we must act as if our responsibility to the Other exceeded the Other’s responsibility to us.
On Shavuot, I was at a workshop on Levinas and the workshop leader asked us to break up into dyads and discuss how we would apply Levinas’ teaching. So I dyadded with a woman there and I asked her how she liked it. She said, “I like it, very interesting.” And she asked how I would apply it. So I said, “Well Levinas says that our responsibility to the other persists whether or not they feel responsible for us. So I think that in regard to Israel and Palestine it means that our responsibility for the Palestinians persists whether there are or there aren’t Palestinians who feel responsibility for Israel.” She looks at me and says, “Well if that is what Levinas’ teaching means, I’m not sure I like it after all.”
In a Cocoon of Unknowing
There is a way you can try to avoid your ethical responsibility. If you can just manage not to see the Other, to insulate yourself, to convince yourself that you are unaware, then you might be off the hook, but not really. About this, there’s a Yiddish expression I learned from my mother to refer to someone who could have known something, but did not want to: “Er hot zich gemacht nisht vissendik," He rendered himself as if unknowing. He had reason to know, and he knew that he didn’t want to know.

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, there is an article going viral by Peter Beinart called “The American Jewish Cocoon.”[9] He documents the many ways we have sealed ourselves up, removed our exposure to what the average Palestinian feels like living under the occupation. If I listen from inside the cocoon, then any expression of resistance or anger by the Palestinians can only be heard as being unwarranted and can be dismissed as being motivated solely by anti-Jewish bias. And if there is any Antisemitism at all, then we feel even better about not responding. In any case, we often underestimate how there really is substantial suffering there. And we cannot assimilate it into our consciousness because we have been making ourselves nisht vissendik. If I have not seen your face, I am not hineni; I owe you nothing.

Next Steps in Kehilla
Even in Kehilla, we are at least partly in the cocoon. We are against the occupation, but many of us, perhaps most, are more insulated from its realities than we are aware. Our Middle East Peace Committee has decided to have a series of films and discussions to remove our own cocoon. Jessica Montell head of B’tzelem, the human rights organization in Jerusalem will be at Kehilla this coming Saturday evening. And over the coming months two Oscar-nominated films will be shown, one about life under the occupation[10], the other about the retired Israeli security chiefs all of whom say the occupation must end[11]. And third film by our own Kehilla members, Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow[12] is about American Jewish life and it touches on how our own local Jewish community institutions have tried to keep the cocoon intact. Flyers about all these events are available in the hallway.

If we have seen the Other, and if we have responsibility, then we are supposed to respond. We are obligated to act. There are things that some of us have decided personally to do. There are things that we might do as a synagogue. We need to go through a process of self-discernment. Call it teshuvah if you want. This synagogue process requires open dialogue and soul searching. Everyone who wants to speak needs to be heard with respect. We will not create a cocoon of leftist self-righteousness around us any more than a cocoon of callousness. Whatever we do will be transparent to all and everyone’s honesty is needed, everyone’s fears and everyone’s hopes need to be heard.

To conclude: the work we are doing of teshuvah and the responsibility we take for tzedakah is definitely challenging, but I believe they do more than mitigate. As for tefillah, prayer and its connection to the work of justice, underground comic artist Gilbert Shelton summarized it as follows: “Remember kids, when you’re overthrowing the state, keep a smile on you face and a song on your lips.”

So join us in prayer, tefillah on p. 113 where it says: Tzedek v-Shalom, #15.[13]

May all of us be inscribed and sealed in the book of life. Shana Tova.



[1] Isaiah 58:1-12

[2] Chapter 31, Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

[3] Genesis 22:12

[4] e.g. Exodus 22:20, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19

[5] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (theologian and activist), Judith Plaskow (feminist theologian), Hannah Arendt (social critic), Martin Buber (theologian), Emmanuel Levinas (philosopher) – see infra.

[6] Genesis 22: 1, 7, and 10

[7] Hilary Putnam, “Levinas and Judaism,” The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. Simon Critchley & Robert Bernasconi, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002. Page 39

[8] The story here is relating in brief a true incident that happened on Rosh Hashanah at Kehilla, ten days before in the same auditorium at Scottish Rites Center in Oakland, California.

[9] “The American Jewish Cocoon,” The New York Review of Books, September 26, 2013, Vol. 60, No. 14. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/sep/26/american-jewish-cocoon/

[10] Five Broken Cameras, documentary (2011), directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi

[11] The Gatekeepers, documentary (2013), directed by Dror Moreh

[12] Between Two Worlds, documentary (2011), directed by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow

[13]Tzedek v-Shalom,” words from Deuteronomy 16:20 & Psalm 34:15; Music: Shulamit Wise Fairman. Lyrics: “Tzeh∙dek tzeh∙dek tir’dof. Ba∙keysh shalom v-rod’fey∙hu.” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue. Demand peace and pursue it.”)                      

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