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Kol Nidre Sermon by Rabbi David Cooper: “God, the Covenant, and the Inside-Outsider”

Ellis Island Story Referenced in Sermon

Introduction to Hagar & Ishmael Torah Excerpt (Genesis 21:9-21)

A few years ago, I was dropping my son Lev off at college. I helped set up his part of the dorm room and it was time for me to leave. I turned to look at him and I thought, “Well this is it. Childhood’s end.” And then I joked, or half-joked, “Oh my God,” I said to him, “I forgot! Before this, I was supposed to teach you how to light a fire, how to survive in the woods, how to hold a baseball bat correctly. Oops, sorry about that.” With a smile, he forgave me and sent me out the door.

This story came to mind as I was preparing tonight’s talk. This is my last Kol Nidre as a Community Rabbi of Kehilla so I’m thinking, “Oh my God! What have I left out of my sermons up to now? Last chance. Yikes!” But no pressure. Especially since I will be around Kehilla as a spiritual leader for many years to come.

But it is great that for this teaching I have the topic of our High Holy Day theme which deals with how we treat the immigrant and the refugee. You see, I feel that Jewish ethics and morality has its origin in the Torah’s mandates to love the stranger, to not harm them, and to identify with and remember the experience of being an outsider.

But the theme also gives me an opportunity to talk a bit about my theology and I can do so because this mandate, this mitzvah, this commandment in regard to the stranger is not just an ethical issue. It is theological. And I know that it’s a bit weird to hear me say this since I have a reputation as a rabbi who doesn’t believe in God as a personal entity. But the point I want to make tonight is that this ethical mandate comes out of a covenant that we have with God whether we believe in God or not. I must engage in social action, in repairing a broken world, because those are the terms of the deal that I have with that very same personal God that I don’t believe in. And yet, I do believe in the covenant, and I believe that we have been commanded, certainly as Jews, but also as human beings, as surely as if that summons came from Godself.

Hopefully, I’ll be clear about all this before the sermon is over.

God at Kehilla
But if I’m going to talk about theology, I first need to say something about the belief in God in Kehilla. And this too touches on our theme of the outsider and the longing for home.

Even before Kehilla, I remember talking with non-believers or people of alternative beliefs who described coming to synagogue and felt like they didn’t belong. They were feeling that these services belonged to the other people, to the true believers, not to themselves. So they stayed in the closet. Despite this discomfort, despite this sense of being the outsider, they were drawn for reasons that were hard to put into words. And yet, coming to synagogue felt like coming home.

There was this dissonance they wanted to resolve. The words in the prayerbook were talking about—or talking to—a God they didn’t believe in. But they wanted to—they needed to—sing the prayers along with everyone else. But weren’t sure they were supposed to.

So I’d say—and still do—set aside God for a minute. Does this prayer uphold values you believe in? Peace? Justice? Empathy? Community? Wonder? Then join in the singing and in deep-felt prayer. Let God be a metaphor. Play with God as an experience rather than as a thing. Consider the God-language to be referring to a process of creation rather than to a conscious creator. Or God as the great Oneness of all that is. You get the idea.

In our first years in Kehilla, we decided to do something unusual both in the synagogue world in general and in the Jewish Renewal movement as well. We decided to be accessible to atheists as well as to theists and to everybody in between. So I wrote for our prayerbook the Contemplation for Those who Do Not Define their Belief as a Belief in God to make it clear that all of us in this sacred space own this space and none of us are spectators. None of us are outsiders. Even if you are just visiting.

And one other thing about this. The spiritual leaders on the bima are also diverse in our beliefs. We use different God language from each other. And we also don’t want to be outsiders either. Some of us use God-language more, others less. Each person who leads a service or gives a teaching will continue to use the language that works for them. If it isn’t exactly the same as yours, then pierce through the words to get to the essence. So don’t be a spectator, go along for the ride. Surrender to the passions of that spiritual moment regardless of the nomenclature.

What unites us in building this community is not a uniform theology, but rather a shared commitment to being spiritual seekers and participating in progressive social action.

Which brings me back to that covenant with God I was speaking about.

“Covenant” is the closest English word to the Hebrew concept of “Brit.”  Sometimes a brit seems to be a treaty; sometimes it’s a statement of fealty or loyalty. There are several covenants with God in the Torah. To name two: Abraham has a personal brit of loyalty to God and in return he will become the father of a great nation. Moses and the children of Israel have a covenant with more requirements for which they receive the promise of a homeland. The cartoonist Will Eisner wrote a graphic novel based on the idea of brit called A Contract with God. And in some ways, especially in the book Deuteronomy, a brit seems to be a contract with dependent clauses: It’s a quid pro quo. If we obey God, God will protect us. If we don’t obey, God will exile us and will cease to protect us unless we repent. But the Hebrew Bible already began to retreat from that tit-for-tat covenant. In the book of Job and Ecclesiastes we see that righteous and obedient people are sometimes punished, and the wicked are sometimes rewarded. No fair. But more on that later.

But what does the covenant require of us? Traditionally it required the obedient fulfillment of 613 mitzvot, commandments, which involved obligations of ritual and obligations between one human and another. Mostly the mitzvot were prohibitions: don’t eat pork, don’t cheat in business, don’t kill. Some were phrased in the positive: you will celebrate this holiday; you will observe Shabbat; you will pay a tithe to support the sanctuary.

The Prophets’ Covenant: Justice
Until the prophets—such as Amos, Micah and Isaiah—the religious practice of the Hebrew people was an essentially cultic religion, that is, the relationship with God primarily demanded loyalty to Him demonstrated by offering the proper sacrifices at the altar of the Temple at the proper times.   The prophets changed all that. They made the revolutionary claim that God required something beyond the cult, that God demanded justice. And maybe we take that for granted today since Christianity and Islam demand the same thing, but Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious ethics have their origins in the prophets.

Centuries after Moses, the prophets were a bit queasy about the slavish following of rituals and fulfilling the letter of the law. They were pissed because they saw people—especially rich people—obey the laws, observe the rituals and then go on and violate the human dignity of others and exploit their vulnerabilities. [Yikes, you know, in this election cycle, if you quote from the prophets in synagogue, you could put your tax-exempt status at risk.] Anyway, Amos is adamant that he would rather see the Temple worship eliminated if that elimination would result in people doing the right thing.

The covenant of the prophets is about how we treat the vulnerable and how we do righteousness or justice, tzedek or tzedakah. And this demand to do the right thing, to do tzedek is not just in the books of the prophets, it’s in the parts of the Torah which were written under the influence of the prophets. So whether in the Torah or the prophetic writings, they repeatedly demand that we do the right thing by the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

The “GER
What is this “stranger” of which they speak? So at the risk of repeating what may you already have learned: there is some general agreement that the word “stranger” is not exactly a good translation of the word “ger.” The ger is someone from outside your people who is now living among you and is more vulnerable because they don’t have land, or family, or deep connections in the society. Sometimes ger is translated as a “resident alien.” I’d rather keep it simple. For me, the ger is the inside-outsider. And the question that the prophets are asking is whether we are going to emphasize their identity as outsiders or whether we will emphasize the fact that they are here, inside, with us.

The segment of Torah we will read tomorrow from Leviticus 19 is quite clear that we should love our fellow insider, our neighbor, as ourselves [Lev. 19:18]. And then a few sentences later, in even more emphatic terms, the Torah demands that we are not only prohibited from harming the outsider, but we must love the outsider exactly the same as our fellow insiders and as ourselves. Leviticus 19:34 says: “Just like a native born among you will the ger be unto you, and you will love them as yourself, because you were gerim in the land of Mitzrayim/Egypt.” [My own translation.]

We are still operating with insider/outsider thinking today. But should we? The planet is much smaller today than it was back then. Communications are instant and travel nearly so. And we have seen the planet from a distance and we know how minute it really is. And so, in a real sense, we are all neighbors now. And yet given how proximate all of Earth’s diverse cultures are to each other, all of us are now inside-outsiders to each other on this shrunken planet. We are all gerim and we are all neighbors.

Treatment of the Ger at the Core of Jewish Ethics
So why do I say that that the mitzvah to love the ger is at the core of Jewish ethics? Let’s consider the well-known story of the ger who wanted to learn the Torah in what we call today an “elevator pitch.” He went to Rabbi Shammai who on hearing that he was supposed to summarize the Torah in less time than staying balanced on one foot, hits the guy upside the head with his bricklayer’s level. And then later, Hillel, facing the same question from the ger replies “What is hateful to you, don’t do to another.” And I believe that Hillel has directly derived this from the book of Exodus where it says “Do not oppress the ger, for you know the heart of the ger because you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” [Ex 23:9, my translation]

The verse in Exodus is a command to Israelites on how to treat non-Israelites. But Hillel is talking to a non-Israelite, to a ger, and so he has to universalize it. If he doesn’t, his interrogator will think this is just a law about how Jews are supposed to treat gerim. So Hillel turns the idea of “You know what it is like to be oppressed as a ger” into something about “any conduct that is hateful to you.” And the prohibition against oppressing the ger, becomes “do not do it to anyone.”*

Hillel’s summary of the Torah says nothing about rituals and sacrifices. There is nothing about believing in or worshipping God. Nothing about the no-no of idol worship. For him, the essence of Torah, the essence of the covenant, is an ethical mandate about the treatment of our fellow beings. The rest is commentary.

Evolving Covenant, Personal to Societal and Tikkun Olam
With some exceptions, the ethics of the Torah and the prophets is person-to-person. You, personally, shall not do injustice to another individual or to a class of individuals. But we now live in a world where we know that that is not enough. We are coming to understand that we must address social injustice. And this does not only require of us to be good to each other, but to work to challenge institutional injustice—and that means challenging the system itself, and not just being nice to each other. That is why the platform of the Movement for Black Lives is so important because it looks at the totality of a system that reinforces oppression and injustice—not only in regard to black people, but other people of color, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, LGBTQI, working people and others who are oppressed through the very same machinery that supports white supremacy.

So the covenant now demands action to challenge what is broken in society and also in the environment. That is what we now call Tikkun Olam.

In the Talmud the expression “tikkun olam” was limited to fixing up or avoiding certain problems within a small community. Hundreds of years later, the kabbalah of Isaac Luria changed “tikkun olam” to mean repairing the whole world but doing it by carefully observing the 613 commandments. And then, in the late 20th century, during the lifetime of many in this room, it came to mean repairing the brokenness of our world by social action, by challenging the system itself.

And if the idea of tikkun olam has evolved, then so have the terms of the covenant. Tikkun olam requires that we do what is in our power to change a system that oppresses people, that unbalances the environment. An example of a modern amendment to the requirements of the covenant is the words of Assata Shakur which is now a pledge of the Black Lives Matter movement: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Why a Covenant with God?
Now I want to get back to that idea that despite my questionable theology, I experience my covenant as a covenant with God.

I do not believe that the requirements of the covenant can be derived through rationality and science. Through science we can develop tools and technology but they won’t tell us what to do with these tools. Richard Feynman, the physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, drove this point home. He said that our rational capacity, our scientific mind, enables us to develop the atomic bomb, but it doesn’t tell us whether to drop it. Rationality reveals what we can do, but not what we ought to do. [Feynman, Richard, The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist]

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says that what we ought to do is experienced as a summons or a command that emerges out of the moment that we find ourselves in the presence of an Other. Levinas does not identify where or whom that summons comes from, but it is a summons to take responsibility to do the right thing here where we are in the presence of the other.

Maybe that summons is internal or maybe external or maybe it is just inherent in that moment of confronting the reality of other beings. You could try to avoid hearing that summons. You could dismiss that summons as a bunch of political correctness. You can pretend that you just don’t hear it. But there it is.

And for want of any better term, that which summons us, I call “God.”

And maybe I answer God’s summons unskillfully. Maybe I make mistakes. Maybe I procrastinate. (Maybe I say “maybe” too much.) That is why we set aside time to do teshuva, to honestly reflect on our errors, confess them to ourselves or to God. We resolve to repair not just the world but also ourselves as we become better at tikkun olam.

On the Hook to the Unconditional Covenant
And here is where covenant really becomes difficult. The covenant is no longer contingent. In Deuteronomy, if I did this, then God did that. If God did this, then I do that. But there aren’t any more hinges on the covenant. Our responsibilities are not dependent on God living up to God’s side of the deal. If I am good and I contribute to tzedakah, it won’t keep me from getting cancer. And if I get cancer, I am still summoned to do tzedakah. [Post-sermon addition: And who would understand the covenant as non-contingent better than atheist?]

Back in the 80’s when Kehilla was one of the first synagogues to join the Sanctuary Movement, I traveled to synagogues all over Northern California to speak about the movement and to encourage shuls to join in. At one of these talks, a man got up and, clearly in pain, he yelled that no one saved the Jews from Hitler, why should we get involved with these non-Jews from Latin America? I said, that if at Yad VaShem we celebrate the Righteous Gentiles like Oskar Schindler, shouldn’t we then be righteous Jews and be there for the refugees?

You see, even the holocaust does not get us off the hook. And the genocide we suffered does not release us from doing what we can in regard to justice for the Palestinians. And this non-contingency applies to our coalition work as well; when we ally with others in common cause, our alliance cannot be contingent upon everyone in the coalition agreeing with us on every issue or on every statement.

So we’re stuck, and I say: thank God for that!

A Song to End
So I want to conclude this with a song, a prayer from Kehilla. Years ago, I asked Hazzan Shulamit to compose music from two verses, one from the Torah, “Justice justice shall you pursue,” “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” [Deut. 16:20] and one from the Psalms “Demand peace and pursue it.” “Bakeysh Shalom v-rod’fey’hu.” [Ps. 34:15]  These are the two biggest responsibilities of that covenant – that covenant that we have with God or with Whatever. It could be Kehilla’s anthem, and it reminds us that it is our duty to pursue a world of justice and peace. And it is our duty to win.

Please turn to page 113 in the middle Tzedek v-Shalom


Tzedek v-Shalom – Justice and Peace   

               (Deut. 16:20 & Psalm 34:15; Music: Shulamit Wise Fairman)

Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Bakeysh Shalom v-rod’fey’hu

(Justice, justice shall you pursue. Demand peace and pursue it )


* Yes, it says “to your neighbor” in Aramaic, but the sense in its context means “to another.” The term for “Other” in Hebrew, “acher” or its Aramaic equivalent at that time had much more of a sense of “one significantly different” and Hillel appears to mean anyone located proximate to you whether a ger or a native born, thus “anyone.”

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