Yom Kippur generally brings consistency, tradition, comfort even as we fast. Yet much about Yom Kippur this year of COVID is new – together but apart. Each year we recite “who by plague,” and this past year the answer was overwhelming. Our hearts and prayers go out to those many who have lost loved ones and to those who risk their lives to enable us literally to eat, to live, to dream of a better day.
I am honored to stand before you, but I have to tell you I am not a logical congregation president from an institutional or personal perspective. I had never served on the synagogue board of directors, and though Schatz, as an American immigrant name, derives from Schliach Tzibur, literally “messenger from the congregation” and historically the prayer leader, I am not well versed in Hebrew nor in Jewish prayer or practice. I sometimes have felt like the man in synagogue who simply repeated “aleph, bet, gimmel” during the prayers, thinking “God knows what is in my heart and will put the letters together.” I have been in some synagogues where I’ve felt out of place, whether that was others’ intent or not. But I have never experienced that here and have even felt appreciated for my less informed questions or opinions, one of the many reasons I love this community.
Fortunately, my short-comings are nothing compared to the great people who make everything run smoothly here – our rabbi, who is a true treasure, our great cantor and staff, expert volunteers on many committees, and such great work by former presidents, and past and present board members.
Like so many congregations, we are at a crossroads. Religion is less important to many. And we were warned that inability to meet in our beautiful building during COVID would cost us many members and funds.
That hasn’t happened – thanks to all of you. We are responding during this pandemic by moving simultaneously in many directions – innovating programs during the crisis, strategic planning for the longer-term, focusing on our values and how to address generational challenges.
And though we are sad not to gather in person, we are realizing benefits from technology we never imagined. Cherished older members who hear better on Zoom. Devoted members spared a long drive. Loving members who spend part of the year far away but whose spiritual home is with us. We will emerge stronger.
Technology also makes new the story of the baseball fan who says: “Rabbi, I’ve got this horrible dilemma, the Sox are playing a big game at the same time as Yom Kippur services, what do I do?” The rabbi says that’s why they invented the DVR, and the congregant says “Rabbi, what a great idea, I didn’t know the services were on cable.” Well, now they could be recorded. High holidays are about choosing wisely, now more than ever.
Yom Kippur focuses on Teshuvah, a personal return or renewal. I was very taken by a concept I heard from Rabbi Bellows – Elu v’Elu – literally “these and these.” It stems from the Talmudic story of direct and fierce conflict over Halachic interpretation by the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, until a voice from heaven says “Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim” (“these and these are the words of the living God”).
Judaism values inclusion of different points of view – and even asserts that views seeming in direct conflict can both be correct. How can that be?
Perhaps in Elu v’Elu, figuring out how both ideas can be right leads to discovery – of yourself and others, of how seemingly conflicting positions might be reconciled or might lead to a higher truth, of what others are thinking and how they are thinking.
Of course, the concept of Elu v’Elu tied in well to my long commitment to civil liberties and advocacy for free speech. Ensuring freedom and engaging all ideas. The right process and the best thoughts.
Yet, personally, was I walking that talk? Does my white, male privilege close me to other perspectives? Do I come across as too argumentative and unaccommodating?
To some extent that might be understandable. I come from a family of lawyers – my grandfather and both his siblings, my father and both his siblings, I and two of my three siblings, all lawyers – when my youngest brother went to business school, well “every family needs a client.”
So if there are any whom I have offended, I apologize and ask your forgiveness.
And I am also trying to change. In addition to trying to be more sensitive, I’m trying to use the word “but” less, and the word “and” more.
Elu v’Elu – these and these. To move from “but,” a word of division, to “and,” a word of addition.
Using “Yes, and” – to encourage more ideas, to encourage continuation of discussion.
Yom Kippur is not only about Teshuvah as individuals but also as a community, and our Vidui prayer seeks forgiveness for sins “we” among the whole community have committed.
Elu v’Elu is also part of what we have tried to be as a congregation. Our past discussions of gun violence and BDS are only the most extreme examples of how we have tried to reach out to examine perspectives beyond our mainstream, to arrive at common values and meaningful action – not without controversy, but ultimately worth it.
And perhaps Elu v’Elu could be most important in our even broader community – our country, for which we as Jews always include a prayer.
Elu v’Elu is reflected in uniquely American concepts of free speech and religion, and in our national imagination. We view our nation as a cauldron of different ingredients. As Walt Whitman said in a poem titled Song of Myself, but equally about America:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Commitment to diversity and inclusion should include diverse ideas.
Elu v’elu, these and these. If we used the words “yes, and,” to engage, we might see real change. No one disputes that Black lives matter and that all lives matter, so isn’t it strange that they should be seen in conflict? Perhaps using “yes, and” would help us think and discuss and realize why in the world of logic “all lives matter” includes Black lives, but in the real world it often does not – why it is necessary to proclaim “Black Lives Matter.”
There’s an old story of a rabbi overcome by emotion in shul who stands and cries “I am nothing, I am nothing.” A big macher in the community rises next to him and follows suit, “I am nothing. I am nothing.” Then the community beggar stands next to the macher and joins in wailing “I am nothing. I am nothing.” And in this great moment of unity before God, the macher points at the beggar on his right, and says to the rabbi “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
It is so much easier to divide than to unite. And now, as a nation, we are more divided than ever in our lifetimes – “unfriending” and “cancelling” those who have been friends, and who might yet become important allies – not even pausing to listen – and possibly learn – why others disagree.
Perhaps part of our nation’s response to COVID mirrors this broader plague of personal and communal intolerance, which started long before COVID and threatens to continue long after COVID is gone.
Perhaps this Yom Kippur in 2020, in 5781, will provide not only the opportunity of Teshuvah for each of us but a unique hope for beginning renewal for our country and our world.
For over a million years, division and fear of differences may have been productive for survival. Science suggests it may still be in our DNA. What makes us truly human, in God’s image, is our ability to surpass those base instincts, to be the beneficiary of our differences rather than its victim.
Elu v’Elu is addition rather than division. Consensus rather than conflict. Love rather than hate.
We learned as kids studying math that addition is much more simple than division; in the real world, we know addition can be much more difficult.
We learned studying math that division is more powerful than addition; in the real world, we understand how addition can be much more powerful.
Like the rabbi, macher and beggar in the story, each of us may sometimes feel like nothing. And in the world of math, where division is more powerful than addition, three times nothing is still nothing.
But in the real world, where addition is more difficult but so much more powerful, even when each of us may feel as nothing, Elu v’Elu, together we can be so much more.
This year, Ken Y’hi Ratzon – may it be so.
Andy Schatz became president of CBSRZ in July 2020. He served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut from 2010 to 2018 and has served on the ACLU national board and executive committee.