Sermon by Rabbi Jonah Pesner: After the Flood


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On Friday, November 4, 2016, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner delivered the following sermon to the National American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism and the congregation at Sherith Israel in San Francisco, CA:

Thank you Rabbi Zimmerman for that generous introduction, and for the privilege of offering the sermon here in the historic Sherith Israel sanctuary.  You have been a great leader in the critical work of reimagining Jewish life in your role at Synagogue 3000, and now as the senior rabbi of one of our Movement’s flagship congregations.  I have had the honor of visiting Sherith Israel many times over the last decade, as this congregation – with the support of Rabbi Larry Raphael (the dean who recruited me and many others to HUC-JIR!), and the great leadership of Rabbi Julie Saxe Taller, alongside a talented team of lay leaders - has passionately engaged in the sacred work of tikun olam

You have committed to reaching deeply within the congregation to identify issues of shared concern, and to reach across lines of difference in San Francisco and California more broadly to build power for social justice.  Together with Faith in Action, the PICO affiliate, and Reform California (our own URJ strategy to pursue social justice across the state), Sherith Israel has led the way in successful campaigns for criminal justice and immigration reform. 

You are leading our Tikkun Tikvah initiative, which means “restoring hope.”  As a critical part of our movement-wide racial justice campaign, you are training leaders and canvassing for Proposition 57 which would truly restore hope to thousands of nonviolent offenders who yearn to reenter their communities as productive citizens.  As Ezekiel taught, it is not the destruction of one who sins God seeks, but rather that he do teshuvah – to return – and live!

Indeed, throughout your more than 166-year history, you have been an important part of the fabric of the San Francisco community and justice has been part of your story.  After the earthquake of 1906, Sherith Israel housed the city’s courts until they could be rebuilt.  This is literally a sanctuary of justice.

One more comment about Sherith Israel. I will never forget being at an airport hotel lobby and seeing hundreds of American soldiers in full uniform waiting for deployment.  In the sea of fatigues, I saw one kipah. I couldn’t resist approaching this Jewish soldier to wish him well. When he turned toward me I recognized Cantor David Frommer, my former student who was serving as a US army chaplain.  As many of you know, there are not nearly enough Jewish chaplains in the armed forces to support the many Jewish soldiers who risk their lives to protect our nation.  David, on behalf of the leadership of the entire reform movement – you are a hero, and we thank you for your service to our country.

In addition to the members of Sherith Israel, I want to acknowledge all the guests from other Bay Area congregations who are here tonight.   It is an honor to represent the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism who join me in expressing our gratitude to all of you, and to offer these words.

Two years ago, the Friday night sermon of the URJ board meeting was offered by my predecessor as director of the Religious Action Center, Rabbi Ambassador David Saperstein.  There was a great deal of drama around his sermon.  Even more than usual for David!  He had been named by President Obama to serve as the Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom – but his confirmation had been languishing in the Senate for almost a year.  This was the very last day of the session of the U. S. Senate, and if it didn’t come to the floor that day, it was unclear whether the nomination would survive at all.  It was unclear whether the sermon would be a valedictory address, reflecting on his distinguished 40-year tenure; or an articulation of his plan for the next 40 years at the RAC.

Those of us on the URJ board at the time will remember watching C-Span in our rooms just minutes before heading to the buses to take us to the Shabbat service.  And then it happened:  a bipartisan majority confirmed David.  The yes votes included many unsurprising Democrats.  They also included many Republican votes like Senators named Rubio and Cruz.  As you know, the last few years has shown a shocking lack of bipartisanship and a profoundly polarized environment in Washington, in which the Congress has accomplished very little.  This eleventh hour confirmation was a testament to Rabbi Saperstein’s life work of reaching out to both parties – and working with an array of religious groups – to find common ground; he would remind us that every major piece of civil rights legislation in our history was passed by bipartisan majorities.  A fact that makes our current political environment even more distressing, to say the least.

How distressing?  The cover of the current issue of TIME magazine depicts the two presidential candidates standing together, smiling congenially, holding a sign saying:


Could the editors of TIME have realized that this week we read parashat noach, in which God warns Noah that the world has become so full of violence and lawlessness that it will be destroyed by flood?  The end indeed was near.  Of course, the editors are capturing perhaps the one thing that all Americans can agree on: we are sick of this election and can’t wait for it to end.  They are also capturing an important dynamic of this election, and perhaps the state of American politics: for the candidates, and most partisans, the outcome is framed as having apocalyptic consequences.  Be honest: how many people that you know are looking at real estate in Canada?  It is at this point that I proudly remind everyone that the URJ is a North American organization, and that with us here tonight are several Canadian leaders of our movement.  You can tell who they are – they are the ones in your pew, smiling smugly right about now, thinking “don’t blame me!”

Throughout history, the rabbis have debated about Noah and his righteousness.  As we contemplate the U.S. election and the state of American politics, it’s worthwhile to turn once again to Noah – less in evaluating candidates, and more to challenge ourselves.  In the face of a profoundly polarized political environment, what is our role?  As committed Reform Jewish leaders, informed by thousands of years of our historic commitment to rodeph tzedek – pursue justice – and by our more recent American experience of a deep level of civic engagement, in particular with the ongoing struggle for civil rights, how do we hear God’s call – and how ought we to respond?

Our Torah tells us Noach Ish Tzedek Tamim Hayah Be-dorotav – Noah was a righteous man, in his generation above reproach.  Though God chose him to build the ark and survive the flood because of his righteousness, the rabbis pick up on the qualifying word “be-dorotav, in his generation.”  Some of the classical rabbis argued that the implication was that Noah was only relatively righteous, as compared to the context of wickedness during which he lived.  Others dissented however, arguing Noah would have excelled in any era, and it’s unfair to limit his goodness because of the prevailing evil of his age.

As a proof text, the rabbis juxtapose Noah with Abraham.  While Noah did exactly as God commanded, building an ark to save himself, his family, and the animal kingdom, in the context of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham chose to fight back in the name of justice – famously asking “would you destroy the righteous along with the wicked?”  Abraham’s courageous act of defiance in the face of the coming destruction is a radical affirmation that resistance is possible, that leaders have capacity to imagine a better reality. It provides a model of leadership that ought to inspire each one of us this very day.

The great Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz wrote: “Noah was singled out for survival, Abraham for a mission.” Martin Buber argued, “Noah stayed put in nature… Abraham is the first to make his way into history…”

What is our mission?

What history are we making?

Let us be clear that such biblical models of leadership are not limited to men, despite the patriarchal nature of the text.  One can learn from the courageous acts of resistance by Shifra and Puah, who refused to carry out Pharaoh’s order of genocide against the ancient Hebrews, as well as Miriam and Yocheved, and Pharaoh’s own daughter, who conspired to defy the order, and preserve life.  One can only imagine the risk these heroic women took to act publicly for justice.

This election has challenged many of us to appropriately lift up the moral voice, to act in dissent, in the face of bigotry, hateful rhetoric, and demagoguery that is unprecedented in our lifetimes.  Of course, all of us who are leaders and people of faith as well as agents of social change have a legal obligation to refrain from electoral politics; but its more than that – the authenticity of our moral voice comes from being truly nonpartisan.  As a religious movement, we do not represent any particular party platform or political ideology. Rather, we echo the thousands year old Jewish tradition of the prophetic voice, speaking truth to power.  We have consistently grounded our positions in enduring Jewish values, created coalitions with other faith communities, and raised up a common, moral call for justice that transcends narrow partisan interests or ideologies. And we do so knowing that there are deeply committed, thoughtful Jews on both sides of the aisle.  

So though we would never endorse or reject a candidate, we faced a true dilemma last Spring when Donald Trump was scheduled to address AIPAC. As we ultimately expressed in an open letter, we were deeply concerned about Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and demanded that he repair the damage his words had done.  We continued to avoid any endorsement or rejection of any candidates, but like Abraham before us, we refused to remain silent.  As many of you know, we chose to exit the arena and stand in the halls of the Verizon Center during the speech, studying Jewish texts on dignity.

That was last Spring.  I don’t need to remind anyone what we have witnessed in the months since.  We have tried to restrain ourselves and speak out whenever we thought the unique voice of Reform Judaism needed to be heard, which we lifted up specifically to call out moments of religious intolerance and anti-Semitism.

But my friends, tonight, this wonderful Shabbat evening, I bring you good news:

The end is near.

We will all wake up November 9th, and it will be over – Well… barring a replay of Bush v. Gore of course.

And what happens then?  We get up and go to work.  We do so knowing that whatever the result, our mission will begin again. We will continue to harness the power of our tradition and the passion of nearly two million souls who consider themselves Reform Jews, to create a world of justice, wholeness, and peace; and the work will be more urgent than ever.  The hatred, anger and fear that this election has exposed is much more deeply rooted than the bigoted rhetoric that simmers at the surface. 

We didn’t need this election to tell us what we already knew: racism persists in deep, corrosive systemic and cultural ways across American society;

We didn’t need this election to remind us that our society permits ongoing acceptance of sexual assault and the unjust treatment of women and LGBT folks;

We didn’t need this election to wake us up to the reality that anti-Semitism continues to fester, and is dangerously aligned with a strand of xenophobia that could threaten the security of Jews and other minorities that we take for granted in the United States of America.

So what will we do?

What is our mission,

What is the history we must make?

What would Abraham do?

What would Shifra, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, and Pharoah’s daughter do?

They would organize.  They would lift up their voices, and act in public defiance of hate.  They would articulate a clear, compelling case for another vision; a vision for justice in our world.  A world where all people are free from fear, from poverty, and suffering.  A world in which all people can live with dignity.

And so will we.

In the face of what noted civil rights lawyer and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander has rightly called the New Jim Crow, we have mobilized and organized to reform our broken criminal justice system in which mass incarceration has replaced legal segregation.  Friends, we must all be outraged that roughly 2.2 million Americans are imprisoned.  That is not just the highest total per capita in the world; it is the highest actual number of incarcerated souls anywhere on the globe.  And let’s face this reality: 1 in 3 black men will go to jail in America in their lifetimes, compared to 1 in 6 Latino men and just 1 in 17 white men.  We should expect something radically different from a nation that is a beacon of freedom and equality to the world.

It is our job to bring together Democrats and Republicans, people of all faith – and no faith - crossing lines of difference to act in defiance of this racist, broken reality; to create the political will to be the society of justice we yearn to be.

And in the face of what an appellate court called racist voter suppression with surgical precision, we will continue to fight for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act which was gutted by the Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision.  Voting should not be a partisan issue—it is the political birthright of every citizen.  Let us remember that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was passed by bipartisan majorities, and reauthorized by Republican and Democratic presidents.  And you know how personal this is to us, as our RAC conference room is where parts of the laws were drafted.

But let me share with you what Rev. William Barber taught our leadership in Raleigh this summer, when he and the NAACP invited hundreds of us to travel to North Carolina to stand up for election protection in a state which is ground zero in racist voter suppression.

“Rabbi Pesner,” he thundered! “The Voting Rights Act was written in blood in Selma, and it was transcribed in your conference room.”

What a reminder of the courage of Shifra, Puah, Abraham and the others who took risk; who showed up, and stood strong despite the danger.  Even now, as I speak, thousands of Reform Jews are mobilizing across the US to make sure that every vote counts.  Sherith Israel, Reform CA, and many of your URJ congregations are leading Nitzavim: standing up for voting rights, election protection, and racial justice.

And we are standing up for racial justice within our synagogue walls, even as we stand up beyond them.  Our teacher April Baskin would remind us that between 10 and 20 percent of American Jews are people of color.  We have heard countless stories of exclusion, racism, and bigotry within our own congregations.  There is the young man who at his own bar mitzvah was handed a tray, and told by the caterer to start serving. There is the woman who kept being asked why she was visiting her own congregation.  You get the point.  Let us not forget that Abraham and Sarah stood up for justice AND Audacious Hospitality.

And we will continue to stand up in other ways within the tent of our movement and beyond.  I want to give just one heroic example, though there are many. This week the Times of Israel published a piece about sexual assault on campus, and featured the story of a modern day Shifra, Maya Weinstein.  Maya was raped as an undergraduate. She is one of the twenty percent of college women who are the victims of sexual assault.  Despite the trauma and stigma, she came forward.  Tragically, she was failed by a university that like Noah, was more interested in protecting its interests than acting for justice.  But like Shifra and Puah before her, Maya has spoken out, raised awareness, and became a leader of Hillel International “It’s on Us” campaign.  Maya graduated from college last year and is now a talented Legislative Assistant at the RAC. She is now rightly challenging us – the Reform Jewish movement, who will send more young women to college than any other denomination, to stand up as well.  In answering her call, we will stand together against rape-culture in public and private spaces, and commit to raising generations of women and men who know how to honor the inherent dignity of every person created in the image of God.

Maya’s challenge to us is but one example of how we can and will be a religious movement of resistance; we will resist the hatred against women, minorities, and even Jews that this election has exposed.  And we will resist the politics of division, bigotry and hate.

In the face of demonization of the immigrant, we will welcome the stranger;

In the face of Islamophobia, we will welcome the refugee;

In the face of anti-Semitic demagoguery, we will defend the Jewish people here and across the world.

In that spirit, I want to pause and be inspired once again by this historic sanctuary.  Look at these windows, and the story they tell.  An American Reform Jewish Congregation, receiving Torah here in their new land of opportunity; it exudes their patriotic spirit and belief in America, a land where Jews could truly be free. 

And yet Sherith Israel like the rest of the Reform movement came to understand the central role of the state of Israel, not only as a refuge for Jews as Herzl saw it, but as an exemplar for the rest of the world as Ahad Ha’am argued.  And so as I come to the end of this sermon I feel compelled to reflect on one other critical area of our work for justice, that has been largely ignored this election season: Israel.

Though the candidates have spoken very little about our beloved Jewish state, over the past two years since I arrived in Washington, we have seen Israel become dangerously partisan.  The situation in Israel is often depicted in foolishly caricaturish ways that serve partisan interests and do little to either protect Israel’s security, nor to bring about peace and justice in the region.  As progressive Zionists, we are called not only to advocate for a safe, secure Israel; but also to demand that our homeland reflect the same enduring Jewish values and standards to which we hold the United States and Canada.  Let us pause and acknowledge the history that Rabbi Rick Jacobs made this week, along with other leaders of Reform Judaism as well as with the Conservative Movement and the Women at the Wall who like modern day Abrahams and Shifras, marched in defiance of the cynical politics in Israel, and women and men carried the Torah scrolls to the Kotel, that it be a house of prayer for ALL the Jewish people.  This fight is about the Kotel, but it is about much more: it is about the soul of the Jewish state, as democratic, pluralist nation of justice.

In all of these matters, in Israel, in North America, and across the world – we will challenge the cynical politics of fear and hate, with a vision of love and peace.  Nehama Leibowitz finds deep meaning in the symbolism of the bow at the end of the Noah story.  God offers the bow (often depicted as a rainbow) in the sky as a covenant that destruction will not come again.  Referring to a teaching of the medieval scholar, Nachmanides, Leibowitz points out that the bow in the sky appears as the opposite of a weapon of war, which has a string and points toward the enemy.  In this reversed position, and lacking a string to shoot an arrow, the bow symbolizes that: “retribution and anger… are being replaced by an era of love and peace.”

Though Noah is satisfied to simply survive the destruction, God is not, and provides a compelling symbol of what redemption looks like; let the rainbow after the flood be our guiding symbol.

Yes, the end is near.  I pray the flooding waters of bigotry and hate are now cresting.  And when the waters recede, WE will be the rainbow; the covenant of love that appears in the sky restoring hope for the world and all her inhabitants.

This is our mission.

This is the history we are making.