My Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2018

Hi… How’s it going?  After last night, I’m really glad that you showed up to listen to me again this morning.  It shows fortitude on your parts.  Kol hakod!  I hope you have additional endurance this morning after a good night’s sleep because I would like to extend what I spoke about last night.

Hillel and Shammai argued for three years without a resolution until a Higher Authority stepped in to settle the dispute.  But they were able to disagree constructively, so much so that the story is referenced in Pirkei Avot, 5:17: 

“Every argument that is for the sake of heaven’s name, its end is to endure.  But if it is not for the sake of heaven’s name, its end is not to endure.  What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven’s name?  The argument of Hillel and Shammai.  What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven’s name?  The argument of Korach and all his congregation.”

We’ve already seen how Hillel and Shammai were able to argue respectfully.  Korach?  Not so much.  Korach rebelled against Moses’ leadership, not because he thought Moses was doing a bad job or for any substantive reason, but because Korach wanted leadership and the honor such leadership brings, for himself.  It went badly for him when God opened the ground and swallowed up Korach and all his supporters, permanently ending his argument. 

Rabbi Ovadia ben Abraham Bartenura, the great 15th century Italian commentator, explained what was meant by “an argument for the sake of heaven, its end is to endure”: “And I heard the explanation of ‘its end’ is its purpose that is sought from its subject.  And with the argument which is for the sake of heaven, the purpose and aim that is sought from that argument is to arrive at the truth, and this endures; like that which they said, “From a dispute the truth will be clarified,” and as it became elucidated from the argument between Hillel and Shammai — that the law was like the school of Hillel.  And with the argument which is not for the sake of heaven, its desired purpose is to achieve power and the love of contention, and its end will not endure, as we found in the argument of Korach and his congregation — that their aim and ultimate intent was to achieve honor and power, and the opposite was achieved.”

What Pirkei Avot is trying to teach as explained by Bartenura, is that when we argue for a greater cause, we’re legitimately arguing in the right way.  But it is illegitimate when we argue with the ultimate goal of personal gain or power.  Further, when we argue for a greater cause, we will eventually arrive at the truth.

It is safe to say that we live in a time when arguments seem to be multiplying and seem to be nastier and nastier.  There’s not much I can say about the arguments that come out of a desire for power or personal gain.  Except maybe, watch out for sinkholes.  But many arguments are legitimate disagreements for a higher cause.  Many arguments are cases when reasonable people may disagree.

What can be puzzling is why reasonable people should disagree at all.  After all, if both parties are reasonable, shouldn’t they arrive at the same conclusions?  The flaw in that question comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of ethics.  Let’s start with a basic definition.  Ethics is where we try to come up with rules of behavior based on our moral understanding of right and wrong.  In other words, ethics is when we try to figure out how we’re going to act in the world in a way that is consistent with our values. 

Ethical arguments are almost never about right and wrong.  An ethical argument between right and wrong only comes about when you have two moral values that come from different sources.  Here’s a very simple example.  Many Christians, based on the Christian Bible, believe that life begins at conception.  Jews, based on the Hebrew Bible believe that life begins later.  Abortion then becomes a debate between right and wrong because the sources of moral values are in conflict with each other.  Now, I, as a rabbi, will advocate for Jewish values, but that doesn’t mean I will ever convince someone who isn’t Jewish.

If ethical arguments usually aren’t about right and wrong, then what are they between?  Usually, they are between two things that are right or deciding between which of two wrong things would be the least harmful.  Which is better: to act with justice or to act with mercy?  Both are moral goods, but sometimes the circumstances demand more justice than mercy and sometimes they demand more mercy than justice.  And that is the essence of an ethical argument because different, perfectly reasonable people can weigh the circumstances differently.  Further, the more ethical values that get involved, the harder it becomes to tease apart and weigh the issues to come to an ethical decision.

Let me give you an example that the rabbis use to explain how ethical arguments can change depending on the circumstances.  They have this concept of l’hatchilah and b’dei’avad.  L’hatchilah means that from the beginning you should rule in one way, but b’dei’avad, after the fact, you might rule in the exact opposite way.  L’hatchilah, you never mix milk and meat together in a dish.  But what would you do if by accident you splashed a drop of milk into a big meat dish?  B’dei’avad, after the fact, you have more ethical values coming into play: it’s not good to waste food, it’s not good for people to go hungry because there isn’t any other food, it’s not good to impoverish people by making them spend more money to replace the food that was spoiled.  So the rabbis ruled that if some milk were accidentally in a dish and it makes up less than 1/60th of the dish, it’s okay.  1/60th?  Why not 1/50th?  Why not 1/40th?  Why not 1/2?  Further, if you allow people to eat a meat dish with milk accidentally added in, maybe someone else might begin to think it’s okay to mix milk with meat as long as it’s not too much milk.  Now you see how an argument for the sake of heaven’s name can be about two rights rather than a right and a wrong.  And remember, if you’re arguing about two different rights, then the person you’re arguing with isn’t evil, they’re just weighing the circumstances differently.

The ultimate goal of our arguments should be to come to the truth, exactly what Bartenura claims will happen if the argument is for the sake of heaven.  That isn’t as easy as it sounds because there is a school of philosophy that claims there is no absolute truth, that truth is all relative, that truth is what we declare it to be.  This school of moral relativism is beautifully expressed by Hamlet speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  I can’t accept it, though, no matter how beautifully expressed. 

First there is the truth of statements, also called the correspondence theory of truth.  This level of truth is when our statements correspond to reality.  Reality is a persistent thing that does not change no matter what we say about it.  I could say that I have a full head of hair, but that would not be true and reality would not change because I claim otherwise.  “Because like Halliday said, reality is the only thing that’s real.”  And truth is when our statements correspond to reality.

Absolute truth is less tangible.  Mathematical truth is absolute because one plus one will always equal two, no matter what you claim about it.  Physical laws do not change, even if our understanding of them may.  I believe in Absolute Truth for moral law as well.  Murder, going up to to some random person and killing them for no reason, is bad and nothing you say would convince me otherwise.  It is an absolute truth that murder is wrong.

Truth is something that is unchanging.  Truth is something you can rely on.  Truth is something you can believe in.  And as Maimonides taught us, God is truth, Absolute Truth, the truth upon which all of reality depends.  So arguing for the sake of heaven, to explore and uncover the truth, is in reality an exercise in getting to know God.

I am not old enough to remember what it was like here in the United States in 1968.  But in my life experience, these are the most contentious times that I have ever lived through.  To get through these times, I truly believe that we have to learn to listen to and understand each other.  When we argue it should be for the greater good and not be destructive.  When we argue, we must still pursue peace.  As Moshe Dayan said in 1977 at the beginning of laying the groundwork for the Israel/Egypt peace treaty: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”

I would like to leave you with a beautiful teaching I learned from Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory, when I studied with him earlier this year.  He quoted Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:  “The essence of shalom is to unite two opposites.  Therefore, do not be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him or her in peace.  Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them.  On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites, just as God makes peace in the heavens between the contrasting elements of fire and water.”  True peace, Rabbi Panken taught, is sitting with people you disagree with and seeking a way to live in harmony.  As we are commanded in Torah, we must seek peace and pursue it.  We must seek a way to live together in harmony.

Just as God creates peace in the heavens, may we create peace here amongst ourselves.

Shana tova.