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Rabbi Mati's Kol Nidre Sermon

On Yom Kippur, the day when we recognise our mortality, let me tell you about a day when I almost died.

It happened in my home city, Wroclaw, Poland, on December 31, 2008. That evening I was supposed to host a New Year’s eve party for a few close friends. In the late afternoon, I went out for some last minute shopping. On my way to the supermarket, I was attacked by three youngsters in the center of Wroclaw. It happened smack in the middle of the world of my childhood - a few hundred yards from my primary school, middle school and high school, respectively.

My assailants hit me everywhere, including the head. Fortunately, the kicks against my head went along my temples rather than against them. Miraculously, no blow hit my temple at a straight angle. If they did, I would probably not stand here with you today.

The ordeal stopped when the attackers spotted someone approaching and fled. Still, nobody helped me, not even on the tram home.Covered in blood I came back to my parents’ place, from where my friend took me to the hospital. At the ER a helpful doctor manually realigned my displaced nose without anesthesia (yes, it hurt).

The assault’s motive was robbery, but while my assailants were kicking me, they were also yelling homophobic slurs. At first, the physical injuries hurt more than the memory of verbal abuse. But this changed as soon as I went to the police station to report what happened. There, a police officer informed me that homophobic abuse was not an aggravating circumstance. He explained that my assault was not a hate crime because Polish law did not see LGBTQ+ as a protected minority group. Finally, he asked me whether - given that it did not matter legally - I still wanted the report to mention that I felt hurt by homophobic slurs. After all, he asked, do you really want the police to have the information on your sexual orientation on file?

While I was already involved in Jewish life beforehand, the attack brought my engagement with our tradition to a different level. Traumatized, I found consolation in the Torah passages that proclaimed the need to protect the orphan, the widow and the stranger - the defenseless of the ancient world. At the same time, I found companionship and acceptance in my Reform chavurah. To its members, it didn’t matter if I was gay. My Progressive approach to the Torah meant that I was not just welcome, but also celebrated.

My chavurah was a safe refuge from the homophobia I encountered in many parts of Polish society. Simultaneously, it offered me support of individuals who believed that standing up for justice and inclusion were the essence of Judaism. Its members were ready to publicly oppose those who often used the words of Torah to justify hate and oppression. My Reform community was where I was able to heal.

The final stage of the wound's healing process is maturation of a new layer of tissue. Successful healing of spiritual and psychological injuries follows an identical pattern. The end result, however, is not new tissue but enhanced understanding: of the sources of our harm and healing and, ultimately, of ourselves.

My journey from hurt to healing taught me two lessons. First, I realized that what happened to me - from the attack to the police's response to it - was political. Second, I understood that Judaism helped me heal because it was political, too.

Many of you might cringe at these words. You might ask yourselves: can’t we leave the politics at the Temple door? Doesn’t it sow enough division in our society? Can’t we just say prayers and celebrate being Jewish together?

We can do that. But by doing so we won’t escape Judaism’s preoccupation with politics - defined by American political scientist Harold Lasswell as ‘who gets what, when, how’. Even the simplest Jewish prayers remind us how politically-minded Judaism is.

Take the Shabbat evening Kiddush for example. It says: asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’ratzah vanu, v’Shabbat kodsho b’ahavah uv’ratzon hinchilanu, zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit. Ki hu yom t’chilah l’mikra-ei kodesh, zecher litziat Mitzrayim.

Each Saturday, Kiddush calls us to celebrate our ancestors' opposition to tyranny - Exodus from Egypt and their commitment to granting all who work a weekly day of rest - Shabbat. These ideas set Judaism apart in the ancient world, where religions legitimized structures of power and exploitation.

Indeed, early Judaism did not shy away from talking politics. According to the Midrash, Abraham was persecuted for rejecting the worship of material idols, the foundation of the then status quo. Moses warned the Israelites against the dangers of monarchy and commanded them to protect the most vulnerable society members. The prophets decried the slightest display of social injustice.

It is easy to broach social issues, even controversial ones, when - like our patriarchs and prophets - one is certain that God will come to your rescue. It is much harder when you are a stateless minority, which can face persecution for a single political misstep. Sadly, the latter has been the case for the overwhelming majority of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Temple.

From that moment onwards, Jews had a diminished ability to shape the fate of the world. Yet this did not mean that rabbinic Judaism lost touch with its political mandate. In the third century, following a period of persecution, sages Rav, Rabbi Ḥanina, Rabbi Yoḥanan, and Rav Ḥaviva taught:

Any person who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of their household and did not protest, they are apprehended for the sins of the members of their household and punished. If anyone is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of their town, and they fail to do so, they are apprehended for the sins of the people of their town. If they are in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and they fail to do so, they are apprehended for the sins of the whole world. (Bavli Shabbat 54b)

As modern American Jews, we are in a better position to protest the sinful behavior of the world than Jews in almost any other point in history. We live in a democracy. We have communal structures that amplify the Jewish voice, nationally. On average, we enjoy the level of economic prosperity unheard of in the history of our people.

And yet, as a new Rabbi of TBT, I was warned not to touch topics that can be viewed as political. I was told that our Temple is politically divided so it's better not to say anything that could potentially alienate some of you. A few members told me that I should not get too involved in social justice because it is less important than building a community.

I applaud your commitment to the preservation of shalom bayt, communal harmony. Yet when we make it our top priority, we close the door on many essential Jewish ideas.

First of them is makhloket leshem shamayim, the belief that disagreement can be for the sake of heaven, can enrich us. Our polarized society makes us scared to introduce divergent opinions into Temple life. Afraid that difference shall tear us apart, we don’t give ourselves the chance to cultivate the dignity of difference, to become a community living up to the Talmudic saying Eilu V’Eilu Divrei Elokim Chaim - both this and that view are the words of the living God (Eruvin 13b).

Second of them is beit knesset, the idea that a synagogue is where the community gathers, not just to pray, seek solace or consolation but also to exchange and shape opinions. All of us make up our minds on the most pressing issues of the day somewhere. When we decide that the Jewish community is not the right place to engage with them, we choose to have our worldview shaped without the guidance that the wisdom of Judaism can offer. By doing so, we limit the role that Judaism can play in our lives.

Third of them is Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, the commandment to continuously pursue justice. As individuals, we can only fulfill this mitzvah by taking interest in political life to ensure that the laws of our country are in line with the Jewish understanding of justice. However, modern issues are often so complex that we can not determine what is just on our own. We let journalists and political pundits shape our opinion on proposed legislation. Maybe it is time to explore together how Judaism defines a more just society?

Finally, unwillingness to address wider societal issues reduces our ability to be a mekor chayim - a life-affirming place to all our worshippers.When our college students experience antisemitism on campus, we need to support them by openly fighting organizations that blame Jews for their connection to Israel. When transphobic laws are on the rise, we have to openly oppose them if we want non-binary and trans kids to feel safe and whole at our Temple. We need to address racism still present in our society if we want to make people of color truly welcome in our Temple - both as worshippers and employees. We need to candidly discuss addictions and mental health challenges to help Temple members who wrestle with these issues.

All these topics are complicated, concerning and contentious.

Bringing them into our Temple can make it harder for many of you to treat it as a shelter of peace, which we often think of as a refuge from the worries of the outside world. Yet this is not what shelter of peace means in Judaism.

A Hebrew phrase that is traditionally rendered into English as a ‘shelter of peace’ is sukkat shalom, literally a ‘sukkah of peace’. Sukkahs are flimsy booths with open doors and a see-through roof that allows one to look at the stars. How about we understand a sanctuary of peace this way - as less of a refuge and more of a sukkah? Perhaps what we really need is a space where we explore our differences, build on similarities and celebrate vulnerability? Perhaps the roof and door that let the outside world in is a fair price for the ability to marvel at the stars?

Who knows, these stars might aspire us to reach for the skies together.

Following my assault, my Reform community reassured me that as a person created betzlem elohim - in God’s image - that I didn’t have to change, that I belonged. Later, the Reform conviction that we are God’s partners in creation helped me turn my hurt into a passion for justice. Finally, being a rabbi taught me that justice should always be coupled with mercy, that implementation of lofty goals needs to account for human limitations.

Not everyone here was assaulted and almost died because they were gay. But everyone here got hurt, many of us badly and repeatedly. Often these hurts made us hurt others. On Yom Kippur, the day when the band aid of self-deception is off, we look at the wounds inflicted and sustained and find ourselves scarred and scared.

This Yom Kippur, I encourage you to examine the wounds and scars in your life and ask yourselves:

Does my sense of hurt make me empathetic or embittered?

Does it prompt me to seek solitude or solidarity?

Did I find a way to heal wounds I inflicted?

Do I know how to heal the self-induced wounds of shame?

We all struggle with these questions as individuals because we are all wounded. Yet, because the world is wounded too, we also struggle with them as societies. This is what Judaism is political. Our tradition hopes that laws we pass together can make the wounded society and its members - all hurting - a little bit better.

I hope that recognition of our shared vulnerability and imperfection makes it easier for all of us to discuss all kinds of socially relevant issues at TBT. I swear I won’t be partisan but I promise you to be political - like Moses, the prophets and the sages of the Talmud.

Gmar Chatima Tova v’Tzom Kal!

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