Learning the Lessons of History – Yom Kippur 5780

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer – Delivered Yom Kippur 5780

In high school, I had three amazing teachers – Mr. DeBischop, Mr. Navage, and Mr. Satler, who inspired in me a love of history and changed the direction of my professional ambitions. I was fascinated by the stories of great civilizations, the rise and fall of leaders and empires, and the fragile nature of power.

My history teachers taught me how to read critically, between the lines of a text, taking into account the background and motivations of an author. They encouraged me to look beyond the smooth narrative of a history book, and seek out primary sources to do my own research.

One of the reasons that I loved studying history, was because it already happened. It was comforting, even therapeutic, to spend so much time studying history, because nothing new ever happens in the past.

How a group or nation or individual got from point A to point B seemed so clear, because point B was already determined. In contrast, Life felt (and feels) way more complicated. There is so much uncertainty, so many variables, and way more possible outcomes than letters in the alphabet.

As a college student, I was particularly interested in major turning points in history, like the American Revolution. The American Revolution is the quintessential founding story, the triumph of freedom over foreign rule, of the underdog over the unjust ruler. I love this history, like I love the Exodus from Egypt, because it is my part of my story and my identity.

Growing up, I believed in the inevitably of the Revolution’s success, in part because every time I learned it, the Patriots won. (it’s amazing how that happens. Every. Single. Time).

But it wasn’t only that. It was because the cause of Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere and Betsey Ross seemed just and right and noble. How could there have been any other outcome?

For how could despots defeat democracy or a foreign government be allowed to determine the fate of our nation?

But the challenge of studying history, where the outcomes are clear, meant that I wanted the world to work like that too. I expected clarity where there is complexity, and a cohesive narrative to follow instead of needing to sort through endless information, not all of it of equal value.

As my love for history deepened, I came to realize that it was my understanding of history, not Life, that was actually flawed. History was not as smooth or certain as I had I believed. When the past was the present, it too was filled with uncertainty. The problem was that I had trouble accessing that perspective because I was biased by my knowledge of the outcome of elections, wars, and other major events.

In college, my eyes were opened by the work of Harvard history professor, Bernard Bailyn, who wrote a book, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson about a leader of the colonial opposition to the American Revolution. Hutchinson was the Governor of the Province of Massachusetts, a successful businessman, and a Loyalist to the British Crown. According to Jon Adams, he was “the most important figure on the loyalist side in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts.”

In his book, Bailyn tries to help us overcome our knowledge of the outcome of the Revolutionary War and offer a sense of what life was like in the thirteen colonies by writing a sympathetic portrait of someone whose views were reasonable at the time, but who ended up on the wrong side of history.

What was the world like for someone living in 1772 or 1780? Why would a thoughtful, intelligent person be a loyalist to the British crown? If a person wasn’t a dedicated patriot or loyalist, how did they understand and think about the issues of the day?

The book and Bailyn’s reflections on it made me realize that it was possible to see through the illusion of inevitability and try to recapture the reality of a moment. I’m sorry to say that this doesn’t make the present simpler, it just makes the past more nuanced and complicated.

I want to share one more example. While doing research one summer, I was inspired to follow in the footsteps of Bernard Bailyn, when I discovered a fascinating Classical Reform Rabbi. In the 1930s and 40s, Irving Reichert was the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, the largest and most prominent synagogue west of the Mississippi. He was a 5th generation rabbi, brilliant, eloquent, and worldly. Reichert captured my attention, because I wanted to learn about a vision of American Judaism before World War II. Studying his life and thought, made real a world and worldview that I was not previously able to imagine.

He espoused the belief, common to early Reform thinkers, that Judaism was a religion only, without any national claims. Like the majority of his contemporaries, he believed that in America, Jews had found their Promised Land, where Judaism could achieve its greatest fulfillment.

There were few places that was more true than San Francisco in the early 20th century. A relatively young American city flush with new wealth and lots of upward mobility meant that Jews were accepted into public life and high society much more fully than in other regions. When Irving Reichert looked out onto his city and his congregation, he saw what Jews and Judaism could become when they were free and allowed to flourish. That meant being a religion like all other religions and disavowing any claims that Judaism should retain its nature as a civilization or people.

This placed Reichert squarely in the mainstream of Reform Jewish leaders in the 1920’s and 30’s, but it also set him on a collision course with history. Zionism, the growing movement for a Jewish homeland, argued that Jews should have a nation-state like all other nations. As the situation worsened for Jews in Germany and then throughout Europe, the opportunities for legal immigration to other countries dwindled. As nation after nation closed their doors to the Jewish people, the need for a Jewish homeland became greater and greater.

As the horror of the Holocaust became clearer, the number of American Jews in favor of a Jewish state grew. Despite a growing body of evidence that Jews were suffering and that there were no other alternatives, Rabbi Reichert stuck to his principles and his vision for Judaism, and ended up on the wrong side of history.

In November 1947, the United Nations adopted a plan calling for the creation of independent Arab and Jewish States between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and Irving Reichert resigned as the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El. When Israel declared her independence in May of 1948, the idea that Judaism would be a religion only, effectively ended.

There is a lot that I could say about Rabbi Reichert. I spent years studying his sermons and wrote my undergraduate thesis about his life and thought. Outside of perhaps his family, I believe I am the world expert on Irving Reichert. I tried to write a sympathetic portrait of him, not only to better understand his world, but also to be fair to him, a person who throughout the course of my research, I loved and hated, and everything in between.

In the end, he failed to appreciate the extent of his people’s suffering and the world’s indifference to it. He was a man with a clear vision of how the world should be and not enough openness to the world as it was. His belief in his principles, led him to disregard new information, long after those principles proved to be applicable. He didn’t change, but the world did.

On Yom Kippur, we call to mind the image of God as Judge, sitting before two giant books, contemplating our actions over the last year. It feels incredibly hard to judge a person who I did not know, but I tried to do so with sympathy for his humanity and for the uncertainty of the times he lived in. It was an incredible privilege and responsibility to write about his life, and to invoke his memory today.

As we reflect on our actions over the last year, and continue through the process of chesbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, I’d like to offer the metaphor of a God as Historian, sitting before two other books: one, our biography, which traces our life and growth, our relationships, and impact on the world. And another, a work of history about the early 21st century, and the role we played or did not play in the great events of our time.

The future is uncertain. So much of our lives will depend on discoveries, tragedies, and events that we have absolutely no idea will occur. People not yet born will have a say in our future. As the world evolves, will we evolve with it? What side of history will we be on when that history is written?

There is an apocryphal curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we live in interesting times. But the times have been interesting before.

Studying and writing about Rabbi Irving Reichert, taught me that we can’t create a worldview based only on the part of the world that we experience, that the reality of human suffering is too easy to intellectualize and dismiss, and that even if we don’t want to evolve, the world won’t wait for us.

Learning about Thomas Hutchinson brought to life for me, a world very different from our own. It was not certain that the Patriots would win or that democracy would defeat tyranny.

This country and our freedom were not inevitable. They were not and are not guaranteed. They required and will continue to require the hard work and sacrifice of many people, most of whose names we will never know.

I don’t expect that anybody but me will ever want to write about my life, but I hope that when my story ends, that the people who knew me and the Historian on High will say that I stayed open to new ideas, that I kept questioning and learning, that I had the courage to change my mind, even when it came at a cost, that I tried to make good decisions in this increasingly complicated world, and that I ended up doing more good than harm.

When the story of your life is written, what do you want it to say?

May we all find the openness and the courage to do our own self-reflection and cheshbon nefesh today and in the years to come. The gates are open this Yom Kippur and by engaging in teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah – in repentance, prayer, and charity – we can open them even wider and change the course of history, our own and the world’s. May the Divine Historian examine our lives with sympathy and may the Divine Judge, judge our lives with mercy. And may we all be sealed for another year in the Book of Life. G’mar Chatimah tovah.