AI, pluralism and Israel: What North American rabbis spoke about in their High Holiday sermons


(JTA) — Rabbi Debbie Bravo once called the High Holiday sermon “the World Series for rabbis.” Not only does it fall in late autumn, but it’s a high-pressure opportunity for rabbis to show their best stuff to what is often the largest crowd — that is, congregation — of the year. 

The High Holiday sermon is also something of a “state of the union” address. Rabbis and other clergy often discuss the political and social moment, exploring the issues that preoccupied Jews in the year just past.

This week the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reviewed Rosh Hashanah sermons that rabbis delivered last week and posted online or shared directly with us. For rabbis who did discuss current events, often in the language of America’s largely liberal Jewish community, some themes were common, unsurprising and probably unavoidable: the crisis over Israel’s planned judicial overhaul, climate change, artificial intelligence, book bans and antisemitism. 

Other rabbis took on more personal topics, like death and dying and the loneliness epidemic, or focused tightly on the religious themes of the Days of Awe, including renewal, repentance or teshuvah, and forgiveness. 

What follows are excerpts from and links to sermons from across North America and the range of Jewish denominations. They form a group portrait of American Jewry at the start of 5784, the new Jewish year. 

Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe of the Reform Temple Rodeph Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, addressed congregants who may be reluctant to criticize Israel despite disagreeing with its government’s plans to weaken the power of the country’s judiciary. He took a lesson from the Book of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur:

God teaches us the most important lesson of the Book of Jonah: that criticism must be given as a blessing and not a curse. Especially when a harsh word of warning is needed to bring one back from the edge, it must be offered as a lifeline and not a threat. …. This text challenges us both to recognize when this is needed, and to remember that the commandment in Leviticus to rebuke your neighbor comes just one verse before, paired inextricably, with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Criticism and disagreement must be conducted with love. By fostering and deepening our relationship with Israel, we take a place in the conversation that comes from caring. By acknowledging all sides and their humanity, we model the sensitivity that is needed to raise the level of the discussion. By being part of one of the countless efforts and organizations to help Palestinians, help Jews, build something, and be part of a positive vision, we earn the credibility to say our piece. 

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York’s Reform Central Synagogue also urged solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel who have taken to the streets in opposition to their government’s judicial reform plans:

If you care about democratic rights — help preserve the only functional democracy in the Middle East. If you care about the vulnerable — safeguard the sole sanctuary for Jewish refugees in need. If you value Jewish Peoplehood, hear the cries of the other half of our Jewish family and remember: the destiny of Am Yisrael is bound, one to the other. 

This young, messy, miraculous Jewish state is the most important, sovereign democratic project of the Jewish people of the last 2000 years.

We cannot walk away. While the task can feel at times, overwhelming, exhausting, Pirke Avot teaches:Iit is not our duty to complete it, only not to abandon it. 

In his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, Rabbi Joshua Davidson of New York’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El reported on his visit to Israel with a group of local rabbis and their conversation with politician Simcha Rothman:

When my turn came to speak, I asked him how he intended to protect the rights of those who don’t align with his politics, Israelis who are not haredi or from the Religious Zionist camp.  He responded dismissively: “If you Reformim want to secure your rights, more of you should move to Israel.” Stunningly unaware he was addressing a delegation of Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, too, this chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee made painfully clear that his view of law and justice was purely majoritarian. Minority rights be damned.

It was a shattering encounter. One that revealed this coalition cares nothing for me, my Judaism, or my Jewish community. Don’t they know my congregation’s tireless efforts to strengthen American Jewry’s commitment to Israel? Don’t they know we lovingly display Israel’s flag on our bimah? And here my colleagues and I had travelled across an ocean only to get stiff-armed! Oy. Even in Israel, shver tsu zayn a Yid, sometimes it’s hard to be a Jew!

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey, began his sermon with a passage generated by ChatGPT. He went on to discuss how the temptations of artificial intelligence are at odds with a Jewish ethic that wants individuals to be responsible for their own work, and for the introspection demanded during the High Holidays: 

No one else can do the work for us. That, ultimately, has been my hesitation with ChatGPT all along. To get judged on performance without doing the work doesn’t seem right. But when we do the work of Teshuvah, of repentance and returning, it can only be our work. And it needs to be in our words. After we’ve done the work, after we’ve dug down deep, the apologies we offer must be genuine, authentic, and specific.

We may appreciate what is convenient, but that which is easy isn’t necessarily holy.

Neil F. Blumofe, the senior rabbi of the Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, also spoke about artificial intelligence and the hazards of “generative” technology that learns from common patterns in existing sets of data. His synagogue is a recipient of a Scientists in Synagogues grant to study the future of “Ethics, AI, and Well-Being”:

AI reflects what God declares just before God decides to destroy creation back in Genesis — “yetzer lev ha’adam ra minurav” — the tendency of the heart of each person is evil from their youth. If one is building on what prior generations have built, knowing even a little bit about world history, this is not a sterling model for success — rather, this compounds the inherent faults and magnifies that which is most base about human existence. Generative AI is the sum of all that has already been. This is pernicious and leaves little room for curiosity, transformation, intimacy and teshuvah. As we seek to understand AI, we must grapple with the burdens of our inheritance. With a chill, we realize that a group also has a self, or at least an identity that does not reflect who we as individuals would like to be. As a group we can heed the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” 

Rabbi Eric Woodward of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, a Conservative synagogue in New Haven, Connecticut, addressed climate change — and how the focus on what individuals can do to slow global warming shifts the responsibility from the big polluters and policy-makers to individuals who only end up feeling guilty for the ways they fall short. Nevertheless, he says, the everyday actions individuals take — eating less meat, booking fewer airplane trips, buying fewer disposables — are necessary goads to communal purpose and political action: 

The individual actions we do — the climate mitzvot we practice — are prayers in the form of action. We know that they do not substitute for communal action. We know that they are perhaps not effective in some total calculus. But we still do them. It’s like praying for healing — we know that this does not substitute for going to the doctor, and we know that it is not really effective in some final calculation. But we still do it. Why? Because we believe in the value of expressing our desire for redemption in the world; because we believe in the importance of giving body and voice to our hopes to God; because we believe that it builds our character and forms our consciousness; because it is how we make a community around our ideals; because it is a beautiful thing that humans have done since time immemorial.

At Stephen Wise Temple, a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, Rabbi Sari Laufer spoke about the deadly wildfires that tore through Maui, Hawaii, earlier in the summer and the rescuers and healers — whom she refers to as “angels” — who help others recover from trauma: 

The angel might be a distant colleague whose note after the death of a parent opens a new friendship. The angel might be a friend who, without asking, drops off a carton of art supplies and projects to occupy your children while you are caregiving an ailing parent. It might be the friend, or spouse, or child who sits wordlessly next to you during treatment, or the one who sends texts to make you laugh. It might be the friend or child who walks around the block with you as you rise from shiva. You don’t have to literally save someone who is drowning to be their angel — oftentimes just showing up, picking up the phone, dropping off a meal is what’s required. Angels are the ones who just show up, again and again, whether you’ve asked them or not.

Rabbi Stacy Friedman of the Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California, warned about complacency in the face of what writer Anne Lamott calls “catastrophe burnout”:

An ancient rabbinic commentary imagines the angels asking, “When does Rosh Hashanah begin?” The answer, they learned, is not found on the calendar, but in our deeds; when we recognize the humanity in every human being and act accordingly. Our world calls out to us today to stand up and speak out and to heal what is broken in our world. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about our climate crisis, and today I am speaking about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called our “culture climate crisis,” and what Judaism demands us in response. It is time to work to repair our fractured nation and to restore decency and dignity both here and in Israel. There is just too much at stake. On Rosh Hashanah we are called to restore a moral vision to our world, one based on our highest values of chesed, compassion, kavod, respect, and kedusha, holiness which resides in every human being. Our task for this new year 5784 is to look at the world as it is and to imagine it as it can be. And then, to do everything in our power to manifest this vision in our world.

Marc Katz is rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey; in January, the Reform synagogue’s front door was damaged by a flaming Molotov cocktail thrown by a vandal. In his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Katz spoke about being unprepared for an antisemitic assault — and for the outpouring of community support after the incident, including a community rally that drew 1,200 people: 

In World War II Europe, the Jews were really a “people alone.” But after we were attacked we found we had more allies than we could count. This includes, especially, law enforcement and elected officials. Where the Holocaust produced state-sponsored terror, our fire-bombing showed us the power of state-sponsored love. We met one person’s hate with over 1000 acts of compassion and support.

I have hope. Hope that even amidst the whirlwind of fear, we can find shelter and security in one another’s arms. Hope that we have agency, that together, all groups who are equally afraid can come together to turn off the machinery of hate. Hope that when we need it, our community will continue to show up for us, and we them. 

Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, warned that the Jewish ideal of deep literacy — a devotion to books and ideas that earned Jews the sobriquet the “People of the Book” — is under assault by a wave of book-bannings and misinformation:

Books can be downright terrifying. I get it. Books challenge our assumptions about the world and the people who live within it. Books invite personal and societal transformation and may even be credited with the occasional revolution or mass Exodus. Books can change us, and, as we know, not everybody likes change.

In a way, we have the renegade rabbis to thank. The Talmud helped to make us bi-literate. We were no longer just the People of One Book. We added more stories to our shelves. We expanded the way we learned and also who got access to the materials. We encouraged people to read together. And we are all the better for it.

Rabbi Yisrael Motzen of Temple Ner Tamid, an Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore, challenged his congregants to engage in more Torah study. In his sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, he related the story of the Talmudic sage Akiva, who was 40 when he took up the study of Torah: 

Torah study, Rabbi Akiva now realized, is not a finite pursuit. It’s not about the books you’ve read, the students you have, the titles before or after your name. Torah is our life. “Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu,” we say in the evening prayer. “For it is our life and the length of our days.” No beginning, no end. It’s an opportunity to transcend our finite world.

The mystics explain that when we pray, we are speaking to G-d, but when we study, it’s as if G-d is speaking to us. His infinite wisdom is somehow captured in the stories, the lessons, the laws, and given to us to imbibe. It’s not about learning a particular lesson; it’s about understanding and connecting to G-d Himself. Some go so far as to describe the Torah as a love letter from G-d to us, His beloved people.

Rabbi Ariana Silverman of Detroit’s non-denominational Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue decried the ways the United States is failing its children, from soaring child mortality rates to school shootings to legislation that is “trying to eradicate our kids who are transgender”: 

We speak excitedly about the exponentially growing number of kids in our congregation. We speak excitedly whenever a child is adopted or born. And we should. We also need to talk about how our kids are now more likely to die than they need to be. And it is happening on our watch. So before we judge Abraham we need to ask ourselves — Why are we sacrificing our kids?

Why aren’t we listening to the voice yelling from heaven, the voice of our tradition that deeply values life? Fortunately, there are things we can do. These are not problems for scientists or specialists. These are largely legislative problems, that is to say, our problems. The people we elect could pass legislation to make it less likely that kids have access to guns. They could re-enact the expanded child tax credit that lifted millions of our kids out of poverty. They could ensure support structures exist for families with black children and they can work to fight systemic racism. They can stop passing laws that hurt transgender children and they can overturn the bills that already do. In Michigan, there are eight anti-trans bills that have been introduced. They won’t pass if our representatives don’t vote for them.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, celebrated the religious diversity within Jewish life, and lamented how such diversity appears to be threatened by the Israeli government, the Israeli Orthodox parties that it allows to suppress non-Orthodox Jewish practice in Israel, and Orthodox leaders in this country who disparage non-Orthodox Jews: 

It is time for diverse, pluralistic, feminist, cultural, liberal, progressive, justice-focused Jews to assert our Jewishness, our majority, our legitimate place in setting the agenda for the Jewish people. We care about antisemitism, and we also care about climate, racism, reproductive rights, refugees, LGBT rights, and democracy. We care about Israel, and loyalty to Israel looks like standing with Israelis against this government. Our Judaism is invested in healing the world, in giving hope to the hopeless, in imagining the future that should be, aware that our well-being is interconnected with all the earth.

I want to be perfectly clear. Our vision of Judaism includes Haredi Jews. It’s a vision of a people who unite across our differences to fight antisemitism and make the world more whole. But a black hat does not make a person more Jewish, just like being a man does not make a person more Jewish.

If you are a Jew, there is no one on earth more Jewish than you. No one.

Whatever kind of Jew you are, Own it. Step up into it. Fall in love with it. Our history depends on it. 

Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf of Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Richmond, Virginia, spoke about the biblical text read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah — Sarah’s banishment of her rival Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael — and related it to the late civil rights activist Prathia Hall’s concept of “freedom faith,” the belief that “God wants all people to be free, and equips and empowers those who work for liberation”:

Civilizations in which liberty, equality, and rule of law are secured only for a privileged few all ultimately collapse under the weight of their own injustice. People will not stay oppressed forever. The only way to the Promised Land is together.

How might the story have turned out if Sarah made different choices? What if Sarah had seen her and her family’s fate as bound up in Hagar and Ishmael’s? What if instead of allowing her insecurities and past traumas to make her cruel to Hagar and Ishmael, she had realized that the path to securing her and her family’s future could only be through generosity, care, and concern for their wellbeing?

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld of the Orthodox Ohev Sholom Congregation in Washington, D.C. discussed a rabbinic tale that finds a positive message in the troubling story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar.  The idea that “sad stories can have happy endings,” he taught, is essentially the meaning of Rosh Hashanah:

Sad stories can have happy endings if we choose to edit the past through teshuvah and create a brighter future through mitzvot…

Perhaps the most important idea that Judaism offers the world is that there are no tragedies and there are no comedies. Every story is unfinished and every story can have a happy ending.  As we edit the stories of our lives we write the next chapter of the human story. Today is the day to re-engage in that process of editing the stories of our lives. And today is the day for the commitments that can take us all to better places in the year to come.

In her sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of the independent Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts discussed what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has described as an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation”:

Jewish tradition teaches that after a person dies, it is the job of the shomer or shomeret (a guardian, caretaker, or watch-person) to comfort the deceased person’s soul before the burial.

What would it mean for each and every one of us to serve as a Shomer or Shomeret of Loneliness in the TBZ community and the broader world?

It might mean learning the names of our neighbors. It might mean sitting with someone you don’t know, someone who is not your usual person to hang out with during kiddush.

I want us to encourage us to stop in the street when we see someone in distress. I want us to check in with the person we haven’t seen in a while. I want us to leave everything, when a friend calls for help, cancel the fun plans, to be there and cry with them, even if we don’t have the answers. I want us to answer honestly when someone asks, “How are you doing?” Or to share, “I need help” or “ I am lonely” even if we haven’t been asked directly.

Rabbi Sharon Brous of the independent Ikar congregation in Los Angeles spoke about the recent death of her father, and how a “death-denying health care system” undermines the honest, sensitive end-of-life discussions needed for what Jewish tradition calls a “compassionate death”: 

The dying person, deprived of the opportunity to speak honestly about what is happening, is not only denied agency in the end, but also denied our full presence as they go through what for many is the scariest experience of their lives. 

And it’s not only they — the dying — who lose in a culture that pathologizes death. We, who live, also lose, because death denial keeps us from fully engaging life. If we really knew how close we were to the edge, would we waste time with such meaningless distractions? And even more concretely, death denial creates a spiritual schism between the bereaved — those forced to confront the reality of loss — and the community, precisely when community is most needed. 

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue in New York remembered Harold Kushner, the Conservative rabbi and best-selling author who died in April. In particular, Cosgrove wondered what the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” meant when he said, following the death of his son, “we’re more complete if we’re incomplete.” For help, Cosgrove called Kushner’s daughter, Ariel, a potter:  

When one works at a potter’s wheel, she explained, one can trim, clip, shape and refine the clay, working to make everything perfectly symmetrical and without blemish. But, she continued, there is another philosophy, of eastern origin, by which to approach her craft, wabi-sabi, that teaches otherwise. In this aesthetic, the artist endeavors to accept that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete in this world. With this approach, one still sits at the potter’s wheel with focused attention and intention but makes space for imperfection and asymmetry. One coils clay with human hands but sees in each fingerprint not imperfection, but artistry. One presses and molds and strikes the clay knowing that one’s fingers necessarily leave a mark; but that it is in those marks that form and beauty and wholeness are found. 

Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses of Romemu, New York’s Jewish Renewal congregation, used Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac as a lens to view her relationship with her own father. Cohler-Esses grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where her late dad struggled with her decision, unheard of for a woman in their “insular Syrian Jewish community,” to become a rabbi. And yet, perhaps like Abraham awakening to the reality of Isaac, he came to “hear and see” her more fully:  

When I gave my senior sermon in rabbinical school, which was then a major event that all rabbinical students went through — each of us would give a sermon on Shabbat morning and host a celebratory lunch afterwards. My parents attended and afterwards my father said that it was the most spiritual day of [his] life. This is my father who had never before stepped foot in a non-Orthodox synagogue. On that day he was hearing something new, something that called from him something new. On that day, he was able to see his daughter as she was, where she was….

On this day, as we are about to blow the shofar, about to arouse God’s compassion for us — we ask God to tolerate the mess that we are and accept us, hear us just where we are. And respond to us as God’s beloved children.

In his sermon for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Joe Kanofsky of Modern Orthodox Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto spoke about what Jews need to do to make themselves ready for redemption:

We have to fix the world and make it ready for redemption, fitting for redemption, a proper vessel for redemption, so that that day can arrive. We have to stand up for what’s right. We have to not stand idly by while another’s blood is being shed. We have to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. We also have to have kosher mezuzahs and daven every day and learn some Torah every day. Give tzedakah to help others and to bring tzedek, justice, and righteousness into a world that desperately needs it. We have to make peace among ourselves which is sometimes among the greatest challenges. This is how we make the world fitting and ready and deserving of the better days ahead that are yet to come.

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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