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Truth or Peace? A Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Must we choose between truth and peace or can we have both?

David Frommer
September 07, 2018
Purchased by the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam with support from the Vereniging Rembrandt
A painting by Ludolf Bakhuizen: 'Warships in a Heavy Storm'Purchased by the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam with support from the Vereniging Rembrandt
Purchased by the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam with support from the Vereniging Rembrandt
A painting by Ludolf Bakhuizen: 'Warships in a Heavy Storm'Purchased by the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam with support from the Vereniging Rembrandt

The following text is taken from a sermon that will be delivered this Rosh Hashanah by Cantor David Frommer to Congregation Sherith Israel, in San Francisco. It addresses, in Frommer’s words, “the age-old question of truth vs. compromise.” In addition to his work as a cantor, Frommer also serves as a Jewish Military Chaplain in the Army National Guard.

* * * * *

A man wanted to own a boat more than anything. His wife kept refusing, but he bought one anyway.

“I’ll tell you what,” he told her, “In the spirit of compromise, why don’t you name the boat?”

“I appreciate compromise,” she said, accepting his offer.

When her husband went to the dock for his maiden voyage, he saw the boat’s new name painted on its side. It read, “For sale.”

By just about every measure, from the anecdotal to the quantitative, this has been a historically stormy year for political (and sometimes by extension, marital) compromise. According to a recent New York Times article, two different longtime couples now refuse to speak to each other in the mornings over the husband’s choice of a Donald Trump coffee mug. The article describes how “disputes over politics have divided Americans’ homes, strained marriages, ruined friendships and invaded the workplace.” A recent Pew Forum study reports that partisan identification is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or education.

We seem to be stuck in a bitter, intractable culture war whose corrosive effects are now imperiling the very institutions and values of our democracy itself.

We and our country are in desperate need of some wisdom at the moment, and I believe our Jewish tradition can offer it. The problem with wisdom, though, is that it speaks the truth, and the truth is frequently something we don’t necessarily want to hear. How open are we to spiritual healing from our prophets and sages, if they prescribe a treatment that is difficult and distasteful? Well, let’s find out.

The prophet Zechariah lived during the sixth century before the common era, some twenty five hundred years ago. During his lifetime the Jewish community had traveled back to the Land of Israel, freed from their exile in Babylon, but the reconstruction of their society had bogged down in political in-fighting, much like that in our own time. Seeking to correct this, Zecharia urged a simple message. “Dabru Emet, Speak Truth, ish et rei’eihu, each man to his neighbor.”

Speak truth. What could be clearer? But Zechariah understood that truth is not always simple. Because truth is like fire—capable of both preserving and destroying life, depending on how it is used. And so Zechariah, in his wisdom, added the following qualifier: Emet, umishpat shalom. Truth, but also judgments of peace. Emet, umishpat shalom. Truth, and judgments of peace.

The rabbinic sages of the Talmud, compiled roughly a thousand years after Zecharia’s lifetime, debated the fundamental conundrum of his message. Is not compromise in the name of peace a perversion of justice and truth? On one side is Rabbi Eliezer, who states that anyone seeking to find compromise between two disputants commits a grave sin. Compromise is an affront to truth, Rabbi Eliezer argues, and the truth comes from God.

On the other side of the debate, opposing Rabbi Eliezer, is Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua argues that it is a mitzvah to mediate a dispute through compromise, and he cites our line from the prophet Zecharia to support his view: “Emet, umishpat shalom. Truth, and judgments of peace.” Is it not true, Rabbi Yehoshua asks, that in the place where there is only truth there is no peace, and in a place where there is only peace, there is no truth? Where then can we find both? It is compromise, as both sides are satisfied with the result. The Talmud rules in favor of Rabbi Yehoshua and the value of compromise. Emet, umishpat shalom. Truth, and judgments of peace.

But can the Talmud’s wisdom be applied in all cases? The issues of our time seem to demand we fight for truth, rather than compromise. How can we compromise on gun control, when more American children died this year in school shootings than American soldiers died in combat operations? How can we compromise on environmental policy, when research shows that climate change is fast becoming irreversible? As George Kazin, a professor of history at Princeton observes, our political divide is “rooted in profound disagreements that are impervious to compromise. If one thinks abortion is murder or that LGBTQ people deserve every right that heterosexuals have, the very idea of finding a middle ground is abhorrent.”

For us as Jews, however, the biggest concern with compromise is not what we compromise about, but who we compromise with. It was almost thirteen months ago to the day that white-supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, in their now infamous rally to Unite the Right. They waved swastika flags, chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and menaced the local synagogue, but that was not the worst. One of their followers, James Alex Fields Jr., plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others. The story of Nazis and those in power who appeased them is as personal for us as it is terrifying. If anything teaches that the Talmud’s emphasis on peace is obsolete in a world of such disturbing and important truths, it is surely the lessons of World War II.

Or is it?

The major events of World War II are some of the most well-known in American history. We are all familiar with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the D-Day landings in 1944. And if I asked you when the US declared victory in Europe, you’d probably say 1945. But the actual story is a little more complicated. The US went to war with Germany, not merely to defeat the Nazis, but to restore democracy in Europe. And though Germany surrendered unconditionally in 1945, the economic devastation wrought by the war left European democracies perilously vulnerable to new totalitarian regimes. The only way to ensure the future of democracy in Europe, and achieve a lasting victory in World War II, was to rehabilitate Europe’s economy. And the only way to rehabilitate Europe’s economy was to rehabilitate the single European country with the most powerful resources, industry and labor force. That country was Germany.

Now, let’s stop and think about this for a second. The only way to preserve the future of European democracy, and by extension the safety of U.S. democracy, was to rehabilitate Germany. The same Germany that had started two world wars in the last thirty five years. The same Germany that cost America hundreds of thousands of military casualties, not to mention the millions of souls murdered in the Holocaust. The same Germany that, even during American occupation, continued to favor former Nazis in its postwar civil, educational and financial institutions. And yet, as George Kennan, the prescient Cold War diplomat, explained, “To talk about the recovery of Europe and to oppose the recovery of Germany is nonsense. People can have both or they can have neither.”

The choice before the American people was breathtaking. Emet, or shalom. Truth, or peace? Justice or compromise? The truth of Germany’s crimes demanded unbending justice. But the peace of the world demanded difficult compromise. Which would we have chosen?

This debate raged between the Department of the Treasury and the Department of State in the 1940’s, just as it raged between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua in Talmudic times. In the role of Rabbi Eliezer, advocating for truth and justice, was President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr. For Morgenthau, reports of Holocaust atrocities were personal. During the war, he convinced Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board, which would ultimately save tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi extermination. After the war, he proposed the Morgenthau Plan for Germany’s future. To ensure that Germany could never again rise to threaten world peace, it would be partitioned, stripped of its industry and manufacturing, and reduced to a feeble, agricultural economy.

In the role of Rabbi Joshua, advocating for peace and compromise, was President Truman’s Secretary of State, George C. Marshall. For the military Marshall, reports of Communist advances in Europe were personal. During the war, he had orchestrated Germany’s military defeat as Chief of Staff of the Army. After the war, he proposed the Marshall Plan for Europe and Germany’s future. To ensure Europe’s financial and social stability, the US would extend aid to participating, democratic countries. Chief among those countries would be Germany, which would receive $1.4 billion over a four-year period beginning in 1948, and the gradual restoration of its mighty, industrial economy.

Which would we have chosen? Emet, truth, and justice, in the Morgenthau Plan, or shalom, peace and compromise in the Marshall Plan? Imagine how hard it must have been for American Jews to endorse Germany’s recovery in 1948. Imagine Rabbi Hyman Goodekowitz, whose son, Rabbi Alexander Goode, served as a Jewish Army Chaplain, like me, and was killed aboard the USS Dorchester, torpedoed by German U-boats in 1943. Imagine my grandfather, whose entire European family in Poland was murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. And now imagine asking them to support German rehabilitation in 1948. Would they have had the strength to choose the Marshall Plan’s vision of shalom, peace and compromise, or would their personal grief have demanded they support the Morgenthau Plan’s vision of emet, justice and truth?

I don’t know how Rabbi Goodekewitz and my grandfather responded to this choice, but the historical record has preserved the answer of Professor William Haber. Haber, a Jewish economist, served as special advisor on refugee affairs to General Lucius Clay, the military governor of American-occupied Germany. Haber once remarked to General Clay that anti-semitism in occupied Germany seemed to be on the rise. “You folk in the [Jewish] leadership have got a responsibility,” General Clay replied. “If you ever want to build a base for revived health, you have got to forget what happened.” Five years after the end of the Holocaust, General Clay’s advice was, “you have got to forget what happened.” Sometimes, it is unbearably hard to be Jewish in this world.

And yet, the Jewish will to survive, unique in history, is manifest in Haber’s private reaction to Clay’s admonishment. The American Jewish community should support “the revival of Germany [which] was essential to the economic revival of Europe,” he acceded. “But at the same time, Jews should not support the successful German businesses who have been involved so heavily during the Nazi period.” Haber recognized that truth and peace must be balanced. The Jewish community would never be silent. It would never forget. But it would also support compromise for the greater good.

We know with hindsight that the Marshall Plan, as painful as it must have been for the Jewish community, ultimately proved to be the proper choice. Germany’s rehabilitation fueled a general economic revival for all of Western Europe, and as living conditions improved, Communism’s appeal diminished. The future of peace in Germany had been achieved, not only by military victory in 1945 but also by diplomatic compromise and the establishment of a democratic West Germany in 1949.

There is a powerful lesson here for us in 2018. The wisdom of the prophet Zechariah and the Talmudic rabbis, that emet must be balanced with shalom, that truth must be balanced with peace, applies even where it is seemingly impossible to do so. This morning, we read of Abraham, who stands ready to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, just as surely as if he had sent him to serve on the USS Dorchester in World War II, out of faith in a good that is greater than his own. But just a few chapters earlier, Abraham famously protests God’s announced destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, advocating for the truth that innocent people should not die for the guilt of others.

This balance, between fighting for our truths, and compromising with our realities, has been the secret to Jewish survival and through our example, will help preserve American democracy. The reality of our times is that President Trump was not elected by a fringe minority. He was elected by sixty million voters. Our country has elected a Republican president in six out of the last ten elections. Both sides must learn to work with each other because neither side is going away. It may be hard, but it’s not impossible. It’s happened before.

The Marshall Plan was proposed by a Democratic president and passed by a Republican Congress, despite the Republicans’ pathological desperation to regain the White House after five straight Democratic administrations. We must insist on bipartisanship from our elected officials, and to do that, we must be prepared to compromise. I challenge all of us from both sides of the political divide, to ask ourselves on this Rosh Hashanah, the difficult question: in order to get what we want on immigration, gun control, abortion, environment, health care, you name it, what are we willing to give up? What are we willing to sacrifice for shalom, for peace and productive democracy? Until we can answer that question, as individuals and as a community, we have not heeded the disruptive wisdom of our traditions.

But our tradition is not only about shalom, about peace. It does not advocate political martyrdom. We can seek out compromise like Rabbi Joshua and George Marshall, but we must also fight for emet, for our truth, like Rabbi Eliezer and Henry Morgenthau. And in a democracy, the way to fight is to vote. This year, Sherith Israel is joining with other, leading synagogues throughout the Reform movement to participate in the Religious Action Center’s Civic Engagement Initiative. We believe that democracy is strongest when everyone participates, regardless of political affiliation, and we are aiming for 100% voter participation from among our congregants in the upcoming November elections. We have distributed voter pledge cards this morning, and I encourage you to fill them out with your personal promise to make your voice heard at the ballot. Please note that, unlike donor pledge cards, these voter pledge cards are not soliciting you for money. They are only asking that you commit to vote, and that, if you are willing, you share your information with us so we can help hold each other accountable to that commitment. President Eisenhower once remarked that he didn’t care where people worshiped, as long as they believed in something. Similarly, in this Civic Engagement Initiative, we don’t care what you vote for, as long as you vote for something. (We do, however, care where you worship–we want you here, at Sherith Israel!)

Striving to achieve this balance between emet and shalom, truth and peace, protest and participation, the Central Conference of American Rabbis officially resolved the following in 1945:

Though we recognize the German people’s guilt, we urge the application to them of the Yom Kippur formula, “Repentance, prayer and good deeds avert the evil decree.” We have faith in the American tradition and in the idealism that tradition has fostered in the souls of our fellow citizens and we face the future with confidence.

Two rabbis of particular interest authored that 1945 resolution. Rabbi Jacob Weinstein and Rabbi Morris Goldstein, both of whom served here, at Congregation Sherith Israel. We have raised our voices loudly for both truth and peace in the past, and we will do so again in this year to come. With the courage of our convictions and the wisdom of our traditions, let all of us at Sherith Israel lead our Jewish community into a year of civic engagement and sacred relationships.

David Frommer is the first cantor ever to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. armed forces.