"Who is 'We' on Yom Kippur?"
Dr. Evelyn Bromet: Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry
Past President, Hillel Foundation Board of Directors
Shana Tovah. It’s always humbling to give the Yom Kippur sermon. Perhaps even more so today, after a year filled with one disturbing headline after another.
Over the past 10 days, we were expected to take stock of our cruel thoughts and behavior since last YK and made amends to the people we wronged. On YK itself, we, the collective we, then ask God for forgiveness for a long and varied list of transgressions we committed.
The key word that I’m struggling with is “we” as in, for example, “We have sinned against You by supporting immorality” in Al Chet.
I was taught that “we” means all Jews, since to err is human. But after the headlines of the past year, I’m wondering why the scope of “we” includes Jews who didn’t just transgress in the usual sense of the word -- but behaved in ways that are entirely antithetical to basic Jewish values and brought shame on our community. Jews who not only sinned, knowingly or unknowingly like the rest of us, but Jews who have been wicked and monstrous, without seeming to care about the people they harmed, some even having the chutzpah to blame the victims.
So I’m ruminating about something that I never questioned before. Why must Jews who defile Jewish values be part of the “we” on YK? Just because they born to Jewish parents, or converted to Judaism?
In a minute, I will tell you what specifically sparked the question, but first, do you recall what happened to the famous Jewish philosopher Spinoza when in the 1600s, the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam concluded that his beliefs were “wicked and monstrous?” “Wicked ways” and “monstrous deeds” were the terms they used. He was excommunicated. He was 23 years old. Actually, he was not only excommunicated, but expelled, cursed, and damned; no one was allowed to communicate with him or read any of his writings. He was totally blackballed.
The question of who counts in the “we” on YK was triggered by three sets of headlines involving Jewish people, who if the mores of the 17th century were applied today, would qualify for excommunication.
The first is Stephen Miller with his wicked and monstrous immigration policies. He himself is the great grandson of Jewish refugees who came here from eastern European shtetls at the turn of the 20th century. They had no skills, no education, and no money. His uncle on his mother’s side published an essay in August saying: “I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country. … I shudder at the thought of what would have become of [our family] had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses— the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants — been in effect when his great grandparents made their desperate bid for freedom.”
Last week, Miller’s childhood rabbi called him out during his RH sermon, saying: “The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my, or our, Jewish message.”
In Ashamnu, we ask for forgiveness for “abuse, cruelty, neglect, xenophobia, and being a zealot for bad causes” -- traits that characterize Stephen Miller’s beliefs and policies. So this man, who owes his very existence to uneducated, impoverished refugees who fled pogroms, has the chutzpah to espouse anti-immigrant policies, cause irreparable psychic pain to tens of thousands of children, and deny entry to America to people who could be killed in their home country, as happened to our families in WWII.
Must we, who lost our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in WWII, must we include Stephen Miller and other Jews like him in our collective “we” just because he was born into a Jewish family?
The second example are Jewish MeToo Men. They come from all walks of life -- politicians, CEOs, actors, producers, tv hosts, comedians, professors – Jews who before the despicable revelations began pouring out, were men we kvelled over for their outsized accomplishments. They brought notice to us, a tiny percent of the US population. I won’t list these people by name. You already know them. And if you aren’t sure if someone is Jewish, you can google the name with the word Jewish – and you’ll find out in 2 seconds flat. I did that with a very prominent serial offender and discovered that not only is he Jewish, but he is the great nephew of David Ben Gurion.
As with Stephen Miller, with whom my beef is personal, the behavior of these men also hits a personal nerve. I came of age professionally long before the MeToo movement. Most of my colleagues were Jewish, Jewish men to be precise. There weren’t many women in my field back then. I too have untold stories like the ones reported in the media -- untold because I have outlived my offenders. I applaud the courageous women who are disclosing their stories. I am appalled by alleged perpetrators who deny that these events ever happened. I am appalled by men who accuse these women of being “mixed up.”
Our list of sins includes “immoral sexual acts, not resisting the impulse to evil, wronging others, and breach of trust.” But the presumption of including them in our “we” is these perpetrators recognized their transgressions, regretted them, and apologized to their victims. That’s what we assume when we recite these transgressions communally.
In the public cases that were breaking news over the past year, there were precious few acknowledgments and apologies, even when these headliners lost their jobs. The feeling of shame that I had over and over again is part of what led me to ask: how can men who egregiously and repeatedly violate Jewish values be considered part of our “we” -- just because they were born to Jewish parents?
The final example that led me to the question is the family that precipitated the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century. I’m speaking of the owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that sowed the seeds of the opioid epidemic in 1996 with its manufacture of OxyContin and aggressive marketing to physicians with false claims that OxyContin is a safe, non-addictive treatment for pain. Sales skyrocketed exponentially, even after it came out that OxyContin is highly addictive and caused thousands of overdose deaths. The owners of Purdue Pharma are the Sackler family.
In 2007, the year Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges in connection with the marketing of OxyContin, the Sacklers started another company, Rhodes Pharma, to produce a generic form of opioids. One last bit of information: members of the family also patented a novel form of a widely used anti-addiction drug, though after enormous push-back, Rhodes claimed the product would not be commercialized for profit. Time will tell if that’s true.
The Sacklers have made billions of dollars off the backs of people in pain. But… they are also well known for their charitable donations – as in Sacker Medical School in Tel Aviv, Sackler wings in museums in the US and England, Sackler endowed professorships at Yale, and so on. Shouldn’t their generosity offset the sins of “wronging of others” and “dishonesty in business?” To date, by the way, as far as I know, their generosity has not extended to providing free treatment for people addicted to OxyContin or creating a victims’ compensation fund.
So with my training in public health, and knowing the impact of the opioid epidemic and the Sacklers’ role in seeding and fostering it, and the profits they reaped from it, again I ask the same question: Just because they are Jewish, must we today consider them as part of the “we?”
These three sets of headlines about prominent Jews led me to question a concept that I never before thought was up for consideration. In fact, I always took pride in the concept of “we.” It took me quite a while, but I think I’ve come around to understanding the underlying wisdom of the inclusive concept of “we.” Apart from the fact that none of us is perfect, we don’t know if any of the people I described, who are after all outliers, took stock of themselves after their transgressions went viral, and apologized to their victims. We can’t pre-judge who might take stock and make amends over the next year – or the year after that. By including them in our “we” – we give them second chances. We are saying in effect that these transgressors, like the rest of us, should have every opportunity to repent and rediscover the Jewish values they were raised on. A positive message.
Speaking of Jewish values, these illustrations underscore the critical importance of programs like Hillel that actively promote Jewish values to college students who are on the path to adulthood, supporting their development into honorable and generous Jewish adults. Hillel staff model Jewish values each and every day, most especially Rabbi Topek who has been at the helm for almost 40 years.
As many of you learned last evening, Rabbi Topek will be retiring at the end of the year. He’s looking forward to it. We’re not. You can imagine the huge shoes he leaves behind. He’s been the spiritual guide, the psychological support, the home away from home that he and his wife Sue have provided since their arrival, the visionary for expanding the scope of Hillel’s mission and programming, the lynch pin of the Interfaith Center, and our liaison to Jewish agencies outside our campus. Most importantly, he adores our students, and they adore him back. If this sounds over the top, come to a shabbaton dinner and watch the interactions. If you call the office – they’ll make it happen.
The programs that Hillel initiated under Rabbi Topek aren’t possible without community support. You hear about this every year. You heard about it last week during Rabbi Topek’s sermon. When I first came to Stony Brook and attended high holiday services, I was deaf to these appeals. I didn’t feel that it was my responsibility. I guess I didn’t read Al Chet carefully enough since “rejecting responsibility” is on the list.
But there came a time when my responsibility finally sank in. It’s like learning to play a piece of music; you repeat it over and over again, and then at some point, it clicks in. Later, when I joined the Board of Directors, I got a view of the enormous work that takes behind the scenes that enables Hillel to initiate and sustain its many special programs, such as:
I’d like to close with this thought. With Rabbi Topek’s decision to retire, this has become a transition year. We need your support now more than ever. You can do so in honor or memory of loved ones. Or in honor of Adam Katz! Or in honor of Rabbi Topek and his wife Sue.
But beyond money, transitions are a time of reflection, of taking stock of where we are and where we would like Hillel to be in the future. Many of you have been friends of Hillel for a long time. Others for a shorter time. In either case, we would welcome your ideas about how best to move forward, both on campus and off.
Thank you for allowing me to ruminate with you about this year’s dilemma.