Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Emperor’s New Liturgy: Remarks on Malkhuyot delivered at Tzedek Chicago - Rosh Hashanah 5777

The Emperor’s New Liturgy
In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen published “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.[1]  The fairy tale describes a vain emperor and the con-artists who convinced him to let them make an extraordinary garment.  Its fabric had the power to be seen only by those who deserved their jobs; to anyone else, it would be invisible.  After commissioning the garment, the emperor sent advisers to check on its progress, and they returned and gave good reports.  When the con-artists presented the “garment” to the emperor, not wanting to out himself as unfit for his post, he praised the garment. At the parade showing his new outfit, all his subjects cheered his magnificent new clothes.  Then, a young child shouted, “he’s not wearing any clothes!”  As everyone realized the emperor was naked, he kept the parade going with more gusto than before.
As modern pursuers of justice, this story expresses our critique of monarchy, imperialism, and selfish leadership.  Monarchy is antithetical to our value of equity.[2]  Leaders with or seeking absolute power do whatever they must to maintain that power, and the naked truth of their corruption becomes obvious to us all, with or without a child to vocalize it.  We know too well the costs of the destruction of modern-day despots and dictators.  We know electing a leader doesn’t resolve the problem of abuses of power.  Investing a leader as ultimate authority is morally repugnant.
To make matters worse, our High Holy Day liturgy refers to God-as-monarch.  Confronted with malkhuyot, Divine sovereignty, a central theme of the Days of Awe, we wish we weren’t. Hamelekh Hakadosh - the Holy King - and its paternalistic version - Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father Our King - block our process of teshuvah.[3]  We don’t believe in a Book of Life or Book of Death.  Whether or not we believe in God, we’re sure She’s not poring over ledgers of our deeds to see if we’re good enough to live another year.  We come for the music and company and ignore the prayers.  
Still more of us stay away.  This - our imperialist liturgy - keeps us away from the synagogue.  In “A High Holiday Manifesto for Millennials”, Rabbi David Wolpe writes “the High Holiday theme of being judged is alienating.”[4]  Rabbi Wolpe wrongly asserts that young Jews do not wish to be evaluated. People my age do not fear being judged; our misdeeds are recorded and accessible with a simple internet search.  We are judged constantly by people everywhere, and the process has made us more cognizant of our responsibility to a globalized world.  This experience isn’t unique to my generation; Baby Boomers are the fastest growing demographic on social media.[5]  Being critiqued isn’t alienating; being arbitrarily judged by a supposedly Benevolent Dictator in the Sky who determines our fates is abhorrent.
If the only goal of the High Holy Days is to become better people, the staying-home solution to the malkhuyot problem is adequate. This undercuts Rabbi Wolpe’s argument that young Jews should come to services, as every suggestion he makes can be done having dinner with friends. We don’t need Judaism or synagogue or a bunch of words we don’t believe to help us grow or feel more connected.  And yet, we’re here.  Tzedek is not a default; we chose to be here today.  Today, we need to add our legacy of imperialist liturgy to our litany of transgressions.  Today, we need a better solution to the malkhuyot problem than dismissing our discomfort at the words on the page.
Actively persecuted by the Roman Empire,[6] the early rabbis responsible for our liturgy developed an idea of God in opposition to empire.[7]  God was independent of any state power.  Yet, especially in High Holy Day liturgy, our rabbis used the language of empire to refer to the Divine.  At first glance, the tactic seems a simple enough critique of human rule.  In a hierarchical system, God is the One True Monarch and all human rulers are merely posers.  The Diva of Divas, Her whims are honored rather than those of obviously unjust human rulers.  Under closer examination, the picture of God these radical rabbis painted is not like any human ruler.  Avinu Malkeinu cares deeply for His subjects.  God ‘al kise ram venisa (on a high and exalted throne) balances compassion and justice. She keeps good people alive and kills the bad ones.
Great, right?  Except the killing part.  And the fact that this is plainly not how the world works.  Ask any mother who has lost her child too young: who shall live and who shall die is not based on any system of justice.  Anyone involved in the justice system knows that compassion doesn’t oppose justice; it enhances it.  The rabbis’ idea of malkhuyot is so fanciful it is clearly fictitious.  Some might say that this shows lack of imagination on my part; human, I refuse to consider that for God all is possible, including just use of absolute power.  But our rabbis left clues in our liturgy that they did not believe God-as-absolute-authority was good.  Our Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah show God as demanding and callous, allowing Abraham to cast out one of his sons and demanding he prepare the other for slaughter, granting the prayer of a barren woman for a child only to require that child be separated from her.  And unetaneh tokef calls God’s judgment of who shall live and who shall die “roa’ hagezeirah” - the evil edict.[8]  Our rabbis peppered our experience of praying to Hamelekh Hakadosh with depictions of God’s malevolence as a ruler.
What was their aim with the fanciful and fictitious description of the Sovereign God?  They show us God-who-has-transgressed.  Our liturgy does not show us our inadequacy in the face of a Perfect Being.  Instead, it vividly describes some of the worst of God’s mistakes. We have not fulfilled our end of the covenantal relationship, nor has God fulfilled Hers.  Our liturgy includes God along with us as needing to make teshuvah during these ten days.  
At the end of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the Emperor deliberately continues the parade naked. While we read this before as a sign of gross incompetence, there’s another way to look at it.  When the emperor’s humiliating mistake is revealed, he views that vulnerability as a positive.
This is the Sovereign God our rabbis imagined while writing our liturgy: vulnerable, flawed.  A King of Kings who, like any other king, messes up.  Out of good and bad intentions.   Often.  Catastrophically.  But who carries on dealing with the consequences of Her mistakes head on, publically, without shame.   We pray to God who joins us in the process of teshuvah, the Queen who needs our forgiveness as much as we need Hers.  The King whose capacity for missing the mark is the one on which ours is modeled.
Contrary to Rabbi Wolpe’s message in his excoriation of my generation, we don’t need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah to understand ourselves better or improve our connection to a Greater Power.  We don’t need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because we’re afraid of God’s judgment.  We don’t need to come to synagogue to become better people.  We need to come to experience the wisdom of the radicals who designed our rituals.  We need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah to be reminded that we are partners in creation, made in God’s flawed image.  To assert that God’s best isn’t good enough yet.  Our best isn’t good enough yet.  Creation is still unfolding, and we have a critical role to play.  The question malkhuyot leaves us with is: will we continue the work with our nakedness exposed?

[1] Hans Christian Andersen.  Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. (Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel, 1838).
[2] A Judaism of Equity is one of Tzedek Chicago’s core values.  For more information, see http://tzedekchicago.org/core-values/ Last visited October 1, 2016.
[3] See a traditional Maḥzor for the liturgy to which I refer.  Translations are my own; any similarity to other translations is accidental.
[4] David Wolpe.  “A High Holiday Manifesto for Millenials; For estranged seekers, a leading rabbi suggest a roadmap.”  The Jewish Week, September 21, 2016.   http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/national/high-holiday-manifesto-millennials
[5] The data which show this are numerous.  A report of one such study can be found at http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/planning-to-retire/2011/08/30/retirees-fastest-growing-users-of-social-networks, last accessed October 1, 2016.
[6] Flavius Josephus. The War of the Jews, or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem.  75.
[7] Solomon Schechter,  Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud (New York: Schocken Books, 1961; originally published 1909).
[8] While the pseudipigraphical authorship of unetaneh tokef attributes the prayer to 11th century sage Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, its presence in the earliest stratum of the Cairo Genizeh, indicates that it dates at the latest to the 8th century, with some scholars placing it even earlier.  See, for example, Planer, John H., “The Provenance, Dating, Allusions, and Variants of U-n'taneh tokef and Its Relationship to Romanos's Kontakion,  Journal of Synagogue Music, vol. 38 (Fall 2013).

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