Nitzavim - The G-dly and the unG-dly

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"You are standing, all of you, before Hashem your G‑d..."

I have an admission to make. As a youngster I was part of that great New York fraternity known as the "beach bums." Raised but three stops on the subway from Coney Island, my family and I, as hundreds of thousands of others, would take the short trip to Coney Island with our bathing suits under our clothing. Equipped with beach blankets, chairs, sun tan lotion and our lunch we would squeeze into the packed cars of the then Sea Beach Express (for you youngsters, the "N" train) anticipating a day of sun and swimming. My father, in particular, looked forward to these excursions to the seaside as his vacation. However, there was one aspect of our days on the Atlantic shore that vexed him no end.

The food and refreshment stands were located at the rear of the beach on the boardwalk. But to be on the boardwalk meant one had to be fully dressed, i.e., shirt, trousers, shoes and socks. To be dressed otherwise would immediately attract a policeman who would give you a ticket for indecent exposure in a public area which carried with it a $50.00 fine! This City Ordinance was posted at every staircase to the beach. As our refreshment agent, it fell to my Dad to dress and undress at least three times a day to purchase our sodas, knishes, etc. A far cry from today with its growing proliferation of nude beaches and beaches dedicated to one's sexual proclivity, one must ask how this radical change, indicative of so many other changes in our society, has come about.

Stephen Carter in his best seller The Culture of Disbelief writes, "Contemporary American politics faces few greater dilemmas than deciding how to deal with the resurgence of religious belief. On the one hand, American ideology cherishes religion, as it does all matters of private conscience, which is why we justly celebrate a strong tradition against state interference with private religious choice. At the same time many political leaders, commentators, scholars, and voters are coming to view any religious element in public moral discourse as a tool of the radical right for reshaping American society. But the effort to banish religion for politics' sake has led us astray. In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly and sometimes even privately, as though their faith doesn't matter to them; indeed those who believe in G‑d are encouraged to keep it a secret, and often a shameful one at that. Aside from the ritual appeals to G‑d that are expected of our politicians, for Americans to take their religions seriously, to treat them as ordained rather than chosen, is to risk assignment to the lunatic fringe."

I know what you're thinking. What do the boardwalk and the Carter quote have in common? The concept that modesty in dress and action (so much a part of my education in the New York City school system) is an integral element of a G‑d oriented society in which, unlike Carter's description of today, seeks openly and unabashedly to live according to the Biblical message was the America of my youth. Most fascinating is a statement made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted by Carter, "We all hold to the inspiration of the Old Testament and accept the Ten Commandments as the fundamental law of G‑d." The creator of the New Deal, the icon of the liberal left, one can only begin to imagine the vilification Roosevelt would have had to endure from his own for such a statement in 2004. The mere display of a replica of the Ten Commandments in a Court House was recently a major legal battle, which cost a Judge his bench. The replica was removed and stored away.

We are living in a divided nation. After all the rhetoric is cleared away the underlying source of this division can be seen. It is the battle between the G‑dly and the unG‑dly, between those who believe in subjective morality and ethics altered at the individual's discretion and those who believe in an absolute Divine and eternal morality, in the eternal truths of our Torah, that is so dividing our nation. How often have I been told in discussion about contemporary issues that my position is unacceptable in the public forum because it is based upon the Biblical tradition? Witness the storm raised when President Bush admitted seeking Divine guidance in his decision making with regard to Iraq. Compare this to but a few short years ago when President after President asserted that G‑d supported the efforts of the United States internationally to the acclaim of the overwhelming majority of Americans. Spreading democracy used to be seen as the Divine mission of the United States and was characterized as such by all our leaders Republican and Democrat alike.

Parshas Nitzavim, traditionally seen as the overture to the High Holy Days, reminds all of us, that we are standing before G‑d. As Jews, as the People who brought the message of the one true G‑d to humankind, we should be the last ones to hide G‑d in the closet. In the battle for the soul of America, in the effort to recapture the sense of the Divine mission and Divine nature of our society, the very bedrock of which is the statement that ultimately the individual's rights come not from the State but from the Creator Himself, the Jewish community must join hands with others who believe in, as Carter states, "an ordained" Divine word, to respond to the many and significant issues facing our nation with a G‑dly response. There is no doubt in my mind that much of the anger and hatred manifest in today's Presidential election is representative of this divide among the American people.

This is no idle theory I am advocating. When serving in the Province of New Brunswick, Canada's "Bible Belt," as the Rabbi of Moncton, I put my theory to the test. The Ministerial Association in the area, which excluded Jews and Catholics, had fallen apart over the issue of beer being served at the local sports arena. I saw this as an opportunity and reached out to various clergy to form a monthly lunch program. No formal group, no officers, we met for lunch at the local Boy's Club to discuss our community and frankly to develop personal relationships. When we were contacted by individuals shocked at the abortion rate at the local "English" Hospital (the majority of New Brunswick is Acadian and Catholic precluding abortions in most of the province's hospitals which were established through the Roman Catholic Church), I suggested we explore our various religious views on the subject to see if we could join in a single statement which would guide the community as a whole. After weeks of study and presentation we issued a collective statement reminding everyone that life is not an accident of nature but ordained by G‑d and urging them to speak with their Pastor before deciding to have an abortion. Signed by myself, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Baptists, Pentecostals and Methodists, the statement was prominently reprinted in the local press. At the end of one week abortions at the local "English" hospital had dropped by 40 percent. Who could resist the call of clergy, many of whom could not and would not formally join an organization together, speaking with one voice?

In this High Holy Day season, let each of us reaffirm in our own lives the Divine word of the Torah, accepting upon our shoulders "the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven" to be exemplars of G‑d's word, and to lead in the effort to bring G‑d's values and principles to bear upon the public debate thereby insuring the growth and healthy future of this great nation.