August 26, 2023
Virtuous Speech or Virtuous Action
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
Virtuous Speech or Virtuous Action
Rabbi Ari Lorge
It is incredible to be back with this congregation after my summer sabbatical. I am so grateful to my colleagues for all their work during my time studying and learning.
I realized that although we had announced that I would be absent during the summer weeks, not everyone received the message. I want to thank the folks who wrote me emails and notes expressing their best wishes for my next chapter after Central. But, to crib Mark Twain, the reports of my leaving have been greatly exaggerated. I am so thankful to be back with all of you.
People might wonder, what does a rabbi do with the spaciousness of time?
Well, this rabbi read thousands of sermons. Yes, that is sadly my version of fun.
We have a grand hundreds-year-old tradition of Torah teaching and commentary in Reform Judaism. This trove of wisdom is under-accessed by much of our movement’s clergy and communal leaders. But, as is so often the case, the voices of the past can, at their best, prove timely and timeless. I focused my research on sermons given in America between 1860 and 1930.
This week’s parshah, Ki teizeih, gains fame for having the greatest number of mitzvot, commandments. These laws govern so many aspects of our lives. Business life, home life, national life, and more. They make clear that Judaism is not a religion relegated to synagogues. Rather, to be Jewish is to act in the world. To be Jewish is the totality of an identity; it is not something that can be compartmentalized. It makes demands on us that we must heed, should we wish to be Jewish in more than name only.
A danger for any religion is for there to be a gulf between professed belief and religious action. And, how sadly familiar are we with public figures who clamor on about their faith, who are quick to invoke God, and yet their faith lives on their lips and not in their deeds. It infuses their words but not their actions. Religious hypocrisy, while rampant in our time, is not new.
Speaking to his congregation in the late 1800s about the commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Adolph Moses wanted to speak about the growing worry of atheism in his time—a time when science was increasingly seen as something that might distance one from religion.
Darwin’s theories were only decades old, and religious communities were all grappling with how to respond. There was a growing fear about those who were professing atheistic beliefs in light of this new knowledge; those who said they no longer needed or wanted to believe in God.
As you can imagine, here in America, growing numbers of politicians and clergy decried such viewpoints. And yet, this was also the Gilded Age, where many who professed adamant belief in God and religion exploited, impoverished, and ignored the needs of their neighbor.
Rabbi Adolph Moses told his congregation that there needs to be a new benchmark for atheism.
It is not, he said, about professed belief, but rather by the visible actions those beliefs engender. He said:
Who are the real atheists?
They…whose life forms a glaring contrast to the idea of God....
To believe in God does not mean that we simply allow that God exists, it means that we strive to walk in the luminous footsteps of God’s holiness…
Every virtuous action is a true act of worship…
He is an atheist who professes to believe in God but whose deeds put his faith to shame...
He who acknowledges that we should recognize no other God beside the Eternal, and yet worships his own…self as the highest being...
he that defrauds his neighbors in any matter great or small, who uses false weights and false measures...
He is an atheist that deprives the hireling of his wages, and takes away from the needy the fruit of his labor...
All those were real atheists who persecuted their fellow…on account of their faith...He is an atheist who praises the despot, who drives mothers and their babes out of their homes in midwinter...
Reading his words on my sabbatical, they seemed evergreen.
There will be many in the coming months who will speak in the name of faith. Such is the nature of elections in America.
We ought to listen well.
But let’s do more than listen to their words. Rabbi Adolph Moses asks us to look at their actions:
Though they speak in the name of God and the faithful, do they defraud their neighbors?
Do they take away from the needy?
Do they excuse dishonesty?
Do they call fraud good business?
Do they accept bribes and call it hospitality?
Do they praise the despot or provide political cover for him because it serves their ends?
Do they use their faith as a justification for persecuting those who don’t share it?
Do they worship themselves as the highest being?
In short, are they pious atheists?
As a community of faith, it is our responsibility to speak for our faith, and call out religious hypocrisy.
And, it is our responsibility to bolster those who, no matter what they believe or doubt, walk in the luminous footsteps of God’s holiness.
Let us seek out those leaders who make a habit of engaging in virtuous deeds.
For that is the ultimate act of faith and true worship of the divine. May such actions guide us on our paths in this season of reflection, introspection, and renewal. May we devote ourselves in Elul to deeds that become benedictions for God.