Beyond the Bounds: Reclaiming Civility in Troubling Times

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Rosh Hashanah, 2018.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

I was raised with the privilege of having two parents, one of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, the other of Italian Catholic background.  In both families, food equaled love. I grew up enjoying holiday dinners with my grandparents, Rose and Luigi Caruso, and indulged in the mouthwatering pastas and sauces, made from recipes brought over from rustic Calabria. As you might expect, there was a LOT of pork involved. I’m talking about ham, prosciutto, and sausage. In my youth, I would relish going over to my grandparents’ apartment in Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy to eat the delicious meals prepared from the old country – and pork was a favorite!

When I moved into young adulthood – and became more religiously observant – I decided to keep kosher. No more pork! I remember the day I came over to visit with my Caruso family, and told them that I would only be eating kosher meat. They were startled. It was a shock. They accepted my Jewish observance, but I sensed I had crossed a family line. Something had shifted; although my observance enriched and rooted me strongly in my faith, my decision to eliminate certain foods from my diet drew a clear boundary – and I feared that they would interpret it as me pushing them away.

Luckily, preserving the relationship with family took precedence, regardless of my dietary habits. We were able to maintain “Shalom Bayit” (peace in the home) because we all resolved that family togetherness was paramount. I am fortunate that my Italian family respected the boundary I set and did not experience it as a rejection of them. Thankfully, we still share many tender family moments together, despite our cultural and faith differences. I am able to preserve both my personal integrity as an evolving Jew, and my standing in the family.

We know all too well that not every boundary drawn yields a happy ending. The choices we make, and the boundaries we set, establish our independence and personal authenticity. As we determine what we value and what we reject, we get closer to the heart of who we are. Isn’t that what the Days of Awe are all about? Making the hard choices to live our best lives, to become who we are meant to be? Yet sometimes those choices have unintended consequences. Sometimes the lines we draw place people firmly on the opposite side of us.

On this Rosh Hashanah eve, as we begin this High Holy Day season, I am thinking about the different kinds of boundaries that we all set, for ourselves and our community. We know for certain that sitting in one prayer space together does not a homogenous community make! We are each discrete individuals, with our own religious, political, cultural, and spiritual inclinations. It is both a distinct opportunity and a challenge to live cooperatively with those who are different from us, and this tests our patience, our integrity, and our limits. Tonight, Rosh Hashanah is an excellent time to explore the imperfect art of drawing boundaries – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Boundaries have been a part of Judaism ever since God created the heavens and the earth. Torah says that prior to Creation there was “Tohu Va’vohu”[1], a chaos that resembled a primordial soup of confusion and disorder. The act of drawing separations was God’s way of showing benevolence for the earth and its inhabitants, creating order out of chaos. God made distinctions between day and night, between the sun and the stars, between people and animals. With the creation of the earth and everything in it our Torah reveals that God said, “…and it was good”[2].

Only chapters later, Abraham, the first Jew, drew a boundary in his rejection of idolatry, and left his father’s home to start a new life[3]. He circumcised himself[4], a physical marker to show that he was different. Eventually, many other customs and rituals – including the kosher laws[5] – were introduced, in part, as a way for the Israelites to separate themselves.

Ultimately, the boundaries that the Jewish community has historically drawn around itself—traditions that both separate us FROM others and connect us TO each other—have not only provided us with security and meaning, but explain our continued existence. We could certainly argue that our survival as a people, outlasting great empires, regimes, and dynasties, can be attributed to our willingness to make the difficult choices necessary to maintaining our integrity and authenticity as a distinct people. Boundaries are good, declares Judaism!

But as important as boundaries are to maintaining a community, they can also be confining, spawning a parochial and myopic view of the world. In our society of increasing divisiveness, creating homogenous silos cuts us off from a society that desperately calls out for healing.

The award-winning Jewish novelist, Michael Chabon, was recently invited to give the commencement address at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He spoke about the dangers of creating barriers among people, even going so far as to deride marriage between two Jews as being “a ghetto of two.” In his speech he opined…

I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders and the preposterous history of Barack Obama. I am for the hodgepodge cuisines of seaports and crossroads, for sampling and mashups, pastiche and collage. I am for ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity, muddle, complexity, diversity, creative balagan.[6]

At the end of this provocative speech Chabon’s radical charge to the graduating class of 2018 was this: Knock down the walls. Erase the boundaries that limit personal and communal exploration and creativity. He suggested that such boundaries lead to treating people on the other side as not fully human. The take-away: if Judaism is to survive, the boundaries we create must be permeable, flexible, and accepting of diversity.

Now…I happen to be a huge fan of the boundaries and traditions that make Jews…Jews. But let’s, for a moment, expand on Chabon’s point. If the walls around Judaism had remained rigid, Reform Judaism would never have been born. It is because our movement’s leaders peered beyond the walls of traditional Jewish life, crossing the boundaries of observance and belief that were accepted at that time, that Reform Judaism thrived.

From its very inception, Reform Judaism was met with scathing condemnation from the more traditional Jews who could not abide the crossing of those boundaries created to preserve the distinct and beautiful nature of Judaism.[7] Yet, ironically, it was the flexibility of Reform Judaism that helped an insular faith survive in the modern diaspora. A non-negotiable boundary for you might be a permeable and porous one for me, and vice-versa. Still, we find it in our best interests to function amicably in the public sphere, a good example of our society’s pluralistic principles.

And yet, it is also very Jewish to be wholly clear and unequivocal in moments that demand conviction. These are the times when we must assert impervious boundaries in order to maintain the values that make us not only Jews, but moral human beings.

“Yesh G’vul” is a Jewish idiom regularly used in Israel to assert our moral bearing.

Yesh G’vul literally means, “There is a limit”, “There is a border”, or simply put, “Enough is enough”. Jews might use this term to express moral outrage.[8]

We might say, “Yesh G’vul” when we witness hate-filled rhetoric and actions such as the anti-Semitism in Charlottesville, or the disparagement of ethnicity, religion or race.

…or when unarmed black men and boys are killed or left untended to while they die of systemic racism.

…or when we witness intolerance and disrespect for people who live peacefully and love differently.

And we say “Yesh Gvul” when we refuse to entertain racial or homophobic slurs in our homes, workplaces, and communal institutions.

Women who initially could not speak up against powerful men who felt entitled to sexually abuse and harass them have banded together to proclaim, “Yesh G’vul!”

In all these cases, we draw distinct lines of demarcation, separating ourselves from hate, intolerance, and abuse. These lines are critical to defining who we are and who we strive to be as individuals and as a society.

Yet, as our country struggles to establish where these boundaries must fall, many people are feeling that the values that used to be taken for granted are under assault. Moral boundaries keep moving, as behavior and rhetoric that used to be considered taboo are becoming acceptable, even the norm. People who did not feel the need to take a stand in the past feel frightened by the slide towards a country they don’t recognize. They are finding ways to resist these forces with renewed passion.

That is how a good bit of drama played out at a DC eatery a couple of months ago. White House Communications Director, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was denied service at The Red Hen restaurant. The owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, told a reporter from The Washington Post the following, “”I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.” Wilkinson then directed these words to Sanders: “I’d like to ask you to leave.”[9]

Many celebrated Wilkinson’s move to oust Sanders (a “Yesh G’vul” moment, for sure!). New Yorker staff writer, Adam Gopnik, defends the actions of the owner, saying:

That’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s chosen role in life—to further those lies, treat lies as truth, and make lies acceptable…That’s the danger, for with the lies come the appeasement of tyranny, the admiration of tyranny, and, as now seems increasingly likely, the secret alliance with tyranny…[10]

Strong words from Gopnik who believes that the restaurant owner was justified in tossing Sanders out of her restaurant.

I will admit that my gut reaction upon reading that New Yorker piece was to appreciate Gopnik’s stance. I can imagine that some of you, too, might have felt the same way, and even engaged in a fist-pump when Sanders was tossed out of that restaurant. But after that first moment, I felt a sense of sadness that it has come to this. I am so very troubled by the level of bombast and malicious discourse to which our country has descended. The worst of our inclinations, including my own, has been exposed, magnified, leaving a deep sense of grief over the loss of our once vibrant public square. That public square used to spur us to argue and debate not only with passion, but with real facts, intellectual honesty, and respect for each other. Now, friends, it feels as if the public square has been hijacked. The boundaries between us have hardened into concrete walls so high that we can no longer see into the hearts of those with whom we disagree.

And yet, I do not believe that our republic is doomed. Decency and dignity CAN win the day. I am inspired by the final words of Senator John McCain, may his memory endure:

We weaken our greatness…when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.[11]

Indeed, it is in our hands, in our words, and in our feet to advocate for those ideals. We must vote for representatives with the moral bearing to lead us and model for us how we should behave in the public sphere. Our public officials must further the goal of our shared enterprise, to live cooperatively in an atmosphere of dignity and common decency.

But we must not put it all on our public officials. We are daily confronted with the challenge of upholding our personal principles—even deciding which ones to uphold—while simultaneously maintaining civility in the public commons. These very same principles can serve us personally, as we seek to maintain the sanctity of home and family. My turn towards greater observance challenged me to honor civility when it was not convenient. I am grateful that my family saw fit to value civil discourse and graciousness in the dining room where I bypassed the prosciutto, but leaned in to the sanctity of family.

For those of you who have drawn strong and indelible boundaries as a form of self-preservation in the face of abuse, harassment and mistreatment, I stand with you. The Fairmount Temple community stands with you. Those boundaries keep you safe from the dishonorable and power-wielding authority figures in our midst. You are justified in saying, “Yesh G’vul.”

However, if we are going to engage in honest talk on these High Holy Days, then we must acknowledge the boundaries we have hastily erected in the name of resistance. These boundaries may have become obstacles to the very civility we cherish. So, as we begin the year 5779, let us all make a personal accounting of the lines we have so readily drawn.

In our drive to resist tyranny, have we abdicated our responsibility to eradicate it?

In our demand for equality, have we silenced the rights of others?

In our critique of government, have we sown seeds of contempt?

In our appeal for civil discourse, have we abandoned civility?

This is what concerns me. When we remove ourselves from participation in the evolving national experiment we call America because of disagreement and despair, we relinquish our leverage to effect change.

Let us build a revolution that transforms anger and despondency into the restoration of the public square. Let us double-down on civility. We should demand that our public leaders share this commitment to common decency!

But, there is more (it is, after all, the High Holy Days). As humans we are prone to practice these very same double standards in our personal lives, with those whom we live and love.

So…let us consider the following questions:

In our call for unconditional love from dear ones, have we stubbornly withheld it?

 In our demand for open respect, have we neglected to provide it?

In our critique of close family, have we ignored our own failures? 

In our claim for attention, have we withdrawn affection?

During these High Holy Days, let us consider the measure of our lives. With determining which of our values matter the most in drawing the boundaries that define us. With finding the balance between preserving our core integrity and finding common ground with those whose opinions or behavior we don’t accept.

May we all consider our lives with renewed reflection.

And may we always strive for peace and wholeness in this fractured world.



[1] Genesis 1:2

[2] Ibid. 1:10

[3] Ibid. 12:4

[4] Ibid. 17:24

[5] Leviticus 11