Recently, while browsing Netflix for a movie to watch, I found a science fiction/drama adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. The simple, yet elegant, synopsis sold me: “In a dangerous post-apocalyptic world, an ailing father defends his son as they slowly travel to the sea.” Now, I have to tell you, I started watching The Road and could not put my iPad down, not for the whole 1 hour and 58 minutes. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, a huge fan of thrillers, and horror movies, and even a bigger fan of alternate future scenarios. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, or read the book, prepare yourself for some spoilers. The story is about a father and son who struggle to survive along the road, attempting to find warmth, food, and shelter in a cold, desolate, dying world. The reason for the apocalypse is never given; in fact, the names of the characters are never given either, because none of these things matter to the characters or to the viewer. We find ourselves scared for this pair of good people, we long for the innocence of the boy, and wish strength for the father. The father describes himself and the boy as “the good guys,” meaning that they don’t do anything bad like “the bad guys” on earth, such as stealing, joining gangs, or finding upsetting ways to feed themselves. The father describes being a good guy in this post-apocalyptic world as “carrying the fire,” the flame of humanity left alive inside their hearts. It is the fire that they carry that keeps them good, keeps them walking, and keeps them attempting to find others like themselves.
We’ve all seen movies like this, or read books like this. Most of us have read Lord of the Flies; most of us have seen the Twilight Zone episodes, or the Walking Dead episodes. The plot is the same. What is left of humanity when it is left completely alone and helpless? We’ve seen it in the books and cinema, how humans turn on one another, defend land, join gangs, and commit acts of terror propelled by fear and desperation. When I finished watching The Road, I turned to my wife and said, “Well that was depressing.” And it was. Just like reading Lord of the Flies is depressing, and seeing those Twilight Zone episodes is depressing. There’s a lot to be depressed about in these worlds, where there is no order, no laws, just the human mind and its paranoia, its primal need to feed and survive. Still, to me, it is fascinating to think about, and an incredibly interesting lesson in human psychology.
What is truly happening to humanity in these scenarios? Most people think that when humanity is left alone on an island, or there is an atomic blast, or meteor hit, that the worst aspects of humanity are created or emerge. Paranoia, scavenging, territorialism, murder, starvation, desperation—they all boil to the surface from their dormant dark place, or are created ex-nihilo. It’s a fascinating idea psychologically, but it’s simply not true. The sad and unfortunate truth is that these post-apocalyptic scenarios do not create these aspects, nor do they push them to the surface from their dormant resting places. Rather, the post-apocalyptic world only removes distractions putting these parts of ourselves in front, in full view. We see them like we are seeing them for the first time. How barbaric! How strange! But all we have to do is read history, or read the news, to know we don’t need a zombie apocalypse to see those aspects of humanity. They exist today. People are murdered by the hundreds of thousands every year. Humans build gates and walls around their houses, their cities, their countries to try to keep others out. Millions of children are starving tonight. The internet is flooded with paranoia, government conspiracies, and destructive ideas that pray on our fears. We just don’t see it, because the world is not a dark, desolate wasteland. The world is covered in lush trees, green hills, blue oceans: there is life here.
And yet, though the worst parts of humanity are not front-and-center, we can’t go on pretending that they do not exist. We can’t pretend that this is how humanity acts only when there is nothing left. Instead, we must realize that our world is broken now, our world is hurting now, our world is dying now, and we can no longer wait. We must follow the path of Reform Judaism, hearing the voice of the prophets in our heads, prophets who stood for the improving of their world as we stand for ours. Reform Jews are God’s partners and through the work of tikkun olam we heal our world. As Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, has stated:
We believe that we were put on this earth not to take up space or punch the time clock of our years, but rather to move our people and our world closer to the redeemed world envisioned by our prophets – a world of justice, compassion and wholeness.
This notion forms the very core of Reform Jewish beliefs. From the beginning, it informed our movement. The early German Reform Jews of the mid-19th century, for example, embraced the universalistic ethics of the prophets: justice, peace, and freedom. This view led to our Reform understanding of, rather than the coming of the Messiah, our mission as Jews to bring about the Messianic age through social justice in our world. This worldview led to the first Jewish movement actively working with its non-Jewish neighbors to bring about a better world. It meant a shift in understanding because, for the first time, tikkun olam was more important than Jewish identity.
This understanding continued into the beginning of the 20th century, and transformed into a mission of civil rights, leading Jewish philanthropists to fund over 2,000 schools and 20 black colleges in America. Then, with the birth of the Religious Action Center, our movement was set on a direct course for the pursuit of justice, freedom, and peace. Rabbi Eugene Lipman, who was at that time the director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, gave funds to purchase a building in Washington DC as a center for social action for our movement. When the RAC was founded and the building dedicated in DC, it was attended by Supreme Court Justices, NAACP Board of Directors, Senators and civil rights activists. Most people have seen that iconic photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other Jews marching next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the South challenging racial segregation; but what most people do not know is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were drafted in the Religious Action Center by Jewish, African American, and other civil rights leaders. This was followed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Voting Rights Extension, Japanese American Redress Act, Civil Rights Restoration Act, Fair Housing Act Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991—all drafted or discussed in the office of the Religious Action Center, the political arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Think about this for a moment: some of the most important legislation to be drafted in the 20th century, was done so under our purview. It is an amazing accomplishment. It also places on us a tremendous responsibility, to continue the work so many Jews worked hard for, and even gave their lives for.
And it isn’t just the RAC that stands as a beacon for justice for our movement. In 1968, our organizational bodies, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism (called the UAHC at the time) were the first national Jewish organizations to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. By 1973, our movement had elected Alexander Schindler as president, who openly fought for civil rights, world peace, nuclear disarmament, feminism, and gay rights. Leaders in our movement, such as Eric Yoffie, Rick Jacobs, David Saperstein, and Jonah Pesner, continue to show what level of change is possible when we, as Reform Jews, embrace the central theme of social justice.
Friends, the German Reformers saw something in our world that many do not. They looked past the distraction and the hustle of society, and they saw what the world truly was: a non-post-apocalyptic, apocalyptic world. Abraham Joshua Heschel did not need the world to be destroyed to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. David Saperstein did not look up at scorched gray skies to become the United States Ambassador for the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. Jonah Pesner did not need to take his children on a search for food in order to start the Nitzavim movement, which lobbies for Voter Protection. And friends, we do not need to wait for these things either to continue the work of our predecessors, preaching the prophetic values of peace, justice, and freedom. As Reform Jews, we embrace the sad truth that the world is burning, and that even though we can’t sometimes see the flame, we can smell the smoke.
This year, of 5777, let us be the father and son, the mother and daughter, who gather our belongings and head up the road together; may we carry the fire with us, reminding ourselves that we are the good guys, but that it is not just our duty to survive this life, to survive this world. No, that is not enough. It is our calling as Reform Jews to leave the world a better place, to leave each spot we camp along the road a little better before we move on. As I look out upon this congregation, I can see the future Lipmans, Kings, Heschels, Sapersteins, Jacobs, Yoffies, Pesners; those who rise up as leaders, inspiring others along the road to walk with them. Our charge as Reform Jews is tikkun olam to heal the world; our charge is social justice, social action. May we never forget that as we travel together along the road, as we carry the flame, and may 5777 be the year when we see through the curtain, see through the smoke, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.