Rabbi Conover’s Yom Kippur Sermon 5779

In a World Where Everything Can Be Faked, What’s Real?

By Rabbi Shoshanah Conover
10 Tishrei 5779/ September 19, 2018

Gut Yontiv.  Like some of you, I love to read about trailblazers and pioneers to find out how they succeeded.  Usually it’s because someone—a parent, a teacher, a friend, a mentor– told them at a pivotal age, “You can change the world.”  So, it seemed inspiring when Zeyu Jin from Princeton University told thousands of young techies assembled at an AdobeMax Conference in 2016, “We live in a time when more people than ever before believe that they can change the world.”

Now I should have been suspect about what he meant by this.  After all, he was speaking on behalf of Adobe, the company that invented Photoshop…

“We live in a time when more people than ever before believe that they can change the world.”

Not always in the way we might think.  To demonstrate this, Zeyu pulled up an audio recording of Kegan Michael Key calling Jordan Peele after the comedy team had been nominated for an Emmy.  He played the audio of Key saying, “I jumped on the bed, kissed my dogs and my wife in that order.”

Then, he projected the transcript of the conversation on a screen and changed the order of the words.  Suddenly, the audience heard Key saying: “I kissed my wife and my dogs.”  The crowd burst out in wild cheers.

But then Zeyu continued to say, “Here’s more.  We can actually type something that’s not here.”  He deleted the words “my wife” and typed in “Jordan.” He played the new recording.  Now the audience heard Key say: “I kissed Jordan and my dogs.”

The audience erupted in surprise.

That was in 2016.  Today’s world continues to be populated with more and more people bent on changing it in this type of way.   As Nick Bilton reported in Vanity Fair, technologists can record video of someone talking and then change their facial expressions in real time in hard-to-detect ways.[1]  We can imagine this technology’s implications. Yet, we should not be surprised by humanity’s penchant for faking things or for people falling for the fakery.   Nicholas Lemann points out in the New Yorker that this is nothing new.  Remember Plato’s Republic in which people thought shadows on a cave wall were real?  Or The Iliad, when the Trojans fell for a fake horse? Or our own Torah with Jacob believing Leah was Rachel? … “And, in recent years,” Lemann points out, “the Nobel committee has awarded several economics prizes to work on ‘information asymmetry,’ ‘cognitive bias,’ and other ways in which our propensity toward misperception distorts the workings of the world.” [2]

Yes, we live in a world in which more people than ever have found clever ways to change it —sometimes with playful other times with nefarious intent; exploiting our inclination to believe what we want to believe.   Sometimes mistaking fiction for fact.  So, here’s my question:

When everything can be faked what is real?

To answer that, let me begin by briefly addressing a related question that weighs heavily on our minds.

Is there any way to address those who manipulate facts for their own purposes?

What about those people manipulated by them?

Proverbs offers two distinct and seemingly contradictory pieces of guidance.[3]  Proverbs 26:4 instructs: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you yourself will be just like them.”  Their manipulation of fact is not worth your time.  Do not bother to justify their crazy claims with a response.  Proverbs 26:5 teaches the opposite: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will become wise in their own eyes.”  We must approach a person who has manipulated facts, intentionally or unintentionally because there is fact to set straight. It is dangerous to have that misinformation floating out there received by some as fact.

This latter approach is the one most often championed by our tradition.  The Talmud tells a story about a student who purposely asks ridiculous questions to the great Hillel to try his teacher’s patience.  The student’s questions are not only ridiculous.  In them, the student insults Hillel, an immigrant, by asking questions based on preposterous assumptions about immigrants.  Yet, even amidst personal attacks with questions whose assumptions are completely off-base, Hillel answers each question, never losing his temper, never wavering.  Instead, he approaches his student with patience and kindness.

But, let’s be honest.  We don’t always have the patience of Hillel—especially when the circumstances of our own personal lives are difficult.   It’s hard to have the energy or interest to engage across difference, or really, to engage at all on the pressing issues of the day.  This was made clear to me some years ago.  I was sitting with a woman who had been active in the presidential election.  She was out there engaging on issues leading up to November.  Early in the morning after the election she called to see if we could meet.  I thought I knew what this was about. When we met, she let me know that her husband had gotten a difficult medical diagnosis the day before.  We talked and cried.  The election did not come up once.

Sometimes when our own circumstances are difficult, public issues just don’t seem top of mind.

That’s real.

And what happens when those differences show up in our own families?  In our friend circles?  At work?  At a gathering with friends you’ve known for years…  And you’ve always seemed to be on the same page on things.  And then it comes up.  They mention “Netanyahu” or “immigrants” or “Trump” or “Capernick” or “climate change.” They say something that you find to be false.  Or dismissive.  Or just off in judgment.  Do you say something?  If you engage it could sour the occasion.  So, you don’t say anything.  And you don’t call them for another social engagement.  You think, maybe we weren’t such compatible friends in the first place.  Or maybe we’ve changed.  Regardless, it just doesn’t seem to be worth the energy to continue the friendship.

Sometimes when we disagree with someone in our intimate circle, especially about an issue we care deeply about, it’s easier to disengage from the conversation, and worse, sometimes from the relationship.

That’s real.

 While we cannot all be Hillel, we can adhere to his tradition, the school of Jewish thought from the House of Hillel that favors compassion, empathy, patience and engagement.

I have seen great models of this my entire life.  You see, I was the child of a mixed marriage.  While my parents shared a religion (my father converted to Judaism when I was an infant), they did not share a political party.  Their vision of our ideal country and world were similar, but they believed in very different ways of getting there.  And they believed, above all else, when vitriol and nastiness had become the norm in secular society, when people outside their home became bent on manipulating, changing, and questioning the world’s facts for their own narrow purposes, their home would be a place of connection and engagement—often across great differences.

They demonstrated a clear answer to this question I’ve been pondering since they passed away this year:

In a world where everything can be faked, what’s real?

My parents of blessed memory provide the answer: RELATIONSHIPS:  relationships with those people we love and relationships with people we don’t; relationships in the private realm and relationships in the public arena; relationships with people whose views largely echo our own and relationships with people whose perspective on the world differs radically from ours.

My parents embodied for one another the first relationship we hear about in the Torah between Adam and Eve.  They were for one another an ezer k’negdo often translated as “helpmate” but that doesn’t quite do the term justice. Ezer means “helper;” negdo comes from the word neged meaning “against” or “opposite.”  Hence, ezer k’negdo means someone who helps another person because of their differences, not despite them.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out: “People not like us make us grow.”

And my parents never solely focused on the core values they agreed on.  They engaged each other and our entire family in discussions about issues on which they had radically different opinions.  And—no matter how strongly any one of us felt or how heated the conversations became—we were always civil. Well, almost always… (Having good senses of humor helped).  Yet, my parents never solely focused on their differences or tried to change the other.  Love, profound appreciation and mutual respect emanated from the two of them and, in turn, from the house that built me.

They built their house from the houses and relationships that built them.  These past months have given me occasion to sort through old pictures, letters, cards, and detailed family trees. Through them, I began to get a fuller picture of the houses that built my parents.

My father, born in 1933, was a child during the aftermath of the Great Depression.  In his early years, he grew up in rural Wisconsin.  Born a German Catholic, his extended family was enormous.  Their network of mutual obligation when it came to family ran deep.  They filled several pews every Sunday and congregated by the hundreds for annual Wolf Family Reunions.  Many people in the extended family owned farms.  They got by during those difficult years in our country by eating off the land and sharing with one another.  For them, their very survival depended on the value of valuing family.  That was the cornerstone of the house that built my father.

The house that built my mother was different.  Her parents were first generation Americans.  My mother was very close with her grandfather Harry Ginsburg then Gaines.  In fact, my parents named me for him with my middle name Haren.  He often took my mother with him to synagogue.  As a regular at morning minyan, he loved to share his beloved traditions with my mother.  He firmly believed that good Jews can and should question their rabbis. Growing up in Austria, he had a great yeshiva education.  This gave him occasion to correct the rabbis and suggest to them better resources for their divrei torah and sermons.  Jewish tradition, wisdom, education and a healthy dose of questioning were central to the house that built my mother.

As I was growing up with these names, my last name of Wolf and my middle name Haren, my parents told me that I had received part of their neshamot—some of the Wolf and Gaines spirit.  So now when I nurture my family connections…. When I say prayers on behalf of my loved ones and congregation… When I learn Torah… And when I connect across difference … indeed I feel like I’ve returned to the house that built me.

The days of awe call us to do just that – they call us to return to the house that built us. One of most potent High Holy Day images is that of God sitting in judgment with the Book of Life and the Book of Death.  As the Unetaneh Tokef decrees: on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Hence, our traditional Yom Kippur greeting: G’mar Chatimah Tovah: “May you be sealed for a good year in the Book of Life.”

Despite the power of the imagery, little commentary has been written on the Books of Life and Death.  Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin suggested that the Book of Death does not contain those who will die in the coming year, instead it contains the names of all those who died in the past.

Rabbi Yitzchak Lapranti expanded on this idea.  He explained that the dead are judged annually on the High Holy Days just as we, the living are.  Yet, instead of past deeds, each year the dead are evaluated on the deeds of future generations.  My great grandparents—and yours—are not judged on their actions alone, but on the actions of their children, grandchildren, and now their great and great, great grandchildren.

We are reminded in these Days of Awe that we are judged by the ways we inspire the future…By reflecting on the houses that built us, we become builders of the Jewish future—allowing the values that shaped us to permeate our world.

These houses must have doors that open easily, even to those with whom we disagree.  And like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, we must sit at their entrances, open to engaging and maintaining relationships across difference—with people we love and with people with whom we work, in private and in public.

This requires that we find the right moments to engage.  Big gatherings, social dinners, and work settings might not be the right moment—even if that’s when a topic is first raised.  Afterward, pick up the phone, send a text or an e-mail and invite that person to meet.  That meeting is not about convincing them—or for them to convince you.  Nor is it about compromise—trying to find the middle view between your viewpoints.  It is about finding deeper understanding, listening to stories about what has built them and for them to hear what has built you.   So, don’t enter the conversation empty-handed.  Know the stories you want to share.

This may seem counter-intuitive.  Should we not come with open hearts and open minds?  Allow me to point out that coming open-hearted and open-minded does not mean coming with empty hearts and minds. We should arrive full—ready to share ourselves, our stories and the values that built us.

Our tradition teaches this. In the Torah we read: v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself.  It could have just read “love your neighbor.”  However, the latter clause “as yourself” teaches that we must be grounded in self and love before we can open ourselves to care for others.    Thus, when we do speak to someone else, both our words and our ability to listen to them are heartfelt.  As our tradition teaches: דברים היוצים מן הלב נכנסים ללב “words that come from the heart enter the heart.”

This kind of engagement allows us to listen with interest—with full hearts and open minds nurturing relationships across difference.…This is our heritage from the House of Hillel.

But, there is concern that people are more often reflexive than reflective, privileging our own stories over others’ experiences.  There is legitimate reason to worry that we have become too self-absorbed—fanatically so.    And we know what Winston Churchill said about fanatics: “Fanatics are people who can’t change their minds and will not change the subject.”

Some have forgotten the description of a wise person according to Ben Zoma.   He asked, “אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, Who is wise?  הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם One who learns from every person.”    We can learn and grow from other vantage points, but only if we engage across difference.  To do this, we must attempt to understand others’ views and the life experiences that built them by asking good questions.

This requires patience, even if patience does not seem to be a Jewish virtue.  Yet, I think of the patience of Hillel who, amidst personal insults, engaged in a dialogue with his student.  I think of my parents who never walked away from a conversation no matter how difficult.  And I think of Matthew Stevenson about whom some of you may have heard.

Matthew went to college with Derek Black, who was born into the world of white supremacy. His father started the website Stormfront.  His godfather was David Duke.  When Derek went to college, he hid that part of his identity.  Yet, he still hosted a white nationalist morning radio show.  In time, Derek’s identity was found out and he was largely shunned.  Some students felt like this type of disengagement would not accomplish anything.  One Jewish student —Matthew Stevenson—reached out to Derek.  Matthew invited him to Shabbat dinner.  Derek accepted. Then he came week after week.  At first, no one confronted Derek about his views.  But, after a while, and with civility, they broached the subject of what Derek truly believed.  And, the truth was, “Derek was becoming more and more confused about what he actually believed.”[4]  In time, he wrote to the Southern Poverty Law Center renouncing his white nationalist views.

Matthew demonstrated that he was built by the House of Hillel, the house of patience and compassion.

Relationships across difference take patience and not everyone we engage and include are going to dramatically transform.  Yet, no doubt the humanity we bring to these conversations plant seeds of goodness.  We don’t know when and how they will bear fruit, but I for one will give this a try.  Why?

Because I know what’s at stake: our peoplehood—as Americans and as Jews.  We relate across our differences because there is an identity at our core that we share.

To an audience assembled months after our presidential election, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quoted wistfully from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America explaining that his favorite phrase is, “We the people.”  This implies a shared identity.

And what is this identity that we share?

I think of the words that Katharine Lee Bates wrote in America the Beautiful:

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife
Who more than self, our country loved
And mercy more than life

And the words of Rabbi Sacks who reminds us:

We are strong when we care for the weak, rich when we care for the poor, invulnerable when we care for the vulnerable.

And the actions of my parents who lived in this way—living and loving with mercy and compassion, with an invulnerability because they constantly cared for the vulnerable.

Some things can’t be faked.

Relationships—caring for others across difference—is real.

For all of us, this is our legacy.  We are all built by the House of Hillel, the house of patience and compassion.

In the year 5779, may each of us find ways to enter the House of Hillel once again—that house that built the Jewish people, the house that built America, the house of caring and curiosity, the house of openness and engagement, the house that built you, the house that built me…

that house of empathy

the house of hope

the house of relationship.

That’s what’s real.


[1] Boltan, Nick, “Fake News Is About to Get Even Scarier than You Ever Dreamed,” Vanity Fair: The Hive, January 26, 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/01/fake-news-technology.

[2] Lemann, Nicholas, “Solving the Problem of Fake News,” The New Yorker, November 20, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/solving-the-problem-of-fake-news.

[3] Many thanks to Dr. Christine Hayes for her source materials and lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem this summer.  You can view her lecture entitled “Derech Eretz in Civil Discourse” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LunP7Q5Dulg&feature=youtu.be.

[4] Saslow, Eli, “The White Flight of Derek Black,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html?utm_term=.0defb22cda43.