My father delivered these remarks on Friday, June 7, 1968 just before his congregation rose to recite Kaddish two days after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. These words of grief, outrage, hope, and ultimately faith continue to resonate. This is a selection from the collection of his sermons, A Precious Heritage—Rabbinical Reflections on God, Judaism, and the World in the Turbulent Twentieth Century.
The need of today is... the prophetic prescription of a laiv chadash, a new heart, a change of attitude, a genuine willingness to deal with the basic causes of unrest and unhappiness among our people, to discipline our prejudices, to convince all Americans we are genuinely concerned about each other.
WE CANNOT LET THIS EVENING GO BY without a reference to the tragic loss this week of Robert F. Kennedy, senator of our state and presidential candidate. Perhaps this moment before we rise to recite the Kaddish is the appropriate time to make it. It is, however, most difficult to know what to say at this moment that truly makes sense. Once again, our nation has been robbed of a great personality. Once again, we find ourselves gripped in a deep national sorrow. In the face of the new tragedy which has taken place, certain people are expected to say things, to make statements which will express grief, which will offer some explanation, which will attempt to lift our spirits. Newspapermen are writing, politicians are eulogizing, sociologists are explaining, and the clergy is expected to give comfort. I have listened, as have you, to many words in the past couple of days, but the situation is so depressing, the reawakened memories of similar terrible episodes of the recent past are so disturbing. What is happening in our country today is so unbelievable that very few of the multitude of words that have poured forth are really meaningful, and I do not profess be able to do much better.
What is being said today is very much like what was said when the life of John Kennedy was taken; the thoughts of today are very much like what they were when the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. was snuffed out. The same words, to a large extent, are being repeated, but now they have become trite; they have lost their comforting effect. They only add to our despair. I feel a sense of total frustration and can only agree with James Reston when he writes:
The problems of our society are too big for the words we have at our disposal to deal with, too complex for us to be able to communicate with each other. We need to find new ways to say new things.
A terrible state of affairs has come to pass in our land. The lives of leaders who have courage and imagination, who have a charismatic effect on numbers of people, who impart youthful enthusiasm and offer a sense of purpose and hope in confronting difficult problems—these lives are being snuffed out, and we seem powerless to protect them. Is it always going to be only at the peril of assassination that men are willing to speak out (and whether we agree with them altogether or not is irrelevant), but is it always only at the peril of assassination that forthright and forceful men are to speak prophetic words to America? Is there to be safety only for mediocrities and men who use bland words that will offend no one and therefore mean nothing to anyone? Are we going to be able to maintain law and order in our land? Shall we be unable, henceforth, to solve our political problems in a peaceful, democratic manner? Are we unable to prevent not only personal assassination, but public rioting and looting and violent disregard for duly constituted authorities?
I am afraid I cannot go along with the rationalization that it is unfair to blame all America for the assassinations that have been committed, that it was, after all, just the violent deed of a single mad personality or even a plot concocted by groups of sinister people. It is happening too often, and these individual mad personalities and these groups of extremists, if such be responsible, express their madness and this extremism in the context of their environment. It is because we are becoming a desensitized nation, a nation that verbally protests violence but, unhappily, is becoming used to it, and condones it, and has not really done enough to come to grips with its causes and to try sincerely to end it, that these mad people and extremists increasingly express themselves in such violent deeds.
We have become a nation that stands out as a symbol of violence throughout the world—because of what we have done in Vietnam, and because of what we have not done at home to solve the problems of human rights and degrading poverty in our own country. One or two more political assassinations and we may not even react against them; we will have been emotionally drained and lost our capacity altogether even to grieve and to mourn and to feel for our fellowman at all. This is the tragedy of America today, and is evident in the official reaction of President Johnson to the assassination of Robert Kennedy. With all due respect to the President, he reminds me of the presidents of the average lodge or congregation or some other local organi- zation. He had a problem and so he formed a committee. We are now going to have another commission to study the causes of violence, and what, may we ask Mr. Johnson, did he do with the report of the Kerner Commission that studied the causes of rioting in our urban centers? And now, what will this new commission find out that the other did not? We cannot improve America by filing reports! We do indeed need to find new ways not only to say new things, but, more significantly, to do new things!
The need of today is not another commission, but truly rather the prophetic prescription of a laiv chadash, a new heart, a change of attitude, a genuine willingness to deal with the basic causes of unrest and unhappiness among our people, to discipline our prejudices, to convince all Americans we are genuinely concerned about each other. We need a willingness to spend for peace what we are spending for war. We need to clean our own house before we try to tell others how they should live. We need to reestablish our nation as a true symbol of democracy. Then, mad people, living in a more healthful environment, will not be so mad and will not be moved to such irrational and violent behavior.
Robert Kennedy has joined his brother John on the list of American martyrs. His energy, his forthrightness, his enthusiasm, and even his ambition—which some have criticized—will be missed. Again, a youthful spark that aroused the passions of so many in the interest of social causes has been extinguished. Again, a distinguished family that has devoted itself so wholeheartedly to public life is smitten with deep anguish and pain, is so ill-repaid for the public service it has sought to render. Whatever our political convictions, we share the pain of this bereaved family. We pray that they will find comfort in some form of good that may perhaps ultimately result either from the life of this public servant or from his tragic loss. We pray that God will grant healing unto our nation and that the rule of reason will be reasserted. And in the spirit of our Jewish tradition, even in a moment when things seem so irrational and unreasonable, even in a moment of great sorrow and despair, we can but declare our faith; and thus, as we remember our own dear ones who have passed away and at the same time think of the national tragedy of this week, let us all rise to recite the Kaddish together.