Keynote address at University of Mary Washington’s Jewish Cultural Celebration (November 6, 2019)
Good evening. It is such an honor and a joy to be with you this evening for this celebration of Jewish Culture. It is especially meaningful to join you in this Center, which was named after Dr. James Farmer, Jr, a leading voice in the Civil Rights movement, and a true champion of social justice. In our troubled times, I find myself increasingly looking to the example of courageous people like Dr. Farmer, people who dedicate themselves to inclusion and equity, even and especially when it is difficult to do so, and even when it is so tempting to abandon faith and give in to despair.
I think we can all agree that as we gather tonight to celebrate Jewish culture, and to think together about what Jewish history and tradition have to offer us in this particular moment, that these are indeed troubled times, for the Jewish community, for our country, and for the world.
Just last week, we commemorated the first anniversary of the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, when a white nationalist terrorist murdered eleven Jews as they gathered for Shabbat prayer at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, this incident was not an aberration. It is part of a frightening growing trend.
During my formative years in Atlanta in the 1980’s and 90’s, I attended a Jewish day school. I remember spending a lot of time learning about antisemitism, up to and including the Holocaust. It sometimes seemed like a subtext of our Jewish education was that we ought to cherish our faith because, or in spite, of the fact that there were those who hated and wished to destroy us.
And yet when we studied these topics, it always felt to me like we might as well have been studying ancient history.
Sure, vestiges of that era would appear here and there in my youth. A comment about eternal damnation, jokes about picking up pennies, and remarks about getting “Jewed down.”
But these incidents were by far the outliers, the exceptions that proved the rule. The Atlanta Jewish community in which I grew up, like much of American Jewry in the last half of the 20th century, was by and large affluent, prominent, and well-respected. Antisemitism in America, it seemed to me, was mostly a thing of the past.
So, when I became a rabbi, I vowed not to evoke antisemitism as a rationale for Jewish identity, pride, and passion. I didn’t want to inspire Jewish commitment out of what seemed to me to be an irrational fear. Instead, I wanted to encourage people to cherish Judaism out of love — love of our history, love of our people, love of our Torah and our tradition, love of the possibility that embracing Judaism might help us flourish and lead us toward building a better world.
Nearly two decades later, that illusion has been shattered. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported antisemitic incidents in the United States has increased dramatically over the past three years. Since the ADL started tracking this data about forty years ago, 2017 and 2018 were two of the worst years on record when it came to antisemitic incidents in America, and there is every indication that this year will be no different.
What is going on?
Before we can answer that question, it is important to answer a more fundamental one: what is antisemitism, anyway?
In her excellent recent book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt defines antisemitism as a set of “hostile beliefs towards Jews” as a whole that can manifest in different ways: in individuals as attitudes, in culture as myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and in actions — social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against Jews, and collective or state violence — which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews.
Lipstadt identifies the core of these hostile beliefs as, essentially, a conspiracy theory: the Jewish people have forged an international “cosmopolitan alliance” which compels far more powerful entities to do their nefarious bidding. That bidding invariably involves aiding Jews or Jewish interests at the expense of non-Jews or their interests. And since Jewish values and interests are often aligned with those of other marginalized groups like immigrants or racial minorities, antisemitism often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry.
Last year’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue is a painful illustration of this: the shooter believed that there was a vast, global Jewish plot to replace white civilization with black and brown refugees and immigrants. His racism and xenophobia fueled his antisemitism, which in turn propelled him to murder innocent Jews.
The conspiracy theory at the heart of antisemitism, Lipstadt argues, has been remarkably consistent throughout history, even as it is fundamentally irrational. While its “outer form may evolve over time,” while it may manifest in different ways in different contexts, while its power and prevalence may wax and wane, and while it even may at times lay dormant, the essence of antisemitism always remains the same. And, moreover, antisemitism is persistent. It never goes away.
The thing about conspiracy theories like antisemitism is that they are elastic. Because antisemitism may be expressed differently in different contexts, it is sometimes difficult to identify and easy for the person invoking it to deny.
Additionally, conspiracy theories by their very nature can be stretched to encompass many data points, even when those data points contradict each other. They are also often stretched to incorporate or accommodate other irrational conspiracy theories. In these ways, conspiratorial beliefs can offer comfortably and attractively simple explanations for extremely complex phenomena.
That helps explain why antisemitism tends to rise during periods of great uncertainty and upheaval. Moments of social crisis make a straightforward explanation quite attractive, even if that explanation is fundamentally nonsensical and thoroughly dangerous.
The most obvious example of this is Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, where people increasingly turned to antisemitism in response to political upheaval and economic depression. It is also true of a horrific episode that occurred in my hometown of Atlanta just over a century ago:
In late April of 1913, a night watchman at an Atlanta pencil factory discovered the bruised and bloody corpse of a 13 year-old employee named Mary Phagan. As news spread through the city that a little white girl was raped and murdered, the public demanded quick action and swift justice.
Despite having no real evidence, the authorities bowed to public pressure and accused the northern-born manager of the pencil factory named Leo Frank, a prominent member of the Atlanta Jewish community.
Two days after the grand jury returned the indictment against Frank, one of the men who would eventually be selected as a juror for the trial was quoted as saying, “I’m glad they indicted the goddamn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him, and if I get on that jury I’ll hang that Jew for sure.”
The trial began swiftly, and the proceedings, predictably, were a circus: White Atlantans surrounded the courthouse each day, cheering the prosecutor, jeering Frank’s lawyer, railing against northerners and Jews, and intimidating the judge and jury. The prosecution presented contradictory and fabricated testimony from so-called witnesses. The judge permitted Frank to be portrayed, without evidence, as a sexual pervert who preyed on young girls and young boys. The mob outside the courthouse celebrated wildly when the jurors found Frank guilty. And the judge sentenced Frank to death by hanging.
As the case made its way through the appeals process, antisemitic sentiment was unleashed throughout Georgia, fueled in large part by a populist newspaper publisher named Tom Watson.
Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, however, was convinced that Frank was innocent. He bravely commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. In response, protesters burned Slaton in effigy, calling him “King of the Jews and Georgia’s Traitor Forever.”
Two months after Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence, a mob of twenty-five men, which called itself the “Knights of Mary Phagan” and which included many prominent Atlanta-area citizens, stormed the prison where Frank was incarcerated and kidnapped him. They drove several hours through the night to a grove near Marietta, now an Atlanta-area suburb. After failing to extract a confession from Frank, the mob lynched him. Later, hundreds of people would come to see Frank’s suspended body, taking smiling photographs with the hanged Jew, and even tearing pieces of his nightshirt for souvenirs.
It’s important to note what was going on in Atlanta at the time: The city was on fire — reeling from crime, violence, desperate working conditions, and race riots. Frank was lynched about a year after the outbreak of World War I, a time of unprecedented unrest and anxiety that brought nativist sentiment to a fever pitch. And most notably, during that era, a campaign of terror and intimidation against African-Americans in the South had reached a horrific crescendo. White political leaders ignored or, more often, encouraged, the violence.
Aristotle once said, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This may be true, but it is also true that antisemitism loves one. In a time of chaos, the world’s oldest hatred is always there, eager to fill the void.
But antisemitism doesn’t simply emerge to fill the void in times of unrest. Rather, it grows and flourishes when other forms of bigotry proliferate, and when cynics and opportunists nurture and cultivate it and other forms of bigotry for their own strategic purposes.
This was true in the case of Leo Frank’s lynching: Hugh Dorsey, the prosecutor who secured Frank’s conviction, was elected Governor the following year, defeating and ending the political career of John Slaton, the governor who commuted Frank’s sentence. And Tom Watson, the populist newspaper publisher who incited the lynch-mob, was elected to the United States Senate. After his death, he was memorialized with a bronze statue outside the Georgia state capitol. Dorsey and Watson may or may not have themselves been antisemites. But they sure knew how to weaponize it for their personal advantage.
The same remains true today, when we see leaders evoke antisemitic language and themes — as well as stoke the embers of racism, xenophobia, and other bigotries — to advance their own agendas, which both history and current events remind us invariably results in dead Jews.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the underlying conditions that make antisemitism alluring and the leaders who, irrespective of their personal beliefs and attitudes, capitalize upon and amplify those hateful sentiments.
In a healthy society, such dangerous demagoguery generally fails to gain traction. But instability creates the fertile ground necessary for leaders, whether they are calculating or merely careless, to exploit antisemitic sentiment and other forms of bigotry for their own ends.
This explanation of the nature and persistence of antisemitism in no way excuses antisemitism or other forms of bigotry. But these observations do help us understand the conditions that tend to breed, embolden, and unleash bigoted and antisemitic rhetoric and violence.
No wonder, then, that antisemitism has been on the rise over the past two decades, and in particular in the US over the past three years. Ours is a time of extraordinary flux: a rapidly evolving economic order, dizzying and disorienting technological progress, widening inequality, systemic racism, mass political instability, rampant terror, forever war, and the largest refugee crisis in human history.
But rather than confront these intersecting challenges in all their complexity, many have been seduced by comfortable, simple solutions that too often involve identifying, marginalizing, attacking, and indeed destroying the enemies we claim are responsible for the tumult.
Worse, many of our leaders have proven themselves masters of luring us into this us-versus-them mentality. We have seen leaders who are all too eager to exploit our divisions and play on our insecurities, stoking the burning embers of bigotry and racial resentment, cynically forcing us to choose sides, tribes, and loyalties, all for their own opportunistic ends.
There is a rising atmosphere in our country, nurtured by too many of our leaders — even one would be too many — that what is good is whatever satisfies our urges or enriches us; and that what is right is whatever we can get away with. We have been conditioned to confuse disinformation for fact and propaganda for truth.
And, worse, we excuse attitudes, statements, and behaviors when they come from our own political side, even when we would consider those same deeds unforgivable if they were committed by our political opponents. In the chaos of this lawless and amoral environment, which has been cultivated and nurtured by our leaders — at times unwittingly but more often deliberately, — the ground becomes increasingly fertile for antisemitism to flourish.
Because certain social conditions encourage the presence and proliferation of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, we Jews and other people of conscience must consider the roles we play, even if passively or unwittingly, in creating or tolerating such an environment, and the role we can play in turning things around. To borrow a phrase from the great 20th century rabbi, theologian, and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a free society such as ours, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Or, as the rabbis of the Talmud put it: כל דור שאינו נבנה בימיו מעלין עליו כאילו הוא החריבו, any generation in which the world’s ultimate redemption is not realized in its time is considered as though it had destroyed the world (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 5a).
In other words, while we Jews and other people of conscience are not guilty of creating or spreading bigotry, racism, and antisemitism, each of us individually, and all of us collectively, are understood by Jewish tradition as bearing some responsibility for creating, tolerating, or perpetuating the conditions that allow for its proliferation. Because unless we are actively making the world better, we are held accountable for its brokenness. Either we are part of the solution, or we are complicit in the problem.
Heschel himself made this argument in 1938, in a speech he gave to a conference of Quakers in Frankfort, Germany called “The Meaning of this Hour.” I happened upon this speech in the weeks following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, and I haven’t been able to put it out of my mind since.
By 1938, the threat posed by Nazi Germany was clear to many. The German takeover of Austria, like Heschel’s talk, took place in March of that year. That fall, Heschel was arrested and deported to Poland. Fortunately, he was able to escape Poland before the Nazis invaded, and he eventually emigrated to the United States, where he lived the rest of his life.
In “The Meaning of this Hour,” Heschel argued that the rise of the Nazis was the inevitable outcome of, in his words, a “spiritual disaster,” the result of a culture that “worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite.” In this sense, Heschel said, the Jewish people and other people of conscience at the time were at least partly responsible for bringing the world to the edge of the abyss because they had failed to sufficiently fulfill their sacred obligation to fight relentlessly for “right, for justice, for goodness.”
Now, Heschel obviously did not believe that Jews and other people of conscience in Europe created antisemitism or supported the Nazis. God-forbid. Rather, Heschel was arguing that, because we did not do enough to advance a world utterly inhospitable to Nazism, a world in which “God’s dream of salvation” had been fulfilled, we are partially responsible for its emergence and metastasization. “Either we make [the world] an altar for God,” Heschel insisted, “or it is invaded by demons.” Nature abhors a vacuum, but antisemitism loves one. In the absence of God, in the absence of active, persistent, good, evil rises, spreading to fill the empty space. Unless, as Heschel said, we let godly goodness, compassion, and justice “into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our courts and investigating committees, into our homes and theaters,” evil will emerge in all those places, as it flourishes in every inch of real estate it is given.
So what would it look like to fill the empty and chaotic spaces of this world with godliness, so that evil would have less space to thrive and flourish?
One of the most recurrent themes of the Torah is that, when an oppressed person cries out, God hears the cries and leaps into action. Where the oppressed shed tears, God appears. To offer perhaps the most obvious example, in the Book of Exodus, God is moved to liberate the Children of Israel from their bondage only after they cry out.
In fact, in the only two places in the entire Torah where God is described as being “with” somebody, both subjects of God’s intimate care, concern, and support are slaves. The first occurs in Genesis chapter 21, when God saves Ishmael from perishing in the wilderness after Abraham and Sarah expel him and his mother, and the other occurs in Genesis chapter 39, when Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt.
In both instances, the slaves that God is “with” have been treated as inconvenient objects by people who can exert power over them and are threatened by their presence. In both instances, God is “with” them in the precise moment when they are most broken, most vulnerable, most desperate. In both instances, God being “with” them means that God witnesses both their humanity and their suffering, responds with intimate and immediate presence, and provides spiritual and material support. And in both instances, God being “with” them means that God watches over them, saves them from trouble, protects them, and ensures that, whatever their challenges, they ultimately prevail.
That these are the only two times in the entire Torah where God is described as being “with” someone gives us a crucial insight about the Torah’s point of view: From the Torah’s perspective, God’s primary concern is with the plight of the marginalized, the poor, the broken, and the oppressed. God pays special attention to and is especially present with oppressed people. And when the oppressed shed tears, God appears.
The more familiar one is with the Hebrew Bible, the more one recognizes this defining divine characteristic. To give but one of countless examples, according to the psalmist, God is best described as One who “secures justice for those who are wronged, gives food to the hungry…sets captives free…restores sight to the blind…makes those who are bent stand straight…protects the immigrant…[and] encourages the orphan and widow” (Ps. 146). The psalmist here echoes the Torah itself, which identifies God as the One who “upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the immigrant, providing him with food and clothing.” (Deut. 10:18).
This is not mere theology. It is ethics. Our tradition tells us about God’s qualities and characteristics, about how God acts in the world, and about how God relates to and interacts with human beings, in order to teach us how to act in the world, how to relate to and interact with our fellows. Because while Jewish tradition believes that God operates in history, it also insists that God generally relies on human beings to act on God’s behalf in the world. We are God’s agents, dispatched into reality to do the work of the sacred.
Therefore, we learn about God so that we may, to the best of our human ability, behave like God, so that we may act in the world as God would act. Indeed, according to rabbinic tradition, the Torah’s commandments all aim at this fundamental objective: getting us to imitate the Divine in our lives and in our world.
But how can a mere mortal emulate God?
Last January, I visited Guatemala with American Jewish World Service, an organization that is inspired by Jewish values to end poverty and advance human rights in the global south. Our group of rabbis met with the lawyers of Bufete Juridicio de Derechos Humanos — the Human Rights Law Firm — and some of their clients. We heard story after heartbreaking story from victims of unthinkable atrocities: forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial executions, the massacre and plunder of entire communities; folks who have been evicted from their homes so that their land can be given to mining companies and drug cartels and who must live in makeshift refugee camps under unthinkable conditions. And we heard from the lawyers representing them: attorneys who for no pay walk hand in hand with their clients to fight steep uphill battles, in a thoroughly corrupt legal system, for years on end, with only a small chance of victory. That’s what it looks like for a mere mortal to emulate God.
The lawyers of Bufete Juridicio de Derechos Humanos are an extraordinary example. But I’ll bet we can all think of people closer to home who have made all kinds of sacrifices, even people who have put their livelihoods at risk or their bodies on the line, in order to lift up the vulnerable, the broken, or the oppressed. And when any of us act in this way, at any level, we are emulating God.
The Torah itself makes this point. Recall the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy I just quoted a moment ago, where God is identified as One who loves the immigrant. Immediately after the Torah describes God that way, it commands: “You too must love the migrant.” Since God loves the immigrant, the way we follow in God’s footsteps is to love the immigrant, too.
It’s important to point out something else from this passage: God’s love of the immigrant is expressed by God’s “providing him with food and clothing.” That’s because love, for the Torah, is not a feeling. It’s an action. Love is emotion manifest in deed. As Rabbi Moses Maimonides teaches, we may not be able to will ourselves to love immigrants in an emotional sense. But we nevertheless must engage in acts of compassion and kindness toward them.
In other words, regardless of how we feel personally, emotionally, or even politically about those who leave their homelands to seek out a new life in a foreign country — whether they are fleeing poverty, hunger, violence, persecution, or natural disaster; whether they are seeking temporary protection, asylum, refuge, or simply opportunity; whether or not they are one of the lucky few who are able to navigate the confoundingly complex and often prohibitively expensive bureaucracy of legal immigration — we are commanded to act in a loving way toward them, just as God would. As God shows up for, liberates, and protects the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed, we too must show up for, liberate, and protect the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. Jewish tradition from the Bible to the Talmud and beyond demands that, when the oppressed shed tears, the Jewish people appears.
This principle is incumbent on each of us individually, and all of us collectively. It means that, in order for a Jewish community to rightly be called a Jewish community, it has to be more than merely a community that happens to be comprised of Jewish people. Instead, it must be a community committed to being present for people who are vulnerable and suffering, a community devoted to doing whatever it can to alleviate peoples’ pain.
Of course this means we Jews must take care of our own. But it also means more than that. God, after all, shows up to help the oppressed in the Bible whether or not they are part of our Tribe. One of the meanings of monotheism, perhaps the Jewish tradition’s most notable intellectual contribution to humanity, is that ALL people are God’s people. In fact, the Torah insists that God is uniquely concerned with those who can’t support themselves, with those on the margins, and with those on the outside: the orphan, the widow, and the chronically destitute — and, especially, the immigrant, the person who crosses a border to sojourn there with the hope of having a better life. The Torah singles out this class of people for special protection 36 times, far and away more than any other group, specifically because they are outside the protective support network of the Jewish community and are therefore at special risk of exploitation and oppression.
So if we are to emulate God, then we must see all people as our people. We are called to be present for and to support oppressed people whoever they are, wherever they are. Whenever people are targeted for their difference or are the victims of injustice, we Jews are called to emulate God and show up for them.
In so many ways, it feels like we are living in an era marked by indifference to the cries of the vulnerable and the oppressed. Sometimes, this indifference seems to bleed into out and out cruelty: People seeking asylum from violence, oppression, economic depression, and environmental devastation are being denied refuge and forced to live indefinitely in unthinkable conditions. Families are being separated — both at the border and within our borders — and children are being locked in cages. Where is God in all this?
According to Jewish tradition, God is with the Guatemalan family as they travel by foot for thousands of perilous miles to seek a better life in America. God is in the squalor of the detention camps. God is with the two year old who is inconsolably crying after having been ripped from her mother’s arms. Yes, our tradition tells us where God is in this moment. But more importantly it asks of us — we who are called to act like God, we who are commanded to be like God — it asks of us: where are we?
In her masterful study of resistance against the Nazi regime, historian Nechama Tec tells of brave efforts to limit and subvert Nazi brutality. True, those efforts didn’t topple Hitler or save every Jewish life. But through courageous action, oppression was periodically thwarted and many lives were saved.
What was the key to resistance against the Nazis? First and foremost, resistance required cooperation — within communities, and, more importantly, between communities. It’s true that Jews bravely helped each other during the Holocaust. But that’s only a small part of the story. Hundreds of thousands of European Jews owe their lives to what we call the “righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who defied Nazi cruelty.
We know some of these stories: There’s Oskar Schindler, of course, and Raoul Wallenberg.
But there are also stories of lesser-known heroes. These, to me, are more powerful because they were otherwise such average individuals. Take, for example, Antoni Zieleniewski. In 1943, he was the secretary to the mayor of a small village in Eastern Poland. One hot summer’s day, a delegation of local peasants came to the mayor’s office to report that they had discovered a group of Jews hiding in a bunker in a nearby village. “As law-abiding citizens,” Antoni later recalled, “they came to report a legal transgression. The law required that such a report should be telephoned to the local police. All those who listened knew that this story would end with the execution of the hidden Jews.” Antoni assured the group that he would notify the police.
After they left, he called a friend named Wojcik, who helped him devise a plan. They sent someone they trusted to the Jews to warn them to get out and to direct them to a new hiding place. The Jews fled and relocated, as instructed. That evening, Antoni shared the villagers’ report with the police who, when they went to the original hiding place, found no one there. The police declared the report false and dropped the matter.
But Antoni wasn’t content simply saving the lives of this group of Jews. Instead, he and Wojcik “became the protectors and ultimately the rescuers of the ‘missing Jews,’” anonymously supplying them with food and keeping them hidden from the authorities.
And lest we think that the only Righteous Gentiles were Christians, consider the story of Mustafa Hardaga. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, they destroyed the home of the Jewish Kavilio family. Homeless and scared, they fled. Mustafa rescued them, taking them into his family’s home and providing them safe refuge until the war’s end.
These non-Jews who resisted Nazi terror didn’t defeat antisemitism or even topple Hitler. But by protecting and saving the lives of the vulnerable and oppressed, they advanced a perfected world.
That may sound a bit hyperbolic. So why do I say that?
Because foundational to rabbinic tradition is the belief that good relations between disparate people helps to bring about ultimate redemption.
The Talmud teaches:
מפרנסים עניי נכרים עם עניי ישראל ומבקרין חולי נכרים עם חולי ישראל וקוברין מתי נכרים עם מתי ישראל…
Jewish people must give tzedakah to poor non-Jews the same as we would for our fellow Jews. So too, we are forbidden from distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews in feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and burying the dead.
The Talmud explains its reasoning for these laws: Jews are commanded to care for the welfare of non-Jews as we care for our own מפני דרכי שלום, for the sake of the ways of peace.
Now, it is of course possible to understand מפני דרכי שלום as mere pragmatism. After all, Jews benefit from having good relations with our non-Jewish neighbors. If we discriminate against them, they might hate us. But if we scratch their backs, maybe they’ll scratch ours.
But I actually think the rabbis are making a much more sweeping statement. While we usually think of the word “peace” as an antonym for violence, our tradition sees the concept differently. The root of the Hebrew word שלום is שלם, meaning complete or full. שלום is thus the state of being whole, settled, perfected. In Judaism, שלום is not merely the absence of conflict.
Rather, שלום is the presence of something, the presence of well-being and fulfillment, wholeness, equity, and harmony. Indeed, in the rabbinic consciousness, שלום embodies the redeemed state of things that signifies the messianic era. שלום is nothing less than the very perfection of our world.
The arc of history, in the Jewish consciousness, bends toward שלום, toward wholeness and perfection. Judaism believes that ultimately all humanity will recognize its common Divine parent. We will relate to each other with a sibling-like sense of love and shared responsibility. There will be justice and harmony between all of God’s creations.
And in the Jewish tradition, the establishment of שלום is not exclusively God’s purview. The rabbinic tradition insists that God relies on us to advance שלום. We can make our world a little more whole, a little closer to perfect. When the rabbis mandate certain behaviors מפני דרכי שלום “for the sake of the ways of peace,” they are saying that we can and must engage in acts that make ours a more perfect world.
Through helping and supporting those who are different from us, we take a step toward peace. When we care for the welfare of those who are seen as “others,” we take a step toward peace. We may not ultimately be successful in building a more peaceful world. But every action that we take מפני דרכי שלום, for the sake of the ways of peace, gets us a little closer.
In this sense, according to Jewish tradition, we are either advancing שלום, or we are diminishing it. There is no place in between, no room for neutrality. We are either repairing the world or we are accepting its brokenness. We are either advancing goodness, compassion, justice and peace — or we are ceding ground to evil, hatred, inequality, and division.
This means, my friends, that we face a fundamental choice: We can either persistently pursue the good, or we allow for the proliferation of evil. We either advance a world filled with God’s presence, or we permit ourselves to be overrun by the demonic. We either further the cause of שלום, or we invite chaos.
In this moment, that of course means we must speak out against bigotry and antisemitism wherever they manifest. We must also hold all our leaders, both those with whom we typically disagree and those with whom we are generally aligned, accountable for the roles they play in amplifying hateful ideas and rhetoric.
And we must also be vigilant in defending ourselves and each other against acts of violence too often inspired by words of hate. This includes working to restrict access to dangerous weapons, lest they fall into the hands dangerous people, as they invariably do. And we must work relentlessly to preserve and defend the State of Israel, a place of refuge and security for a people perpetually threatened with annihilation.
We Jews must also embrace our tradition lest we, and not our enemies, be the ones who are responsible for the disappearance of our glittering civilization.
But none of this will ever be enough if we Jews and allies of conscience from all backgrounds don’t do something more fundamental and systemic. We will always be waiting around for the next Pittsburgh if we don’t diminish the conditions that allow antisemitism to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place. Our tradition insists that neither we nor any of us will be truly safe and free unless and until we make of this world a world of love, a world of inclusion, a world of justice, a world of peace.
Only by doing our part to create that world through affirming and advancing the infinite and equal worth of all people — including and especially the vulnerable and the oppressed, who Jewish tradition singles out for unique protection, and who too often end up alongside Jews as the targets of hate — and only by demanding our leaders relentlessly pursue a redeemed and perfected world, will we keep bigotry and antisemitism at bay. Because antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry that so often rise in tandem with it, loves a vacuum. Our task is to make sure that there is no space for it to enter by filling our world with godly goodness, compassion, and justice — or in Heschel’s words, by letting God in.
We let God in when we show up in solidarity and support when anybody is targeted for their difference. We let God in when we put our livelihoods and our bodies on the line in defense of anyone who is threatened or oppressed.
We let God in when we welcome and aid immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. We let God in when we fight for equal rights for people of all races and faiths, ethnicities and nationalities, gender-identities and sexual orientations.
And we let God in when we demand public policy — in America, in Israel and Palestine, and indeed all over the world — that reflects the Jewish belief that every single human being is created in the Divine image, that we are all of us equally and infinitely valuable, and that we are therefore all of us obligated to lift each other up. We let God in when we organize and advocate for those policies. We let God in when we march and protest for those policies. And you better believe that we let God in when we vote for those policies.
The challenge and the task before us — on this day, and every day; in this place, and in every place — is to let God in. We may not complete that task, but neither are we free to desist from it. Let us recommit ourselves this evening to that sacred and crucial work.
Thank you. Shalom.