Celebrating Jewish Culture in Troubled Times

james_farmer.jpg

Bust of Dr. James Farmer, Jr. at University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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.

Posted in Public Statements, Reflections, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nature Abhors a Vacuum. But Antisemitism Loves One.

Sermon from Yom Kippur — October 9, 2019

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 in the factory’s cellar. As news spread through the city that a little white girl was raped and murdered, the public demanded quick action and swift justice. 

Bowing to public pressure, the state accused the northern-born manager of the pencil factory named Leo Frank, who was 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, after twenty-five days of trial, found Frank guilty. The judge sentenced Frank to death by hanging. 

As the case made its way through the appeals process — which ultimately took the case to the United States Supreme Court — antisemitic sentiment was unleashed throughout Georgia, led in large part by a populist newspaper publisher named Tom Watson. Ultimately, Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, convinced that Frank was wrongly convicted, commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. Protesters burned Slaton in effigy, calling him “King of the Jews and Georgia’s Traitor Forever.” 

Two months after Frank’s sentence was commuted, in August, 1915, 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. 

Not long after, the Knights of Mary Phagan gathered on the top of Stone Mountain, a large granite formation just outside Atlanta, and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia. Slaton lost his job, and his career in politics ended. Hugh Dorsey, the prosecutor who originally secured Frank’s conviction, was elected Governor of Georgia the following year. And Tom Watson, the antisemitic newspaper publisher, was eventually elected to the United States Senate. After his death, he was memorialized with a bronze statue outside the Georgia state capitol.

Attending Jewish day school in Atlanta during the 1980’s and 90’s, I remember spending a lot of time learning about the Leo Frank case, widely regarded as the only instance in American history where a Jewish person was lynched. In fact, we spent 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, recalling a time of violence and anti-Jewish vitriol that was unrecognizable to the world I knew. 

Sure, vestiges of that era would appear here and there. 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 to overcome what I saw as a failed strategy in my own Jewish upbringing, namely evoking 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. In August of 2017, I watched in horror as hundreds of white nationalists marched in Charlottesville chanting “the Jews will not replace us.” Just over a year later, in October 2018, a white nationalist terrorist murdered eleven Jews as they gathered for Shabbat prayer at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, screaming “all these Jews need to die.” The deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. 

Then, six months later, last April, as Passover concluded, yet another white nationalist stormed a synagogue, this time in Poway, California, opening fire on congregants as they worshipped. 

These incidents were not aberrations. They are part of a frightening growing trend. According to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that was created in response to the antisemitic fervor surrounding Leo Frank’s trial and lynching, 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 2019 will be no different. 

In recent years, some critics of Israel have increasingly normalized the use of long-standing antisemitic stereotypes and tropes. And on the other side of the spectrum, an ethno-nationalism that traffics heavily in antisemitic themes and outright racist language has become more and more mainstream, inspiring the most devastating of recent antisemitic attacks. 

And that’s just here in America. In Europe, antisemitism has been on the rise since the beginning of the millennium. In her excellent recent book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt outlines much of what European Jews have endured over these last two decades, and describes some of the steps European Jews have taken in response: hiding outward expressions of Jewish identity, stationing heavily armed guards at the entrance of every synagogue and Jewish institution, and, increasingly, emigrating to Israel. 

Lipstadt is careful not to call rising European antisemitism a full-blown crisis, and acknowledges the incredible resurgence of Jewish life in Europe since the Holocaust. Yet she insists that this troubling trend calls for our attention and concern. There is, after all, no reason why European history could not repeat itself. 

Similarly, while there is good reason to believe more widespread antisemitic violence or even, God-forbid, genocide, won’t happen here in America, the questions of “could it happen here?” “will it happen here?” or even “is it happening here?” are thrumming, in the words of my friend Bari Weiss in her new book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, “with increasing urgency.” 

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 book, Lipstadt offers the definition of a historical sociologist named Helen Fein, who says that antisemitism is 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 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, which increasingly turned to antisemitism in response to political upheaval and economic depression. It is also true of Atlanta in the 1910’s, when the Knights of Mary Phagan lynched Leo Frank: 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. Atlanta at the time was a city 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. 

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 cynics and opportunists nurture and cultivate it for their own strategic purposes. 

It was true of politicians like Tom Watson who was rewarded with a Senate seat after inciting the Knights of Mary Phagan to lynch Leo Frank. And it remains true today, when we see leaders evoke antisemitic language and themes to advance their own agendas, which both history and current events remind us invariably results in more 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 for their own ends.

This explanation of the nature and persistence of antisemitism in no way excuses antisemitism or antisemites. There is no valid justification for opening fire on Jewish worshippers gathered for Shabbat prayers. It is simply abhorrent, no matter how much financial or cultural dislocation the perpetrator has endured, and no matter who incited the violence. Nevertheless, these observations about antisemitism do help us understand the conditions that tend to breed, embolden, and unleash 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. I know I’m not alone in feeling our society at the moment is profoundly unwell. Increasingly, our country’s social fabric seems as though it’s being torn apart. Ours is a time of extraordinary flux: a rapidly evolving economic order, dizzying and disorienting technological progress, 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 of us are 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 seducing 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, 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 truth for propaganda. 

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. 

In the confessional prayer that we recite numerous times during Yom Kippur, there is one line that stands out to me as a haunting description of this moment: על חטא שחטאנו בפריקת על, for the sin which we have committed by casting off the yoke. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a mechanism used to control and direct animals, usually oxen. An ox with a yoke can be relied upon to engage in purposeful labor like preparing a field for planting. An ox without a yoke is wild, and will more than likely trample upon and destroy everything in its path. Our tradition invokes the yoke as a metaphor for our sense of responsibility for abiding by the covenant, with concepts like ol mitzvot, the yoke of the commandments, and ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the sovereignty of heaven.

To cast off the yoke means to abdicate responsibility, to lose all restraint, to be driven not by divine purpose but by our base desires. When we take on the metaphorical yoke, we can be relied upon to advance God’s agenda in the world, preparing the earth for divine justice and peace. But when we cast off that metaphorical yoke, we give in to the sovereignty of the self, trampling, devouring, and destroying everything in our path, so that the land is a waste. And in the wasteland we create when we cast off the yoke, nourishing crops cannot grow, while the invasive weeds have plenty of space to blossom.

The Yom Kippur liturgy implicates all of us in the sin of casting off the yoke. That doesn’t mean we are to blame for the presence or proliferation of antisemitism in our time. The crime can never be blamed on the victim. Antisemitism is and has always been based on a twisted lie about the Jewish people. As such there is nothing we did to justify its existence, nothing we do to excuse its enduring presence, and, in some respects, nothing we can do to eradicate it entirely. 

However, it is also true, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that in a world 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). 

We Jews did not create or spread antisemitism. But the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur are written in the plural because even if each of us is not personally guilty of a given sin, each of us individually, and all of us collectively, are understood by our tradition as bearing some responsibility for creating, tolerating, or perpetuating the conditions that allow for the existence of that sinful behavior. 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, we were responsible for bringing the world to the edge of the abyss because we abandoned our sacred responsibility to fight relentlessly for “right, for justice, for goodness.” 

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. 

This message lies at the heart of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur offers us reminder after reminder and challenge after challenge that our world can either be, in the words of today’s Torah reading, “for the Infinite,” or “for Azazel,” a home for God or for demons, a dwelling place for the Divine or a pit of evil. There is no place in between, no room for neutrality, for God cannot abide in a world of cruelty and corruption. Where we allow evil in, we cast God out. And conversely, where we let God in, evil cannot stand. 

Thus Yom Kippur reminds us of our tradition’s insistence 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 fit for God’s presence, or we permit ourselves to be overrun by the demonic. 

So, yes, we must speak out against antisemitism wherever it manifests — whether on the political right or on the political left, whether it emanates from leaders with whom we typically disagree or with whom we are generally aligned. 

Yes, we must be vigilant in defending ourselves against acts of violence too often inspired by words of hate. 

And yes, we must wholeheartedly embrace our Judaism lest, in Heschel’s words, we be guilty of failing “to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years,” lest we, and not our enemies, be the ones who are responsible for the disappearance of our glittering civilization.

But none of this will be enough if we Jews don’t do something more fundamental and systemic. We will always ever be waiting around for the next Pittsburgh or Poway if we don’t diminish the conditions that allow antisemitism to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place. As Bari Weiss put it to me in a recent conversation, the Jewish people “were not put on this earth to be anti-antisemites.” Rather, our tradition insists that we were created to make of this world the place in which God truly intended for us to live, in which even God would be at home, 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 upholding the sacred wisdom and moral demands of our tradition, only by affirming and advancing the infinite and equal worth of all people — including and especially the vulnerable and the oppressed, who our tradition singles out for unique protection, and who too often end up alongside us as the targets of hate — and only by demanding our leaders relentlessly pursue and fulfill our tradition’s vision of a redeemed and perfected world, will we keep antisemitism at bay. Because antisemitism loves a vacuum; and our task is to make sure that there is no space for it to enter by filling our world with the presence of the Divine.

Yom Kippur reminds us that God cannot dwell where there is suffering and evil, lawlessness and brokenness. But God, as Heschel taught, “will return to us when we shall be willing to let [God] in.” 

The challenge and the task before us, on this day, and every day, is to let God in. 

For our ancestors, for our martyrs, for ourselves, for our children, and for our children’s children, let us recommit ourselves this day to that sacred and crucial task. 

Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Promises of Israel

IMG_0599

A prayerful painting by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children at the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem. Photo taken in July 2018 by the author.

 

Sermon from Kol Nidrei — October 8, 2019

It is striking that we initiate Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a liturgical poem that both highlights the promises we make and alludes to the fact that we have an unfortunate tendency to break our vows. In so doing, Kol Nidrei draws our attention to the all-too-common disconnect between who we say we want to be and who we are, between the ideals we claim to uphold and the ones we end up living by, between what we promise to do and what we actually do. 

And while Kol Nidrei undoubtedly has a personal dimension it is also at its heart a prayer about the vows we make as a people, and the vows we break as a people. Kol Nidrei is one of the few prayers we recite during Yom Kippur that is phrased in the first-person, and yet it is framed as a communal offering: 

We call heaven and earth to witness tonight that we join together as a community to offer our prayers, “ בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה, על דעת המקום ועל דעת הקהל, אנו מתירים להתפלל עם העברינים / By consent of the yeshiva above and the yeshiva below, with the consent of God and the consent of the congregation, we are hereby permitted to pray with the sinners.” 

The promises about which we will speak are both our own, and those of others, both the blameless and the guilty, who join with us. Even if we are not ourselves guilty of the transgressions that will be enumerated, we ask that their sins be considered our sins, that our fates will be joined with theirs. 

In these ways, Kol Nidrei underscores the biblical description of Yom Kippur, which states: “The entire congregation of the people Israel shall be forgiven, as well as the immigrant who dwells among them, for the whole nation is in error.” Yom Kippur is less about who we’ve been and what we’ve done as individuals, and more about who we’ve been and what we’ve done as a people, for good or ill. Where the community has erred, we implicate ourselves in their transgressions; and where the community has succeeded, we ask to be considered by their merits. 

Yom Kippur is thus at least partially a day of communal accounting and atonement. On this day, we consider our collective successes and failures, and in which we seek, as a people, to strike a different course in the year to come.

And since on Kol Nidrei we compare and contrast who we as a people say we want to be and who we are, it is worth our taking some time to compare and contrast the promise and reality of the most significant Jewish communal project of our time: the establishment of the modern State of Israel. 

Before I dive in, I want to offer a confession: I am afraid to give this sermon. I can’t remember the last time I spoke about Israel, but it’s been a minute. Among the reasons I rarely preach on this topic is that, sometimes, I have experienced that just saying the word “Israel” from the pulpit is fraught with danger. I get it. For many of us, Israel is extremely personal. It is for me, too. For as long as I can remember, Israel has been an inseparable part of my Jewish identity. I loved it before I made my first pilgrimage there as a teenager, and it has remained a significant part of my life ever since I first kissed the ground of the tarmac at the old Ben Gurion airport. I spent some of the best and most formative years of my life in Israel. Adira and I first met and fell for each other while living in Jerusalem. And there is little I love more as a rabbi than encountering Israel with my congregants, experiences I hope to share with many of you in the years to come. 

So believe me — I understand that it’s human nature to be sensitive and even defensive about the things closest to our hearts. We are justifiably protective of what we love. But here’s the thing: I believe Israel is too important, too central to the Jewish soul, not to talk about it with each other openly and candidly. 

Today, of all days, is a day for us to be honest with each other. On this Kol Nidrei eve, when we examine the gap between the promises we make and the promises we keep, we must honestly consider the promises made by the State of Israel and the condition of those promises, celebrating and encouraging Israel insofar as it has lived up to its ideals, and holding ourselves accountable where Israel has yet to live up to its promise. 

What are the promises of Israel in the first place? This is a tricky question. From the very beginning, even before the First Zionist Congress 120 years ago, we have always held onto multiple Zionisms, numerous dreams of what a renewed Jewish homeland could be. 

One common thread these visions shared was that the State of Israel would be a State of and for the Jewish people, an autonomous country where Jewish sovereignty, bolstered by its own defense forces, could secure our safety. 

After two thousand years of precarious Diaspora, in which the Jewish people survived relentless assaults, unthinkable bloodshed, and widespread, often state-sponsored, massacre — a history that reached its horrifying zenith during the Shoah — the State of Israel promised a place of refuge and security for a people perpetually threatened with annihilation.

The State of Israel has lived up to this promise beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. In this truth, there is much to be proud. 

Immediately after its founding, the biblical prophecy of the ingathering of the exiles seemed to be on the verge of fulfillment before our very eyes: During the first three and a half years of the state’s existence, nearly 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, including thousands of Holocaust survivors. 

In the 1950’s, Israel undertook special operations to bring entire Jewish communities perceived to be in serious danger in the Middle East and North Africa. These imperiled communities have all found refuge in the State of Israel. 

I am old enough to remember Israel’s airlifts of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and its resettlement of Russian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s, and recall it as proof positive that the State of Israel could and would undertake massive expense and risk to live up to one of its primary founding promises: saving Jews, whoever they were, wherever they were, from persecution and danger. And this history and contemporary reality of Israel, as refuge for Jews anywhere and everywhere, makes Israel urgent to preserve and defend, especially in this era of rising authoritarianism, ethnic nationalism, and naked antisemitism. 

In this sense, the State of Israel benefits Jews everywhere, even those of us who have remained in the Diaspora. I know that, if the tide were ever to turn against Jews, even in places like the United States where we are flourishing and comfortable, Israel will be our shelter and fortress. 

Yes, there are serious divisions between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. And sometimes Israel actively denigrates the status of Diaspora Jews. But it is also true that Jewish sovereignty in Israel has elevated the status of Jews everywhere. Thanks to the Law of Return, we Diaspora Jews are at least theoretically part of the sovereign nation even while not living there, no different than nationals of other countries who, for various reasons, live abroad.

Additionally, Israel has been empowering for Jews worldwide from a cultural standpoint. Its output has strengthened our connections to the language of our people (a language that was all but extinct before the advent of Zionism) and the sacred texts of our tradition. Israel’s world-class Hebrew-language music, literature, theater, and cinema are inspiring. Its religious innovations provide guidance and inspiration for congregations and individual practitioners everywhere. In ways that you may or may not fully recognize, and even if you’ve never set foot in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the State of Israel has enriched and elevated both your Jewish life and your life as a Jewish person living in the Diaspora.

At the same time, Israel has always promised to be more than merely a state of and for the Jews. Israel has also always promised to be a Jewish state. Of course, the definition of the term “Jewish state” has been the subject of debate and even controversy since the early days of Zionism. I cannot claim to offer the definitive understanding. But I can tell you what it means to me: A Jewish state is more than just a country with a majority Jewish population, where Jewish people exercise sovereignty and defend themselves with an army comprised mostly of fellow Jews. 

In addition to that, a Jewish state is a country that has an intrinsically Jewish character at its core, in which the dominant cultural context is unmistakably Jewish, and where the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition — like the fundamental Jewish belief that all human beings are created in the Divine image —  guide its policies and practices. In this sense, the Jewishness of Israel is less about its demographics than it is about the values it upholds and the way it acts. This, I believe, is the definition expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that central to the Jewish character of the state is that would be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” 

From a certain point of view, Israel has beautifully fulfilled this promise. You can see it on Israeli TV in the early fall, when businesses of all kinds advertise their New Year’s sales and wish viewers a “Shanah Tovah,” or in the summer, when Israelis of all walks of life compete on “Master Chef: Israel” by taking diverse Jewish culinary traditions and making them modern and gourmet. 

You can imbibe it in the wine, as a new generation of Israeli vintners, in the land where wine was practically invented, strive to build a modern world-class wine industry inspired by Jewish text, tradition, and law. You can feel it when the flow of the week follows the rhythms leading up to and away from Shabbat, and when the pattern of the calendar is punctuated by Jewish sacred observance. You can hear it and read it, when the ancient language of the Torah and the Mishnah, with all of its complex intertexual meanings, is the language of the street, the market, the newspaper, the novel, the theater, and the music.

Equally if not more importantly, Israel fulfills its promise to be a truly Jewish state through its extraordinary humanitarian efforts. Just a few weeks ago, Israel was among the very first countries to send personnel, supplies, and resources to the Bahamas following the devastation of Hurricane Dorian. And a couple years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Tzfat’s Ziv Medical Center, where Israeli doctors have treated dozens of victims of the Syrian civil war, despite Syria’s history of hostility toward Israel. Israel does things like this not simply because they are nice or because they bolster her public image. Rather, it comes to the aid of disaster-stricken countries, especially poor, disaster-stricken countries, because it recognizes that alleviating suffering is what Judaism is all about, and so it is simply what a truly Jewish state does. 

But this dimension of Israel’s promise to be a truly Jewish state is also where its record is much more checkered. Recall that, in the Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founders promised that the Jewish state would “be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” The Declaration goes on to explain that in order to live up to these values, the Jewish state must “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” as well as “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” 

In many respects, Israel’s commitment to fulfill this promise indeed makes it “a light unto the nations.” Its welfare system is one of the most robust in the world, and despite its high rates of economic inequality and poverty, Israel strives to fulfill the biblical command that “there shall be no needy among you.” Its democratic institutions are robust and the rule of law generally prevails. 

Within its sovereign borders, Israel’s citizens do possess equal political rights, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, race, or sex. And while Israeli society, like many others, continues to struggle with religious equality, including the equal treatment of different Jewish denominations, as well as misogyny, homophobia, and racism, women, LGBTQ Israelis, and ethnic and religious minorities all possess freedom and equality that is unparalleled in the region. For these reasons and more, Israel has lived up to its promise to be a truly Jewish state, and it makes me — as it should make all of us, I think — very, very proud. 

Unfortunately, however, this is not the whole story. Because even as we celebrate the ways that Israel fulfills its promise to be a state infused with Jewish character and guided by Jewish values, we also must contend with the fact that, for over 50 years, Israel has denied millions of Palestinians under its dominion their own right to national self-determination. The military occupation that Israel has imposed on the Palestinian people since the end of the Six Day War denies them equal rights, freedom of movement, land, and economic opportunity. 

In the context of this occupation, Israel has been repeatedly and credibly accused of violating Palestinian human rights and international laws, all while it continues to allow and in some cases encourage the settlement of its own population in the disputed territory, sometimes confiscating land from Palestinians and even bulldozing entire neighborhoods to accommodate settlers, and in the process undercutting the viability of a future independent state. 

I am well aware that some of you may be upset by what I just said. Believe me, it also makes me angry, as well as sad — and scared. Because I love Israel, because I believe so much in the promise of Israel, and because of how important Israel is to me personally and to the Jewish community collectively, the occupation breaks my heart. But it’s also because I love Israel and because I care for its future that I feel this must be said, as honestly and as urgently as possible. 

I also know that some of us object to the mere use of the “O” word. But today is a day for honesty. And the truth is that there is near universal consensus, from the international community to the Israeli Supreme Court to the IDF itself, that the proper term to describe the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is “occupation.” That’s what it’s called when territory is captured and neither annexed nor returned. 

When the civilian population in that territory is ruled by the capturing country’s military, it is accurate to describe their condition as living under occupation. And when an occupying power permits or incentivizes its citizens to settle in occupied territory, it is violating international law.

It is of course a fact that Palestinians have blood on their hands. I came of age during the Second Intifada, when a horrific wave of Palestinian terror killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. And I lived in Israel after the disengagement from Gaza, when Israel unilaterally uprooted its settlements in the Strip, and Palestinian militants began unleashing barrages of rocket attacks on civilian populations, a brutal campaign that continues to this day. Stand atop the Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv on a clear day. You can see the vast majority of Israel’s population with the naked eye. And you will quickly realize that this population of millions is easily within range of rocket fire from the West Bank. Thank God, Israel’s military today is a force to be reckoned with. But no nation, however mighty, is invincible. And Israel must be permitted to defend itself, otherwise it will, God-forbid, cease to exist.

But Israel’s legitimate security concerns do not justify endless occupation. Indeed, many experts, including among them prominent Israeli military leaders, argue that endless occupation threatens Israel’s long-term security. Some even say that our failure to end the occupation and work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians poses an existential threat to Israel’s very survival. 

And endless occupation also poses an existential moral threat to Israel. It renders us incapable of existing in accordance with the values of “freedom, justice and peace” as envisaged by our Torah and our tradition. Our Torah and our tradition insist that every human being is created equally in the Divine image, but occupation is so often by its very nature demeaning and dehumanizing. Our Torah and our tradition demand we have “one law,” but occupation dictates two unequal systems for two unequal peoples. Our Torah and our tradition insist that we not do unto others what would be hateful to us — and yet through occupation Israel imposes upon innocent Palestinians hardship, indignity, and even cruelty that we ourselves would rightly find intolerable. 

Ultimately, our right to safeguard our own national liberation cannot forever come at the expense of another people’s national liberation. Preserving and defending a sovereign democracy on one side of a border cannot forever come with the price tag of denying freedom, equality, and self-determination on the other side of that border. It is an unsustainable status quo, both on pragmatic and moral grounds. 

So, while we should not expect Israel to break its promise of being a state for the Jews in order to preserve its identity as a Jewish State, a state rooted in and committed to the highest ideals of our tradition, we also must demand that Israel not break its promise to be a truly Jewish state in order to secure a state for the Jews. For Israel to remain Israel, for Israel to live up to its promise, it must be both things.

I don’t presume to have all the answers on how Israel should end the occupation, make peace with the Palestinians, and enable them to have a state of their own. I fully recognize all the political and practical obstacles Israel faces in doing those things. And in any event, the logistics of how and when Israel can and should do this ought properly to be the purview of the military experts, policy-makers, and diplomats. 

But to insist that Israel lives up to its highest values, that it reflects the moral vision of our scripture, our prophets, and our sages, a vision that demands we emulate a God of kindness and compassion by acting with kindness and compassion, a vision that holds human dignity and equality as foundational — to insist that our Jewish state can and must embody that vision — even and especially when it is hard to do — that is our collective communal responsibility. Because whether we live in Richmond or Rechavia, the State of Israel is our shared obligation and destiny.

Kol Nidrei draws our attention to the promises we make, and forces us to confront the disconnect between who we say we want to be and who we are. As we began our service, we alluded to the ישיבה של מעלה וישיבה של מטה . 

Note that the word we used is ישיבה, which commonly refers to a house of learning, and not בית דין, a court of justice. Tonight, we do not convene a court to put ourselves and each other on trial for our failings. Rather, we create a ישיבה, a place of study and sacred conversation. 

Typically, yeshiva students would gather with a passage of Torah or a page of Talmud between them, analyzing and debating its meaning and implications, striving to arrive at a deeper understanding and to acquire sacred wisdom. 

On Yom Kippur, we do that, too. Except the text is not the Torah or the Talmud. The text is each and all of us. The text is our lives. The text is the book written by our deeds as individuals, and our actions as a community. We gather tonight to open the book of our lives and study it together. We convene a conversation, not a judgment, about the promises we’ve kept, the promises we’ve broken, and how to best chart a pathway forward, as individuals and as a community. The State of Israel is a promise that our ancestors made to us, and that we make to each other and to our descendants after us. And this day calls us to study, discuss, and even engage in holy debate, about the condition of that promise. 

We needn’t agree — the best yeshivas are filled with disagreement, as is Israel itself, from the Knesset down to the corner market. And Zionism, in the words of my dear friend Rabbi Abe Friedman, “has always been better off in times of constructive disagreement and fertile conflict.” 

But we must not abandon the conversation. In that spirit, I invite you to participate in the programs of our new SHALOM Israel RVA initiative, opportunities for serious, honest, and accessible learning and discussion about Israel. Through illuminating classes, thought-provoking lectures, dynamic dialogue, and a boisterous book club, we will together explore all aspects of the promise and reality of modern Israel, engaging in the kind of robust learning and healthy disagreement that is at the heart of Zionism and represents the very best of our tradition.

Whether you avail yourself of those experiences or you participate in others, I ask that, beginning tonight, and in the year to come, we do not forsake the promises of Israel by abandoning the conversation about the condition of those promises. Israel looms too large in our history, is too vital to our present, and is too entwined in our destiny for us to stop talking with each other about it, even and especially when we disagree. 

For two thousand years, our people hoped against all odds to once again be a free people in its homeland. Over the last century, that hope has turned into an imperfectly fulfilled promise. 

It is on us today not to abandon that hope, and to ensure the promise is fulfilled. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon, so may it be God’s will.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Where the Oppressed Shed Tears

A view of inside US CBP detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas

Sermon for Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah 5780 — September 30, 2019

According to tradition, the powerful, piercing cry of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is meant to awaken us from our spiritual and moral slumber, the mindless and purposeless manner in which most of us use up our precious moments and spend our limited number of days. The Shofar’s blast is designed to call us to attention — attention to the disconnect between who we could be and who we are, between the values we claim to cherish and the ones we end up living by, between what we are called to do in this world and what we actually do with our lives.

But the Shofar is a blunt instrument. It certainly wakes us up, but its formless and wordless sounds can be less than helpful in pointing us back toward our highest ideals and forward towards our fundamental purpose as individuals and as Jews. Fortunately, for that, we have today’s Torah reading. 

At first blush, today’s parashah seems an unlikely candidate as a source text to redirect us for the year to come. Indeed, the story of the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael seems an odd choice for this Holy Day. On its surface, the story seems to have little to do with the purpose of human existence, our relationships, our faith, or God’s call to do teshuvah, to turn our lives around, which are the central themes of this season. But, if we look at it closely, we will find that it actually embodies and teaches the most essential of Jewish values, illuminating the righteous path for us to follow in the coming year. 

To put the story into context, Abraham and Sarah, we are told earlier in the Book of Genesis, are unable to have children. Since God had promised that Abraham would become the father of a great nation, this is a major problem. So Abraham sleeps with Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar, who conceives and gives birth to a son, whom they name Ishmael. 

For at least thirteen years, Ishmael is raised as Abraham’s only child. But there is a major plot-twist: A couple of angels tell Abraham that Sarah, by now an elderly woman, will miraculously conceive and give birth to a son. 

Our Torah portion opens with the fulfillment of that pronouncement, with Sarah giving birth to a son whom she and Abraham name Isaac. 

A reader encountering this story for the first time would invariably assume that, after many chapters dealing with Abraham and Sarah’s struggles to attain what God had promised them, we are about to move into some resolution of our heroes’ story, a kind of “happily ever after” coda to the saga of Abraham and Sarah, and the transition of the narrative to a new arc — namely, the building of the nation that God had foretold through Isaac. 

And we, the worshippers reading this story on Rosh Hashanah, a day on which we are concerned with our fates and busy ourselves in prayer to secure God’s favor in the year to come, might be led to believe that our tradition gives us a narrative about God’s reliability in fulfilling the covenant, about God’s reliability in answering our prayers favorably, or about how God treasures the Jewish people — embodied, as we now know ourselves to be, through the lineage of Isaac; about how God will never forsake us. 

But things are not always what they seem. At first, all indeed does seem to go well with this new addition to Abraham’s household. The first two years, according to the calculations of the classical commentators, pass by without incident. However, some time after Isaac’s second birthday, we are told that Sarah sees Ishmael “playing” (מצחק in Hebrew). In response to this seemingly minor offense, Sarah says to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac!” 

Now, it’s unclear exactly what Ishmael was doing that so offended Sarah. According to the medieval Spanish scholar Nahmanides — as well as several other commentators — it was the very presence of Ishmael that was worrisome to Sarah. Ishmael, after all, was Abraham’s first-born, and despite the fact that his mother was a slave, he had been raised to his teen years to be Abraham’s successor and heir. And Ishmael would likely have been resistant to the idea that Isaac, his younger half-brother, would supplant him; this could have posed major trouble down the line. 

Additionally, Sarah probably would have been concerned that if Ishmael were to make a claim on his inheritance as the firstborn, Hagar would be elevated and she would be diminished. In other words, Sarah’s objection about Ishmael and Hagar were not about what they were doing, but rather about who they were. Sarah sees the covenant as zero-sum: if Hagar and Ishmael remain in the picture, she and Isaac get a lesser share. Their very existence threatens her. 

It is noteworthy that Sarah neither refers to Ishmael nor Hagar by their names. Rather, she calls them “that slave-woman and her son,” underscoring their ethnicity and their class. To Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael are not human beings equal to her, but rather more like objects: When she needs them to realize God’s promise, they are hers to use, and when they are no longer useful, they ought to be thrown away. 

So Sarah commands Abraham to expel both Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah’s request distresses Abraham, but he ultimately consents when God reassures him that God “will make a nation” of Ishmael, too; our first indication that God does not share Sarah’s point of view. So “Early the next morning, Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.”

After rambling in the desert for some time, Hagar and Ishmael run out of food and water. Matters start to get dire. Ishmael apparently is close to dying of thirst. Out of options, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush, and positions herself a bowshot’s distance away — maybe 50 or 75 yards — so that she would not to have to watch her son die. 

And then, as Hagar bursts into tears, God appears. This is a recurring theme in the Torah. 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. 

Here, too, where there are tears, God appears. Hagar cries, and immediately, an angel calls to her, saying: “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Just then, a well appears before her. Hagar fills her skin with water and revives Ishmael. The story concludes by saying, “God was with the boy,” ויהי אלהים את-הנער. 

It turns out that this is one of only two places in the Torah where the narrator tells us that God is with someone. The other comes later in Genesis, in chapter 39, when Joseph is sold as a slave to the Egyptian noble Potiphar. Think about that for a second: 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

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, and in language familiar to anyone who has attended morning prayers, 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 migrant…[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 migrant, providing him with food and clothing.” (Deut. 10:18).

But understanding God in this way is not a mere academic exercise. 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, many of our Sages say that the Torah’s commandments — the entirety of our vast tradition — 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? 

When I visited Guatemala last January with American Jewish World Service, our group 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 migrant. Immediately after the Torah describes God that way, it commands: “You too must love the migrant.” Since God loves the migrant, the way we follow in God’s footsteps is to love the migrant, too. 

It’s important to point out something else from this passage: God’s love of the migrant 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 Maimonides teaches, we may not be able to will ourselves to love migrants 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.

This imperative to emulate God lies at the very heart of our tradition. In Leviticus, in the literal center of the whole Torah, this law is put succinctly and emphatically: “You shall be holy, for I, the Infinite your God, am holy.” The climactic instruction of the Torah is that we must strive to act — indeed, that we must strive to become — like God. 

We fulfill this core Jewish value by walking “in God’s ways,” by following God’s footsteps. As our rabbis emphasized, “just as God is gracious and compassionate, you must be gracious and compassionate…[just as God] is called kind…you too must be kind.” According to tradition, God acts with kindness and compassion by clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and comforting mourners. That’s why we, too, are obligated to clothe the naked, tend to the ill, and console the bereaved. Our tradition goes even further, saying that God demonstrates Divine kindness and compassion by showing up for, liberating, and protecting the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. Therefore 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 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 that is committed to being present for people who are vulnerable and suffering, a congregation that is devoted to doing whatever it can to alleviate peoples’ pain. 

Of course this means we must take care of our own, that we must be a community in which each of us — not just the rabbi or the cantor, but each one of us here — shows up for each other at the bedsides, the funerals, and the shiva houses; a community in which each of us comforts the bereaved, visits the homebound, and offers presence, love, and support to anyone encountering a trying time.

But it also means more than that. Much more. As we learn from this morning’s Torah portion, God shows up to help the oppressed whether or not they are part of our Tribe. One of the meanings of monotheism is that ALL people are Gods 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 migrant, the person who crosses the border of a foreign country 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, not just our members, not just our fellow Jews. A Jewish community, to be truly Jewish, ought to be paying at least as much attention to those in need outside our community as inside. When the oppressed shed tears, a truly Jewish community appears. 

This is not work that is extraneous to congregational life; not something we do on the side, or when we have some free time. It is not just something that the rabbi or the cantor should be doing. It is the very essence of what it means to be a Jewish community. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us, and of all of us.

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 today’s Torah portion, according to our sacred texts and revered rabbis, 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?

There are many ways to meaningfully answer that question. But that question — that challenge — of where we are when the oppressed cry out, lies at the very heart of the Rosh Hashanah service. The central ritual of this Holy Day is blowing the Shofar. In the few short passages where Rosh Hashanah is alluded to in the Torah, it is only referred to as Yom T’ruah, a day of Shofar blasts. According to Maimonides and others, the sound of the Shofar is supposed to remind us of crying. Other commentators are even more specific, teaching that the sound of the Shofar is meant to remind us of Hagar — expelled by Abraham, watching her only son die of thirst — wailing in the wilderness. 

Hearing the Shofar is the essential ritual of Rosh Hashanah because on this day — a day that calls us to consider who we are, what we believe, and why we exist; a day that urges us to remember our highest ideals and to take stock of how we’ve failed to live up to those commitments; a day that beckons us to realign ourselves with our purpose as human beings and as Jews — we are reminded that there are people, including and especially the world’s most vulnerable people, crying out, right in this very moment. We are reminded that ours is a God who, above all else, seeks to alleviate the pain and suffering of the oppressed. And we are reminded that our tradition’s most fundamental teaching is that we are commanded to emulate the God who acts with kindness and compassion toward the broken and bereaved, the victimized and the marginalized, that we can and must act like God toward those people, offering our presence and encircling protection. 

The cries of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah call out to us and test us. What will we do in the year to come? What will we do in our lives, in this world, where so many throats are sore from weeping, and so many cheeks are drenched with tears? Our tradition teaches us that, where there are tears, God appears

This year, may we heed the call to do the same. 

Shanah Tovah.

 

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bad Faith Broke Us. Only Good Faith Can Fix Us.

img_0057-1

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 25780 — October 1, 2019

Just over 400 years ago, in August 1619, a ship called The White Lion landed at Point Comfort, now Fort Monroe, in Hampton, about 60 miles downriver from us here in Richmond. Its cargo included 20 or so enslaved Africans, who had been stolen from a Portuguese slave ship called the San Juan Bautista. The slaves were unloaded and sold for provisions to a few wealthy English planters. These were the first Africans sold into bondage in the mainland English North American colonies that would eventually become the United States. As we know, they would by no means be the last. 

By 1790, two years after Virginia ratified the US Constitution, the population of enslaved people of African descent in our commonwealth exceeded 300,000 people, fully two-fifths of the population at the time. 

And here in Richmond, by the onset of the Civil War, about 40% of our city’s total population was enslaved. In addition to being the capital of both Virginia and the rebel states, Richmond also had the dubious distinction of housing the nation’s second-largest slave market in Shockoe Bottom. Before 1860, our city’s single biggest industry was buying, selling, and trading enslaved human beings.

It is commonplace in many circles nowadays to call slavery America’s “original sin.” But it is impossible to understand — and ultimately atone for — the sin of racial slavery without first coming to terms with the mindset and conditions that created it in the first place. In recent years, scholars like Richmond’s own Rev. Ben Campbell have helped us understand that slavery “was a fundamental strategy” of the European conquest of North America, enabling the colonizers to displace and in many cases slaughter this continent’s indigenous populations and exploit its resources. It’s crucial to recognize that underpinning slavery and colonization was a theology, a religious doctrine. 

It’s hard to untangle whether this theology animated the conquest and plunder of the New World or whether it was simply and cynically used as a justification. But either way, faith was a fundamental element of the European theft of this continent. Animating European exploration and colonization of the New World was something that has been called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The Doctrine of Discovery held “that European ‘Christian’ nations were entitled to claim as their own any property not held by other European Christian nations…”

The Doctrine of Discovery commanded European Christians, in the words of Pope Nicholas V, to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all…pagans[,] other enemies of Christ[,] and their kingdoms…and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” 

It is important to note that those who advanced this doctrine of Christian supremacy could point to the Bible itself as justification. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, when the Israelites enter the promised land they are to utterly wipe out the Canaanites who were living there. They are to spare no one — man, woman, or child — and they may seize the Canaanites’ property for themselves. 

Within this framework, Christians, who had long regarded themselves as the new Israelites, could view the New World as a new Promised Land. And all non-Christians — like Native Americans — became contemporary Canaanites. In this religious spirit, European Christians asserted that their conquest of the New World was ordained by God Himself in the Bible. 

It is impossible to understate how influential the Doctrine of Discovery was. Eventually, legislators even enshrined it into American law. And it was the implementation of this Doctrine that gave rise to racial slavery in the New World. 

A little history: As colonists in Virginia established a tobacco economy on the land they took from the Algonquins, they continually sought to maximize profits by looking for cheaper and more expendable labor. At first, Virginia’s wealthy landowners solved this problem by importing indentured servants from England. But as the tobacco industry boomed, they increasingly turned to African slave labor. 

While English bondservants in Virginia were viewed and treated very poorly, enslaved Africans, from the get-go, had an even lower status and were subject to far harsher treatment. Whereas a bondservant worked for a prescribed period of time, an enslaved person was presumed to be under the dominion of his master for life. A master could beat a slave as he saw fit. If a slave were to die as a result of his master’s wrath, the master could not be considered guilty of any crime. Additionally, slavery was regarded as a hereditary status — any child born to a slave was automatically to be considered a slave.

The legal distinction between an enslaved person of African descent and a bondservant of English descent came from the same mindset that produced the Doctrine of Discovery: a theology of Christian supremacy. This theology dictated that Christians were superior to non-Christians. And this theology insisted that Christians were commanded to dominate and subjugate — or else, annihilate — inferior nonbelievers. Thus, the earliest slave codes in Virginia distinguished enslaved Africans from the rest of the population not along racial lines but rather along religious ones: “Christian” was one class of people, non-Christian another, with “Christian” understood to be synonymous with “a person of English descent.” 

It is again important to note that those who advanced this doctrine of Christian supremacy pointed to the Bible as justification. The Hebrew Bible regards Israelite and non-Israelite slaves differently, and non-Israelite slaves could be treated much more harshly. Again, with the simple move of regarding English Christians as the new Israelites and non-Christians — like Africans — as Canaanites, people of English descent justified the slave system they developed and implemented as divinely ordained.

What complicated matters was that some enslaved Africans were themselves Christian. By this point in history, some Africans already practiced an indigenized Christianity in their home countries. The Jesuits had long forced all enslaved Africans to be baptized as Christians prior to boarding the slave ships. And some colonists converted their African slaves, both because some enslaved people wanted to become Christian and also because many believers saw it as their duty to “save” their slaves’ souls. So, to maintain a distinction between masters and slaves, legislators quickly transformed slavery from a religious caste system into a racial one. 

The fact of this transformation from Christian supremacy to white supremacy — which involved the very invention of “race” as a concept and the racist attitudes and systems that necessarily follow from it — can help us understand why those who perpetuated and defended racial slavery did so with religious zeal. 

And it can also help us understand why racial inequality persisted and continues to persist long after slavery was abolished. Knowing that racism and white supremacy originate as a pernicious but widely-held article of Christian faith, we can see why, for example, almost immediately after Richmond fell to Union forces, Richmond’s elite mobilized against extending legal equality to the newly freed slaves. 

The religious roots of racism and white supremacy can also help us understand why, as soon as Reconstruction ended, Virginia’s white leaders brazenly took the franchise away from black citizens, segregated public transportation, made it virtually impossible for many black citizens to secure adequate housing, prohibited racial intermarriage, denied black children equal access to a quality education, and legalized racial discrimination in employment. It can help us see why white southern leaders in the 1950’s advocated “massive resistance” to school integration and desegregation. It can help us see why Richmond is today, sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, more segregated by race than it has ever been in its history, and how the segregated map of the city correlates perfectly to inequities in everything from income to wealth to educational outcomes to access to healthcare to air and water quality to life expectancy. 

In other words, there is a through-line between the conquest and plunder of this continent and the institution of racial slavery. It’s there between the fact that the bloodiest war in American history was fought to preserve that institution and the fact that, following the war, the former slaves and their descendants faced a coordinated and often violent campaign to retain racial slavery by any means and under any name; between the system of apartheid, disenfranchisement, and discrimination that was erected after emancipation and the unrelenting initiatives to challenge and undermine those newfound rights and equalities once the laws began to change in the ‘50’s; between redlining, massive resistance, white flight, the drug war, mass incarceration, and the fact that on average people of color in our country earn less, are arrested more, and die younger than white people. That through-line is white supremacy, which is rooted in the Christian supremacist Doctrine of Discovery, which in turn is rooted in a distorted, demented, and dangerous interpretation of Scripture. 

The Christian origins of white supremacy does not mean that we Jewish Americans cannot be implicated in or bear no responsibility for it. True, most of our Jewish ancestors came to America after the end of the Civil War. Many were fleeing persecution and poverty. It is also true that the American Jewish community is multiracial, that many of our ancestors were excluded and discriminated against for much of our history here, and that many Jewish Americans have been on the front lines of advocating for equality. It is also unfortunately a fact that antisemitism endures and, in some corners thrives, in American society.

Nevertheless, the racialization of slavery — and thus the American consciousness — enabled American Jews of European descent to be considered white. And our whiteness afforded us power and privilege. This is most obviously evidenced by American Jews who perpetuated and defended racialized slavery. Indeed, a Jewish Richmonder held several of the highest offices in the Confederacy, and Beth Ahabah’s rabbi was one of the most prominent defenders of the Slave States. There were many Jewish slave owners in the antebellum South. In the decades following the Civil War, many Jews actively defended segregation. Others passively supported it, through silence and white flight. 

Yes, Jews have thrived in America in large part thanks to our ingenuity, our grit, and our chutzpah. But we Jews of European descent have also been buoyed by our skin color. We may not have created white supremacy, but we have nevertheless benefited from and perpetuated it. 

Additionally, the Christian origins of white supremacy does not mean that Christians or Christianity are the enemy. The Doctrine of Discovery was never universally embraced by Christians, and I am certain that the majority of Christians today would categorically reject the Doctrine. And though Christianity has been mustered in defense of colonialism, slavery, and segregation, Christians have also been at the forefront of movements for liberation and social justice. At the same time, it is crucial for American Christians, especially those who benefit from white privilege, to recognize the role that Christian faith played in creating and entrenching the racial dynamics that continue to affect this country.

Ultimately, we all must come to terms with this basic fact: white supremacy is more than an overt ideology, the kind espoused by skinheads or khaki-clad white guys marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville. It may have Christian roots, but it has become deeply rooted in the American psyche, etched into the entire infrastructure of our country. We’re all in one way or another impacted by or implicated in economic and social systems shaped by the oppressive theology of the colonizers. We will therefore never be able to heal our city, our commonwealth, and our country, without treating the underlying infection. The sickness at the heart of our society is bad faith. And the only thing that can overcome bad faith — is good faith. The remedy must match the malady. A religious problem requires a spiritual solution.

A careful reading of Today’s Torah portion can help us chart a path forward. It is a troubling story, and yet also so familiar that many of us can recount it by heart: 

God, we are told, “tests” Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham immediately and unquestioningly takes Isaac, along with two of his servants, to Mt. Moriah. Abraham leaves the two servants at the base of the mountain and ascends with Isaac. Atop the peak, Abraham builds an altar and binds Isaac upon it. As he lifts up the knife to slaughter his son, an angel calls out from heaven and tells him to stop. Abraham then finds a ram in a nearby thicket and sacrifices it in Isaac’s place. 

This story raises so many challenging questions: Why is God testing Abraham? What, exactly, was the test? Does Abraham pass? What happens to Isaac? What lessons are we to learn from this unsettling narrative?

Let’s look closely at the text. God’s instruction to Abraham is:

 קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּ֑ה וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃

Typically, this is translated as, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you.” 

However, the specific actions God prescribes here are not quite so clear in the original Hebrew. God definitely tells Abraham to “take” Isaac to the land of Moriah. There is little ambiguity in the word קח. But there is much more ambiguity in the phrase וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה. It of course can mean “offer him there as a burnt offering.” 

But the Hebrew verb עלה literally means “to go up.” It is the same root we use for עליה, to ascend the bimah for an honor, to make a pilgrimage, or to move to the Land of Israel. So another way of understanding God’s command could be “take him up there as someone who ascends,” or “take him up there to be honored,” or “take him up there as a pilgrim.” No less an authority than Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, points out this very fact. According to Rashi, the text specifically says “take him up.” And it specifically does not say “kill him.” 

If God had wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, or even if God had wanted Abraham to think that God wanted him to kill Isaac, God could have said so explicitly. The fact that God specifically does not instruct Abraham to kill Isaac means, according to Rashi, “that the Holy Blessed One did not want [Abraham] to slaughter him, but rather [merely] to take him up to the mountain.” As evidence for this fact, Rashi notes that once Abraham had taken Isaac up there, God tells him to take him back down.

This insight helps resolve one of the central difficulties in the story, namely the nature of the test God is giving Abraham. Typically, the test is understood to be about Abraham’s total loyalty to God, whether his devotion was so complete that he would be willing to perpetrate a horrible crime simply because God told him to. Sometimes, the test is understood to be about Abraham’s faith in God, whether he would follow God’s command, however confusing or painful or uncertain, without the guarantee of a particular outcome. 

And as evidence that Abraham passed one or both of these tests, commentators typically point out that, after Abraham shows his willingness to slaughter his son, the angel says, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 

But if we read carefully, we will see that the angel specifically does not say that Abraham passed God’s test. The angel simply says that Abraham had, through nearly killing Isaac, demonstrated a fear of the Divine. To fear God means to faithfully obey God’s commands out of a respect for Divine authority or out of a concern for what will happen to you if you do not. Clearly, Abraham thought God was ordering him to sacrifice his son, and, in dutifully obeying what he perceived to be the command, Abraham shows that he either respects God’s authority enough to unquestioningly obey, or sufficiently fears the consequences of disobedience. In other words, Abraham certainly proves that he fears God. But does he pass the test?

What if the test wasn’t about whether or not Abraham feared God? Rather, what if the test was about whether Abraham interpreted God’s command in a way that was consistent with who he understood God to be? God deliberately gives Abraham a command that could be interpreted in one of two ways: either God was ordering Abraham to bind, slaughter, and burn his son, or God was ordering Abraham to take him up to the highest of heights in honor or in homage. Which interpretation to follow depended entirely on what Abraham knew about God. Was the God that Abraham knew to this point a deity who would order an atrocity, or was the God that Abraham knew a deity who would only ever command uplift, a Sovereign who, to borrow a line from today’s liturgy, desires life most of all? 

For whatever reason, Abraham followed the former understanding, and with devastating consequences. True, he secures the blessing of empire, though it’s important to note that the substance of the angel’s blessing merely repeats what God had already promised Abraham elsewhere. And it all comes at a terrible cost: Abraham returns to his servants alone. Sarah, the next we hear of her, is dead; neither God nor Isaac ever speak to Abraham again. Isaac, for his part, is irreparably damaged physically and emotionally according to many of the traditional commentaries. And Isaac’s children and grandchildren spend most of their lives at each other’s, and others’, throats. 

Given what we know today about transgenerational trauma, this dysfunction is unsurprising. Long before the advent of modern psychology, the Torah conveys that Isaac’s pain and alienation were passed on to his descendents. So Abraham gets the empire he is promised, but it is — much like our own American empire — lonely and fractured and built on a cracked foundation. 

What would have happened if Abraham had interpreted God’s command differently? How would the story have played out? How would history have changed? 

It’s impossible to know for sure. But what we can do is treat the Binding of Isaac as a cautionary tale with the aim of helping us make different choices. We can recognize that it is within our power to choose whether ours is a God of domination or a God of love, whether ours is a God who instructs us to divide and conquer or to unite and uplift. 

And if we believe in a God who lifts the fallen, heals the broken, and releases the bound — the terms our tradition repeatedly uses to describe the God with whom we are called to be in relationship — then it is not only possible but obligatory to interpret sacred text and religious imperatives in a way that aligns with such a God, and to reject understandings that could never emanate from such a God. 

Rabbi Moses Maimonides put it this way: “The laws of the Torah are not vengeance in the world, but mercy and kindness and peace in the world.” If the purpose of Torah is to advance mercy, kindness, and peace, then, as my dear teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes, we are not only permitted but rather duty-bound to “construe its demands in terms of these moral goals.” 

Reorienting ourselves to this way of understanding God, interpreting scripture, and applying our tradition is the only way to repair what Abraham broke that fateful day on Mt. Moriah. And, indeed, it is the only way to repair what those first colonizers broke when they planted crosses on Algonquin lands and claimed them for the crown and for Christ. Only by zealously adopting a theology and spiritual practice that aligns with the godly virtues of love, justice, and peace can we undo and utterly root out attitudes, customs, laws, and systems that fly in the face of the notion that every single human being is created in the Divine image, infinite in dignity and equal in worth. Only good faith can repair what bad faith has torn asunder. Bad faith broke us. Only good faith will fix us. 

How could we be remade through good faith? 

Imagine, for a moment, what our city and our commonwealth could look like if our most deeply held belief, if our highest religious ideal, were affirming that every human being were 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. 

If we were to truly embrace this ideal, if we became fundamentalists for human dignity and equality, I imagine we would say that 65 years after Brown v. Board, and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, it was past time to dismantle the systems that perpetuate segregation and inequality. 

I imagine we would become more insistent that poor, African American renters deserve to stay in their home than we have been about keeping statues of Confederate “heroes” on their pedestals on Monument Ave. 

I imagine that we would demand one’s zip code no longer determine their life expectancy, and that the color of one’s skin no longer determine their prospects for escaping poverty. 

And I imagine that we would no longer tolerate a status quo in which 25% of Richmonders, and nearly 40% of our children, mostly racial minorities, go to bed hungry each night. 

We whose tradition is rooted in the principle of human equality have a crucial role to play in forging a better future. We who have come to benefit from the white supremacy embedded in the structure of our society have a unique ability and responsibility to dismantle it. And we who reside in the birthplace of American racial inequity have the power and the obligation to work toward inclusion and justice. 

In this year, as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of those first enslaved Africans being unloaded on these shores, in this moment when white supremacy is ascendant and inequality is more rampant than ever, in this place, in this still-segregated “Capital City of Slavery,” and on this day of judgment and repentance, we are called to begin the work of repairing what is broken in our society. And we must start by healing the sickness in our souls. Because two hundred fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, and forty years of mass incarceration are but symptoms — pernicious, painful symptoms, but symptoms nevertheless — of a deeper spiritual illness, a disease transmitted to us by those first colonizers. But today on Rosh Hashanah, and here in Richmond, we can commit to begin the healing. 

The soul of this nation is sick because of the bad faith of white supremacy. That bad faith both made us what we are, and continues to break us apart. But there is a cure. We can heal ourselves. For though bad faith broke us, good faith can fix us. This year, in this city, and starting with this very community — let’s let the healing begin.

Shanah Tovah.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Everyone Has a Right to Sanctuary – Parashat Matot-Mas’ei 2019

4C01C35F-51B8-4C28-AF05-B5CEC38FBB4E

Parashat Mas’ei, the last portion of Ba-Midbar, is both backward and forward looking in nature: It is backward looking, because it begins with a recapitulation of all the places the Israelites sojourned in the wilderness; and it is forward looking because it contains instructions about the conquest of Canaan and the allotment of the land to the various tribes. Each tribe was to get a portion of the Promised Land proportional to its population: bigger tribes would get larger parcels of land, and smaller tribes would receive smaller portions. The Parashah points out, however, that the tribe of Levi was not to receive a dedicated portion of land. Instead, each tribe would have to give up some of its land to build cities for the Levites — 48 cities in all, or 4 cities per tribal territory. Of these 48 cities, 6 were to be designated as ערי מקלט, cities of refuge.

The City of Refuge is one of the Torah’s more peculiar institutions. According to today’s portion, a City of Refuge was a place designated for a person who kills someone to flee to in order to be shielded from the גואל הדם, the blood avenger, a relative or friend of the dead person who is out for vengeance — dibs, by the way, on the band name “Blood Avengers.” Interestingly, the Torah does not ban the practice of blood vengeance. Perhaps it felt such a ban would have been ineffective in curtailing these apparently widespread crimes of passion. So instead of engaging in the futile act of prohibiting something that people were just going to keep doing anyway, the Torah rather seeks to prevent further bloodshed by protecting the killer from the avenger.

It is interesting, I think, that it is only after the killer has taken up residence in the City of Refuge that he or she is actually put on trial. One would think that the Torah should have the case adjudicated outside the city in order to ensure that only those individuals who fit the narrow criteria of accidental manslaughter, the category of people that the City of Refuge was designed to protect, would be allowed in, that steps would be taken to keep out murderers, to deny them entry altogether. But the Torah’s primary concern is protecting the individual seeking sanctuary from the bloodlust of the avenger, even if that individual seeking sanctuary is himself or herself a criminal.

In other words, with the institution of these sanctuary cities, the Torah is making a bold claim — that every single person, regardless of legal status — regardless, even, according to verse 15, of citizenship status — has the right to be shielded from those who would seek to do them harm. Put differently, one does not have to prove the validity of one’s asylum claim in order to be granted asylum. One does not even need to be a citizen in order to claim or be granted asylum. According to Maimonides, everyone who seeks asylum in a city of refuge must be given asylum. It is against Jewish law to refuse anyone. The assertion that your life is in danger, whoever you are, and whoever may or may not be threatening you, is sufficient. And furthermore, in commanding not only that these cities be built but that they welcome in anyone making a claim for asylum, the Torah also insists that the state has a reciprocal responsibility to protect all who seek the state’s protection — again, regardless of legal status, regardless of citizenship status.

Now, you might well say that this is all technically true from a practical point of view, but it’s not as though hardened criminals would get to stay in the sanctuary city indefinitely. In fairness, when a person arrived at a city of refuge, the court would send messengers to bring him in for a trial. These messengers, by the way, also acted as bodyguards, protecting the accused from blood avengers. If it was decided that the individual had committed murder, he or she would be judged accordingly (and ultimately put to death). But if the judges determined that the killing was truly unintentional, the messengers would return him to the city of refuge. It’s important to bear in mind that, in practice, we know that the ancient courts almost never convicted people of capital homicide. The standards of evidence and testimony that the rabbinic tradition established and honored made it exceedingly rare for anyone to actually be found guilty of murder. Thus, we learn in the Mishnah: “A court that executes a person once in seven years is called a murderous court. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Even once in 70 years!’ (M. Makkot 1:10). So, in practice, sanctuary was granted both to people who probably committed murder but were exonerated thanks to some technicality, as well as to people who were truly innocent of a capital offense. Anyone claiming the state’s protection could take refuge in a Sanctuary City.

Moreover, the Jewish legal tradition explains that the Cities of Refuge were more than mere citadels to shelter refugees from blood avengers. They of course had to provide protection, but they also had to be sufficiently livable places. For starters, they had to be easy and safe to access. The roads leading to the cities had to be easy for a refugee to navigate: Valleys were raised, hills were leveled, and bridges were built to make it easier to travel. There had to be adequate directional signage. And the state of the roads had to be thoroughly examined every year to make sure they were in good repair. In addition, the sanctuary cities could not be cut off from society and commerce. They had to be situated near populous trading centers.

Given all this, it goes without saying that the state was obligated to provide for the basic needs of all the inhabitants of sanctuary cities: The city had to have an independent water source so as to ensure a suitable and uninterrupted water supply. The state had to supply the residents of sanctuary cities with sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. But the state’s obligations went beyond basic needs, however, to cultural and religious ones as well: if a student became a refugee, his teacher had to be moved to the city of refuge so that he could continue to teach him Torah. If a teacher took up asylum, his school had to be uprooted and relocated in the sanctuary city. If the population in a City of Refuge were ever to dwindle, the state would have to transfer citizens — including priests, Levites, and average Israelites — from elsewhere to fill it back up. There is even a charming tradition that teaches the mother of the High Priest would personally bring the best foods and the finest clothes to spoil the inhabitants of the Cities of Refuge, asking in return only that they pray for the welfare of her child. The Cities of Refuge were thus never permitted to become indefinite holding cells, ghettos, or detention camps. They had to be places of civilization — of culture, of religion, of society — places of thriving. For “man does not live by bread alone,” as the book of Deuteronomy puts it. Rather, all human beings require meaning, purpose, and relationships — in addition to basic necessities — in order to live and thrive.

It’s unclear if these Cities of Refuge ever existed, or if they were simply one of the Torah’s more utopian visions that was never fully realized. But what is abundantly clear is how far we are today in this country from upholding the fundamental moral message of the Cities of Refuge.

Today, thousands upon thousands of people are fleeing some of the most dangerous and impoverished places in the world — places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. I know how dangerous they are. I have been fortunate to travel to Honduras and Guatemala with American Jewish World Service and have seen the violence and the desperation first-hand. I have met victims of unthinkable abuses — both those sponsored by the state and those that the state is powerless or unwilling to prevent — people whose livelihood and bodies are under assault each and every day. Spend a week in the inner cities and rural hamlets of Guatemala and you will quickly understand why folks are willing to leave behind everything they know and walk on foot — sometimes carrying infants in arms — for weeks through dangerous terrain and in perilous conditions; evading gangs, cartels, and violent criminals in order to seek safe haven and opportunity in our country. The migrants coming to our border by the thousands are literally running for their lives, hoping to be let into our City of Refuge.

But instead of building safe and navigable roads for them, we are building walls, erecting guard towers, and stationing soldiers to prevent them from entering. Instead of providing them with sanctuary, we are locking them up in detention centers, where they are routinely denied suitable living conditions, sufficient food and water, and necessary medical care. Instead of providing them places to thrive, safe from their pursuers and free from fear, we are tearing children away from their parents and putting them in cages. And as if these outrages were insufficient, just this week, several new policies were announced that amount, effectively, to an end to even the semblance of an asylum system in the US, leaving some of the most desperate people on the planet vulnerable to their dangerous pursuers.

By the way, this is an important point to underscore for those who maintain that those who want to come to the United States should do so through legal channels, that the problem is not immigration but illegal immigration. Our current immigration and asylum laws are extraordinarily restrictive. We let in very few people, especially if they are from Central America. And even for those who qualify, the process is extremely cumbersome and the wait lengthy. Not enough people at risk qualify. Furthermore, even many of those who do qualify cannot afford to wait for their claims to be processed. By the time we deem them worthy to be let in, they may very well be dead. So it is not enough to insist on legal immigration. We must also demand that our laws be changed so that all who seek refuge here can easily do so.

Indeed, my very point is that we as a country are making a choice to treat Central American migrants seeking asylum as criminals, rather than as human beings in need of our help. The Torah’s Cities of Refuge are instructive for us precisely because they are founded on the principle that those seeking refuge must not be regarded as criminals. This is true even though, in the case of the Cities of Refuge, everyone who was seeking asylum was a killer; many were out and out murderers. But the basic moral message behind the Cities of Refuge is this: anyone who claims to be at risk is entitled to asylum, regardless of legal status, regardless of citizenship. According to the Torah, we simply have no right to deny refuge to anyone fleeing for their lives. We are commanded to presume the truth of their claims and to presume their innocence; to take them in and to care for them; to provide for their security, their sustenance, and their spiritual well-being. According to the Torah, everyone has a right to sanctuary. And that means, according to the Torah, we have a responsibility to provide it — an obligation to grant sanctuary to all who seek it.

That obligation is by nature communal. Each of us individually are not required to set up Cities of Refuge in our backyards and basements. But what we are required to do, I think, is demand of our government — which is the representative and agent of our body politic — that it upholds and acts upon our values, our ideas, and our commitments. That is why this Tisha B’Av we are joining with Jewish communities across the country — and with communities of conscience from all over our region — to protest our current immigration system, to speak out against the abuses being perpetrated in our name, and to demand a change in course. I invite you to join us here on Sunday, August 11 at 4pm to stand up for our values and to stand with the oppressed.

Just a few days ago, I was privileged to take my kids to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time, the emblem of refuge who stands upon the words “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I told them about “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” the homeless, our ancestors, tempest-tost to this land of promise. I tried to remind them that we are part of a nation of and by immigrants, that we descend from a perennially homeless people, that we believe that all human beings have been created equally in the Divine Image, even though, as we spoke, thousands of migrants were being subjected to unthinkable brutality on our watch. So I pray that we, we who bear the burden of our history and we who embrace our Torah, have the clarity to see what is happening now for what it is. May our hearts be softened and our passions ignited. And may we recommit ourselves to lifting our lamps beside the golden door, welcoming all in need of sanctuary to this land of refuge.

Posted in Reflections, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inner and Outer Work

This speech was originally given at the Spring Keynote event for the Chrysalis Institute (now The Innerwork Center) on May 2, 2019.

Within a six week span in late 2016, two things happened that changed my life:

The first was the November presidential election. Pursuing justice and repairing the world had always been central to my faith, but since becoming a rabbi I had usually steered clear of partisan politics. However, by the spring of 2016, the moral danger of a Trump presidency had become clear to me, and I decided I could no longer stand idly by. So I stepped right into the political fray, speaking out directly against Trump and campaigning unabashedly for Democrats.

My newfound activism was personally costly and professionally risky. Since I couldn’t neglect my congregational duties to engage in political action, I became less present for my wife and children, and I jettisoned self-care. And it was inevitable that my politics would alienate some of my congregants, potentially threatening both my job and my career.

When Trump won, I felt like my world was shattered; that all the sacrifices I made, and all the risks I took on had been in vain. Even worse, it felt like my failure had put lives in peril.

So, after a few days mired in shock and grief, I redoubled my efforts. I began organizing with like-minded friends to build a local resistance movement. I donated to organizations on the front-lines of the opposition. I signed every petition, and attended every protest. The great medieval Jewish sage, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, taught that every deed, no matter how large or small, has the potential to tip the world’s scales. I came to believe that if this was so, then it was my responsibility to keep the world from plunging into darkness.

About a month later, I was driving home from visiting an elderly congregant at Beth Sholom Home. At the intersection of John Rolfe Parkway and Gayton Road, another car ran a red light and T-boned me at full speed. My car was thrown through the intersection and flipped over entirely. I don’t remember much: the horrible sound of crunching metal and crashing glass; and the disorienting feeling of being upside down. I remember trying to open the door, gingerly unbuckling my seatbelt, bracing myself, and sliding out as carefully as I could. I looked myself over. I could walk and talk and see and hear fine. A Good Samaritan even marveled at how my hair somehow seemed to still be perfectly in place. I had cut my hand on some broken glass, and I accidentally kicked my sunglasses down a nearby sewer. But I was otherwise unscathed. I was lucky to be alive, much less in one piece.

In the days that followed, Mary Oliver’s beautiful and haunting poem, “When Death Comes” echoed in my mind:

“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

As 2016 faded into 2017, I resolved to live in the spirit of Oliver’s words — to spend every available moment making of my life something significant. I promised myself that I would live in such a way that, if death were to come for me unexpectedly, I would be ready for it; that I would not put off until tomorrow what could be done today. For after all, who knew what tomorrow may bring?  

So I threw myself even more forcefully into organizing, donating, campaigning, petitioning, writing, speaking out, and marching for justice. I became a fixture at local rallies and interfaith actions. I traveled to DC, Philadelphia, and New York for protests. I helped pave the path for the statewide “blue wave” of 2017. I became the Chrysalis Institute’s landlord. 

I did all this in addition to my already heavy load of congregational and family responsibilities. But the world seemed to be on fire, and I felt obligated to extinguish the blaze.

Within a few months, I was exhausted and burnt out. I felt harried and scattered. I was constantly stressed, anxious, and reactive: easily agitated, perennially overwhelmed, and perpetually disappointed. I carried the stress everywhere in my body. You could see it on my face. And I found myself regularly losing my temper, which disproportionately impacted those closest to me.

During the summer months, Jewish congregations read from the biblical book of Numbers. And that summer, Numbers chapter 20 hit me especially hard.

The story goes like this: the Children of Israel, led by a prophet named Moses, escape from slavery in Egypt. They travel through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But the journey is much longer and harder than they anticipated. The terrain is rugged, resources are scarce, enemies threaten, and patience wears thin. The people kvetch constantly. Moses has very little help carrying the burdens of leadership, and bears the brunt of the Israelites’ scorn. His emotional reserves are further depleted when, in a short span of time, his cousins mount a rebellion and his only sister suddenly dies.

Against this backdrop, the people complain to Moses about a lack of water. Moses appeals to God, and God tells Moses to speak to a nearby rock and command it to bring forth water. Instead of following God’s (admittedly strange) command, Moses excoriates the people for complaining and then angrily smashes the rock with his staff. Water erupts from the cracked stone, but God is furious. Moses is banned from entering the Promised Land.

That summer, I totally got Moses. He was so overwhelmed by his outer work — governing, teaching, preaching, leading, working tirelessly to turn this group of freed slaves into an exemplary society — that he had no space for compassion or empathy; he had no bandwidth to feel, check, and process his grief, fear, and rage. It was inevitable that he would explode in anger at the people closest to him.

And, perhaps paradoxically, I also understood God’s reaction: How could Moses do the outer work — judging disputes fairly, governing wisely, teaching his charges how to build an equitable and compassionate community — if he harbored resentment and was blind to his own callousness? How could God expect the Children of Israel to build a society in the Promised Land founded on the principle of loving your neighbor — and even the stranger — if their leader treated people with spite and cruelty?

That summer, I realized: the story of Moses and the rock was a cautionary tale for the activist, the advocate, the public servant, and, indeed, the spiritual leader.

Many of us are tempted to give all of ourselves to the outer work. The day, after all, is short, and the task is great. But unless we are mindful of our inner work — the condition of our hearts, the state of our souls — in time, we will render ourselves unfit to serve. Only when we nourish our inner selves can we give the best of ourselves to others, building the world we long to see without becoming hypocrites or pariahs in the process.

And just as it is true that the outer work is urgent, we are similarly on borrowed time with respect to our inner work. Caring for ourselves, like caring for others and the world, cannot wait. We cannot tend to ourselves merely when we have time, when we finally wrangle a day off or use our vacation days.

So how do we do both? How do we simultaneously prioritize self-care and care for others?

The first lesson is to remember our imperfections and limitations, to manage our expectations. The first century sage Rabbi Tarfon taught, “The work is not yours to finish. But neither are you free to desist from it.”

No matter how passionate we are, no matter how hard we work, no matter how devoted we are to the cause, no matter how talented or effective we are, it is extremely unlikely that any of us, whether individually or collectively, will complete the work — whether building a just, compassionate, and peaceful world, or enlightenment or spiritual perfection.

That doesn’t exonerate us from our obligations to refine ourselves and repair the world, but it does liberate us to pace ourselves and stop before reaching the point of exasperation or exhaustion. It allows us to be more forgiving of and compassionate toward ourselves when we fall short. It permits us to attain more balance.

Which brings me to the second lesson: getting the balance right. Here the Jewish tradition also has some powerful wisdom:

Every year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, observant Jews wear white robes called kittels, garments which resemble burial shrouds, and refrain from eating, drinking, bathing, and intimacy. In other words, on Yom Kippur, we rehearse for death. We remind ourselves that we are destined for the grave. We even recite a prayer called “U’netaneh Tokef,” in which we acknowledge our uncertainty about whether we will live or die in the coming year. We affirm not only that we are mortal, but also that each day might be our last.

But the prayer ends with an amazing line: “u’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha-gezeirah / repentance, prayer, and righteous action overturn the harshness of our fate.” Put differently, the way to make the most of whatever time we have, is to spend it doing three things: repenting, praying, and pursuing justice.

Note the ratio here. Only one of the actions prescribed is outwardly-focused. Two represent inner work. This hymn instructs us to dedicate ourselves to righteous action in the world. But more than that, twice as much in fact, we are to do the inner work embodied by prayer and repentance: Purifying and softening our hearts. Deepening our capacity for love, and expanding our spheres of compassion. Engaging in honest introspection and self improvement. Cultivating our faith and seeking out wisdom. Nourishing our spiritual strength and our moral courage.

And the prayer further instructs us not to wait: Don’t wait for the right time. Don’t wait until your external battles are won. Don’t wait until your worlds are conquered. Do it now. Make time, twice as much time, for your inner work. Because no one else will give it to you. And you can’t give to others unless you have enough for you.

We live in times that call for our passionate engagement. Our world is on fire, the need is urgent, and our time is limited. We are called upon to do our part to repair the world, seeing every day as potentially our last opportunity. But remember: only if we are fair and compassionate to ourselves will we reach the Promised Land of a loving, just, and peaceful world.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment