Wearing a face mask? You’re doing a mitzvah. Make a brachah!

Among the Jewish tradition’s most cherished values is the sanctity of human life. With a few notable exceptions, one must not endanger their life in order to fulfill a religious obligation. And one must violate even the most significant commandments in order to save another person’s life. Saving one life is regarded as the equivalent of saving an entire world, and consequently, taking a life is seen as tantamount to destroying an entire world.

It’s not just about saving people who are in mortal danger (known as pikuah ha-nefesh). Jewish tradition also expresses its commitment to the supreme importance of human life through laws related to the preservation and protection of life. This class of commandments is known as shmirat ha-nefesh; literally, protecting life. It is derived from a biblical verse which teaches, “Be cautious with yourself and seriously guard your life” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Rabbinic tradition understood this verse to mean that we are not allowed to knowingly endanger our lives or engage in behaviors that would likely result in disease or death. And we are similarly obligated to take steps to protect others’ lives, like building a parapet around the roofs of our houses to minimize the risk of someone accidentally falling.

Seen from this perspective, Jews ought to regard actions which help prevent us and others from contracting or communicating the novel coronavirus, like thoroughly washing our hands, wearing face masks, and remaining at home, as mitzvot, sacred obligations. These behaviors are more than wise acts of self-preservation and kind contributions to public health; they are holy deeds, religious requirements, with the force of divine injunction.

And if behaviors like thoroughly washing our hands, wearing face masks, and remaining at home are mitzvot, then they should be preceded by blessings. Relevant blessings accompany the performance of most other mitzvot.

To offer a timely example, consider matzah, the unleavened bread Jews are obligated to eat on the first night of Passover. Before eating matzah at the Passover Seder, one is supposed to recite, “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us about eating matzah.”

We recite a blessing before fulfilling a commandment to indicate that the deed we are about to perform is thoughtful and deliberate. We affirm that we are doing the action intentionally, and for the sake of fulfilling a religious obligation. In this way, we affirm the spiritual significance of the behavior, turning the thoughtless and the mundane into the intentional and the sacred, and helping us live with more meaning and purpose.

Since protective acts like hygienic hand-washing, wearing face masks, and sheltering in place should be considered mitzvot, at least during this pandemic, it seems to me that they should be preceded by an appropriate blessing, just like other mitzvot. Requiring a blessing would underscore the significance of these acts and encourage vigilant observance.

Additionally, since several months into the coronavirus pandemic these protective actions increasingly feel habitual or burdensome to many, requiring a blessing would properly elevate them, reminding us of their profound sanctity.

And yet, for some unknown or inscrutable reason, there are not traditional blessings over each and every act that could be considered shmirat ha-nefesh. There is a blessing for constructing a parapet: “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us to make a parapet.” But by tradition, building a parapet is the only act of protecting life that has an associated blessing.

Since there is a traditional blessing over erecting a parapet, it is tempting to simply apply that blessing to actions like hygienic hand-washing, wearing face masks, and staying at home. There are undoubtedly parallels between putting a fence on one’s roof for others’ safety and, say, putting a mask on one’s face for others’ safety. Still, it feels odd to use the same blessing for both acts. While analogous, they aren’t identical. Putting on a mask while reciting “to make a parapet” could diminish, rather than enhance, the intentionality of the act.

Instead, I propose creating a new blessing for the actions we take to keep ourselves and each other safe and healthy during a pandemic: “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us about protecting life.” Or, in Hebrew: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, Asher keed’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzeevanu al sh’meerat ha-nefesh.

While it is unusual for contemporary rabbis to create and mandate new blessings, it is not without precedent. And moreover, this novel blessing is in no way radical. It merely fills a gap in the tradition, giving an inexplicably blessingless commandment a traditional benediction like other sacred deeds.

More importantly, a blessing will remind us that these actions are not just good but godly, not just for safety but for sanctity, not just required but righteous.

Originally published in The Forward: https://forward.com/opinion/443804/wearing-a-face-mask-youre-doing-a-mitzvah-make-a-brachah/

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What God Needs Now: A Brief Pandemic Passover Reflection

“Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was traveling out of Jerusalem. Rabbi Yehoshua was walking behind him and saw the Temple in ruins. He said, ‘Alas for us, for this place which lies in ruins was where the people Israel atoned for their sins!’ Rabban Yohanan said to him, ‘My son, do not be aggrieved, for we have another, equal, way to atone. And what is that? Loving and kind deeds. As Scripture teaches (Hosea 6:6): for I desire deeds of love and kindness, not sacrifice.’” — Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 11a

I had a really hard time the first two days of Passover. My congregation couldn’t gather as usual to celebrate, to worship, or to learn. And our Seder at home on the first night was, let’s say, not great. I felt as though I was sifting through Passover ruins rather than inhabiting, in Heschel’s words, a cathedral in time. I have always loved this holiday so much. I love it so much I wrote a book about it (have I mentioned that? 😉🔌). Not to be able to celebrate it properly — which is to say, the way I’m used to celebrating it, but also in a way that truly honors the story and enables it to come alive for me and my kids — filled me with an overwhelming sense of loss. Compounding that feeling was the crushing mix of grief, stress, frustration, anxiety, and anger I have been wrestling with since this all began. It was a lot, and it was hard.

And then this morning I rediscovered this teaching. It helped. Rabbi Yehoshua feels a significant, debilitating loss. The Holy Temple had been destroyed, and consequently, the sacrificial rites had been cancelled. The manner of religious observance he was used to — the only way of connecting to God he knew, the way he assumed was indispensable and irreplaceable — had ceased to be. Rabban Yohanan reminds him that as long as we can perform deeds of love and kindness, we can equally if not better fulfill our religious obligations.
Passover was not what I wanted it to be this year. The Seder was not what I hoped it would be. But a meaningful and joyous Seder, ultimately, is not what God requires of me, or of us. In a time of destruction, to focus on pristine ritual misses the point. The world needs our loving and kind deeds. That is the spiritual work the moment demands.
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A Eulogy for Helen Zimm (z”l)

Today, I had the painful honor of burying my dear friend and teacher, Helen Zimm. The experience was made even more painful by the fact that most of Helen’s family and virtually all of her community were not able to be physically present to mourn and memorialize her together. We did the best we could using the technology at our disposal, but it was not how I envisioned saying goodbye to this extraordinary woman. Below is the eulogy I delivered. I hope my reflections appropriately honor her life and legacy. And whether you knew Helen or not, whether you were able to watch the funeral service via Zoom or not, I hope you join me in celebrating and learning from Helen’s life.
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It is perhaps strangely fitting that we gather — both those of us here in person and those who are with us virtually and spiritually — to bid farewell to our beloved Helen Zimm in these most unique of circumstances, because our dear Helen was herself so profoundly unique. There has never been anyone in this world like Helen Drexler Zimm, and there will never again be anyone in this world like Helen Drexler Zimm.
Part of what made Helen such a singular figure is her extraordinary story. Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1924, Helen was the oldest of three sisters, the first-born daughter of Solomon and Brandla Drexler. Her father was the owner of a soap factory, but when the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, they seized the factory, just as they seized the businesses and property of all Polish Jews. The Drexlers fled from Lodz to a town between Lodz and Warsaw, where they lived for about 3 years. In 1942, Solomon learned that the Nazis were planning on deporting the Jews in the town to concentration camps, so he bought false papers for Helen and her youngest sister. Fortunately, Solomon knew a woman by the name of Mrs. Kaszusczek, who was willing to forge documents for the Drexler girls. Helen survived the war as a housekeeper with an assumed Christian identity. Her parents were murdered by the Nazis, but Helen and her sisters survived.
After the War, Helen went with her middle sister, Nana, to live with an aunt in Toronto, Canada, while her youngest sister, Halina, moved with her husband, Alan, to Richmond. Mentioning Alan, it feels appropriate at this moment to wish him a full and speedy recovery. Through Halina and Alan, Helen met the love of her life, Alan’s brother, Sol Zimm (of blessed memory), a kind and loving man who had survived Auschwitz.
Soon after Helen and Sol married, they moved to Richmond and built a rich life and a beautiful family. They had two children, Melvin and Brenda. Two multiplied to four when Melvin married Sheila and Brenda married Larry. And four multiplied to eight when grandchildren Sophie and Clara and Rachel and Jason were born. But family, for Helen and Sol, was more than just one household. To Helen and Sol, Halina and Alan’s family were as their own: nieces and nephews Ruth, Rebecca, Josh, and Sol; nieces and nephews in law John, David, Allyson, and Nina; grand-nieces and nephews Jeremy, Jordana, Aaron, Ethan,, Jordan, Tova, Yossi, Yoni, and Michael. And Helen remained intimately close with her sister Nana (of blessed memory), as well as Nana’s son, Murrary, and Murray’s partner Henry.
If it was possible for Helen to love something as much as she loved her family, it was being Jewish. Helen LOVED being Jewish. She was a Zionist through and through and was extremely passionate about the State of Israel. Helen was blessed to visit Israel many times, including for the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1981 along with her entire family. Helen was also a life-long Hadassah member, a supporter of Camp Ramah and B’nai Brith, and a devoted member of Temple Beth-El.
I am honored to say that Temple Beth-El was Helen’s home away from home. This, perhaps, is a good opportunity to acknowledge another dimension of Helen’s uniqueness — her personality. For a woman so short of stature, Helen had an enormous personality, an undeniable and unmistakable presence. When Helen Zimm was in the room, you knew it. And indeed, scarcely a Saturday went by without Helen’s indelible presence toward the front of Temple Beth-El’s sanctuary — and, it must be said, that almost literally NO ONE voluntarily sits close to the front, so it shows how singular a personality Helen was, and also just how deeply Helen loved her Judaism and her shul — singing loudly, dancing in her pew, and giving instantaneous and spontaneous sermon feedback. I often felt that having Helen in the pews was about as close as I would ever come to being the pastor of an African-American church, with every line that was agreeable to Helen being met with a hearty “OO-MAYN!” or an enthusiastic “AM YISROEL CHAI!” As a point of personal privilege I will say that nothing was more invigorating than preaching with Helen in the pews, and there are fewer things that I will miss more than Helen’s active participation during my weekly messages. Since her father was a Kohen, Helen was until very recently our go-to “first aliyah,” the first person honored with reciting the blessings over the Torah each week, and we could always count on her to exclaim “FOREVER AND EVER!” after she intoned the concluding blessings over the Torah, to which the congregation would enthusiastically respond, “FOREVER AND EVER!”
Indeed, for the clergy and congregation at Temple Beth-El — and I know I speak for my colleagues like Cantor Rosenblatt and teachers like Rabbi Creditor when I say this — Helen was like a member of our family; perhaps even more emphatically, like a limb of our body. The clergy and the congregation did everything in our power to love Helen as she deserved. Members like Harry and Lois Hirsch dutifully took her to and from services; our gabbais David Ruby and Ed Mollen gave her back cushions for her seat; congregants lined up to sing and dance with her during prayers and to serve her kiddush lunch afterwards.
We did this, I must say, not only because we loved Helen, but also because we so deeply revered her. We honored her for her story, of course; but more importantly we honored her for the way her past shaped her worldview and her values. We honored her for who she became over the course of her long life, what she brought and what she taught to her family, to her community, and to us all. We honored her for her heart and her soul, for her wisdom and for her righteousness. And as I took some moments over the past few days to reflect on Helen’s life and legacy, it was this — Helen’s singular spirit — that stood out most prominently in my mind.
From her experience surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, Helen learned to care about the welfare of others and to take responsibility for them. Consider, for example, Mrs. Kaszusczek, the woman who saved the lives of Helen and her sister by providing them with fake documents. According to Helen’s testimony for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Mrs. Kaszusczek was a “righteous gentile.” She risked her life — literally — to help save the Drexler girls. Helen witnessed in Mrs. Kaszusczek an extraordinary, miraculous, courageous act of moral resistance, learning that if there was goodness to be found in the world, it was to be found in people who concerned themselves with and who took responsibility for the welfare of others.
Helen lived this value — in the way she cared for her family, in the way she cared for her congregation, in the way she cared for our community, our people, and our homeland; in the way she committed herself to imparting her story and her wisdom to countless strangers, young and old.
It is fitting, then, that we escort Helen to her body’s final resting place on Erev Pesah, for Pesah is nothing if not a celebration of ordinary people heroically concerning themselves with the welfare of others: the midwives who in defiance of Pharaoh’s decrees saved Hebrew babies, for example, and Moses who intervened when an Egyptian was beating an Israelite, despite his having no obligation — no right, even — to do so.
It is similarly fitting to lay Helen to rest on Erev Pesah because the holiday emphasizes the essential role of memory in shaping our present and guiding our future. When we read the Haggadah tonight, it will tell us that each of us must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, and that we must tell our children the story of our past — because seeing ourselves in that story, and reminding our children of where we came from, are critical to understanding who we are today and who we are called to be tomorrow. That’s what Czech author Milan Kundera meant when he wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The oppression of the Israelites starts with an act of forgetting: Pharaoh forgets, perhaps deliberately, about Joseph. And consequently, our liberation is bound up in our remembering.
Indeed, according to legend, memory itself made the Exodus from Egypt possible. Because of a promise made generations earlier, the people could not leave Egypt without Joseph’s bones, but no one knew any longer where the bones were buried. No one, that is, except for an extremely elderly woman named Serach bat Asher, Serah the daughter of the patriarch Asher, who happened to have been alive during Joseph’s time and miraculously lived to see the Exodus, several centuries later. Serah stepped forward to help Moses find Joseph’s bones; only then the people were able to leave Egypt. Through this story, our rabbis teach us that we cannot leave Egypt — both the literal Egypt of our past oppression and any metaphorical Egypt in which we might find ourselves now or in the future — without holding our past with us, and so we cannot find liberation or work toward redemption without memory keepers, those who know where the bones are buried.
Helen, too, was a memory keeper. She was well-read, and her mind was a sponge for the content of books, as it also was for the musicals and old Hollywood movies she loved. Helen could — and would — sing the songs from her favorite musicals like Fiddler on the Roof fully, flawlessly, and joyfully — right up to her last days. She was also a meticulous keeper and organizer of photographs and other mementos. Yes, the past was always alive in Helen’s mind. This is not because she lived in the past. On the contrary, as I’ll come to in just a moment, Helen very much found great joy in the present and embraced life in the here and now. Rather, Helen held on to the past because she knew how memory shapes our present, how it forms our identity and informs how we relate to our world, and how it therefore in no small part determines our destiny. And so Helen spent many years not only sharing her story of survival in classrooms and in museums, but also emphasizing to students of all ages that, in her estimation, her past imparted above all the importance of tolerance, compassion, and love today and tomorrow.
And the primary lesson Helen learned from her past was the sanctity of life. Perhaps she learned this from her parents, or from the righteous gentiles she encountered during the Shoah, all of whom risked their lives to save hers, teaching her that there is nothing so precious as a life, and no act so sacred as saving one; that in spite of all the horrors she had lived through there was still meaning, purpose, and goodness in the world — that life was worth living, and the world was worth saving. Perhaps she learned this from the simple fact of surviving — that her life was a miracle, a gift, something to be cherished and seized at every moment, something that was absolutely forbidden to waste. Or, counterintuitively, maybe she learned this from the tragedies that befell her — like burying her beloved husband and her two precious children — that life is fleeting and fragile, and therefore demands to be cherished.
Whatever the reason, Helen passionately, fervently, zealously LOVED life. All the way to the very end, Helen loved singing, playing, laughing, and dancing. She loved to look good; she went to the beauty parlor every week because, in her words, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Every Shabbos morning with Helen in the pews was an absolute celebration of life. And similarly every visit with her at Parkside offered ample opportunities to laugh, to sing, and to dance — all the way to the very end. Even when she could no longer eat, even when she could barely speak, she would spontaneously erupt in song, singing “Shabbat Shalom, hey!” or “To life! To life! L’chaim!” Helen truly cherished and celebrated life; you might say that she literally refused to let go of life; instead — it at least seemed to me — Helen stayed alive physically until there was literally nothing left, and she essentially evaporated into the bonds of everlasting life.
That Helen could endure the unthinkable hardships she encountered throughout her life and emerge more kind, more deeply committed, and more vivacious is a testament to her extraordinary character. It is therefore easy to miss that who she became in spite of — or, indeed, because of — the traumas she experienced was a deliberate choice on her part.
And, therefore, her life is Torah for us, for we, too, can flourish as Helen did in the face of the tragedies which befall us. Helen’s secret was her faith and her love — her faith in and love of God, her faith in and her love of the Jewish people, her faith in and love of life. Her faith and her love were like deep roots that tethered her — to her ancestors, to her people, to her descendants, to God — when destructive winds blew.
We, too, can rise from the ashes so long as we are able to embrace that kind of faith and that kind of love. In doing so, we too can weather life’s storms — including and especially this current painful and challenging moment — and even become strengthened through them, secure in the knowledge that life is worth living and that people are worth saving; firm in the hope that, ultimately, goodness will prevail; and committed to play a part in the ultimate triumph of the good.
We will remember Helen for concluding her prayers — for punctuating her conversations, even — by proclaiming “forever and ever!” That exclamation expressed her faith that the fire of the spirit of the Jewish people could never be extinguished. That faith sustained her and inspired her.
May Helen’s memory sustain and inspire us, so that her legacy will endure forever and ever, and also so that we can play a role in bringing that blessing into fruition, ensuring not only that the Jewish people endures but also that our world will be repaired through God’s sovereignty, and the Infinite will reign in righteousness and peace forever and ever.
May Helen Zimm’s soul be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life, and may her memory inspire us all to lives of blessing.
Amen.
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Reflections on the COVID-19 Pandemic

I wrote the following statement along with my multi-faith partners on the Standing Together Steering Committee of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities:

These are turbulent and anxious times. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended so many of our lives. We have little clarity about the path ahead. And to make matters more challenging, we are also being asked to keep ourselves away from our normal support systems and communities.

We implore our community to stand together in this moment of crisis by:

  • Rejecting bigotry, practicing solidarity with targeted communities (in particular communities of Asian descent), and treating each other with compassion, empathy, respect, and trust. This virus is not of a people, a geography, race, ethnicity, age or social class. We are all in this together.
  • Respecting the advice and guidance of our experts who are working endlessly to minimize the impacts of this crisis. Practice social distancing and follow regulations regarding public gatherings. Stay at home unless absolutely necessary.
  • Being creative in our ways of building community, providing support, and, if relevant, practicing our faith.
  • Supporting those who are most vulnerable, not only to illness, but also to economic displacement. Refrain from hoarding goods and supplies also needed by others in the community, give as generously as possible to local relief efforts and emergency funds, seek out ways to safely volunteer your time and talent, advocate on behalf of those whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by this crisis.
  • Offering words of encouragement and hope. Call or write to those who may be isolated or suffering. Share messages of gratitude, joy, and kindness on social media. Be gentle with one another.

This challenge confronts all of us. By standing together, we will not only overcome it, we will come out the better for it.

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A Pandemic Blessing and Prayer

Ever since Lilah, our oldest child, was born, Adira and I have sung a prayer called “B’shem Hashem (The Angel Song)” to our children each night at bedtime, using a melody from Rabbi Solomon Carlebach. It’s a lovely ritual, but like all rituals, it is more or less at this point a somewhat mindless routine. But last night, for the first time in a long time, the prayer hit me especially hard. To understand why, consider the words of the prayer, translated into English: “In the name of the Infinite, the God of Israel — may the angel Michael be on my right, and may the angel Gabriel be on my left. May the angel Uriel be in front of me, and may the angel Raphael be behind me. And may the Imminent Presence of God be over my head.”
In Jewish tradition, the angel Michael symbolizes possibility; the angel Gabriel, strength; the angel Uriel, clarity; and the angel Raphael (behind us to catch us if we fall), healing. And God’s imminent presence is an image evoked in the Torah and in later Jewish tradition to depict loving, nurturing protection. The image of these angels surrounding us is meant to be a prayer for support; or, if you prefer, a faithful affirmation that “God has ordered angels to guard you wherever you may go” (Psalm 91:11).
I want to bless all of us as Adira and I bless our children each night: May possibility and strength be close at hand. May you see the path ahead with clarity, And may healing be near when you fall. And may you always feel divine encircling protection. For those of us who believe in God, remember that God is with you, always. And for those of us who may wrestle with belief in God, remember that we are all in this together. In either case, you are not alone.

 

Finally, this Shabbat, we will conclude Sefer Shemot, the biblical Book of Exodus, and exclaim the words, “Hazak, hazak, venit’hazek,” be strong, be strong, and may we continue to strengthen ourselves and each other. Let us, this Shabbat, turn these words into a prayer — may we have the strength to endure this challenging time, may we have vigor of body and resilience of spirit, and may we do whatever we can to support each other.
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Coronavirus is our Amalek. The Torah’s lesson is clear: Protect the vulnerable.

As Jewish communities gather to celebrate the Purim holiday under the shadow of a global pandemic, it is worth heeding a piece of wisdom embedded in one of the scriptures most closely associated with the holiday. On the Sabbath before Purim, observant Jews traditionally study a biblical passage known as Parashat Zakhor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). This text recounts how the ancient nation known as Amalek attacked the Children of Israel in the wilderness shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. “Remember,” admonishes the passage, “what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt, for they surprised you on the way, and they hit from your rear all the vulnerable who were behind you.” The text concludes with the exhortation to “blot out the memory of Amalek from underneath the heavens — do not forget!”

The text raises a question: The biblical Israelites had a lot of enemies, so why is Amalek singled out for unique condemnation? Perhaps it’s because there is something singularly evil about targeting the vulnerable, and the kind of foe who would do such a thing is someone God commands us to be eternally vigilant against. It’s a deep lesson: Regardless of how peaceful and prosperous we are, the pernicious force that targets the weak is uniquely enduring and persistent.

Amalek is a good metaphor for diseases like COVID-19, which uniquely threaten and hurt those who are already the most vulnerable: the marginalized, the poor, the sick, the weak. Many of us are fortunate enough to be in positions where we can, so to speak, ride out the storm. We can avoid public gatherings, we can stock up on food and supplies, we have paid sick days, we have ready access to quality healthcare and the resources to afford it, we have family and friends who can help pick up our slack or the ability to hire outside help when we need.

But many others are not so fortunate, and natural disasters like disease pandemics expose these inequities because they primarily and disproportionately impact those who are already marginal and vulnerable.

This, I think, points to the real reason why the Torah is especially concerned with the history and legacy of the Israelites’ encounter with Amalek. It’s not exactly because Amalek targeted the vulnerable. That is to be expected; it’s what enemies like Amalek do. No, it’s because the Children of Israel should have known that leaving their weakest members exposed and defenseless put them at great risk of harm from an enemy like Amalek. As one modern Hasidic master, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Zachs, puts it, “If the Israelite nation had not forgotten these vulnerable people, and rather had brought them under the protection of the Divine Presence… by including them with the rest of the population, Amalek could not have harmed them.” (Iturei Torah, Parashat Ki Teitzei).

That’s why we are admonished to remember what happened with Amalek. That’s why we are commanded not to forget: Because there will always be enemies that target the vulnerable, whether those enemies are human or forces of nature, whether those enemies are deliberately hostile or indiscriminately damaging. Our job is to keep the most vulnerable among us front of mind, to ensure the weakest among us are protected, included in our communal concern and shielded by our care.

Our job, to quote Scripture, is ultimately to create a society in which there are no needy, where justice prevails and equity reigns.

Unfortunately, our real-life track record at heeding this warning is not so good. For example, here in Virginia, where I live, one million people — including 81% of food service workers, 75% of childcare workers, and 47% of nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides — have no paid sick leave, and are forced to go to work when they are ill and send their children to school when they are sick. To add insult to injury, when the first Virginian tested positive for coronavirus, the Virginia Senate refused to vote for a bill to require employers to offer paid sick days to workers, according to Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The next day, the Senate killed the bill for good. This is not only a gross injustice, but an urgent public health concern. When folks have to go to work when they’re sick, contagious illnesses will spread. And when our representatives fail to provide for their welfare, we are at least partly responsible.

Systems like this empower Amalek-like enemies such as coronavirus, because they leave the most vulnerable among us uniquely exposed. It is incumbent upon us to ensure everyone is brought equally under the community’s protective care. And when we work to build such a just and equitable society, the deadliness of pandemics and other natural disasters can be blunted.

Conversely, when we fail to uphold this responsibility and people die, their blood is, at least in part, on our hands.

May those who have been infected with coronavirus experience a full and speedy recovery, may the families of the bereaved find consolation, and may we have the strength and insight necessary to make our way through these anxious times.

Originally published by The Forward: https://forward.com/opinion/441172/coronavirus-is-our-amalek-the-torahs-lesson-is-clear-protect-the/

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Justice, Truth, and Peace: How to Keep Our Republic

The following was a keynote address at the Religious Freedom Day celebration at Richmond, Virginia’s “First Freedom Center,” January 16, 2020.

Good morning. It is an honor to be with you today for this celebration of our most cherished freedoms. 

I speak as a member of a minority community that has uniquely benefited from the freedoms that we honor today. 

For approximately two thousand years of Diaspora, the Jewish people lived, effectively, as guests in every land, and under every government, in which we established communities. 

Sometimes, thanks to a particularly beneficent ruler or more tolerant social mores, we were afforded certain rights and privileges, able to more or less fully participate in society without having to abandon our faith or our traditions. 

More often, we were marginalized or quarantined, harassed or persecuted, sometimes barred from engaging in any meaningful way with the majority culture, sometimes given the option to fully participate in the broader culture if we abandoned our faith, and sometimes forced to choose between assimilation or death. Sometimes, we were offered no choice at all, confronted only with persecution, violence, expulsion, or annihilation. 

In other words, for most of Jewish history, Jews were denied the fullness of our humanity: either we were permitted to live as Jews but not as citizens, or we were permitted to live as citizens but not as Jews, or we were permitted to live as neither — which is to say, we were not permitted to live.

That each of us has the right to be our own, complete, unique, human being is the essence of the freedoms we are celebrating today. The freedom of religion, the freedom of thought, and the freedom of conscience upholds that each of us has the right to be different — to think differently, to believe differently, to speak differently, to dress differently, to practice differently; that conforming to anyone else’s way of believing, behaving, or belonging can never be the prerequisite for one’s participation, and all the more so for one’s presence.

It is because of our country’s embrace of these freedoms that, from the very beginning, the Jewish experience in America has been unique to Jewish history. At the time of our country’s founding, the United States was the only nation in history to guarantee Jews the right to participate in society as Jews, not as a result of specific legislation, but rather as a fundamental human right guaranteed to everyone. 

It is, of course, shamefully true that, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, the “promissory note” our founders issued — which insisted that all human beings are equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that it is the job of the government “to secure these rights” — was not honored insofar as many Americans, and in particular Black Americans, were concerned; and that even the men who pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in defense of those natural rights were simultaneously willing to deny them to millions. 

American Jews have not been exempt from this pernicious and persistent tendency on the part of our country’s majority population to deny or fail to secure equal rights to many minority groups. Throughout the history of this nation, American Jews have faced both legal discrimination and social bias, as well as bigotry, harassment, and persecution. 

And yet despite the painfully uneven application of American liberty, despite the injustices and indignities and injuries that American Jews faced throughout our country’s history, our fundamental equality under the law — like that promised to Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs — was always part of the basic infrastructure of our republic, even if it was periodically unrealized or insufficiently secured.

And it is in large part because of these freedoms, promised to American Jews equally along with all other Americans, and historically protected by a government that, as George Washington put it in a famous letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, “gives to bigotry no sanction [and] to persecution no assistance,” American Jews have flourished here in ways without parallel in our people’s roughly two thousand years of Diaspora. 

This has been especially true over the last century. As the character of our liberal democracy has grown increasingly pluralistic, the American Jewish community has become affluent, prominent, and well-respected. Growing up, I experienced little or no overt discrimination. I felt celebrated, rather than targeted, for my differences. I of course knew antisemitism persisted, but saw it mostly as the province of fringe lunatics. 

But recently, we in the Jewish community have felt the ground shift beneath our feet. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported antisemitic incidents in the United States has increased dramatically over the past several years. Since the ADL started tracking this data about forty years ago, 2017 (which was the year of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville) and 2018 (which was the year of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh) were two of the worst years on record when it came to antisemitic incidents in America. Recent attacks in New Jersey and New York demonstrate that 2019 and 2020 will likely be no different.

And, as many of us are painfully aware, the reawakening of antisemitism in America isn’t occurring in a vacuum. In recent years, people in Virginia and all over the country have been increasingly targeted, marginalized, attacked, and even killed because of their differences. Assaults and incidents of bias and discrimination against religious, racial, and ethnic minorities are all on the rise, as are incidents targeting those who are minorities by virtue of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

For many of us in the Jewish community, this may be unsurprising, even as it is horrifying, because antisemitism often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry. When one form of bigotry rises, others tend to rise in tandem with it. A society in which antisemitism thrives is typically also a society in which other forms of oppression flourish. And where racism or xenophobia or homophobia or any other type of discrimination proliferate, Jews are also more likely to become targets.

In this sense, the resurgence of antisemitism in America is not only a threat to Jews; just as the rise in racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia, is not only a threat to African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBT community. Rather, any and all incidents of bigotry or persecution are an assault on all of us, and, indeed, on the very freedoms that are foundational to our republic. As the twentieth century American philosopher John Dewey argued, discrimination in any form corrodes democratic societies and poisons even those groups who are not specifically targeted. 

It is, of course, precisely the job of the government to protect all of its citizens against these kinds of assaults and injuries, and especially to protect its minorities, because minorities are most vulnerable to explicit and implicit pressures to conform to the majority. 

And yet, too often, in our time, it seems as though many of the most powerful officials within our government are doing just the opposite, emboldening malign actors — whether passively through silence and inaction, or actively through incitement and encouragement. Sometimes, leaders even have the audacity to masquerade the majority’s persecution of a minority as an expression of “religious freedom.” Let us be clear: when one person weaponizes their faith to deny the fullness of another person’s humanity — whether that be discriminating against members of the LGBT community, or taking away a woman’s agency over her own body, or imposing Christian prayer in public schools, that is not religious freedom, it is tyranny. 

And when our leaders commit or permit these types of oppression, they threaten not only the liberty and welfare of particular individuals and communities; they corrode our entire democracy and put us all, even those who might currently enjoy the privilege of majority, or who are able and willing to assimilate in order to conform with the majority, at risk. 

But as a self-governing people, our leaders are responsible to us, and, in an important sense, we are responsible for them. Our freedoms thus depend on us, all of us. It is incumbent upon us not only to cherish our own rights but also to honor and celebrate our society’s diversity, to stand with and step up for each other, and to persistently and actively demand that our leaders preserve, protect, and defend each and all of our cherished freedoms, for each and all of us. 

Indeed, our democratic ideals are not inherent or self-perpetuating. Human beings have a tendency, in the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Erich Fromm, to “escape from freedom,” to gravitate away from the messiness and uncertainty that are part and parcel of diversity and liberty toward homogeneity and authoritarianism. It’s a reality that has been evidenced throughout modern history, with catastrophic results. 

And it’s what Benjamin Franklin meant in 1787. Right after the constitutional convention concluded, a Philadelphia power-broker named Elizabeth Willing Powel asked Franklin, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin famously answered, “A republic — if you can keep it.” The freedoms at the core of our democracy must be tended to and cultivated at every turn. Left to the gravitational pull of our own passions, predilections, and prejudices, we risk losing — even voluntarily giving up — our precious liberty, and even suffer fates worse still. If we can keep it, if we commit ourselves to keeping it, we will thrive as a pluralistic democracy. And if we can’t, we will invariably succumb to the encroaching tyranny.

It is impossible to understate the magnitude of what’s at stake, the significance of the task before us, or the power of the forces pulling us away from our freedoms. In insecure times such as these, I find myself turning to the time-honored wisdom of my tradition for guidance on how to move forward. 

One of Jewish history’s great sages, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, taught that the fate of the world depends on three virtues: justice, truth, and peace. So important is Rabban Shimon’s wisdom that this teaching is memorialized on Temple Beth-El’s three most publicly visible stained glass windows. Rabban Shimon argued that, without the presence and proliferation three virtues, the world will remain broken. Only through them can the world be repaired and perfected. The task of the Jewish people is to repair and perfect our broken world by ensuring the triumph of justice, truth, and peace. And, I would argue, the work that is before all of us to heal and ultimately perfect our republic requires the triumph of justice, truth, and peace.

A commitment to justice means fighting for a society in which all people are regarded and treated as equals. Such a social order demands both administrative justice and distributive justice, a society in which the rule of law prevails, in which all people enjoy legal equality, in which disputes between all people are fairly and equitably adjudicated, and in which resources are distributed equitably. It’s important to note that this kind of justice doesn’t just happen. It requires our persistent efforts and our perpetual vigilance. Scripture commands, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” justice, justice shall you pursue. Pursuing justice means working to ensure that, in our Commonwealth and country, no person suffers want, for the distribution of resources is fair; that no person suffers discrimination, persecution, or oppression, because all are honored as equals; and that no person suffers from an unfair verdict or unjust incarceration, because judgment is fair and impartial.

A commitment to truth means fighting for truth to be exalted as the standard by which our arguments and debates are adjudicated. Increasingly, we have come to embrace ideas and beliefs, principles and policies, for virtually every reason other than their proximity to truth — because they satisfy our urges or enrich us, because they confirm our predilections or grant us power. As a result, we have been conditioned to confuse disinformation for fact and truth for propaganda, and we excuse attitudes, statements, and behaviors when they come from our own side, even when we would consider those same deeds unforgivable if they were committed by our ideological opponents. Democracy cannot endure this kind of tribal warfare, and therefore it requires us to reorient ourselves so that our principal loyalty is to the truth, whatever it demands, rather than our own or our group’s power or prosperity. 

A commitment to truth calls for us to elevate education, debate, and intellectual diversity as primary values. In this respect, Jewish culture offers a model: education is among the highest ideals in Jewish tradition, but education is accomplished through dialogue and dispute, which in turn requires the presence and participation of a diversity of points of view. The Talmud, which is the most significant compilation of ancient Jewish law and lore, is in fact a chronicle of debate. It records over 5,000 arguments, only 50 of which are authoritatively resolved, and even then minority opinions are presented alongside the accepted positions. Truth is the goal; education is the way; respectful and productive debate is the method; and diversity is the prerequisite. Jefferson himself expressed precisely this insight in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “Truth is great,” Jefferson said, “and will prevail if left to herself…she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

And, finally, perfecting our Commonwealth and Country requires a commitment to peace. We are accustomed to understanding peace as the absence of conflict. But in Jewish tradition, peace is not an absence, it is a presence. The Hebrew term for peace is shalom, which is related to the world shleimut, meaning full or whole. In the Jewish consciousness, peace requires radical inclusion — we can’t be whole unless everybody is included — and harmony — it can’t be peaceful unless all the diverse peoples commit to getting along with one another. Peace is possible only when diverse peoples feel a deep connection to and responsibility for each other, when people of every belief and background embrace each other as brothers and sisters, and when people with diverse beliefs and positions can respectfully disagree with and learn from one another, while still caring about each other as human beings. In the Jewish consciousness, peace especially demands that those in society with power and privilege work diligently to ensure the full inclusion of those on the margins — particularly racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, along with the vulnerable, the powerless, and the chronically destitute, because they are at special risk of exclusion, exploitation, and oppression. And, as with justice, it’s important to note that peace doesn’t just happen. It requires us to advance and cultivate it. A rabbinic maxim instructs, “Be among the disciples of Aaron the Priest: Loving peace and pursuing peace.” It’s not enough to desire peace. If we want it, we have to be willing to work for it.

It is an incredible coincidence — some might call it serendipity — that we gather on this day, during this week, because this is the week that Jewish communities all over the world will begin our annual study of the Book of Exodus. The origin story of the Jewish people, of my people, Exodus centers on the persecution and oppression of a religious and ethnic minority population at the hands of one of history’s most iconic tyrants and his nation of collaborators, enablers, and bystanders. It reaches its grand climax with Israel’s ultimate liberation, and then it continues with teaching after teaching, instruction after instruction, law after law that mean to guide this nation of freed slaves to create a counter-Egypt, a society that affirms the equal and infinite dignity of all, that strives for equity and fairness, and that celebrates compassion and kindness, inclusion and peace. 

But Jewish tradition does not regard Exodus as mere history. Were that so, we might have long ago jettisoned it, since its historicity is a matter of significant dispute. Rather, Jewish tradition instructs, “in every generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she went out of Egypt.” The exodus story is unfolding in the eternal present, which also means that redemption is possible if we can see it and embrace it. The choices are ours: tyranny or freedom, oppression or justice, degradation or dignity. As we approach this moment in our nation’s history, let us ready ourselves to choose wisely.

Thank you.

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Celebrating Jewish Culture in Troubled Times

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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.

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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.

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The Promises of Israel

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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.

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