Rosh Hashanah Day One 5780
Rabbi David Englander
“Is it Time to Talk About Anti-Semitism?”
B’nai Torah Congregation, Boca Raton, Florida
Two years ago, I shared a story with you, and although this will not be another retrospective sermon since we did that last year, I want to tell it to you again.
I was walking home from B’nai Torah, on Shabbat with the suit and the kippah, passing by the homes in my usually quiet and peaceful neighborhood. And as I walked by a house very close to mine someone in the driveway unexpectedly shouted Get out of here! You don’t belong here! Get away from here! I turned and looked at the culprit – it was a female, about 5 years old, and she was yelling at a duck that had waddled a bit too close for her comfort. I couldn’t help myself although I’m sure the irony was lost on her. I looked right at this innocent first grader and said, “you were talking to the duck, right?”
That sermon went on to talk about whether it was time to talk about the serious flareup of anti-Semitism in our country, and the upshot was to be wary but to not overstate its impact, to believe strongly in the tolerant and protective infrastructure of this democracy, to embrace the blessings of living in an era with a strong America and a strong Israel. Yet two years later, it feels to be an even more critically important time to talk about intolerance toward us and others who have been targeted. And more importantly, we must speak about potential responses to it in words and action.
How do we come out of the year just ended and start a new one without calibrating ourselves, bracing ourselves if necessary, and encouraging each other for sure as expressions of hate of all kinds and of anti-Semitism in particular are once again in front of our eyes? We are still in the immediate aftermath of Tree of Life, and Poway, and underreported attacks on religious men in Brooklyn and Rockland County. There is a statistically verified uptick in some places and quantifiably explosive increase in hate crimes here and abroad, so we find ourselves asking: is it time to talk again about how much they hate us?
Rabbis across the country are struggling with this question. One said he did not ever think he would have to preach on this topic, the one that gave his father, also a noted rabbi, so much fodder for sermons for decades of Jewish insecurity in this country. We were past it, and then we weren’t. The American Jewish experience was the exception in history, and then at least for a moment it wasn’t. Another said that while you cannot build a religious community that is attractive to children or millennials that is based on anti-anything, the reality is too stark to be ignored. While anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism may be some of our principle concerns in the “anti’s”, other anti’s are linked very closely to these. Anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-this ethnicity or anti-that religious background. Anti-diversity, anti-different, anti-fact, anti-science, anti-conversation, anti-other. Hatred that starts in one place never stays there.
Professor Deborah Lipstadt wrote a book this year on the subject and I read it so maybe you don’t have to. What does the world’s greatest living expert on active anti-Semitism say about it? It’s not going anywhere. It is often irrational and anti-intellectual, a fabrication and a construct and as we know an utter lie. It is also real and destructive and by all measures getting worse here and around the world. It has to be fought. We have to insist those in positions of power do not let it slide by as ‘just words’ or the work of some misguided loners.
There has not been a generation since Abraham where people somewhere in our vicinity did not look down on us, think less of us, define us as the irredeemable and mistaken “other”. They did this for reasons we can identify. We behaved differently. We called God by other names. We called ourselves the Chosen People. We had a state that we established and built up, with Temples and courts and cities, towns and villages and some did not like us for that. We lost our state and so were obviously not Chosen anymore, and some wished to hammer home that idea through persecution and inquisition and forced conversion. We were the wandering and suffering outsider, prevented from earning a living or owning land, so we were viewed as pariahs and scapegoats for our perceived crimes of dragging down the economies of our temporary countries. Later we achieved economic success and exercised political influence and so were and are suspected of nefarious intentions and self-serving usage of power to our advantage and we are hated for that as well.
In the 20th Century we were hated more and almost destroyed by those who saw us as the source of their country’s problems, so to eradicate us would also eradicate their problems. And they came perilously close to succeeding. And then we had a state of our own again thinking that maybe now a seat at the table of civilized countries would be occupied by a Jewish foreign minister or Prime Minister who could speak for us to the world and engage in the constructive conversations we had long sought to have, to which we would have so much to contribute. While that has occasionally come to pass more often Israel is the unique target of United Nations censures and rebuke, of continued wrath of officials elected and appointed who trace the inadequacies and inequities within their own borders or beyond them back to Israel, and by extension, to Jewish people everywhere.
We know how to stand up against anti-Semitism fueled by any of these historic or contemporary so-called explanations. Know about the past, its glories and its devastations. We are each heir to a rich and diverse history that is instructive about how to push through difficulties far worse than anything we face today. Be immensely proud that the Jewish experience has included surviving in difficult times and thriving in any community that recognized how we contributed to making wherever we were on balance better. We have been gifted the work of over a hundred generations and we can embrace it every day, even with every breath. Double down on engagement, active citizenship, commitment to Jewish community and our hard-earned place in the American experience. Shying away from Jewish pride and identity and practice because some others have a problem with us? That should not be our thing.
But what about the irrational claims made against us? Anti-Semitism that claims Jews are up to the most outlandish behaviors, typified by the historic blood libel or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and control of the banks and monetary supply and if so, why do I still have mortgage payments? Professor Lipstadt reminds us that in some ways there is nothing to understand and so there is no logical or forthright enough answer that will convince anyone who expresses baseless hatred to think in a different way. It is a “delusional, and absurd” sentiment. So are acts that are perpetrated in the name of discriminatory hatred of Jews or anyone else who has done nothing special to deserve it. She tells a joke to illustrate:
It is from the Soviet Union’s repressive Refusenik era, when dark humor helped just a little bit with the darkness of the times: The USSR suffered chronic shortages of consumer goods. Early one morning a rumor circulated in Moscow that a store was to receive a shipment of shoes. A [line] formed immediately outside the store and continued to grow exponentially. After people had been waiting for an hour or so, the manager emerged and announced, “We will not receive enough shoes to accommodate everyone. Jews, leave the queue and go home.” And they did. A few hours later he emerged again and said, “We will not receive enough shoes to accommodate everyone. All non-veterans, go home.” And they did. A few hours later he emerged yet again and said, “We will not receive enough shoes to accommodate everyone. All those who are not members of the Communist Party, go home.” And they did. As dusk was falling, he emerged for a final time and said, “We will not receive any shoes today. Everyone must go home.” Deeply disappointed, two exhausted and shivering loyal Communist Party members, both of whom were World War II veterans, walked away from the store. As they did, one turned to the other and bitterly proclaimed, “Those Jews, they have all the luck.”
Yet we do have a way to fight back against irrational anti-Semitism, the perpetrators of which we rarely run into and perhaps would not want to confront directly even if we did. The Jewish answer to irrational hate is to double down on v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, to love our neighbor as we wish and need to be loved. Those similar to us and especially those who at first glance are different. They hate us because we are strange? We will drive out every instinct or tendency or learned behavior that causes us to label anyone else as different or strange because of how they look, behave, what they believe, or who they love. Thankfully we are at a point and live in a place where most agree in principle and hopefully in practice that people of any ability or disability are now included and not excluded, people of any gender identity or orientation or peaceful religious practice are welcome to live as they are, and where interfaith conversations happen with respect. Yet the instinct to notice what is different before noticing what is the same about me and you, or you and him or him and her or them still is a part of our everyday perspective on the world, and we can change it and I dare say we should.
Long ago the rabbis taught the Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. The only remedy was to pour as much ahavat chinam, non-judgmental, encouraging, compassionate, forward-looking love and kindness into the world.
So pick your reasons – historical, characterological, sociological, theological, economical, or irrational and delusional or a little or a lot of the ingredients of that whole toxic soup. No amount of explanation or understanding comforts or consoles when a Jew anywhere in the world is targeted for insult, injury or God forbid death by someone motivated to do us harm because we are seen as the problem. We stand up to all hate, and as a result we become stronger communities, better partners in the drive to heal and improve a world in need of models of mutual respect. Our faith tells us that it is worth the effort, not because it will change every mind but because it could tip the balance toward the good of which humanity is capable.
We are stronger because of the commitments of everyone in this room and all those gathered in synagogues throughout the world today, each in your own way insuring nothing less than the Jewish present and future. And to do so we would be wise to remind ourselves and to be reminded not just how to be against anti-Semitism but also of what we are for. And I would love for you to continue the conversation at lunch or in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – what are your irreplaceable expressions of Jewish identity and commitment?
To me any short list includes ritual – Shabbat, holidays, daily prayer and blessings of gratitude for what is ours both in the formal baruch atah adonai formula and the attitude of gratitude we seek to attain and demonstrate.
It includes the ethical – of not splitting our loyalties between profits, influence, or personal advancement and the requirement to go even beyond the letter of the law toward fairness, decency, kindness, and compassion for clients, customers, and those who we engage for work day to day.
It includes being a good friend and partner and neighbor, parent, child, aunt, uncle, and more. Of knowing that we can vent and express frustration and our conflicted emotions – how can we not do so in these extraordinary times, unique because of the amount of negative energy in the air and on our screens at all times? Yet we can’t be in a constant state of venting and today so many are in just that ready-to-fight mindset all the time. We are also required to be there for other people, to assist and support how we can, to put our own needs, wants and desires aside at times to be able to be there for someone else.
It includes being knowledgeable about, and possibly planning to visit our brothers and sisters in Israel – whether this November or June with B’nai Torah or some other way. To not allow unnecessary distancing of the vibrant Diaspora and the state for which we waited two thousand years and which we cannot turn our back on now despite issues about which we will continue to express concern, as friends and family do for each other.
It includes validating and accepting that we are part of a human family, all of whom are created in the image of God and some of whom live in circumstances that are deplorable and we can both recognize that and learn of ways we can help. Whether you are coming with me to Ecuador in December to learn about international aid and Jewish commitments to global justice and human rights – we have a few spots left by the way – I want you to be proud that your synagogue put its name to this trip, and to see it as an extension of our core values. Especially in a still blessed day and age where on balance we can be of help instead of needing help.
And it includes being more pro-Judaism than anti anti-Semitism. Like the hurricane that recently churned off our coast we can no longer deny or ignore that there is and there has been for centuries a roiling storm of hatred and intolerance, sometimes expressed even in our own great nation, and it is so often focused on us and our Jewish communities. We have learned again that simmering irrational hatred can ignite into destructive acts of senseless violence. And we know of so many softer ways of demeaning, assuming, and stereotyping based on religion or race, ability or gender identity and every other way we divide each other. We decry it when it is against us, and we condemn it when it is against anyone else, and we will continue to do so.
We prepare for a storm with shutters or impact windows and roof ties and water and non-perishable food and flashlights and batteries. But most days we live without thought of any storm, as we should, and instead go about building lives, earning a living, seeking to do some or better yet a lot of good, and being of use to someone else. Storms of irrational hatred, even for us, may be brewing. But if that is all we focus on, then those forces have found success in diverting us from our main tasks. Which are to be agents of good, to take the commitments motivated by our unbreakable connection to millennia of Jewish sacrifice and teaching seriously while we express them joyfully, and to bring kindness, compassion, love, and respect for each of God’s children.
May it be a year of increased dedication to being ready to stand up in any storm, but even more to participate, contribute, and demonstrate the values and unique practices that sanctify our lives, and are a continual source of uplift for our world.
I wish you and yours a Shanah tovah.