Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons, Rabbi Steinhardt's Shabbat Greetings

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – 5780     

Shanah Tovah!

I’m sure every adult here feels that as we age, time moves quickly. Children who once sat here are now adults, many with their own kids. Sometimes a year seems like a long time, but at other times it is just a blink.

When we contemplate the passage of time, we realize that our life here is limited. Hopefully, that leads us to the knowledge that we need to appreciate what we have. We need to appreciate every moment and consider every blessing.

It is often hard to do that, simply because we’re distracted because we have pain. We suffer, we experience setbacks and disappointments. A moment like this comes and we are reminded: This is it. Life is lived right now. We must make the most of it, appreciate it, and find the love and the blessing in it. So, as I often say, I am grateful for this tradition that literally gives us the opportunity to contemplate time.

The constant in our lives is change. And yet, there are ideas and elements in the human condition that seem to remain the same. There are eternal values and there are certain struggles that never seem to go away.

This morning I’m going to speak about one of those struggles which we thought would have gone away but have witnessed too vividly that it has not. And so, despite all the changes we see, we once again are faced and challenged by anti-Semitism. Many believed that after the Shoah we wouldn’t see it raise its perverse head again, but it has. It is a hatred that never goes away. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote that anti-Semitism is not about Jews. It is about anti-Semites. It is about people who cannot accept responsibility for their own failures and decide instead to blame someone else. It is their sickness.

It is one of the world’s oldest conspiracy theories. It is irrational. We can study it forever and still not fully understand it.

I’ve always been hesitant to speak about anti-Semitism in the form of a sermon. First, I like many of you have read so much and have studied it; it is for study and an essay. We all know it is here. Almost every single person in this room can recount at least one experience of anti-Semitism in their own lives.

But because it is so prevalent again – having risen from the darkest places and out in the open – perhaps it is time for me to speak. It is pervasive in Europe and universities. It is being given a new large platform through the Internet. Yesterday in the New York Times we saw that even the California surfer culture has Nazi symbols. And this year many people asked me to speak about it.

I believe a sermon should be different than a lecture or an essay, and certainly from the words of a speaker at a political rally. I purposely have not spoken about it because we all agree that it is deplorable. I am a rabbi who tries to teach Torah. I want to connect people, especially the young, to this tradition by exposing a Judaism that is aspirational, joyful and beautiful. We have so much to contribute and to celebrate. Frankly, I don’t like the connection that comes because of our suffering.

So, first, let me frame this through the lens of my life. I begin by speaking about it personally. There are two experiences and perspectives.  One is from parents and the other is from Torah.  I’m a Rabbi – not a professor or a political advocate.

The personal begins on the maternal side of my family.  They escaped the Nazis and arrived in America in January of 1938. They were the lucky ones. My great grandparents and their whole generation were left behind and died in Auschwitz. Later we learned that my mother’s grandfather froze to death in a cattle car. They, I am sure, were good people and I know they were good Jews.

Like every one of us, I grew up with the knowledge of the Shoah and frequent reminders from other refugees and survivors around my family. It came accompanied by a sense of loss, of pain and often resentment. I also received lessons from my grandmother and mother based on the way they lived in the world and the way they treated people. My grandmother and mother remained engaged with neighbors and friends who were not Jewish. They were not bitter, which was a testament to personality and character. In fact, until she died my grandmother had a monthly correspondence with a Christian neighbor. When I was young, I found it unsettling, but I grew to appreciate the meaning of that.

My family taught me by word and deed to judge individuals by their acts and their characters, and not religion or race. They said that is what the Nazis did. They worked for worker’s rights and for civil rights. I am deeply grateful. They believed every individual should be treated fairly and they took that lesson from their own experience.

My father grew up poor in America and went into the Navy at the age of 17. Like many patriots of his time, he lied in order to be a part of the war effort during World War II. In the Navy, he experienced the attitudes of white racists towards Jews. He often recounted a story of someone asking to see his horns. You all know these stories.

When I was young my Dad said to me: “David. if anyone ever calls you a dirty Jew or says anything bad about the Jewish people … punch him!”

Really, Dad? Really?

Shortly thereafter, seven-year-old David Steinhardt was walking home from school when Eddie Balkin yelled from across Hillside Avenue: “Steinhardt you’re a dirty Jew.”

I heard my Dad’s words in my ears. I ran across the street. I punched Eddie in the face, and he bled and ran home crying.

The next day we were called into the principal’s office. Mrs. Balkin had called the school! Miss Esther Goldfarb, the principal, looked me in the eye and said: Do you boys know why I called you into my office?  And Eddie said: “Steinhardt punched me in the face.” Miss Goldfarb asked if that was true? I said sheepishly,“Yes.” She sent Eddie back to the class and told me to stay. She closed the door and asked me “Why did you do that?” And I told her that he called me a dirty Jew!

Ms. Esther Goldfarb got up, walked towards me and said: “I’m going to say something you should not repeat: Good for you, David. I’m proud of you!”

We are all shaped by the experiences of our childhoods. How we learn about things and what we are taught to do. The behaviors which are modeled.

Times are different. There are differences between now and previous times. But we have been revisited by what’s known as “the world’s oldest hatred.” Anti-Semitism has once again raised its head.

The difference has to do with our strength and influence. The fact of Israel and the security and pride Israel has given our people changes things. Because of Israel, in the face of many challenges, Jews are much more confident.

The experience of being Jewish in America is also radically different. Partially, the nature of American democracy – the freedom it provides and protections it lends. We have immense influence in this country. We are embedded in the government as advisers and officials, congressmen and senators. We are active voters. We help shape public opinion. We are writers and journalists. We hold the highest positions in disproportionate numbers at universities. We are successful in business reflected in the fact that we are a people with financial power.

And, we don’t usually think of intermarriage in a positive light but think about this! There are thousands and thousands of non-Jewish families that have Jewish in-laws, Jewish grandchildren, and family members!

Our country was conceived in liberty and founded on the idea that all people are created equal.  “No sanction is given to bigotry,” in the words of George Washington. There are a constitution and laws that protect us and all minorities. We were welcomed as new immigrants and helped build this nation. There is a government built on a balance of power which is intended to protect rights and freedoms and defend the law. There is legislation against hate crimes. Make no mistake about it, these are different times.  Because of Israel and because of America.

Yet, there were other times when we felt secure and were well integrated in society. Anti-Semitism grew into a force in a nation where we were well assimilated, and it led to the murder of six million. We know the deep-rooted nature of anti-Semitism in the hearts of those who hate.

We have seen an exponential rise in hate crimes since the election in 2016. We also are witness to the expression of hatred towards others – Muslims, Latinos, and African-Americans. Yet, the rise in hate crimes is disproportionately against Jews.

The statistics on the rise of anti-Semitic acts are staggering. Right here in Florida, since the last presidential election, hate crimes are up over 60 percent.

Over the last few weeks, we have read about the intimidation and attacks against Orthodox Jews on the streets of Brooklyn, synagogues throughout the country being vandalized. Jewish cemeteries, too. A Jewish beach club in Queens was spray-painted with swastikas.

Years ago, when speaking about terrorism I quoted a line that became a popular metaphor. We are the canaries in the mine. We know that when we are attacked it is only a short time before others are attacked and the essential aspects of freedom and human rights are also attacked. We’ve heard so often the writing of Pastor Niemoehler:  First they came for the Jews.

We sit here a little more than a year after the chanting of white nationalists/neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia that “the Jews will not replace us” and less than a year after the massacres at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and in Poway, San Diego. Those were the first mass killing of Jews in the history of this country. It’s all pretty sickening.

Things change in the world. And yet, anti-Semitism continues.

I choose to speak about it today because I believe we can emerge from this conversation with an understanding of what we must do, a greater sense of who we are, and use this to understand more deeply the purpose of our being as Jews.

We know that anti-Semitism has no single source. It comes from the left and it comes from the right. Classical anti-Semitism comes from our rejection of Jesus Christ and with it, a two-thousand-year history of anti-Semitism from the church.  Islam responded to our rejection of their prophet with similar hate. Often, we were caught in the middle of the battles between Islam and Christianity. It was true during the Crusades and it may be true today!

Looking at this from the place of Torah we see in the Book of Exodus that there is a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. Our existence then, in a separate place, an area known as Goshen, caused suspicion. Our population growth created fear, resentment, and hatred that led to our enslavement.

People fear the unknown. That leads to resentment and hatred. Pharaoh viewed us as a fifth column. That is a pattern repeated as we remain separate; a Biblical story replayed throughout our history.

Later in the Book of Exodus as we wandered in the wilderness we were attacked by Amalek. It appears to be “just because.” Amalek becomes the symbol of evil and hatred that has no purpose. He attacked the weak and the vulnerable. You see, throughout history we have been hated because we were weak; however, we have also been hated when we were strong.

In the Book of Esther, the prime minister, the wicked Haman, described us as a “certain people” with our own practices and who refused to bow to earthly powers, to Achashverosh. We were a threat to the kingdom. Being different, our otherness, holding fast to our faith, has also been the source of resentment and hatred. Our rejection of human power has created hatred, not just in that narrative from the Megillah, but again until this day. Powerful tyrants, autocrats, and dictators – be they Babylonian, Greek or Roman, Russian, Polish, German – hated us because we have a different relationship with human and divine power, with ultimate authority.

Our roles in business, banking, and lending money – often for the Church –created hatred.  Being that we were not just a religious group, but a people scattered around the world, gave us great advantage during periods of trading. During the period of the Dutch Trading Company, we became wealthy, and our wealth invited resentment.

We were blamed because we were socialists and we were blamed because we were capitalists. We were rich and that was bad; and, we were poor and that was bad. We were stateless and thus a target. We have a state and it is hated.

The rise of Zionism, which is fundamentally the expression of the hope for the Jewish people to establish a homeland on the land of our ancestors and fulfill a two-thousand-year-old dream is the source of another form of Jew-hatred.

There is anti-Semitism from the right, and that’s clear to us. Most of the recent acts in this country come from nativists – nationalists. People who hate us because we are not Christian; and, because we are seen as wealthy and they feel left out and can’t take responsibility for their own failures. We weren’t German enough, Polish enough, French enough or white enough or American enough. And so, we are a threat to their ideologies and racist notions.

And there is anti-Semitism from the left. It is not about disagreement with Israeli policy. It is very important that honest critique of Israel not be conflated with anti-Semitism. But when the critique states Jews have no right to a homeland, then it is anti-Semitic.

An anti-Semite can deny that he or she is an anti-Semite. After all, they’ll say, I’m not a racist. I have no problem with Jews or Judaism. I only have a problem with the State of Israel. But in a world of 56 Muslim nations and 103 Christian ones, there is only one Jewish state, Israel. Israel is the only one of the 193 member nations of the United Nations that has its right to exist regularly challenged.

BDS is not about disagreement with Israeli policy. It is about the denial of the Jewish people to their own autonomous state. It has never sorted out that distinction. It was not able to distinguish issues from policies; settlements and occupation from the rights of existence. Therefore, it is anti-Semite. And people have been confused by it.

Not too long ago I was with some people at Florida Atlantic University. They were perplexed because they perceived that people were saying that any critique of policy was anti-Semitism. They asked, “It seems that whoever criticizes Israel is called an anti-Semite. Is that true?” I said, “No.” And I added the following: “It’s like this: As Americans we have a right to critique the government or its leaders or policies. But that’s not the same as saying that America has no right to exist. To say that about Israel, that is anti-Semitism.”

The anti-Semitism of the left today is also partly motivated by the resentment of Jewish particularity. It is also about Jewish economic success and the view that Jews are a part of white privilege that continues to repress the powerless and minorities. As if there were a Jewish conspiracy. And, as if there were no poor Jews.

Are you familiar with the term “intersectionality?” It is where one group representing an oppressed and historically deprived segment of society finds kinship with others who see themselves the same way. What we have seen is that there was a natural coalition of the Women’s March Movement, Black Lives Matter, many immigrant groups and Palestinian activists.

This is not religious anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism directed against Jews as a people,

Last week The Women’s March organization dismissed Linda Sarsour and the other avowed anti-Semites were replaced. It came after months of dialogue with openness and honesty. One of the new leaders is a rabbi.

I have personally experienced this movement to disavow anti-Semitism within the Muslim leadership. There is so far to go, and some of it will not be eradicated, but the battle for understanding and truth must be fought side by side with the assertion of rights, for us and all people.

So, where do we go with this?

We know it will never be eradicated completely. Anti-Semitism is irrational. It even exists in places where there are no Jews. Sometimes it is marginally hidden, as is the case in Holocaust denial. But other times it is right in our faces.

The first rule of Jewish ethics is contained in the question:

Im ein ani li mi li? If I am not for myself who will be?

This is where the story I told about Eddie Balkin comes in:  We must be strong and active.

When there’s an incidence of anti-Semitism, shout it out.  Report it to law enforcement. Contact the agencies of the Jewish and larger community that deal with hatred and racism. Support our agencies that fight anti-Semitism and racism.  Neither we nor they can ignore it.

Leaders and elected officials need to be very clear on the nature of anti-Semitism and they need to reject it outright. Tolerance for any form of discrimination opens the door to anti-Semitism. Leaders must set the moral tone. There can be no messages that make it seem like there are good guys on the side of the anti-Semites. There are no good Nazis.

We need to protect our buildings and our schools, and, we need to support the increased costs of this. Israel needs to be a strong democracy, a place of hope for us and all people.

We cannot allow ourselves to be victims again. True strength is physical, but it is also intellectual, spiritual and psychological.

We need to educate. Holocaust education and education about difference –including anti-Semitism and racism and other phobic responses to people – must be taught to be eradicated. The Nazis didn’t only destroy us, they destroyed Germany and Europe. Every nation that once flourished with strong Jewish communities – when their Jews suffered oppression and were forcibly exiled – those nations failed.  It destroys cultures and civilization.

Do you know the Miami Heat player who hit “the shot” a few years ago? Ray Allen, an African-American, visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. when he was a Celtic. There his eyes were opened to the impact of anti-Semitism and the Shoah. He has become an advocate against all forms of prejudice and hate. He takes a broad view and understands what othering and prejudice do. He does so as a spokesperson for the Holocaust Museum in Washington. And he knows it represents the rejection of all forms of hatred.

We should not look at our suffering or the hatred we experience as if we are the only people who suffer. It is simply not the case. Whether you are a Muslim sitting in a detention camp in China as a member of the Rohingya tribe or a person with different sexual or gender orientation; whether you are black or an immigrant, or in many cases and in particular societies, a woman: there is hatred experienced, violence known and suffering imposed.

We are taught by our tradition that our own suffering is not meant for our self-pity or revenge but rather to sensitize ourselves and the world, to engage others, to fight evil, to empathize with the stranger. It is an essential meaning of being Jewish.

Emotional maturity is called for. We must understand that the world isn’t simply us and them. Not every non-Jew is an anti-Semite. Not every critique of a Jew or Israel is anti-Semitic. We can’t be screaming anti-Semite when it simply is not that. We can’t allow ourselves to become overly defensive or fearful. Rather we are called upon to be confident and strong.

Our experiences could make us resentful and defensive, reactive and even paranoid.  When one is abused, and there is no treatment, they are likely to become abusers. We cannot become abusers. Being hated or oppressed should not turn us into being a hateful people. We need to protect our own souls. We are survivors, not victims.

There are some lessons to be learned after the Tree of Life massacre from there and here.

First, do you know why that shul was chosen? It wasn’t the closest synagogue to the cold-blooded murderer. But Tree of Life had hosted an evening with HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that is responsible for the settlement in this country of so many immigrants.

Since the last immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, they have been focusing on other immigrants. They work with Mexicans, Guatemalans, North Africans, and Syrians. People and children in desperation.

The murderer in Pittsburgh wanted to shoot Jews because Jews advocate for human rights. And we will not stop.

I learned something else after Pittsburgh. Thousands and thousands of dollars were collected by Muslims and Christians to help the victims and the restoration work that was necessary. They even supported houses of Shiva. They showed up in shul the following Shabbat – a sign of solidarity and love.

Right here in this congregation, we gathered an estimated 2,400 people to mourn together. From this Bimah Brett Putterhaugh, a Mormon, wore a kippah and said: “Tonight I am a Jew. Tonight, I stand with you as an American.” Father Andrew Sherman, an Episcopalian priest, stood here and spoke words of compassion and support and love. The Imam Fahti talked about our shared humanity. He spoke about the rights of all peoples and the need to stand together.

We must not be alone in this battle.  They and their coreligionists are with us! People of different color and different faiths. The gathering took place within thirty-six hours after the attack. It is because of the work that we do. Getting to know each other, respecting each other, working together to build something better.

We live in a special community, and that is the work we must do. We were together again at the local mosque after the bombing in Christ Church, New Zealand, and after the shootings in San Antonio. There are good people and good people must stand together.

We don’t compromise our Jewishness; we strengthen it and stand proudly as Jews.

Throughout our history, when there were anti-Semitic outbursts the Jews who lived in communities where there were close relationships with the local churches and bishops were most likely to be protected. Relationships with others are not a guarantee but they are essential.

Can we end anti-Semitism? We can’t. It is a part of this world. But there are things we can do, and there are ways we must stand.

There’s a Midrash that compares Sinai the word, with the word, Sinah. Sinai, the place where we became a people covenanted with God. There we experienced the Divine. Sinai. Sinah means hatred. It was, according to the rabbis, because of Sinai that we were hated. Sinai made us different.

Sinai created a different new way of looking at the world and being in the world. It meant rejecting ultimate human power. It meant the rejection of idolatry, which was the worship of power and materialism, then and now. Through Sinai, we found a way to the transcendent, and so Sinai took us to that which is aspirational.

It created a sense of responsibility, and that meant human obligation for more than the self. Through Sinai, we discovered that we were a holy people, a nation of priests in the world. And it created hatred.

It was the beginning of learning and the commitment to truth. We received a document of freedom and justice, kindness and compassion.

Sinai gave us aspirations of what we could model for the world. And it gave us responsibilities to improve the world as it is. But it also made us different. Anyone can come to Sinai and become different.  That is who we are.

On this Rosh Hashanah let us take stock and realize that we have responsibilities to explore the meaning and obligations of Sinai.

We must be strong. We must find meaning and joy in what we have inherited. Not because of, but despite the challenges life presents.

Zachreinu L’Chayim Melech Chafetz BaChayim. Let us be remembered for life, by the God who desires life, as we affirm our tradition, our people, our nation and our God.

May you and the people Israel, all our brothers and sisters and all good people everywhere be inscribed and sealed for a very good year!

L’Chayim.

 

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