Tradition would have us believe that we are to spend Yom Kippur feeling as if we are quaking in our boots. This most sacred day in the Jewish calendar is designed to motivate us to transform our lives. But the motivational strategy of the rabbis is to imagine that we are standing before God attempting to plead our case. We are to see a huge, thick book open on a desk in front of God and we are to know that book has the names of everyone in the world in it. God holds a pen and is waiting to hear what we say before writing down whether we will live or die this coming year.
This frightening image is reinforced in many prayers today such as “be rosh hashanah yeekateivoon u-ve-yom tzom kippur yeichateimoon”, “on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed” and in the amidah. It is also reinforced in how we are supposed to be dressed today. We wear non-leather shoes, we don’t shave and we wear white as if we are sitting “shiva” - in mourning - in anticipation of the terrible decree we are about to receive.
Standing before God as an accused who is about to be convicted by a judge is a frightening image. We think we are supposed to find comfort and refuge in the synagogue - hence the word sanctuary - and we are to find support from one another. Instead this day is filled with dread and foreboding as we pray and apologize as hard as we can and hope for the best.
Imagine then how our ancestors felt. Not only did they feel this threat to their spiritual lives in the synagogue as they prayed, they also experienced a real threat to their lives outside the synagogue. The Jews of Europe experienced anti-Semitism in business, in laws decreeing how they were to dress and where they were to live. Throughout most of Europe off and on for many centuries, Jews felt threatened for their lives and were expelled from one country to the next every few decades.
Antisemitism throughout history - until the 20th century - was always couched in religious terms. When Christians walked into the cathedrals of Europe they would see a statue of a woman wearing a blindfold and would be told that it represented the Jew who was blind to the truth of Christianity. They would hear the Bible being read by the priest every Sunday and invariably hear a passage which described either the treachery of Judas Iscariot, or the stupidity of the Pharisees - the rabbis as they were called. Every easter Christians would watch the passion play in which the Jews were portrayed as handing Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified thus perpetuating the story that the Jews killed Jesus. It’s no wonder then that there would be cycles of violence against the Jews carried out by Christian fundamentalists. The Crusaders marched across Europe and killed thousands of non-Christians in their way as they journeyed to free the Holy Land of the infidel. Torquemada - the influential Catholic priest - convinced Queen Isabella to expel the Jews from Spain even against her better financial judgment. Cossacks rampaged many Jewish villages throughout western Russia, especially around easter, to enact revenge for Jesus. Even in the early 20th century pogroms were perpetrated based on the idea that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to bake matzah.
Religiously based antisemitism, with 2,000 of years of history certainly took hold in Europe. Christians were instilled with antisemitic beliefs from what they learned in Church and what they frequently saw being perpetrated by the authorities. Jews often lived with their heads held low and had to be as inconspicuous as possible in order to survive.
Hitler, beginning in the 1920s, articulated another form of antisemitism - one based on economic reasons. As Germany suffered a great recession after being defeated in WWI, Hitler recognized that Germany needed a scapegoat. Why was Germany poor he asked? Just look around you he said. Who has the most money? Who own the banks and the department stores? The Jews are hoarding all the money and they must be stopped. This economic antisemitism took root in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the late 19th century and was also articulated by Henry Ford and other prominent figures in the 20th century.
But certainly all that hatred is in the past. Just over 50 years ago, Pope John XXIII convened the 2nd Vatican Council and a document it published known as Nostra Aetate formally declared that the Jews are not to be blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus. I grew up in that new Catholic era and I personally thought that antisemitism was a historical phenomenon. I never personally experienced antisemitism while growing up. I never heard insults spewed at me nor did I ever feel frightened to be Jewish. I comfortably wear my kippah wherever I go without fear and in fact I wear it with pride. So if I never experienced antisemitism first hand and I think antisemitism is a historical phenomenon, why am I talking about it this evening?
Because antisemitism is on the rise and I am alarmed. Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish History at Emory University, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in August titled, “Why Jews Are Worried.” She, like many others, are greatly concerned about the rise of antisemitism in Europe. Though it may seem to be directly connected to the war in Gaza the rise in antisemitism really reflects deeper ideas and beliefs. Lipstadt reminds us that demonstrators in the German cities of Dortmund and Frankfurt chanted, “Hamas, Hamas; Jews to the gas.” A group of Parisian Jews in mid-July were trapped in a synagogue by pro-Palestinian rioters and had to be rescued by the police. Signs were posted in Rome urging a boycott of 50 Jewish owned businesses. Anti Israel protesters in London targeted a grocery store and the manager pulled all kosher products off the shelves. But it’s clear that antisemitic acts have been on the rise long before this summer. We remember the 4 Jews killed at the Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France in 2012. In December 2012 Israeli officials warned Jews in Denmark not to put on a kippah until they were safely inside the synagogue. A quick glance at the antisemitism section of the Anti Defamation League’s website will reveal how many antisemitic incidents have been perpetrated in Europe and around the world. In fact, the ADL’s survey of attitudes toward Jews which it conducted from January-February in 2014 revealed that 26% of people in the 100 countries it surveyed thought that most of the typical negative Jewish stereotypes - Jews are more loyal to Israel than their home country, Jews control international business - are true. Also, 35% of the people surveyed never heard of the Holocaust.
We can take to heart that the number of antisemitic incidents in America according to the ADL declined in 2013. We can also feel good knowing that 77% of Americans have heard of the Holocaust and that 72% of Americans feel that the Holocaust has been described fairly. Though those numbers aren’t perfect they seem to reflect the security with which we live as Jews here in the greater Washington area. Though I’m not a good judge since I spend every day working in a synagogue, meeting with rabbis and doing Jewish things I still know that in my 20 years as your rabbi I have rarely heard anyone tell me that they experienced antisemitism at work or school. When it has happened - once or twice - there was a place at school or work to whom that person could turn such as our local branch of the ADL and the Jewish Community Relations Council that can provide support and advocacy. We as Jews in America are in a very safe and secure place.
And yet our long and tortured history tells us that if antisemitism grows in one place it will inevitably grow in another. Just because we are secure now doesn’t mean that our lives can’t be threatened later. I don’t say this to frighten anyone nor do I want to be melodramatic. But I can’t help but worry about how the tide is shifting in Europe. Though according to the ADL 94% of Europeans have heard of the Holocaust and 82% of Europeans think what has been reported about the Holocaust is accurate - higher on both counts than in the US - 24% of Europeans - one out of four - have antisemitic tendencies. It is clear that education has no effect on reducing antisemitic acts or eliminating antisemitism from the European culture.
We need to be aware of Jewish events around us and we need to understand the context of those events. Usually prayers are meant to respond to our emotions and they are supposed to articulate our thoughts of our relationship to God. The prayers in the machzor do that but they also teach us about our history. The Kol Nidre prayer is meaningful to us as we evaluate the promises we make. But Kol Nidre becomes more powerful when we know who has recited it over the centuries and under what circumstances. As marranos in Spain and Portugal - those Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism - recited it 500 years ago we ask ourselves how our promises compare to the vows our ancestors made under duress and torture. As we recite the “u-netaneh-tokef” again tomorrow we can certainly dream about and be anxious about what is in store for us this coming year. But the prayer becomes more powerful when we know that our troubles may pale in comparison to the persecution and slaughter of our ancestors by the marauding Crusaders when that prayer was written.
Learning our history is imperative to combatting any issues our community may face. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do - it’s because throughout our history we have faced these same issues. We have fought them. We have responded to them. And we have overcome. The knowledge of our past provides us with the strength to face this battle head on.
We also need to recognize the responsibility we have for our fellow Jews wherever they are. We recite our prayers in the plural to have us recognize that we are not alone. Being Jewish isn’t just about how I will improve myself or what I will learn. It’s also about recognizing that we - all of us as individuals - are stronger in a community. Our chesed committee supports us in times of need and we know how helpful our Shaare Tefila community is for us. But community responsibility extends beyond these walls. We have to know what’s going on around the world and how our brothers and sisters are faring. It’s always been part of our culture. Not only did the Sephardic Jews who arrived in America first help the German Jews who came next and then the German Jews helped the Eastern European Jews after them, but we have to extend that help outward. Organizations like the ADL advocate on our behalf around the world and organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee provide financial assistance when necessary.
In August Israel’s finance minister - Yair Lapid - represented Israel at meetings with his German counterpart in Berlin. While in Berlin, Lapid visited the monument at Gleis 17, the train station from which 500,000 Jews were transported to concentration camps from 1941-1945. He gave an impassioned speech about evil and about how we should respond to bigotry and anti-Semitism. In closing he said, “We must do everything to avoid suffering and the death of innocents but we stand in the right place from which to say to the entire world: We will not board the train again. We will protect ourselves from total evil.”
Learning about our history and advocating for Jews in trouble are just two ways to heed Minister Lapid’s call for action. News of the rising tide of European antisemitism should alarm us and more importantly should inspire us to act. But is should also cause us to be aware of other forms of racial bigotry as well. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote recently, “the historic danger in monotheism has been the willingness of believers to divide humanity into the redeemed against the infidel.” In other words when we believe in our religious “truths” we could tend to believe that others don’t have the “truth”. That makes “the other” at best different and at worst to be reviled and persecuted. “To guard against this”, Sacks continues, “Genesis 1, common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, says that every human being, regardless of color, class or creed, is [created] in the image of God. Our shared humanity takes precedence over our religious differences.”
As our Yom Kippur fast and atonement begin let us ponder this shared humanity. Instead of
shaking in fear as the rabbis would want us to do, we should stand up and say that we will face
the threats to our Jewish lives. We know our history and have learned from it. We will fight for our
rights and the rights of all who face bigotry and discrimination. We will do everything in our power
to protect our brothers and sisters in Europe to quell anti-Semitism there. We say this Yom Kippur
that we are proud of who we are and we will not live in fear. Let us be strengthened by our
community and let us pray that the year 5775 will be one of peace and security everywhere.