Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 2017-5778
Speaking & Acting Out: A Response to Charlottesville
I find myself this Rosh Hashanah feeling trepidation and anxiety unlike any other year before. I do remember Yom Kippur 1973 when I was 11 years old. I remember walking into synagogue with my father and hearing right away about the coordinated Syrian and Egyptian surprise attack on Israel. I was fearful then for Israel’s survival and the prayers that Yom Kippur - “who shall live and who shall die” - rang true. I felt afraid at that time for Israel’s fate and felt threatened as a Jew by that war.
And of course I remember Rosh Hashanah 16 years ago - 2001. That Rosh Hashanah was just one week removed from the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the twin towers in NY. We were grieving for the over 3,000 lives lost and we were in mourning together with our own Darin Pontell’s family as he was among those in the Pentagon that day who lost his life. We were still afraid 16 years ago because we didn’t know if another attack on our country was imminent.
Those were dreadful times to be sure. Yet they were times - in 1973 and 2001 - when the source of our fear was an enemy. An enemy force that could be seen and a force which could theoretically be conquered. Though peace in the middle east is still elusive and the war against terrorism wages on, it is a war against a force mainly from outside our borders. And it is a war in which we are all united in order to defeat the forces of evil and pursue the cause of peace.
Today, though, I find myself more deeply anxious because I’m afraid not of an outside force, but rather a rising force from within the fabric of our very society - a force which threatens the very well-being of our great nation, a force which threatens our society’s very soul. It is the force of bigotry, hatred and antisemitism, a tide that is rising every day that has me fearful as we begin this new year.
Last month we were horrified at the events in Charlottesville. We were terrified with our fellow Jews there who cowered in fear. As the president of Congregation Beth Israel, Alan Zimmerman, said afterward: “For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know….Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There's the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols….When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.”
Though the killing of Heather Heyer by the white supremacist that day and that description of the march past the synagogue in downtown Charlottesville should have raised great alarm for us as Americans and as Jews what caused an even greater uproar were the public statements made by President Trump. In his role as president - the civic and legal figurehead and spokesman for our nation - we would expect him to speak out against violence and to speak out against groups that promote hatred and bigotry. We didn’t hear that from the president afterward, instead we heard him condemn “the hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides”. That statement which he repeated a few days later only served to embolden the very forces of evil and hatred that were meant to be condemned! Instead of comforting the Jewish citizens and the Jewish mayor of Charlottesville and instead of reassuring the rest of the country that such forces of hatred have no place in our society, the president’s remarks only served to strengthen the resolve of those white supremacist and neo nazi organizations. Those groups now see that they can continue to spew their hatred and continue to rally and intimidate because the president isn’t stopping them.
Before I continue I want to clarify that my discussion today and my criticism of the president has nothing to do with politics or a particular political party. When President Clinton ran for office and allegations surfaced about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers while he was governor of Arkansas and his later affair with Monica Lewinsky, I was morally repulsed. I said at the time that such a morally flawed person had no place running for the highest office or being in the highest office of our land and has no right to assume an office that partly serves to be the moral conscience of our society. I essentially said the same thing last year when President Trump was a candidate for office. The issue was not politics; the issue was and continues to be moral character.
My role as your rabbi is to interpret events as they happen and put them in a religious context. My job is to help us understand issues in our society and facilitate a personal and a communal response when necessary. When the president gives tacit support for white supremacy and neo-nazism I feel I need to speak out and urge our protest and strive to formulate a response. That is my attempt this morning. This isn’t about the Republican President Trump, this is about the morally questionable response of our president and the lasting negative impact his remarks may have on our cherished society.
As I mentioned in my remarks in shul on shabbat a week after Charlottesville, we need to respond to the events in Charlottesville both as Americans and as Jews. The response is actually quite clear from both perspectives. We shouldn’t equivocate. We shouldn’t sit back and let others stand up and respond. From our nation’s founding and in fact from the words of our very first president, “the government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” A nation which was founded by people who themselves escaped religious persecution and discrimination, clearly stands for equality and justice for all its citizens. There can be no debating that point. All citizens no matter their race, color or creed are to be treated equally and fairly by all citizens and by the government. If President Washington could affirm that in that letter to the 6 synagogues in America at the time (quite a radical statement for that time in world history) then how much moreso should every president reaffirm that statement. How much moreso should every president ensure that his or her public statements and his or her policy initiatives strive to maintain that level of equality.
As Jews our response is just as clear and unambiguous. Two statements from the Torah should suffice to remind us of our innate religious and moral imperative. We’re told at the very beginning of the Torah that God created the first human beings in God’s image as it says (Genesis 1:27): “betzelem Elohim bara otam - In God’s image did God create them”. Is God white or black; is God Asian or Latin American? Just as God is all colors and no color so too all people on Earth reflect the one God.
Not only do the rainbow colors of global humanity reflect God’s image teaching us that we are all equal, our Jewish tradition further teaches us that we have the moral responsibility to stand up against violence perpetrated or fight against laws enacted by one group against another. As the book of Leviticus teaches (Leviticus 19:6): “al ta’amod al dam rey’echa - don’t stand idly by your brother’s blood” - which means that if your fellow human being is in jeopardy then we have to do something about it. Not only do we have to treat each other as if we all are created by God and we all contain a spark of God within us, we also have to do our utmost to protect the safety and well being of every person on earth. Not only must we love all people, we have to fight for the rights of all people.
Though it’s clear that as Americans and as Jews we have no choice but to stand up for racial equality why is it so hard for many of us to do so? It is true that many in the community financially support organizations that fight this battle and many attend rallies and marches, but do we really do enough? As your rabbi I have served on committees that advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, I have attended conferences on those very issues and I have attended rallies for Soviet Jewry and the people of Darfur. But I often feel that I don’t do enough. I understand our tradition and I do my best to treat everyone I meet with respect. I do acknowledge, though, that the imperative to stand up and protest and advocate is challenging.
A few months ago the Washington Post Magazine highlighted the work of several local and national activists. In that article, Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, the congressman who marched with Dr. King and was a key player in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, among others, spoke about their personal experience with hatred. They spoke eloquently of the persecution they lived with and the poverty they experienced that drove them and inspired them. As Congressman Lewis described: “I grew up in rural Alabama. And when we would visit this little place called Troy about 10 miles from our home, I saw the signs that said “white” and “colored.” I didn’t like it. I would ask my mother and my father and my grandparents and my great-grandparents why. They would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’”
But when he was 15 years old he heard Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. speak on the radio and he felt as if Dr. King was speaking directly to him. His words and the actions of Rosa Parks stirred something within Congressman Lewis, as he said, he learned “that you cannot be at home with yourself when you see something that you know is not right.” Cong. Lewis continued, “the moment I was first placed under arrest...I felt free. ...There’s something I call the spirit of history: Sometimes you’re tracked down by a force, and you cannot turn away.” He concluded his remarks in that article by saying, ”You have to believe, somehow and some way, in the possibility that we will reconcile to each other as humans. So you study. You meditate. And you forgive. On the Freedom Ride in Rock Hill, South Carolina, members of the Klan beat us and left us in a pool of blood. In 2009, one of the guys that beat us came to [my] office. He was in his 70s. He came with his son. He said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you and your seatmate. Will you forgive me? I want to apologize.” His son started crying first. Then he started crying. They hugged me. I hugged them back. And the three of us cried together. That is the power of the way of love.”
Congressman Lewis’ words are very moving and powerful. As I stand before you today, having shared my fear and anxiety of the hatred in our society, I find Congressman Lewis’ words soothing and comforting. I’ve also had the privilege of hearing him speak in person. Though he is short in height, he is tall in moral stature.
His words teach us three valuable lessons as we try to come to terms with Charlottesville and attempt to make positive changes moving forward. First it is quite clear that when we see hatred we have to act. Congressman Lewis not only saw hatred against his people but he lived it every day. When he was old enough he acted and he continued to protest and to act for the rest of his life.
Which unfortunately is the second lesson we learn from him. The struggle against hatred is a long one. It is one that drains our energy and keeps knocking us down. It is a struggle that at times is violent and it is a struggle that seems endless. It saps our energy and it strives to make us give up. At times this struggle makes us feel that there is nothing we can do to make everyone love each other. But it is a battle that we must continue to fight.
The centuries long fight against antisemitism can be draining but even more challenging than staying in the fight is the need to always maintain a sense of love for those who spew hatred. The fact that Congressman Lewis was able to hug and forgive one of those who beat him so many years ago shows the need to maintain one’s dignity throughout the battle. We need to keep in mind that those who marched in Charlottesville and shouted “seig heil” as they passed the synagogue still deserve to be loved. It is our task to educate. It is our task to always stand on high, moral ground. It is our task to represent the moral and religious imperatives like love your neighbor, as we strive to end bigotry and discrimination.
Am I still fearful today? Yes I am. But I hope that we are emboldened this morning to do something about it. We cannot cower in the face of antisemitism. We cannot shrink away from those who shout “Jews will not replace us.” We cannot shy away from criticizing those who condone racial violence. We must be heartened by our American and Jewish tradition. Let us be inspired by President Washington and by our own Torah and know that for 3,000 years we have always advocated for the rights of all people. And may Congressman Lewis’ words motivate us as we begin this new year.
Our presence here this morning should also embolden us. Together we welcome in the new year. As a community we are reminded of the values we hold dear and sing the words of our liturgy expressing our faith and asking for inspiration from God to make the right choices in the year ahead. Will we sit back and let the voices of hatred be heard? We will sit back and let others do our work? Or will we, step by step, become that voice of change? Will we do our part in inscribing our names and the names of all people in the book of blessing and life? May we, together, make this a year of love and peace. Amen.