By Rabbi Michael Berk
Earlier this month brought us to the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager I. It is now floating beyond our own solar system — in empty space. Imagine this: Voyager has less computing power than the key fob many of you use to open your car doors. Think how far human knowledge has come during the 40 years of the flight of Voyager I.
This summer also brought us Charlottesville, which reminded us that during the last 40 years, we apparently haven’t learned anything about getting along together.
So some will disagree with me, but I think most of us know that something serious is going on in our land. We feel it in our guts. Something’s wrong.
The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest — you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.”
The Talmud is telling you that you are accountable for the behavior of others. Judaism doesn’t let you off the hook; your cherished, American individualism, is, according to the wisdom of our tradition, subservient to your responsibilities to others. When Jews see something wrong in those we love, in our community, in the world, we’re supposed to speak up. And regarding those who lead us, the Talmud is also quite clear… if we do not protest the wrongdoing of our leaders, we share the guilt of their sins.
Charlottesville shocked the nation with its ugliness, and the extent of the racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy we witnessed. And what made so many of us shudder was the confidence and openness of the haters. They proudly walked in KKK robes with heads uncovered. They smugly brandished symbols of Nazism and evoked memories of the Holocaust with their slogans. They brazenly and menacingly buzzed a synagogue. For Jews, it was a stark reminder of what African Americans have been saying — hatred in our land is alive and well.
Racism, xenophobia, religious animosity — all this has risen to the surface this year, though there were signs of it when we elected our first African-American president. Remember in February 2016, the last year of his presidency, President Obama made his first appearance at a mosque to assure Muslims they are home in America. To realize how much changed since his election, recall that shortly after 9/11, President Bush visited a mosque to reassure Muslims, and Republicans praised him. But when Obama went to a mosque a year and a half ago, Republican candidates for president criticized him.
Both Bush and Obama spoke at times when they felt they needed to use their bully pulpit to drive home the point that Muslims are at home here in America as much as anyone else. Their messages were clear and unequivocal. The time for a similar message arose again this summer.
But what did we hear? Compare what Bush and Obama said to what both Democrats and Republicans called the confusing, mixed, and sometimes hostile reaction of President Trump after Charlottesville. Even if he didn’t intend it, the Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-Semites were delighted with Trump’s response.
Ambiguity from our nation’s leaders cannot stand in matters of race and basic human rights and decency. Jews especially know the danger of minimizing or ignoring the perils of anti-Semitism, hatred and racism. We cannot write Charlottesville off as a few hundred crazies. We shouldn’t let stand mixed messages about the abomination of racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy. We need to hear and make very clear statements, and they need to say to all who hate: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every Christian, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in God’s sight. All people are created in the image of the Divine. All people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.
Speaking about Torah, the one thing Jews have always agreed on is words are important. We Jews have a long love story with words. And there’s a moral foundation to this romance: we believe words are powerful. Nothing captures that attitude towards words better than the rabbinic saying “blessed is the One who with words created the world.” And, we believe we have to accept responsibility for what we say. When you are a leader, well, all the more so.
I do not understand our president’s relationship to language. It confuses me when Trump says something and then others have to clarify that we should not interpret his words according to what those words mean. I heard the words and saw the body language when he imitated a disabled reporter. I saw him rebuke and rebuke again Muslim parents who mourned their son who died a hero wearing an American military uniform. I heard him say John McCain was not a hero because he was captured. I heard his voice speaking unrepeatable words about women. With my own ears I heard him equate Nazis with their protesters. One writer, a Holocaust scholar, described his equivocation this way: “When presented with an obvious opportunity to condemn the evil that was and is Nazism, he first waited, then equivocated, then relativized. He spoke of ‘very fine people on both sides.’”
In a few days, on Yom Kippur, we will confess our sins several times. If you are unsure of my raising the use of words to such a lofty moral level, count the number of sins to which we will confess that are about the words we speak — and don’t speak.
So it’s not just irresponsibility with the use of words that concerns me, but the impact of those words lingering out there in our society and cyber-space. We are supposed to know that there are consequences to the words we speak; especially when you are the world’s most powerful human being. Whether correct or not, the neo-Nazis, racists and supremacists thought they gained useful victories from Charlottesville, for which they expressed thanks. They think their ideology was normalized and their actions were excused.
This hatred roiling in our country needs to be acknowledged and confronted. If we cannot count on clarity from our leaders, then we should take the lead and make sure that we do not let hateful words and actions go unchallenged.
We Jews especially must be on guard. Our Jewish antennae should be up. The hatred we are dealing with is what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “irrational hate,” which is the most dangerous of hatreds because it’s impossible to reason with it. It’s a hatred with which we’re well acquainted. Sachs says with irrational hatred, “…all one can do is remember and not forget, be constantly vigilant, and fight it whenever and wherever it appears.” That’s been our strategy throughout Jewish history.
My concern is Jewish values, not politics. I am aware that there’s plenty of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel on the left. It is also despicable and worthy of strong condemnation. I do not believe that President Trump is a raving racist or anti-Semite. I do believe that he allows them to believe he is sympathetic because they represent part of his core, unwavering supporters. As a Jew and a rabbi I object to allowing such political thinking to minimize or dismiss a moral problem which threatens the nature of America and the safety of Jews, Muslims, and non-whites. I have learned this lesson in many ways from many teachers. Perhaps, most profoundly, from Elie Weisel, whose credentials in matters of social morality are impeccable. He knew what it’s like to live among those who are silent or ignore hatred. His memorable words are a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
On this Rosh Hashanah I wish to say to you that in matters of hatred and xenophobia, of demonizing others based on skin color, how they worship, or who they love, we must interfere.
And in this season of repentance, let us do some work on ourselves. This is not a sermon about others. It’s about each of us. It’s Rosh Hashanah. We’re supposed to look at the world God gave us and renew our love and commitment to its well being. But we’re also to look inward and be honest with ourselves about our own lives. So today, let’s do the hard work of ridding ourselves of any traces of irrational hatred of others; and realize that in our world we must love others as ourselves and respect the differences among people that God, in His wisdom, created.
The last word goes to a right-wing Jew; the president of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who visited a first grade class on opening day of school year and told the children that Rosh Hashana is a time for soul searching. He said: “One of the first things we learn as citizens of the world and as Jews is to love your neighbor as yourself. This is true even when we don’t love each other, but we still have to respect each other. In spite of our difference of opinions, we are all one society. I hope that we will learn and understand that loving your neighbor is a necessity.”
Michael Berk is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California. This op-ed was adapted from his sermon to the congregation on Wednesday night at the beginning of the 2017 Rosh Hashanah holiday.
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