Rosh HaShanah 5780: Digging In Against Anti-Semitism

Anyone here from Kansas? Two weeks ago I made my first trip to Kansas City to give a talk about tzedakah at a beautiful synagogue there. Afterwards I stood in the parking lot, schmoozing with the rabbi about the 2014 attack on their JCC. Three people were murdered that April day by a neo-Nazi Klan member spewing vile anti-Semitic statements. As it happens, all three of his victims were Christian. Two belonged to the massive Methodist Church of the Resurrection, and one to a Catholic church. Yet this was very much an act of anti-Semitic violence.

I asked the rabbi, how has the attack changed your community? In many ways, he said. Look, see the stained-glass windows? They’re coated in bullet proof glass. See here, this is now the only entrance to our building. There are locked gates throughout the building. You met the armed guard when you entered, didn’t you, and of course, there are cameras. Some in the parking lot are high resolution, equipped to read license plates and report any suspicious ones directly to the police department.

That is all impressive, but similar security measures are playing out in synagogues and Jewish schools across the country and world—we are better protected than ever, but we still don’t feel secure. Which would we prefer—bullet proof glass, or better relationships with our neighbors, and a society less saturated with hatred and violence?

It used to be that people questioned our need for security screenings here at JTS. One friend insisted on meeting me outside at a café so they wouldn’t have to submit to the ordeal. We don’t hear such complaints any more, not after Pittsburgh. Not after Poway. Not after the hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents that we have suffered in our city this year, including a string of physical assaults of observant men in Brooklyn, and too much hateful graffiti to be counted. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents in New York City rose 92% in 2018, from 122 in 2017 up to 234 last year.[1] These incidents make us feel unsafe, and they make us spend our limited resources on security measures instead of on scholars and scholarships. We are diminished by this hatred, and we are in danger of withdrawing into a fortress mentality.

It doesn’t make us feel better that this spate of anti-Semitism comes in the context of constant shootings in America, many of them inspired by group hatred—of immigrants, blacks, Muslims, Latinx, LGBTQ and really anyone who seems different. The NY Times counted 26 mass shootings this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They came in many varieties—in fact the only common denominator is that all the shooters were male, and the more powerful the gun, the more numerous its victims.

As Americans we are ashamed, frightened and angry. And as Americans we need to act more decisively. But on this day of Rosh HaShanah let’s look specifically at anti-Semitism, which is the most common hatred, accounting for half the hate crimes in America despite our tiny numbers. Let’s ask what we can do to narrow the circle of hatred and expand the circle of love. Because we must not lose sight of the love—for all our concerns with hatred, love is stronger still.

5779 was a perplexing year—a year of blessings, a year of curses, a year of highs and year of lows. Hannah gets it right in her prayer (1 Sam 2:6-7) from today’s haftarah:

(ו) ה’ מֵמִית וּמְחַיֶּה מוֹרִיד שְׁאוֹל וַיָּעַל: (ז) ה’ מוֹרִישׁ וּמַעֲשִׁיר מַשְׁפִּיל אַף מְרוֹמֵם:

Adonai deals death and gives life; casts down into Sheol and raises up.

Adonai makes poor and makes rich, casts down, and also lifts high.

This sentiment recurs throughout our sacred texts and prayers. God raises us high and brings us down low— the vicissitudes of life mean that when you feel secure, don’t assume it will last, and when you feel fear, don’t give up hope.

We Jews can certainly testify to the wild swings in our fortune. From the despair of 1945 when the death camps were exposed for all to see, until the declaration of Israel’s statehood in 1948, ending two millennia of exile—this all happened in the blink of an eye. In our own lifetimes we have experienced highs and lows—times when we can’t believe our good fortune, and others when we suffer ancient hatreds yet again.

The New Yorker recently published a personal history essay called “My Terezin Diary” by Zuzana Justman. She recounts the complicated lives led by her parents—their imperfect marriage and parenting skills. Her father had relationships with two other women who went on to become romantically involved with high level Nazis. Before the war, it seemed that everyone could mingle freely, but then during the evil years, crazy violent hatred ruled. And then after that, things settled down once more, passing from the scene, but not truly banished. Anti-Semitism is a lurking hatred, like a virus that lies dormant and then can suddenly explode with virulent power. But so too is goodness seeded in the soul, always ready to sprout in beauty and blessing.

Both lessons were learned in Pittsburgh last October. I spent Shabbat Vayera at my old synagogue in Michigan, helping them to celebrate their 75th anniversary. It was all going beautifully until someone whispered in my ear that there had been an attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, with multiple fatalities. I remember slumping against the wall, praying that it not be true, but knowing that this was not only true, but truly to be expected. Eleven precious souls were torn from us, and others were injured. This was the most violent act of anti-Semitism on American soil, and it shook the foundations.

A few days later I flew out to Pittsburgh with one of our students who’s from there and with several JTS colleagues. We attended the funeral of Bernice and Sylvan Simon, a beautiful elderly couple who had been married in that very building 62 years before in a candlelit ceremony. Now yahrzeit candles burned outside their synagogue, the entrance barred with yellow crime scene tape. After the funeral we visited the shul, and then with local colleagues to give comfort—a shiva call even for those who had not suffered a loss in their family. We became one grieving family, as the lines of demarcation blurred. We carried with us to Pittsburgh a precious bundle—hundreds of cards from the children of the Corpus Christi school here on 121 ST—cards of condolence and encouragement for a grieving and frightened community.

Indeed, this dark and frightening incident exposed both the power of hatred and the even greater might of love. Landing in the Pittsburgh airport we saw that the iconic US Steel logo had been transformed by Tim Hindes into a yellow star with the words, “Stronger than Hate.” That, and the makeshift memorial in front of Tree of Life with hundreds of messages of comfort and support from people of all backgrounds made the point—hatred is strong, but love is stronger.

And yet our love has been tested over and over this year. In its annual audit the ADL recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States during 2018. These included 39 physical assaults, and unfortunately, they didn’t end in 2018. The shooting at the Chabad of Poway, CA in April 2019, taking the life of congregant Lori Gilbert-Kay z”l and injuring the rabbi and a child, demonstrated that this ugly trend is not over.

Perhaps most alarming is the diversity of this plague, with white conspiracy haters committing the most violent deeds, but extreme left voices adding their own form of bigotry. It is important, I think, not to claim precise equivalence between the anti-Semitism of the right, which has been lethally violent, and that on the left, which is intense, but not often violent. Right wing white supremacists have been spreading hatred throughout society aimed at many targets–communities of color, immigrants, religious minorities and more. There has been a delayed reaction by law enforcement to this threat, and we are all familiar with the many violent outbursts of white supremacism.

I am not minimizing left wing bigotry either. Representative Ilhan Omer trucked in pernicious stereotypes of Jews and their “Benjamins” controlling this country for the benefit of another. Back in 2017 we had the oddly American phenomenon of Jewish students being excluded from the protests at the University of Virginia against neo-Nazis who had come spewing anti-Semitism, because the students hadn’t disavowed Israel. While these types of incidents may not be violent, they attack Jews and Jewish identity, creating an unsafe environment for us and others.

Dara Horn wrote in Tablet Magazine about two forms of anti-Semitism, which she associated respectively with Purim and Hanukkah. In the Purim story, the haters wanted to kill all the Jews. At Hanukkah, they pressured the Jews to stop being distinctively Jewish. They went after our ritual distinctions, not because they hated our rituals but because they hated our independence. Using Dara Horn’s typology, we can agree that the Purim form of anti-Semitism is easiest to identify and condemn when evil people attack our synagogues, schools and kosher market places. It is more difficult to identify and clearly condemn that other form, Hanukkah anti-Semitism, because it goes after Jewish identity, tempting Jews to hide their Jewishness, and even to associate with their attackers. Both forms of intolerance are intolerable.

In a new book called How to Fight Anti-Semitism, NY Times writer Bari Weiss argues that this phenomenon is a three headed dragon, with right wing, left wing and Islamist anti-Semitism each bearing distinct features but ultimately mimicking and reinforcing one another. It’s not a scholarly book, and its prescriptions at the end are unfortunately shallow. I read critical reviews of the book from the left by Judith Butler and from the right by Hillel Halkin. Each of these authors noted significant flaws with Weiss’s presentation. Halkin challenges Weiss’s belief that liberalism is itself a Jewish value given that over its long history Judaism has emphasized particularism and normativity, not universalism and personal autonomy. Butler challenges Weiss’s claim that criticizing the political structure of the State of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, given the competing claims of two peoples for the same territory. These reviewers have reasonable points, but we can then ask them our own questions. Why won’t Halkin confront the hatred and violence that emerges from particularism that is unconstrained by liberal values? Why won’t Butler confront the special vehemence aimed at Israel, when so many countries, including this one, would fail her moral analysis, but only Israel is so persistently vilified and threatened with annihilation?

This isn’t the space for a full book review or an academic analysis of the historiography of anti-Semitism. It is a high holiday sermon, and so my focus is not on security, or on politics, or culture wars, but on the inner life of the Jew. How can we make our identities sturdier, more meaningful, more joyous, more proud?

I don’t disagree with any of the standard responses to anti-Semitism. The two main ones are: call it out, and build bridges:

Call it out—when we hear statements that single out Jews or the Jewish state for contempt, that imply something inherently evil about Jewish identity, then we need to name it as anti-Semitism, and condemn it. As Bari Weiss and others have said, we should focus on our own political, cultural, and social circles. If you lean left, then look left for bigotry to confront. And if you lean right, then look right, and confront the bigotries that are closest at hand.

Build bridges—We are not alone in either virtue or victimhood. We are in fact surrounded by wonderful people of other religious identities who are also frequently targeted by bigots. When they are attacked, whether in New Zealand, or in Sri Lanka, or in America, then it is our obligation to join them in solidarity, as we at JTS regularly do. This past week I participated in a UNAIDS event, sitting at a diverse table of people from many faiths and many countries talking about how to work together against this deadly disease. Likewise, with climate activism, or with opposition to human trafficking, sexual harassment, and gun violence. Each time that we build bridges, we reduce the level of isolation in our society and make it harder for haters to single us or any other group out for hatred. We must all take responsibility for building such bridges.

On this first day of Rosh HaShanah, we read about an act of intolerance born of insecurity—Sarah’s command that Abraham expel Hagar and her infant son. One of my favorite Midrashim imagines that many years later after the death of Sarah and his own near-death experience, Isaac seeks out Hagar, and brings her back home. Hatred and violence are real in our world and powerful. This we must not forget. But the positive forces of friendship, kindness and love are stronger than hate. As the new year opens, we resolve to be proactive in reaching across divides, building coalitions, so that the curses of the year that ends can be turned to blessings in the new year that is born today.

To the two standard responses I would like to add a third:

Dig Deeper. We have already invested great efforts to protect against Purim Anti-Semitism, as Dara Horn puts it. We have hardened our targets, as horrible as it is to think of our holy houses of worship and study in that way. But we need to look after the Hanukkah form of anti-Semitism, the one that pressures Jews to hide their identity. How to help our fellow Jews become more proud, and less insecure in their Jewishness? There are many ways to dig deeper as a Jew. I recognize that daily worship and study of Hebrew language texts is not the answer for everyone. My Israeli cousins in North Tel Aviv have almost zero interest in these activities and yet they feel deeply attached to our people and its heritage. My cousin Eyal plays accordion with a small klezmer group in a hospice in Tel Aviv, and has never picked up the Babylonian Talmud. I admire his own form of devotion, and I feel challenged to up my own practice of hesed, and my own service to our people in Israel and around the world.

Still, I think that even secular Israelis need to engage more deeply with the wellsprings of Jewish identity. That means studying Torah, it means practicing mitzvot, and it means belonging to Jewish communities. This beautiful institution of JTS, which is rebuilding with an eye to a long and vibrant future—this beloved seminary of ours stands for Jewish learning, for Jewish living, for Jewish values and for the Jewish future around the world. To my mind, strengthening places like this which teach Jews what is challenging, and inspiring and important about being Jewish is the ultimate answer to anti-Semitism.

I don’t recall ever before giving a high holiday sermon about anti-Semitism, and colleagues across the country have said the same thing. One of them, our alumnus Rabbi Jason Rubenstein of the Slifka Center at Yale, cited a dark and bizarre Talmudic story of Roman attack on a synagogue one ancient Rosh HaShanah as being oddly familiar to our hour. The Talmud Yerushalmi begins with the question why we blow shofar so late in the service. Normally we rush to complete mitzvot (זריזים למצווה). A reasonable answer might be that a few people here might have missed the Shofar at 9 AM…. But the Talmud has a different explanation:

Rabbi Yaakov bar Aha explained in the name of Rabbi Yohanan why we blow the shofar late in our service: Because of an incident that happened once when they blew shofar early in the service, and the [Roman] haters believed that [this was a call to arms] against them, so they rose against the Jews and killed them. But if [the haters] see that we are reading Shema, praying, reading Torah, and then praying more with shofar blasts they will say, “this is just the ritual custom [of the Jews].

רבי יעקב בר אחא בשם ר’ יוחנן מפני מעשה שאירע פעם אחת תקעו בראשונה והיו השונאים סבורין שמא עליהן הם הולכין ועמדו עליהן והרגום מיגו דאינון חמי לון קראיי שמע ומצליין וקוראין באוריתא ומצליי ותקעין אינון אמרין בנימוסון אינון עסיקין.[2]

I don’t know about the historicity of this event. Perhaps it is just a projection of Jewish insecurity—what might the neighbors think about all our horn blowing? The story sounds paranoid, and yet on the other hand, as Rabbi Jason Rubenstein pointed out, also pathetically naïve. It does not seem likely that the haters will really fear that our shofar is a battle horn, or on the other side, that they will be mollified to see us in prayer and our other charming Jewish customs. Haters hate difference. This isn’t a rational matter.

Perhaps the end of the Talmudic story should be read as introspective. If we engage in these actions, then our faith and our purpose will be clear. And when the haters rear their heads once again, we will not be cowed so easily. We will be strengthened by our faith, by our practice and by our community, and we will continue to live.

In the Talmud we learn that Ezra ordained the reading of the curses in Deuteronomy just before Rosh HaShanah so that the year and all of its curses should come to an end (b. Meg 31b).[3] This phrase was turned into the refrain for a liturgical poem, the piyyut אחות קטנה, which asks God to end this year with its curses and begin the new year with its blessings. But this won’t happen from heaven alone. We ourselves must contain the curses and build a Jewish life full of blessing.

As we turn to the shofar service, we pray that the world is listening—to the attention grabbing initial tekiah, to the broken sounds of shevarim, to the weeping cry of teruah, and then to that cleansing, strengthening, mighty blast of tekiah gedolah. This long final note foreshadows the final redemption, when hatred is forgotten, and justice, freedom and peace resound throughout the land. With our collective efforts, may this vision come true in 5780.

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/anti-semitic-attacks-surged-in-new-york-last-year-1519771775

[2]  תלמוד ירושלמי (ונציה) מסכת ראש השנה פרק ד דף נט טור ג /ה”ח.

[3]  בבלי מגילה דף לא עמוד ב. תניא, רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר: עזרא תיקן להן לישראל שיהו קורין קללות שבתורת כהנים קודם עצרת, ושבמשנה תורה קודם ראש השנה. מאי טעמא? אמר אביי ואיתימא ריש לקיש: כדי שתכלה השנה וקללותיה.

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