Parashat Vayikra 5776
Father Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest, whose impact was felt across the 1930’s, gaining national attention through his syndicated radio show. Over his nine years on the air, he gained an audience of approximately 30 million listeners. An early iteration of Glen Beck, radio station officials forced him off the air in 1939.
In the early 1930’s Coughlin was a harsh critic of FDR. He claimed that the President was too friendly with bankers–Jewish bankers. He would rant anti-semitic commentary in the course of a given show. Coughlin preyed on the popular fear of Communism, claiming that the American Jewish community would only contribute to the political movement’s spread across the country. He claimed Jewish financiers were responsible for the success of the Russian Communist Revolution. He tried to link the American Jewish leaders to those efforts. When the falseness of his accusations were exposed, he republished the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, distributing it widely to his listeners. In reaction to Kristalnacht, Coughlin said, “Why is there persecution in Germany today?… Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted.” He became a public, American apologist for Hitler and Mussolini. After being kicked off the air, supporters of his wrote, “Jewish organizations camouflaged as American… have conducted such a campaign that the radio station company has proceeded to muzzle the well-loved Father Coughlin.” Coughlin wove intricate conspiracy theories that others accepted as truth.
And he fed off hate. In every generation, individuals play this role in society, thriving on negative popular prejudices at the expense of others’ security and liberty. Long before Father Coughlin played this role, there were others in his place.
Long before Father Coughlin there was Pope Gregory I, who in the 6th and 7th Century, put forth an agenda for the Church that would crystalize their attitude toward our community.
From Gregory’s point of view, the Jewish community was still at odds with the Church’s objectives, in competition with it for Divine election. In a commentary on the Book of Job, he describes the People of Israel as a community who received so many gifts from God: the Exodus from Egypt, miracles in the wilderness, the Promised Land itself, and prophecy. “And yet,” he wrote, “this nation, after so many divine secrets, after the manifold miracles which they witnessed when our Savior [meaning Jesus] came — they loved their land more than the truth… and because of this impious wickedness they lost the mystery of the Logos which they had received, and preferred to enjoy only the corruption of the earth.”
As a legislator, Gregory implemented tolerant policies toward the Jews; however, he intended to coerce Jews toward Christianity. He implemented economic and political incentives designed to entice Jews to Christianity, and his sermons intentionally humiliated and embarrassed the Jewish community.
While all of this was underway in Rome, the Sages of our community were bringing together the many generations of Rabbinic thought into the codified Talmud as we know it today. They were doing so in the context of an emerging Christianity who was openly hostile to our very existence, and whose leader was the one peddling that particular vision for society.
In every generation, there are those like Pope Gregory I and Father Coughlin. Their success emerges out of the negative popular prejudices at the expense of others’ security and liberty. Long before Pope Gregory, there was Haman.
Haman rose quickly in the ranks of the Persian king’s court. King Ahasuerus seated him higher than any of Haman’s fellow officials. All the other courtiers in the palace gate would bow low to Haman, with the exception of Mordecai. Because of this perceived transgression, Haman looked not to punish Mordecai alone; rather, Mordecai’s community was to suffer. As it reads in the Book of Esther, “Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.”
We know how the story goes. We know Haman was not successful in his plot against Mordecai, Esther, and the Jews. Yet, he too, like others who would come after him, peddled his own hate and demagoguery. He instructed others to go out and to kill the Jews. What is Haman’s basis for hate? The Jews are a scattered and dispersed people, we have different customs, and we do not observe the imperial laws. Based on Mordecai’s affront, because of our differentness, Haman sends out a decree that the Jewish community is to be destroyed. This sort of Anti-Semitic posturing is not surprising. It is the same we hear in the later generations, in the other voices of Pope Gregory and Father Coughlin. It is a voice we heard in early biblical times, as well.
This Shabbat is know as Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. In this Shabbat, always prior to Purim, we remember Amalek. Amalek and his followers, as the People of Israel left Egypt, preyed on the young, weak, and old within our community. He, too, sought to upset our path and to destroy our people. And so, in Deuteronomy, we are commanded, “You shall obliterate the memory of Amalek, you shall not forget.” How are we to obliterate a memory by not forgetting it? We obliterate any success Amalek or his spiritual descendants could claim by retelling his story, and by embracing our successes: While Pope Gregory tried to convert us, we produced great works of literature like the Talmud, which endure. In the wake of Father Coughlin’s rhetoric, out of the tragedy of the Holocaust, we saw the establishment of the State of Israel, coupled with unprecedented acceptance here in the United States. We continue to reach the Promised Land, even as an Amalek would seek to upset our path.
Amalek, Haman, Pope Gregory, Father Coughlin: each a peddler of hate for his own reasons. In every generation, figures such as these emerge. They thrive off of the negative, public perceptions that exist within a society. Each exposes already existing prejudices from the society, and they perpetuate and compound those prejudices. We are to remember Amalek at this Shabbat, each year, because in every generation, we contend with new iterations of Amalek, himself. “There is nothing new under the sun,” Ecclesiastes teaches us.
Who plays this role today?
Someone who says that he would personally love to punch a protestor in the face. Someone who would keep an entire religious minority out of our country. Someone who verbally assaults journalists at press conferences, then ending it before the journalists can ask any questions to guarantee honest reporting. Someone who threatens riots if he doesn’t win his party’s nomination. Someone who describes the KKK as being akin to the Jewish Federation of North America.
Such are the actions of a candidate who does not seek to protect our Constitution, but who threatens it. Donald Trump seeks the Republican nomination and the Presidency at the expense of the values he would be sworn to protect. In an open letter published earlier this week, heads of significant NGO’s wrote, “This is a five-alarm fire for our democracy. A hate-peddling bigot who openly incites violence is the likely presidential nominee of one of our nation’s two major parties. It is alarming and dangerous. Donald Trump’s candidacy is a threat to the America we love, and we must respond … [making it] clear to every other politician and every person in the United States that racist demagoguery is a dead-end political strategy that most Americans reject.”
The heat of this five-alarm fire is real, as Donald Trump and his supporters fan the flames he sparks. I agree with David Brooks, as he wrote today, that we should give some deep consideration and respect to the experience of Trump supporters. As he wrote, “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else.”
What his supporters want, though, he will not be able to give them. Earlier this week, a video circulated of an angry Trump supporter outside of a rally yelling at protestors, “Go back to Auschwitz.” What might happen to us, to our nation, is a scary proposition. To quote Brooks, “As the founders would have understood, he is a threat to the long and glorious experiment of American self-government. He is precisely the kind of scapegoating, promise-making, fear-driving and deceiving demagogue they feared.”
Shabbat Zachor teaches us, though, that we should not fear. We are to remember that Amalek does not win, nor does Haman, nor do any of the other demagogues who have emerged across history. As the saying goes, “May you live in interesting times.” These are interesting times, that call for us to be both aware and alert. And let us pray that we will not be passive, as to see hated and enmity overtake the precious values of security or liberty.