Delivered on September 30, 2019 | Rosh Hashanah 5780
This morning, my sermon is in three parts: a prologue, the sermon itself, and an epilogue that will involve all of us together.
As prologue, I want to go ahead and give you the headline for my remarks: Today, I’m going to be speaking about the rise in hate—locally and nationally. As Rabbi Gordon and I prepared for the holidays, studying together and discussing our sermons, it became apparent that this topic—hate and antisemitism—is too large to address in just one sermon.
And so, today and then again on Yom Kippur, we’re going to offer two takes on this same topic. My reflections, as you hear them, will focus more on how antisemitism is manifesting itself among White Nationalists. On Yom Kippur morning, Rabbi Gordon will reflect on antisemitism from the left.
In this way, we hope to give this topic a fuller treatment, without keeping you here in your seats until 5781.
We mark time in so many different ways. For some, we are ruled by the tax year. For others, the academic calendar. And for our Jewish community, we are aware that the cycle of time beats to a separate lunar drummer who has little regard for Labor Day, the start of the school year, or other considerations.
“When do the holidays fall this year?” We ask. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are always on time, neither early nor late. We observe them always on the 1 Tishrei and 10 Tishrei. The holidays are only early or late depending on our frame of reference. Truly, they are always right on time.
Which begs a second consideration: How do you frame the period of the High Holy Days? Are you a Rosh Hashanah Jew; someone who looks forward to the echoing reverb of the shofar? Or are you a Yom Kippur Jew; who finds the struggle of the fast to be spiritually cleansing? Some may also be process people—seeing the High Holy Days as an arch from birth to death. Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat HaOlam, the birthday of the world. Yom Kippur is Yom HaDin, the day of judgment, as if it were our last. Deprived of food and drink, we fear the gates closing, knowing too well the fragility and preciousness of life.
Our tradition does not count time in a linear fashion. Rather, time spirals. As the hands of the clock spin, we move through Jewish time by coming back to places and times we’ve been before. Surely, this is a new moment, but a familiar one, too. And given the Jewish arc of time, we often envision our holidays as linked to one another—inviting us to consider our responsibilities within those frames of time. One slice of time is Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the ten Days of Awe. With those first chords of Avinu Malkeinu last night and today, Rosh Hashanah kick starts us into the process of T’shuva: repentance, forgiveness, and return. With the sound of the shofar at N’ilah on Yom Kippur afternoon, we close the gates knowing that we have done all we could to set things right for ourselves at the start of this year.
We can continue to zoom out to see a broader context for time. The month of Elul, the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, is also a time for introspection. It’s the jump start to the spiritual work of the High Holy Days, punctuated by Selichot, a service observed the Saturday prior to Rosh Hashanah.
Now continue with me to zoom out all the way. Perhaps the full arc of the High Holy Days runs from mid-Summer to mid-Fall, from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot.
Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, is the date in which the Jewish community commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. This summer holiday is a sad, mournful day, and a full fast day similar to Yom Kippur. The Ninth of Av is turning point punctuated by grief. It was on that day with the destruction of the Temples that we said good-bye to sacrifice, moving our spiritual experiences indoors to the synagogue. Gone was one way of life; the walls of our spiritual home crumbled around us. We mourned.
Over time Tisha b’Av became the holiday symbolic of Jewish suffering. While historically the holiday commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, we connect it to “represent all Jewish catastrophes from biblical days to the present.”1 It is our public ritualization of the notion that we, the Children of Israel, are the Ever Dying People. “In Jewish memory, the fast of Tisha b’Av recalls all those who suffered or perished because they were Jews, as well as all Jews victimized by intolerance.”2
We—as Reform Jews today—do not emphasize the observance of Tisha b’Av, and the rationale for that is a sermon for another time. Still, this holiday presents an essential and unsettling question: “Why the Jews?… Why have our people been so singled out for persecution?”3 The essential question of Tisha B’Av, which launches us toward this particular moment in history is this: Why do people hate us?
According to traditional liturgy recited on that day, which can echo during Yom Kippur, we place the blame on ourselves. We blame the victims. This undemanding theology does not stand up to scrutiny, and so we should not hold fast to it. “It is hard to imagine any sin that would justify thousands of years of persecution,” writes historian Jonathan Sarna.4
Other reasons exist for why some would hate us: One is as old as the divide between Judaism and Christianity. According to that narrative, we are responsible for Jesus death, having orchestrated a conspiracy using our money and influence to push the Romans to crucify Jesus.
I can offer a third rationality to why Antisemitism endures, which I find the most compelling: We are disliked because we are unalike. Even now, with unprecedented assimilation and general acceptance, we are different. Look at where we are today, what we are doing today, what language and rituals we are engaging in today. That is foreign to the environment in which we live. “Even now, wherever (we) live (except in Israel), Jews by virtue of being Jewish are unlike (our) neighbors.”5
Hatred of the Jew is a deep vein that continues to beat. And we get it. We get it here in local interactions, and we get it on the national scene.
Locally, we Jews are set apart. I can state this positively: our Hevreh community is here, intentionally. We all choose to be here, which is a blessing, yet has a flip-side. To many in the Berkshires, we Jews are the outsiders, the visitors, the vacationers, the Tanglewood go-ers. We do not really belong. We clog up the streets in the summer time. We drive up the cost of housing with our second homes. We cause K-Mart to close and we open restaurants and shops that regular folk cannot afford. We come to town meeting, with our money and our outside power, and take over. I know that I have encountered this brand of bias since moving here, and I know I am not alone. Whenever we hear someone complain about New Yorkers, go ahead and translate that to Jew.
Antisemitism is showing up in our backyard. Our kids hear it at school. We hear it in line at the grocery store or at the bank. We get it in casual conversations. We get it.
The Antisemitism locally has been a hum for years, but has seemingly increased in volume just as others around the country have become more brazen over the last several years. Two years ago, I stood here and reflected on Hillel’s teaching, “Im lo achshav eimatai? If not now, tell me when.” In that sermon, I voiced my own concerns about the alt-right, their Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Trump’s equivocation about white supremacy, and our nation’s reaction to that event. I for one was startled to hear those men chant “The Jews will not replace us!” Looking back, I did not understand what they meant. I—We—were being naive to think they were talking just about the Jews.
You see, that was before a gunman walked into a synagogue on a Shabbat morning to massacre eleven people because of the congregation’s affiliation with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. What does it mean when a group of white nationalists yells “The Jews will not replace us”? They are not concerned that the Jewish community is going to grow to such numbers that we will overwhelm White Christian America. Blacks, immigrants, and LGBTQ folk—these are the ones who are overrunning America. They are the ones who are taking over. Yet, as this so called “replacement theory” goes, those lesser races cannot be sophisticated enough to orchestrate their takeover. They are backed by people like George Soros. The Jews are supporting the spread of a more diverse country, uprooting the White Christian way of life. According to this twisted logic, you and I, Jewish money and influence are actively working to replace White Christian America.
In this way, Antisemitism is the prejudice that animates all other prejudices. Those who hate us hate others too. Such is the flip side of intersectionality. We are in it together because those who hate us bring us together. “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.”6 We do not just have a problem with race and ethnicity in America today, we also have problems with gender, class, and immigration status, each animated by bias and hate. Hate against women is animated by the same anger that fuels prejudice against the immigrant community. Racial discrimination and age discrimination are energized by the same vise. Those who who hate the Jews do not think of us as White, they think of us as other. Other, in the same way that people of color are other; other, just as LGBTQ folk are other. In other words, we are in it together because those who hate us see us as interlocking with other minorities.
We embrace our identity not because of other’s prejudice against us. Lamenting our fate as Jews does not make for strong, lasting connection to our tradition. Saying “Oy” constantly is exhausting. Looking to the “joys” of being Jewish can energize.
Here I zoom out again on times and seasons. Tisha b’Av is the mourning that we are different. It is a time of grief, and we sit shiva. Seven weeks after Tisha b’Av, we arrive at Rosh Hashanah. And we do not stop there. Our journey continues, through Yom Kippur, to Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.
Sukkot is a holiday of “otherness,” that we have been strangers in a strange land. Sukkot is our celebration of wandering. The Children of Israel know the experience of the stranger, the migrant, the immigrant, for we were strangers in a strange land who over a generation made their way to a better place, a land flowing with milk and honey. If we expand our understanding of the flow of Jewish time, we begin to see a different picture: Celebrating Jewishly from Tisha b’Av to Sukkot is a journey out of loss and into promise, from grief to hope.
Monumental events have a tendency to transform our frame of reference. We understood the world one way before 9/11; we live in a post-9/11 reality. The killings in Pittsburgh and Poway offer us a new reality that we are called to confront. The challenge of the High Holy Days is to do the work that enables us to embrace the hope that we are on a path to a promised land. After Pittsburgh and Poway, when our community gathered, your clergy asked you what you would do differently to draw out the reality we desire more and more? What are we to do when we encounter hate, be it antisemitism, racism, or any other sort of -ism that drives a wedge into community?
For one, we cannot remain silent. Whether the hate is expressed in the editorial page of the paper or in a stray comment at a dinner party, bias needs to be called out as unacceptable. And, we should not tolerate hate in other forms. Our otherness is a charge to reach out to other minority groups, building bridges and connections that instances of hate and violence cannot sever. We each have a responsibility to build these relationships, and let it be an answer to those who would rather see us undone. Let me not be vague: there are real, powerful groups in our community making good positive change. I want to encourage you to get involved. At Hevreh, that means joining us in our social action projects, especially over Sukkot when Rabbi Gordon and I will be facilitating a conversation on immigration. This sort of involvement is the latest iteration of our tradition’s call to Tikkun Olam. Let’s talk more about that offline.
A second answer speaks less to our hands and more to our souls. Another response to hate is singing, and singing loudly. This brings me to our Epilogue. On Sukkot, we read from the book of Ecclesiastes. There we find a familiar teaching:
“A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: A time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted…”7 Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is “a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace.”8
In the 1950s, Pete Seeger wrote his own version of Ecclesiastes’ teaching, made popular first by The Byrds. And at the end of his rendition, when he comes to that line about hate, he added “I pray it’s not too late.” We may have short-term worries, but I pray we remain abiding optimists. May we in this year to come, be up and doing, to say that our community and our country is no place for hate, to continue as rodfei shalom, a nation who strives for peace. In this new year, 5780, we pray, “ה׳ עז לאמו יתן, ה׳ יברך את עמו בשלום.”9