Parashat Vayigash 5780
To Whom It May Concern:
We do not know one another, although perhaps we have met at a wedding, funeral, or some other chance encounter. Perhaps we are tangentially connected—we work out next to one another, we have signaled to one another to go ahead at a four way stop, our carts bump up against one another at the grocery store and we softly smile at one another.
Chances are you are not Jewish. Chances are, you do not know any Jewish people. Chances are, you are Christian, and probably Protestant, more and more you are probably an Evangelical Christian. Or, alternatively, you are SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious), what the sociologists call “Nones,” “unaffiliated,” or “nothing in particular.”
Given all of this, I will try to draw some lines of connection, and to empress upon you why it is important to care about my soul, as I care about your’s.
You see, I do not know if you have seen it in the headlines, but as of the last few years, antisemitism is on the rise. Those among the political left have given in to age-old antisemitic tropes of dual allegiance, and made support of Israel exclusively a story of asymmetrical oppression. Among those on the right, antisemitism—along with other forms of hate—has become more aggressive. Individuals have been gunned down, stabbed, assaulted, and threatened because they were Jewish.
I wish I could say this is a novel reality, but zoom out on the scope of Jewish history and it is more normal than anomaly. Jersey City and Monsey are not new. They are just surprising and they are scary. As the leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis said this week, “Antisemitism is as old as the Jewish people, but its rise in the last three years is especially alarming. Antisemitism, now as always, is perpetrated by those who hold a wide variety of hateful, extremist ideologies. Tragically, these extreme ideologies have once again seeped into the mainstream today.”
As of late there have been several books and many articles written about contemporary manifestations of antisemitism. They all come to a similar conclusion: antisemitism is a real phenomenon today, and we need to recommit ourselves to vibrant Jewish living. The way to fight antisemitism is to continue to do what makes us an incredible community of faith and conscience: to dedicate ourselves to Torah, to prayer, and to acts of loving kindness; to pursue justice, and to embrace the beating heart of Judaism—love. “Ahavtah l’reicha k’mocha, love your neighbor as you yourself are loved,” (Leviticus 19:18) our tradition teaches.
I have been working hard to fight antisemitism. This past Fall, several young people in my congregation were threatened by a classmate. Their lives were threatened for being Jewish. This has pushed me down the rabbit hole of hate and bias, and has made me all the more committed to fighting this. I have done some soul searching on this too, and realized that I have lead a blessed life. Growing up in Houston, I encountered very little bias. In High School, some evangelical classmates prayed for my soul, wishing I would be saved. In a roundabout way, they meant it as a complement. They were saying they cared.
What my students have experienced is much more aggressive. And they have placed a sacred trust in me and in my colleague here, Rabbi Gordon. We are their rabbis, and this has been a fragile time. I hope we have done right by them. On Sunday, we are taking many of our young people to Boston. We have arranged to meet with Jewish leaders who have dedicated their careers to building bridges across lines of difference, and who can speak to the hate and bias we are currently encountering. We are going to study some Jewish text together. We are going to reflect on our experiences around hate and antisemitism. And then we are going to Mayyim Hayyim.
Mayyim Hayyim is the progressive Mikveh located in Newton, Massachusetts. Mikveh is a ritual pool used for moments of transition. Anyone who chooses to convert to Judaism has immersed in the Mikveh. We have worked with the staff at Mayyim Hayyim to develop the afternoon there for the students to process their own experiences, and then we have written a creative ritual experience for them to take what they have encountered and put a period at the end of the sentence, and to find a fresh way forward. Going to the Mikveh on Sunday is forcing a break in the narrative, and I pray it will force hope into the conversation.
Because I am essentially a hopeful person, and this has been a difficult time. I, for one, am ready to put this behind, and to move forward. Not to forget, but to build, repair, heal, and start again.
That, my new friend, is where you come in. I have come to realize that we need you. That I need you. That we need one another. Eric Ward is a race educator who has dedicated his career to combatting the trends of hate and extreme ideologies. To hear him describe it, antisemitism is the hate that animates all other forms of prejudice. To understand the racism of a white nationalist or other extremists, you also need to understand antisemitism. If you want to know more about what he has to say, you should read his article called Skin in the Game. Ward also says that these conspiracy theories that are spread about are effectively antidemocratic. If the world is actually controlled by a cabal of international financiers (read: Jews), then the decisions of our elected officials do not matter, the court decisions that come through our justice system are invalid, who you vote for does not matter. To give in to the voices of hate and bias only let an antidemocratic weed take deeper and deeper root in our community garden.
For that reason, I hope you share my concern.
And if you should share my concern, then it is time for you to get active. It is time for you to engage with me in conversation, and for us to begin to work together. Having rabbis continually beat the drum of antisemitism will only get us so far, just as people of color cannot be the only ones who step up to confront racism, and LGBTQ folk should not be left on their own to oppose homophobia. I am tired of condemning antisemitism. Hate is best addressed when we transcend our differences and speak up for each other.
It is your turn now. I need you to pay attention. I need you to care. I need you to see yourself in this enterprise with my people, and others who are vulnerable, who have been targeted, marginalized, and threatened. This is not an easy task, but here I would invite you to take inspiration from the story of the Jewish people. In our current cycle of Torah reading, we are retelling the story of Jacob, his son Joseph, and Joseph’s brothers. The family has sojourned to Egypt, and through a series of events, settled there. Later, a new Pharaoh would become leader of Egypt, who knew not Joseph, and he enslaved the Hebrews. Out of this experience, the Hebrews, who came to be known as the Children of Israel, who would transform into the Jewish people, continued to tell their story of being vulnerable and oppressed. When we retell the story, we are instructed to remind one another that we were strangers in a strange land, and therefore we know the soul of the stranger. For that reason, the Jewish community is called to love the stranger as if he were ourselves.
I ask the same of you. Love us as you yourself are loved. And stand with us, as we would stand with anyone made to feel other, made to feel like they do not belong.
We may not know one another, and we may never be all that close. You may never sing in my choir, nor I in yours. That is okay. Our lives are inextricably linked in a grand conspiracy of love for one another. Please join me. The time is now.
Rabbi Neil Hirsch