We recite this aloud at Congregation Beth Shalom every Shabbat morning, right after reading the Torah. In recent years, I have leaned into this prayer with increasing urgency. It is a long-standing tradition for Jewish services to include a prayer for the nation in which we live; right now, in 21st-century America, we need to do so more than ever.
We have witnessed horrible things in the past week: a Confederate flag carried through the halls of Congress; a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” t-shirt; a truck full of Molotov cocktails at the ready; a police officer beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. As more images continue to pour out, my shock only grows.
While trying to wrap my head around what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6, I continue to return to the fundamental importance of truth. One piece of wisdom from our tradition, found in the 2nd-century CE rabbinic collection known as Pirkei Avot (1:18), invokes what you might call the “Jewish holy trinity”: Emet, Din, Shalom – truth, justice, and peace are integrally intertwined. Without truth and justice, there can be no peace.
But to put a finer point on it, we need in particular to remember the mitzvah / holy obligation from the Torah (Shemot / Exodus 23:7):
Keep far from falsehood; do not bring death on those who are innocent and righteous, for I [God] will not acquit the wrongdoer.
While the context suggests not accepting the testimony of deceitful witnesses, so that innocent people will not be put to death, the text can and should also be translated as,
Do not lie, because lying will cause the death of innocent and righteous people, and God will never forgive us for that.
There is a reason why we still recall the national myth of George Washington, who could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree, and we still refer to “Honest Abe” Lincoln. That is because the truth saves lives, and falsehood is murderous.
As we continue to pray for our country, remember that we the Jews in particular know the danger of falsehood. All anti-Semitism is rooted in falsehood: the medieval blood libel accusations, the 19th-century forgery of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the lies that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe a mere fourscore years ago, the lies that killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in our neighborhood two years ago.
We cannot tolerate lying in our own sphere of influence, and we must not tolerate lying on a national or international scale.
Rather, we must stand up for truth. We must distance ourselves from falsehood, because, as we have witnessed this week, falsehood leads to bloodshed.
So I am going to keep leaning into this prayer, until such time as we can put the lies behind us and move forward together.
Two weeks ago, our congregation sent a delegation to Boston, to the convention of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Markiz and I presented on all the wonderful, connective programming we are doing through Derekh, and we all learned a whole bunch of useful stuff for continuing to build our congregation and make it more sustainable.
Boston is the Old Country for me; it’s kind of like Vilna (the Yiddish name for the capital of Lithuania). While I did not grow up there, my parents did, and so did three of my grandparents. For them, Boston was the New World. For me, it feels like history.
On Tuesday morning, I took a taxi to Logan Airport, driven by a friendly man from Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. I could feel the lump of history in my throat. My maternal grandfather, Edward Bass, alav hashalom (may peace be upon him), drove a taxi in Boston in the middle of the 20th century, at one point owning his own taxi medallion. He used to hustle for fares, hanging around the airport to get well-heeled visitors into his cab. He was proud that he had driven celebrities – the singer Lena Horne was one that I recall.
And, as we traveled through the Ted Williams Tunnel, I reflected back on my family’s story as one tiny piece in the American Jewish experience, that of immigration and assimilation and trying to fit in, and the next chapter in the ongoing odyssey of the Jewish people.
My grandfather was poor. He was a foster child from age 3, grew up on a farm outside of Boston owned by a Jewish farmer, Mr. Slotnick, and never completed high school. Nonetheless, he provided for his family: my grandmother, an immigrant from what is today Ukraine, and three kids, the youngest of whom was my mother. My mother completed nursing school and married a tall, very smart young man whose father worked as a bottle-washer at the Hood dairy plant in Boston. That young man, my father, went on to get a doctorate in mathematics.
They all grew up in a Boston that was quite segregated, not only along racial lines, but along ethnic lines as well. People from different groups did not mix so much. Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitic attitudes and threats of violence, and thus kept to themselves. And in the mid-1960s, my father’s family ultimately left the neighborhood of Dorchester, where all their neighbors had been Jewish. They were pushed by the documented practice of redlining, through which banks and real estate agents encouraged white people to move out to the suburbs and penalized African-Americans by refusing them loans. They were concerned about how their neighborhood was changing, about the black folks who were moving in as the Jews left.
All the more so in those days, people were suspicious and fearful of those unlike themselves. And today we are all still feeling the reverberations of that unfortunate legacy. The question that we face now is, how might we overcome old mistrust? How might we as a society overcome that deep-seated fear of the other?
The attack in Jersey City last week, occurring at a cemetery and a kosher market, left four people dead, many families bereft, and a community in agony, the kind of agony that we know in Pittsburgh all too well. You may know that there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitic activity in the last few years, and we are feeling the pain. Coupled with two other incidents in LA, the last few weeks have been truly nerve-wracking.
Anti-Semitism, of course, is not new; it is truly ancient, and sits alongside the entire spectrum of fear and hatred. People distrust those whom we do not know – who have different rituals, who eat different foods, who speak a foreign language, who dress funny, who do not mix with everybody else.
And all the more so, this inclination to be wary of the other, when coupled with harmful stereotypes, occasionally leads to violence. What drove the Pittsburgh shooter to attack the three congregations at the corner of Shady and Wilkins, murdering 11 holy Jewish souls? He was convinced by white supremacists that Jews are actively working to replace white Americans with dark-skinned immigrants. Why did the attackers in Jersey City seek Jewish targets? It seems that they were motivated by the hatred of Jews espoused by some Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “black supremacist” group.
(I must point out at this point that this group, which is, to my knowledge, in no way “Jewish,” is entirely unrelated to other black Jewish groups and individuals who are not supremacists. I myself have been warmly welcomed by their congregations: I once attended a very interesting Shabbat morning service at the Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Harlem, and my congregation on Long Island had a relationship with the black synagogue in St. Albans, Queens.)
Fear, and indeed hatred of the other, is something that humanity will always live with. And there is really only one solution, and it is not necessarily an easy one. And that is dialogue. We have to talk to one another. We have to sit together. We have to break bread together. We have to share stories. We have to establish depth of relationship in order to overcome mutual apprehension. To defuse the time-bomb of hatred, we must proactively seek to understand each other.
Now, before we go any further, I have to confess something:
This discussion makes me anxious, because I do not think that I am equipped with the tools for having the conversation. But I care, and I want to get it right. And I am trying to listen, and to learn.
Anti-Semitism is the type of hatred with which we are most familiar, and it is the one to which we as Jews are most attuned. And statistics have shown that anti-Semitic activity is double what it was in 2015, just a few years ago.
But let’s face it: Boston is still quite racially segregated. So too are Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, NYC, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and yes, Pittsburgh. And there is not only a physical segregation in our cities, but also a kind of segregation that exists in our hearts. And that segregation in all its manifestations – schools, neighborhoods, income gap, healthcare outcomes – is not just unhealthy; it is in fact dangerous. It continues to reinforce an incarceration rate that is more than five times higher for African-Americans than for caucasians. A recent study in Pittsburgh, which I mentioned on High Holidays, showed that the local black infant mortality rate puts our fair city in the 6th percentile among African-Americans in the whole country. And there are plenty of other horrifying statistics.
We need as a society to have dialogue between people of different groups. And that is not easy, and it’s not always comfortable. And frankly, most of us do not even know where to start. But here is the good news: we at Beth Shalom are trying to move the needle on this, and we have several initiatives already in progress.
And here is another piece of news: we have before us a “teachable moment.”
A few weeks back, at our Comedy Tonight fundraiser, a joke crossed a line that made many of us uncomfortable. In a bit about airports, the comedian mocked agents of the TSA, drawing on stereotypes of African American and Muslim employees. Elsewhere in his routine, he also made fun of old people and, of course, Jews, and particularly old Jews. It is to some extent the job of a comedian as an artist to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to make us consider our own absurdities. Comedy is a study in human failure.
But for us to truly be in dialogue, to be in the deep kind of dialogue that not only brings people together, but rather enables us to address honestly the challenges that we all face as a society, we all have to make sure that nobody is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of the other.
Now, if you were in attendance that night, and you enjoyed yourself, you might be wondering, “What was harmful about the routine? Maybe there was a tasteless joke we could have done without, but harmful?” Well as it turns out, yes. One study about humor and racism from 2011 demonstrated that,
…if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.
Ladies and gentlemen, words matter. We chanted earlier this morning, “Barukh she-amar vehayah ha’olam.” Praised is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. We understand our world as having been created through words. And it can be destroyed through words as well.
When I was a student at Cornell, and the Black Students Union brought Louis Farrakhan to campus, I was out there protesting with Hillel. When local groups have presented one-sided, inaccurate portrayals of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, we the Jews have called them out. And had we as a community heard that a Christian comedian performed a routine in a local church that denigrated Jews using well-worn stereotypes about us, I am sure that we would be up in arms. Even in the context of comedy, words matter.
This teachable moment does not take away from the wonderful spirit of the evening that we shared together as a community. But we must be in dialogue, and dialogue requires that our house is in order first. We must look inward first, before looking outward. So, understanding that while we as a community were not responsible for what came out of the comedian’s mouth that night, we must acknowledge that it happened in our house. To all who may have been insulted by his portrayal of African-Americans or Muslims, we as a community are deeply regretful.
And to all who are ready to reach out your hand in dialogue for the betterment of ourselves as individuals and for the greater good, we welcome your partnership.
And, for everybody among us who is interested in moving the dialogue forward, you should be aware of the following opportunities that Derekh is creating in our community:
We have a book group that is reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be an Antiracist.
As part of our Beth Shalom Speaker Series, on March 25th we will be featuring Marra Gad, the Jewish and multi-racial author of The Color of Love
We have an ongoing partnership with the local Episcopalian community, which continues to bear fruit in dialogue.
We hosted both Richard Carrington and Rev. Tim Smith, who work in the front lines of the local African-American community.
A group of us went on a civil rights tour of the South last spring, and we will be doing it again in April – be on the lookout for more info.
And there are other dialogues and workshops that are flying below the radar right now, which we hope will continue and soon become more visible.
We are working toward making tzedek, that is, justice, an essential part of what we do at Beth Shalom.
My friends, I am going to close with the following thought:
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tomorrow evening. Why is it called “Hanukkah”? That word literally means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Second Temple following its defilement at the hands of Hellenized Syrians in the second century BCE.
We cannot allow our Jewish spaces, or our lives, to be diminished by prejudice of any kind, and we should expect that of our neighbors as well. In this season, as we light those candles in the symbolic act of illuminating the dark corners of this world, we should rededicate ourselves to reaching out, to real dialogue, which leads to the holy work of tzedek. This is one way we may continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations of this world.
Ve-ahavta lere’akhah kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. And in order to love your neighbor, we must expand our sense of neighborhood.
I was in Philadelphia over the past week – my first real visit there as a tourist. My son and I went to sites of historical interest – Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and so forth. And we also visited places of Jewish historical interest – we welcomed Shabbat last week at Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest congregations in America, where they still practice the traditional Spanish-Portuguese minhag, and also, of course, the National Museum of American Jewish History, now nearly a decadeold.
If you have not yet been to this museum, it is worth the trip to Philly. It documents and explores the Jewish experience in America, from the arrival of the 23 Dutch Jews seeking safe haven in 1654, straight through to our contemporary moment. The visitor watches as the community grows, primarily through waves of immigration, spreading from the Eastern coastal enclaves and across the continent, developing a distinctly Americancharacter along the way.
Judaism has flourished in this country. And why is that? Because, unlike in the Europe of old, Jews were effectively welcomedfrom the outset. Yes, the initial group that landed in 1654 were only tolerated by the Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, and had to petition the government in Holland for the right to stay. But with independence declared in Philadelphia 122 years later, followed soon by the enshrinement of Democratic principles in the Constitution, Jews were treated as equal citizens, something that did notoccur in most of the rest of the world until much later.
And we continue to thrive here. As I grow older, I am more and more grateful that our founders, even though they most likely saw the Jews as unlike them, created a system that guaranteedreligious liberty.
And so too for other immigrant groups. Though Irish immigrants were discriminated against horribly upon landing here, our government gave them the same protections; so too for the Italians and the Chinese and people from many other places. It took a long time – too long – for the U.S. government to treat the children of African slaves, who were brought here against their will and sold in public markets as animals, as equals, but eventually that happened, albeit imperfectly.
So it is with great pain and dismay that I followed the public clashes over the last two weeks over four first-term congresswomen who were insulted by the most visible representative of the United States government. I will not rehash the story here.
But we have a real problem in confronting this, folks. And we the Jews have to make sure that we are not sucked into the bigotry underlying this.
It seems to me that in the not-too-distant past, Americans were good at keeping prejudices to themselves in the public sphere. But that has changed. Whether due to the lamentable principle that the most outrageous statements are the only ones that rise to the top of the crowded, noisy news pile, or because of our president’s apparent unwillingness to call out xenophobic hatred when given the opportunity, all of our anti-isms are coming out of the closet.
Leading the current pack is the anti-immigrant movement roiling the world.
But not only that. I have heard Jews, friends, colleagues, say horrible, hateful things, like, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.” Or, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” something which is clearly not true. I have heard Jews use slurs and make offensive jokes about racial and ethnic groups.
And, let’s be clear here: this is not unique to the Jews. In fact, I would say that, based on my own personal experience, Jews are no more or less prejudiced than any other group. It is, unfortunately, a natural human inclination to be dismissive, disdainful, or even hateful of people unlike you.
And, in particular, when I hear politicians of any sort saying things like, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” or people applying the terms “apartheid” or “genocide” to the State of Israel, I understand that intolerance is not limited to any particular group or political persuasion.
If we want this nation to hold together, and to continue to uphold the democratic principles that have enabled the Jews and members of every other group to thrive in this country, we must ensure that the infection of bigotry of all sorts is defeated.
We read this morning from Parashat Pinehas, which is the most-read-from parashah in the whole Torah because it contains the festival sacrifices. So we read a passage from it every Rosh Hodesh (at the beginning of each Hebrew month), and on every holiday morning throughout the year. But we only read about Pinehas, the biblical character, on this Shabbat. And that is OK, because he is not necessarily somebody whom we want to cite as a role model.
At the end of Parashat Balaq, which we read last week, Pinehas stabs a couple in flagrante delicto – an Israelite man canoodling with a Midianite woman. The Torah text itself seems to regard this as a good thing; Pinehas’ bloodthirsty action is rewarded by God with an end to a plague that was punishment for idolatry.
But the vast majority of commentators see his vigilante justice as a negative. In fact, there is a custom that is widespread among soferim, the scribes who write out Torah scrolls, that when God says, at the beginning of Parashat Pinehas, “Hineni noten lo et beriti shalom,” I hereby give Pinehas my covenant of peace, they leave the letter “vav” in the word “shalom” as broken, the top piece separated from the bottom by a little white space. The suggestion is that while God clearly did not want the Israelites cavorting with non-Israelites, the zealotry of Pinehas created a fractured peace, not the wholeness that the word “shalom” suggests.
Drawing lines through zealotry, dividing people through anger and hatred, does not create peace. On the contrary, it fractures all of us.
Another site of interest that we happened upon in Philly was the Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City. It includes six memorial pillars, representing the six million Jewish victims, with each pillar “chronicling an atrocity of the Holocaust and contrasting it with American constitutional protections and values” (according to the memorial’s website). One of those pillars includes a well-known quote from President George Washington, in a letter to the congregation in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit there in 1790:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Although not appearing on this memorial pillar, Washington continued as follows:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Our nation has been a safe haven and a beacon of hope flowing from the democratic principles it has upheld since its establishment. We, along with other immigrant groups, have been welcome and treated as equals by our government, if not always by our fellow citizens, for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, contrary to the words of the prophet Micah whom Washington cited, I am afraid.
When angry mobs are chanting against immigrants, and indeed American-born politicians,
when the level of public discourse has become so debased as to feature public figures insulting each other with obscenities,
when supporters of the State of Israel find themselves unwelcome on both right and left, I am afraid.
But even more so, I am afraid because of the oft-quoted words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, originally delivered at a church in Frankfurt in January, 1946, not long after World War II:
Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen;ich war ja kein Kommunist…
When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I was not a Jew.
Niemoller’s reflection, that by the time they came for him, there was nobody left to speak up, applies to us today as well. We the Jews may not be the current target, but we better not find ourselves in Niemoller’s shoes.
When we hear anybody say anything that can be construed as demeaning or derogatory to another group, whether it comes from a friend, a politician, or your mother, it is our obligation to speak up for the disenfranchised, because, as you know, we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And when angry mobs start chanting anti-immigrant epithets, we have to stand up as a community and say, “Never again.”