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Broad Justice – Ki Tissa / Shabbat Parah 5781

I have always thought of the molten calf episode in the middle of Parashat Ki Tissa as a kind of intruder in the middle of the description of the mishkan. We have, at the end of the book of Shemot / Exodus, a total of13 chapters, spread over five parashiyyot, of descriptions of the mishkan and all of its implements and principles and construction and initiation ceremony, all recounted in stunning, and some would say monotonous, detail. 

And then, right in the middle of that, there is this curious story about how the Israelites were anxious because Moshe had not yet come down from Mt. Sinai, and so they compel his brother Aharon, who will soon officially be the Kohen Gadol, the Big Kahuna, the High Priest, to fashion an idol of gold, a calf. And they bow down in a flagrant display of idolatry, and dance about and commit lewd acts.

And God and Moshe, meanwhile, when they discover all of this, are not happy indeed.

The people’s notion, as captured in their request to Aharon is, (Shemot / Exodus 32:1)

ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ

“Come, make us gods who shall go before us…”

They wanted not the one true God, of course, but gods, with a lower-case “g.” They want the thing that the Torah is primarily aligned against: idols. Empty gods. Falsehood.

And then, to demonstrate the fact that they have not yet received the message about idolatry, when the calf and the altar is complete, not only do the people worship the offending idol, but they then eat and drink in celebration, and arise “letzaheq” (v. 6), a word translated by JPS as “to dance,” although Rashi tells us that this word implies the three biggest transgressions of the Torah: idolatry of course (they have already checked that box), murder, and sexual immorality.

How could this be the right god? How could the Israelites have wanted these gods to go before them?

It is clear that this passage is inserted into the seemingly-endless mishkan construction detail not only because the brief story refreshes the narrative after it had been bogged down in mundane descriptions of materials and planks and clasps, but also because it serves to reinforce the essential message of the mishkan, which is this: We are finished with all of that idolatry business, and the nasty stuff that comes along with it.

So what did the Israelites want? Was it murder and orgies and bowing down to idols? Or was it something else? Did they merely latch onto the wrong thing, i.e. idolatry, because it’s all they knew from Egypt? Did they command Aharon to make them an idol because they were trying to fill a spiritual void? They clearly lacked the maturity as a people to connect the dots between the laws already given (i.e. the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,… you shall have no other gods before me.”) and their new paradigm.

I spent the earlier part of this week “at” the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Of course it was online, as most things seem to be these days, and as I am sure you can imagine, this has its advantages and disadvantages. I find that it is easier to learn new material and pick up tips from my fellow rabbis when I am away from the everyday bustle of work and home. One advantage to a Zoom convention, of course, is that you do not have to pick yourself up off the couch to attend a session. 

One of the items in which I participated was a so-called “Professional Learning Community,” a discussion with fellow rabbis that took place over three days for a total of six hours, on the subject of racial justice. In particular, our goal was to share wisdom and suggestions as to how we as individual rabbis could address this program in our own communities, but also to create some guidelines for the Rabbinical Assembly regarding how we might move forward as an organization with respect to these issues. 

Why must the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative synagogues address issues of race? I’m so glad you asked!

In this season in particular, in which we are preparing for Pesah, also known as Hag haHerut, the celebration of our freedom, we are obligated to remember that nobody is truly free when some are enslaved.

That is precisely why we say in Aramaic, as an introduction to telling the Exodus story at the seder, “Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul / Kol ditzrikh yeitei veyifsah.” Let all who are hungry, come and eat / Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesah, this festival of freedom. We know that, as much as we have strived in America to create a system that treats all citizens equitably, the reality is that outcomes here with respect to education, health care, housing, and so forth are clearly uneven. We remind ourselves at the seder that it is our obligation to welcome our neighbor in: the one who is hungry, the one who is in need of freedom, the one who is disenfranchised.

One of the points of concern that our rabbinic task force faced is the question that some of our congregants ask, and that you may be thinking right now. “OK, Rabbi, I understand the need to help those who have been hurt by racial prejudice, but what about anti-Semitism? Shouldn’t you be talking about that instead? Shouldn’t we be focused on the challenge presented by those who are prejudiced against Jews?”

Many of us are concerned about anti-Semitic activity right now, and here in Pittsburgh we understand that too painfully. And when we see splashed across our screens a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt and detestable symbols of anti-Jewish hatred that have proliferated in recent years across the American landscape, we should absolutely be concerned about that. Perhaps you might think that a focus on racism means that we are neglecting the struggle against anti-Semitism. 

But this is not our God’s broad path of justice. This is the narrow path of idolatry. We cannot be only concerned for ourselves (see, for example, Pirqei Avot 1:14); if we are, we run the risk of being at the end of the litany famously delivered by Pastor Martin Niemoller, a quote that is engraved in our consciousness as a cautionary tale about the Shoah: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist.” Etc.

Our God is not so narrowly focused. Rather, God’s commitment to justice is broad.

It is essential for us to understand that holding aloft the anti-Semitism banner, without also addressing the other victims of hatred in our midst, that is something like idolatry. It obscures the fact that God wants us to treat all people equitably. Likewise, to address only issues of racism and implicit bias in our society without including the anti-Semitism in our midst, is also akin to idolatry.

Our God, the God of justice, is the one true God that leads us to work for the equitable treatment of all. Not just the Jews, mind you, nor only the people of any other particular group. Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat; the word “kol” / all is clear. All. 

The Talmud reminds us that the first Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality, the same things that the Israelites indulged in during Parashat Ki Tissa, when they built a calf of gold and bowed down to it. The Talmud goes on to tell us that the second Beit HaMiqdash was destroyed due to sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred, of which all the types of hatred of the other are included. That sugya (Talmudic passage) wants us all to know that sin’at hinnam is on a par with the other three major prohibitions of Jewish life. Just as we cannot tolerate idolatry in our midst, so too must we not tolerate hate of any kind. Sin’at hinnam has no boundaries.

To that end, I wanted to make you all aware of the fact that we at Beth Shalom have been working quietly on these issues in our community for some time. Yes, many of our members are already involved in racial justice work as individuals, but you should also know that we have a racial justice task force, which came together over the summer, a small but dedicated group which has been gathering material to share with the entire congregation. 

Among our goals is to begin the conversation about racial issues within our congregation, so that we might be better prepared to act when our neighbors need our help in closing the gap of racial injustice. We need to be ready, because just as they came to our side in our time of need, so too should we be there for them. That is what allies in the struggle against sin’at hinnam do. We need to be a part of that conversation.

We must continue to defend ourselves against the scourge of anti-Semitism, but we must also understand that this ancient hatred is one piece of a much larger continuum of hatred. In so doing, we will all be united in the broad struggle for justice and freedom that our God, the one true God, has commanded us to pursue.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/6/2021.)

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To Bigotry No Sanction – Pinehas 5779

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 decade old.

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 American character along the way. 

Judaism has flourished in this country. And why is that? Because, unlike in the Europe of old, Jews were effectively welcomed from 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 not occur 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 guaranteed religious 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.

Pastor Martin Niemoller

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.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/27/2019.)