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Hinnenu / Here We Are: Responding to Hate – Vayyera 5782

I spent the first few days of last week attending some of the sessions at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit downtown. In care you did not hear about this conference, it was a stunning array of speakers and panels and sessions on various perspectives regarding hate in our world today: what causes it, what exacerbates it, how it spreads, how it is manifest, how it wounds and damages and kills, and how we might go about trying to stop it. Although the conference was not an explicitly Jewish conference, and presenters were of many ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and colors, it of course was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the deadly attack aimed at our Squirrel Hill Jewish community, and the remembrance of the victims, the survivors, and the trauma experienced by all of us was front and center throughout the conference.

While it is hard to say that I “enjoyed” listening to hours of discussion surrounding the problem of hate, I must say that attending this summit was truly rewarding because it provided me with a sense of relief. Relief that there are good minds thinking about this challenge: academics, religious leaders, think-tank people, entrepreneurs, Big Data companies, NGOs, victims, journalists, politicians and so forth. This conference brought together many of these folks, and there were just so many speakers, and the program was so jam-packed that there was not even enough time to ask questions. I am fairly certain that the organizers expect this to be an annual conference.

At one point, Beth Shalom member Nancy Zionts, COO and Chief Program Officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, tapped me on the shoulder to say, “Rabbi, I can’t wait to hear the sermons you’re going to give that will come out of the material from this conference.” I responded by saying, “There is so much material here that I’m not even sure where to start.”

So I’ll start with this, on this Shabbat on which we read Parashat Vayyera, including the Aqedah, the story of the binding of Yitzhaq: we as a society are in the midst of a test – a test which has been foisted upon us, one of which we are only just beginning to become aware. The test of how to prevent all the forms of hatred which are now conspiring from boiling over and destroying the order of the world.

The Aqedah, says the 13th-century Spanish commentator Ramban, teaches us that, since humans have free will, any time we are asked to do anything can be understood to be a test. But in Avraham’s case, says Ramban,

המנסה יתברך יצוה בו להוציא הדבר מן הכח אל הפועל, להיות לו שכר מעשה טוב, לא שכר לב טוב בלבד

God is commanding Avraham to turn the potential into the actual, so that he can be rewarded for his good deed, and not merely for his good intentions.

The good deed, in Avraham’s case, should be understood as carrying out God’s instruction, not, of course, actually sacrificing his son. But the notable item here is that when we are tested in the way that our society and our world are right now, the test is whether we can, in fact, turn the potential into the actual.

And that is exactly what we need to do: to figure out how to turn the potential into the actual. How do we go about solving the problem of hate? Avraham answers his call to action with one word: “Hinneni.” Here I am.

****

There were many summit presenters who were there to tell their personal stories, powerful stories of hatred and responding to it. 

There was Taylor Dumpson, the first Black person to be elected student body president of American University, who awoke to her first day in that position in 2017 to find nooses containing bananas upon which racist epithets had been scrawled scattered all over campus.

Taylor Dumpson

There was Navdeep Gill, who as an 18-year-old Sikh in suburban Milwaukee, saw members of his community gunned down while engaged in prayer at their gurdwara in 2012. 

Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

There was Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya, the United Nations’ Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, who gave a keynote speech which asserted that this initial conference was like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples of which will spread far and wide.

Alice Nderitu

But I want to highlight in particular Tanya Gersh, a Jewish real-estate agent who refers to herself as a “Montana Mom.” Ms. Gersh lives in Whitefish, Montana, also the home of Sherry Spencer, the mother of notorious “white nationalist” Richard Spencer. 

Tanya Gersh

In 2016, Gersh was hired for real estate services by Ms. Spencer. When her son and his posse of thugs discovered this, Andrew Anglin, publisher of the online neo-Nazi rag the Daily Stormer, mounted a campaign of terrorism against her. Anglin published all of Ms. Gersh’s contact info – address, phone numbers, photos, personal family information, social media accounts, including that of their 12-year-old son, and of course explicitly mentioning that she is Jewish, and instructing the hundreds of thousands of readers of the Daily Stormer to launch a so-called “troll storm” against her and her family. He published 30 such articles. 

For months after, Tanya’s family’s life became a living hell. People called at all hours, saying things like, “I hope you die,” “Kill yourself,” and many, many other horrible things that should never be repeated in public, let alone in a synagogue. The family kept luggage packed in their living room for three months, should they have to flee.

But they never did. As traumatic as the experience was, Tanya and her family stood their ground. Eventually, attorneys provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a lawsuit against Anglin, and in 2019 won $14 million in damages. Andrew Anglin is currently on the lam.

Tanya’s message, for those who heard her story at the Lawrence Convention Center and beyond via Zoom, is to stand up. Don’t back down. Face this challenge. I must say that I do not know, if I were in her situation, that I could have been as brave.

And, pulling back the lens to consider the wider challenges of hate and its consequences, we have to stand up as a society. We are being tested; when God calls us, answer, “Hinneni.” Here I am. Rabbi Brad Artson describes this word as an expression of humility: Hinneni – I can only respond with the totality of my presence, my attention, my willingness to be in that presence. I may not know yet how to respond, but I’m here. I have shown up.

I might even be so bold as to amend Avraham’s word slightly: We need to answer in one voice: Hinnenu. Here we are. 

One of the overarching messages of this summit is that, while we may never solve the problem of hate, while it will never entirely go away, we must fight it with all the tools that we have: legal tools, technology tools, academic tools, and of course the tools of leadership. 

Laura Ellsworth, the primary organizer of the summit and Partner-in-Charge of Global Community Service Initiatives at Jones Day, stated quite clearly on the final day of the conference, that we all have the potential to be leaders in this regard. “Think about your role,” she said. “Don’t wait for leaders; be one, each to the other, every day.” Don’t wait for politicians to make this happen, because they will not. Rather, Ms. Ellsworth exhorted the attendees that if they could take one thing away from this conference, it would be that each of us has the potential to be leaders in our community.

We are not powerless against hate: but we do need to show up. We need to use all of those tools; we need to stand up when called. This test can only have one possible outcome; I cannot even allow myself to consider what the results will be if we allow the forces of chaos to win.

And that is why I am grateful to Laura Ellsworth and her team in putting this summit together, to inviting and coordinating the individuals and the organizations who have said, “Hinnenu,” here we are, who are working to face this test. 

As we come around to the 18th of Heshvan as a community day of mourning for the third time, and we remember those who were murdered on that day three years ago, we all have the opportunity to step forward and be the leaders that this world desperately needs right now. 

It’s just the beginning. But we cannot fail this test.

Hinnenu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/23/2021.)

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Truth-Telling from the USCJ: Love and the Jewish Future – Bo 5778

You may have noticed that I like to talk about the Jewish future, about how our community is changing, about how the institutions of the past (including this one) have to change to account for where the Jews are.

Well, the recent convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), which was in Atlanta at the beginning of December, was extraordinarily gratifying for me, because USCJ is now embracing the future full-throttle. Our delegation from Beth Shalom totaled seven.

Masorti Movement Thriving but Threatened | Atlanta Jewish ...
Yoel Sykes of Nava Tehila at the USCJ 2017 convention in Atlanta

First, a brief word of Torah.

The opening words of Parashat Bo are grammatically curious (Exodus 10:1):

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה

Vayomer Adonai el Moshe, bo el Par’oh…

Then God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh…

Ordinarily, when one gives an imperative to somebody to go see a third person, we use the verb “to go.” As in, “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead,” or, “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land / Tell ol’ Pharaoh to let My people go.”

But that’s not what the Torah says. Despite what you’ll find in every single translation, the Hebrew says, “Then God said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh…” And that doesn’t quite make sense. The text should read, “Lekh el Par’oh.” Go to Pharaoh.

Joseph Bekhor Shor, the 12th-century French commentator, explains the grammatical oddity this way:

בא אל פרעה. לא היה אומר לך כי אם בא ביי”ן בלע’ שמשמע שאני אלך עמך

The text did not say “lekh” (“go”), but rather “bo” (“come,” like the Old French “viens”) because the meaning suggested is that I [God] will go with you…

Bekhor Shor is suggesting that God is reassuring Moshe: “Come with Me,” says God, even though you and I both know that I will harden Pharaoh’s heart even after this next plague, and he will not let the Israelites go.

It’s Moshe’s come-to-Pharaoh moment. The challenges are great; we might fail. But you and me, Moshe, we’re going together.

Hold onto that for a moment; we’ll come back to it in a bit.

The theme of this convention was, “Dare Together.” And I must say that it was, in fact, a daring convention, in that the ideas that are being bandied about today in the movement are very different from what they were historically. I learned a lot of good stuff to bring back to Pittsburgh; it was so good, in fact, that you should really consider coming with us to the next one in Boston in two years.

In addition to all of the practical learning, however, I also gained some new insights from a couple of great teachers of Torah: Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles (where Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Beth Shalom’s Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, was ordained nearly two years ago). They spoke on different days and to different audiences, but their messages dovetailed in a way that, in retrospect, works out very nicely. Kurtzer spoke about today’s challenges and Artson gave us a perspective on how to address them.

Dr. Kurtzer spoke at a session that was limited to rabbis, entitled, “Jewish Identity, Belonging, and Community.” That’s a pretty vague title, but the subject matter was anything but. He began by asking the following questions:

What does it mean to live in a world in which we are fully integrated into wider American society? Who represents Judaism in such a climate?

In asking these questions, he reminded us of the existential crisis that contemporary American Jews face: that in the absence of the ethnic trappings of our parents’ and grandparents’ days, when it was abundantly clear to everybody who was Jewish and who wasn’t, that today’s boundaries are muddy. The question of who is a Jew today is much more complicated. He noted that, in a recent study in the New York area, about 5% of people claiming to be Jewish had no Jewish parents and had not converted. That didn’t happen in the 1950s.

Dr. Kurtzer identified four specific sub-challenges related to the question of who is Jewish and who represents us.

Challenge 1: What happens when self-evident truths disappear in a generation or two?

Jews light candles to welcome Shabbat. They don’t eat pork. They circumcise their baby boys. These used to be fundamental, self-evident truths, accepted without question by our grandparents and most of our parents. Today almost anything can be questioned. This type of change is unprecedented.

Challenge 2: We have a global perspective today that is unlike any time in history.

We are in a particularly ironic moment for Jewish collective living. Prior to the 20th century, Jews had no real sense of connectedness; you were Jewish, and the Jews you knew were all just like you – from the same region. Nothing connected the shtetlakh in Poland to Jews in Baghdad or Provence or Tunis.

Today, most of us live in the US and Israel, and we are more internationally networked than we have ever been. But while the American Jewish community is busy creating all sorts of new paths in Judaism (did you see the JTA’s recent article about a Jewish event in San Francisco called “Trefa Banquet 2.0”?), the State of Israel requires clear boundaries as to who is a Jew. In this climate, how do we continue to define Jewishness around the world?

Challenge 3: The data is moving faster than ever.

We love demographic data. But big demographic studies are almost obsolete the moment that they are published. The pace of change in today’s world is a challenge in that it may not be useful to determining what is next in Jewish life.

Challenge 4: The challenge of halakhah / Jewish law.

In Orthodoxy and in the Conservative movement we still understand halakhah (Jewish law) as being binding on us. But the challenge is that halakhah evolves slowly; that the rate of change in our technologies and the way we live is much faster than the rate at which halakhah is evolving.

Cognizant that he was speaking to a room of Conservative rabbis, Dr. Kurtzer said, “It’s not up to me to tell you how to do your jobs.” But his implicit message is that we have to acknowledge the halakhic challenge and do something about that.

He concluded by saying that although the boundaries are not clear, that although times are rapidly changing, we should not focus our energies on the questions of who belongs and who doesn’t, or is this behavior acceptable or not. Rather we should work harder as a community to draw everybody in closer to the center.

And how might we do this? This brings me to the inspiring words of Rabbi Artson, who spoke to the entire convention at the closing plenary. The guiding principle we must teach, he said, is ahavat hinnam, which he translated as “unearned love.”

Rabbi Artson opened with some truth-telling: “God is King,” he said, does not speak to us today. And most Jews do not really buy the idea of halakhah / Jewish law as law. But everybody understands and can relate to love – the feeling showered upon you by those that brought you into this world, who sacrificed time and money and personal space to make you what you are. “Ahavat hinnam, unmerited love,” he said, “is our first and most profound experience, and our mandate in life.”  Many of us will immediately recognize this metaphor as a way to understand our relationship with God.

Rather than teach religious ritual, law and custom as oppression, a burden to the pious, we have to instead translate Torah into “dignity, glory, and dance.” The Torah has been, at times in Jewish history, wielded as source of guilt.

But nobody wants to feel guilt. So let’s translate Torah as love. “Mitzvot are about radical love,” said Rabbi Artson. “Being in God’s image takes practice. Saying, ‘I love you, but I don’t want to change anything I do,’ is a sure recipe for loneliness. We are the people in the world’s most abiding romance.”

ahavah

“Romance,” he said, “is not just about maintaining the past – it is about change.”

So, when God says to Moshe, “Bo,” “Come with Me,” we might read that as a symbol of the eternal love between us and God, the intoxicating power of that ancient romance. “Come with Me, My love, and we will change the world. We will set you free.”

That’s the message we have to teach. That has to be the message of the Jewish future: Come with Me; be My partner. Yes, there are guidelines. Yes, you may have to change. But I promise you ahavat hinnam, unearned love. it’s worth it. Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/20/2018.)