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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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Renewing Our Relationship With Judaism -Ki Tetse 5776

I am always captivated by passages in the Torah that list laws, because they give us some insight into what our ancestors valued. Today’s parashah was especially rich with such laws, and among them some of my favorites:

  • returning your neighbor’s donkey
  • not abusing an employee
  • leaving some of your harvest for the needy
  • not taking chicks from the nest while the mother is there
  • stoning to death a disobedient son
  • stoning to death a newlywed woman in whom “the tokens of her virginity” were not found

Wait a minute – back up.  I’m sorry about those last two.

And, in some sense, so is Rabbinic Judaism.  Yes, those are in the Torah, but we have never actually stoned anybody to death (thank God!). In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show that the applicability of these laws is so limited that they could never actually be carried out.

Fortunately, we do not practice the religion of the ancient Israelites. Judaism is not the literal application of the laws as written in the Torah.  Rather, Jewish law has been codified by our sages who interpreted the Torah in subsequent centuries.  In other words we practice rabbinic Judaism, which is much more reasonable.

Given the issues surrounding some of the laws described in the Torah, there is a debate in rabbinic literature that continues to this day: Do the mitzvot have some internal value, or moral worth, or are they simply commandments that we must follow without searching for any higher message?

Maimonides (1135 – 1204 Spain -> Egypt) sees reason behind each commandment. For example, he believes that the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, shooing away the mother bird in order to take the chicks teaches us compassion for all of God’s creatures.

הכן מצות שילוח הקן מעוררת אותנו לתמיהה ...

In his seminal work of philosophy, Moreh Nevukhim, “Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides connects the suffering of animals with the suffering of people:

“Since therefore the desire of procuring good food necessitates the killing of animals, the Law enjoins that this should be done as painlessly as possible…  [the suffering of animals] does not differ from that of man, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings…  If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow people!”

The mother hen and her chicks, says Rambam, are representative; the mitzvah applies equally to humans, if not literally, then figuratively.

But not everybody agrees with Rambam.

Ramban – Nachmanides (1194 -1270 Spain -> Israel) states clearly and unapologetically  that “The ruling on the mother bird is not based on the Almighty’s pity for the animal.”  To Ramban, this is merely one more decree, albeit one that does teach us to avoid cruelty.  No further conclusions may be drawn.

Elsewhere, Rashi (1040-1105 France) states in a commentary on a different passage that the reason one should not steal (e.g.) is not because it is “wrong” to steal; rather, because God commanded us not to steal.

There are modern commentators that come down on either side of this equation. But I must say that this rabbi is with Rambam. Our inner motivations in following Jewish law should be in line with our behavior. We do not merely fulfill mitzvot like so many sheep, but rather use them as a tool to bring greater holiness into our lives. Our goal in taking these holy opportunities is to extrapolate these commandments for the greater good.

It is therefore not enough merely to shoo the mother bird away before taking the chicks, but also a lesson about minimizing suffering for all of God’s creatures, no matter their size or significance, and even as we use some of them wisely to produce our food. And that message is as much reinforced by the mitzvot surrounding kashrut, holy eating, as it is by the obligation to return not only your neighbor’s donkey, but your enemy’s donkey as well.

***

You may be aware that Rosh Hashanah is a little more than two weeks away…

This is a time to reset the dials of our lives, or, to use more contemporary language, it’s time for a full system restore.

We tend to think of the High Holidays as being associated with the Book of Life (Besefer hayyim… nizakher venikatev… lehayyim tovim ulshalom), the extended metaphor of God’s weighing our souls. But I would like to offer a different perspective.

Perhaps we can dedicate this time not just to wiping the slate clean regarding our actions, but also our relationship with Judaism. Not merely a behavioral renewal, but rather a theological and ideological renewal

I’ll tell you what I mean:

In some ways, it is easier just to perform the rituals of Jewish life without thinking about them.

I remember so clearly the day back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on practical theology, and hearing education professor Dr. Steve Brown telling a roomful of future rabbis, cantors, and  educators-to-be that the language of hiyyuv, of obligation, does not speak to people today, so there is no point in trying to use it.  I recall feeling let down – like, what kind of Jewish world is this where nobody sees themselves as being obligated to anything?

I have since learned to take a more nuanced view. For many of us, our relationship with Judaism is based more on sociological motivations – history, cultural connections, the need for moral guidance in complicated times, the desire to “resonate” with our ancestors, and so forth, than it is with the traditional perspective of fulfilling obligations.

The challenge, however, will be to maintain our connection in the future, when that particular set of sociological conditions goes away. And that’s why we need to re-examine our relationship with our textual tradition now.

We relate easily to the narrative portions of the Torah, the stories of our ancestors (and their dysfunctional family) as our national myths, our history; we can learn from them; we can sometimes strive to interact with them (What would Moshe do? What’s troubling Rashi? etc.).

And it is particularly difficult to relate to the vast swathes of the Torah that are about irrelevant things, like the sacrificial cult in the Temple, which has not been active for nearly two millennia, and will likely never be re-established.

Somewhere in the middle, though, between narrative and sacrifices, are the lists of laws.  Here in the depths of Devarim, we find lots of them.  Some we like.  Some make us uncomfortable.  Thank God for the lens of rabbinic literature for helping us to understand that we do not ACTUALLY have to put anybody to death.  (Aside from the difficult moral quandaries that this would place us in, it would also not be so good for synagogue membership.)

And the essence of our relationship with the Torah and Judaism is building those personal connections with the text; wrestling with it; agreeing and disagreeing with it, and so forth.

As the High Holidays approach, now is the time to consider how we might renew our covenant, and particularly here at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Judaism is as much about thinking and learning as it is about doing (i.e. prayer, saying qaddish, mitzvot, etc.). Ours is an intellectual tradition. In this season of return, perhaps we can consider returning to the foundational principles of the synagogue: that it should be not only a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, but also a beit midrash, a house of study. Let’s rededicate ourselves to learning about and redefining our relationships to Judaism through learning, discussing, and passing our textual heritage from generation to generation.

Along those lines, there are two things I want you to know about:

  1. I am starting up a learners’ service that will meet on one Shabbat morning per month, the second Shabbat morning of each month. I think that the entire community has the potential to benefit from learning more about tefillah / prayer. Due to various logistical considerations, it will not start until December. It will be primarily for beginners, but even veteran daveners will be able to learn as well.
  2. The other thing is that, in collaboration with a number of key members of the congregation, I have put together a concept for this community that will help transform Beth Shalom into that beit midrash in addition to being a beit tefillah. The concept is the Open Community Beit Midrash program at Beth Shalom. We will be approaching major donors with this concept as a part of the greater fundraising plan connected with our centennial year celebration. But the goal is to offer a whole new range of programming, the likes of which have not been seen in Squirrel Hill. The centerpiece will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, wherein all will be welcome to come and learn, regardless of their background, knowledge, experience, membership status, sexuality, whatever. This new arm of Beth Shalom has the potential to renew and reinvigorate not just this synagogue, but the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I’ll speak more about this concept on Yom Kippur itself, but I wanted to give you all a taste while we were on the subject of renewal.

Meanwhile, use these holidays to reconsider your commitment to our intellectual heritage.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/17/2016.)