Some of you know that my first experience in graduate school was at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas. A&M is one of the largest public universities in the country – today nearly 60,000 students, although when I was there it was only about 43,000 (still pretty big). However, in Texas, if you’re Jewish, you are much more likely to go to the University of Texas in Austin. A&M’s Jewish population is only a few hundred, whereas UT’s is a couple thousand.
Ironically, it was my attending Texas A&M which brought be back to Judaism. Although I had grown up in a fairly traditional household, I had found that at as an undergraduate at Cornell, I was not so interested in Jewish life. It took relocation to the buckle of the Bible Belt, to one of the most socially and politically conservative corners of this country, to one of the most heavily fundamentalist Christian enclaves, to rediscover my heritage. The Hillel rabbi at A&M, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, figured strongly in my return. (His wife, by the way, Dr. Sara Alpern, is a Pittsburgher.)
Rabbi Tarlow retired a few years back, and the new Hillel rabbi is a young, energetic fellow named Matt Rosenberg. Rabbi Rosenberg was faced with an unusual challenge recently: Richard Spencer, the white supremacist leader who has come to the fore in recent months, was invited to speak on campus by an alumnus who is known for supporting such causes. Apparently, Texas A&M has a policy that any alum can rent a room in the student union on campus for any event, and the university has no right to cancel an event of which it disapproves.
So, given that Spencer was coming to speak on campus, and given that there was nothing that anybody could do to prevent it, a whole host of student groups mounted an anti-Spencer campaign. The university itself hosted a protest rally at the same time as Spencer’s speech in Kyle Field, the legendary stadium that is home to the Aggie football team and the Twelfth Man tradition.
Among the loudest protesters was Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, who spent tireless weeks rallying A&M students against Spencer. When the day came, Rabbi Rosenberg found himself in Mr. Spencer’s press conference before the speech, and was called on by Spencer to ask a question. The exchange did not go well; Rabbi Rosenberg conceded that it was not one of his best moments. (You can see this online here.)
Rabbi Matt Rosenberg: You come here with a message of radical exclusion; My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love. That love is embodied by Torah. Will you sit down and study Torah with me and learn to love?
Richard Spencer: OK, I can’t promise to study with you. That’s kind of a biggie… I will say this. I will promise to talk with you. And I will say this: Do you really want “radical inclusion” into the State of Israel? And, by that, I mean, radical inclusion: maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that? … You’re not answering.
RMR: I’m not.
RS: Look, in terms of the Jewish people, why are they a people? They are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles. It’s axiomatic. That is why the Jews are a coherent people with a history and a culture and a future. It is because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves. I want my people to survive in the future.
In his own defense in the Forward, Rabbi Rosenberg pointed out that he had never been trained in debating skills. I am pretty certain that I would not have done any better, because frankly, I did not see that coming.
What Spencer did, in a few sentences, was to twist all of recent Jewish history to suit his own purposes. There are multiple reasons why the Jews are still here: Yes, because we have held fast to our traditions and our ancient texts; yes, because we have stuck together, but also yes, because for thousands of years we were prohibited from mixing with non-Jews – by ourselves, our own customs and institutions, but even more so by the people who oppressed us: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans, but also the English, who kicked the Jews out of England and Wales in 1290, the French, who kicked the Jews out of France in 1306, the Austrians, who kicked the Jews out of Austria in 1421, and so forth.We cannot forget the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and the centuries of persecution which preceded it. We cannot forget the pogroms of 19th-century Eastern Europe. We cannot forget Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. And the waves of Arab hatred and riots of the 1950s. And the Iranian revolution of the 1970s. And let us not forget the Jews of Silence, the Soviet Jews, who, once applying to leave for Israel, were punished by the Soviet authorities.
In short, it is people like Richard Spencer who have kept the Jews isolated throughout history. And here is the irony: freedom is a double-edged sword. As much as clinging to our traditions and texts has kept us distinctive, so too has that distinction been reinforced by those who despise us. Let’s face it: why is the intermarriage rate in America so high? Because we have finally gained acceptance. Jews actually make appealing spouses to non-Jews, something that not too long ago was anathema. And you may know that many of those Jews who can now marry non-Jews (since they will now marry us) still feel proud to be Jewish, still feel connected to Judaism in some way. In prior centuries, the only way to join the wider society was to become not Jewish. Today, all doors are open.
So when Richard Spencer tried to cast Jews as an isolationist success story, about people who maintained their identity because they refused to mix with others, he was spinning history for his own agenda, cynically using the Jewish tale of persecution across the ages to justify that very persecution. His people, the haters, are the ones who kept us apart, who kept us in ghettos. His people passed humiliating laws and carried out expulsions and forced conscriptions and forced conversions. People of his kind promulgated the blood libels and ultimately genocide.
But that was only half of his statement. The other half was about Israel, and it’s an argument that is even more loathsome. He said facetiously, “Maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that?” His hyperbole played on the fallacious argument that Israel is an apartheid state and used it to justify the separation of Jews from non-Jews. Spencer’s subtext was, “You Jews should understand keeping another people down, right? Because you’re doing it right now in Israel.”
Spencer smiled at this point, because he knew that he had hit Rabbi Rosenberg where it hurts most.
Where to begin on this one? Should I start with my son’s soccer team, HaPoel Deir Hanna, on which Jewish and Arab 16-year-olds, young citizens of the democratic State of Israel, cooperate on the field, on the same team? Should I mention the Muslim and Christian members of the Knesset? Should I recap the entire history of Jewish-Arab conflict on that small strip of land, the opportunities lost, the blood that has flowed on both sides? The very present and immediate need for Israeli security?
The reality of Israel, her internal demographic realities and external struggles are much more complex than can be captured in a provocative soundbite. But Israel is an open, democratic society that has its share of challenges, just as every nation does.
Rabbi Rosenberg was right: the Torah is love. Earlier this morning, as we do every single morning of the Jewish year, we said this explicitly when we wrapped our tzitziyyot (the fringes hanging from the four corners of our tallitot / prayer shawls) around a finger, as we prepared to recite the Shema. “Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu.” With great love you have loved us, God. And you have demonstrated your love by giving your Torah to the world. And it is up to us to “lilmod ulelamed, lishmor vela’asot, ulqayem et kol divrei talmud Toratekha be’ahavah,” to learn and teach, to keep and do, and uphold all the teachings of your Torah in love. Torah is love. Love is Torah. And it is upon us to share this love with everybody – to share with the world the idea of “Ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha” (Lev. 19:18) – love your neighbor as yourself, with that ahavah rabbah, that great, unbounded love.
What can we learn from this? That we have to be ready to make the case for who we are, not only to respond to haters like Richard Spencer, but also to ourselves. What we must have on the tips of our tongues is the following:
We are Jewish, and continue to be Jewish, because our tradition has value: it brings us knowledge about ourselves and others, it brings us joy, it provides a framework to celebrate and grieve as a community. And it teaches us love through the ancient words of Torah. And that is why we are still here.
So, Mr. Spencer and your white supremacist friends, please don’t look to the Jews to justify your twisted rationale for hate. Rather, learn from our history and our tradition and see that respect and love for all is the source of our continued existence. That is humanity’s divine obligation. That is Torah. That is love.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/7/2017.)