Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5767, September 22, 2006
I used to joke that my work was not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable. Well, we’re living in a world that of late is generously protecting us from the corruption of too much emotional comfort. Unless you’ve been sitting in a cave for the last five years, you know only too well that the world is trembling for its life, and we have been chosen to bear witness.
Tonight we come together with a hope that we can find shelter in each other from the shared anxiety we bear. We’ve gathered for the most joyful of occasions, to celebrate the birth day of the world and the birth of the new year 5767.
I’m tempted to offer a lullaby-like homily to calm nerves and cradle hearts. But I cannot. Despite this being the sweetest evening of the year, Erev Rosh Hashanah, I have to talk about what will not leave me alone, and it’s a bitter subject.
This is the first time that I’ve ever spoken about anti-Semitism, and I’m doing it because this year it is a shadowy presence over every Jew. Facing what frightens us is the healing medicine, yet there is risk, however. My intention is not to ignite a fire of fear, rage, and paranoia, but to offer a historical perspective that may guide us in this time. Ours is a more than a sad story, it is a long one. We have lived to celebrate many near extinctions. May we grow wise from all that happens and may we respond with courage, faith, and compassion.
Until five years ago, I thought anti-Semitism was history. Surely the Holocaust had taught the world the double danger of making the Jews the eternal scapegoat and the poison of tolerating hatred. I saw no reason to stir the old pot of fear and anger with invoking past horrors–I’d met enough Jews who took one lesson from our history: everyone hates the Jews.
When my parents and grandparents dropped their voices in a public place to say “Jewish”, I wondered why. The answer came later when I learned about restricted hotels and colleges that limited the number of Jewish students. It can’t happen here anymore, I thought.
In Sunday school I learned about Israel, our magical, mythic home that we took pride in for its rapid entry into the modern world, its contributions to science and the arts, and its vigorous, beautiful sabras. No one ever hinted that we might need it as a shelter from Jewish hatred.
We know differently tonight. Since 9/11, the world has changed. On that sunny morning a little over five years ago, Osama Bin Laden told the world that Jews were high on his list of enemies. Overnight, we felt a little less at home in the world. The Israel-Palestinian conflict played a central role in the WTC attack, and many of us watched how quickly anti-Semitism became our issue now.
Paranoid rumors erupted that Israel was behind WTC attack in an attempt to turn the world against Arabs. Some believed that Jews stayed home from work that day because they knew all about the attack. The smoldering fire of Jew hatred had once again burst into flames. For many of us, especially of the liberal persuasion, we suddenly gained insight into why our parents always behaved a little like guests on good behavior outside Jewish circles.
Al Queda’s intention to remove Jews from Israel and ultimately the world has been seconded by the president of Iran. His bold and chilling words, no different from Hitler’s in the early thirties, come with more international support than Hitler had. We may be inclined to ignore the words yet we’d feel better if we didn’t feel quite so alone. What do you think most people walking around the Plaza might say if you asked them what they thought about Israel?
Anti-Semitism is a relatively modern word coined in the 19th Century by a German agitator to describe anti-Jewish riots in Europe. I’m especially fond of a genteel definition that says anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than is necessary. Known as the longest hatred, its formal definition in Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary is, “Hostility towards Jews as a religious or racial minority group often accompanied by social, political, or economic discrimination; opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel.” This definition makes clear how slippery the elision from antizionism to anti-Semitism.
Jewish hatred began seriously with Antiochus Epiphanes, whom you will remember as the villain of the Hanukkah story. In that war, the primary objection to the Jews was that they kept themselves apart from other peoples refused to be part of other religions. Every other people in the ancient world accepted the gods of their neighbors, but not the Jews. They didn’t intermarry, they didn’t eat with their neighbors, and they didn’t make sacrifices to other gods. They were fierce believers and encouraged to join them in their vision of one loving God who cares profoundly about the world. This was a radical idea in the ancient world of capricious, indifferent gods that demanded human sacrifices in return for life.
When Christianity became the religion of Rome in the fourth century c.e., the New Testament sanctified Jewish persecution by accusing the Jews of killing Jesus, their Lord. The Gospel of John described the Jews as children of Satan and the state decreed capital punishment for converting anyone to Judaism. This is one reason why proselytizing fell out of Jewish favor.
The New Testament used the Hebrew Scriptures, renamed the Old Testament, as a foil for Christianity. Simply understood, if you’re going to create something new, you have to discredit what came before. We were the chosen people until we blew it. The Middle Ages brought the Crusades, which demanded conversion of the Jews, and ultimately led to the expulsion of almost all Jews from Western Europe.
Martin Luther originally thought well of the Jews until he realized that they would never see the light and become Christians. He wrote, “Know, Christian, that next to the devil thou hast no enemy more cruel, more venomous and more violent than a true Jew. Their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it.” Ironically, Poland, where three million died in the Holocaust, became safe haven for Jews a thousand years ago, where they were welcomed as a population that would help strengthen the economy of the country.
During the early Crusades, Jews had a better time in Muslim countries, most notably Spain. They were not forced into ghettoes, and Jews and Muslims frequently socialized and did business together. Christians saw Jews as dangerous, a corrupt people that threatened all good in the world. Islam didn’t have the same fear; instead they saw Jews as merely contemptible and disgusting.
Isn’t it fair to ask God “Why”? What should we know after all these years? Is there a greater lesson than “It’s hard to be a Jew,” or, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger?” This is a key question for Jews, because our basic hypothesis is that every life has purpose and meaning. If we didn’t learn from everything, including pain, we’d jump off the roof. Do we know something that the world needs to know right now?
In a world terrified of a thousand paths to destruction, we know best of all that, to quote Nachman of Bratzlav, “the world is a narrow bridge, the only thing is not to be afraid.” 4,000 years of mostly difficult times, when people still fell in love, had children, and kept alive their hope, is our memory and legacy not only to us but to a despairing world.
Perhaps we’re here to be prophetic, hopeful voices in this time of world crisis, just as our ancestor Joseph directed the Pharaoh through feast and famine and saved the Egyptians. When he encountered his brothers who had left him to die and tortured their father with the lie that he was dead, he chose to forgive them, seeing that it was all God’s plan.
I’m not Joseph and cannot say that anti-Semitism is God’s plan. What I do know is that Jews must do all that they can to survive, not for our sakes but for God’s. The world needs us. We’re living proof that the dark forces don’t win: we’re still here. We still sing our ecstatic songs of gratitude and we still have faith that one day all the world will all sit in peace. Threat of extermination has taught us that if we stand together as a people, we will not die but live. This is a message of interconnectedness that all humanity needs.
Our tradition also teaches that physical survival is not enough. We are on earth to manifest divine energy. On Passover, we pour off a little wine to diminish our joy at the downfall of our enemy. The Talmud teaches to remove the ox who has fallen on your enemy. We cannot control the enemy, only our response not to become hardened and full of hate.
Perhaps we’ve suffered so that we can be God’s compassionate face to all who still suffer slavery and persecution. God help us if we ever shout gleefully at an enemy’s death. I’m grateful that we are not so embittered, that we still mourn all deaths.
What we know is that there is light as well as darkness. Egyptian midwives and Christian rescuers in the Holocaust risked their lives to save us. The Catholic Church has made sea changes in its accusation of Jews being Christ killers.
Let’s not forget where we are praying tonight. The good people of St. Bede’s and its rector are our friends. They stand with us and they stand by us, as we have for them. Our relationship with this church is as much a part of Jewish history as pogroms.
Remembering the good will keep us from hating as we have been hated. May we never stop mourning every death and uprooted tree. May God keep us alive to sing our praises and to keep faith that one day anti-Semitism and all xenophobia will be history. May the day come soon.