Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Albuquerque, New Mexico
For the first time in my rabbinate I have received emails, calls and had conversations with people who were not just curious as to what I was going to speak about during these Holy Days but telling me what I should say about each topic and what I should not mention. What positions I should take and which I should avoid.
I have never shied away from speaking my mind from the bimah - from the pulpit. I appreciate when people who agree with me or disagree with me come to me afterward to share their insights. I have colleagues who will not speak about Israel from the bimah for fear of angering people who may disagree. Others who will not speak about morality or our prophetic tradition for the same reason. That has never been my issue. My struggle has been and continues to be presenting my thoughts in a way that leaves open the possibility of dialog.
I was raised by my Rabbi, Philip Horowitz z”l who received a subpoena to testify before Joseph McCarthy’s House un-American Affairs Committee. Appearing before the committee, he refused to testify. Rabbi Horowitz knew the actions and motivations of the committee’s leadership violated both Jewish ethics and our American value of Liberty and Justice for all.
I was raised in the tradition of Rabbi Joachim Prinz z”l who was a leader in the Civil Rights movement. On August 28, 1963, he spoke just before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream Speech.” That day Rabbi Prinz spoke these words which were taught to me and ingrained into me
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder….
Rabbi Prinz continues:
The time, I believe has come to work together - for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together…[that] from Maine to California, from North to South, may become, a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.
The moral renewal of which Rabbi Prinz spoke was most certainly not the morality of what we do in our bedrooms or the choices we make with regard to our bodies. The moral renewal he yearned for was the coming of fruition of the moral dream of America; Liberty and Justice for all.
For the majority of my life the moral vacuum in our country has been growing. Gone are the days of fighting for liberty for all on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. While fighting in the fields of Europe and the shores of the Pacific, our government led at home. First, creating a military integrated and open to all, then, taking on the monumental task of leading the way on civil rights. Voices of opposition were heard but the inherent truth of Liberty and Justice for all dominated and prevailed. However, since the mid-1970’s the voice of opposition to that great American principle has grown and the moral voices have been cowed into a silence of death. Leadership in government, with too few exceptions, and especially on the national level, continues to devolve into a mentality of “I have to win and you have to lose.” And if you disagree with me you are evil”.
The events and the responses to Charlottesville stand as an example of this growing moral vacuum. Nazi marches in our streets began in the 1930’s. In the post WWII years, none were to be seen until the infamous march in Skokie. A location chosen because of its high concentration of Holocaust survivors.
Call it Nazism or white supremacy, they are two sides of the same coin. The march in Charlottesville shows how complacent we have become. First, the Nazi’s in Charlottesville elevated their heinousness by carrying weapons of war. The slogans shouted were modifications of the hate they have always spouted but, the weaponry brought a new level of seriousness. If you think Charlottesville was an anomaly, think again.
This past Friday night - yes on erev Shabbat, African-American protesters in St. Louis surrounded by police and facing tear gas and rubber bullets, took refuge through the only open door they could find - the door of Central Reform Congregation. Whether or not the congregation should have opened its doors to them is not the issue. Almost immediately a new hashtag appeared on Twitter “gasthesynagogue.” The tweets came not just from radical right wing groups but from the major supplier of the police departments throughout the country.. If you think the business was just trying to sell more tear gas and did not understand the historical reference to the Shoah - the Holocaust, think again.
Charlottesville marked a nadir in American values; St. Louis a new low. At the same time, though, we began to see the pendulum swing back. It was as if America began to awaken from a nightmare filled sleep. Finally, after Charlottesville, led some of our elected officials, the voice of unequivocal condemnation began to rise.
The first voices to be heard were from the national legislative branch: Republican Senators. Men and women who within hours stood up and said: “Not in our America we strive for!” Then slowly, Democratic voices began to come forth with a similar message. But the voices of those in senior leadership of the national executive and legislative branches were silent or at best equivocating. Meanwhile, loud, peaceful shouts filled the streets of our country calling for an elevation of our system toward the goal of liberty and justice for all. These voices rose like a symphony of shofarot calling our nation to repent our 40 year silence and renew the call for liberty throughout the land.
What about we Jews? The literature of our Jewish heritage is unequivocal. In the Book of Esther, when Esther is hesitant about confronting the King, Mordecai says to her (4:14): “If you keep silent in this moment,… you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows, perhaps you have attained this (royal) position for this exact moment.” - If Esther, in a time when women had no rights could stand and speak before the King - who are we to stay silent?
Tractate Berachot says: “In anger God said to Moses in Deuteronomy 9:10: ‘Leave Me be, that I may destroy them’ Moses said to himself: If God is telling me to let Him be, it must be because this matter is dependent upon me. Immediately Moses stood and was strengthened in prayer, and asked that God have mercy on the nation of Israel and forgive them for their transgression.” If Moses could confront God - Who are we to stay silent?
Leviticus 19:18: “Rebuke your neighbor that you may not share in his/her guilt.” If our ancestors were called to confront evil - Who are we to stay silent?
And of course Pirkei Avot 1:14: “Rabbi Hillel used to say: if I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” - “And if not now, when?” Who are we to stay silent now?
But what is the purpose of ending the silence? In the 6th Century, Avot de Rabbi Natan A, 23, 38a taught: “Who is the most heroic of heroes? One who conquers one’s own inclination to do evil. And some say: one who makes an enemy into a friend.”
The first silence we need to end is the blindness we carry about ourselves. Where do I fall short? To whom do I deny liberty and justice? If your answer is you do not fall short and you do not have your bigotries, then you are blind to yourself and a fool.
The second part of the saying: “makes an enemy into a friend.” cannot be accomplished in silence or with violence. Lowering ourselves to the level of those who try and dehumanize us gives them a victory. Honest, open, peaceful dialog, where all participants listen with open hearts and minds, leads not necessarily to agreement, but to the recognition of a joint commitment to our prime values and ethical standards. Just as we will not be dehumanized, neither shall we sink to that level and dehumanize others. Dehumanization of others builds and reinforces the bigotry and evil within ourselves.
As my colleague Rabbi Larry Malinger writes: “Many religious traditions promote asceticism, withdrawal from the institutions and activities of the everyday world…. Judaism, however, goes in the opposite direction: our tradition teaches us to embrace argument. Just as God in the story of Creation, creates the world and brings order out of chaos through words, so vibrant human words - debate and discussion - can serve as instruments of creation as well.”
Recently, a number of us refused to be silent. We went to our Senators’ offices to push them to be more vocal and present in their denunciation of hatred and bigotry, to push them to become the leaders standing up for Liberty and Justice for all we need them to be. One of the aides said: “the Senator is concerned about casual racism.” We did not remain silent. The aide heard loud and clear that there is no such thing as “casual racism.” Racism in all its forms demeans both the target of the bigotry and the bigot. Especially in the presence of power we must not remain silent.
We are blessed to live in a city and a state that is better than most. Yet, as we learn over and over, better is not always good. We cannot hide in the shelter of our homes or even this, our Jewish home. It is time to speak.
In 1774, future Revolutionary War soldier and Vermont Congressman, Rev. Nathaniel Niles spoke these words:
If any should say, it is in vain for them as individuals to be vigilant, zealous and firm in pursuing any measures for the security of our rights, unless all would unite: I would reply:
Ages are composed of seconds, the earth of sands, and the sea of drops, too small to be seen by the naked eye. The smallest particles have their influence….each individual has a proportion of influence on some neighbour at least; he, on another, and so on;… We know not what individuals may do. We are not at liberty to lie dormant until we can, at once, influence the whole. We must begin with the weight we have. Should the little springs neglect to flow till a general agreement should take place, the torrent that now bears down all before it, would never be formed. These mighty floods have their rise in single drops from rocks; which, uniting, creep along till they meet with another combination so small that it might be absorbed by the travellers [sic] foot. These unite, proceed, enlarge, till mountains tremble at their sound. Let us receive instruction from the streams,…
Rabbis Horowitz and Prinz taught me: never be silent. Rev. Niles teaches a word can become a catalyst for change. Torah teaches: only God can create worlds with words. We know our words can change worlds for blessing.
May the words of our mouths blare forth with the power to change ourselves and change the world. כן יהי רצון.