Like many of you, I am astonished over what has been taking place over the past week. I went to the University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree and lived in Charlottesville for three years. I never expected it to be all over the news for a reason like this.
As I am sure you know, last week’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has brought anger and fear to the surface. People are anxious and not sure what to do.
The rally was organized by numerous self-identified Alt-Right groups, including, neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan. They were protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.
Over the course of the two day rally, the protesters marched through the University of Virginia campus with torches, as well as through the streets of Charlottesville. They shouted slogans and waived signs attacking Jews, Muslims, immigrants, the media, and others.
Usually, I avoid comparing contemporary situations to Nazis, Hitler, or the Holocaust. As soon as anyone makes that kind of comparison, emotions flare and constructive conversation usually ends.
But these people were explicitly embracing Nazi slogans and actions. They shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” they gave the Nazi salute. Nazi flags waved. Signs read “Goyim know,” and “Jews are satan’s children.” Every time the Charlottesville mayor got up to speak, they shouted “Jew, Jew!”
There were large numbers of counter-protesters as well, and numerous fights broke out. In a horrible tragedy, two State Troopers died when their helicopter crashed. And a twenty year old man who had previously expressed Nazi sympathies drove a car into crowds on the pedestrian mall, murdering Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people.
It is hard to believe that something like this is happening in twenty first century America. Until now, I have avoided making any public statements about President Trump. But I cannot remain silent on this.
Many of the Unite the Right protestors were waving “Trump/Pence” signs and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. In their own words, they draw strength from his election.
The President spoke about Charlottesville publicly for the first time on Saturday. He stated “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” He did not label the attack terrorism. He did not reject the Alt-Right’s embrace of him or condemn any of the groups by name. And by saying “many sides,” he implied that the protestors and counter-protestors were equally to blame.
Under enormous pressure from all directions, President Trump made a second statement two days later, in which he said:
To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
He said the words, but it was not an especially forceful condemnation. Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer responded by declaring that the statement was “hollow” and that Trump had not denounced the Alt-Right movement or white nationalism. Spencer said, “his statement today was more kumbaya nonsense… Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
And then the next day, in an unscripted press conference, the President returned to his original sentiments, declaring that there was “blame on both sides.” He claimed that “not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.” And he went on to say that there were “very fine people on both sides,” and he criticized what he called the “very, very violent… alt-left.”
To declare moral equivalency between Nazi flag-waving white supremacists and the people who gather to oppose them simply boggles the mind.
There is no moral equivalency. There is a moral obligation to oppose hate and intolerance. We have a duty to fight racism, bigotry, antisemitism, and sexism. Doesn’t everybody know this?
How many times have we heard, or ourselves said, something to the effect of “there are no innocent bystanders?” When evil appears in our midst, we have a moral obligation to act.
I am reassured by the outpouring of anger by vast numbers of Americans – conservative and liberal – who are simply appalled by President Trump’s failure to provide any moral leadership. His words and actions have fanned the flames of hate and emboldened people who until recently have only acted on the fringes of society.
I do not believe that what we are witnessing today remotely resembles Germany in the 1930’s. We are seeing disparate fringe elements coming together and making a lot of noise. And that noise is strengthening individuals and groups that are working towards greater peace, acceptance, and understanding.
But we need more from the leader of our country. Can you imagine a US President of the past fifty years, of either Party, who would not have found the right words to forcefully repudiate neo-Nazis marching in the streets of America?
The Torah is not ambivalent about right and wrong. At the beginning of Parashat Re’eh. Moses places a challenge before the Israelites:
See this day I place before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
There is a right way and a wrong way. Choosing the path of blessing, the path of God, has been our challenge as a people since we stood at Sinai. What is that path? What does it mean to choose life, to choose blessing? The Torah often speaks in lofty language about our obligation to care for the least powerful members of society, to welcome the stranger into our midst, and to apply laws equally to citizen and foreigner. It is the most widespread theme in the Torah, and can be found in this morning’s reading.
Parashat Re’eh also expands on what, to modern readers, is one of the most disturbing themes in the Torah. Moses instructs the Israelites to utterly wipe out idolatry from the land of Israel. Those who practice it must be killed relentlessly, and the cities in which it thrives must be razed to the ground.
This extreme xenophobia has always troubled Jews. In ancient times, the Rabbis wrestled with how to live peacefully and constructively in a multicultural society. Jews in ancient times often had good relations – both business and social – with their non-Jewish, often pagan, neighbors. The Rabbis knew that to reconcile the Torah’s black and white message with the multi-hued society around them, it would take creativity. They developed the understanding that the seven Canaanite nations had ceased to exist many centuries earlier. The Torah, thus, speaks only of an ancient time that has no bearing on the present.
But the Rabbis’ solution sidesteps the issue. With thousands of years of history behind us, we know, or at least we ought to know, the evil of racism and xenophobia. We as a people have too often been victimized by those who have argued, “my religion is truer,” “my culture is better,” “my blood is purer.” Yet the Torah seems to advocate that same attitude viz a viz idolatry.
I squirm in my seat when I read verses telling us to annihilate an entire people. Justifying these words by claiming that the Torah is referring to something that happened a long time ago does not solve the moral horror. How can the same book promote boundless generosity and acceptance on the one hand, and violence and intolerance on the other?
What does the Torah mean when it talks about idolatry? From the Torah’s perspective, there is something pervasively and irredeemably immoral about it. The great twentieth century Rabbi and Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel was an important religious leader in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, he attended a conference of religious leaders entitled “Religion and Race.” He wrote an essay of the same name which offers us a way to understand idolatry.
Perhaps this Conference should have been called ‘Religion or Race.’ You cannot worship God and at the same time look at a man as if he were a horse…
What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.
Faith in God is not simply an afterlife-insurance policy. Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.
In the 1960’s, Heschel was speaking about a society which was racist to its core. To raise the living conditions of African Americans, he writes, normal everyday people had to shed their complacency and get involved.
Heschel’s definition of idolatry suggests that whenever we forget that all human beings are created in God’s image, we commit idolatry.
Heschel notes that when the Bible describes God’s creation of the universe, it specifies that “God created different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals (Genesis 1:11-12, 21-25) In striking contrast, it does not say, God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims, God created one single man. From one single man all men are descended.”
The idolatry that Parashat Re’eh would have us eradicate is the belief that not all humans are reflections of God.
If I take seriously the prohibition of “sitting idly by,” what should I be doing? I have been struggling with how to respond.
Well, I do happen to be a Rabbi, and I have a pulpit. That is why I am speaking about this now. One can certainly get involved in protests and counter-protests, writing letters to politicians and newspapers. These are admirable actions to take. But they are not for everyone.
We combat hate with love. Let’s make an extra effort to learn about someone who is different. Have an open conversation with a person who does not share your opinion or way of life. Invite them over for dinner. Share your own stories. When we can increase the human connections between ourselves and others, peace is sure to follow.
Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia (“Mr. Jefferson’s University,” as we call it), wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
We do not have to tremble for our country. I have faith in the American people to recognize right from wrong, and to move, albeit in fits and starts, towards the direction of justice and peace.
Thank you Rabbi Berkenwald and Yishar Koach
I am deeply thankful for your heartfelt and cogent sermon today!
Rabbi Birkenwald: Yasher koach on stepping forward to write about these horrific events . I appreciate that there is a line that rabbi’s are hesitant to cross about politics but you are honorably following in the model of Heschel in Selma when he said ” his feet were praying”. You can’t walk there now, but your words from you position of authority on the pulpit help walk the country a little more toward the path of righteousness. “You are not required to complete the task but you are not free to withdraw from it”