Response to Charlottesville – Re’eh 5777

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.

Our Conveniently Dark Past – Masei 5774

Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish settlement at Kiryat Arba, in Chevron in the West Bank, issued a halakhic ruling this past Sunday, July 20, with regard to the killing of civilians during war.  He was asked the following question.

…what is the halakhic position with regard to attacks against a civilian population that does not have a direct connection to the terrorists in the area?

Rabbi Lior begins his one page reponse with this:

The Torah of Israel guides us in all walks of life, private and public, on how to behave during war and also how to keep moral standards.

As a halakhic precedent, he cites the Maharal of Prague, from the 16th century.

The Maharal from Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew – A.K.), in his book Gur Arye, clearly writes that… in all wars the attacked people are allowed to attack fiercely the people from whom the attackers came from and they do not have to check if he personally belongs to the fighters.

He bases this on the story in Genesis in which Shimon and Levi massacre the entire town of Shechem, killing three hundred men, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah by the chieftain’s son, Chamor.  Rabbi Lior concludes:

Therefore, during war the attacked people are allowed to punish the enemy population in any punishment it finds worthy, such as denying supplies or electricity and also to bomb the whole area according to the discretion of the army minister and not to just simply endanger soldier’s lives but to take crushing deterrence steps to exterminate the enemy.

In the case of Gaza, the Minister of Defense will be allowed to instruct even the destruction of Gaza so that the south will no longer suffer and to avoid harm to our people who have been suffering for so long from the surrounding enemies.”

Any kind of talk about humanism and consideration are moot when speaking of saving our brothers in the south and in the rest of the country and bringing back quiet to our country.

For the last several weeks, we in the American Jewish community have been praying for our brothers and sisters in Israel.  But not just in Israel.  We have seen protests in cities around the world, especially Europe, turn scarily to anti-semitism.

It has been so frustrating for us to observe media outlets that do not seem to understand or care about aspects of this war that have been so important to us.  Specifically, the great care that the Israel Defense Forces have given to minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza.

As Jews, we have been proud of the Israeli government, its soldiers, and its citizens for doing their best, amidst the chaos of war, to protect Palestinian civilians.

I have personally given several Divrei Torah and written an article adressing this over the past few weeks.  So that is not what you are going to hear from me today.

The legal ruling by Rabbi Lior points to minority attitude that exists amongst the Jewish people.  I would imagine that his endorsement for not just ignoring civilians, but even targeting them, might offend many, but he brings up somthing that we ought not ignore.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Masei, God provides some details for Moses to tell the Israelites regarding how they are to settle the Promised Land.

First, they are told to disposess all of its current inhabitants.  The Israelites must destroy every last trace of idolatry, including idols, figurines, and sacred shrines.  Then, the Israelites are to divide up the land amongst themeslves, apportioning tribal territories by lot.

God warns the Israelites that they had better clear out all of the current inhabitants, because any Canaanites who are left behind will continue to harrass them.

Next, God describes the borders of the country which the Israelites are about to invade.  The Bible has several different accounts of the boundaries of the Promised Land. Parashat Masei‘s version has the land of Israel extending south into the Negev, travelling up the entire Mediterranean coast (including Gaza, by the way) all the way through Lebanon and over to Damascus.  The Eastern border follows Lake Kineret down the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Imagine for a moment that you are an Israelite, hearing your aged leader Moses giving you these instructions after he has successfully led you through the wilderness for the past forty years.  What is he telling you to do?

The word used is l’horish, “to dispossess.”  The commentator Rashi explains that it means that the Israelites have to expel them from the land.

Deuteronomy is even more extreme.  It gives explicit instructions to utterly wipe out idolatrous towns, killing all of the inhabitants and burning their possessions.  The Israelites are not allowed to make peace with them or allow them to surrender.

In modern parlance, we would call this ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Does this sound like Judaism?  It certainly does not align well with the maxim of “love your neighbor as yourself” that we like to repeat so often.  But it is in the Torah, our holy book.  What are we to do with it?

When admitting out loud that our sacred scriptures advocate holy war, Jews today, myself included, typically explain why those texts do not reflect Jewish tradition.  Our Sages, even in ancient times, were uncomfortable with what the Torah seems to be saying.  It not only violates common moral sense, but it also seems to go against the spirit of so many other mitzvot mitzvot telling us to give tzedakah, to treat our employees properly, to care for the strangers living among us, to enforce the law fairly for both citizens and strangers.  When we talk about Jewish ethics, those are the kinds of ancient laws that we highlight.

So the Rabbis feel a strong obligation to do away with holy war.  It may have applied back then, when Joshua led the Israelites to conquer the land of Israel, but it is no longer relevant. Here are several justifications that are typically offered.

One.  They never actually did it.  It is apparent from later books in the Bible that the idolatrous nations of the land stayed right where they were, living side by side with the Israelites.  Of course, we did annihilate the Midianites in last week’s Torah portion.

Two.  The Torah is really concerned with the immoral influence of idolatry.  The only way to remove idolatry is to completely eliminate its practice in the land.

Three.  It is a practical warning that as long as the Canaanites remain in the land, they will continue to be a thorn in the side of the Israelites.

Four.  We have to understand the Torah in light of its historical context.  This is how war was conducted in the ancient world.  If it was written today, it would have been written differently.

For the fifth explanation, we turn to Maimonides.  He qualifies the Torah’s instructions by saying that, in fact, a pagan town must first be offered the choice of renouncing its paganism.  Only if it refuses must it then be destroyed.

Maimonides acknowledges that it is indeed obligatory to annihilate the seven Canaanite nations, and one who has an opportunity to kill a Canaanite but fails to do so has violated a commandment from the Torah.  It is a moot point, however, as Maimonides concludes, “but their memory has already been lost.”  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:4)

He bases this on a passage in the Mishnah that declares that the Assyrian King Sennacherib came along at the turn of the seventh century b.c.e. and scattered all of the nations of the land of Canaan.  (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4)  Conveniently for Maimonides, and for us enlightened twenty-first century Jews, it is now impossible to fulfill the Torah’s command to commit genocide because the people we are supposed to kill on the spot do not exist any more.

The problem with all of these explanations is that none of them address the core moral issue.  We sit back, confident of our own uprightness, absolved of any responsibility for our the actions of an earlier generation.

We, in 2014, have an ancient connection to the land of Israel.  It was promised by God to Abraham four thousand years ago.  As a people, we inhabited the land autonomously for hundreds of years during the First Temple era.  In the Babylonian exile, we wept as we longed to return.  Then we built the Second Temple and inhabited the land for another five hundred years.  After it was destroyed by the Romans, we went into exile for nearly two millennia, always keeping Zion in our hearts.

But if we go back to the beginning, the entire notion of a Promised Land is founded upon a violent conquest that took place more than three thousand years ago.

Do we bear any responsibility?

What about the modern State of Israel?  In his new book My Promised Land, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a left wing journalist, writes with full honesty about the home that he loves.

He describes a well-known writer, Israel Zangwill, who travels to Palestine in 1897.  While most of the early Zionists see only a barren land devoid of inhabitants, Zangwill sees what is really there, and he speaks about it.  In 1905, Zangwill delivers a speech in New York City in which he reports that Palestine is populated.  Then he points out that no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  Therefore, he tells his audience, the sons of Israel must be prepared to take action, “to drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zangwill is rejected as a heretic by the Zionist establishment at the time, but his ideas persist.  A couple of decades later, he writes that “there is no particular reason for the Arabs to cling to these few kilometers. ‘To fold their tents and silently steal away’ is their proverbial habit: let them exemplify it now… We must gently persuade them to trek.”

According to Shavit, Ben Gurion and the rest of the leadership knew that for Israel to be viable, the majority of the Arab population would have to be relocated.  While there was no explicit policy of forced population transfer, there were numerous examples of Jewish forces encouraging Arab villagers to flee.

It seems that the legacy of the Torah’s commandment to our ancestors to conquer the land by force and eliminate the inhabitants is not as distant from us as we might like to think.

Let us not get embroiled in arguments about who is at fault or who has a more legitimate claim.  We all know it is complicated – and highly emotional.  I bring this up because I believe that it is important for us to be honest about our past.  We ought to at least acknowledge that the blessings we enjoy in our lives today sometimes come at a cost that was paid by innocent suffering extracted by others.

Today, we all benefit from the free, open, and prosperous society in the United States.  But how did we get here?  Our nation’s founders had to wage a brutal war of independence against Great Britain.  Before that, of course, European colonialists had dispossessed, by force, the former inhabitants of the land, killing 95% of them through war and disease, and shutting the rest up in reservations.  We must not forget that the Native Americans had come from somewhere as well, and fought their own wars againt rival nations.

As Israel Zangwill said in 1905, no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  In a similar vein, Mao wrote in his Little Red Book that without violence, “it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development.”  I fear that they may be right.  I challenge us to name a nation that was not formed by expelling or subjugating the local population and/or defeating the former rulers by force.

We have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years, so it would seem to be inevitable.  If this is simply the way of the world, then what is wrong with Rabbi Dov Lior’s call to protect Jews by ending the restraint and demolishing Gaza?  After all, this is how human societies have protected themselves for hundreds of thousands of years.

The Torah challenges us to become holy by overcoming our DNA, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Our world is a messy, morally ambiguous place.  Good people are often forced into situations in which they have to make difficult decisions.

As justified as a young soldier may be in fighting to protect his family and his country, war leaves a permanent mark on a person’s soul.  I say this presumptuously, as someone who has thankfully never had to go into battle.

We are challenged in every aspect of our lives to be holy: in how we do business, in how we support members of our community, in how we eat, in how we love, and yes, in how we make war.  We honor those who have fought on our behalf in the past and who do so today when we open our eyes and admit that the things in our lives that we count as blessings sometimes have been accompanied by the suffering of innocents and the sometimes difficult moral struggles of people who tried their best to live good lives.

We must say to Rabbi Lior that what he advocates does not represent Judaism.  God asks more of us.  Although it is often not clear, may we discern the path of holiness in this difficult world, and may our striving to be holy one day soon bring us to peace.