Rabbi David Seed, Adath Israel
Summer – a time for special traditions – barbecues in the backyard, swimming and boating – but there’s another – movies. Summer movies are a unique breed – generally light hearted, silly and little irreverent. But sometimes there’s a summer film that breaks out of that mold in a unique way.
This particular film premiered June 20, 1975 and even its title still sends pangs of fear and anxiety to this day; it certainly does for me. The movie? Jaws – Hollywood’s first major summer blockbuster and Steven Spielberg’s first hit. Why mention this movie now? It’s because of an interesting item in the news of this past week but let me give you a bit of background.
Those of you who remember the film (something I still do to this day) might recall the scene where Quint, the boat’s captain played by Robert Shaw, is explaining the reason for his visceral hatred of sharks, especially the one terrorizing the swimmers off Cape Cod. In a moving monologue of some 3½ minutes, Quint describes an episode that took place while a sailor in WW II on the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The battleship was in the western Pacific on its way to the Philippines after having dropped off components for the first atomic bomb that was to be dropped on Hiroshima. On the journey, it was hit by two torpedoes, sinking the ship in 12 minutes on July 30, 1945. Of the 1196 sailors and marines on board, only 316 survived, having waited more than four days until the wreckage was spotted, making it one of the worst naval disasters of the war for the U.S.
While hanging on for help day after day in the cold waters, sharks appeared and attacked many of those who were hoping to be rescued. They beat the sharks by hitting them and doing whatever possible to get them away but for many, they were not so fortunate. And for those who survived, it was an ordeal which they never forgot, even to this day.
In the movie, the character of Quint was a survivor of the sinking of the Indianapolis and from that experience, he was single-minded in his hatred of sharks, thus the intensity of his willingness to pursue the great white shark in Jaws. If you haven’t seen the clip for some time, you can find it on line. It’s well worth watching again.
This past week, some 72 years after this catastrophe, the wreckage of the Indianapolis ship was found. Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, led a team that had been looking for this and the remains of other WWII disasters for years and based on new material, located it with some very sophisticated electronic gear some 18,000 feet below the surface on the floor of the North Pacific Ocean. Allen, whose father fought in WWII, has made it his mission to help bring closure to the many whose life ended so tragically during the war.
Capt. William Toti (Ret), spokesperson for the survivors of the USS Indianapolis said in a news release. “They all know this is now a war memorial, and are grateful for the respect and dignity that Paul Allen and his team have paid to one of the most tangible manifestations of the pain and sacrifice of our World War II veterans.”
I could not help but think about the lengths to which Allen has gone to search for the remains of the ship. Obviously, money was not an issue for him but what was the motivation behind the search? Yes, there’s a sense of curiosity and wanting to bring closure to this but there must be something more.
I believe that his mission has to do with the values for which men and women like these fought, knowing that there was a chance they may not come back, just like those Adath Israel members who sacrificed their lives and whose names are memorialized in the plaque in the lobby. And we find that meaning in this morning’s Torah portion of Shoftim in which we have the well- known injunction of the Torah (Deut. 16:20):
“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
What is justice? It goes beyond merely the strict boundaries of the law and those who administer it. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian of the twentieth century wrote, “Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God” (The Prophets, p. 276)
Heschel is teaching us that justice is not merely the letter of the law but what it represents and means to people who are oppressed, whose worth is devalued, who essence as a creature of God is diminished only because of the color of their skin, their religion, their ethnicity or their beliefs.
That’s what the Nazis attempted in WW II. Therefore, if we can honor the sacrifice of those who fought for justice in this world, as was done by finding the bodies of the sailors lost on the USS Indianapolis, then I would consider it to be a mitzvah of the highest order to honor them in death, even 72 years later.
And the challenge for us? It took place two weeks ago today in Charlottesville, VA, when white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others marched in a rally called to “Unite the Right” at which a torchlight march was held, reminiscent not of 2017 but 1939 with chants of “Jews will not replace us.” While there’s so many whose lives are at stake, we, as Jews, must not and cannot sit by. Fortunately, we don’t have to fight like our fathers and grandfathers did but we must be willing to speak out and do so forcefully. For if we do not, justice will be merely an empty concept, rather than the lofty principle of honoring God by showing honor and respect to each and every human being. Ken Yehi Ratzon – may it be God’s will. Amen.
Reflections on Charlottesville - Rabbi Adam Cutler, Beth Tzedec
I share with you this morning the words of Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia.
On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services…
Forty congregants were inside…
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.
When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups…
Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. What could I do if I were there? Fortunately, it was just talk – but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises…
At the end of the day, we felt we had no choice but to cancel a Havdalah service at a congregant’s home. It had been announced on a public Facebook page, and we were fearful that Nazi elements might be aware of the event. Again, we sought police protection – not a battalion of police, just a single officer – but we were told simply to cancel the event.
Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns – and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish – we were left to our own devices. The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.
And yet, in the midst of all that, other moments stand out for me, as well.
John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, took it upon himself to stand watch over the synagogue through services Friday evening and Saturday, along with our armed guard. He just felt he should.
We experienced wonderful turnout for services both Friday night and Saturday morning to observe Shabbat, including several non-Jews who said they came to show solidarity (though a number of congregants, particularly elderly ones, told me they were afraid to come to synagogue).
A frail, elderly woman approached me Saturday morning as I stood on the steps in front of our sanctuary, crying, to tell me that while she was Roman Catholic, she wanted to stay and watch over the synagogue with us. At one point, she asked, “Why do they hate you?” I had no answer to the question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.
At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.
And our wonderful rabbis stood on the front lines with other Charlottesville clergy, opposing hate…
We will get back to normal, also. We have two b’nai mitzvah coming up, and soon, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur will be upon us, too…
In some ways, we will come out of it stronger – just as tempering metals make them tougher and harder.
It is difficult to hear these words, to imagine, as I do, looking across Bathurst Street and seeing armed men staring at our synagogue. It is painful to consider a scenario in which we at Beth Tzedec would relocate our Torah scrolls, or advise you from the bimah as to which exit to take for fear of your wellbeing.
Forgive me if I sound alarmist. That is not my intention. Amidst a severe disappointment in the response by the American president, there nevertheless remain strong institutions and legal avenues for the protection of ethnic and religious groups, to safeguard society’s most vulnerable – both in the United States and here. Canada is also distinct from the United States with respect to gun laws and multiculturalism.
Yet, it is hard to hear the words of from this synagogue president. It is painful to watch the videos of young men chanting “Jews will not replace us” as they march through the University of Virginia campus. For those with firsthand experience with actual Nazis, the visual of Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, the far and alt-right and their allies marching with torches and saluting Hitler, is especially agonising.
Such rallies, even when they take place far from here, wreak havoc on the sense of place and at-home-ness that Jews here and in the United States have spent generations establishing.
As we continue to process what took place, it is worth noting three points made this week by CIJA – The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. First – The Security Situation in Canada is Unchanged. The National Community Security Program, a Jewish federation body, coordinates with law enforcement at all levels and confirms that there is “no intelligence whatsoever to indicate that the threat to our community has increased.” Second – Our Allies Far Outnumber Our Enemies. The rally only garnered a few hundred people, despite ample promotion. This rally was a leaking droplet, not a tidal wave. When the time comes, our community will join with others to show that we are far larger than any far right ideology. Third – We Must Build Upon Our Strengths to Defeat Hate. As individuals and a community, it is upon us to continue to strengthen democratic freedoms, pluralism, and equality. We must continue to define anti-Semitism, wherever it raises its ugly head, not as a Jewish problem, but a societal one.
CIJA’s guidance notwithstanding, the tragic, fatal, events in Charlottesville leave us with questions. Inevitably, we ask whether if we were in Virginia would we stay home, go to shul, or join in fray? And, if we were to counter-protest, what would we do? Do we stand in defiant silence? Do we take up arms? To borrow liberally from Hamlet, we ask ‘Whether ‘tis nobler to sit quietly and suffer the metaphoric slings and arrows of far-right racists or to take arms against a sea of hatred and by opposing perhaps to end them’.
We also wonder how tolerant a society should be of the intolerant. What are the limits of freedom of expression? As few behave more piously than the mores of their contemporaries, we may also reasonably ask where the line lies between simply not good by today’s standards and behaviour that warrants the removal of a monument… and who gets to make that decision? These are complicated questions, each deserving of careful study. That is for another time.
For now, I want simply to note that the Torah cannot be conceived as a document that is a tolerant of all behaviours. Indeed, it is this week’s parashah, Re’eh, in which we are instructed to rid the land of evil. The Israelites are instructed “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods… tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire”. Through the repeated study of our scripture we are made aware that not everyone shared the belief in one God. It is fact that is not going to be forgotten. However, monuments to those gods, the Torah teaches, cannot be tolerated. Their ongoing presence defiles the land and tempts the local inhabitants to destructive beliefs and behaviours.
I also note that among the slogans chanted last week was “blood and soil”, a 19th century German term idealizing a racially defined national body – blood – joined to a settled land – soil. This week, the Torah too, joins together blood and land/soil when it teaches concerning the slaying and eating of non-sacrificial animals “But you must not partake of the blood; you shall pour it out on the soil”.
For those rallying, identity is based purely on blood lines. Genealogy defines you. Racial purity reigns supreme. The innate, unthinking body is what makes you, you. Simply by virtue of your blood, do you gain access to the land.
The blood of the Torah however speaks to a different kind of identity, one based not family lineage, but on shared ritual. This blood points to a peoplehood of ideas, of practice, of concern for the sacred and communal commitment to care for the widow, orphan and stranger. Certainly, we Jews have a shared history and bloodlines linking us back to our ancestors, but we also warmly accept converts with no Judaic past. Yes, we often conceive of ourselves as a mishpachah in the usual sense of the word, but we understand that to be Jewish means something much more than having Jewish heritage.
The rallying cry of “blood and soil” means we share blood, we should therefore get the soil. This is the very opposite of the whole point of Deuteronomy. Family ties are never enough for God. To get the land, one has to follow God’s Torah. To get the land, the Israelite has to reject the idolatries of the past and embrace a covenant of belief and practice – a covenant that stands over and above kinship.
Identity, for the Jew, must be much more than the colour of one’s skin or the origin of one’s great-grandparents. The Torah teaches the perils that will befall the Jew when he fails to understand that. History teaches the perils that will befall the Jews and so many more when the world fails to understand that.
The images and reports emanating from Charlottesville have been difficult to accept. Indeed, as Jews, we now live in a reality of a triple threat of White Supremacists, the increasingly anti-Zionist and sadly anti-Semitic extreme left, and Islamist terrorism. I know that many of us today mourn the victims of Thursday’s brutal terrorist attack in Barcelona (as of writing the motives and identity of the attacker in Finland are unknown).
I hope that on this third Shabbat of comfort we can find solace in the words of Isaiah found in today’s Haftarah, “You shall be established through righteousness. You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear…. No weapon formed against you shall succeed, and every tongue that contends with you at law, you shall defeat. Such is the lot of the servants of the Lord.”
Charlottesville, Hatred and Moral Leadership -Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, Beth Tzedec
On a mid-August Shabbat morning, Alan Zimmerman stood outside his synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia with an armed guard. Forty worshippers were inside. “Three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street. Parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Seig Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue, [so we took] the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises…. This is 2017 in the United States of America.”
The “Unite the Right” rally brought together young men radicalised through the internet with groups such as Vanguard America (“An endless tide of incompatible foreigners floods this nation”), the Ku Klux Klan, Identity Evropa (immigrants should “re-migrate” out of the United States), the League of the South (“Southern white culture is distinct from, and in opposition to, the corrupt mainstream American culture.”); and the National Socialist Movement (deport Jews and “non-whites”). They carried Nazi and Confederate flags, gave Nazi salutes, shouted “blood and soil,” ”Jews will not replace us!” and “N*****r” at passers-by.
The controversy seemed to be about the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The statue was erected in the 1920s, during a period when America was excluding immigrants, lynching of blacks still occurred and income disparity was increasing. The contemporary controversy over the statue triggered overt expressions of anti-semitism because the organizers of the rally share four intersectional beliefs. They believe the “white race” is in danger; the United States was built by and for white people; minorities are taking over the country; and America should be “free from the influence of international corporations, led by a rootless group of international Jews, which place profit beyond the interests of our people, or any people.”
Growing up in Chicago, I was aware that members of my family had been killed during the Holocaust and occasionally I experienced anti-semitic bullying. As an adult, I protested against Soviet anti-semitism, but generally felt that such expressions of hatred were either in the past or “over there”. But more recent attacks on synagogues and community centres in North America, killings in schools and markets in France, have profoundly shaken me.
Witnessing the public display of Jew hatred by nationalist white supremacists, as well as the transformation of left-wing anti-colonialism into anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, have left me — and many other Jews — anxious and angry. More than 70 years after the Holocaust, it is as if a large rock in the garden was moved and all the creepy-crawlies have emerged from beneath the stone. Jews are still the religious group most targeted by in both Canada and the United States.
Haters have always been part of the American political landscape. But over the past century, a gradual effort succeeded in isolating them from civic life. William Buckley Jr., who conceptualised the ideological framework for conservative ideology in the second half of the 20th century, rejected his father’s anti-semitism and the extremism of the John Birch Society. He exiled Jew haters from the movement he sought to develop. He understood that when white nativists and anti-semites have a place in the sun they become dangerous.
Marshall Berman chose a phrase from Marx and Engels for the title of his book about the changes wrought by modern technology and commerce: All that is solid melts into air. The dislocations initially described in the 19th century led to totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, Holocaust and Gulag, and two world wars.
In our century, we are experiencing the “future shock” foreseen by Alvin Toffler, when individuals and groups perceive “too much change in too short a period of time.” Cultural and identity boundaries once imagined as fixed are now more fluid. Historical discourse and interpretations once accepted as given are in flux. Changing demographics and technological disruption have left many people with what David Brooks describes as “a bewildering freedom, without institutions to trust, unattached to compelling religions and sources of meaning, uncertain about their own lives, with an unnamable dread about the future.” Rather than the Age of Aquarius, we have entered the Age of Anxiety.
During the recent American election campaign, Donald J. Trump fed the fear of an anxious nation. His election gave haters a place in the sun with permission to enter the public square. This summer, he minimised the actions of those who set the table for conflict by establishing a false equivalency between white supremacists and those who came to protest their hate. Even if some disruption also came from the counter-protesters, they did not initiate the rally. They did not shout or display Nazi salutes. They did not march under Nazi and Confederate flags.
What can we do? How should we face the violent words and deeds of last weekend? Two rabbis who survived the Holocaust offer suggestions on ways forward.
First, stand with dignity and self-respect. For almost twenty-five years at Beth Tzedec, we have read an adaptation of a prayer composed by the late Rabbi Leo Baeck to introduce our Kol Nidre service. He wrote these words in 1935, to be read aloud in German synagogues on the sacred night of Yom Kippur. The Nazi regime prohibited its distribution and arrested Rabbi Baeck, yet his words still resonate:
We express our abhorrence of the slander of our faith and its expressions. We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world respect for the Human made in the image of God? Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? It sprang from our prophets, and continues to grow in our Judaism. Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity. We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us.
Blacks and Jews, First Nations and Muslim immigrants have rich spiritual histories and should bring their legacies to Canadian life with pride.
Second: Demonstrate moral principle. In 1963, responding to an invitation from President Kennedy to discuss religion and race, my teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sent a telegram to him:
Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
Leaders must model righteous action.
Local and national leaders can be a counter-choir to the solo of President Trump. It was heartening to hear presidents George H. W. and George W. Bush unequivocally state, “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms.” Senators and representatives, governors and mayors, business leaders and creative figures expressed sentiments similar to those written in 1790 by George Washington, that the Government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” In the face of those who would exclude from Canadian life, it was reassuring to hear premiers and parliamentarians articulate the importance of inclusion.
Third: When leaders do speak up for an inclusive Canada or America, let them know of your support. Stand with them. As the late Fred Rogers once said, “Be among the healers” not the haters. Encourage the best of us.
I learned to respond to anti-semitism and racism with strong and dignified speech. I learned to respond to racism with personal engagement and forceful action. I learned to respond to hatred with faith, not fear, to gradually forge a more respectful and inclusive society. In the 21st century, we must continue to teach our children “when they sit in their homes and go on their ways, when they lie down and when they rise up” to love God and to respect those created in the divine image. Then our words and deeds will prevail.
At this time of anxiety, on the cusp of the New Year, Josette and I hope that 5778 will bring you the blessings of good health, much love and the moral commitment to walk toward peace.
Permission to Hate Hate – Rabbi Jordan Helfman, Holy Blossom Temple
The statues are falling. One after another, the statues are being pulled down, and with them falls the ideology. As each bronze face tumbles earthward, the white, slave-owning face that inspired it suffers a sense of vertigo. As each cast piece of anchored metal is set free from its base, that confederate likeness will experience more freedom than many who entered North America from Africa did their whole lives. As it is knocked from its pedestal, it inspires fear, regret, and pain over a destroyed idea of the past.
For if anything is true, this week, we learned that our sacred ideas of history in America now lie shattered at our feet. If anything is true, this week, we learned that when idols fall, elements of history we once thought were dead – unable to rise again – appear, they appear in the billowing dust as the statues hit the ground.
In the dust, we see faces, ghosts of history – Nazis, gathering for a rally, arm outstretched, Klansmen standing in their hoods. In the dust, we see the faces of our fellow Jews, taking Torahs out of the ark, as they leave through the back door, for armed men are standing at the front, threatening just by their presence and the presence of their machine guns. In the dust we see the faces, 84 years ago this week here in Toronto – of fists swinging through the crowd, aiming at Jewish and Italian heads at Christie Pits.
And as the dust clears, it clears not because there is some great leader who chooses right over wrong or good over evil. The dust clears simply because the rally has ended, the statue is down. But the ghosts which rose still walk, marching again today, emboldened by the life breathed into them by this episode, from the darkness into the daylight.
See, this day set before you בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה: a blessing and a curse. Blessing if you obey the commandments of the Eternal – and curse if you do not obey the commandments, but instead roam and follow other gods.
These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land, as long as you live on earth:
You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree.
Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from the site. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28,12:1-3)
Judaism aligns very well with liberalism – but Jewish values are not always liberal values. There are moments when Judaism has something to teach liberalism.
I am an American – and I have friends who have posted on their walls decrying hate on both sides – sharing videos of calm neo-Nazi protesters walking with angry, hateful liberals and Jews screaming hate at them.
The message is clear: you may have thought that the neo-nazis and the klan members would be the hateful ones- but no. No, the liberals – those that preach love towards gays and lesbians- love towards transgender individuals the tree huggers. You thought they were so kind – such good people – well let’s show you how much they hate.
Because there are very fine people on both sides of the line.
And nobody is saying it, but while one group may have been bad, the other group was violent.
And nobody should be attacked for their views – we all have a right to believe what we want.
Except when we don’t.
These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land, as long as you live on earth: Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from the site. (Deut. 12:1,3)
Nazis, Yemach Shemam, and their racist hateful ideas deserve to have their names obliterated.
The Klan, those that align themselves with a Christianity which breeds hate of individuals based on skin colour – don’t deserve to have their names mentioned in the annuls of history.
The terrorist who drove his car into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer, the 32 year old woman was standing up for her convictions, and the state troopers, his name should not be mentioned.
While we are all tempted to say that openness should rule – I want to read you selections from Isaiah Berlin, the thinker behind Value Pluralism – which often is considered part of our liberal society, when he writes about Nazis:
I find Nazi values detestable, but I can understand how, given enough misinformation, enough false belief about reality, one could come to believe that they are the only salvation. Of course they have to be fought, by war if need be, but I do not regard the Nazis, as some people do, as literally pathological or insane, only as wickedly wrong, totally misguided about the facts, for example in believing that some beings are subhuman, or that race is central, or that Nordic races alone are truly creative, and so forth. I see how, with enough false education, enough widespread illusion and error, men can, while remaining men, believe this and commit the most unspeakable crimes.
That is that some people are not insane – they are worse: hateful and evil.
And more importantly – no – we do not have to listen quietly to their discourse.
In 1994, Berlin wrote this in a speech accepting an honourary doctorate at the University of Toronto:
Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep…Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance.
See, this day set before you בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה: a blessing and a curse. Blessing if you obey the commandments of the Eternal – and curse if you do not obey the commandments, but instead roam and follow other gods. (Deut. 11:26-28)
The medieval commentator Sforno teaches thus, “The choice between blessing and curse does not permit of a compromise. There are two opposites between which one must choose.”
There are not good people on both sides. There is no question – no moral ambiguity. If your modern liberal values confuse you and lead you to question your hate for racists – for white supremacists. If your liberal values can find no place to fight and be intolerant against intolerance, hate against haters, angry at these angry oppressors – then let the Torah teach you.
Let Judaism provide you with this lesson: We must tear down their alters, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.
And when they rise to protest – it is OK to be upset at their presence – because their presence, armed and threatening, threatens our very existence. Because we are Jews.
But we are Jews – and though we are not used to this language today – here in North America – we know this was the language our ancestors heard in Europe. That this was the language which pushed us out of Iraq and much of the Middle East. That the choice is clear – we must choose, sometimes to be OK with our hate. We’re not the turn-the-other cheek type.
Is this a call for violence? God forbid it would come to that, and Canada would have to intervene in American politics to save our people or any people. God forbid.
But we do not have to be silent when friends and acquaintances question our outrage. We do not have to be apologetic in our rhetoric and our use of free speech. No – we are not perfect liberals, holding all values as equal – we are Jews, and we choose blessing over curse.
We choose to obey the commandment, to smash the idols with our anger, to work in every corner of this world to uproot the ideas behind those images.
We choose to share our upset, to let others know that we are ok with hating those who prey on the weak and the poor – the systemically disadvantaged.
We are Jews, and on this Shabbat, as much as it makes our liberal selves uncomfortable, we know that sometimes, we must pull down pillars so that people – living, breathing, wonderfully complex people – can breath freely as they walk on the plazas where they one stood.
 New York Review of Books, Vol. XLV, Number 8 (1998). https://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/vl/notes/berlin.html
Rabbi Sean Gorman, Pride of Israel
The events of the past week, as well as of recent weeks, have been most disconcerting. I have been to Charlottesville many times, going all the way back to my pre-teen years. To see that town so torn apart is personally quite distressing. We look across the ocean to Barcelona. We saw what happened there. Less reported was that while this was a major tourist area, the attack took place right outside a kosher restaurant. At least indirectly, we were targets. One need only look back to the Hyper-Cachere in Paris, or the attack on the rabbi and his family in Toulouse, to realize that it is not the first time.
I keep track of what is going on in the US. The division between the right and the left is horrific, and bringing out the worst in everyone. What is worse though is that neither group is our friend. The right wingers who marched in Charlottesville marched under a flag all too familiar to the Jewish community, and it was not the Stars and Stripes. They yelled that the Jews would never replace them.
They are not our people.
The ones on the left…often supportive of the BDS nonsense that is going on. Their ilk got shown for what it was in Chicago this year, not once, but twice. Please forgive my language here. Jewish groups were asked to leave the Dykewalk during Chicago’s Pride celebrations, because the area was pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist. After some protest, it was determined that the Magen David desired by some of the women who wanted to walk in the Slutwalk was a religious symbol and not a nationalist symbol. Thus it was kosher. That did not prevent the crowd there from starting to chant “from the river to the sea…”
They are not our friends either.
I read an article yesterday by Peter Beinart, also, frankly, not a friend. The article was in the Atlantic, a generally credible magazine. The article calls out the far left for its incitement of violence. It points out just this year riots to shut down two conservative speakers at Berkeley, an attack on a professor in Vermont, and punching Richard Spencer, a person we should all condemn, and calling it “kinetic beauty.” Sorry folks…it was an assault, plain and simple. We may correctly not like the recipient of the punch, but it was an assault. It should not be glorified in any way.
And we look then at these events. ISIL made it a point to attack Jews. The alt-right in Virginia made it a point to attack Jews. The left in Chicago made it a point to attack Jews. Some years back, I read an article that warned that Jews are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. I tried to find the article for assistance in writing this sermon. I was unable. I do not remember exactly when it was, and there were SO MANY articles on this very subject.
Yes, my friends, I am nervous, for the first time in my life. I am nervous as an American, as I watch the country that birthed me, raised me, and educated me, tear itself asunder. I am nervous as a Jew, as I believe that we are at least threatened, if not being actively assaulted, from three different sides.
Our parashah tells us today: lo titgod’du. It translates as not being allowed to gash ourselves. The rabbis play on the word titdod’du, telling us not to make agudot. Do not make factions. We are supposed to stand as a community. We are supposed to stand together. Taking it a step further, factionalizing leads directly to the extremism that we have seen recently.
So I finish with those words. Lo titgod’du. Do not make factions. Let us remember who we are, as individual Jews, and as a community. Let us remember that those who hate are both on the right and on the left. Neither one is our friend. Let us remember to stay together and focused as a Jewish community.
Many congregations have added a couple of words onto Oseh Shalom. They will add in the words v’al kol yoshvei tevel, and on all humanity. While I generally do not make that change, I close my sermon with those words. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru amen…..
Rabbi Michal Shekel, delivered at Temple Sinai
I had hoped to talk about astronomy today. These are the “dog days of summer,” a phrase used in relation to the “dog star,” Sirius. We’ve had a lunar eclipse recently; last week was the Perseid meteor shower, and Monday is the solar eclipse, though we will only experience a partial eclipse. For the full effect you need to be south of the border. Astronomy will have to wait for another today. Now we are dealing with a different type of eclipse.
Charlottesville. That’s all you need to say. Last Saturday’s march predictably ended in violence, with one murdered and nineteen injured, and two police officers dying in a helicopter crash.
You probably heard of Shabbat services at our sister congregation Beth Israel near the heart of the “rally.” The synagogue had to hire armed security guards when police could not provide protection. Three men dressed in fatigues and carrying semi-automatic rifles stationed themselves menacingly across the street from the shul and Nazis marched by yelling anti-Semitic slurs.
Yet there were others such as John Aguilar, a thirty year veteran of the US Navy, who came and stood with the security guards to protect the synagogue.
Today, White Supremacists and neo-Nazis plan marches in more cities in the US.
Heather Heyer, who was murdered in Charlottesville, was memorialized a few days ago. Her mother exhorted people to “channel their anger into righteous action.”
On Monday, August 28, what has been called a “1000 Minister March” will take place in Washington, DC. A “March for Racial Justice” is planned for Washington, DC on Saturday, September 30. That happens to be Yom Kippur which has upset many Jews who would otherwise be part of the march. The organizers have apologized to Jewish supports, saying the date was chosen because that is date of the 1919 Elaine, Arkansas race riot in which white mobs killed dozens of African-Americans.
If the US is in the path of a total eclipse, here in Canada we are experiencing a partial eclipse. There are rumours of alt-right rallies planned in Vancouver & Toronto. We know that Canada has not been immune to hatred and that the GTA for many years was a center of Holocaust Denial leadership.
Hundreds of migrants are streaming over the Quebec border crossing daily. There have been some 7000 since Canada Day. As temporary permits to stay in US are close to running out many refugees, mainly from Haiti are arriving on our doorstep. Now anti-refugee murmurs are being heard in Quebec, as well as confirmation that a few Canadians from Quebec were present at the Charlottesville “rally.”
A solar eclipse brings behavioral changes in animals. In the daylight darkness of moral eclipse the Nazis and White Supremacists come out into the open. Their cause is not an astronomical phenomenon; it is a moral disease.
Fascism is a malignant growth that is just waiting for signs of weakness in society’s moral immune system. We must be vigilant about our moral health but we are strong and healthy and we have the means to fight this disease.
I wish to share two items with you; call them vitamins to boost our immune system. The first is an item I used to read to my congregation in the US on Independence day. It is a letter that is exactly 227 years and one day old, dated August 18, 1790. It was written by president George Washington to the congregation of the Touro synagogue the oldest synagogue in the US. This is just a short excerpt:
“If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people. …
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. …”
So wrote Geo Washington: Words that should be memorized by every public servant in Washington
because elected officials need to remember they serve the public and have been entrusted with responsibility of leadership.
These are words we can also take to heart in Canada and in all democracies throughout the world that are feeling the aches and pains of fascists attacking the body politic.
The second item I would like to share is a commentary brought to my attention by my colleague Rabbi Alex Kress.
Our parashah warns us as follows about following false prophets:
Deut 13:5 – Follow none but Adonai your God, and revere none but God; observe God’s commandments alone, and heed only God’s orders; worship none but God, and hold fast to God.
Commenting on this Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Gur points out this same warning appears in last week’s parashah. The only difference is that last week it was in the singular and this week it is in the plural. Why is it repeated in the plural, he asks?
“The reason is that in normal times, each person can be God-fearing by himself, within his own home; at a time of disturbances, though, when heresy and anarchy prevail in the world, the power of the individual is insignificant, and there is a need for the pious to combine and to form a mighty force which will defend Judaism against its detractors. Therefore, here, where the Torah talks of false prophets and others who preach against Judaism, it repeats the same sentiments in the plural form to indicate the need for the God-fearing to unite against those who would destroy Judaism.”
Parashat Re’eh is about the establishment of a civil society. For 40 yrs we were in the wilderness being groomed for this task. Now, at the edge of the Promised Land, we are told that things are going to be different:
Deut 12:8 -9 You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases, because you have not yet come to the allotted haven that Adonai your God is giving you.
When we are settled in the land God gives us, the bar is raised behaviorally, ethically and morally. Not only is the land a gift but the society planted within its soil is a gift as well, a priceless, precious, fragile entity, which needs constant care if it is to survive and the best moral nutrition if it is to thrive. It is our collective responsibility to provide such care.
Parashat Re’eh can be a model for societies outside the land of Israel. Any nation that yearns to reach its democratic potential requires its inhabitants’ utmost attention, whether citizen or resident, so that the aches and pains of ethical malaise do not turn into a full-blown moral infection.
Recovery from a cold takes time, from a flu longer, and from a malignancy, well, that can be a mortal battle. Let’s tackle this illness while it is in its early stages. This requires effort and commitment. In the Western world, though we are in good health, there are signs of a developing infection that need to be addressed.
We need to take to heart the teaching of Avraham of Ger on false prophecy. People of goodwill, standing together, working together can provide the vaccine that is moral health.
Next week, as we usher in the month of Elul, the daily shofar blast will exhort us to fulfill our moral potential not only in the spiritual realm but in the daily toil of civil society.
And so, I leave you with a prayer from a civil source, turning again to George Washington, who saw his country as the new Promised Land. These words are as meaningful today as they were two centuries ago, as relevant in Canada as in the US:
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Ken yehi ratson.