The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Rosh Hashanah Drashah – September 30 2019

A year ago at this time, the world felt very different to American Jews. As we sat here last Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway had not yet happened. Congregations like ours did not yet feel the need to hire armed guards. Now, a year later, most of them – including ours – do have armed guards. Incidentally, if you didn’t notice our guard on your way in, and are wondering why, it’s because he doesn’t wear a uniform and he keeps his weapon concealed. The idea is that, just as he was not obvious to you, he would not be obvious to an intruder either.

Last Rosh Hashanah, congregations like ours didn’t feel the need to devote a lot of thought and energy to matters like this. A lot has changed. The synagogue attacks – and the more general resurgence of anti-Jewish hate in certain corners of America – have reawakened old, dormant insecurities in us. We take our safety just a little less for granted than we did a year ago.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma said: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone” – and we might add, from everything. We Jews like to feel that everything that we encounter in this world has the potential to become a text, a piece of Torah, that everything that we experience – if we apply our minds and hearts to it – can teach us to be better Jews, and better human beings.

So the question that I want to ask today is: How can we turn the tragedies of the past year, the deep grief and heightened insecurity that we feel this Rosh Hashanah, into Torah?  How can we use it to make ourselves better?

Some people say that recognizing the reality of anti-semitism can turn us into better Jews if we adopt a Torah of fear. You’ve probably heard various versions of that idea over the years. It used to be commonplace. A little anti-semitism is good for the Jewish people. We really shouldn’t want the larger world to be too nice to us because, when it is, it is too easy for us to assimilate. A little bit of fear makes us better Jews in that it forces us to stick together. It reminds us that, at the end of the day, the only people that we can really count on are each other, that the larger world is not as welcoming to us as we might like to think. In that way anti-semitism re-enforces our identity.

So tragedy, those people argue, can be a kind of Torah. If the terrible events of the past year remind us to be afraid, and if our fear makes us stick together, then grief and loss can make us better Jews.

I have always found that idea hard to stomach – for a lot of reasons. It’s hard for me to understand how fear could ever make us better Jews, or better anything. Even if we put aside our higher principles and set the bar extremely low – even if we assume that being good Jews means nothing more than sticking together, for any reason at all – it is hard for me to understand how fear, on its own, will actually accomplish that.

How exactly do those people we think that fear will keep us together? What it is more likely to do, it seems to me, is cause us to split up, to drift apart, to disappear into the background, to hide. Standing together makes us a bigger target, after all. If we make fear what we are all about, then aren’t we encouraging ourselves and one another to keep a low profile, to spread out, to not stand together?

So even on its own terms, the claim that fear will make us better Jews by forcing us to rely on each other seems misguided. If we respond to Pittsburgh and Poway by stoking anxiety, in the hope that somehow that will reinforce our Jewish identity, I think it’s more likely to have the opposite effect.

And that’s just at a coldly practical level. If we think about our values, about what we believe Judaism ought to be – what we as Jews ought to aspire to – then that strategy sounds even worse. Imagine what a Judaism that is all about fear would be like. Imagine what it would feel like to be Jews if our Judaism were all about fear.  Instead of being joyful and expansive and generous and affirming, our Judaism would be sour and small and distrustful and unhospitable. It would offer nothing to the larger world – or even to us, for that matter. It would just make us, and everyone around us, bitter. Why would we want to cultivate a Judaism like that, a Judaism that aspires to nothing more than anxious solidarity? Would that kind of Judaism be worth having at all?

So, to those who say that the Torah of Pittsburgh and the Torah of Poway is that we ought to be afraid, because fear will make us better Jews, I say: No thank you. Maybe a little bit of fear will make us smarter about looking out for ourselves. I get that. But it’s not going to make us better Jews, or better anything. Fear can sometimes make us smarter, though the truth is that it doesn’t always even do that. Let’s say, at its best, fear can make us smarter.

But it never makes us better. So those voices in the Jewish world who try to churn up fear in the hope that it will counteract assimilation are not doing us – or Judaism – any favors. Even if they are successful, they will just degrade the very thing that they are trying to strengthen.

Some people argue that we ought to use the tragedies of the past year in a different way to make ourselves better. They argue that anti-semitism can spur us to be better Jews if we cultivate, not fear, but defiance. We should respond to the synagogue attacks, they say, not by stoking fear, but by cultivating spite. If the people who attack us hate everything Jewish, they argue, we should respond by being more Jewish than we would have been otherwise. Let’s do the opposite of what the haters want, just to ruin their day. If we respond to them in that way, they argue, then we can turn the terrible events of the past year into a kind of Torah, into something that motivates us to be better Jews.

A few weeks ago, I read an essay in the Jewish News by a Rabbi Joshua Runyan, who argued that we should do exactly that. He wrote: “The only real and effective response to anti-semitism is Jewish pride, refusing to bend, to apologize or to hide. Where the anti-semite seeks to render synagogues empty, we should pack them full of worshippers.” His implication is that anti-semitism can be our friend – it can make us better Jews – if it motivates us to do the opposite of what the anti-semites want. Let’s answer hatred with spite. Let’s be better Jews just to get back at those who hate us. Let’s use their hate to fill our synagogues for us.  Isn’t that the best revenge? – to turn their hatred into Torah?

 But, again, it’s hard for me to see how that would actually work. First of all, is it really possible to build a vibrant Judaism on a foundation of spite, on defiance of those who hate us? Even if we thought that was a good idea, is that something you can actually do? Think about what Rabbi Runyon was really proposing, and ask yourself if it is really a compelling message. Would it motivate you to be more Jewish?

Let me restate his argument, as best as I can understand it: “There are people out there who hate us. Therefore – even if for no other reason – you should make Shabbos just to spite them. You should go to shul just to defy them. There are people out there want to kill us. Therefore – and for no other reason – you should light candles and say kiddush just to get back at them. Let’s all go to shul because it is the best revenge against anti-semitism.”

But is it really? Even if we really, really wanted to get back at those who hate us, how exactly is going to shul more often – or lighting candles or making Shabbos – going to accomplish that?

If we think that being better Jews will strike a blow against anti-semitism, then we don’t understand what anti-semitism is, and what anti-semites really want. It’s not the Jewish religion in particular that they want to destroy, but Jewish people, Jewish bodies. When they attack synagogues, it’s not because they hope that we will stop davening. It’s not because they want us to abandon our faith. It’s because they want to hurt Jewish people, and synagogues are where Jewish people happen to be. They are not trying to destroy our faith. They are trying to destroy us. They really don’t care whether we daven more or less, whether we make Shabbos or not, whether we are good Jews or not. They hate us equally, either way. So exactly how will our becoming better Jews upset them? How can being better Jews be an act of defiance if the people that we are supposedly defying don’t care one way or the other?

The notion that we can motivate ourselves to be better Jews by cultivating defiance, that we can strengthen Judaism by building it on a foundation of revenge, at a very practical level, doesn’t make any sense. If anti-semites don’t care how how many mitzvot we perform, then our doing more mitzvot is not going to upset them in the least. So how exactly is defiance of the anti-semites going to fill our synagogues?

And that’s assuming that we would want it to. The truth is that, not only will defiance not work as motivation to be better Jews, but we should not even want it to work. Because if it did work, it would turn our Judaism into something truly ugly.

Imagine what our synagogues would feel like if they were filled with people who were there for no reason except to defy the anti-semites. Imagine if the energy in our synagogues were mainly negative, spiteful energy, if people were there for no reason but revenge. Would you want to be there in that case? Would you find that kind of synagogue, a place full of that kind of negative energy, a place to nourish your soul, a place to grow in your relationship to Torah and to God?

Even if we could build Jewish life on spite – which we can’t – we shouldn’t want to, because it would destroy everything that makes Judaism worth having, that makes it worth the sacrifice. It would turn our faith – a faith of openness and generosity and love – into something small and angry and vindictive. Who would we be spiting then?

So we are back where we started, with the question that Ben Zoma’s teaching raised for us. In this time when all of us are feeling shaken, is there a way to use that feeling of shakenness as a spur to growth? Is there a way to turn our grief, our sense of vulnerability into something positive, something that can make us better? If using it to stoke our fears is not the answer, and if using it to nurse a sense of spite is not the answer either, then what is the answer?

I believe that there is a way in which our heightened sense of vulnerability this year can help us to grow. There is a certain Torah that we can learn from it. It is not a Torah of fear, or a Torah of defiance. It is a Torah of empathy and solidarity with other people who are victims of bigotry in this world. What the attacks on our people in this past year teach us is that our fate is tied up with the fate of other groups that are marginal and vulnerable – in fact more marginal and vulnerable than we are – and that we will never be entirely at home in this country until they are too. Our grief this year can spur us to fight to make others, as well as ourselves, more secure.

When we are threatened, we often feel that we are alone. The holocaust, and the centuries of demonization that we suffered in medieval Europe, have taught us to think of anti-semitism as a unique pathology, different from any other form of hatred. And in many ways it is. But it is also true that anti-semitism is, and always has been deeply intertwined with other kinds of bigotry.

Think back to 2017, when the Nazis, the Klan, and their various white-nationalist allies rioted in Charlottesville Virginia.  On the surface, they were rioting about race. The city of Charlottesville was planning to remove some neo-confederate memorials that had been built during the Jim Crow era, symbols of white supremacy, and the Nazis and the Klan wanted the city to keep those symbols in place. The whole thing seemed to be about racial equality, about the status of African Americans in this country, and which side of that question one was on. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, we heard the Nazis and the Klansmen chanting: “Jews will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” And some of us wondered, how did this suddenly become about us? How did this drama about the legacy of Jim Crow suddenly become focused on Jews?

To understand why, we need to know that, in the ideology of white supremacy – an ideology of hatred toward African Americans and non-white people in general – anti-semitism also plays a central role. When they shouted “Jews will not replace us,” they were giving voice to a conspiracy theory at the very heart of the white nationalist movement – the myth of the Great Replacement. That is the belief that people of color are being brought here for the express purpose of destroying and replacing white civilization. The gradual demographic shift that is occurring in this country, and in Northern Europe as well – the slow growth of the non-white population as a percentage of the total population, is – in the minds of white nationalists, a demonic plot. And who is at the heart of that evil plot to replace white civilization. Who is bringing all those people of color here with the intent of destroying white Christian culture? It’s the Jews. We are the masterminds behind that great conspiracy, they believe. That is why they shouted “Jews will not replace us.”

From what we know, it appears that that is also why Robert Bowers targeted the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall – because there was a prayer group holding a service in that building, Congregation Dor Hadash, which was known for its work helping refugees. In Bowers’ mind, that confirmed that Jews are masterminding the conspiracy against white America.

The point is that anti-semitism does not stand alone. It is a pathology that is deeply intertwined with other pathologies, other forms of bigotry – bigotry against African Americans, against Latinos, against Muslim Americans, and so on. Racism and xenophobia – even when it seems to be directed at others – almost always has an element of anti-semitism mixed in with it. So, if we want to fight back against anti-semitism, we have to fight those other kinds of bigotry as well. And we must never, ever imagine, as some of us do, that we can defend ourselves by attacking other minorities – for instance, by responding to the anti-semitism of particular Muslims by indulging in a general Islamophobia – because, when we support any kind of bigotry, we are supporting bigotry against ourselves as well.

We have prospered in this country, more than any other minority group.  But our prosperity and our security are not sustainable in isolation. They are sustainable only if America continues to be a place that is welcoming and open to all kinds of people. We can never be fully secure in this country until everyone is secure. Our fate is deeply intertwined with the fate of other minorities, who have much less power and prestige than we have. We stand or fall with them. That is the lesson that we have re-learned in the last year.

If we take that lesson to heart, it can make us better – not just safer, but better – and not just better Americans, but better Jews as well. It can motivate us, at a very practical level, to do what we, as Jews, ought to be doing anyway. We ought to be caring for the vulnerable and the powerless, not just because we help ourselves in the process, but because doing so is an expression of our most basic spiritual principle, the principle that we state in the first words of the Sh’ma, our declaration of God’s oneness. If God is one, then we must work to make humanity one as well. We honor God’s oneness by struggling to knit together the torn fabric of humanity.

Standing up for others who are victims of hate is not just an affirmation of our universalistic principles, but also of our deepest collective memories. It is a way of being true to our particular history. The Torah teaches us that we must protect and defend the stranger because we know the heart of the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. To take the side of the vulnerable is to be loyal to our people’s birth narrative, to the story that makes us who we are. In that sense too, it makes us better Jews.

If we turn our grief, our sense of vulnerability this year into a renewed commitment to stand up for all vulnerable people, for all outsiders in American society, then our pain has the potential to make us better. If we use our insecurity as a spur to struggle to make others more secure, then we can turn our tragedy into Torah.

That Torah is at the heart of what this day is all about. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday that pulls our people together. We feel a deep need on this day to stand in solidarity with other Jews. But the truth is that Rosh Hashanah is not exclusively about us at all. Perhaps more than any other holiday of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashanah points us outward, toward our duties to humanity as a whole. It does so in its universalistic message, and it does so also by reminding us of what makes our particular people unique, what binds us to each other.

The universalistic message of Rosh Hashanah is rooted in the story that it commemorates. It commemorates the creation of the world, the whole world, and it looks forward to the day when all humanity will understand that we are children of the same God – when, in the words of the prophet Zekhariah, God will be one and God’s name one.  In the core blessing of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, at the center of the musaf service, we speak of God as Melekh al kol ha-aretz, sovereign over all the world. The key word is “all,” because a king who is king over only part of his realm is not a king at all. Until all of humanity recognizes that there is one God, and that therefore all people are brothers and sisters, God is not truly sovereign. In that universal message, Rosh Hashanah points us toward the work of bringing oneness to all of humanity, and in that way making God one.

At the same time, Rosh Hashanah points us outward in the way that it draws us inward, as a community, to one another. In reawakening our solidarity with other Jews, it reminds us of what we have in common, the story that we share, a story that imposes on us a special responsibility to care for the vulnerable and the powerless, those who are today what we once were.

We have been shaken in the past year by deep grief, by a sense of insecurity that feels new, and at the same time terribly familiar. But we can use that grief and insecurity to make ourselves better. If Pittsburgh and Poway remind us that our fate is deeply intertwined with the fate of others who are much more vulnerable than we are, who don’t have armed guards to protect them or political power to back them up, then we can turn the tragedies of the past year into a powerful kind of teaching. We can use them as a spur to do the work that we, as a community of Torah, ought to be doing just because of who we are, the work of bringing greater oneness to God’s world. May that work bring meaning to our lives, and healing to our souls, in the coming year.