Monday, January 16, 2023

Hate Will Fade and Hope Will Shine - Keynote Address on Uniting Against Hate, Antisemitism and Islamophobia for AC NAACP MLK Day Service

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Beth Israel, Northfield NJ
January 16, 2023

        Thank you, all.  Friends, I am honored to be with you on this important occasion.  Here I am, a Jewish clergyman, giving remarks in a Christian church, invited to do so by a Muslim community leader.  In this, alone, I believe we can find a hint of hope.  And this, indeed, this engagement with one another, this knowing of one another is a theme to which I will return.

          But in gathering here, we cannot avoid or evade the shadow of history, nor the need for new deeds.  St. James AME is, as most of you know, the oldest African American church in Atlantic City.  It was founded at approximately the same time as my synagogue, Beth Israel, whose first location was in the city.  The esteemed pastor of this congregation, Reverend Dr. James Coaxum III, like me, comes to this historic house of worship from “away,” but has become part of the heart of this community.

          But I am reminded, every time I hear the term AME, and for all the joy and praise and service this denomination provides, of why there is an “A” in the name at all.  A tale with local roots, a Philadelphia story, no doctrinal differences marked the worshippers in the front row from those sent to sit in a separate section.  Methodists all, Sunday morning should have been a time of unity in creed.  The divide was but skin-deep, but it cut to the heart, a division based on race and color alone.  It is a glorious story  of devotion and triumph which followed – but in a better world this might have been a tale we would not have needed to tell.


          Out of real lives does our story unfold, and the task yet before us emerge.

          At our synagogue this past Friday night, we honored this weekend with a service in memory of Dr. King.  Our liturgy for the evening opened with the following words: “Dr. King taught --- and we believe – that hate will fade and hope will shine as we grow more, and as we know more.  Education is the key to a better tomorrow.”

          But perhaps I should elaborate.  I need to be clear here.  Education involves… experience.  Experience, exposure, learning your own roots but being open to, getting to really know those who are different.  Pride, without prejudice.


          We open with a tale of woe, and a response of welcome.  It is August 5, 2012.  At the gurdwara, the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, members of the community, men, women and children, gather together in the kitchen in preparation for langar, a communal meal offered to all free of charge, regardless of religion, caste, gender, economic status, or ethnicity.

          Into this peaceful setting comes Wade Michael Page, an army veteran and white supremacist - a noxious brew, a toxic and combustible combination which should never come together.  He is armed with a 9mm Springfield XD semi-automatic pistol, legally purchased despite over a decade of activism as a neo-Nazi.  Six members of the Sikh community were killed immediately.  A seventh died later.  Many more were injured.

          The Sikh faith advocates for equality, social justice, service to humanity, and tolerance for other religions.  It is a tradition that originates in the Punjab region of India.  It is an independent tradition.  Many of its first followers were converts from Hinduism and Islam.  But in the rancid resentment, the ignorant and hate-filled venom and spite that is the white supremacist movement today they are often wrongly and simply seen… as Muslims.

          Far from Wisconsin, in the tranquil suburban neighborhood of North Potomac, Maryland, just around the corner from my home at the time, stands the Guru Gabind Sikh Foundation.  I had passed by that building every day for the 12 years I had lived in the area until then.  But it took this event…   It took this tragedy…  Days after the violence, and 800 miles away, together with the Washington Board of Rabbis and the Interfaith Conference of Greater Washington, my wife and I entered those doors for the first time.

          I remember the lines of neighbors who joined us, taking our shoes off and the entrance, sitting on the floor, being served a vegetarian meal prepared by the community – everyone was so solicitous to make sure it was not too peppery-hot for all these Westerners, that they apparently prepared the food that day without many of the customary spices.

          As those of who heard me speak at the Thanksgiving service know, or even, well, you can kind of tell that I am a bit interested in food and traditions around food.  But that day, at that moment, all I could think about was to wonder why it had to take blood spilled for me to walk through an open door.

          Hate still lives around us.  It stinks, it stains our American past and stalks our communal life.

          But there is also hope.  At our very best there are ways in which this country models the building of bridges in ways which may be hard to happen elsewhere.

          It is the spring of 1996.  I have the honor of giving the benediction at a citizenship naturalization ceremony in Erie, Pennsylvania.  I look out at the assembled audience and behold a tapestry of humanity.  There, before me, were Soviet Jews and African animists and Cambodian Buddhists and Middle Eastern Muslims, new Americans all.  Christians were, I believe, a minority in the room that day – which made me even less comfortable with the specific, single-faith oriented, particularistic prayer offered as an invocation by the Lutheran Bishop… but the best and inclusive and most respectful language for worship in what is meant to be an interfaith setting is a topic for another occasion.  I offered my words, meant to cast as wide a net as I could, to lift us up and read no one out.  The ceremony concluded, we spilled into the hallway.

          Then a Middle Eastern looking man grabbed my arm, shook my hand, and in broken English shared a sentiment I will never forget.  “You, Jew!” he said.  (I must admit, I was a bit concerned as an immediate reaction at this point. Where is he going with this?)  Then he continued: “I, Muslim, Egypt now American.  There we fight.  Here we can be friends.”

          I have my own feelings about the first part – “there we fight.”  I have hopes and dreams and a fair number of strong opinions about that part of the world as well.

          But “here we can be friends?”  What great wisdom!  What an amazing American opportunity!


          To be friends does not mean to be the same.  It does not mean to always agree.  God knows there is not always agreement within the same family, the same faith, the same circle of friends.  

          But this I know: when we open doors, hearts open as well.  When we share stories and hear history and break bread, when we listen and learn and feel able to reveal ourselves in return, when we come to know each other, walls fall down.  Hate fades, and hope shines, and the better angels all around us find their wings.


          September 2015.  War rages on in Syria.  We face the greatest refugee crisis since World War Two… well, until Russia invaded Ukraine, but that was still a few years in the future.

          I stood in front of my synagogue on Yom Kippur that year, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and I called the congregation to action.  I challenged them, I prodded them, I asked them to do something for those we might see as an enemy – and who certainly were taught to see us that way as well.  I urged us to remember who we are, who we were, where we came from.  And the Torah – 36 times the Torah calls us to know the heart of the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

          By May of 2016, our congregation was galvanized, and organized, and ready.  A few weeks later there came a scarred, scared Syrian family to this country.  We prepared their apartment, met them at the airport, brought them to their new home, and worked with them for a year as they adjusted and made a new life for themselves.  This family… had never met a even one Jewish person before that moment.  And yes, in fact, they had been taught, and once thought, that we were not human. 

          But there we were – working with Lutheran Social Services, we were, indeed, a Jewish congregation, working with a Christian agency to welcome a Muslim family to this country.


          In my tradition, in the middle of the ritual regulations of the book of Leviticus, we are commanded: “קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃  You shall be holy, for I, your Eternal God, am holy.”

          When we gather in prayer, this may be what we think of.  Holiness. Piety.  A godly life.
          But how?  By what means?  In what way?

          This section in Leviticus continues with deeds, commandments making real this impulse towards holiness.  A book I am reading now points out that of the 19 actions spelling out what it means to be holy, 18 are indisputably ethical.  This includes, in this section: “וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה; You shall love your fellow human being as yourself; I am the Eternal God!”

And, in Deuteronomy, we read: וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר וְהַטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וּבָ֗אתָ וְיָֽרַשְׁתָּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע יְהֹוָ֖ה לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃  Do what is right and good in the sight of יהוה, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that your God יהוה promised on oath to your ancestors.”

          Piety, then, is primarily praxis.  What we believe is made real by what we do.  We find our faith not only, but mostly, not in what we pray to God, but in how we treat each other!  For my tradition, at least, it is not that ritual is wrong, or that our particular practices are irrelevant.  It is, rather, that they only work, that they only matter, with an alignment of the heart.

          The alignment of the heart involves… an openness to others.  Thus, a turn to God without a return to justice… is an abomination.

          Tomorrow, a bit west of here and one state away, a new governor will be sworn into office using three Bibles.  When I first heard this, I thought: wow, what an act of audacious Scriptural inclusiveness – what, was he going to use a Hebrew Bible, a New Testament, and a Koran?  That would have been… interesting. 

          But, no, what Governor-elect Josh Shapiro is going to do is use three Hebrew Bibles.  The first two have their own stories.  But the third…  The third is a TaNakH, a Hebrew Bible which comes from… Squirrel Hill.  From Tree of Life.   From the scene of one of the deadliest antisemitic attack in our nation’s history.


          For a synagogue in Pittsburgh, an AME church in Charleston, mosques in New Zealand…where blood was spilled in a sacred space, holy words will now be lifted up… in hope for a better tomorrow.


          Dr. King, zichrono liv’racha, may his memory be a blessing… Dr. King had a gift raw and rare.  He had an almost prophetic power, to lift us up, to paint a picture, change a heart, and to with words craft and shape and give birth to a better world.  For us, for our time, the work before us involves action.  Not just creed, but deed.


Let us all do what we can… to connect, person to person, human to human, in our halls, our homes, and our hearts.  For it is only there, and only then, with education, experience, exposure… and real relationships, that walls will fall, and bridges be built.  It is only then, and only there, that hate will fade, and hope will shine.  And the glory of God, and the greatness of humankind will burst forth.  And all will see, and all will know, that this is the story that was meant to be.

          May God bless us all… with the great gift… of one another.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Pride Without Prejudice: On Antisemitism and Identity

        “Look for the silver lining.” “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”  “Make lemonade out of lemons.”  How many dozens — hundreds — of ways do we have to inspire, motivate, comfort or convince ourselves that good can come from bad.
         Some people even go so far as to say, out of religious conviction or an abiding commitment to order and purpose in the universe, that bad happens in order to lead to the good.  That it is all part of a plan, that ours is just to keep the faith and carry on.
         Which leads to the latest chapter of “Is It Good for the Jews?”  This in the form of the recent epidemic of violent, indeed deadly antisemitism in our country, and our world.

         My teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman reveals, in a recent article, how much he “hates” talking about antisemitism.  I have seen, myself, how sometimes the only thing which will get otherwise less-than-connected Jews to pay attention is an external threat, how seventh graders “wake up” to focus on Auschwitz (too young to teach the Holocaust, but too many are gone after B’nai Mitzvah that there seemed little choice).  But I am interested in Jewish action in history, not merely reaction – in our agency, more than our suffering and victimhood.  In our history we Auschwitz, yes.  But we also have Sinai.  And so much more.
         Historian and Holocaust Scholar Deborah Lipstadt, author of History on Trial and Antisemitism: Here and Now, shared a story in her remarks at the Reform movement Biennial convention in Chicago last month.  She spoke of a student who suddenly began wearing a kippah as a reaction to antisemitism, as a visible indication that he refused to be intimidated.  I think everyone listening to her expected her response to be one of admiration.
         It was that.  But not solely that.  She also shared a sadness, a sorrow that, she said, he was letting those who hate Jews define his Jewish life for him.  He was outsourcing his identity. He was, she said, “motivated by the ‘Oy’ of being Jewish, not by the joy of Jewish life. That’s not my Judaism, and I don’t want it to be his.”

         My tenth grade students, from the late 1990’s until just a few years ago, looked at me like I was crazy and out of touch when I taught about people who hate Jews.  Those same-aged students now are hardly dismissing the discussion out of hand (although many of them do, characteristically, still “universalize” it, and are not equipped to see the uniquely anti-Jewish contours of this particular disease.)
 But what are we to do, and what are we to take from this return to darkness?  And it has to be more than just: “hey, at least now they’ll pay attention.”
         A few observations, each of which warrant longer treatment.  I share now some “bullet points” (a singularly inappropriate term, given the context of violence in our midst.)

·        Antisemitism is not limited to one side of a political spectrum.  It comes from the right, and the left, from white nationalists and black separatists and many more sources.  Using these events to score political points is its own form of obscenity.
·        This is not a reaction to what we do.  It is based on who we are.
·        Targets in New York at the moment may be focused on those who seem very visibly Jewish, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews.  (Distinctions between and among those groups is a discussion for another time as well.  The term “Chasidic” in particular is very widely misunderstood and misused.)  But make no mistake: an attack on any Jewish person, because they are Jewish, is an attack on all Jews.
·        We must stand against all forms of racism and bigotry, and be allies for minorities and the “other” wherever they may be.  To have a friend, we have to be a friend.
·        But.  There is something unique about hatred of Jews, in its persistence over time, its manifestations in places where there are many Jews and where there are none, and its combination of religious, ethnic, sociological and psychological motives.
·        No Jewish person, and no Jewish community, is immune.  We are all on the front line in the battle against this disease.  Those who live in the Virgin Islands are fortunate to be in a place with little history of antisemitism.  But there have been moments, even here – hate mail received, or deeply psychotic or ill-willed postings on local social media.  And despite being on an island, today, no one “is” an island.
·        This is not about Israel.  While it is legitimate to question an Israeli policy (many of which I strongly oppose), too many involved in activity against Israel question its very polity.  I therefore believe that, unless you are opposed to all nation-states in all forms and you do not believe in borders and boundaries at all, anti-Zionism (defined as opposition to the very idea of – democratic – Jewish state,) is antisemitism.
·        This is real.  Things are bad.  And it is getting worse. 
·        But remember: in no way is this the worst of times.  It is far better to be Jewish today than at almost any other point in history.  We have the resources, the experience, and the will to turn this back, and bring back hope, and light, and love.

         There is no magic want here. The best responses do not provide an instant fix.  But light can shine, still, and good can come, out of hatred and horror.

Here is what we already know about a healthy expression of Jewish identity: that we be active as Jews, yes, but also reach out to others.  That we be vigilant, but not rigid.  That our doors should be guarded, but still open with ease.   

As Jews, we are all connected to each other.  May we increase our love for other Jews, of different streams and different expressions – even as we acknowledge our distinctions.  We share a common fate, even if we cannot always share a plate, or pray in the same way. 
And as Americans, and as human beings, we are also connected.  May we be good neighbors, involved in our communities, caring about what makes others hurt.

Pride, without prejudice.  And this: wherever you go, whatever you do, however you “Jew” – you are, always, an ambassador for us all.
No pressure!  And best wishes for a happier, healthier, and safer new year.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Torah and Tradition, Calendar and Community

Why is the ending of this holiday different from all other endings? 
Reflections on the end of Pesach and the choice of reading this Shabbat

        The twin dilemma facing thinking, caring liberal Jews this weekend is not merely a matter of laziness and convenience.  Instead, the issues of how long to observe Passover, and which Torah portion to read this Saturday morning, are actually about values, beliefs, and deep attitudes towards science, knowledge, affinity, loyalty, custom and community.

         First, on the question of calendar.  I have written elsewhere about the basic mechanism of how the Jewish calendar works.  In that essay “Why are the Jewish Holidays Never on Time? (And Other Quirks of the Jewish Calendar),” I explain the tradition of adding an “additional” day to some holidays in the Diaspora, outside the land of Israel,  in order to cover all of the possibilities of when a holiday might fall, based on whether the previous lunar month had been one of 29-days or 30-days.
         But we know, now, how long the months are.  The lunar calendar has been calculated scientifically, and accurately, for nearly 2000 years.  We do not need to depend on two witnesses, huffing and puffing and running with their reported sightings of the sliver of a new moon, before an official tribunal in the Jerusalem Temple. 
In some ways, observing the “extra” day is a slap in the face of science.  It declares human knowledge to be less a part of our experience than custom and the way we have always done things.
I can understand, often, the impulse to choose metaphor and myth and mystery over a strictly scientific and mechanistic view of the world, in storytelling and ritual in general.  I understand the pull and power of tradition.  But adding a day was done because of uncertainty.  When the ritual decision is about human knowledge (finding out when the new month really begins), it seems to me not merely silly, but… certainly stubborn, and almost defiant… to just keep using the corrective mechanism, even when it is clearly no longer needed. 
I do observe seven days of Pesach, as Biblically mandated, and as it is observed in Israel.  I will happily have challah after Shabbat services tomorrow night, and bread and other leavened food during the day on Saturday.  I do so with no qualms or reservations… none… save one.
It is this, as I have also written about in the past.  It is… increasingly difficult… to find liberal Jews who actually and carefully observe seven days of Passover.  When I was growing up, even unaffiliated and otherwise barely observant Jews avoided leaven on Passover.  We learned who else was Jewish at school not only from who went to any synagogue, but also who showed up with a matza sandwich for lunch, those years when Pesach did not overlap with Spring Break.  It was a unifying, widespread experience of solidarity.
But now, it seems, more and more people view the whole setting aside of chametz for the entire holiday as an option, and they opt out.  I am shocked by few things, certainly not by gambling going on in this establishment.  But I am shocked – shocked – when I see Jews eating bread during Passover.  For all that Reform Judaism stands for freedom of choice… this was not one of those things we meant!
So the question of community looms large for me here.  Is there, then, still a seven-day observant critical mass sufficiently large enough to create that sense of… well… community.  There is something to the… buzz and excitement… of that moment of breaking Pesach, that first bite of bread.  It is meant, I think, to be a shared experience. 
If your observance of Passover lasts a day and a half, you don’t get that feeling, that longing, that… true satisfaction of the return to bread after a full week. It is, actually, a pretty powerful moment. The only thing that could get me to observe Passover for eight days… would be the complete lack of others to share the solidarity of that ending with me, after seven.
This is a dilemma I face every year.  So far, I am hanging on, to the liberal and, in my view, more rational observance, in support of science and knowledge and the idea that a religion can grow and adapt and change.

But then there is the question that comes up only some years, only when the first evening of Passover begins… on a Friday night.  And that is: what Torah portion do we liberal Jews read… the following Saturday morning?
So here is the issue.  If Passover is eight days, then the last day of the holiday is a special reading.  As it happens, traditionally, when the eighth day of Pesach falls on Shabbat, that reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17.  The end of this section (Chapter 16) refers to the three Pilgrimage Festivals, including Shavuot and Sukkot, but beginning with the observance of Passover.
If Passover is only seven days long, however, then we have a challenge.  For Jews in Israel, and for Reform Jews outside Israel, this Saturday is a “regular” Shabbat.  (Note that we face the same issue when Shavuot begins on a Thursday night.  Since Reform Jews and Jews in Israel observe Shavuot for only one day, the following day and day after are also a “regular” Shabbat.)
So what’s a liberal Jew to do? We don’t think this Saturday is a holiday.  We do think it is a bit odd that the Torah reading cycle is “out of sync” for up to a month and a half, between Israel and the Diaspora.  We want to follow what we think is right.  But we also think it is weird if a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in our synagogue is reading a different Torah portion that someone in a Conservative synagogue down the street.
Here, I believe the usual practice (and certainly mine) has been a kind of split decision.  To maintain what we believe, we might well read the “next” weekly Torah portion this Saturday (which happens to be Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30).  And then we would read Acharei Mot again the following Shabbat.  We choose, by doing this, to reflect our beliefs – but also to remain in the same rhythm and flow of readings with other Jews around us. 
Or, we might read part of Acharei Mot this week, and choose to study part of the traditional reading, or even other readings associated with the holiday that we have not had a chance to tackle (Song of Songs, for example, which is traditionally read on the Shabbat in the middle of Passover or, in years such as this one when there is no intermediate Shabbat, on the morning of the seventh day of Pesach).

All of these things seem like arcane details and insanely ritualistic decisions of interest only to rabbis and a few pious perfectionists in our communities.  As I said at the outset, though, these choices really do reflect something deeper.  What is our attitude towards knowledge?  How do we weight that against the call of custom?  Do we feel the tradition as inertia or a comfort?  What choices do we make out of a rational spirit, and which ones are influenced socially, by a desire for cohesion, or under perhaps out of peer pressure?
And, finally, who is our “community?”  Who are our “fellow” Jews, and how much do their choices matter to us?  Do we do what we want, or are we constrained even to some degree, by that sense of solidarity.
Which comes down to: who am I, in the world?  With whom do I stand?  And how, and why?
Seen in that light, these are not trivial considerations at all.
Happy Pesach.  And a good end to Passover – whenever you break it!