In my family of Russian and Polish immigrants, a new life in America a century ago meant truly becoming Americans. Losing the old ways of dress, the old ways of thinking, the old ways of speaking. Other than my Bubbie Rose, who clung to her Yiddish as a vestige of her past, and my grandparents who spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying about other people, English became everybody’s native tongue.
Except for one phrase that echoed in our family homes. That old Yiddish folk saying: “S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It’s tough to be a Jew.
That’s what they used to say about life back in Russia and Poland. Where Jews could not own property, or serve in government, or hold jobs reserved for good Christians who ran the professional guilds. Where pogroms swept through hamlets and shtetls with regularity, Christian soldiers slaughtering Jews by the dozens. Where little Jewish boys as young as 11 or 12 were conscripted into the Tsar’s army and often never seen again. “S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid,” they would say. Which is why they left there to come here.
Jews who could, left by the boatloads in those years before an isolationist America closed its doors after World War One. Others made their way to Canada, or to British Mandate Palestine, or even to Western Europe and England, where they stood a better chance for a better life. Life might still be hard, but it would not be so hard to be a Jew.
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It should not be so hard to be a Jew these days. Not in Paris, where Shabbat worshippers were essentially held captive in their synagogue by rioting thugs shouting “Death to Jews.” Where, for three days, pro-Palestinian protesters violently set upon unsuspecting Jews, tossing firebombs and shattering shop windows. Where the aftermath of the violence looked like Kristallnacht.
It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Austria, where this week members of the Maccabi Haifi soccer team were attacked by pro-Palestinian goons in the middle of a friendly little pre-season match against a club from France.
It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Calgary, Canada, where a family of six Israel supporters who were peaceably demonstrating were beaten by a crowd of 100 pro-Palestinian rioters spewing vitriol such as “Kill the Jews!” and “Hitler should have finished you off!”
It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where they know something about the evils of hatred, and where a synagogue had its windows smashed on Friday night, and the replacement windows smashed again on Saturday.
It definitely should not be so hard to be a Jew in Berlin, where there are almost no Jews left. But that didn’t stop a group of Jew-haters from marching and chanting chilling slogans like “Gas the Jews!” And it didn’t stop a Berlin Imam from openly praying for Allah to annihilate every last Zionist Jew on earth.
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Morocco, where a rabbi was recently beaten up, or in Amsterdam – Amsterdam – where the same thing happened.
Or in Chicgao, where anti-semitic leaflets were distributed in Pulaski Park, or in Connecticut, where a synagogue was sprayed with graffiti, or in Boston, where, three times this week, students supportive of Israel have been roughed up by mobs screaming “Send the Jews to Birkenau.”
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Israel itself. Not in Moatza Ezorit Hof Ashkelon, and not in Moatza Ezorit Eshkol, and not in Moatsa Ezorit Sha’ar Hanegev, and not in Moatza Ezorit S’dot Negev, and not in Ashdod, and not in Kiryat Malakhi– all the places where the Red Alert sirens went off just during the time when I was preparing this sermon this morning.
Three-quarters of Israel’s population is threatened by the missiles being launched by Islamic terrorists in Gaza. And because Israel finally responded to those attacks, and because Israel has a missile defense system, and because Israel provides safe places for its population while Hamas uses Gazans as human shields – Israel is being villified – verbally and in writing – as a genocidal war criminal, while Jews around the world are being attacked for being Jews.
Let’s be clear about this. This is not anti-Zionism. This is Jew hatred. These crowds are not screaming “Death to Israelis.” They are calling for death to Jews.
If the crowds were so concerned about the killing of Muslim civilians, where have they been as Bashar al-Assad has murdered over 170,000 Sunnis in Syria over the past three years? Where have they been as Muslims murder Muslims in Darfur, where nearly half a million have died?
As Corey Feldman pointed out in a column this week in The Times of Israel, targeting people for slaughter simply because of their ethnicity is the very definition of genocide. Israel is not doing that. But Hamas – whose charter calls for the obliteration of Israel and the massacre of Jews – definitely is.
Within Israel itself, there are those who oppose the Gaza incursion. But even the extreme left, which regularly criticizes the Netanyahu government for its policies on settlements and peace talks, is starting to crumble. Israeli journalist Ari Shavit – the darling of the pro-peace left and the author of a book that challenges many fundamental Zionist myths – stated in Ha’aretz this week that, this time, Israel is right.
“Who are we fighting?” Shavit asked in his column. “A fascist organization that terrorizes the people of Gaza, oppresses women and gays, and shuns all democratic values of freedom and progress. . . . it is an organization of war criminals. By no means can they be allowed to win this difficult conflict, and by no means can we show any empathy for the evil they represent.”
The international community – which has been bamboozled by the PLO and Hamas and their ilk for decades now – bears responsibility for enabling what is happening in Gaza, for keeping Palestinians permanently in the status of refugees and victims. United Nations workers who have been on the ground in Gaza for years are now shocked – shocked I tell you! – to discover missiles in school-yards.
The European Union has been humiliated to discover that all the money and all the building supplies that they’ve been contributing to Gaza all these years have gone – not to build an infrastructure that will lead to a better life for the people – but to constructing elaborate, expensive labyrinths of tunnels that protect Hamas operatives and allow their killers to enter Israel with the express purpose of murdering Jews.
In fact, we’re getting confirmation this evening of reports that Hamas had planned an elaborate massacre for Rosh Hashanah, just weeks from now. The plan was to send over 200 terrorists through the tunnels and into moshavim and kibbutzim and communities in areas of Israel that are close to Gaza, slaughtering and kidnapping as many Jews as they could.
Israel has made many mistakes in its treatment of its own Arab citizens, in its settlement policies, in its lack of attention to the tunnels of Gaza until it was almost too late, in pursuing peace half-heartedly. But none of that mitigates the vile Jew-hatred spewing not only from Gaza, and Iran, and Syria, but from Paris and Antwerp and Amsterdam and Boston and Calgary and Chicago. It is real and it is terrifying.
This week’s Torah portion, which concludes the Book of Numbers and thus the wilderness narrative, spells out the settlement of the land, tribe by tribe and clan by clan, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. We may no longer lay claim to all of that land, but if nothing else, the violent expressions of Jew-hatred around the world this week prove how important it is that the State of Israel exists as a homeland of the Jewish people and as a haven for all Jews.
Again, I quote from the surprising column by Ari Shavit in Haaretz this week:
“Are we justified? Clearly. We’ve made terrible mistakes – politically, strategically and militarily. We were complacent and arrogant, and walked into traps with open eyes. But don’t get confused, friends. Don’t cross the lines, friends. We must stand strong against the evil tunnels and the wicked rockets that threaten us. We’ve forgotten how to say it, and sometimes it’s difficult to whisper it, but we’re right. In this sad, terrible story, we’re in the right. What we must do over the coming days is be smart, as well.”
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a Yid.” It may be hard to be a Jew these days. But it would be a whole lot harder without Israel.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
Copyright 2014 Audrey R. Korotkin
I’m starting to hear that siren in my sleep.
Which, I suppose, is only fair.
I loaded the “Red Alert: Israel” app onto my iPad last week so that I could know real-time where and when Israelis were being targeted by lethal rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza. (It’s not available in the US for my Droid-based cell phone, so I have access to it only when I’m in a Wi-Fi zone.) I had it by my side last Friday night at Shabbat services (where, thank God, it did not go off) and Saturday morning at Torah study (where it did, numerous times). I have it with me all the time at home (where there is rarely an hour that goes by without a siren) and at work (ditto). Here is what I’ve learned:
The sound of sirens going off is a frightening thing. It’s disconcerting during the day, when you are trying to go about your daily responsibilities. It’s disorienting at night, when you are awakened without knowing just what time it is. It is disturbing at all times, knowing that civilians in Israel have just a very few minutes to get to the relative safety of a bunker or a stairwell, before the lethal projectiles arrive, and especially when the sirens goes off in rapid succession – one after another, after another, after another.
As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, hours after Hamas rejected a cease-fire proffered by Egypt and accepted by Israel, here’s what my iPad shows: Within the last half-hour alone, there have been rocket attacks aimed at Beer Sheva, Mitzpe Ramon, Kiryat Malakhi, Moatza Ezorit Eshkol, Moatza Ezorit Hof Ashkelon, the Ashkelon industrial zone, and – just moments ago – S’derot. I’ve been to S’derot, which for years has borne the brunt of Hamas rocketry, and have seen the devastation and the way such a long siege can turn a bustling industrial hub into a ghost town.
But I cannot imagine the fear, the fatigue, the anger, the helplessness, with which Israelis shepherd their families, neighbors and friends – hour after hour, siren after siren – into the bunkers and stairwells. I cannot imagine it. Nobody can. No other nation in the world has had to bear what Israel has, hour after hour, siren after siren, barrage after barrage, year after year, decade after decade. No other nation has been under the very real threat of extinction that Israel has, since its inception.
The current battle to halt Hamas’s attacks is the embodiment of this existential threat: It may ease off for a while, but it never goes away. There’s always a Hamas, or an Islamic Jihad, or a PLO, or a Hezbollah, on Israel’s doorstep, armed with ever-more-lethal and sophisticated weaponry from Syria and Iran. There are always Jew haters, deluded peaceniks, and [Pardon the interruption: Red Alert has gone off; Hamas rockets are now attacking Moatza Ezorit Eshkol] paid publicists who will point to the devastation wreaked in Gaza’s cities by the IDF and IAF and complain about something called “proportional damage.” Which is to say: Palestinians are dying and Israelis are not, and somehow that’s not fair.
Thank God for Iron Dome, Israel’s sophisticated defense system provided with U.S. dollars, which not only detects rocket attacks but has intercepted and destroyed hundreds of rockets aimed at Israeli cities. Israelis thank God for it. Palestinians should too. It is because of Iron Dome – because it allows time for Israel’s leaders to plot out their defense – that thousands of Palestinian lives have been spared. As former ambassador Michael Oren pointed out in a conference call with rabbis this morning, if Iron Dome didn’t exist, and if Israelis were indeed dying, the IDF would have been forced to go into Gaza well before now, and with much more force.
That might still happen, of course. Israel is facing an enemy that has amassed approximately 10,000 rockets in Gaza, the express purpose of which is to kill Jews. As Ambassador Oren noted, Hamas is not just sworn to Israel’s destruction; its charter calls on the murder of Jews all over the world. For every one of us – in every one of our congregations and communities – the threat to Israel is a threat to us all.
“You start a war, you don’t know how to get out of it,” Ambassador Oren said this morning. That’s where Hamas is right now. He’s offered a plan: An immediate cease fire; American-led demilitarization combined with a massive infusion of international aid to rebuild Gaza’s ruined economy and infrastructure; the strengthening of what he called “Palestinian moderates” and the re-starting of peace talks that will blunt the Palestinian Authority’s move to seek unilateral recognition from the U.N.
Above all, Ambassador Oren said, it’s important to keep in sight what happens next. “Everybody always asks me: What’s your diplomatic end game?” he said. Yes, today, the world may act with revulsion at Hamas’s rejection of a cease fire. But tomorrow, or the next day, they will forget, distracted by the next wave of photos of death and destruction in Gaza. “We earned some time, but only some time, by accepting the cease fire,” he warned us. “We always have to go back to the diplomatic end game.”
It’s hard to try to employ diplomacy with an enemy that hides, like the cowards they are, in the vast network of tunnels and catacombs underneath Gaza’s cities, using civilians as human shields to conceal their vast array of rocketry – rockets that serve no defensive purpose at all, only offensive. It’s hard to employ diplomacy with an enemy for whom victory is drenched in Jewish blood. Israel should never have to apologize for successfully protecting its people. But, as Jews, we have a moral compass, an ethical code, a commanded purpose in seeking a peaceful resolution.
This weekend, I will be away from my congregation. I have been given the joy and blessing of officiating for an out-of-state wedding, the marriage of my very first Bar Mitzvah boy from my very first post-ordination congregation, to his beloved. But a Jewish wedding is not just a cause for celebration for a couple, or for their family, or even for their friends. The bride and the groom will circle each other three times, as a sign of their intent to bind themselves only to each other – a symbol of the way we Jews are bound together throughout history, and across continents. As part of the sheva berachot, the seven-fold wedding blessing, we will invite all of Israel to celebrate with the bride and groom, to dance with joy in the streets of Jerusalem as a new Jewish family is formed, as the perpetuation of Jewish life is affirmed.
This is the heart of Judaism. This is what, above all, we must sustain and protect – in the streets of Jerusalem, all of the Land of Israel, and all Jewish communities throughout the world. The sound of celebration, not the sound of sirens. It is our responsibility, and it is our blessing.
Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. Let us pray for peace in Israel. And let us say together: Amen.
When I applied to Hebrew Union College two decades ago, I wrote in my personal essay about the 1991 Gulf War. I described how I sat in front of the TV, with CNN on, watching missiles falling on Tel Aviv and feeling anger, revulsion – and a sense of kinship with the Israelis under attack. I wrote that I was really surprised by those feelings. I didn’t know anybody who lived in Israel. I don’t think I knew any Israelis at that point. I had been raised in an assimilated, suburban American Jewish household with no ties to Israel or Zionism. But here I was, shaking and angry, watching those rockets rain down on Tel Aviv – and feeling, really for the first time, that I was part of the People Israel.
This week is different. Hundreds of rockets are being fired into Israel from Gaza – and I know what it’s like. I spent a year in Israel. It was in between the two intifadas so, relatively speaking, it wasn’t so bad. A young Israeli soldier was kidnapped and murdered, and the whole nation went into mourning, just as they did for three Yeshiva boys just a couple of weeks ago. We ourselves had some close calls. One time, soldiers were targeted by suicide bombers at a bus stop we’d passed by just hours before, and another suicide bomber blew himself up on the Number 18 bus that I took every day to school.
Arab gunmen shot and killed Israelis sitting and eating dinner in a restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem where two classmates had just left. And when we escaped the city to have a few days up north, in Metullah, rockets were fired our way from Lebanon in response to the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan having been signed that day. We didn’t have to hit the bomb shelters – but we were told where to go if the sirens started.
This week is different. I have many friends and colleagues in Israel right now. One is there for the bat mitzvah of a granddaughter. Several are studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Others are on congregational trips or AIPAC information tours. Or they are in Israel just because it’s summer time and that’s what they do. And they have spent hours and hours in bomb shelters and in stairwells. In apartment buildings in Tel Aviv. In hotels in Jerusalem. They have been posting messages on Facebook with photos, showing the kindness that Israelis are showing to each other – helping the elderly and disabled get to safety quietly and gently.
This week is different. I’m on social media all the time checking to see if they are safe. Reading their reflections about their experiences. Wondering in amazement at the courage of millions of Israelis for whom this is daily life. This is what they do. This is how they live. With the daily threats. With sirens going off. If they’re driving, they get out of their cars and roll up in ditches or under guard rails by the side of the road. How was your commute today? This week, theirs is different.
But Israelis, as incredibly resilient as they are, had reached a breaking point with Hamas in Gaza. After a year and a half of relative quiet – only 75 or so rockets fired at them in all of last year – Hamas had started up again. In the three months before three Yeshiva boys were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood, 175 rockets had been fired into Israel, aimed at major population centers. Israelis were demanding their government do their job and keep them safe.
So Israel retaliated. Finally. Carefully. The Israeli military picked out where the rocket launchers were and where the terrorist leaders were, and they targeted them. Because Hamas is made up of cowards, they hide in apartment buildings and near mosques and hospitals, so that when Israel does fire back, civilians are deliberately killed. Deliberately on Hamas’s part, not on Israel’s. Then Hamas can turn to the international news media and cry out, “Oh, but Israel is killing women and children!”
Israel has been careful. When they have a target in sight – someplace where a rocket launcher is being hidden under an apartment building, for example – they drop leaflets and even make phone calls telling civilians to evacuate so they will be safe. The Israelis are doing that. Hamas is now ordering them to ignore the IDF warnings and stay put, using them as human shields, because they know Israelis value life and do not want to kill civilians. For Israel, success means hitting targets with as little civilian loss of life as possible. For Hamas – whose reason for existence is the slaughter of Jews and the destruction of Israel – success is measured by how many Jews they can kill.
This week is different. Hamas isn’t just using the short-range rockets they used even a year and a half ago. They now have rockets designed in China, made in Syria, and paid for by Iran that can reach three-quarters of Israel’s population. Imagine if the air-raid sirens went off here, and three-quarters of all of our citizens were told to hit the basements and the bunkers. How long before we would expect our government to go on the offensive to keep us safe?
I had the privilege of being on a conference call this morning with Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. We had just a few minutes with him before he went to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress about the situation.
In a sign of solidarity among American rabbis, the call was organized by the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which invited all the rabbis from the OU and from the Reform and Conservative movements to join in. While he was speaking to us, we heard a siren going off. It was the Red Alert App on his phone, which every Israeli civilian now has access to, warning of missiles headed for yet another Israeli city.
Ambassador Dermer made it clear that Israel has one objective here. And it’s not to retake Gaza and it’s not to kill Palestinians. It’s simply to have peace on the border. To restore quiet, so Israelis do not have to live under constant threat. He told us how remarkable it was to watch the restraint with which Prime Minister Netanyahu has acted, even when so many Israelis are demanding more.
He told us how the Iron Dome missile interception system has allowed that restraint, because they now get warning of when Hamas rockets are coming, and where they are going. They have time to plot out their strategy of targeted hits, which saves Palestinian lives. And so, he said, does the support of the US government. He himself had met with President Obama two days ago, and the President and the Prime Minister spoke as recently as yesterday.
Ambassador Dermer expressed hopes for a peaceful border – however that can be achieved. But right now, he said, we are living in a different reality. Right now, he said, it’s our responsibility to protect our people. But, he added: Since we are Israel, we abide by international norms of behavior and rules of war. And since we are Jews, we must uphold our own moral values as well.
The Jewish moral compass, of course, had been called into question in recent days with the apparent targeted murder of a young Israeli Arab, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in what may have been a revenge killing for the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel.
Some extremist elements in the Jewish community – not just in Israel but here in America as well – had called for more vengeance to be carried out and even cited Biblical imperatives in their cause.
As it happens, this week’s Torah portion does present us with, what on the surface, is an endorsement of zealotry in God’s name. The portion’s title is ‘Pinchas,’ and it is named for the priest who – seeing a Jewish man publicly consorting with a Moabite woman in blatant defiance of social norms – chucked a spear into both of them, killing them instantly.
A plague that God had spread among the Israelites for their disobedience was stayed, and Pinchas and his descendants were rewarded by God with an eternal covenant of peace because, in God’s words, “He displayed among the Israelites his zealousness for Me.”
Divine reward for Pinchas’s zealotry has long troubled our sages, who recoil at the notion of rewarding bloodshed. So much so that, when the Torah was divided into weekly portions centuries ago, they separated the two parts of the story: The spear-chucking incident was tacked onto the end Parashat Balak last week, but the covenant of peace begins this week’s portion. The spear-chucking incident is under the rubric of the Balaam story, but the title ‘Pinchas’ is given to this week’s Torah portion, which picks up the story after his zealous behavior and focuses on God’s blessing of peace.
Maybe the message to us is that Pinchas is being rewarded, not for his violent attack, but for pulling back from violence and accepting God’s covenant of peace instead. The covenant of peace is not just for Pinchas, after all, but for his children and grandchildren who follow him. Wouldn’t it be better for them if their inheritance was one of peace, and not of war? Wouldn’t it be better for them never to be stained with the blood of vengeance? And isn’t this what we should be teaching all of our children? Isn’t this what Israel is trying so hard to do right now? Sparing civilians in Gaza – even as they protect the terrorists who sworn to kill every single Jew and wipe Israel from the face of the earth?
This week is different because, yes, Jews are different. We shouldn’t have to be. We’d like to think that everyone values every single life the way we do. But, as Ambassador Dermer told us this morning, we live in a different reality right now. And our number one concern is keeping Israel secure and its people safe.
Israel was not the aggressor here. But just as peace will be met with peace, might will be met with might, until Hamas – like Pinchas – is ready to accept a covenant of peace. Not just for now, but for the generations to come.
Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin
Like other states, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a nickname (“The Keystone State”), a state flower (mountain laurel) and even a state dog (The Great Dane, because William Penn owned one). Unlike most other states, it may soon have an official state gun.
Yes, that’s right. In the wake of yet another mass shooting – this one near UC Santa Barbara just a couple of weeks ago – the state’s lawmakers in Harrisburg have decided it’s a great time to promote deadly weapons by declaring the Pennsylvania long rifle the state’s official firearm.
This effort began four years ago. Had it succeeded at that time, Pennsylvania would have had the dubious distinction of being the first state in the US to exalt its ties to guns in this way. The legislation died, but its proponents did not surrender. This time, though, they seemed to sense that a stand-alone bill might actually garner them some bad publicity and attract the outrage of groups, including those here in Pennsylvania, that support sensible gun safety laws. So they did it the sneaky way, which is often the way it happens in Harrisburg. They tagged it on as an amendment to a House bill that designated the Piper J-3 Cub, a small single-engine plane made in the state during World War Two, as the state’s official airplane. The amended bill passed the state House easily, 157-39, on June 2, and now will go to the State Senate.
Since this campaign began in 2010, four other states have jumped ahead of Pennsylvania on the “yay for us, we have an official state gun” list: Utah, Arizona, West Virginia, and Indiana. Astonishingly, Utah and Arizona’s action came within months of the mass shooting in Arizona that critically wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. When Utah became the first, just a couple of months after the Tuscon murders, its sponsor, Republican State Rep. Carl Wimmer, admitted that it was bad timing but added that, hey, we’re only part-time lawmakers and we’re in session for a short time, so “no disrespect to the tragedy in Arizona, we moved forward in doing this because it’s the only opportunity that we had.”
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, our nation has suffered more than 70 mass shootings just since the Tuscon murders in January of 2011 and, on average, 32 people are murdered in this country every day using guns. And that’s just murders, not suicides and so-called “accidental” shootings. Yet far be it from our own proud Pennsylvania lawmakers to miss their opportunity to make history in the wake of the UCSB killings. It was far more important to honor 18th-century Pennsylvania’s gun history than to honor the memories of 21st-century gun victims.
But for lawmakers in large urban areas, this bill was a horrific slap in the face. “Having a state gun is deeply offensive to many people in Pennsylvania,” said Representative Mark Cohen of Philadelphia, where gun deaths are growing in number even as other violent crimes are on the decline. “We ought not to pass this amendment. We ought to show some sensitivity to the loss of human life.” Sensitivity clearly is in short supply in Harrisburg, though, where lawmakers seem more interested in, say, attracting gun manufacturers to the state from places like New York that are moving toward more common sense gun-safety laws.
When the governor Utah signed that first-in-the-nation law in 2011, his PR person tried to deflect criticism by contending that the bill wasn’t so much about honoring a weapon as it was honoring its creator. But what about honoring humanity’s Creator? What about honoring every single human life, created in God’s image, by refraining – just this once – from glorifying violence?
This bill is not just ill-timed. It is not just ill-conceived. It is abhorrent to all of us who believe in the sanctity of life and the intrinsic worth of every human being. We were put onto this planet to create and to tend, not to neglect and destroy. Throughout our state, people face so many challenges every day, from unemployment to ill health to lack of educational opportunities – and yes, to violence in their homes and in their neighborhoods. Once, just once, it would be refreshing for our elected officials to place public safety and welfare above petty self-interest. It doesn’t happen too often. But maybe once, just once, they could surprise us, do the right thing, and send this bill to the Biblical shades of Sheol, where it belongs.
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, Altoona, Pennsylvania
It’s been nearly twenty years since my dear friend, colleague and classmate, Rabbi Victor Appell, made us face the gay elephant in the room. As a first-year rabbinic student in Jerusalem, he chose as his very first sermon topic the Levitical prohibition against sex between two men as “an abomination.” He urged us to look at the verse in the context of the full Scriptural reading, which also includes the command “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I’m paraphrasing here, but this is the message as I remember it: Surely, he reasoned, God did not mean for gays to be ostracized, vilified and condemned. Surely, he urged, God meant for all of us, gay or straight, to be respected equally as creatures made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God.
Two decades after Victor and his partner Colin met during that year in Israel, they finally – recently – were legally wed in New Jersey. But for all this time, they and their two beautiful, bright sons have fashioned a home full of love, faith, and meaningful Jewish life.
But while we celebrate with them, and with all gay couples who finally have had their marriages legally recognized for the first time, we have watched as an anti-gay backlash has crept across the country. In more than a dozen states, lawmakers have attempted to blunt the civil rights of gays with legislation that would make it permissible for merchants and restaurant owners to refuse public accommodation to gays and lesbians, simply because they are gay. That such bills as the one just vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer are even under serious consideration is loathsome. That they are being proffered under the guise of “protecting religious liberty” is, in itself, an abomination.
Let’s be clear about this. These gay discrimination bills have nothing to do with freedom of religion. They are not being proposed by people of faith who have given thoughtful consideration to the implications. They are a product of right-wing think-tanks and advocacy groups who prey on fear and ignorance to advance a particular political agenda. That they have popped up in a dozen states or more, in rapid succession, is the result of a coordinated campaign to restrict civil rights nationwide in a method we’ve seen before, such as the campaigns to restrict voting rights and those that deny women access to reproductive health services (the latter, also, purportedly in the name of “religious liberty”).
As a person of faith, and as a faith leader in my community, it is my responsibility to bring to bear the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of Jewish tradition- a tradition that Hillel the Elder stated two millennia ago boils down to one statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.” Would those who promulgate such laws agree to live by them if they allowed merchants to refuse service to white Christians? Parents with children? Veterans who walk with canes, or elderly people who need wheelchairs? Judaism recognizes the doctrine of “dina d’malchuta dina,” an Aramaic expression that states “the law of the land is the law.” We acknowledge the role and importance of civil laws to maintain the social contract we all have agreed to as Americans. We recognize the need for enforcement of rules that prohibit one person, for whatever reason, from violating the basic rights of another. Human dignity and the inherent and equal worth of each human being are fundamental both to religious doctrine and to American democracy.
It is unconscionable for religion to be hijacked by those who are concerned first and foremost with power, who believe that they have some God-given right to control others’ lives – be it by turning away gays at the restaurant door, closing women’s health clinics, or restricting the ability of poor people and minorities to exercise their legal right to vote. They may be frightened by the changes in our society that are – socially, economically, and legally – empowering people once disenfranchised. But they must not be allowed to renew the oppression of the “other” in the name of religions that teach the opposite.