The Human Element – Shabbat Behar, Friday, May 8th, 2015

I had an amazing, inspiring experience in Washington DC this week – and not for the reason I thought I would.

The reason for the trip was to take our Confirmation class to the Holocaust Museum. We were invited to join students of the Celebrate Diversity program, which works with public and private schools all over the area to promote tolerance, understanding, and open communication.

After several hours in the museum, we needed to be outside, to unwind and get some fresh air. So we went down to the Tidal Basin, where many of the national monuments are located. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and not very crowded, so we had a lot of time to go through several of the monuments I hadn’t been to before.

The memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is stunning – not in its grandeur but in its simplicity. It’s more of a park, with broad, winding paths. It’s very organic, like it’s part of the natural landscape. Facing the Tidal Basin is a series of rough-cut low limestone walls with trees above and inspiring quotes from President Roosevelt chiseled into them.

Whoever planned this park did something really interesting. You know, there are plenty of moments in the area dedicated to war – World war two, Korea, Viet Nam. But the FDR memorial is not about victory in battle. It focuses on the economic recovery of the 30’s, the immense hardships that so many Americans felt, and Roosevelt’s hallmark achievements in improving the lives of Americans of every background, class, and race. It’s about the inherent value and dignity of every human being. And almost everything is presented on a very human scale.

As you walk in, you’re greeted by a life-sized bronze statue of Roosevelt in the one pose he would never be seen in during his life – seated in his wheelchair. It’s a bold statement, I think, about what people with disabilities can achieve if given the chance. Tourists were sitting on the president’s lap, getting their picture taken with him. And that’s great. It humanizes a man who’s almost become a myth, and reminds us of his immense power despite his physical frailty.

Moving into the next section there’s a sculpture of an ordinary working-class man plying his trade, and another of a group of people standing in a bread-line. They represent the millions of Americans who struggled for years with hunger, with joblessness, with homelessness, with hopelessness – and they represent the millions of Americans who face the same challenges today. The sculptures might have been inspired by real people who suffered 75 years ago – but they might well remind us of people we know, people in our own communities.

Juxtaposed with the quotes from Roosevelt, they are also a reminder that government can, and has, played a powerful and necessary role in putting millions of people back to work so that they can feed and clothe and house their families. Roosevelt’s words still apply today, “Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men, and no forgotten races.”

The only larger-than-life depiction of Roosevelt is at the very end of the park, a bronze statue of him seated, wrapped in his cape, with his beloved dog Fala at his side. But even here, we get a sense of his humanity, and his compassion for all of God’s creatures.

The human factor is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, which begins with the laws of the Sabbatical year, proclaimed every seventh year, and the Jubilee year, every fiftieth year.
The Torah demands we recognize the needs of the people and the land itself to rest in order to be fruitful and productive.

At the Jubilee, we are commanded to release all indentured servants and forgive their debts, using the language inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”

The land, too, must be redeemed – and can never be sold so that it beyond reclamation by its original owners. Thus, every person in our community is granted a second chance to return to home and family, without the specter of crushing debts hanging over their children.

But the Torah goes farther in its concern for human dignity. The Torah not only allows for the redemption of impoverished and enslaved Israelites – it actually requires family members to pay what it takes to bring them home by the Jubilee year. And as for those who keep indentured servants who owe them money, the Torah states, “the other shall not rule ruthlessly in your sight.”

Kindness and compassion are required – because of the inherent dignity and value of each human being regardless of status. As the rabbis teach, we are all descended from a single human being, so that no one of us can say that our blood is redder – that is, that our life has more worth than another.

That’s what Celebrate Diversity is designed to do, too. Let’s face it: our children grow up around here in a relatively safe, and fairly homogenous, environment. This program challenges some basic presumptions they might make about the world, just because they’ve seen so little of it. One workshop requires kids to be segregated out by hair color, or eye color – not a far cry from segregating people by the color of their skin, and just as pointless and hurtful.

Exposing students of all backgrounds to the horror of the Holocaust – and to the human potential for evil and death and even genocide – forces them to look more closely at how other people are treated, on the basis of race and religion, even here at home. And how they might be perpetuating denigration of the “other” without even realizing it.

The reason I think that the FDR Memorial and the US Holocaust Museum are so effective in delivering the message about the inherent value of every human being, is that they present our past on a human scale. At the monument, it’s bringing the scale of both FDR’s challenges and his achievements down to dimensions we can comprehend.

The Holocaust museum puts names and faces to a tragedy that sometimes defies comprehension. Each person entering the museum is given a card with the name and photo and story of someone swept up in the Holocaust. That person becomes your alter-ego, through whose eyes you view the horror as it unfolds – the anti-Jewish laws, the ghettos, the starvation, the work camps, the death camps. You don’t find out until the end of the story what happened to them. Did they survive? Escape? Die in the camps?

In both cases, these memorials move us beyond the tragedy of faceless and nameless millions that can overwhelm us and makes individual action seem pointless, if not impossible. We learn the stories of righteous gentiles who saved thousands of Jews – and also the names of those who refused to help. We see the images of working-class Americans bent over from hunger, and we are still inspired by the words of a disabled man who, more or less single-handedly, mobilized the power of an entire national bureaucracy by appealing to the moral imperative that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.

Okay, so FDR did it on a grand scale, because he was a great man who was in the right place, at the right time, for the right purpose. But God doesn’t expect us to be FDR. God does expect us to do what we can, one day at a time, one person at a time. Or as the rabbis say, “one who saves a single life, it is as though he has saved the entire world.” We are not commanded to complete the task – but neither are we free to abstain from it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.

“And Aaron Was Silent” Parashat Shemini, Friday, April 10th, 2015

I was alerted to the sad news on Tuesday that an HUC schoolmate of mine had died after a valiant battle with cancer. Rabbi Vicki Sackser Tuckman was sort of the epitome of the modern Reform Rabbi. She was someone who grew up in the movement, where she was inspired to make her career in the rabbinate. She was young, energetic, and engaging. I’ve never seen a photo of her where she didn’t have a big smile on her face – whether it was with kids at Camp Harlam, at home with her husband and kids, on the bimah for a Bat Mitzvah, or even in her room at Sloan Kettering Hospital. It was telling that, in her dignity and openness about her illness, she even posted on Facebook pictures of the x-rays showing off what she called her “new hip.” The bone, eaten away by the cancer, had been replaced by rods and screws.
Her death, coming in the middle of Passover, resonated with me for another reason: It was at this season 17 years ago that I received my own cancer diagnosis, at probably about the same age Vicki would be now. It was during my junior year at seminary, and I had to return to HUC the following week and tell everyone at our class meeting that I had no idea what the future held as we all began our preparations for senior year and ordination.
You all know generally what did happen, because I’m here to talk about it. Apparently I had what they called an old-lady cancer, one that grew very slowly – so with aggressive treatment (surgery, chemo, radiation), I’m now both a survivor and a thriver. People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that I’m one of the lucky ones, and that I feel blessed. But when I hear news like I did this week, I know that it’s true.
I also know that it would seem unfair to people who loved Vicki. Why should one person’s cancer grow so slowly, and another’s spread so aggressively? Why should doctors at Sloan Kettering – one of the top treatment centers in the world – be unable to stem the tide of the disease? Why should tragedy befall a family where children are left behind to grieve?
The truth is that it happens because it happens. Because, as Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote more than three decades ago in When Bad Things Happen To Good People, “God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.”
But when a young person dies like this, there seem to be no words for the grief, much less for an explanation.
We see this on display in this week’s Torah portion. The title, Shemini, refers to the eight-day consecration ceremony of the high priests, Aaron and his elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, to serve God in the tabernacle. Aaron performs his duties as God commands – burnt offerings and sacrifices from the people to purge their transgressions.
The flames come forth from God to consume the sacrifice on the altar, and all the people fall on their faces, awestruck at God’s power.
Nadav and Avihu think it’s a pretty awesome sight. So they decide to do it themselves. They copy what their father did and offer up what the Torah describes as “aish zarah,” alien fire, which God did not request. The flames come forth from God, seemingly to once again consume the sacrifice on the altar – but it consumes the two men instead. All Aaron can do is look on in grief and horror. “Vayidom Aharon,” says the text. And Aaron was silent.
The old JPS translation reads “And Aaron held his peace” – that is, he knew he should not speak out against God’s judgment. But the word just means silence. The 15th-century Portuguese Torah scholar Isaac Abravanel suggested that Aaron was simply inconsolable.
Life went on for Aaron and for his family. They were forbidden by God from showing any outward signs of grief. His younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, stepped in to take their brothers’ places. And the Torah simply resumes its narration of the litany of offerings to be made at the consecration of the priests and the sanctuary.
Once – just once – Aaron opens up about his feelings, and only to his brother. At the very end of the chapter, Moses rebukes him for refusing to partake of the peoples’ sin offering. Aaron replies, “This day, they have brought their sin offering and burnt offering before God – but such things have befallen me! Had I eaten it, would God have approved?”
The Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, interprets Aaron’s words to say: “How could I possibly have sat and eaten the standard offerings, when our celebration has been tarnished by this tragedy?” Moses silently acknowledges Aaron’s grief and approves of the way he expresses it.
The death of the young does indeed stun us into silence. Our lives will go on, just as Aaron’s did. Our confusion, or our anger, or our frustration, may manifest itself in all kinds of places, in all kinds of ways, as we work through our grief. All we can do is hope that our friends and neighbors and co-workers have the insight and compassion of Moses, to accept our sometimes-bizarre behavior for what it is.
Kein yehi ratson. May we learn to treat others with the compassion we would wish for ourselves. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin

God Has A Place In the World. What About Us? Shabbat Terumah, Friday, February 20, 2015

Residents of an otherwise quiet neighborhood awoke last Saturday morning to a horror show outside their doors: swastikas, racial slurs and anti-Jewish graffiti sprayed on at least a dozen homes. The hate-fest had taken place overnight and included houses, cars, garage doors, mailboxes and driveways – more than ten-thousand dollars’ worth of damage. This was not in Denmark or Belgium or England or France. This was in Madison, Wisconsin.

That’s right. Madison, Wisconsin, right here in the good old U-S-of-A, a community of 300-thousand with a reputation for open-mindedness. As one of my colleagues there wrote to his congregation, “we are reminded that hatred and ignorance exist even in our progressive Midwest community.”

Maybe because Madison is considered so progressive, the local authorities have been loath to label this a hate crime. “It just looks like it’s malicious damage,” said Madison police officer David Dexheimer. This, in spite of the fact that that one of the houses targeted belongs to Jim Stein, president of the Jewish Federation of Madison, who was greeted with the phrase “F….Jews” spray painted on the garage right across the street from his home. “This reeks of anti-Semitism,” Stein correctly surmised, “and that’s an important wake-up call for the city of Madison.”

It would be so easy – wouldn’t it? – to treat this as a one-off, a prank by some local kids copying something they’ve seen on the internet. Easy. But wrong. It’s part of a pattern. A pattern of hatred against Jews that has spread across Europe and across the Atlantic. A pattern of hatred that includes murderous attacks in Paris and Copenhagen but also the desecration of a French Jewish cemetery with swastikas and the Shabbat closure of the Great Synagogue in Paris for the first time since World War Two.

In Denmark, Jews are so scared that they have shut down their radio station rather than operate with an army of armed guards to protect them. Copenhagen’s Caroline School – one of the oldest Jewish schools in the world – also has closed its doors.

Across Europe, Jews have been encouraged to stop dressing in any way that would draw attention to their, well, Jewishness, including wearing yarmulkes. Lest you think that’s a bit excessive, Jewish journalist Zvikah Klein’s video journal should tell you otherwise. Catch it on YouTube. Klein decided to wear a yarmulke for a day walking the streets of Paris and secretly filmed what happened. He was spat at, threatened, and called a dog. Maybe saddest of all, a little boy in one neighborhood turned to his mother, incredulous that anyone would wear a kippah in public and asked her, “What is he doing here, Mommy? Doesn’t he know he will be killed?”

A child in a major European city knows this about Jews – that they could be killed just for being Jews. That’s a lesson we had hoped children would never learn after World War Two.

But if a child knows this, why is it the leaders of the Western World do not?

Sympathy is fine. Marches for peace and tolerance are all well and good. But toward what end? To hear them talk about it, the killers could be anyone, and the victims could be random. Danish Prime Miniser Helle Thorning-Schmidt insisted that it was unclear what had motivated the killer of Dan Uzan, the Jewish guard who died preventing a massacre at the Copenhagen synagogue. In fact, the gunman was a Muslim who made no secret of his hatred for Jews. Only the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has had the courage to denounce what he called “the intolerable rise of anti-Semitism” in his country, which he warned is a “symptom of crisis in democracy.”

Valls has been a lone, brave voice.

Just two days ago, Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, spoke at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. He, too, warned that recent attacks on Jews threaten the democratic societies in which these Jews live. He warned as well that you have to name the problem or you cannot focus on solving it. “Some have been reluctant to identify the victims or to identify the perpetrators or even to call it anti-Semitism,” he said. “It should be obvious that this radical Islamic extremism is also deeply anti-Semitic.”
Since this program was sponsored by the White House, let’s hope that President Obama was paying attention. He, too, has been reluctant to call radical Islamic extremism exactly what it is. Both right after the murder of Jews in Paris and again more recently, the president had the opportunity. In an interview with Vox about recent violence – both in Europe and throughout the Middle East – this is what he said: “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks at a deli in Paris.”

That, simply put, is unacceptable. Tragically, frustratingly, unacceptable.

As Jonathan Tobin put it in Commentary this week:

“You can’t defeat an enemy that you refuse to call by his right name. That’s why ignoring Islamism and calling ISIS and the Paris killers mere ‘zealots’ or ‘extremists’ not only misses the point but also hampers the West’s ability to resist them. By the same token, the omission of any discussion of anti-Semitism about an event that was an unambiguous act of Jew hatred similarly undermines the effort to strike back at such atrocities.”

The thing is, it seems not that long ago that anti-Semites had been forced to crawl back under their rocks, because overt Jew hatred was simply not acceptable. I suppose it was a post-Holocaust phenomenon: you could not speak ill of those who had lost six million to the gas chambers and crematoria. Jews were being lauded for their gifts to the world. The whole thesis of Thomas Kahill’s 1988 book “The Gifts of the Jews,” was that we and our Biblical tradition gave the world the gifts of “future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice.” The book was a huge success.

The gifts of the Jews is really the starting point for this week’s Torah portion. God commands the Israelites to bring gifts מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ “from every person whose heart is so moved.” The gifts here were of a practical nature – the skins and threads and wood and yarns and linens that would be used to create and adorn the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. But they also were of a personal nature – the talents and the heartfelt dedication of the people who would create this Mishkan out of whatever they had with them or around them. וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” says God. And they did.

Since then, we have always felt that God has a place in our community. Whether we are encamped in the wilderness, dispersed among the other peoples of the earth, or on the sovereign land of Israel – two thousand years ago or today – we believe that God is with us, that God has traveled with us, that God has suffered with us, that God has been gracious to us.

There’s a place for God to dwell among us. But is there a place for us to dwell with others?

We thought that would be the Land of Israel, our ancestral home, which extremists of the Muslim world are now trying to take away. We thought that would be safety in other countries. Until the targeted killings here and in Europe.

As we approach our festivals of Purim and Passover, we are reminded that the existential threats to Jewry go back centuries – even millennia. But if the world’s leaders are going to do something about it now – and we demand that they do – then they must name the danger very, very clearly.

I mentioned a few minutes ago the high-profile White House confab this week. The name was “Countering Violent Extremism” – because the administration still cannot bring itself to name Islamic terrorism for what it is. The White House, by the way, says there’s a very good reason for that. As Scott Shane explained it in the New York Times, the administration believes that “labeling noxious beliefs and mass murder as ‘Islamic’ would play right into the hands of terrorists who claim that the United States is at war with Islam itself.” In other words, because we have the common sense to label Islamic terror what it is, we must therefore be equating it with all Muslims. It’s total nonsense, of course, and cowardice as well. But there it is.

So today in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg took up the challenge. You don’t want to use the word Islamic? Fine. Call it Jihad. Revolutionary jihad. “There’s a global crisis right now,” writes Goldberg, “and it’s severe, widespread and specific to a particular faith community in a way that no other form of violent extremism is at this moment in history . . . by denying the serious religious roots of jihadist terrorism and dismissing it as some mindless, nihilistic or power-hungry thuggery, [the president] obscures some of the genuine issues at play in this crisis.”

It may be true, writes Goldberg, that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject the actions of groups like ISIS, al-Qaida and Boko Haram. But it’s also true that Muslims deal in different ways – as we all do – with the challenges of a world that is moving very quickly around them. And some of them are resorting to violent jihad against, not just Jews, but modernity and liberty and the things that we consider basic human values – like freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

Two days ago in The Forward, renowned historian Deborah Lipstadt published a powerful essay about fighting Islamist extremism, by whatever name we call it. She puts forth seven axioms we must take away from the attacks in Copenhagen. You should look up the entire essay. But here, in brief, are the highlights for me:

First, name the problem. If you can’t name it, you can’t solve it. This isn’t generic violent extremism, it’s Muslim Extremism. It is directly connected to Islam, though not to all Muslims. As such, moderate Muslims must be in the battle alongside of us.

Second, identify and acknowledge the patterns. These attacks may not all be coordinated or organized by al-Qaida and ISIS. But as Lipstadt writes, “The individuals behind them have been radicalized by a stream of Islam that abhors Western democracy and all it stands for.”

Third, do not accept equivocation and excuses. “Yes, but, if only Israel hadn’t done this” or “Yes but if only they hadn’t insulted the Prophet” must not be used as a license to murder.

Fourth: Acknowledge that this is not just a war on Jews but on Western democratic liberal values. Again quoting Deborah Lipstadt: “We are waging a war against extremists who are inherently opposed to everything we value about the society in which we live. They want us to live in fear. Doing so grants them a victory and, as the Danes at the café learned, doesn’t protect us from future violence.”

So maybe this is our 21st century Jewish gift to the world: the courage to name the terror and face it. From the response in the streets, maybe people outside our Jewish communities are starting to catch on. I don’t mean the generic, top-down, weak-kneed efforts in Washington and abroad. I mean the grass-roots responses.

In London this week, a group of Jews, Muslim and Christians marched together for tolerance, understanding, and non-violence. In Oslo, Norway, a group of Muslims will form what they call a ‘ring of peace’ around a synagogue tomorrow. They’re spreading the word on social networking sites, and over a thousand people have committed to come. As one of the young organizers said, “We have taken this initiative not just as fellow human beings but also as Muslims, to show that Muslims are opposed to the hatred Jews have to face.”

These efforts may be small. But they are important. They are coming from the communities, from the people, directly affected by Islamic jihadist violence, in some of the cities that are most vulnerable. They are coming from people who are not afraid to name the problem as the first step to fighting it. They are coming from people who are not afraid to literally block the way of those who are driven to violence and murder by their interpretation of their faith tradition. If they are leading the way, let us hope that the political leadership of the West will have the courage to follow.

If there’s anything we take from our faith tradition, is that we must stand up to the bullies and the haters. Israel has always been willing to defend itself alone. But it should not have to – not when jihadist terror threatens us all.

Let us pray that, just we created a sanctuary for God to dwell among us, the human heart becomes a sanctuary for God do dwell within us all. Ken Yehi Ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin