“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 The bone, eaten away by the cancer, had been replaced by rods and screws.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.
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©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.
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©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin

“Je Suis Charlie”? What Took You So Long? – Friday, January 9, 2015

I am writing these words as Shabbat approaches, two days after the horrific slaughter in Paris, in which Islamic terrorists murdered twelve people, including the entire editorial staff of the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” purportedly for insulting the prophet Mohammed and therefore the entirety of the Muslim world. The killers are still on the loose, and now another armed gunman associated with them has taken hostages at a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris, on a Friday morning when he clearly knew the market would be crowded with pre-Shabbat shoppers.

As the two terrorist brothers – at least one of them well known to French security forces as a jihad recruiter – remain at large, the French nation has been joined by others across the globe in protest of this cold, calculated, well-planned mass murder. “Je Suis Charlie,” posters and t-shirts and social-networking sites proclaim, “I Am Charlie.” Condemnation for terror and sympathy for France have come in from throughout the Western world and in some isolated spots in the Muslim world, such as Egypt. Je Suis Charlie? Really? What took you all so long?

This is, after all, not the first time that Muslim terrorists have created carnage in France. In March of 2012, four people – a rabbi and three children – were killed at a Jewish day school in Toulouse. In the summer of 2014, anti-Israel demonstrations throughout France turned violent and ugly, with rioters trapping terrified worshipers at a synagogue in Paris and screaming “Death to Jews” and “Hitler was right.” Even after it became clear that Israel’s incursion into Gaza was merely a pretext for unbridled Jew-hatred, there was a respectable amount of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing but not much else.

So what’s changed? Simply, that the targets of Islamic terror in Europe are no longer just Jews.

Let’s face it, as long as it was Jews who were being attacked – or Jewish children killed – the world could blame Jews themselves for causing the problems. It’s Israel’s fault for building a security fence. It’s Israel’s fault for bombing Gaza. Now, the world knows what we Jews have known all along: These attacks were not on Jews alone. They were attacks on the very foundations of modern, democratic Western society, including freedom of speech and of religion.

Along with economic opportunity, these were freedoms that drew many of our grandparents and great-grandparents from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to America in the last century. My great-grandmother wanted her children to “be Americans” – not only to speak English and to be educated in the American public school system but, more than anything else, to embrace America’s modern democratic principles and freedoms from which such economic opportunity sprung.

That is not necessarily true of at least some of the millions of immigrants who have made their way to Europe from Muslim nations of the middle and near east, but who seemed determined to lock their children into the closed social and political world from which they came. They do not accept that if one moves to an open society for economic reasons, one must accept the open-ness of the society in general.

In Hebrew, we call this principle “Dina d’malchuta dina” – the law of the land is the law. It is an acknowledgement by Jews who no longer live in closed systems, where one’s entire way of life is controlled by rabbinic law courts and independent Jewish jurisprudence, that one must abide by the secular legal, ethical and societal principles of the communities and nations in which one now lives. For some substantial number of Muslims in the West, it seems, this principle does not apply.

Perhaps this uncomfortable juxtaposition of old-country values espoused by their immigrant parents, versus new-country values espoused by Western democracy, plays a role in thousands of young people turning to jihad; such cultural alienation – a generation adrift — combined with perceived economic inequities could be a potent and toxic mixture.

Ironically, the principles on which Western civilization rests have allowed Islamic fundamentalism to creep into society along with the mass influx of millions of Muslims into Europe and Great Britain over the past two decades. Cognizant of the desire to respect all peoples’ beliefs and religious practices, Western governments have been loath to criticize, let alone circumscribe, the virulent hatred and intolerance spewing from numerous Muslim leaders who have taken up pulpits in England and Europe. To the contrary, many have bent over backwards to prosecute – not those who incite to jihad – but those who dare to criticize them. Politicians, artists, and cartoonists alike have been taken to task, and some taken to court, for daring to point out or poke fun. Some – Theo Van Gogh and now the entire staff of “Charlie Hebdo” – have been murdered for exercising their basic freedom of expression.

French Jews saw this coming, of course. Thousands of them made aliyah to Israel in 2014, many even in the midst of the Gaza incursion last summer. Israel under siege, they determined, was still a safer place for Jews than France. It’s not surprising they would be in the vanguard. We Jews always have known that intolerance against us is just the tip of the iceberg; that people who hate are, fundamentally, people who hate. They hate those who are different, those who do not conform, those who do not agree, those who do not submit. We Jews, few in number, are always an easy target for haters. But we also remember the words attributed to theologian Martin Niemoller in the horror of the Shoah:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

First the Islamists came for the Jews. But the world by and large did not speak out, because they were not Jews. Now the Islamists have come for the satirists. Does the world stand by, because most of them are not satirists? Do they think that the cartoonists of “Charlie Hebdo” are in a different category, because they, like Zionists, were asking for it? Or does this massacre fundamentally change the way that the West will respond to the intolerance and violence inherent in fundamentalist Islam?

Will we now be willing to expose, condemn, and, yes, silence hate speech that incites violence in the name of religion? Will Western media outlets reprint the cartoons of “Charlie Hebdo” and others like them, because they can and must stand up for freedom of expression? Will we finally learn that, by the time there is no one else to speak for us, it is too late?
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©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin