Archive for the ‘Darfur’ category

The Shoah and Today 2019

May 6, 2019

Last Thursday was Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is 74 years since the liberation of the camps and the conclusion of the war, yet we still hold these memorials observances. As well we should, for we must never forget what happened in Europe when the forces of hate were released from the shackles of conscience and morality.

Yet what does that really mean in terms of our observances today, 74 years later? Are our observances just a memorial to the 6 million Jewish martyrs that perished in the Holocaust? That must not be, for there were 3 million non-Jewish victims that shared their fate. They were Roma and Sinti; gay men, women, and the transgendered; Jehovah’s Witnesses and the mentally disabled; Blacks, Communists and political dissidents. They, too, we must remember and mourn, or at least we should. Are today’s observances solely a deep dive into dark memory or should they be more than that? Are they merely a solemn celebration of the vanquishing of one evil at one time in history or should they be more than that as well?

There is no rhyme or reason to the sacrifice of those 9 million lives, nevertheless the millions of war casualties both military and civilians. No one can justify their suffering and their destruction. These martyrs were victims of what happens when mindless evil is allowed to run rampant and unchecked in the world. But if we are satisfied to treat their loss as this profoundly tragic stain on the fabric of human history, then we have not done their martyrdom justice. If all they have become is a painful yet vague memory of people too numerous to name, then they truly have died in vain. We cannot allow that to happen.

We must take their sacrifice and give it meaning; true meaning and not just some superficial meaning meant to assuage the human guilt of allowing it to happen. From their sacrifice we must learn vital lessons about what we need to do in order to prevent this from ever happening again. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” These martyrs must be our teachers as to what we need to do so that this history is never repeated. These are the lessons of NEVER AGAIN! NOT TO THE JEWS! NOT TO ANYONE! NEVER AGAIN should we allow anyone to single out a group of people, or several groups of people, and declare them unworthy as human beings. NEVER AGAIN should we stand idly by while others are singled out for discrimination, for persecution, or for extermination, while we say to ourselves, “Well it’s not my problem!” NEVER AGAIN should we remain silent, and through our silence, allow those in power to pursue policies that dehumanize and demonize whole segments of society, and then justify the mistreatment of those segments on the grounds of their hate-filled lies and their degrading stereotypes. There is an old saying: “Silence equals Assent” and we must never give our assent to evil.

So where do we begin? We must begin at the beginning. You would think that is the obvious answer, but not really. Why? Because today, when we look at the Holocaust, we tend to look at is as through a “rearview mirror,” perceiving it as a whole, with Auschwitz predominating our view. But the Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz. It ended there. Rather the Holocaust was an evolving process, starting with anti-Jewish laws which carved the Jews out of society and defined than as the “other.” It is with those anti-Jewish laws that we must begin, for that is where the Nazis began as they set out on their road which ultimately lead to Auschwitz and the Final Solution.

Between 1933 and 1939, the Nazis enacted more than 2,000 anti-Jewish laws. While in the 1930s most people, including the Jews, could not conceive of the gas chambers, still the road to genocide began with these anti-Jewish laws.

In the 1930’s, the Nazis transformed their bigotry into law, and sad to say, that process of transformation is still being practiced around the world, and some would say, even in our own country. As we consider some of the policies in place today in the United States and around the world, comparing them to some of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws of the ‘30’s, let us ask ourselves, “Do we hear in them echoes of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws?”

On April 7, 1933 the Nazis enacted the Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service which forbid all Jews from serving the German government in any capacity.

Our society has long discriminated against the LGBTQ community. For the last several years, we have been reducing such discrimination. Yet recently our government announced that transgender men and women could no longer serve in the military. Captain Jennifer Peace was among trans service members who testified before Congress. She shared her reactions upon first learning of this ban. She said, “I think it was in that moment that for the first time I really questioned, ‘Why am I still waking up and putting on this uniform when time and again I am not able to serve?’ Why should I wait to deploy and risk my life again when the people I am serving do not even want me here?” In the pain in her words do we hear an echo of the pain felt by those German Jews who, in 1933, also were told that they could no longer serve their country?

On April 21, 1933 the Nazis enacted a law banning the practice of Kosher slaughter. In their propaganda, they portrayed Kosher slaughter as perversely cruel, and therefore symptomatic of what they claimed to be the inhuman cruelty of the Jews. Considering the fact that from ancient days, Kosher slaughter was specifically designed to cause the least pain and suffering on the part of the animal, the Nazi assault on it was just a veiled attempt to further demonize the Jews.

Today, in Europe, seven nations – Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, & Switzerland – all ban the Jewish and Muslim practices of Kosher and Hallal slaughter, also claiming to do so on grounds of cruelty. Do we hear an echo of the Nazi ban on Kosher slaughter in these current bans?

In July 1938, an international conference to discuss the issue of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was held in Evian, France, with representatives of 32 nations attending. In the end, most countries, including the U.S. and Great Britain, continued to refuse to admit these refugees, claiming, among other reasons, issues of national security.

After a year of public debate and court battles, in December 2017 the Supreme Court gave its approval to a travel ban which primarily targets refugees from 5 Muslim countries; Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The reason given for this ban is, like the one given in 1938, “national security.” However, when one examines the acts of terrorism, and the attempted acts of terrorism, that have taken place between the nightmare of September 11, 2001 and the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting on October 27, 2018, there appears a serious inconsistency with the reasoning behind the ban. During that time period, 78 attacks or attempted attacks have been recorded. Of them, only 15 involved foreign nationals. The rest were conducted by domestic terrorists. Of the 15 attacks or attempted attacks involving foreign nationals, only 2 of the 5 Muslim countries had nationals from their nations involved; Somalia and Yemen. Yet there were 15 other nations – Muslim and non-Muslim – that had nationals involved in these attacks or attempted attacks, yet none of those nations appear on the list of the banned. Several Holocaust survivors have spoken out against this ban. Aaron Elster, who was the speaker at my own community’s interfaith Yom HaShoah service in 2003, said, “For someone to come along and say, ‘These people cannot come in,’ I believe that’s a sliding slope. It starts that way. What group will be next?” Though the order claims the ban to be “Temporary” with a possibility of becoming permanent, Fritzie Fritzshall, who also was the speaker at my own community’s interfaith Yom HaShoah service in 2004, said that for those whose lives are in danger, “90 days is a lifetime.” Do we hear the echo of the doors that were closed by the nations of the world to the Jews fleeing for their lives from the Nazis in this travel ban?

As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, countless families were torn apart, whether through parents making the heart-wrenching choice to save their children by sending them to England on the Kindertransports or turning them over to non-Jews willing to hide them, or during the selection process when they first arrived at the camps.

The issue of U.S. immigration reform has been hotly debated for many years. Unfortunately, trapped within this controversy are the children of aspiring immigrants and those whose families feel they have no choice but to send their children alone to our nation in search of refuge from the violence in their own lands.
In 2014, the former administration considered sending unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America back to the dangers of their native lands. However, nationwide protests convinced the government to set aside such plans.

But now our current administration plans to reinstate its Zero Tolerance approach to deterring undocumented immigration which includes a policy of Family Separation. Children of families crossing the border without proper documentation will be taken from their families and held by our government. This policy does not include measures to eventually reunite these families. Detainees have testified to Congress that even families lawfully requesting asylum were separated.

Members of the Hidden Children Foundation, representing children hidden during the Holocaust, expressed their deep concerns over the Family Separation Policy. Co-Director Rachelle Goldstein, who herself was separated from her parents at age 3, said, “Separation of the family is probably the worst thing that ever happened to us…When you take a child away from the parents, from the home, from everything that they know, they are never the same…Most hidden children are now in their late 70s, 80s, some are even 90, and they still think about it, and it still hurts, it still aches.” Do we hear the echo of the crying children, torn from their families as a result of Nazi persecution, in the sobs of the children impacted by our own Family Separation policy today?

Nazi anti-Jewish legalization culminated in January 1942 with the ultimate anti-Jewish policy – genocide. They called it the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The Nuremburg War Crimes Trials outlawed genocide for all time. Unfortunately, genocide lives on, from the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda, to the ISIS massacres of entire Christian villages. Today, the Rohingya of Myanmar are victims of an ethnic cleansing. In December the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said it found “compelling evidence” that this is yet another genocide. Do we hear the echoes of the anguished last breaths of victims of the Nazi gas chambers and killing fields on the lips of today’s slaughtered Rohingya?

When governments target whole groups of people, all humanity suffers. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped, may we come to measure people as individuals solely by “the content of their character.”

In memory of the Holocaust martyrs, Yom HaShoah must not only speak of past transgressions but it must challenge the transgressions of today; transgressions that have become all to numerous, both at home and abroad!

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What Do We Do About Syria?: One Jewish Perspective

September 8, 2013

Over a week ago, I received a phone call from a dear friend and colleague.  He was seeking my advise as he was preparing some remarks about the situation in Syria which he was planning to deliver to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah, should the United States take action against her by then.  At that point, I told him that I was not going to prepare such a text because the situation was so fluid.  If the need did arise, I most likely would speak extemporaneously.  However, that was before President Obama decided to turn this decision over to the Congress.  With the matter now up for debate in the Congress, with all the variables which that implies, I changed my mind about prepared remarks.  Below are the remarks that I did prepare and present to my congregation at the beginning of our Rosh Hashanah evening service.  They constitute, as my title states, ONE Jewish perspective; obviously one with which I agree.  It is not the only Jewish perspective, but it is mine.  Since these remarks were in addition to the sermon I had prepared for the evening, they were as limited in scope as I was limited in the time I could set aside to present them.  I wish that I could have fleshed them out even further, especially in terms of my vision of what actions the U.S. should and should not take.  In particular, I would have liked to address the multitude of humanitarian actions that the U.S. has yet to take, and should be taking, regarding aid to the thousands of refugees who have fled across the Syrian borders into the lands of several of her neighbors, seeking to escape the ravages of war.  I do want to acknowledge my indebtedness to the authors so many excellent articles, many written by colleagues.  I particular want to mention an article written by Donniel Hartman, entitled “Syria, Moral Responsibilities and Ambiguous Circumstances,” for I found his reflections most stimulating and inspiring.  I now share with you the remarks I shared with my congregation:

As we gather on this Rosh Hashanah eve there is a cloud hanging over our nation and the world.  It is the cloud of war.  President Obama has, in the strongest of terms, expressed his view that it is absolutely necessary that our nation take punitive military actions against Syria in response to that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.  In just a few days our Congress will begin to debate whether or not to affirm our President’s call to action.  To read the newspapers and listen to the electronic media, it is clear that public opinion is torn over whether or not to act, and if to act, how to act.

There have been those who have asked me, “What is the Jewish perspective on this issue?”  That is a difficult question, yet a very important one, for how can we gather on the High Holy Days and not ponder the rights and wrongs of this dire situation?  Therefore, I have taken advantage of the early High Holy Days and have chosen to postpone to Yom Kippur my annual Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal, which I usually share with you at this time in order that I can take this opportunity to at least open the discussion of how Jewish texts, teachings, values, and experiences can aid each of us in our own decision making as to whether or not to support the President’s call to action.

I would like to be able to say that Jewish sources are clearly on one side of this issue or the other, but they are not.  Just as there are those in our country today who say we must respond and those who say we must not put ourselves at risk by getting involved in another people’s war, so we will find Jewish texts of equally divided opinion.

In the Torah we read “You must not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed”[1] – in fact we will read that very text on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Yet the rabbis saw a limitation to that requirement.  They tell us that even though we are required to rescue others, we are not required to do so at the cost us our own lives.  In the Talmud, in Tractate Baba Metzia, there is a case presented in which two people are in the desert but only one of them has a bottle of water.  If they share the water, they both will die while if only one drinks, that person will survive.  What should be done?  The rabbis decided that the owner of the water should keep it for himself, and survive, for one’s own life takes precedence over the life of another.[2]

In these two texts we see the core of both sides of the argument as being waged today.  On one side, in the spirit of Leviticus, there are those who claim we have a moral obligation to rescue those who are being callously slaughtered in Syria.  On the other side, in the spirit of Tractate Baba Metzia, there are those who argue against intervention lest it cost more American lives.  It is this very ambiguity between the perspectives of Leviticus and Baba Metzia which has kept us out of the Syrian conflict up until now.

But now the game has changed as the Asad regime has introduced the use of chemical weapons even though they are illegal and constitute weapons of mass destruction.  What is a weapon of mass destruction?  It is a weapon which when deployed kills on a mammoth scale, making no distinction among its victims between combatants and non-combatants.  In utilizing such weaponry, the Syrian government forces have crossed the line from waging conventional warfare to perpetrating atrocities.  This is the red line of which President Obama has often spoken.

Why is this red line so important?  Because failing to take action when chemical weapons are used because, at this particular time, somebody else and not our people, are the targets, is to give tacit approval to the use of chemical weapons in general; it is to send a message to any despot, any terrorist group, any evil doer that they, too, are free to employ such weapons against any target they so choose.  Today, the target is the Syrian rebels.  Tomorrow it very likely could be Israel.  But it could also be London or Wash­ington or New York.  If our experience with terrorism has taught us anything, it has taught us that if left unchallenged, there is no containing terrorist activities and everyone is a potential target.

That brings us to the argument of self defense; that taking action against Syria now is actually an act of self defense lest at some future time someone chooses to use such weapons against us.  Here, too, Jewish texts have something to say.  In the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Laws, we are told that we are obligated to take the life of the “pursuer” – someone who is attempting to kill us – in order to save our own life.[3]  So if we view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as potentially opening the door to the proliferation of such use, which in turn would endanger the American people, then  taking action against Syria is necessary.

Stepping away from classical Jewish texts, we also need to look at historical Jewish experience.  One most certainly can draw a parallel between Syria having crossed the line in its use of chemical weapons against its people with the Nazi’s crossing the line in their use of chemical weapons – the gas chambers – against the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again!”  When we said it, we did not just mean, “Never again will we permit them to do this to Jews.”  Rather what we meant is that “Never again will we permit one group of people to do this to any other group of people.”  We have already failed in that commitment when we turned a blind eye to the slaughter in Rwanda.  And though we spoke a good game about our opposition to the genocide in Darfur, our response was painfully slow and inadequate.  The question becomes, will we once again fail to live up that pledge?  If we do fail, then we have to face up to the fact that there is a great deal of hypocrisy ever time we hold a Yom HaShoah service.

If we choose to act, what should be the outcome we seek?  It should not be regime change or supporting one side over the other in the Syrian civil war.  A civil war is just that; a civil war; an internal national struggle between citizens, which must be resolved internally.  Rather the outcome we should seek is to send a clear and decisive message that if you need to fight to resolve your internal differences, the go ahead and do so, but you must do it with conventional weapons and not with weapons of mass destruction.  We will not tolerate the use of such weapons and we will not stand idly by if they are used.

Lastly, what about Israel?  People on both sides of this issue have claimed that they have Israel’s best interests at heart.  First of all, we need to understand that no matter how the Syrian civil war ultimately resolves, Israel is the loser.  If the rebels win, then Israel will find the rebels’ allies – Al Qaeda – camped along its borders, ready to strike.  If Asad’s forces win, then the hands of Hezbollah will have been strengthened and Iran emboldened.  Yet as great as those threats are to Israel, far more does she fear that American inaction at this time will give her enemies the green light to employ chemical weapons against her.  Nothing could make that clearer than the fact that Israeli leaders from such opposite ends of the spectrum as are Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres agree on this matter.

It is no easy task to keep the world safe from those who revel in death and destruction.  May we find in this quagmire an all too hidden path to peace.

AMEN


[1]LEVITICUS 19:16.

[2]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Baba Metzia 62a.

[3]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 72a and Shulchan Aruch 425.

Bystanders

October 14, 2011

As most of you know, aside from serving as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, for as long as I have lived in this community, I also have served on the faculty of the Theology Department at St. Ambrose University; a position I inherited from my predecessor, Rabbi Robert Benjamin, of blessed memory.  At St. Ambrose, I teach one Jewish studies course per semester.  While over the years I have taught many different courses, early on I made the decision to dedicate one semester a year to a course on the Holocaust.  It might interest you to know that the St. Ambrose administration supported, and continues to support, that decision, and one need only look at the heavy enrollment in my Holocaust classes to see that the students support it as well.

Back in rabbinical school, even though my major field of study was Jewish history, I never envisioned myself as any sort of Holocaust scholar.  My scholarly pursuits centered upon the period of Jewish history known as the Second Commonwealth; the time between the Maccabees and the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Masada.  I left Holocaust studies to my good friend, Peter Weintraub, who had the great privilege of doing some studying with none other than Eli Wiesel.  Ironically, all these years later, I find myself teaching the Holocaust and being invited to attend scholarly seminars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while several years ago, Peter chose to leave the rabbinate in favor of becoming a wealthy man, taking over his family’s very lucrative import-export business.  Life is funny that way.   It never plays out as we think it will.  It twists and turns and takes us to some of the most unexpected places.  So I have found myself living in Iowa, teaching the Holocaust.

There is an interesting thing about teaching a subject on a college level.  The more you teach the subject, the more you yourself learn about it.  It is not long before you start discovering that there are certain aspects of that subject, about which you did not give much thought before, but you come to realize that they happen to be very important.  Often, the public pays little attention to these aspects but you become convinced that it is precisely these aspects that should be receiving a lot of attention.

So it has been with my studying of the Holocaust.  While I could tick off for you a list of Holocaust issues which should receive more of our attention, I won’t.  Rather I want to spend some time this morning focusing on one such issue; the issue which has come to be known as “The Bystanders.”

Who were the Bystanders and why do I think that they are so important?

When most people think about the Holocaust and the groups of people that played a role in the Holocaust, they tend to focus their attention on two main groups, those groups being the “Perpetrators” – the evil Nazis who committed these atrocities – and the “Victims” – the innocent civilians who suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis.  Indeed, even when it comes to the Victims, most of our attentions are directed toward the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered, while we tend to ignore or minimize the other 3 million non-Jewish victims; the mentally and physically disabled, the Roma – which is the appropriate title for what most people call Gypsies – the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Afro-Europeans, the Communists, and the political dissidents.

However, the cast of characters in the Holocaust was more complex than that.  The Holocaust was not just a matter of black-&-white; of bad guys and good guys; of Nazis and Jews.  There were shades of gray as well.  There was a continuum of players that need to be carefully considered.

On the Perpetrators’ side of the continuum, you also had the Collaborators.  These people were not Nazis.  Most of them were not even German.  They were of many nationalities.  Regardless of where they were born or where they lived, they shared a certain affinity with the Nazis, and particularly with the Nazis’ hatred of the Jews.  Therefore, when the Nazis invaded their countries, they did not resist the invaders but chose to actively assist them, particularly in their efforts to exterminate the Jews.  Accounts of the Holocaust are filled with testimonies of how Lithuanian and Ukranian collaborators and guards were even more brutal than the Nazis in their treatment of the victims.  The Arrow Cross, Hungary’s home grown Nazi-like fascists, were notorious for their cruelty.  In almost every occupied country there were those who were all too ready to lend the Nazis a helping hand, or if not a helping hand, at least to take full personal advantage of the suffering state of the victims.

On the Victims’ side of the continuum, you had the Rescuers; to whom Yad VaShem, the Israel Holocaust museum, has bestowed the title, the Righteous Among the Nations.  These people were not members of any of the targeted groups, yet they were driven by the call of their conscience.  Witnessing injustice, they felt impelled to act.  At the very real risk of their lives, they went out of their way to do all they possibly could to protect and save those who the Nazis had marked for imprisonment, suffering, and death.  Some of their names have become well known to us, like Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies, Corrie Ten Boom, and Irena Sendler.  There are many whose names are known, but not nearly as well known.  And there are many whose names will never be known because they worked in secret and were caught and executed in secret, or because they worked in secret and never shared their secrets, even after the war.

Still there was another group who played a role in the Holocaust.  In fact, they were the biggest group of all, yet they are the ones we talk about the least.  They were the Bystanders.

The Bystanders were all those people who stood by in Germany and Austria, or during the Nazi occupation of their countries and elected to help neither the Perpetrators nor the Victims.  They were the ones who saw what was happening and chose to do nothing about it.  They watched as their neighbors and fellow countrymen were rounded up and sent away to the ghettos and the camps, or were taken out to the forests and shot.  They watched and said nothing.  They watched and did nothing.  After the war, they would claim innocence.  After all, they did not participate in the persecutions.  They did not lift a hand against the Victims.  But then again, neither did they lift a hand to help them.  “What could I do?” many would claim.  “If I tried to interfere, the Nazis would have punished me and my family.  I was powerless.  My first obligation was to my family and myself.  Sure, I felt bad about what was happening to those people.  It was horrible what they did to them!  But that was their problem, not mine.  I had problems of my own.”

Nor were the Bystanders only to be found under Nazi rule.  There were plenty of Bystanders here in America and in Great Britain as well.  They heard about what the Nazis were doing to their Victims and they kept silent.  They did not call upon their free governments to act; to save.  The entry gates to the United States, Great Britain, and Palestine, all were closed and locked.  The Victims were pleading to have those gates opened, and the American Bystanders and the British Bystanders said nothing; did nothing to help them.  “We’re just coming out of the Depression.  The job market is fragile.  We can’t let all those foreigners in.  They’ll steal our jobs!” were the cries so often heard in defense of doing nothing.  Sad to say, among those Bystanders were many Jews; Jews like you and me.

Were the Bystanders innocent, as they claimed to have been?  No.  Not by a long short.  They may not have lifted their hands to actively help the Perpetrators, but by their very choice to stand by, saying nothing, doing nothing, they in effect enabled the Perpetrators to do their worst.  They could do their worst because they knew that no one was going to stand up to them in opposition.  As Edmund Burke so astutely observed, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Those Bystanders; most of them were probably good men and women, but they chose to do nothing.

Could they have done something or was their paralyzing fear of the Nazis truly well founded?  Would helping have without question or doubt resulted in their destruction?  While many would say yes, one need look no further for another model than to countries like Denmark and Italy.  For in such countries, there were to be found enough good people who chose NOT to do nothing that a majority of the targeted Victims were in fact saved.  Practically the entire Jewish population of Denmark was saved because the Danish people chose to do something, and not nothing.  In Italy, 80% of the Jews survived because there were so many Italians who chose to do something, and not nothing.  In such countries, those who could have been Bystanders chose not to stand by, and in so choosing made all the difference in the world; and in so choosing, proved themselves to be beacons of justice and right and good.

Of all the players on the stage of the Holocaust, it is the Bystanders who have the most to say to us today.  And what they say is, “Don’t become like us!  Don’t carry on your souls, the sins we carry on ours!”

When my St. Ambrose students and I discuss the Bystanders, not all of them but many of them, perhaps most of them, are quick to declare that they could never have been a Bystander.  Indeed, they proclaim that they cannot fathom how anyone could have stood by and done nothing.  If they were there, they most certainly would have done something!  They claim that, but then I ask them, “Tell me.  What have you done to feed the hungry in our own community?  What have you done to help the homeless?  What did you do about the genocide that was taking place in Darfur?  What are you doing about the starving multitudes in Somalia and East Africa?  Did you ever see someone being bullied in school, whether it be this school or back when you were in high school?  What did you do to stop it?  What have you done to help stop human trafficking?  Do you even know what human trafficking is?  Have you ever actively protested against discrimination directed at homosexuals or people of color?  What have you done in response to ads – especially political ads – which demonize Muslims and immigrants, whether legal or undocumented?  What have you done to stand up against those states which have enacted laws permitting the profiling of certain groups of citizens, making them vulnerable to increased scrutiny and intolerable treatment?”  These questions most of them cannot comfortably answer, for while they talk about standing up, in reality they more often than not choose to stand by.

Now my students at St. Ambrose are not evil people.  They are part of Edmund Burke’s good people.  Nor are they alone, for they have plenty of company.  And in that company, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us can be numbered.

We consider ourselves to be good people, but still, when we hear or we read in the news about all those people in this world that are suffering, whether they are being denied food or clothing or shelter or equality or freedom, or even their lives, we may feel sorry for them, but how often do we do something to actually help them?  Their plight might be tragic, but they are so far away.  Their world is not our world, so it is easy for us to ignore them or forget them.  And there are so many of them, we cannot help them all.  There are so many problems out there.  It is beyond our ability to solve them all.  So we wind up convincing ourselves that since we cannot help them all, we need not help any of them; since we cannot begin to solve all those problems, we need not contribute to solving any of them.  We just need to get on with our lives.  It is tragic what is happening to them but we have our own problems.  Sound familiar?  It should.  For we have become the Bystanders.

Now wait a minute, Rabbi?  How can you compare us to all those people who passively stood by and watched as 9 million innocent souls perished at the hands of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust?  Well, perhaps you did not hear what I said during my Hunger Appeal on Rosh Hashanah.  There are 12 million innocent souls in East Africa, right now – not 70 years ago – who are in very real danger of perishing from starvation, and what have we done?  How much have we done?  Can we do more?  Or will we choose to go “tsk, tsk!” and then put it out of our minds.  East Africa is thousands of miles from the Quad Cities.

In the streets of Syria, people are being gunned downed by soldiers simply because they wish to protest in the name of freedom.  I know that the Syrians are not our friends, and as hostile as the current Syrian government is to Israel and the Jewish people, if a new government arises, there is a good chance that it may even prove to be more hostile.  But still, people should have a right to express their hunger for freedom.  It should not have to cost them their lives.  But what have we done in their defense?  We have watched it on the news and read about it in the papers and have done nothing.

On the very borders of our country, there are those who are desperate to flee from a life of poverty and deprivation.  They yearn to grasp the promise that has always been America’s promise.  The very same promise that brought our own ancestors to the shores of this country.  But in response to their aspirations, we build fences to keep them out, send out patrols to drive them back, and establish laws which enable the authorities to stop any Latino looking person on the street and arrest them if they cannot adequately prove that they are citizens of this great republic.  And what do we do about it.  We do little if anything to stop it, and there are those of us who encourage it and want it to increase.

It is true that as individuals, we cannot solve all the problems of the world.  By ourselves, we cannot eradicate poverty or disease or injustice.  But that in no way permits us to do nothing.  In PIRKE AVOT, Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying, “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor, V’lo Atah Ben Horeen L’hibatayl Mimena – While you are not required to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, we may not be able to do everything, but we ought to do something, for something is far better than nothing.  And you know, if I do a little something, and each of you do a little something, and our friends and neighbors decide to join us and do a little something, the next thing you know, we are Denmark!  For we have come together, each of us doing our little something, which when you put it all together adds up to something great.  The world can change – dramatically change for the better – if we but choose to stand up instead of stand by.  In a moral universe – and I would hope that you would join me in wanting to create a moral universe – there is simply no room for bystanders.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

Facing the Next Decade

December 31, 2009

Tomorrow evening is New Year’s Eve – well, the secular one anyway – and I find it hard to believe that on it we will be welcoming in the second decade of the 21st century.

It seems like only yesterday that we were living in anticipation and dread of Y2K; both the advent of the 21st century and the prophesied melt down of everything computer in the world.  Ironically, as we were filled with dread of the potential demise of our cyber-centered universe, I could not help be ponder how liberating that could be.  For I am one of those folks who is convinced that while technology has contributed much to our lives, even more has it enslaved us.  I remember when the hype was that the technological revolution would liberate us; provide us with more free time and leisure.  Well, tell that to the person who each morning opens their email to be greeted by 100 or more messages, some easily deletable but most expecting an instantaneous response – don’t think!  just write!  And then, of course, there are our cell phones.  When I was growing up – in the days of rotary dial corded phones – we did not even have answering machines, nevertheless cell phone.  That is, except for Dick Tracy with his two-way wrist radio – “Calling Dick Tracy!  Calling Dick Tracy!”  If someone called and you were not home, they would just have to call back later, or not.  Now they can call you anywhere, anytime.  “Hello?  Where are you?  You sound strange.”  “Maybe that is because I am in Phoenix, in a restaurant, in the bathroom!”  No escape.  We are prisoners.  And you wonder why in the secret recesses of my heart I carried the smallest hope that all that Y2K jabber was more than mere hype?

It seems like only yesterday we welcomed the 2000’s.  I remember so very well being at a house party with my children.  As midnight was approaching, we all left the house and walked to a nearby park which provided an excellent vantage point for the public fireworks which ushered in the new century.  And they were magnificent.  As I stood there, in the midwestern winter cold, with the display lighting up the night sky, I could not help but gaze upon my children and wonder whether or not they appreciated the import of the moment.  For here we were, parents and children together, celebrating a moment which none of us would ever live to see again; the start of a new century.  That would be the privilege of my grandchildren and great grandchildren; their children and grandchildren.  And I cannot even begin to attempt to calculate how many generations it will be before parents and children can once again stand together to welcome a new milennia.

How time has flown!  For we turn around and we are already entering yet another decade.  How I pray that we make far better use of our time in this coming decade than we did in the last.

O how we approached the 21st century with such hopes and dreams!  What promise it held for us!  The media was filled with reports featuring the various visions of the future held by both people of note and the man or woman on the street, and they all were positive.  Yet when I think back on these past 10 years, it pains me to consider how we have failed to live up to those visions, those promises, those hopes.  It pains me to consider how dark and dismal a decade was this first decade of this new century.  A bloody one, indeed, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with genocide in Darfur, with not one but four separate grisly conflicts between the Israelis and their adversaries, the Palestinians and Hezbollah – the Second Intifada, the invasion of the West Bank, the Lebanon War, and the Gaza War.  There has been brutal terrorism galore, the most agonizing incident of which, at least of us Americans, was 9-11.  Of course, that was not the only one.  Trains have been blown up, suicide bomber have struck both  inside and outside of Israel, missile and mortar attacks on civilian settlements in southern Israel, Mumbai.  The list is too long and too painful to recount in its entirety.

Nor was armed conflict this decade’s only ill.  Hunger remains a rampant disease afflicting our planet.  The number of its victims continues to grow rather than diminish.  As I write these words, our economy – our global economy – has seriously faltered.  Unemployment in our own great country is disgracefully high.  My wife was without a full time job for 13 months.  I thank God she finally found one she likes.  Far too many of her fellow Americans have not been nearly as fortunate.  As if these things were not bad enough, blind hatred has once again reared its ugly head in our land.  Hate groups are on the rise, spreading their bile about people of color, undocumented immigrants, and of course, Jews.  Even worse – yes, even worse – there are far too many who mask their prejudice in the sanctimonious cloak of religion.  These people profess to adhere to a faith doctrine of love while at the same time they take every opportunity to attack and degrade their fellow human beings simply because they do not share their sexual orientation.  They solemnly proclaim that they stand four square against any form of discrimination but that they also stand four square against any attempt to grant equal rights to those with a same sex orientation.  They wave their bibles as if those sacred texts were their personal license to persecute others.

One could even wonder whether or not God was intent upon crushing the new century’s promise of hope.  Tsunami, Katrina, Global Warming.  Enough said.

But ten years does not a century make.  We still have another ninety with which to work.  We still can make the 21st century the greatest century for humankind.  But whether or not that comes to fruition is entirely within our own hands.  It is up to us to decide to make this the century of peace rather than of war; of prosperity rather than of poverty; of dignity rather than of degradation; of hope rather than of heartache.

We may have squandered the first decade but if we so choose, the dream can begin now.  May this second decade usher in all the good we have longed for in this new century.

Happy New Year, one and all!