Friday, August 18, 2017

A Sermon on Charlottesville and Hatred

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Re’eh. It begins with a warning:

11:26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— 27 the blessing if you obey the commands of Adonai your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey.

What follows is a directive to stop worshipping in other places, places that were holy to the people of the land, important to other religious traditions. Only worship in Jerusalem.

Seek the place that Adonai your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go.

We usually leave this part of the Torah portion at that. But this week, the details are a bit more relevant.

12 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that Adonai, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.
You must not worship Adonai your God in their way. But you are to seek the place Adonai your God will choose from among all your tribes to put God’s name there for God’s dwelling. To that place you must go.
It’s a call for a purging, the destruction of the religious sites of others, the obliteration of the past. We usually read over it as if it is just a minor attachment to the command to worship in the place where Adonai chooses to place God’s name, which was understood already at the time to be Jerusalem.

We have generally assumed that directive to be about opposing other religious traditions. Then there were the events of this past weekend, centered on a protest against the removal by the City of Charlottesville, Virginia of a large statue of Robert E. Lee commissioned in 1917 and forged in 1924 that was placed in a city park named for the Confederate General, Lee Park. The entire sculpture, including its pedestal, is 26 feet high, 12 feet long, and 8 feet wide.

There are reasons that people argue in defense of historical markers and memorials. There is a value in remembering not only things that make us happy and proud, but things that remind us of what could have been and what was not good. If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past, it is important to remember the past. Yet, some reminders are painful, ones that poke open wounds or perhaps reopen healing ones. Rabbis have noted that one reason to argue for the removal of the pagan shrines was so that former idol worshippers would not be reminded of their old ways, perhaps made to feel inferior if they joined themselves to the Israelite people instead of being born an Israelite, nor tempted to follow harmful paths.

Some reminders, we might not want to have in places that we walk by every day or go to picnic with our children.

That is the discussion that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia over the past several years concerning the Robert E Lee statue, which the city council decided to remove from the site. But what actually happened in Charlottesville this weekend went far beyond protesting the removal of a statue.

First, there was what happened a week ago tonight. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am big fan of candlelight vigils. People sometimes hold candles and walk with them, often in support of peace. Such vigils can be quite beautiful. More than seven-hundred of us stood in solidarity in Cowles Commons on Monday evening. If there was no sound and no close up pictures of angry faces, the videos of the lights being carried through the University of Virgina Campus could have been part of another sort of demonstration… But there was sound and the close up images belied the lights amid the darkness.

The flames took on a different meaning and recalled memories of times that we would rather remain a part of the past.

As I noted at the vigil on Monday:

We Jews have seen those hate-filled faces before, marching with torches through many generations in many countries. Too often, historically, those torches have entered Jewish neighborhoods and set synagogues, businesses, and homes aflame. Most of the time, a small percentage of the local population was involved in the violence. The vast majority, including the local authorities, stood by and watched.

And so we come to what happened this past Shabbat morning.

In an article published by the Union for Reform Judaism on its website, Alan Zimmerman, the President of Beth Israel Synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia described the events:
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There's the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.
When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.
This is 2017 in the United States of America…
Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns – and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish – we were left to our own devices. The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.
The community’s leadership stood idly by. Most of the rest of the community stood idly by.

Then a man drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters. It certainly appeared to be a significant escalation of the hatred and violence, an act of terrorism. Someone died, Heather Heyer. Many were injured. Then later two police officers who had been monitoring the violence in a helicopter died when it crashed, Berke Bates and H Jay Cullen.

We cried out, along with other targets of the hatred expressed in Charlottesville, to our national leaders, to our President, seeking understanding, seeking action. At first, in the morning, there was generic condemnation of violence on “many sides.”

Some were immediately angered at the equivocation of the protesters and counter protesters. Others responded. “Violence is bad, no matter who does it. Yes. But what of the hateful ideology of these groups? The threats? Isn’t this terrorism? Isn’t one side maybe a bit worse? A bit more, perhaps a whole lot more, deserving of direct and specific condemnation here? How do you respond to their arguments that you support them?”

For a while on Saturday afternoon and then through Sunday, the response was mostly silence. We waited incredulously. Bit by bit, leaders issued statements condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Finally, on Monday the President issued a statement which he read, condemning them. That was good. Of course, actions speak louder than words and unscripted words tend to be a more accurate representation of actual beliefs than are scripted ones.

The next day, in a press conference, the President, speaking about the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, stated that there were “fine people” on both sides. “Fine people?” Among Nazis and White Supremacists?

Leading white supremacist figures offered their thanks for the sentiments.
People across the normative political spectrum spoke out with incredulity and condemnation, Republicans and Democrats.

While he may well have been speaking without thinking of how his statement could be understood, there is no scenario in which it would be acceptable for him not to have clarified his statement--very, very clearly… believe me… that he in fact does not believe that there are “fine people” among Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It is a moral and ethical obligation to make certain that no one could possibly interpret his statement in that direction. As several Republican leaders have suggested strongly, it is well past time for moral clarity and this is not difficult. There is nothing easier to do as a politician than to say that Nazis and White Supremacists are bad people.

When people wave Nazi flags & proclaim racist & hateful ideas while engaging in intimidation & violence, they are not "fine people."

It is a statement that could be tweeted. Under 140 characters. I checked.

On Monday, I spoke at the vigil downtown. I said that:

We are all God’s children. Jewish tradition tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Sometimes, too often if you ask me, that image is reflected with more than a bit of distortion, emphasizing the worst aspects of our nature.

It is not only in expressions of hatred and anger. Sometimes, the most problematic characteristic that comes to the fore is a willingness to stand by.

We often cite Maurice Ogden’s poem called “The Hangman,” when talking about standing by. Ogden’s poem is about a Hangman who comes into a town and begins to single out people for hanging. He begins with the weakest minority and then keeps dividing and dividing, singling out and singling out, until the very last person is finally hung upon the gallows.

"For who has served more faithfully?
With your coward's hope." said He,
"And where are the others that might have stood
side by your side, in the common good?"
"Dead!" I answered, and amiably
"Murdered," the Hangman corrected me.
"First the alien ... then the Jew.
I did no more than you let me do."
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
none before stood so alone as I.
The Hangman then strapped me...with no voice there
to cry "Stay!" ... for me in the empty square.
Who helped the most? The one who helped by not helping the others to avoid their fate, the one who stood aside as hatred was raised and the Hangman pursued the weak.
We will not be like the Hangman’s faithful servant. We will not watch silently and allow age old hatreds against Jews to rise again unchallenged. We will not simply look on as Mosques are threatened. We will not stand by and allow people to be attacked because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. We will not allow immigrants to be persecuted.
Let us declare that we will not allow ourselves to remain silent as hatred is offered. We will not be cowed into silence. We will not tolerate the torches of hatred marching through our campuses or our streets… even if, as Tiki Torches, they may keep away the mosquitoes.
This is our country. This is our home. May it always be truly both the land of the free and the home of the brave… and let us be brave.
Speak out. Stand up.

We will not stand idly by. No more. Never again. 
Shabbat Shalom