May you be like Ruth and like Esther: Confronting Anti-Semitism in our Time
Kol Nidrei – 2018 (Rabbi Brett Krichiver)
We came here tonight in search of a Kol Nidrei moment. This hypnotic melody, and the text which lives in it, is the very essence of the Days of Awe. We hear Kol Nidrei and contemplate what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be alive. It is an admonition, a meditation, a preparation and a confession. A plea to God, and an opening for God’s response. From this Yom Kippur until the next, may all our vows we were unable to fulfill, be null and void in Your eyes.
Kol Nidrei brings warmth and belonging into the room. We hear the familiar notes as one; we begin our holiest day breathing the same breath, connected to each other and to congregations around the world. But this same prayer also connects us to a deep sadness, a collective sorrow that is part of our identity as Jews. It is the mournful melody of ages past, when Kol Nidrei expressed the fear of violence our communities faced, especially during these Holy Days.
Some go so far as to suggest that Kol Nidrei was written by Marranos, the hidden Jews of Spain who desperately needed to absolve themselves of the lies they had told to escape certain death. They made the impossible choice to convert, and to continue their practice of Judaism in secret. Their choice to hide in response to real threats, although understandable, devastated Jewish communities in countries all over the world. We gather each year to remember them and commit to never hiding again.
In comparison to days of old, Jews have thrived living in free and tolerant societies. Most of us cannot fathom the hatred our people endured for most of Jewish history. Yet even today we see vestiges of these dark forces, lurking beneath the surface. We have all borne witness to the resurgence of overt anti-Jewish hatred in our city, in our country, and across the globe.
What do we do when hatred and evil surface in fresh paint on a brick wall in Carmel, Indiana? How do you feel when you see symbols used to destroy Jewish families and Jewish communities not a generation ago, in brilliant and proud colors on a neighboring synagogue? It sends a shudder down our spines, chills our hearts, and sits like a pit in our guts. It wakes us up, even those of us who are not surprised by this cowardly act.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Indiana reports that such incidents have been on the rise for the past number of months and years. In America, anti-Semitic incidents were up 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, the largest single jump on record. Events in Europe have escalated even more dramatically. Many Jews in Great Britain and France, both historically safe havens for our people, have decided to leave, and hundreds have made Aliyah – immigrated to Israel. Dame Margaret Hodge, a veteran Jewish MP in England’s Parliament, whose family was decimated in the Holocaust, said in a recent interview, “It’s rather difficult to define but there’s that fear and it reminded me of what my dad used to say to me. He always said to me as a child: ‘You’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry.”
I think I understand why “the oldest hatred” as it is known, hasn’t disappeared. Consider this psychological profile of a well-known world leader. “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat that lie frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it. [“OSS Psychological Profile of Hitler, Part Three”. Nizkor.org]
This was a report prepared by B’nai Brith Canada on the leadership style and character of Adolf Hitler. These tactics seem familiar in our time as well. We live in a time of extreme polarization and partisanship fear-mongering. In every time and place where this kind of instability has affected a society, that society has turned to place blame on minority and immigrant groups. Repeat the lie often enough, and people will believe it. Lies against the Jewish people are very, very old, and often repeated.
The instability of today is reminiscent of a generation ago. Economic gains are slow to improve the lives of many still suffering from the Great Recession. Politicians are again running on anti-immigrant and anti-trade platforms, disregarding the facts that we are a nation of immigrants who have always benefitted from immigration, and the fact we live more and more in a global economy and only harm ourselves by alienating our allies. The average US worker has no way of knowing the effects of these changes on their paycheck and their ability to feed their families or provide them with health care. Politicians regularly stoke the flames of fear. And historically, these were exactly the conditions which led to the revival of ancient anti-Semitic troupes.
Jon Stewart on his Daily Show used to quip that comparisons to the Holocaust should be off-limits. Yet, as much as they are overused, we find ourselves at the exact same crossroads that led Germany’s first-world, democratic and modern nation down a path of destructive transformation. Eventually industry and agriculture were corrupted into machinery designed solely to exterminate Jews.
That reality did not appear overnight. It emerged after a long descent into totalitarianism that was Hitler’s war against Europe and the world. When the Nazis unveiled the Final Solution, Germany gasped. But the erosion of democratic German society was complete, and by that time, there was no stopping the Nazi Party. Democracy had eroded in small parcels; fascism tightened its grip first on the remnants of the Weimar Republic, then all of Germany and the rest of Europe. And then half Europe’s Jews were gone.
The Holocaust did not begin with violence. It began with words – with the disappearance of civil discourse in Germany, replaced by the rhetoric of intolerance, scapegoating, and the revival of centuries-old propaganda against immigrants, foreigners, and Jews. Only later did we hear the chants of “blood and soil.”
We tell ourselves that the forces of evil unleashed during the Second World War have been vanquished to dark corners, and weakened to the point of insignificance. But the chill I feel down my spine hearing the sounds of Kol Nidrei reminds me that those groups are not insignificant, nor nearly as weak as we imagine.
This year Russell Walker is running for the state house of representatives in North Carolina. He wrote on his personal website that Jews were fathered by Satan, offering, in his words, “I did not write the Bible, I only quote from it.” and claiming that, “God is a white supremacist.” In Illinois, Arthur Jones, who won his Republican primary argued that the Holocaust is, “the biggest, blackest lie in history.”
And there is Corey Stuart running in Virginia, and John Fitzgerald in California. The only notable loss by a candidate spouting anti-Semitic rants was Wisconsin’s Paul Nehlen, who was supported by Sarah Palin, Anne Coulter, and other mainstream players. By the way, Nehlen blamed his loss on his campaign manager, who, as it turns out, was raised as a Jew. “They are never to be trusted” he wrote on Twitter.
Steve West also lost, but won almost fifty percent of the vote in Clay County, Missouri, after saying in a radio interview, “Hitler was right about what was taking place in Germany, and who was behind it. (KCXL, Jan. 2017) When asked what Jewish voters might think about his politics, his response was, “well maybe they shouldn’t vote for me.”
It is truly stunning. Each of these candidates running for public office in the United States of America either received large-scale support for, or were supported in spite of overt, public, hate-filled, racist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. When this kind of hate speech finds any foothold in the public square, history tells us it will be bad for the Jews.
It was just over a year ago that white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Virginia in what was billed as a “Unite the Right” rally. The images from Charlottesville, of torch-carrying extremists chanting, “Jews will not replace us” and of a car careening through a crowd of counter protesters shook us; scared us. Politicians were inexplicably slow in condemning Nazis for what they always have been: a manifestation of a principle of hate that must never be unanswered. Have we forgotten this lesson of history? How is this possible, we want to shout? Have we made no progress at all? Who will condemn them, if our elected leaders won’t?
I remember Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter offered a strong condemnation. “If such words must be expressed, I am pleased they will not go unanswered. I want to voice my complete solidarity with those citizens who will gather Sunday in a peaceful demonstration of their abhorrence of Nazism.” The message is clear, there can be no equivocation when it comes to defending our society from destructive hatred.
Today’s danger is countered by the strength of our interfaith partnerships, our vigilance and security measures, and the work we have done with lawmakers and law enforcement. I am extremely proud of the relationships we build every day with our Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Seik neighbors, with more denominations coming on board every month. But while this hatred does not currently pose an existential threat, it is unprecedented. Our time deserves and demands a response.
It is you and I who must respond, standing proudly next to our neighbors and people of all faiths who will stand with us. It is this congregation which must raise its voice every time someone says that Jews, or African Americans, or Mexicans, or any minority deserves to be stereotyped, seen as “other,” or accused of conspiracy.
Abe Foxman, past director of the Anti-Defamation League, reminds us, “Anti-Semitism has always been here. We have never eradicated it. We have made it unacceptable, put consequences on it. It was something that wasn’t done, said, or acted upon. What has changed,” according to Foxman and many others, “is a new permissiveness, a new legitimacy, a new emboldenment [sic].” (Jpost.com April 12, 2018)
There is no middle ground in the debate raging in our country even now. To be a Jew comes with great responsibility. If we consider ourselves to be the Chosen People that phrase must be more than the punch line of a joke. We have been chosen by God to stand for justice and every other Jewish value. And when we see those values threatened – when we see our own people threatened, by policy or spray paint, torches or tyranny, we must speak from our moral conscience to say “never again.”
On this Yom Kippur we need to declare to ourselves and to God that we will find any and every way to have our voices heard. We cannot retreat into hiding and we cannot be silent. We must be bold in our efforts to ensure our survival and our freedom and the freedom of all those who are treated unjustly. We must vote to create and support policies that advocate for justice, equality, and respect for Jews and all minority and marginalized groups in our society. We must recognize our own biases, and work hard to overcome them. We must be better, and expect others to be better. This is what it means to be the Chosen People.
We must ensure our voices are heard in our schools, our businesses and neighborhoods. We must find the courage to answer every subtle or overt denigration of our culture, our religion, our way of life. This includes informing others in our schools and workplaces about Jewish holidays, practices, and symbols, to strengthen relationships before there is an issue. We must educate others about the mezzuzahs on our doors, the Stars of David around our necks, and the Sukkot in our backyards.
And we must educate others about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Shockingly, in a recent study, twenty-two percent of millennials said they hadn’t even heard of the Holocaust. Two thirds did not know the name Auschwitz. Survivors are dying, first-hand accounts will be harder and harder to bear witness to. This is the lesson we learned after World War II, and countless times before that. If we stand idly by now, we will be pushed to the side by those in this country who claim their right to exist by denying us ours. We must be active partners in combating the hate they serve and the intolerance they preach. Anti- Semitism has always been a part of our story. If we do not tell that story now, our people will not survive it.
There is a powerful warning and lesson given to us by Tevye the Milkman, the one from Fiddler on the Roof, originally in stories by Sholom Aleichem. He tries his best to teach his daughters the value of Jewish tradition, but ultimately understands their desire to live in the modern world. Tevye’s family is at first unmoved by reports of pogroms and expulsions, not believing these events could affect them. But eventually they are forced out by anti-Semitism, and they pack up their belongings to head for a new Promised Land, America.
At the heart of this quintessential Jewish story is the blessing Tevye gives his children – the blessing we often include in our own Shabbat services at IHC and at our summer camps – in which we pray that our children grow up to be like Ruth and like Esther. It’s a rather strange pairing of Jewish heroines; but a poignant pair for the historical moment we find ourselves in right now.
Ruth is the archetype of the Jewish convert. Confronted with the choice to live a difficult life within the Jewish community, or to return to her Moabite origins, Ruth chooses a Jewish life of struggle. To be a Jew means to embrace the struggle and the fight for the sake of this community. Ruth’s reward is to know that King David, and later the Biblical Messiah, will be counted among her descendants.
Esther, the heroine of the Purim Megillah, also faces a choice – to embrace her Jewish identity and risk everything, or to remain hidden in the king’s palace while her fellow Jews suffer. Esther digs deep for the courage to risk her life for her Jewish identity and values. She emerges from hiding to fight for her people. And Tevye says, may you be like Ruth and like Esther, digging deep for the strength to save your people when you are called upon to do so.
Tevye the Milkman does not need his children to be like Abraham or Sarah, Jacob or Rachel or Leah – heading off on adventures and seeking the Promised Land. Rather, Tevye, representing a hundred generations of our family, needs his children, he needs us to be like Ruth and Esther – to confront the dangers of the twenty-first century like we have done in every century, by choosing the difficult, but honest path of Jewish practice, Jewish pride, and the defense of Jewish values. In the words of Mordechai to his niece Queen Esther – isn’t it just possible that the whole reason you’ve been given the blessings of your position and status, is for you to do something to save your people now?
Yom Kippur begins with the powerful words of Kol Nidrei not only to prepare ourselves for the day ahead. It calls us to consider the many generations before us, and the many places our people gathered, in shtetls and ghettos and cities and concentration camps; in basements and grand halls, in wide open fields and on mountain tops – to say these words and hear this melody. We are but a small link in a mighty chain stretching out behind us and before us on this night of Kol Nidrei. We are being asked to defend the family now against old and familiar foes.
And so my prayer for each of you today comes down through the centuries from Tevye the Milkman and his parents and grandparents before him and every Jew in every country in the world who shares this night of Kol Nidrei with us. May the Lord protect and defend you, may God always shield you from shame. May you come to be in Israel a shining name. May you be like Ruth and like Esther, may you be deserving of praise. Strengthen us, O God, and keep us from the stranger’s way. Favor us O God, with happiness and peace. O Hear our Sabbath – of Sabbaths – prayer, Amen.