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Anti-Semitism and the First Commandment

This was my sermon on Friday night Feb. 17.  Parshat Yitro.  Sadly, the incidents of direct threats against Jewish institutions has continued.   I thought I would share this here.


Shabbat Shalom

It’s no secret that anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The bomb threats to the JCC’s that have cleared and closed down for days at a time Jewish community centers including Local JCC’s in Long beach, San Diego and Orange County terrorizes little children who go to pre-schools there and their families.  They wonder should they continue to send their kids there….  Just in Ventura this week, the Chabad and several Jewish homes were targeted with swastikas and hate literature. There are increased incidents of vandalism with swastikas making appearances on Subway cars, automobiles in Jewish neighborhoods, even Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.


The emboldening of anti-Jewish sentiment gives me pause.  This week not once but twice the President could have when asked about the increase in anti-Semitism addressed it head on—but instead yesterday shouted down and Orthodox Jewish reporter and told him to sit down—mishearing that the reporter wasn’t accusing him of anti-Semitism but offering him an opportunity to denounce it.  But again the President couldn’t or wouldn’t do so. Instead he went on and on about how he wasn’t Anti-Semitic but that wasn’t the question from the religious reporter.


We liberal and Reform Jews haven’t been ones to dwell on Anti-Semitism to swell our ranks.  Oh in the Jewish community there are those who do so. Who fill the coffers of their organizations with daily barrages of messages that proclaim “See how much they hate us”; “See how endangered we are” The Simon Wiesenthal Center has perfected the art of this. Instead we Reform Jews have tried to focus on building an authentically North American Jewish life-filled with our summer camps, and contemporary music and emphasis on social justice and tikkun Olam, interfaith work and inclusion of lgbt Jews, Jews of color, patrilineal Jews, interfaith faith couples. Trying ever to enlarge the Jewish tent!  This was and is our continued response to those who hate us—to succeed beyond ours and their wildest dreams!


But even the ADL the Anti- Defamation League whose organization was designed from its founding to point out Anti-Semitism and to address it head on has tried through the years to do so in a manner that built bridges to other groups, and to help them learn why their words mattered and why their perspective was Anti-Semitic.  They called it when they saw it but tried to do more than just raise the alarm.  They coupled it with education and outreach to various groups.


But now the ADL is reporting unprecedented rises in hate crimes targeting the Jewish community.  I am not one to be an alarmist. But I will tell you I am more concerned than ever before.


And what concerns me about this problem—is not that it exists, it has always existed.  But I believe that we Reform and yes, Conservative Jews are not prepared for how to deal with it.  We are not prepared to deal with it in reality; we are not prepared to deal with it politically, and most important we are not prepared to deal with it spiritually.


And that is what I want to spend a few minutes talking about with you tonight.  How we prepare ourselves spiritually to deal with a world that less tolerant, more extreme and more anti-Semitic than in recent years.


First dealing with this in the real world:  For many people the ADL is considered an old organization in the Jewish community.  It is more than 100 years old! Founded in 1913 to combat bigotry and hate and Anti-Semitism in all its forms.  But what I mean by old—is not just the age of the organization—but the age of its members and supporters. It is not filled with millennials, not seen as cutting edge or innovative.  And its leader for decades was Abe Foxman who only stepped down only in 2015.  Now the executive director is Jonathan Greenblatt who founded ethos water, has worked for and in both the private and public sectors and non-profit. And he is reshaping the ADL into a more vibrant and even vocal organization especially in the present environment.


The ADL works closely with Law enforcement to train officers, sheriffs, and the FBI to learn to recognize hate crimes. The ADL is building strong alliances with many different communities including the Muslim American community, the LGBT Community and others. (and someday I will tell you about how GLAAD started in LA in the late 1980’s in response to something the ADL did and was modeled after the ADL!)  The ADL is working to identify and uncover the rise of white supremacists, and the alarming number of prison gangs for whom white supremacy is part of their culture.  One way to fight the rise in anti-Semitism is to get involved with the ADL and to support them.  In the coming months we will have a speaker from the ADL that will address how you can connect more directly with them.


In the political realm.  We must speak up when we see and hear anti-Semitism.  We have to raise our concerns with our representatives, locally and nationally.  But we cannot just speak for ourselves.  We have to raise the issues of racism, islamophobia, anti-gay rhetoric whenever and where ever it leaks out.  Whether it is a celebrity, like Mel Gibson or a politician we have to be able to hold people accountable.  Whatever you think of Elizabeth Warren—calling her a Pocahontas is vile. Our tradition teaches us words matter.  The words we say, make a difference.  And when they are hateful or hurtful words whether directed at Jews or others—our faith teaches us to speak up.   We only need to consult our great Rabbi Hillel—Im ayn ani li mi li, If I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself what am I and if not now when?


This teaching by Rabbi Hillel comes from also understanding our theology.  God spoke the world into being.  The universe according to the Torah—existence itself was created by words.  “Let there be light and there was light “teaches Bereshit.  Our entire notion of reality is defined by the words we say.   And this takes me to the third realm for coping – in these times. And that is the realm of the spirit.  Spiritual sustenance in these times will help us cope with what may come our way.

Our Jewish values and teachings like the words of Rabbi Hillel are our guide posts for how to navigate this more complex, more violent, and more chaotic world.


Take for example this week’s Torah portion. Parshat Yitro in the book of Exodus.  One of the most famous parts of the entire Torah, even the entire Tanach, the Bible is presented in this week’s portion—The Ten Commandments. The 10 simple and not so simple rules for living life as a Jew, as a human being in society.   Maimonides counted up 613 mitzvot in the Torah with the Ten Commandments being the first 10.  But let’s face.  Most people have a hard enough time with the first 10 let alone the other 603!

But before God wrote down the 10 commandments and handed the tablets to Moses… our Torah portion this week says that GOD SPOKE THEM In Exodus 20:22, God tells Moses that he should convey to the Israelites, “You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven.”  They heard the thunder and lighting, they hear the Kol-the voice say at least the very first command according to our tradition,  I am Adonai Your God who led you out of Egypt to be your God, I am Adonai Your God. They heard God’s own voice. And our midrashim state that they each heard God’s voice in a different way.  This was not a private revelation to Moses—as depicted by Cecil B DeMille but a revelation in public—to the whole people—unifying the Israelites into a Nation.



There are lots of midrashim about how this scared the Israelites so—that they retreated 12 miles away from the mountains, literally running for their lives and how they had to be led back to the holy mountain by the heavenly angels. This is one of two versions in the Talmud in Shabbat 88a-89b ascribed to Rabbi Joshua b. Levi.  This experience of the Divine was overwhelming, over powering and in another version of the Midrash found here… literally scared the nation of Israel to death—and that God had to resurrect the entire nation so they could hear the second commandment!


I share these with you tonight because to combat the anti-Semitism that we experience, to ground ourselves as a people, it is not enough to be political, it is not enough to be wealthy or culturally Jewish—it doesn’t sustain.
We have to hear the first commandment: I am Adonai your God, who led you out of Egypt, the house of bondage.


The assert HaDibrot—as they are called later in Exodus, starts with knowing God. Starts with recognizing at the center of it all, and from which everything else flows-is our belief in God. A God of justice, of compassion, of hope, of life who blesses us through these commandments and through the mitzvoth with all of these things.


Through our sacred obligations we will rise, spiritually, morally to combat that which is comes at us from the outside—like Anti-Semitism.  For it is our belief in the One God, that has often stirred up the hatred against us.  And when so many Jews say, I don’t believe in God, or I don’t believe in the God on the Throne on heaven, or I am agnostic, I doubt a belief in God—the very core issue of why we are attacked—because we are different in our beliefs from Christians or Muslims, and we have no Jesus, no Mohammed that intercedes and becomes the God.



But also the malaise and indifference which comes from within and is also just as dangerous than the anti-Semitism we see around us.
Judaism has a trinity—not like Catholics.  Our is God Torah and Israel. Some say you only need one, others say you don’t need any—it’s enough to be born that way.  I say we need all three to remain a people, to remain strong and vigilant.


An old woman and her granddaughter sat at a crossroads between two villages. A traveler passing by from the western village asked her about the people in the village to the east.

What were the people like in the town you have just left?” asked the grandmother.

“They were mean, deceitful and rude!” said the traveler.

Then the old woman nodded and said, “You will likely find the people in the eastern village just the same.”

A few hours later, a second traveler heading in the same direction asked the same question.  Again the old woman asked about the townsfolk in the village where the traveler had just left.

“They were kindhearted, generous and helpful.”

The old woman nodded knowingly, “You will find the people in the next village just the same.”  The traveler went on his way.

“Grandma,” said the child after the traveler had gone. “How could you give the same answer to both people?”

The Grandma smiled at her grandchild.  “I told them the truth. What we find in the world is but a reflection of what is in our hearts.”


I hope that in our hearts—we don’t give in to fear. But take the time to invite God back into our lives. Invite the holy aspect of truth and justice that was revealed to our ancestors at Sinai and to us into our hearts. So that we too can see the goodness, and kindness and generosity in the world and not let the anti-Semitism, or racism that has become too evident rule the day.  To this we must resist.


And I pray that in our own lives, we can find ways to reaffirm the God of our People in the many ways we talk about God and perceive God in the world and bring it once again to the place of affirmation that is core to being Jewish.  Hear O Israel Adonai is our God Adonai is One.