17 Kislev 5777 • Toldot • December 17, 2016
Rabbi Alexander Davis
The story is told that when Louis Brandeis was studying law at Harvard, an anti-Semitic professor by the name of Peters always displayed animosity towards him. One day Professor Peters was having lunch at the University dining room when Brandeis came along with his tray and sat next to him. The professor said, “Mr. Brandeis you do not understand. A pig and a bird do not sit together to eat.” Brandeis looked at him and calmly replied, “Don’t worry, professor. I’ll fly away,” and he went and sat at another table.
Peters decided to take revenge so the next day in class, he asked the following question: “Mr Brandeis, if you were walking down the street and found a package, a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot of money, which one would you take?” Without hesitating, Brandeis responded, “The one with the money, of course.” Peters, smiling sarcastically, said, “Just like a Jew. Unlike you, I would have taken the wisdom.” Brandeis shrugged indifferently and responded, “Each one takes what he doesn’t have.”
Prof. Peters’ hate for the Jewish student came to a finale when he scribbled on his student’s final exam the word “idiot” and handed it back to him. A few minutes later, Brandeis got up, went to the professor and said to him politely, “Prof. Peters, you autographed the exam sheet, but you did not give me a grade.”
We can laugh about anti-Semites and take pride in outwitting them. But the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents is no laughing matter.
As I imagine you have heard, there has been a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the days leading up to and since the election. The New York Police Department reported a 115% percent increase in bias crimes in the first week in December, the majority of them against Jews. There have been swastikas drawn on people’s cars and on synagogues. Other incidents have involved verbal harassment. It gives me no comfort to note the increase in the hate crimes documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center have also targeted blacks, immigrants, Muslim, LGBTQ and women.
In graphic, repulsive language that I can’t repeat here, there have been threats to shoot black people, to deport Mexican people, to harass Asian people and on and on. Those are every bit as deplorable and need to be condemned. And this must also be said: Many, though not all of these incidents, positively invoked the president-elect. And so while anti-Semitism and racism preceded this election, there can be no doubt that the president-elect’s rhetoric has normalized and legitimized this behavior.
I find myself saying, “really, I thought we were past all this?” This past week I met with a Beth El family who told me that in the 1950s the father of the family lost his job in Bemidji when his boss found out he was Jewish. Given Minnesota’s history, I wasn’t particularly surprised. But this week, when I heard about a swastika being scribbled on a computer at St Louis Park High School, I was taken aback.
I assumed that we were making steady progress becoming a more inclusive America. I assumed that anti-Semites were a dying bread and anti-Semitism a relic of yesterday’s intolerance. Who could have imagined a year ago people saluting Nazi style just a few blocks from the White House? Growing up, I remember maybe once or twice begin called a name. But that was the extent of the prejudice I knew. Naively, I assumed it would be even less for my kids.
So here we are and I am doing something I never expected to do- giving an anti-Semitism sermon. And I do so with some concern. On the one hand, I worry that people will overreact and overestimate the problem. On the other hand, I worry about people learning the wrong lesson. Too often in the past, teachers and organizations made the fight against anti-Semitism and racism the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism. They lived to stand up for Jews without really living as Jews. I don’t want us to be Jewish because of Hitler; I want us to be Jewish because of halakha teaches us to follow the way of holiness. So I am cautious about addressing the topic but feel like I would be derelict in my duty to ignore it.
As a student of Jewish history and as a student of Torah, I suppose that I should not be surprised at the persistence of anti-Semitism. We can trace its roots all the way back to this week’s parasha.
The scene is well-known. Jacob and Esau finally reconcile. After years of anger, after years of separation, the two brothers come together. At the climax of this morning’s reading, they embrace and kiss and we can almost hear them say, “It is good to see you brother.” “It is good to see you my twin.” But beneath the niceties, something darker is lurking. In a Torah scroll, as many of you know, above the word “vayishkeihu, and they kissed” (33:4) are a series of unusual dots. They tell us, “pay attention, there is more than meets the eye here.”
The second century sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, explained the meaning, “halakha he, b’yadua sheeisav sone l’yaakov. It is the law, that Esau hates Jacob.” That is to say, hatred of the Jews is inevitable, essentially part of the fabric of creation.
Now to be fair, this may not be an accurate reading of Rabbi Shimon. Some suggest that the word should be read not “halakha hi,” but rather “ha’lo is it not known that Esau hates Jacob?” It is not a statement of the natural order of things rather a rhetorical question.
I’ll leave that question to researchers of ancient manuscripts. For us, we can easily picture Rabbi Shimon saying, “it’s an eternal truth: everyone hates the Jews.” After all, in the mind of the rabbis, Esau stood for Rome and for the Church. And Rabbi Shimon who was living at a time of Roman persecutions witnessed firsthand Jews being killed and Judaism threatened.
And of course not just in Roman times. This has been the case in practically every land and age. The Hasidic commentator, Menachem Ziemba explains Rabbi Shimon’s teaching as follows: “There are people who seek to find reasons and explanations for the anti-Semitism of the world. But reality has shown that there is no single correct reason. This hatred has no reason behind it. In one place, they hate the Jews because they are capitalist and in another because they are socialists. Here because they are overly ambitious and there because they are lazy. Here because they are too conservative and there because they are too revolutionary. Thus, the reasons for this hatred are mutually contradictory and have no logic behind them. Rabbi Shimon tells us Esau’s hatred is “halakha, a decisive ruling,” yet it is one without reason or logic.”
It’s a pretty damming and depressing description. It’s like the old joke, “a Jewish man was sitting on bench reading the paper when an anti-Semite approached and said, “you know all the world’s problems are because of the Jews.” The Jew looked up and responded, “and the bicycle riders.” Puzzled, the anti-Semite asked, “why the bike riders?” And the Jew replied, “Why the Jews?”
Sadly, Rabbi Shimon seems to be right. Anti-Semitism persists in a new-old form. Today, the far left loves the Jews but hate Israel. The far right supposedly loves Israel but hate the Jews. So we are being squeezed from both sides. But it is different in another way as well. Using slick marketing to spread their hate, the Alt Right decided that the swastika is unhelpful. So they are rebranding their logo. But as reported this week in a New York Times exposé on the leading neo-Nazi movement, “For all the fresh approaches… the message remains the same. It is one of separation, of supremacy, of a refusal to recognize the equal worth of others who do not have the same skin tone or share the same religions.”
So that you don’t go running to the Canadian consulate, let me be clear. I still believe in America. I don’t believe this is Germany of 1930s; I don’t believe our elected leaders are rabid anti-Semites. They may be anti a lot of other things which is plenty disturbing. But I don’t believe they are out to kill the Jews.
Still, if Jewish history and if the Torah teach us anything, it is that we shouldn’t consider America’s embrace of Jews as a permanent state. Eminent Jewish historian, Salo Baron said it well when he wrote, “It would certainly be extremely naïve to look forward to a speedy disappearance of antisemitism from the world scene after it has demonstrably accompanied all Jewish life for the last 2000 years. Therefore, no country can say to itself, ‘It can’t happen here.” On the other hand, one would be unjustifiably rash in asserting that it must happen here.”
And so we must remain ever vigilant. We must demand that the president regularly and routinely denounces anti-Semitism and racism in words and in tweets. We must report incidents to the police and Anthony Sussman at the JCRC. We must stand up for other minorities that are threatened because A) it’s the right thing to do and B) because it is just a variation of anti-Semitism. We must study Jewish history and attend Yom Hashoah Holocaust Memorial day which this year will be hosted at Beth El. And we must proudly and defiantly light our Chanukah candles to push back the ugly darkness of hate and bring the light of hope to the world.
Even as we remain ever vigilant, we pray, “shomer yisrael, sh’mor sheerit yisrael, God, protect and guard the Jewish people, safe guard all people threatened by racism and discrimination. Plant tolerance in our hearts that the hugs and kisses we give are a true reflection of our affection. Give us the ability to see that You, God, are not limited to certain religions and races but rather in the beautiful diversity we call humanity, let us sense Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad the Oneness of all.