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Peter J. Rubinstein
Affirming Our Communal Character (Rosh HaShanah 5770)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 19, 2009

At the beginning of the last century, an ominous fiction further devastated an already battered Jewish community.

“The Jewish Peril: Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” was published in Russia. Those who distributed it claimed that “The Protocols” document a Jewish conspiracy “to dominate the world through the manipulation of financial markets, fostering revolutions against liberal governments, eventually leading to mob bloodshed”. [US Holocaust Museum Brochure]

With chilling, cold-hearted and brutal misdirection the Protocols say “Hatred will be … magnified by the effects of …a universal economic crisis whereby we shall throw upon the streets whole mobs of workers simultaneously …. These mobs will rush delightedly to shed the blood of those…they have envied from their cradles…”

In the first year of its English translation in 1920 five editions sold out in England. And in that same year half a million copies were printed in the United States under the sponsorship of Henry Ford who also published a series of articles under the title “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.”  Citing his evidence of a Jewish threat Ford said “The only statement I care to make about the Protocols is that they fit in with what is going on”. (Max Wallace, The American Axis St. Martin’s Press 2003)

If only a matter of history we might pay “The Protocols” little attention but they can still be bought today on street corners of our city and on-line. Contemporary editions are prefaced with unabashed, virulent and defiant defenses that the Protocols are not a forgery at all but a mission statement which comprises a Jewish agenda and explains recent economic history.

In the wake of such enduring venomous propaganda Jews have recently been beaten on the streets of Paris and Budapest, Israel is defamed at a Film Festival in Toronto, and anti-Semitic statements are made by leaders of ultranationalist parties gaining seats in Austria and Hungary.

The newest version of the odious blood libel tradition was published in the Swedish press a month ago. The article asserted that the Israeli military harvested the organs of Palestinians during their hospitalizations. Though the Palestinian family quoted in this Swedish article denied ever making such a claim the Swedish press’ unsubstantiated charges assault every modicum of Jewish decency. And it was just reported yesterday that the same allegations were made in an Algerian daily newspaper.

Anti-Semitic propaganda flowing from many Arab countries defiles the character of the Jewish people as responsible for the spread of AIDS among Africans and Palestinians, as part of a conspiracy in which swine flu is reputedly the latest tactic.

Our character has been impugned. Our integrity is under assault. Slanderous defamation of our moral fiber echoes the Nazi propaganda campaign before they exterminated six million Jews.

We are brutalized from without and yet, and yet…for the first time in my memory there have been whispers among Jews themselves who wonder whether we have gone astray. Have we behaved well? Can we be trusted? Is our character intact?

The character of our Jewish community is the matter about which I will speak today. This has not been a good year for the Jews.

During the summer I received a note from a member of our congregation who works in the financial community. With his permission I read a part of what he wrote: “We have been treated to a year or two of revelations of Ponzi schemes, embezzling rackets and other matters culminating in the story of the rabbis in New Jersey caught up in a graft/money-laundering scandal.” Perhaps it is time to consider “the prevalence of Jews…among high-profile white collar criminals—and the damage it does to our people (and the world at large).”

I disdain accusations when they emanate from non-Jews who resolve to defame us but what do we say when allegations come from our own family? What do we say to our own nagging discomfort about behavior in our own community? I will not enter the minefield of communal indictment. But I am worried. The quality of our behavior can either strengthen the foundations of our character or chip away at it.

This then is a time for us to look inward. This is an opportunity for self-appraisal. This is a critical moment for judgment. Above all this is the occasion to affirm the best of which our Jewish community is possible. This is the time to recalibrate our moral compass. How can we do better?

I propose three affirmations.

Affirmation 1: We confirm that being prosperous or successful is not a sin. Making success and prosperity your god is sinful.

“A baby enters the world with hands clenched [like a fist]” a Midrash says because a baby, not knowing any better wants everything “as if to say, ‘the world is mine; I’ll just take it.’ But when a person dies his hands are open like this…. By then we have learned the lesson, ‘We can take nothing with us.’” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah)

We should not apologize for Jews who have been successful, financially or otherwise. We are not empowered by a gospel of poverty nor does our faith condone vows of self-denial believing that poverty guarantees spiritual integrity. But just as it was wrong for the ancient Israelites to make a Golden Calf and ecstatically dance around inebriated with their self-glory it is wrong for us to make success and prosperity our god.

In a prescient 1988 essay aptly titled “Caught between Sesame Street and Wall Street” the brilliant Rabbi, Harold Schulweis wrote “Money is not the root of evil anymore than wine is the cause of intoxication….it is not the coin per se that is evil, but the coin pressed against the eye that blocks out the whole world.”

We live in a place and at a time when the inexorable demand to achieve and succeed, in our common parlance “to do well”, takes hold of each of us from the time we apply to nursery school. And what do we mean when we say that a person “does well”?  About a child we mean it is the highest school grade. About an adult we mean it is the highest pay grade.

The pressures are enormous. From our young people who are so worried about school acceptances that they are exhausted by their daily schedules and struggle to make their grades we hear their cry “Have you, my parents no blessing for me if I am just average? Am I loveless if the best I can do despite all the tutors you pay to support me is to barely hold on at the bottom of my class?”

Jewish character lauds integrity and decency. These are our markers for “doing well.”

The character of our people was born in the heat of the desert when we had nothing, when we depended on inscrutable miracles for food and water and existence.

For us success does not reside in grades, or degrees, or finances. Success is judged by how well we live in response to what the prophet Micah says God demands of us “to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly, humbly with our God.”

This is what we believe. This is what makes us whole and loved. This is a purpose of our existence. This is a description of our character.

In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words “To have more is not to be more.” That is our affirmation.

Affirmation 2: We are better when we make this world better. We are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.

The great paradox and the supreme purpose of Jewish life is that we are responsible to take care of all people even while we nurture our own survival. When the Romans were eviscerating the Jewish people 2000 years ago Hillel demanded that we not separate ourselves from our community even if it was a community we didn’t like.

Ein bi-chelal ela mah sh-bifrat. We are all part of the whole. (Menachot 55b)

We Jews can be proud of our history to better this world even when no one else bothers to show up. There are no Jews in Darfur yet Darfur has become a central concern of the Jewish community. We were among the first in the battle against apartheid in South Africa. We were the first on the ground helping refugees in Kosovo. And whatever one’s political perspective on Israel and the Palestinians there is no other conflict between two peoples that I know of where the citizens on one side have demonstrated as much concern, empathy and support for the citizens of the other side as have the people of Israel.

Though we may not support all their activities Rabbis for Human Rights safeguard human rights on both sides of the border, Yesh Din helps Palestinians reclaim their land, B’Tselem, founded by Israelis document charges of human rights violations in the Occupied Territories. Groups of Israeli parents of children killed in terror attacks visit Palestinian parents whose children have died in the crossfire of war. They best know each other’s pain.

And we also take care of others here at home as well.  Jewish agencies now serve Christians and Muslims and all others without distinction. Jewish settlement houses, counseling agencies, community centers in this city originally created to take care of Jews (when no one else would) have thrown open their doors and arms to strangers even as they take care of our own.

And we must do even more for the disenfranchised, the poor, and the medically uninsured in this country. Our health care system must be fixed. Supporting the weak and the needy is a mainstay of our character and a purpose of our existence. “Large-heartedness” said our President “is part of the American character.” Large-heartedness is an anchor of the Jewish soul. It is our character.

We the members of Central Synagogue gathered will not be judged by our success in times of prosperity. That is easy. Rather we will be judged by how decently we comport ourselves in times of adversity. That is the challenge.

Our congregation has had practice. Eleven years ago our sanctuary had been destroyed by fire. Our future was uncertain and when we gathered on Rosh Hashanah that year in the Park Avenue armory I asked “Why [should] we rebuild?  Because [I said] we are not our own little corner of the world.  Our city and our nation need us.” I believed then as I proclaim now that “from this sanctuary there is a helping hand for poor people and all people who need help.  From this sanctuary there is an active response to injustice with a message of hope.  From this sanctuary there is a moral voice to shape our society and our nation.”

We are moored here! We are tethered here! Every member of this synagogue has a home here. We vow that no member will leave this congregation for reasons of lost finances or economic upheaval in their life. Those who supported us in good times will not be abandoned in these difficult times.

We are strong because some of you stepped up with the most inspiring and personally moving acts of kindness. You gave us the financial ability (as I know you will continue to do) to help members in need, to give emergency support to families who could not pay their rent, or medical bills, or put food on their table.

And we can do even more financially and otherwise. I am proposing today that we create an initiative to help members who have lost jobs. Though this past year we have circulated curriculum vitae and job applications and networked members it is not enough. Though we have referred members to UJA-Federation’s Connect 2 Care it is not enough. This initiative will put our own members who can advise, counsel and offer jobs in touch with our members who need work.

A Talmudic blessing affirms “Blessed are you God who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, just as the face of each is different from the other.” (Berachot 58a)

If we will continue to be a great people, if we will continue to be a great congregation, then we will continue to play a great part in this world. We are brothers and sisters to all people. We will care for them at times with our voice, our presence and with our resources. Let it never be said that we the Jewish people, let it never be said that we this congregation stood on the sidelines.

Affirmation 3: Piety is not the same as decency.

We have brought shame on our people. We know that. Massive financial scandals, money-laundering, Bar Mitzvah parties in prison, trafficking in human organs tarnish our virtue.

Especially horrific reports of scandal and abuse within traditional portions of our community diminish our character.  Rabbis are indicted in sexual and child abuse cases. Charges were brought against five Rabbis for money-laundering. If you want to know the definition of a shanda, this is it.

It was reported by people in attendance that a rabbinic adviser on Jewish law told a synagogue audience “that tax evasion is permissible under Jewish law as long as one doesn’t get caught.” (Jewish Week) How shameful that “not getting caught” becomes a standard for a Jew’s behavior! If you want to know the definition of a shanda, this is it.

And in Jerusalem Ultra-Orthodox Jews known as Haredim (or those who fear God) have clashed with police and other Israelis over a garage outside the Old City open on Shabbat. Claiming they speak in God’s name these Haredim deny the legitimacy of Israel as the Jewish state and spit at the Israeli police calling them Nazis and murderers.

And in Hebron and in outposts declared illegal by the government of Israel, settlers who presumptuously also proclaim they speak in God’s name humiliate Palestinians, throw wine at their women, burn their fields, and destroy their livelihood.

I am ashamed of them. I am not condemning Orthodoxy or any stream of Jewish life. I cannot afford to because the greatest pain, the obliteration of life savings was promulgated by a Jew who said nothing about belonging to a synagogue. Jews of all denominational persuasions have subjugated the common good to their own personal profit and have done wrong. Piety camouflaged as self-righteousness or truculent arrogance invades our community. We know better! Rabbi Shimon in the first century taught us that we will be measured not by our teachings and not by our devotion but by our deeds. (Avot 1:17)

I condemn those who defend abominable misbehavior and outrageous illegality under the cover of self-piety in all of its manifestations.

Judaism is at a crossroads in this country. By what will we be judged? We measure ourselves by the depth of our character: that is, by our decency, our courage and the embodiment of our convictions. Judaism is embedded in the seriousness of our life work.

When there is a gaping abyss between our actions and our affirmations, a chasm between our conduct and our creeds, a rift between our precepts and our practice we impugn the character of our faith.

Refining and strengthening our character will always be irrelevant to the anti-Semite but it is absolutely essential to us. Today is our time for truth and confession, for affirmation and commitment and for recalibrating our moral vision.

So this we proclaim:
We will take the coins off our eyes. Success is measured by the decency of our lives.
We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. So we will take care of ourselves and we will take care of the family of humanity.
We will disown self-righteous piety and fearlessly we will be devoted to integrity in the great and lesser parts of our lives.
We stand ready to battle those who impugn our character. We will fight that battle to the end. And we will be honest when we have damaged the character of our people.

This we believe. Our mission is intact. Our embrace is for all. We have learned lessons this past year. We know what to do!

So from this time forth let us again stand tall, let us carry high the banner of Jewish life, the purpose of our existence- that we are to be a “Light to the nations.” From this time forth let us again hold our heads high and now let us move on!

Amen

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