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December 3, 2021

I Need A Hero! Shining a Light on Complicated Legacies

Angela W. Buchdahl


Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, December 3, 2021

(SING) I want to be a Maccabee so Big and Brave and Bold!
I want to be a Maccabee, but I’m only 4 years old!

I taught this to generations of preschoolers.
Who didn’t love Judah Maccabee–the Hebrew Hammer?!
With his band of brothers he miraculously triumphed over a giant army
and enabled Jews to worship in our Temple with freedom.
How wonderful it was as a child 
to have a hero so fearless! So unequivocally awesome!

But once I became an adult, the story got a little more complicated.
I learned that the Maccabees weren’t just fighting the Syrian Greek army.
They were also killing fellow Jews.
The Maccabees were enraged at Jews who were adapting Hellenistic culture, 
joining gymnasiums, taking Greek names, 
and foregoing what they considered authentic Judaism.

Looked at with adult eyes, the Maccabees, 
despite their unquestionable bravery against Antiochus,
were actually an intolerant band of zealots 
who began a civil war against assimilated Jews.

Maybe I needed a new hero.
(SING) David Melech Yisrael…
King David!
Now there’s a hero!  
He began as a simple shepherd and a wonderful musician.
Young David fought Goliath and with courage and wit 
brought the giant to the ground.
He then went on to become the greatest King of Israel 
who established Jerusalem as our Holy Capitol 
and managed to unite the monarchy.

(SING) Chai Chai V’kayam! May he live a long life!

But once I started studying the Hebrew Bible, 
the parts they don’t include in the Children’s Illustrated versions, 
the story got a little more complicated. 
I found out with horror that this hero of the Jewish people 
lusted after a married woman, abused his power to sleep with her, 
and then sent her husband onto the front lines to be killed.  

I was singing and teaching a children’s song 
about an abusive and murderous tyrant!

How many times have our heroes turned out to be more complicated humans? 
How many times have we had to learn the hard lesson 
that no story is just one story, 
That there can be those who do incredible good 
while also doing monstrous harm.
That both can reside within a single person.
Or within an institution.

Just this month, Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary, 
published the full report of its independent investigation 
into allegations of sexual harrassment and gender bias at the College. 
Over 170 interviews exposed abuses of power, 
damaging sexism and homophobia, among other issues. 
It singled out 6 faculty, including 2 former presidents of the college, 
for repeated inappropriate sexual behavior.
Both of those presidents served while I was a student at HUC.

This is an overdue reckoning with leaders who abused their positions of authority 
and hurt people who looked up to them-- 
often with very few consequences to their position, 
but with devastating impact on the survivors.  

And so. After learning all of this--what do we do now?  

This is not just a question for HUC, or for Central 
as we undertook our own recent investigation 
into inappropriate sexual behavior by a former senior rabbi. 
This is an essential conversation today, as we deal time and again with figures
who often exemplified compelling leadership, 
but also committed devastating moral crimes. 
Do we take down every statue and picture?  
Do we erase them from our history books?  
Do we expunge anything that they taught or did in light of the sins we now know?

Our tradition’s treatment of King David gives us wise ‘Torah’ 
for thinking about how we might deal with extremely complicated legacies.
In the Psalms, you can read how deeply David reckoned
with the gravity of his transgressions –  
his self-loathing, his true remorse, and his humility. 
David repents, but God still metes out punishment. 
God does not allow David his most desired legacy 
of building the Temple in Jerusalem
because David has too much blood on his hands.  
Our tradition sends a strong message that actions must have consequences.

In a later text from the Talmud, (BT Sanhedrin 107a)
King David bargains with God over his permanent record. 
With each verse, he owns up to his offense and repeatedly begs: 
“Please forgive me.”  
For each of David’s actions, including the worst of them, God responds: 
“These are forgiven.”
How remarkable that our tradition offers us such a forgiving God! 

But then David boldly asks God— and I’m paraphrasing: 
“Can you please just not put that part in the Bible?” 
God says, “That I cannot do.”

In our tradition, we may forgive, but we do not forget.

Our tradition’s treatment of King David gives us a model today:
First, a perpetrator must atone–
and that entails true repentance to the person they harmed. 
And there should be consequences for bad actions.  
It’s not enough just to say “I’m sorry.”
But at the same time, we should not erase or discard human beings forever. 
And despite the current movement to tear down 
any traces of leaders who have the stain of past sins,
our tradition says it is incumbent upon us to remember their actions.
ALL of them.

Judaism does not offer us the flawless heroes we crave. 
Flawless heroes do not exist–because they are all human.
And more critically, Jewish tradition teaches us that often 
the more charismatic and powerful people are, 
the more prone to abuses of power.  
This story is as old as the Bible. 

I also learned through Central’s own investigation, 
that when we are not honest about the complicated nature of our leaders, 
we make it much harder to stop abuse.  
When someone thinks of a ‘sexual predator,’ 
they often imagine a stranger who jumps out of the bushes, 
not their beloved rabbi, or favorite camp counselor, or teacher.  
But these respected figures can be perpetrators.  
Predators, more often than not, are people who can gain trust, 
whose charisma makes them feel untouchable.  
A person so well-regarded that their victims fear 
they will not be believed when they come forward, 
and feel conflicted about exposing someone who is so beloved.  
Survivors also feel shame, especially when there was no physical coercion, 
but instead, the emotional manipulation of a leader they admired
who made them feel special.  

Here is one more complicated thing our tradition forces us to grapple with: 
the idea that the future messiah will come from the line of King David.  
Instead of an immaculate conception,
we teach that the figure who ushers in a messianic era—
a time when no one will again abuse their power over another–
will come from the line of one of our leaders who committed the gravest sins, 
from the progeny of King David!  

Perhaps our tradition is telling us 
that it is from the depths of our darkest chapters
that we must find light. 
This is, of course, the message of this Chanukkah season.  
We should not remove the stories of our flawed leaders from our canon.
That would leave a hole that only creates more darkness.  
Instead we should bring these stories into the light.  
We should offer a path towards accountability 
and potential healing and repentance.  
We should record and retell, 
to ensure that we teach and protect the next generation.  
It is only in facing the darkness head-on 
that we can hope to bring forth the promise of a more redemptive time.  

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.