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Rosh Hashanah - 2010 / 5771

09/01/2010 09:28:30 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

A Jewish man walking along the street in his pre-World War I Polish town was surprised to see a friend of his sitting on a bench and reading the local Polish newspaper. He asked "what gives? Why aren't you reading the Yiddish newspaper?" His friend put down the newspaper, looked up and sighed, "Eccchhh, I read our newspapers and I feel so bad. A pogrom here, a synagogue vandalized there. I pick up this newspaper, and it makes me feel so good: I read about how we control the banks, how we control the newspapers……"

Of course, we live in America, and as all religious and ethnic minorities, have a completely different reality.


Have you seen this week's Time magazine? I was tempted to buy a copy, and hold it up to show you, but as a matter of principle, would not purchase a copy. The cover shows a Magen David, a Jewish star made of daisies against a light blue background, and in the middle, in large black letters, are the words "Why Israel Doesn't Care about Peace." Really, that is the title. Of the cover story. The week of Rosh Hashanah, no less. And what is worse, the clear implication is that Israelis are living such materially comfortable lives that money is more important to them than peace. Really. I quote: I quote: “Newspapers print fewer pages of politics … and more pages of business news.” In the words of American Israeli Rabbi Daniel Gordis, "That’s news? How is that different from dozens of other papers throughout the world? It seems that this is important because now we’re talking about Jewish newspapers, and those stubborn Jews who “don’t care about peace” just print more and more pages of business news."

No, it is not the same as 19th-century Polish newspapers, or the ridiculous websites of anti-Semites that still believe in a vast Jewish conspiracy, and declare that Jews are in charge of the world's finances and media. I imagine that the appearance of this particular article is sufficient evidence to the contrary, although the conspiracy theorists would just tell us that this was done to throw them off. No matter how you slice it, it is awfully disconcerting for a mainstream periodical like Time to publish a piece, and especially a cover and headline, like this.

The great irony is, our ancestors, and even some of us who are here today, came to this country to experience the freedom, tolerance, and respect that they expected to find here. And while in almost every case, it was and is better than it was in the country they left behind, America still has a long way to go, and not just regarding Jews. America is a great country. I love America. And America still has a long way to go.

In fact, that same magazine published a poll a few weeks ago that reported responses to a variety of questions about people of different religious identities. While I found most of the questions troubling, I was appalled by one in particular: Do you think that a Muslim should be allowed to run for President of the United States? I was even more appalled at the response: 32% of the respondents said no! The question was not would you vote for a Muslim, but should a Muslim be allowed to run for president of the United States! 32% said no!

At different times, the number might have been even higher if asked about Catholics or Jews, but I suspect that many of us thought we had evolved beyond the point. The undeniable fear and categorical distrust of Muslims is affecting us in ways that are toxic to our society.

Last night, Rabbi Brown mentioned colleagues of ours who refused to speak about Israel from the pulpit at a fear for any such sermon being too divisive. A close friend of mine gave a sermon a few years ago in which he said that if he stood up, said the word Israel, and then sat down, half of the congregation would love the sermon, and half would hate it. 50% of each half would have the exact same reason for either loving or hating it, and the other 50% would have the opposite reason for either loving or hating it.

I think that my friend is not so far off.

So I am not going to talk about Israel anymore today. Instead, I want to offer three words:

Ground Zero mosque.

Okay, Cantor, time for the closing song.

So, what did I say? Did I speak in favor of it or against it? Am I a bleeding heart liberal, or perhaps "a typical rabbi", as my colleagues who have spoken up in support of the Park 51 project were labeled by the associate editor of the Jewish Week of New York, the largest Jewish newspaper in America? Or am I an Islamophobe, opposed to the symbol of Muslim triumphalism planted in sacred ground? I hope that when I am done, your only answer can be "none of the above."

I know, it is not a mosque, and it is not at Ground Zero. But I wanted to keep the sermon to three words.

I have three fears that I will disclose in a few moments, not about this sermon, but real fears that I fight because if I do not, they will paralyze me, or lead me to bad decisions. That is what fear does. I will discuss those fears in a minute, but first need to discuss fear itself.

Do you know what the most repeated commandment is in our Tanach, our Hebrew Bible? It is not love your neighbor, or keep Shabbat, or give tzedakah. It is "do not fear" - al tirah. It appears more than 80 times. Do not fear! Not love God, not keep kosher, not feed the hungry, but do not fear. Why? Because if we allow fear to overtake us, we will do none of the above. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehuda teaches " a solid mountain can be cut by iron; hard iron can be softened by fire; fiery flames can be extinguished by water; powerful water can be borne by clouds; strong clouds can be scattered by wind, but persistent winds cannot fell a human body. An able person, however, can be broken by fear." (Baba Batra 10a) How true! Yet we need to understand what those words mean: whenever the Hebrew Bible mandates emotions, it is aspirational, not prescriptive. A good, working translation would be: do not be fearful, do not let fear drive you, do not let fear keep you from being your best self.

Sadly, we have been driven by fear for the last nine years. Nothing inspires fear quite like terrorism , and we live in a world where we know fear all too well. In that regard, those who sought to harm us had a victory, but we alone determine whether or not they ultimately succeed. Do not worry, this is not going to be another one of those "If we change the way we live because of what happened to us on 9/11, the terrorists will have won" sermons. That happens to be true, but I gave that sermon years ago. In fact, that theme has been overplayed. Somewhere along the line, one magazine even printed a cartoon of a child saying to his parents "If you don't let me say up to watch American Idol, then the terrorists will have won." No, this sermon is about not fearing, which is not about the terrorists, or anyone else, but about us. And it is not just about how we respond to the prospect of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan or the way we deal with Muslims in America or anywhere else, though that is the primary lens with which I want to view that question with you. It is about us, who we are and who we are becoming, and if you leave here today thinking that I spoke about the Park 51 project, I will have failed. I am here to talk about fear.

Now, as for my fears:

I fear that there are Muslims who are trying to convert the whole world to Islam, as there have been for centuries, and that there are many who would have no hesitation in killing me or anyone else to achieve that goal. Whether their numbers are growing, or they are simply gaining traction, there is a real threat with which all of us who value freedom and democracy need to contend. To say that Islam is a religion of peace is as absurd as saying that Judaism is a religion of peace or Christianity is a religion of peace. They are all religions of peace and war, and are far too complex to categorize in such a simple and, forgive me, naïve way.

I fear that I will be either too naïve about who represents that threat, or too strident in my skepticism and suspicion.

And I fear that as we are increasingly unable to have intelligent, thoughtful dialogue about this threat and how to respond to it, we are exacerbating the situation.

And I need to tell you today that I have had to face my own fears in order to come to the place that I have arrived, and to be able to speak to you as I am today.

For the record: I am not an Islamophobe. Phobias are irrational fears or dislikes. I have no dislike of Muslims or any other religious or ethnic group, nor for that matter, do I fear or dislike Islam. There is quite a bit of evidence , in fact, supporting the rationality of my fear about the spread of radical Islam. We can argue about whether or not Islamophobia is a real word, but there can be little doubt that there are those whose fear is irrational, and whose words and behavior are beyond the pale. They are not my concern today. You and I are my concern. It is unfair to label anyone who has reservations or concerns, or for that matter opposes the Park 51 project as Islamophobes, either. There are real and valid arguments to be made about why the project is not a good idea. There are also some ridiculous arguments as well. It is impossible to know which one a person embraces until you engage in the conversation. Labeling someone an Islamophobe demonizes and shuts down debate, as name-calling always does, even when the name applies. When we fear someone, and their ideas, demonizing also dehumanizes, and allows the fear to dissipate, but not in a healthy way. Al Tirah. Do not let fear drive you. Engage in the conversation, at least until the point that someone reveals that they are not willing to listen to your ideas and concerns, that they are part of the 32% that say a Muslim should not be allowed to run for president, or that there is no basis for discomfort with or concern about the project.

As an American and a Jew, it disturbs me that a Catholic Church in Staten Island New York voted down a proposal to sell its property to a Muslim group who wanted to convert it into a mosque, after an uproar from local residents. Worse yet, despite his having already signed a contract with the Muslim group, the church published a statement saying the pastor, who has since resigned, "now says the sale does not meet the needs of the parish." Not too hard to translate: you are not welcome here. We Jews know what it is to receive that message. Consider this: while the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island was founded in 1763, it was not until 1843, following a special act of the Connecticut state legislature, and more than 40 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights, that another synagogue was established in New England, Congregation Mishkan Israel in New Haven. Here is what the New Haven Register, still published to this day, had to say about that historic event: “The Jews have outflanked us here, and effected a footing in the very centre of our own fortress. Strange as it may sound, it is nevertheless true that a Jewish synagogue has been established in this city — and their place of worship (in Grand Street, over the store of Heller and Mandelbaum) was dedicated on Friday afternoon. Yale College divinity deserves a Court-martial for bad generalship.” At least they were honest about it. Clearly, they were afraid. Of what is unclear, but clearly, they were afraid.

As an American and a Jew, it frightens me that arson destroyed a mosque under construction in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. We Jews know what it is to receive that message, as well. Perhaps you saw the movie, Driving Miss Daisy, and recall the scene about a 1958 bombing of The Temple in Atlanta, as it is commonly known, the largest synagogue in that city. That was not fiction. It happened in the early morning hours of October 12 of that year. Thank God, no one was injured, but we Jews know what is like not to be wanted that badly.

That is why I am dumbfounded at the position taken by certain Jewish leaders. The assertion of Abraham Foxman of the ADL, speaking on behalf of certain family members of 9/11 victims, is downright dangerous. Listen to what he said: "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted." Really? By that standard, anyone who ever feels aggrieved is entitled to untenable positions and worse, behaviors. Nor can I accept the analogy of the building of a convent at Auschwitz put forward by, amongst others, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. That convent, which was actually built and occupied before it was eventually relocated was on the property of the compound itself, was in clear sight of the death camp, in a small town where its presence could not help but overwhelm the experience of visitors -not two full city blocks away, out of sight, in one of the most densely developed neighborhoods in the world. Klein went even further, characterizing Imam Rauf as an extremist. If you have not already done so, I encourage you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. If Rauf is an extremist, then so are most Orthodox Jews that I know, as well as countless others. And if that is the standard we use to determine who is an extremist, we will have to invent new words for people like Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman , let alone Osama bin Laden.

I do not know Imam Rauf, but everything I read about him suggests to me that he is in way over his head, and never imagined the firestorm at which he is now in the center. Until proven otherwise, I will continue to believe that his motives are pure, and his vision an honest and decent one.

Do I believe that if he had merely tried to expand his current mosque, a few blocks away from where the new project is proposed, that the firestorm would be about the same as it is now? Yes, I do. Do I believe that even if he had sought to build this large center elsewhere, there would have been extraordinary opposition? Yes, I do, though I believe it would likely not have reached quite the proportions that it has. Will I be sending him a donation? No. Nor do I expect, if it ever gets built, that I will likely visit, except, perhaps, to see the 9/11 Memorial that is planned as part of the project. What frightens me is not his vision, but his apparent lack of qualification and capacity to continue to lead this project without doing more harm than good. Time will tell.

Yes, I said frightens me. Sorry, God. I am trying. . I know, Rabbi Yehudah taught, “An able person, however, can be broken by fear." If I were a traditional Jew, I would recite these words from the book of Proverbs (3:25) at the end of every morning service: "Sudden terror will not frighten you, nor the devastation by the wicked, should it come- "Al tirah m'pachad pitom, u'misho-at r'shaim ki tavo." In its original context, it is a promise that wisdom will bring serenity. While terrible things may occur, and the wicked will do evil, the promise is that wisdom will allay our fears. May we find the wisdom we need to be the kind of people of whom you can be proud, dear God.

Ken Yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

And let us say,


Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782