I just remembered I have a blog. Sadly, I have neglected it of late. At the urging of some friends, I am adding a few of my recent sermons and teachings. I may be digging back into the archives to post some more, and I will be adding some more in the coming weeks.
Some years ago, I heard a great piece of wisdom that applies to a recent news item that has received a lot of attention and sparked a fair amount of controversy. Of all people, it was spoken by comedian Eddie Murphy. And of all things, it was said as he pretended to be an elderly Jewish man. In the 1988 movie “Coming to America,” Murphy is sitting in a barbershop, in very convincing makeup and wardrobe, and this little Jewish man is arguing with the barbers about who was the greatest boxer ever. When the name Muhammed Ali entered the conversation, an argument broke out. One of the barbers insisted they should only call him his given name Cassius Clay. “His momma called him Clay. I’m gonna call him Clay,” he said. Murphy’s character, our wise Jewish man speaks these important words,
“If the man wants to be called Muchamed Ali, [gosh darn it], we should respect the man’s wishes, and call him Muchamed Ali.”
It’s a great scene. And it is so funny. And sad, by the way, that Eddie Murphy makes a more convincing Jewish man than I do.
There is just such an incredible kernel of truth in his words, and they were spoken with such conviction, that I cannot help but think of it in light of the recent emergence of Caitlyn Jenner. It is hard to believe though not entirely shocking that there has been backlash by some talking heads at news outlets and on social media, people who refuse to refer to her as anything but Bruce, the name Caitlyn was born with and hid behind for 65 years as she struggled to understand her true identity. We do not have to understand transgender identity, especially if it is not who we are. We do not even have to like it. But we do have to accept that it exists and that all people are entitled to self-determination in every facet of identity. Fundamental to this notion is a person’s name. At one point, Cassius Clay decided that name no longer defined his identity, and he chose for himself a fitting name. So too now has Caitlyn discovered her true self, and we must respect her wishes. Nothing changes the history that Bruce Jenner was once the greatest male athlete in the world, but moving forward, that same person is recognized as a brave woman who suffered many years hiding behind a lie and who is now a courageous role model for people everywhere who struggle to know their true selves.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare (actually Romeo) asked, with the response being that there was little to it. But Jewish tradition responds quite differently to the same question. What’s in a name? Everything. A name is synonymous with one’s reputation and how others perceive them. A midrash teaches that all people have three names, a name given by their parents, a name they are known by, and a name they earn for themselves. While the midrash is not suggesting that our actual names change, it is telling us that our names have meaning. When a person hears Craig Lewis, I hope they hear kind, generous, wise, thoughtful man, loving parent, and good husband. While the name was not my choice, I recognize that it carries a message with it, a message I am responsible for shaping. If for some reason my name is heard differently than I would hope, it is up to me to convince others through my deeds what Craig Lewis really stands for. I may even have to change my own behavior so that the name I earn is a good one. That is what is so important about the last line of the midrash, “a person has a name they earn for themselves.” The word the rabbis use for earn is “koneh.” The same word could be translated to mean, we “fashion” our names for ourselves. They are in our control. We want them to be consistent with who we are and how we desire to be perceived. If one of the three names spoken of in midrash is incongruous with the others, then it is our right and responsibility to bring them back in line.
Caitlyn Jenner has done nothing less.
We cannot help but admire her. This transformation has been very public, and undoubtedly very painful. The life of Bruce Jenner was dragged in front of television cameras on a television show, that even if you did not watch, you had to be living in a cave to not know about. Lots of people noticed Bruce looking gradually more feminine. It was even the subject of ridicule and jokes as the icon of masculinity from the 1970’s was beginning to look like a middle aged woman. It seemed an oddity, a clash of realities, on an absurd television program. It made people uncomfortable, and it was easy to laugh at as part of the circus that is the Kardashian family. That is the nature of voyeuristic television. People point at the bizarre events and foibles in other people’s lives. People become famous for being famous. As it turns out, the only true celebrity of any substance on the show, the one who had truly achieved something, was the subject of much of the public ridicule. And in the end, the life of Bruce Jenner and his transformation to Caitlyn was the most real thing to be found in reality television. The struggle, the pain, the sadness hiding behind the fame were all real. Along the way, people looked on and laughed because we simply did not understand.
But it all makes sense now. There are no more jokes, only respect, sympathy, and support. For Caitlyn Jenner has fashioned her own name, and at last it is consistent with the person she knows herself to be. It is unlikely that any of us will ever personally know Caitlyn, but there may indeed be Caitlyn’s among us, people lost and confused, people made to feel ashamed that they do not conform to society’s traditional standards. Caitlyn Jenner’s very public example gives us a chance to understand the issues faced by those who struggle with their gender identity. Perhaps the fact she transitioned from such a strong extreme to another can help us to be more sensitive to people whose struggles are more in the middle and are not in the public spotlight. Maybe we can create an environment in which we simply accept people for who they are so they can be openly honest as they make their name fit the person they wish to be.
Friends, June is national LGBT pride moth. And I as a member of the clergy profess my acceptance and support for the rights and feelings of all people no matter their orientation or gender identity. And it is my hope that this Temple will continue to be an open place, known for its values of welcoming diversity, and being open as a safe place of worship and learning for all. It should be public so that we can help give organized a religion a good name as a place for healing and acceptance rather than one of hurt and rejection
It is in this spirit that I some words from this week’s Torah portion (Beha’alotecha, Numbers 12:13) in honor of Caitlyn Jenner. “El Na Refa Na lah.” These words are spoken by Moses as he prays for his sister to heal. Having seen Miriam stricken with a skin infection as a punishment for dishonest speech, he prays not just for her body to heal, but also for her wounded soul to heal. Whatever ailment was within her that caused her to speak unkindly about her brother, whether jealousy, angst, or depression, Moses prayed for her to heal completely, a refuah shleimah. A renewal of body and a renewal of spirit. He prayed for her to heal within. And so pray in honor of Caitlyn and anyone like her, “El Na Refah Na Lah,” pray God, please heal them, allow their identities and the names they are known by to become one, take away the stigma and ease the suffering, remove the limitations and judgment, and just let them be who they are. Let them be whole.
I don’t remember how old I was when I stopped being afraid of the boogey man or the monsters who I was certain lived under my bed. It was simply part of growing up, letting go of nonsensical phobias, and understanding the power of imagination. I do not remember my how old I was, but I do know it was definitely before last week (April 21, 2015) when I celebrated my 40th birthday. At some point, I managed to sleep with the lights turned off and never think some unseen thing was going to attack me in the middle of the night.
I bring this up tonight because it is past time for our country and the people in our state to grow up, to quit being frightened of terrors invented in our minds, and simply accept, there are things that, though we do not understand them completely, they just cannot hurt us.
I bring this up in light of the arguments made in front of the United States Supreme Court this week regarding same sex marriage. For a long time, people thought of the notion of same sex marriage as a boogey man, just an idea that somehow could tear apart the fabric of society if we allowed it to happen. Unlike imaginary monsters, this idea became a real thing, and now that we have had the opportunity to see it in practice, we can verify, it does not harm anyone. And quite the opposite, it is a boon to our society, bringing legal rights and marital status to people who previously had been denied that opportunity. At least that is the case in 37 out of 50 states. As we know, Nebraska remains one of thirteen states holding on to a ban on same-sex marriages. This after a Federal judge ruled, two months ago, the ban was unconstitutional. The right to marry continued to be withheld when our Attorney General filed an appeal on that same day.
Thus same sex couples in Nebraska are denied access to over 1,000 (http://www.freedomtomarry.org/pages/from-why-marriage-matters-appendix-b-by-evan-wolfson) legal rights that are granted by the legal status of marriage (the repeal of DOMA in 2013 does affect these rights on a Federal level, but even those who can travel out of state for legal marriage are still denied recognized marital status in their home state. We await the SCOTUS decision on this issue). And even those who have been married in other states but reside in Nebraska have certain rights vis-a-vis the Federal government, but not with regard to the state. Among other things, it means incredibly complicated tax returns in which one form says they are married and another says not. But it also means discrimination for families seeking to adopt in Nebraska, as preference tends to go to married couples, and legal status of shared parenting rights is determined by marriage in the state. We do not need to list 1,000 denied rights to know this is wrong. All it takes is one right, whether it be the inheritance of social security benefits or the legal right to take off work to care for a sick spouse. Any one of these things denied is enough cause for change.
The roadblock to this change, the phrase that keeps coming up is the hesitancy to “change the definition of marriage.” First of all, no one wants to “change” the definition of marriage. It is still going to be a monogamous commitment made between two people who wish to spend their lives together and gain the legal benefits that come with it. It will just be available to more people who want to partake in this institution. So we are not changing it as much as we would be making a necessary amendment. And by the way, we the Jewish people have never shied away from changing the legal definition of marriage when circumstances called for it.
Biblically, all that was necessary was for a man to “know” a woman, whether by consent or by force. I think we can agree that is a good change to make. Later the Mishnah, near the end of the second century said marriage could be effected by the physical act, or spoken words, or through a written contract. Since that left open ambiguity as to one’s intent when doing one of those three things, Jewish marriage grew to include all three acts to make sure intentions were clear, and furthermore that there was consent. Then in the 11th century, the Jewish legal authority of the time, Rabbeinu Gershom, instituted the most radical change ever made to marriage. He banned polygamy which was a direct contradiction to marriage as it appeared in the Torah. The Jews were far from the first to institute such a ban. In fact we were late to the party on this one. But still, we were made the change when it became clear we needed to.
In more recent years, we have embraced egalitarian marriages in which spouses are equal partners. We have embraced this to the point where, at least in Reform circles we have altered the wording on the Ketubah, the Jewish wedding contract to be more loving than legalistic. In Conservative Judaism, only 60 years ago, they changed the definition of marriage by adding to the Ketubah what is called the Lieberman Clause which protects a woman’s rights in the event of divorce or after the disappearance of her husband.
Therefore, the Jewish people, and I dare say all people, have always been open to changing the definition of marriage, when it was the right thing to do.
It is the right thing to do, and it is far past time.
The most important change we must make is not about the legal definition of marriage. We must first change the way in which we understand marriage. Once upon a time, marriage was effected by a man knowing a woman. The focus was on sex, though love, even in the Bible, was definitely part of the equation. The most beautiful example from the Torah is how it tells us that Isaac loved Rebeccah and she provided consolation after his mother died. That’s what marriage should be. This brings us to that infamous passage which appears in this week’s Torah portion, that a man shall not lay with a man as he would lay with a woman (Leviticus 18:22). It only focuses on the physical act. It ignores the love that can be shared between two people. Many have read this verse and have decided that to be the most important prohibition in the Torah, this after they eat a BLT with cheese while wearing garments with a combination of different materials. There are lots of commandments. There is no good reason that we should double down on this one. It was a law for a specific time and place. And regardless of our own preferences, tastes, or identities, we ought not impose our will based on the arbitrary acceptance of one particular law. We do well to recognize that being gay is not about sex, it is about love. And marriage is likewise first about love. How people express their love, consensually and in the privacy of their homes is up to them.
Of course there are those who make the biological argument, that marriage is about the ability to have children. Still the focus is sex. We are in the 21st century. Marriage and family have been redefined time and again. There are many ways to become a family. There are multiple paths to having children, in vitro, surrogates, fostering, and adoption to name a few. The physical act itself is not irrelevant by any means, but it is not the only way. Those who argue, and did argue before the Supreme Court, that the definition of marriage is based on whether or not the spouses can biologically produce a child ignore elderly couples who marry, couples who wish not to have children, and even couples who are dealing with infertility. This narrow definition of marriage actually would deny marital rights to heterosexual couples who fall into the categories I just named. That is downright insensitive to people’s personal choices and their personal pain. That, therefore, cannot be the definition of marriage. It has to be something else. It has to be better than that.
Marriage is not only about sex. It is about love. And from a legal standpoint, it needs to be about equality of opportunity. I have special legal status and privileges, because I happen to love a woman. But in truth, you do not need to be married to have children, nor do you need love to be married. But you do need to be married to enjoy over 1,000 legal rights. As long as anyone is denied access to even one right because of sexual orientation or gender identity, the system is unfair, and the system needs to be changed.
If that means changing the definition of marriage, so be it. We have ample precedent. The time has come for our state to grow up, to stop being afraid of the imaginary dangers. All we have to do is look around at 37 other states and many couples in our own community to see, same sex marriage is real and it is good.
Guest Sermon at First Plymouth East (Kloefkorn Elementary School) May 24, 2015 – Lincoln, Nebraska
Pastor Jacob called me a couple months ago and asked if I could talk about one of the Hebrew words everyone should know. And I thought, “asking the rabbi about Hebrew…. how cliché.” I guess I am sort of a local expert on the topic. So I started thinking, if you go to Israel, everyone wants to know how to get a taxi (monit) or how to find the restroom (shirutim) or how to order a pizza (pizza). But Jacob said he was thinking more biblically. Which got me to thinking, how much more pleasant the 40 years wandering the desert would have been if they had anyone of these things. But, I will have to save that for another sermon. Meantime I started thinking about important Hebrew words in the Torah, and one popped into my head almost right away—“Hineini.” It’s a special word that appears 14 times in the Bible. It is a compound word of “Hineh” which means “here” and “ani” which means “I or me.” Basically it means, “I am here.”
Here I am with you today. To think, this is the very room where my son eats lunch. Right over there, where that gentleman is sitting, no more than 4 days ago, my son and his friends were spilling chocolate milk and smearing ketchup all over the table, and probably some gross things that first graders do with food. And here we are, in this very space where, I can almost smell the peanut butter and jelly, and I am challenged to share a spiritual message with you. And I may have grossed you out, or perhaps some of you, I have made hungry. At any rate, this actually leads into my message this morning. For this room is transformed, not only because of the truly amazing staff at Kloefkorn School, but the room is transformed by our presence and our purpose for being here. No space is inherently holy. Places are made holy by the deeds which are performed there. This is my message for the day, that it is incumbent upon us to make the world holy through the merits of our good actions. This lesson is centered around the word “Hineini.” In truth, it means so much more than just, “I am here.”
It is only fair that I give you warning. Just learning biblical Hebrew does not make you ready to tour Israel. Modern Hebrew, though similar, is a grammar unto itself. Israelis know if you have gone to Hebrew school in an American synagogue because your vocabulary and sentences sound a bit off. It would be not unlike going to order a Big Mac in Elizabethan English. “Ah Behold, I am here, what of that most precious of smells dost my nostrils intake. For my part, shall there be two all beef patties, to say nothing of the most special of sauces, lettuce and cheese, which shall forsooth enter unto my belly. And woe to he who dost forsake the sesame seed bun.”
All right, that’s just silliness, but you get the point. Hineini is a biblical word which is rich with meaning, and its usage, its reference, its resonance is elevated. When Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah say “I am here,” they say it as one word, “Hineini” and it is about more than geography or mere presence.
To explain the significance of Hineini, it is first important to talk about a word which does not exist in biblical Hebrew. The present tense of being, the English word “is” has no direct corollary in biblical Hebrew. It is sort of there, in theory, I mean you could conjugate a word to fill that role, but when it does appear, its usage is more about becoming. So there is no static sense of being, at least no word for it. We might learn from this, it is not enough to simply be. There is an old Peter Sellers movie from the late 1970’s called Being There in which the main character is a very simple man, not too swift, who is just kind of there. He talks in such a simple way that people believe it is a sign of profound intelligence. The Bible makes no such mistake. Being there is not enough. One must do.
Rabbi Norman Cohen, who was Provost of the Hebrew Union College, the seminary for Reform Judaism, wrote an entire book just on the word “Hineini.” He tells us when we encounter it, it implies full and complete presence, awareness, and readiness to act. In Genesis Chapter 22, God calls to Abraham, and Abraham says Hineini. This actually happens twice. The first time, God asks Abraham to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his son Isaac. Though Isaac has the most to lose immediately, the request is really about how much Abraham is willing to give up. Isaac is the end of the line. If he dies, the future of everything that Abraham has built and worked for will ultimately die with him. Father and son are inseparable. In his willingness to sacrifice, Abraham is essentially offering himself. In the end, it is not allowed to happen. And the brilliance of this difficult section of the Bible is not just that it ultimately rejects human sacrifice, but in knowing that Abraham said, “Hineini” intent on following through with whatever he was called to do. And this, according to Rabbi Cohen leads us to ask, “Are we willing to surrender ourselves for what we believe?” Are willing to stake our own reputations, or finances, or material possessions in order to stop injustices? Will we risk our jobs to blow the whistle on corruption when we see it? Are we willing to sacrifice our own comfort and safety to help a victim of bullying. Will we take action to fight against public policies that are immoral or unfair, or just complain about them? To say, “Hineini” means I am here. I know what’s going on. And I will give anything to do what is right.
This brings us to Abraham’s second “Hineini.” At the moment when Isaac is bound to the rock, and Abraham holds the knife in the air, a voice calls, “Abraham! Abraham!” and he says, “Hineini.” It is an angel, and he tells him not to hurt the child. Not surprisingly, Abraham is quick to comply. Another Rabbi, Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, one of the great Jewish voices for social justice, points out the audacity in Abraham’s behavior, letting an angel disrupt what God had told him to do. That’s why this second “Hineini” is even more important than the first. With it, Abraham demonstrates what Schulweis calls, “The divinity of moral sensibility.” He points us toward a precept that religious acts must never trump a person’s moral intuition. If any individual or group is diminished by a religious belief or observance, then we are mistaken in our faith.
For Abraham, the angel is like his conscience. And when he says “Hineini” this time, Abraham says, not only am I present, and willing to act, I will only act justly.
And all of this boils down to the difference between “being” and “presence.” Renee Descartes taught us, all you need is to think in order to be. The Torah teaches us that to be present, we must also “do”. We must be actively engaged in and attentive to our surroundings, we must be responsive to the needs of others around us, and most of all we must be willing to sacrifice and give of ourselves for the greater benefit of all.
Rabbi Norman Cohen concludes, “Our responsiveness to others, which is embodied in the utterance of hineini, enhances the entire human condition…. Through his willingness to respond to God’s call, Abraham… guarantees the future for his children.” God rewards him with a blessing to be shared with all his descendants.
This tells us that we should never be satisfied with saying, “I am here.” Rather we should say, “Hineini,” I am here, and prepared to give my all, my attention and my talents, to my fellow Man. Such a statement portrays an attitude which can transform the world. At the very least, it can help us become a community, that through our presence, transforms a school cafeteria into this beautiful and sacred space where we invite God’s blessings to come to us.
As Israel has settled on what we hope will be a lasting truce in Gaza, there will be much discussion in the world regarding Israel’s mission and tactics. It is important that there be boundaries in discussing Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. Words matter a great deal, as does Israel’s existence in the world. Here is my column that appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star on August 20, 2014. It addresses a hate-filled column which appeared in the August 7 edition of the same newspaper. Both appeared in the Local View column on the Opinion page.
In recent days, an obscenity has appeared in the Journal Star’s opinion page. Obscenities, such as those made famous by George Carlin, are generally words which have been divorced from their original meanings and used for their shock value. For this reason there exist social mores regarding how inflammatory speech is used. Speakers, writers, and the publications which grant them a platform have a responsibility to know the meanings of their words and their potential impact. When they fail to exercise proper caution, they speak in obscenities, using powerful words, divorced from their real meanings, for the sole purpose of stirring emotion or winning an argument.
The obscenity in question is “genocide.” The articles which included this word were not about ISIS and the Yazidis, but rather about Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a military operation aimed at ending rocket attacks and destroying a network of terrorist tunnels between Gaza and Israel. “Genocide” is a very powerful word with a specific meaning, and the way this word has been thrown around, far removed from its true meaning, is nothing short of obscene. The definition of “genocide” is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” According to the legal definition used by the United Nations, there must be “intent to destroy.” Israel has no intent to destroy the Palestinian people. Israel has provided medical care, humanitarian aid, and even building materials (much of which was used in constructing the infamous terror tunnels) to Gaza. Israel’s attitude toward Palestinians and specifically the people of Gaza is anything but genocidal.
Still the word has been used because it evokes strong reactions. Any sensible person is against genocide. We all share a moral responsibility to prevent it, but to call Israel’s war in Gaza a “genocide” is to ignore the facts in favor of emotion. It also lays the blame exclusively at Israel’s feet and exonerates the Hamas terrorists who have fired over 3,000 missiles toward Israeli cities. This alone would be enough to understand the use of “genocide” as obscene. Unfortunately, with the cynicism behind its usage, it becomes even worse.
In 1944, a Polish Lawyer named Rafael Lemkin crafted the word “genocide” to describe the Nazis’ actions against Jews during the Holocaust. Those who call falsely call Israel’s actions genocide relish the irony that the once victim Jews are perpetrators of genocide. This ploy is cynical. It is sick. It is obscene.
We can only guess at the intentions for writing such misleading articles. At best, the writers are horrified by the killing and want, as do we all, for it to end. Unfortunately, even with best intentions, these writers are misinformed. Were Israel to lay down their arms, Hamas would continue to harass and murder Israeli citizens striving toward the goal clearly stated in their charter, that “Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it…[and] the day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight Jews and kill them.” It is doubtful that the writers of such articles hope for Hamas to achieve the genocidal goals in their charter. Therefore, at best, we can see these writers as well-intentioned but grossly misguided.
As far as the worst case scenario regarding the intent of these writers, we can examine the quotes cited by Ruth Raymond Thone in her Local View column on August 8. She referred to a statement by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion which called for “terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation and the cutting of all social services… to the Arab population [in Israel].” Ben-Gurion never spoke these words. Media watchdog, CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East reporting in America, has time and again vetted the supposed source for this terrible quote and found that it was untrue. Though it has been debunked, it still appears on multiple anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic websites (and now in the pages of the Journal Star). We cannot know Ms. Thone’s or anyone else’s intentions for using these fallacious quotes, but we can reasonably guess which sources they have been reading.
All war is bad, and we should mourn the loss of innocent lives in Gaza and Israel. Still, while we might hold varying opinions regarding the methods and strategies employed by Israel to defend their citizens, we would do well to remember the words of the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
An important fact to remember is that “genocide” has a specific and very strong meaning. Its definition is not a matter of opinion. To misuse this word is nothing short of obscene.
Words have meanings, and those meanings matter. It is therefore disturbing when people throw around words with blatant disregard for their true meanings, especially when those words carry a powerful emotional charge. Humans are emotional beings and we can barely help ourselves from responding to those triggers even when logic and facts might actually prove the opposite to be true. Misuse of such words is a cynical ploy by people who will do anything to win an argument rather than allow the facts to determine a just outcome. We encounter it in our personal lives, sometimes in our professional lives, and it has become all too common a tactic in domestic politics. It seems increasingly that arguments are meant to be won rather than proven. Facts be damned.
We hear the egregious misuse of very powerful words in relation to Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s opponents have long thrown around the word Apartheid, knowing full well it conjures images of the injustices committed against the black population of South Africa by the white minority. It is a common trope in discussions about divestment in Israel. The word is powerful, and its very mention evokes a strong response which clouds our vision from seeing Israeli Arab citizens who vote, who serve in the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament), and who even sit on Israel’s highest court. To be sure, Israel has its share of racial tensions and bigotry, but so does the United States of America. Using a strong word like “Apartheid” is effective, however, when you want to win an argument. Facts be damned.
The other, still more disturbing word being employed against Israel is “genocide.” Genocide is the systematic killing of a group of people who share a religion, race, or nationality with the intention of eliminating them from the Earth. Such was the plan of Adolf Hitler against the Jews during World War II. It was his stated goal. He was proud of it, believing he would do the world a favor by ridding it of the Jewish problem. When we examine recent events in Gaza, we see a high death toll. Collateral damage of innocent men, women, and children who are killed in the crossfire is to be collectively mourned by all decent people throughout the world. But Israel has no desire to kill these people. They are stuck in the middle of terrorist rockets and public facilities being used to store armaments. Israel did not put them in harm’s way. The Hamas militants did. If Hamas wanted to protect Gaza’s citizens, they would draw the combat away from them rather than right into their midst. Or better yet, they would recognize that Israel will not tolerate a steady barrage of rockets being fired toward its cities and its airport, and they would simply quit instigating violence. Hundreds of lives could be saved right this moment. The battle in Gaza, or any of Israel’s wars, has nothing do with antipathy toward Muslims or Arabs. It has everything to do with quashing the terrorist threat against Israel’s safety and sovereignty.
The death toll is sickeningly high, and yes much higher on the Palestinian side. Yet, Israel is not in a war against Palestinians, it is engaged in a fight against Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to the downfall of the Jewish state. Unfortunately the terrorists attack from within the civilian populations, storing rockets in UN schools, using hospitals as headquarters, shooting from residential streets drawing Israeli fire toward innocents. Sad? yes. Regrettable? Of course. But what other option does Israel have? Are they meant to continue living under constant rocket attacks, always ready to run into the nearest bomb shelter, to sit under the Iron Dome and pray that it does not miss? Do they wait for a direct hit on an apartment building, Ben Gurion International airport, or its nuclear reactor in Dimona? Do they simply wait to find out just how many tunnels have been dug underneath its border and how Hamas intends to use them in attacks against Israeli citizens? No. They are fighting back to defend their home. This is not genocide. It is a sophisticated military operation with the clear objective to eliminate the terrorist threats. By Hamas’s design, however, the line between combattant and non-combattant has been drawn quite blurry. Still, the warfare and the killing can end. Once Hamas agrees to a cease fire, or once their capacity to threaten Israeli citizenry is significantly weakened, the fighting will stop. But facts be damned. Genocide is a word employed by those who simply wish to win an argument and foment anti-Israel sentiment. It stirs emotions, conjuring images of concentration camps, gas chambers, and Einsatzgruppen, mobile death squads employed by Nazi Germany to wipe out entire villages one by one. And those who wish to defame Israel relish the irony that the Jewish state is now being called genocidal. It can be a persuasive argument. The problem: it is simply not true.
As far as identifying who is truly genocidal, let us compare two documents. One of the parties involved has these words in its foundational document:
“[I]t will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
And the other party has these words in its foundational document:
“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it. The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him… The HAMAS regards itself the spearhead and the vanguard of the circle of struggle against World Zionism… Islamic groups all over the Arab world should also do the same, since they are best equipped for their future role in the fight against the warmongering Jews.”
The first of these documents is from the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The second from the Hamas charter. Which one of these sounds genocidal? Those who say the second, are correct, and if Hamas achieves their objectives, it would mean the end of Israel and a threat to all Jewish people. Those who say the first is genocidal are simply anti-Israel– facts be damned.
During this zeman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom, I would like to make a solemn acknowledgment of righteous gentiles in our midst. In light of the recent tragedy in Overland Park, KS, it is all too easy to focus on sinister, age-old bigotry which continues to haunt Jewish people still today. But, as we celebrate freedom, we can recognize that with most of our neighbors, whether or not we share the same theology, we share the mutual understanding that we are all imbued with inherent rights to believe, to worship, and ultimately to live in any way we wish so long as we do not bring harm to others. Without this acknowledgment, we would not be able to enjoy our freedoms. As Jews, we have many friends, allies who support us, who defend us, and who work with us to guarantee religious freedom and safety for everyone in our communities. Rabbi Mark Levin, from Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park where I was confirmed, wrote these words recently as part of his response to the attack:
“I wish… that you could receive the loving calls I am receiving from friends and clergy all over the wider metropolitan area and indeed around the world. Our neighbors: Jews, Christians and Muslims are outraged that senseless murder would be aimed at our community. We live among friends, and that is very different from Pharaoh’s Egypt, Nazi Germany, or any other place in which Jews have suffered persecution.”
I too have received such calls from friends and clergy in Nebraska, not just because people know I grew up in Kansas City, but because they understand the pain all Jews feel when senseless violence is directed toward us. They want to express their love and care for our community who though distanced from the events by geography, still feel the wound in our Jewish hearts. These people are righteous gentiles, willing to befriend us, to support and defend us, in difficult times. It is important that we do the same for them whenever the opportunity arises.
It is therefore important to acknowledge the three victims of the heinous crime, none of whom were Jewish themselves. Each one died while making use of Jewish communal institutions. They were taking part in a community singing contest or visiting a loved one, normal actions taken out of shared interests which transcend any religious belief or cultural identity. Knowingly or not, they were friends of the Jewish people in the best way possible. In a way that would make Martin Buber proud, they did not see themselves as Christians or Jews as Jews. They only saw people they wanted to sing with and with whom they could share the responsibility of caring for aging parents. They saw the Jewish communal buildings as inviting places with wonderful resources which are meant to be shared. Nothing was I-It. It was I-Thou, people simply appreciating being with other people without consideration of difference. It was a model for peace and community relations which, I am grateful to say, had become quite ordinary. But the good feelings were momentarily shattered with the actions of one hate-filled person. Three Christians died from gunshots intended for Jews. By mere accident, their deaths prevented the killer from reaching his target. However, these victims did not choose to martyr themselves, nor would anyone have asked them to. They died simply because they were friends of the Jews modeling the humanity which can unite us all. They were righteous gentiles. In this season of our liberation, let us give thanks for them and all other who enable our freedom.
Let us remember and pray for the families of:
Reat Griffin Underwood
Dr. William Lewis Corporon
May the God of mercy grant them refuge in the bonds of everlasting life. And may their memories abide for eternal blessing.