Je Suis Juif - I am Jewish, Rosh Hashanah, 2015/5776

Rabbi Hoffman

Je Suis Juif - I am Jewish
Rabbi Joshua Hoffman
Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, CA

A Jewish man is disgusted with his faith, decides to leave the Jewish world behind, and join a monastery.  He takes a vow of silence, but he is permitted to say two words every seven years. After the first seven years have past, the elders bring him in and ask him for his two words."Cold floors," he says. The elders nod and send him away. After seven more years, they bring him in and ask for his two words. "Lousy food," he mumbles. Again, the elders nod and send him away. Another seven years pass and the elders bring him in and once more ask him for his two words."I quit," he says. "We're not surprised," replied the elders, "you've done nothing but complain since you got here."

It’s fair to say that Jews have an aversion to silence. At best our silence is meditative, a pause to give us the proper motivation and intention to speak with meaning and purpose. Often, our silence is an attempt to formulate action rather than to listen and respond to the thoughts of another.  We suffer from a ‘patience deficiency’ - we don’t listen when someone is speaking...we wait. Jews have an aversion to silence for sure.  

Here's another joke...27 rabbis go to a convent.  Okay, this isn’t really a joke, it happened for me this summer, and we were hardly silent during our visit!  I and my cohort of rabbis from all around the world visited the sisters of the Beit Jamal convent outside of Beit Shemesh in Israel.  Our goal there was complicated.  We were there to experience how the sisters encounter prayer and to compare their expressions of faith to ours. In preparation for our visit we had to best understand what brings us together as seekers of God’s presence and what distinguishes us.  

We learned that the sisters there have a practice of silence for the week. They do converse during Sunday afternoon meals and walks.  (Thank Gd!) We sat in astonishment to hear that it is even common practice for the sisters to wake up at 4 in the morning and begin their daily prayers in silence.  For the sisters, silence isn’t an act of submission or weakness in the presence of an all-powerful God.  Silence is the entry point into divine service. Their faith is in their silence.  

Jews have a different relationship with silence altogether. The difference between the rabbis and the sisters was not found in our tolerance for the decibel levels of sound.  We learned the difference is in how we relate to the silence.  For the sisters, silence is a tool of connection - a means to bring God’s presence closer to themselves.

For Jews, silence is active. In our Tradition, Shimon ben Gamliel taught, “All my days I grew up among the Sages, and I did not find anything good for a body but silence. The study of Torah is not what is essential, but the action. And whoever increases words brings sin.” (1:17)  For Jews, silence without action is impotence; we fear that a moment of silence may bring us to the brink of oblivion.   

Silence for Jews feels like a weakness - it is a sense of powerlessness and submission that we cannot tolerate.  There are many moments this year alone where Jews spoke out in full voices, expressing grand measures of empowerment and moral responsibility.  

Take this past summer, for example:  Jewish voices collectively spoke when Dr. Judea and Ruth Pearl bestowed the 14th Daniel Pearl award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was brutally attacked by extremists earlier this year.  Antonio Fischetti was at the Los Angeles Press Club this past August to accept the award on behalf of the magazine. On that fateful morning in January, however, Fischetti was excused from work to attend to his Aunt’s funeral. While his family shared loving thoughts and received comfort in the presence of extended family and close friends, two men stormed Antonio’s work place, killing 12 of his co-workers.  

Reports of the awards event related the palpable affection and honor given to him and the magazine for its bold tenacity and commitment to continue publishing in spite of such tragic circumstances.  It was a tremendous honor for the magazine and in the words of one journalist, an honor that we should all wish never had to be given.  This story comes even closer to us at Valley Beth Shalom as Judea and Ruth Pearl courageously inaugurated these awards here, in memory of their son, Daniel who was slain by Pakastini extremists in 2002.  

And even still our Jewish voices trembled when only two days following that horrific attack at Charlie Hebdo, the hyperCacher Kosher supermarket in Paris was attacked by other Islamic extremists taking the lives of 4.  There was a profoundly healing response from the global Jewish community and the French citizens, but the reverberations of doubt and uncertainty for Jewish safety in the world lingered for months.

These events suggest that Jewish power today is defined by the ability to mobilize the largest and loudest voices in response to our perceived attacks.  The more support we have for us, the more we can combat the voices of extremism and maligned protest.  It is the power that the Prime Minister of Israel expressed to the Jews of France at the time, “You have a home in Israel.”  We are powerful there.

What words shall we use to speak of this power?  In the wake of the attacks in France, the short lived anthem  “Je Suis Charlie”/“I am Charlie” became a temporary salve for the wounded conscience of our global society.  By showing solidarity with the writers and artists of the magazine, notorious for publishing some of the most salacious and primitive human behaviors to offer incisive commentary on the French intellectual elite, we identified with the values of free speech and expression, of noble truths our modern societies protect and celebrate. In our particular community, we even heard our own VBS members proclaim, “Je suis Juif” in solidarity with the French people and Jewish communities worldwide, to proudly state, ”I am a Jew.”  

“I am Jewish”  These words were reportedly the last words of Daniel Pearl before he was murdered.

“Je suis Juif” “I am a Jew” “I am Jewish”  More than a statement of identity, it is the voice given to the numbing silence when we feel powerless.

Certainly, my own “I am Jewish” identity was pummelled this year hearing about the constant attacks and acts of anti-semitic vandalism in cities like Copenhagen, suburbs of Maryland and even here in the San Fernando Valley.  When one of us is vulnerable, we are conditioned to shudder with pain.  We are compelled to correct the injustice we feel. We feel violated, threatened, weakened. And still, we may even feel powerless.

Portraying the image of the broken Jew, the emaciated, cowardly, fearful Jew led off to slaughter is not so subtly underneath the surface.  Our restraint is contained with ferocious animosity.  The Jew wants to say, we’d like to completely prevent you from harming us, but we can’t, because it’s not the moral thing to do. And so, “I am Jewish” sometimes means we are unwillingly forced into silence.  

Shall Jewish power then mean we can walk the world with a clenched fist and be permitted to punch any bully who threatens our safety and security? Does our power entitle us to deter anyone from causing us any harm, and the reason we don’t is because we simply choose not to? Conversely, does Jewish powerlessness mean we are subjected to our weakness and subjugation to the point of enslavement?  We’ve said, “Never again!” to this form of powerlessness.

Living in a “Never Again” reality means our powerless selves will never be bent to the subject of another’s will.  Never again means we stand proudly and confidently in the face of political, spiritual, and personal adversities and in an act of power throw down our fists onto the table, grit our teeth, and seething with rage shout, “Never again!”

And we really hope...Never again.  In the cacophony of our shouts and screams, our clenched fists pulsate each day the news hits the screens - and ‘again’ keeps happening.

No doubt, this tension is what animated Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who just over twenty years ago stormed the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron, Israel and took the lives of 29 people and left 125 wounded before being killed himself by worshipers defending themselves against his attack.  A founding member of the Jewish Defense League and an active settler of Hebron, his response to relentless antagonism by Muslim residents of the city was to stand up and take power into his own hands. Dressed in Israeli military uniform, he opened fire as nearly 500 worshipers came to pay their respects to our shared spiritual patriarch, Abraham Avinu.  The world repudiated his attack.  The impact of his exercise of power still lingers.

I visited the Cave of Machpelah this summer, much to the concern of my wife (and now that I can share this experience safely with you, you should have been concerned too!). I could not have felt more uneasy.  There is such a thing as desecrated ground, in the heart of our homeland, in Hebron, where the words of God to Cain scream forth, “The blood of your brother cries out to me!”  

Nothing could have been more striking in this surreal moment than listening to a man, standing underneath the olive tree outside the gravesites of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.   Responding to our questions regarding Goldstein’s morality and our experience of this place that day, our host spoke with a sense of awe and honor for Goldstein’s heroic behavior leading up to the massacre.  In the blazing heat we listened and seethed. The disparity of the olive tree of peace and the persistence in his deeply held belief that power expressed in violence is justified was numbing to witness.  This was not the emblem of power we should carry from this day.

We’ve learned this before:  The moment our voices are raised to the point of a scream, we lose our power.  It’s more than an argument among friends or family.  Our screams now have global implications.

Goldstein’s memory stands among the rarified few in our modern Western society who crossed lines of power and powerlessness and broke the moral fulcrum between the two.  Such actions are the supreme manifestations of powerlessness. In the minds of the perpetrators, such actions are the expression of ultimate power.  The deafening silence in Hebron even to this day speaks a different message.  Power wielded with the sword of annihilation is not power - it’s a violent expression of fear, and this is not the power we’ve been entrusted to share.

For Jews, the prevailing definitions of power and powerlessness are wrong.  Power and powerlessness are moral categories that must become an inspiration for our actions and not the thrust of our reactions. Powerlessness is not weakness.  Powerlessness is the willful restraint of our power.  

One more story from Hebron.  As our bullet-proof bus drove through the desolate streets of Hebron, a Palestinian child, no older than eight, was standing by the edge of the street with a rock in his hand.  In an instant I saw the child’s older sibling rush out from the courtyard behind him, knocking the rock from out of the boy’s hands.  Preventing violence is the courageous act to put the stone down and begin dialogue.  Jews should not throw rocks.  We can learn this from a little Palestinian boy.  It’s a lesson we need to hear and respond to today.

Jewish Power is the personal and collective expression of moral responsibility - it is to speak for the voiceless and to inspire goodness in the self and others.

Responsible Jewish power begins with how we use our voices. It’s the wisdom of the 19th century rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanov. “Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: Ask yourself “What benefit will my speech bring me or others?”

Several years ago, Rabbi Schulweis was asked to contribute to the book, I Am Jewish  a compilation in honor of Daniel Pearl and in memory of those last words of courageous fidelity to his tradition and culture to which he is quoted.  Rabbi Schulweis shares the observation made by the words of Torah we read on the Rosh Hashanah holiday.  On the first day we read about Ishmael and Hagar and on the second day about Abraham and Isaac.  He writes, “Both Ishmael and Isaac are God’s children and their genealogies are recorded in Scriptures...The compassion of God is not restricted to one people.  The Jewish tradition, properly understood, will not allow God to be segregated.” (I Am Jewish, p. 180)

The Rabbi teaches here that when power is exerted inappropriately, our Source of Power is isolated.  Raising our voices to  speak with Jewish power should bring us closer to Infinite Truth, to the blessings of Godliness. Power in any other form is selfish.

These are the words we carry as our clenched fists beat against our chests on the Yom Kippur holiday.  Al Chet Sh’Chatanu - Ashamnu - these words are in the collective, for this is where our power is manifest.

When the pain and torment of losing our friends and loved ones as victims of terror is unrestrained, there is a sordid justification in exacting punishment upon the perpetrators as a morally courageous act. Unmitigated power reaches to the depths of our moral fiber, and challenges those ideas which ought to permeate the best of our selves.  Power unrestrained leaves a moral stain upon our conscience written in indelible ink.  Its why we hate reading about Tag Mahir - the Jewish extremist group that enters Palestinian neighborhoods and murders small children.  This is not Jewish power - this is fear and it’s not Jewish.

Our definition of responsible Jewish power must be one that brings God together.  To say, “I am Jewish,” is to unify the human being, to bring conflict and our segregated selves into the whole presence of God.  

Responsible Jewish Power begins with the “Kol dmamah daka - the still small voice” and takes heed of our collected wisdom. When our Sages teach, "Who is powerful?  The one who conquers his impulses."  we model ourselves as ones who recognizes we don’t have to use power to define or protect our relevance.  The mark of courageous power is to turn inward and to speak with moral authority.

Here is the equation for responsible Jewish power:   The broader you define yourself in the definition of the collective, the more power you possess.  “I am Jewish” is the shorthand for this moral theorem. Jewish power conquers the self so the voice of the collective may be heard.

And, as a community concerned with Jewish power, each and every expression of our identity is bound up with sacred restraint.  In other words, such expression of power is dependent upon your voice and your support.  

  1. We need your voice when our community calls for a response to the crisis of Syrian or Eritrean refugees.

  2. We need your voice when our community needs to inspire vigorous debate over security and existential threats to Israel and Jews around the world

  3. We need your voice when our community pours out concern for the powerless in our midst, the homeless, the ill, the neglected and rejected innocent ones in our midst.

  4. We need your voice when our community speaks out to the pillars of leadership in this great country, to support responsible diplomacy with the nations of the world, and to challenge the albatrosses of social injustice afflicting our great society.

We need your voice, and we need your hands. Let this be a year to speak with full voices, “I am Jewish.” And this year, may be pray that these words will speak of a Jewish power to be proud of.

Date: 
Thursday, September 24, 2015 - 9:00am