Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
Our Sidra this week covers several themes but in Chapter 23 of Leviticus we have a listing of the festivals that are to be observed – and how they are to be observed. Which raises many questions, because we no longer do what is here described – bringing animal sacrifices or waving an 'Omer’, a sheaf. We count, but we don’t wave! But how should we celebrate our festivals, and what is there to celebrate?
I must say here – I am gradually becoming more and more worried about my rabbinic colleagues in the United States. And this is not ’Schadenfreude’. For years I would receive mails and comments on the lines of ”How can you stay working in Europe? Isn’t it dangerous there? So much rising antisemitism and right wing populist politicians?” And now – they have to cope with living in a country ruled in a semi-dictatorial manner by a President who believes that he can just issue a decree – and it will be done; who can issue statements against refugees and immigrants, who can turn back the clock of political correctness and liberal values by twenty or thirty years – and still retain the support of a sizeable minority, even majority of the nation behind him; and they have to live with horrific armed, murderous attacks by madmen on synagogues in Pittsburgh and in California… (not counting so many other attacks, on civilians, on office workers in New York, on marathon runners in Boston, and others). For all the wrong reasons – and these are WRONG reasons – the tone of self-righteous complacency has vanished. Liberal values are under threat, and Jews are under threat. The comments from my American colleagues have dried up.
What makes this more noticeable is that for decades there were numerous colleagues who felt rather unhappy about the traditional Haggadah for Pesach – which has of course replaced the one-time traditional sacrifices. Now, it is a few weeks since we used a version of the Haggadah but I notice that this is still an issue for debate: Whether or not to incorporate traditional paragraphs which criticise non-Jews. ”After all,” goes the argument, ”Nowadays we have a much better relationship with our non-Jewish neighbours than before, in the Middle Ages (defined as the fifth to the fifteenth centuries) or the Later Middle Ages (defined as the first half of the twentieth century); Nowadays many of our members themselves began their lives as non-Jews and many have non-Jewish family members or non-Jewish partners, and we do not wish to insult these people.” These are interesting arguments, but they miss the point. The paragraphs most usually referred to – the ”Vehi She’amda” and the ”Shefoch Chamatcha” – are not prayers against Non-Jews as such, they are statements and prayers against Antisemites. NOT all Non-Jews are Antisemites and indeed many non-Jews share the values which Judaism introduced into the world, of monotheism and responsibility and respect for each other, of blessing and of the yearning for stability and peace. BUT – and it is a big 'But’ – there are some people who are driven only by Hatred: Hatred of Moslems, hatred of Christians, and hatred of Jews. Of course there are some Moslems who hate other Moslems for being the wrong sort of Moslem, and there have been many Christians who have hated other Christians for being the wrong sort of Christians, and European history and now Middle-East history has been stained red many times by the blood of Shiites and Sunnis and the Ahmadis, by Catholics and Protestants and Copts and Hussites and Albigensians and others, many others….. However, one common factor throughout all these bloody and bloodthirsty centuries has been the way in which the soil and the waters have been stained by the blood of Jews. Jews killed solely because they were Jews. For our enemies, there are no ”wrong kinds of Jews” – ALL Jews universally (and even former Jews who had converted, or baptised Jews, or descendants of Jews) were recognised as legitimate targets for their hatred. When we describe the murder or martyrdom of Jews we use the term ”Kiddush HaShem” – they ”sanctify the Name” – and this is a way of saying that their sacrifice, their loss, their suffering was due solely to the fact that they were Jews – not Germans, not Poles, not Russians, not even Israelis – but Jews. It was the Name – in this case, the name 'Jew’ – that counted.
And this is why I feel it is totally legitimate to recite during our celebration of liberation from slavery and oppression, that this was not just a one-off event. ”Vehi Sheamda” says ”In EVERY generation there are those who rise up against us and seek to destroy us. In EVERY generation, whatever we did or do, wherever we are. We cannot escape. But until now, the Holy One has always rescued at least some of us – otherwise we would not be here today to sing this.”
Which strikes me as a very reasonable summary of Jewish history and Jewish hope for the future. Until recently the Jews in the United States at least had felt that they had survived for several generations with only mild social antisemitism, the exclusion from certain clubs and maybe from certain political positions but essentially a near-total acceptance and a sense of safety and security. But not any more…..
The ”Shefoch Chamatcha’’, often traditionally recited standing while the door has been opened to show any lurking enemies outside that we had nothing to fear, nothing to hide, is an appeal to God to wreak divine vengeance on ”those nations who rise up to destroy us, to devour us” – not the others, who leave us alone, in peace. And why not? Where is it stated in the Tanach that we are duty bound to remain passive and pacifist and accept calmly and without anger the unjustified attacks upon us? Quite the reverse – starting with the defence against the Amalekites in Exodus Chapter 17. The prophets speak many times of JUSTIFIED attacks, when we have done something evil to annoy God and to deserve punishment – this is a difficult theological equation but it exists. However, when peoples attack us for no reason, then we have no reason to accept the blame upon ourselves falsely. That would be 'false modesty’, to say the least. We do not rise up and say that it is OUR duty to attack and punish these enemies, but we ask God to do it for us.
There are many who claim that they are acting in the name of God when they blow up churches or murder worshippers in churches, synagogues and mosques, or when they threaten to wipe out the Jewish state with its inhabitants – but this is a vile blasphemy. There is nowhere stated in any of the monotheistic scriptures that God, under any name, has actually asked or commanded them to do this. They are misusing God’s name, they are abusing it, to justify their own human weakness and hatred. If they truly believed in God, they would ask God to punish those with whom they do not agree – and then wait for God to do so. And if God did not do so – then this should indicate to them that maybe their wishes were unjustified and their beliefs misguided. So let us be clear that we do not have to believe or accept those who claim to be acting out of Belief; they are actually acting out of a LACK of Belief. They do NOT believe that God will act, and so they do so themselves. A total twisting by 180 degrees of any truth, of any faith.
There have been times and places where we felt more secure, more accepted than elsewhere and until now the USA, partially established by a persecuted sect of British Puritans who demanded a separation of Church and State, was perhaps one of them. Maybe less so now. This does not, of course, make things any easier for us here, in Europe where we face plenty of evidence for human stupidity. But it makes us understand better those anonymous geniuses who composed the two paragraphs of the Haggadah shel Pessach which – I feel – are an important part of the ritual and of the way we approach our history and our identity. They incorporate uncomfortable but deep truths.
Chukat Olam leDorotechem – ”it is an eternal law for all your generations” – this is the term the Torah uses for something which should continue; alas we must use it also to describe things which should NOT continue, but somehow do……