A long time ago, in the late winter of 1980, I spent a remarkable Shabbat afternoon with my fellow rabbinical school classmates in Jerusalem. Our teacher was the brilliant Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, now of blessed memory. Rabbi Berkovits was one of the foremost Modern Orthodox thinkers of the twentieth century and the originator of the heartbreaking observation, "After the Holocaust, faith in God is difficult, but faith in man is impossible."
The topic of the afternoon was indeed faith after the Holocaust, but the conversation that Rabbi Berkovits moderated was not just among aspiring rabbis. We also had as our guest Dr. Franklin Littell, a Lutheran minister and university professor, who had become famous among both Christians and Jews for taking an unblinking look at anti-semitism in Christianity, especially the Lutheran Church. He brought with him a group of students who had joined him to study for a month in Israel. They were Lutherans. And they were Germans.
In 1980 I was 27 years old. My father was 55. He had served in the United States Army in World War II and participated in the liberation of a labor camp. When he returned to the United States, he bought a small business selling office furniture and supplies. Arguably the best and most innovative writing instruments in the 1970s and early 1980s - the next generation after BIC pens - were coming from West Germany. My father refused to carry them, even though he knew it cost him a certain amount of business.
You may remember my telling you that I once asked him during my anti-Vietnam War days if, when he was fighting during WWII, he ever considered that he might be killing some other mother's son. My father, one of the most compassionate and good-natured people I ever met, looked at me and said without hesitation, "I wasn't shooting anyone's son. I was shooting Nazis."
That same summer I was 19. It was 26 years after WWII, and a young couple moved onto our suburban street, six houses down from ours. Their names were Dieter and Erika Gross, and they were in their late 30s. Dieter was a manager with a German manufacturing firm who had come to Wilmette, Illinois to oversee the construction of their first American facility. Erika stayed home with their two small children. Of far greater interest to me was the fact that the Grosses brought with them Uli, the au pair for their two small children. And, as for Uli, of far greater interest than the Grosses' two children, was the 19-year-old boy who lived six houses up the street.
My father was clearly disinterested in my summer romance with Uli. To his credit, he was unfailingly polite to Dieter and Erika and Uli, even after I reported to him that Erika once said, as she watched her children tear around the house, "Say what you will about Hitler, he knew how to make the children behave."
I report this information not as criticism of my father. I report it to illustrate what I was raised with to the age of 27, as I sat on that remarkable Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem in the teaching presence of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and Dr. Franklin Littell.
I remember the day in general, but I remember only one exchange in particular. A soft-spoken young woman who was studying with Dr. Littell asked a question about reactions to the Holocaust. Her English was pretty good, but it was heavily accented, as you might expect from a 20-something German. In the course of her question, she made some representation about her heartache over the Holocaust. It was all I needed to hear.
"You can't know," I said. "You cannot possibly know what it was like to lose so much in those circumstances. You cannot know how we feel. For you, the Holocaust was history. For us, it is personal."
There was a very heavy silence that fell over the room. The young woman looked down at her hands and said, "But how should I react when I discover that the grandfather who bounced me on his knee was a murderer?"
Looking back at the moment, I remember my feelings exactly. I was not ashamed. I was not embarrassed. I did not change my feelings about Nazis, nor about the difference in how Jews view the Holocaust and how Germans - or for that matter anyone else - view the Holocaust. But that young woman and her entire generation - MY generation of Germans - were transformed in my eyes.
If you were here yesterday, you heard me talk about nuance. There was, simply, a different nuance to my attitude toward young Germans. Whereas before I was quite content to overlook the Nazi thing only for a little passion in the moonlight with a blue-eyed au pair - and don't think I didn't take a certain satisfaction in violating a dozen Nazi-era prohibitions in the process - when I listened to the story of that young seminarian I was transformed.
Yesterday I mentioned one of the political organizations with which I am involved. Today, I mention another, though it is hardly the same kind of group. The Faith and Politics Institute is unique among the many associations that prowl Capitol Hill in that its advocacy agenda is entirely non-partisan. Chaired by Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and Amo Houghton of New York, Faith and Politics Institute seeks to lift up for elected officials, staff and support personnel that intersection of personal spiritual belief and public service. And while promoting racial understanding and economic justice are part of its program, there is no legislative advocacy involved. Instead, its founder and president, Rev. Doug Tanner, asks participants to reflect on their lives in private belief and public service and share the stories that shape them.
The good work of the Faith and Politics Institute has come to the attention of a lot of people, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and Professor Alex Boraine. Bishop Tutu you know. Prof. Boraine is a name not so familiar to you, though he shares an important title with the Bishop. They were co-chairs of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was an integral part of South Africa's long process of reconstruction after apartheid. Faced with a racial divide at once more severe and less complicated than the racial divide in the United States, the architects of the commission decided that the only way for people to begin to heal their pain was to share their pain. And so, the commissioners listened to stories of tragedy and triumph, of rage and regret, of loss and leadership and of exhausting hatred from victims and perpetrators and their survivors.
I could spend a lot of time recounting some of those stories, but it's not my purpose. Instead, I share with you some of the lessons learned by Alex Boraine included in his book A Country Unmasked. He himself is an exceptionally religious man, a Methodist, who entered politics as a means of acting on his principles and values. He and his fellow commissioners had to answer on behalf of an injured society the suffering and crimes that are South Africa's legacy. Imagine the enormity of that expectation! Imagine the crushing sense of responsibility upon them! And remember, too, that when the work of the commission was ended, the people of South Africa had to live together into the indefinite future.
As I read of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it sounded very familiar, close to my own experience, though in a place and time I never knew.
Here is how the description began:
The ritual, which was what the public hearings were, which promised truth, healing, and reconciliation to a deeply divided and traumatized people, began with a story. This was the secret of the Commission-no stern-faced officials sitting in a private chamber, but a stage, a handful of black and white men and women listening to stories of horror, of deep sorrow, amazing fortitude, and heroism. The audience was there too, and a much wider audience watched and listened through television and radio. It was a ritual, deeply needed to cleanse a nation. It was a drama. The actors were in the main ordinary people with a powerful story. But this was no brilliantly written play; it was the unvarnished truth in all its starkness. (p99)
Of course, that description resonates because it is what we attempt to create in this room on this day and yesterday and in ten days. We have a ritual, deeply needed to cleanse a nation. We come together to listen to stories of horror, of deep sorrow, amazing fortitude and heroism. And we are not facing stern-faced officials in private chambers, but ordinary people with our own powerful stories.
There is, quite obviously, a difference. We have no public record to which we can turn to quantify our tragedies, to verify our sufferings. The stories we need to tell are stories we are afraid to tell for that very reason. Who will believe that our hearts are in such pain? Who will believe that with food on our tables, with roofs over our heads, with cars in our driveways, with freedoms unprecedented in human history, we still need to confess the truth of our anguish and seek reconciliation?
Rabbi Alan Lew, my friend and colleague from San Francisco, addresses this question in his remarkable book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared (p150):
At Rosh Hashana we begin to acknowledge the truth of our lives. This truth is written wherever we look. It is written on the streets of our city; it is written in our bodies; it is written in our lives and in our hearts. We have a deep need to know this truth-our lives quite literally depend on it. But we can't seem to get outside ourselves long enough to see it. And besides, we are terrified of the truth.
But this is a needless terror.
What is there is already so. It's on the tape. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse. Not being open about it doesn't make it go away. And we know we can stand the truth. It is already here and we are already enduring it.
And the tape is rolling. The hand is writing. Someone is watching us endure it, waiting to heal us the moment we awake and watch along.
How can this time we spend together bring us reconciliation? Only if we face the truth. That is the message of the prayer book that sits in your lap. But because the stories it tells are written for you, not by you, the day's exercise becomes one of metaphor and music, layers of distraction that feed our intellect and our sense of the aesthetic, but do not force us to that place where hatred lives and pain resides and our corrupting personal sins have taken root. They do not take us to the place that allows us to kiss and caress a human being for her physical beauty and teenage loneliness, but still harbor disdain because she dares to love her grandfather, the murderer.
Your story needs to be told, and, just as important, your story needs to be heard. And only after that story is heard can we begin to talk about reconciliation, can we begin to talk about closing the chasm between us and the members of our human family and between us and God. If the story is not told and the story is not heard, then we are trapped. Listen to Rabbi Lew:
I think that the great philosopher George Santayana got it exactly wrong. I think it is precisely those who insist on remembering history who are doomed to repeat it. For a subject with so little substance, for something that is really little more than a set of intellectual interpretations, history can become a formidable trap-a sticky snare from which we may find it impossible to extricate ourselves…
Very often, I think it is precisely the impossible yearning for historical justification that makes resolution of th[e Arab-Israeli] conflict seem so impossible. The Jews want vindication for the Holocaust, and for the two thousand years of European persecution and ostracism that preceded it; the Jews want the same Europeans who now give them moral lectures to acknowledge that this entire situation would never have come about if not for two thousand years of European bigotry, barbarism, and xenophobia. They want the world to acknowledge that Israel was attacked first, in 1948, in 1967, in 1973, and in each of the recent Intifadas. They want acknowledgement that they only took the lands from which they were attacked during these conflicts, and offered to return them on one and only one condition-the acknowledgement of their right to exist. When Anwar Sadat met that condition, the Sinai Peninsula, with its rich oil fields and burgeoning settlement towns, was returned to him. And they want acknowledgement that there are many in the Palestine camp who truly wish to destroy them, who have used the language of peace as a ploy to buy time until they have the capacity to liquidate Israel and the Jews once and for all. They want acknowledgment that they have suffered immensely from terrorism, that a people who lost six million innocents scarcely seventy years ago should not have had to endure the murder of its innocent men, women, and children so soon again. And they want acknowledgement that in spite of all this, they stood at Camp David prepared to offer the Palestinians everything they claimed to have wanted-full statehood, a capital in East Jerusalem-and the response of the Palestinians was the second Intifada, a murderous campaign of terror and suicide bombings. (p47-48)
I don't know about you, but that's what I want. I want that story told, and I want it heard. I know that if there could just be an acknowledgment of the authenticity of that pain, the pain that I heaped upon the German seminarian, then there might be a chance for reconciliation. But Rabbi Lew has more to say.
And the Palestinians? They would like the world to acknowledge that they lived in the land now called Israel for centuries, that they planted olive trees, shepherded flocks, and raised families there for hundreds of years; they would like the world to acknowledge that when they look up from their blue-roofed villages, their trees and their flowers, their fields, and their flocks, they see the horrific, uninvited monolith of western culture-immense apartment complexes, shopping centers, and industrial plants on the once-bare and rocky hills where the voice of God could be heard and where Muhammad ascended to heaven. And they would like the world to acknowledge that it was essentially a European problem that was plopped into their laps at the end of the last great war, not one of their own making. They would like the world to acknowledge that there has always been a kind of arrogance attached to this problem; that it was as if the United States and England said to them, Here are the Jews, get used to them. And they would like the world to acknowledge that it is a great indignity, not to mention a significant hardship, to have been an occupied people for so long, to have had to submit to strip searches on the way to work, and intimidation on the way to the grocery store, and the constant humiliation of being subject-a humiliation rendered nearly bottomless when Israel, with the benefit of the considerable intellectual and economic resources of world Jewry, makes the desert bloom, in a way they had never been able to do. And they would like the world to acknowledge that there are those in Israel who are determined never to grant them independence, who have used the language of peace as a ploy to fill the West Bank with settlement after settlement until the facts on the ground are such that independent Palestinian state on the West Bank is an impossibility. They would like the world to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a gentle occupation-that occupation corrodes the humanity of the occupier and makes the occupied vulnerable to brutality. (pp 49-50)
Our need to be heard is greater than our need to listen, that is for sure. I am willing to bet that there are some of you who have stopped listening to me right now because I said things you don't want to hear. You will remain stuck in that snare of historical memory, not because your story is wrong, but because it is not nuanced, because it does not recognize that human beings do not exist in a vacuum.
Rabbi Lew suggests that there are people on both sides of the conflict who would rather die than acknowledge the need to hear the other story, as if to consider the humanity of the other viewpoint would somehow delegitimate any scintilla of truth in their own viewpoint.
Hearing a different story, an articulation of a different historical perspective does not diminish the passion or commitment I feel about my story, about my historical perspective. But refusing to hear that other story, refusing to listen carefully, places me here today without hope that my own personal shortcomings will be forgiven by God and by those around me. Rabbi Lew again:
I wonder how many of us are holding on very hard to some piece of personal history that is preventing us from moving on with our lives, and keeping us from those we love. I wonder how many of us cling so tenaciously to a version of the story of our lives in which we appear to be utterly blameless and innocent that we become oblivious to the pain we have inflicted on others, no matter how unconsciously or inevitably or innocently we may have inflicted it. I wonder how many of us are terrified of acknowledging the truth of our lives because we think it will expose us. How many of us stand paralyzed between the moon and the sun; frozen-unable to act in the moment-because of our terror of the past and because of the intractability of the present circumstances that past has wrought? (p50)
I don't know about you, but I have a deep need for reconciliation. I want to love and be loved, not to parade around self-righteous but alone. And since even if I deny it, I know I have done wrong, reconciliation means being forgiven. It means someone - God, other people - will listen to my story and even in disagreement with it accept me anyway.
And if I want forgiveness then I must offer forgiveness. I must listen to the story of someone who has wronged me and even in disagreement accept him or her anyway.
Alex Boraine quotes the poet Maya Angelou as capturing the essence of this approach:
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Were I to stop here, quite frankly, I would have given you a recipe for naïveté and perpetual victimhood. Neither Prof. Boraine nor Rabbi Lew is of the belief that conflict and injustice can be resolved by opening your heart to the sad story of perpetrator or victim. And neither am I.
Professor Boraine writes: If reconciliation and stability are to grow, then the pernicious racism of whites against blacks and blacks against whites must constantly be challenged, and this sickness must be ousted from society. (p 129)
And Rabbi Lew devotes an entire chapter of his book to teshuvah and what it means in terms of being ready to give and get forgiveness.
In other words, the pursuit of justice is not eliminated by the need for truth and reconciliation. Even the amnesty granted in South Africa required teshuvah, required a turning away from sinfulness of body and mind. Those who were not penitent were not excused of their crimes.
What is the difference between being sensitized and being snookered? How do we attain a discerning ear, a discerning heart and a discerning mind so that we may fulfill the Biblical mandate to pursue justice, rather than dispensing cheap absolution?
The first step - really the only step, I think - is to be as pure as possible in our own motives. And if I find my own greatest private challenge in my own heart, and my own greatest public challenge in my deep love for Israel, then I find the model of my response in what you may consider an unlikely place.
Nothing rankles the soul of the American Jew more than the accusation that our loyalties are divided. When those charges are leveled, the exquisite tension with which we live constantly is put out of balance. The guilt is overwhelming, whether we have ultra-nationalist Israelis suggesting that we are less than loyal Jews or hostile American politicos like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan suggesting that we are less than loyal Americans. No set of values is more nuanced than the deep patriotism of American Jews who love Israel.
And so, when charges are suggested by innuendo and anonymous sources that we have betrayed our country, our immediate reaction is strong and swift. To borrow a phrase from Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah, we swallow poison and taste it as truth.
When your ancestors came to this country, they took the jobs no one wanted. And when they built those jobs into the entertainment industry and inner city hospitals and recycling of waste and surplus and small businesses turned large, they sent us to colleges and professional schools and reminded us of our civic duty to participate in the great marketplace of ideas that is the United States political landscape. And we are good at it - we are very good at it. The way Republicans and Democrats are fighting over our votes, you would think we were more than 30% of the population rather than less than 3%.
American challenged us to listen and learn and express our priorities and values. And nowhere have we done it better than in our advocacy for the State of Israel. The best example of that advocacy is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. AIPAC is a big tent, folks. It has room for every point on the political grid, every ethnic group, every special interest group. Nowhere will you find a more nuanced coalition, nowhere will you find people listening better or more actively than among the staff and activists of AIPAC. The effectiveness of AIPAC's advocacy for Israel in particular and foreign aid in general is the answer to the question, "does America take itself seriously?"
The senior staff of AIPAC has FBI clearance to visit the President in the Oval Office. Every top government official, from President Bush himself to the Vice-president, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defense has met and continues to meet with AIPAC, publicly and privately. But a vaguely detailed story about spying and compromised security was enough to bring out ugly representations about us - Pat Oliphant's cartoon of a dog with a six-pointed star urinating on the leg of Uncle Sam was worthy of Der Sturmer. And it threw us into an initial panic. We began to believe it ourselves, in spite of the fact that the story has shriveled on the vine and the government has yet to even answer AIPAC's invitation to investigate and interview their staff.
We need the spirit of confidence that pervades AIPAC in our personal and public lives, especially when we explore the intersection of our personal faith and our engagement in politics. We must be unafraid of the truth; after all, we know we can stand the truth. It is already here and we are already enduring it. And we must be unafraid to listen to others, even those with whom we do not agree, and speak our truth in return in a way that lets them know we hear their message and expect them to hear ours in return.
The canvas on which I painted images for you today is large. The Holocaust. South Africa. The Middle East. The United States of America. You are not an historical era. You are not a geographic region. You are not a country. You are a human being.
And you have come to this room to hold a book in your hand that asks you to examine the stains on your soul and the pure spots as well. In spite of stakes of all those other deliberations, they were conducted over the stories of the tellers and the listeners, the victims and their sympathizers, the perpetrators and their collaborators, a South African professor, an American rabbi, a German seminarian, and people who sit in this very room.
Speak your truth, my friends, as it must be. And listen actively as others do the same. The nuances of those stories are the places we make our connections with each other and with God. If our complex world is to hold together and not shatter into black and white, red and blue, have and have not, then we must.