Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline
Yom Kippur, 5767/2006 Responsibility Redux ©Rabbi Jack Moline
This is the last of four times I will address you on these Days of Awe. I have offered you to this point three suggestions of the gifts we Jews have to give the world, especially the society in which we live here in the United States. I suspect that few of you were surprised that I suggested Shabbat. I suspect that most of you agreed with my premise that we are open to forbidden answers, even when they conflict with previous iterations of faith – though some of you clearly were not willing to follow me to my conclusion that we must thus remove the obstacles put before people of same-sex orientation. You may have been disturbed when I suggested last night that the cherished centrality of rights in America should be mitigated by a sense of Jewish responsibility.
Today, I want to come back to the pitgam, the aphorism I quoted a number of times yesterday in suggesting that we need to be responsible for each other. It is kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh and I translated it as "all Israel is responsible one for the other." In fact, though that is indeed how the phrase is translated into English and how it is exposited by fraternal, philanthropic and social justice organizations, the translation does violence to the nuance of the word areivim.
You actually know the word areivim in other forms. You know the word erev, which means "evening," the hours after twilight, but before the heart of the night. You know the word eiruv, an artificially constructed boundary that allows public and private areas of a community to be considered one large enclosed domain. You know the phrase erev rav, the "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites that accompanied our ancestors out of Egypt. You have prayed the words hama'ariv aravim that describe God who rolls light away from dark and dark away from light. The word carries the connotation of "mixture."
In fact, it would not be inaccurate to translate kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh as "All of Israel is mixed up with each other." The phrase is used in the Talmud (Sh'vu'ot 39a) in explaining an anomaly of the Torah's code of conduct. As you know, we affirm that the sins of the parents are not to be visited on the children. But when it comes to taking God's name in vain, it is asserted that the entire family – that is, all of Israel – is to suffer. The Talmud, in expanding that understanding somewhat, affirms, "it was in their power to prevent the transgression and they did not." Therefore it is taught, kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – we are all in this together. We must not only act for the benefit of each other. We must pay the price if we do not prevent another Jew from dishonoring God.
I am not deputizing you as the kashrut police or suggesting that you perform a citizen's arrest on Sarah Silverman (that's a special mention for David Sattler). I am back to where I started ten days ago. As Rabbi Shamai Kanter urged his colleagues to say, be proud to be a Jew. We have a gift to give the world that, if accepted, can actually redeem this complicated and troubled planet.
My friend Rabbi Danny Zemel spoke last week at Temple Micah about the agony of Lt. General Moshe Yaalon of the Israeli Defense Forces. His trepidation over killing innocent bystanders was described extensively in a Washington Post article about a month ago. His portfolio is targeted assassinations, and he had the opportunity to order the deaths of the top Hamas leadership by bombing a civilian apartment building where they had gathered for a summit in 2003. He argued strenuously with Avi Dichter, the head of Shin Bet, that there was a threshold of casualties that should prevent the opportunity. Dichter believed that the deaths of some few innocents would save the lives of many more.
In the course of the argument, Yaalon said, "How can we look in the eyes of our pilots if they kill innocent people?" "And if the terrorists walk out alive, and tomorrow another bus explodes, how do we explain it to our people?" Dichter replied. We can be proud of that exchange.
In the end, a bomb designed to limit collateral damage destroyed only the third floor of the building where Hamas leaders met. They escaped from the first floor. One of them today is the Prime Minister of the Palestinian authority. Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, All of Israel is mixed up with each other – we are all in this together.
I can name a hundred Jews in public life, and you can name a hundred Jews in your private life, whose conduct is a reflection on every other Jew. Henry Kissinger. Barney Frank. Arlen Specter. Jan Schakowsky. Eric Cantor. Rahm Emanuel. Ruth Bader Ginsberg. We point at them with pride and concern, and insist that however they conduct themselves, it must reflect well on the Jews. We feel no such investment in other American leaders, not in Bill Frist, not in Harry Reid, not in Nancy Pelosi or Dennis Hastert. Our sense of shame over the conduct of members of Congress who betrayed the public trust is of a different order than it is when we discover that an observant Jew provided the temptation to them.
We may resent it, we may object to it, we may resist it, but we never deny it. We may resent it when a Jew betrays what we consider a basic Jewish value. We may object to it when an outsider asks us what's up with the Jews. We may resist the idea that we are in any way responsible for producing Barukh Goldstein or Yigal Amir or Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky. But in large and small ways, in very serious ways and in more lighthearted moments, we know that kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. We are all in this together.
We bask in the light of accomplishment. We feel responsible for failure. And we are responsible for rooting out evil in our midst – those who would abuse and pervert the message of our tradition and our culture to the harm of others. We are charged with the responsibility, as Rabbi Shai Held has said, "to help narrow the enormous gap between the ideal and the real; evil must be combated and suffering must be dramatically mitigated so that the earth can be filled `with the knowledge of the Lord.' God's dream is of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. To be a covenantal Jew is to dare to dream with God."
Your presence here today is a part of that mission. Your absence from the office and from school, from the internet and the marketplace is for a very public purpose. We have been engaged in the work of communal confession of our sins and resolve to live lives of righteousness again when the sun sets tonight. It is right for us to hold ourselves accountable. It is right to allow ourselves to be held accountable by others to the values we articulate. That is our gift to America, to the human family. Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh.
Why? So that we can verify the suspicions of those who hate us? So that we can provide a scapegoat for yet another generations woes? No, my friends.
So that when we demand the same collective responsibility from other communities, when we insist that people clean up their own homes, when we refuse to allow others to say, "The people who perpetrated that outrage may call themselves Christians, but they are not really Christians. The people who perpetrated that outrage may call themselves Muslims, but they are not really Muslims," when that happens in the world, we can say, kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. All of Israel is mixed up with each other. All of Christendom is mixed up with each other. All of Islam is mixed up with each other.
It is not my intention to launch into a litany of the inconsistencies and shortcomings of people who call themselves Christians and Muslims. Frankly, we don't have the time for it, and we actually have the next seven hours.
And neither is it my intention to inflame your passions and justify prejudices you may hold – and I may hold with you – about people who adhere to other religious traditions.
But I stand here today with a certain amount of credibility in interfaith relations. If all goes as scheduled, I will serve as the next chair of the board of The Interfaith Alliance, TIA, which is devoted to the positive and healing role of religion in society. The board and the staff of TIA are about as diverse a group as you can imagine, and the membership embraces the proverbial seventy nations of the earth.
So when I tell you how frustrated I have become with the unwillingness of my liberal partners to hold their own coreligionists responsible for egregious violations of their own values, you can bet it comes from a place of great pain and disappointment. I offer you an illustration of those shortcomings without a concern that it will be perceived as politically incorrect. Wrong is wrong, and I won't mitigate it by suggesting that others are wrong as well. Besides, I talked about systemic problems with the Christian model last night. Fair is fair.
We are hearing a good deal of talk from the upper echelons of our administration about "Islamo-facism" and "Islamism." Everyone from the President to the Pope tries to bend over backwards not to insult the genuinely good and peaceable Muslims in the United States and around the world. I myself got a lesson in respect this year when I quoted the Qur'an in a speech I gave illustrating the dangers of religious extremism and, in the process, insulted the Muslims in the audience for taking their holy Scripture in vain.
But the problem the world is having with Muslims bent on causing mayhem and murder is not a problem that can be resolved by Papal encyclicals or military occupation. It will not be resolved by undereducated rabbis showing greater sensitivity to the sacred writings of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be unto him, alav hashalom. It will not be resolved by declarations by American Muslim organizations decrying terrorism, welcome though they may be. I was on an interfaith panel with an American Muslim activist earlier this month and he urged the audience not to judge Muslims by the actions of point-zero-zero-zero-one percent of the Muslim population. I have to say, that's still an awful lot of people. Point-zero-zero-zero-one percent of the Jewish population is...me.
Imagine if our congregation ordered cleaning supplies from a local merchant and then canceled the order when we found out he was a Muslim.
Imagine if Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School or the Jewish Primary Day School or Gesher Jewish Day School ... were to teach its students that the Palestinians were interlopers in the Holy Land, and that there would never be peace until they were subjugated or expelled. Imagine if our textbooks called Muslims monkeys and pigs. Imagine if we quoted the Torah commanding Joshua to rid the land of pagans by killing them, and instead of struggling with the ethics of that text affirmed that it was just as relevant today concerning the descendants of those pagans.
I would expect that in such circumstances this synagogue would go out of business. I would expect that Jewish leadership would issue a takkanah, a binding legal decree, a fatwa if you will, that it was forbidden to send a child to be educated in such a school. I imagine that a rabbi of any integrity would appear, contrite and embarrassed, before the local Muslim community and apologize that such an institution could exist.
And why? Because kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. There is no such thing as the evil perpetrated in the name of Judaism that is not mixed up with those who consider themselves righteous.
So when Neil Kramer is told very politely that the Islamic Saudi Academy is canceling its order with him because they will not do business with a Jew, I have expectations.
When a sixth grade textbook currently in use around the globe shows a map of the Middle East showing the 1948 borders of Israel labeled, "Palestine – occupied 1948" and includes the lesson, "Just as Muslims were successful in the past when they came together in a sincere endeavor to evict the Christian crusaders from Palestine, so will Arabs and Muslims emerge victorious...against the Jews and their allies if they stand together and fight a true jihad for God," I have expectations.
When an eighth grade text book says, "Jews are the people of the Sabbath, whose young people God turned into apes and whose old people God turned into swine to punish them," I have expectations.
When a ninth grade textbook says, "The clash between the (Muslim) community and the Jews and Christians has endured, and it will continue as long as God wills...The Prophet said, the hour of judgment will not come until the Muslim fights the Jews and kills them," I have expectations.
Just as we Jews are in a period of purification of our souls and rectification of our sins, the Muslim world is in the midst of such a period, Ramadan. The true meaning of jihad is not the physical struggle with demonized enemies for dominance over territory, but the internal struggle every Muslim must engage to purge himself or herself of the sins and impure attitudes that separate the believer from God. It is a period of accountability for the individual and community alike.
If I let you leave this sanctuary without challenging you to be honest about your shortcomings as a person and our shortcomings as a community, I would make a mockery of the sacred task at hand. We confess our sins in the plural, not because each of you is an adulterer or a murderer or blasphemer or a bigot, but precisely because each of you is not. But kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, we are all mixed up in this together.
And the Muslim who enters Eid al-Fatr when the moon is next new without repudiating the teaching and practice of contempt by other Muslims has performed empty rituals during the sacred season. Why? Not because some rabbi in Northern Virginia says they should, but because kol ISLAM areivim zeh bazeh.
The great patriots of our country are busy arguing how much torture is permissible for national security and how much permission is necessary to invade the privacy of other human beings. In this election season, the great debates are over who is toughest on unseen terrorists and who can best hunt down a rich old Arab the way we hunted down a corrupt old dictator. The solution to our national paranoia is not to wait until minds have been poisoned, but to demand that Muslims root out the evil that infects Islam, just as Christians must do with Christianity, just like Jews must do with Judaism.
Please do not think me naïve. I do not think that all we need to do is convince the nice couple from Pakistan next door not to send their children to some Saudi-funded school and we'll be able to leave our shoes on at the airport again. I do not think that we should lay down arms and say to the Muslim world, "I'm going to leave you alone for a few minutes, and when I come back, you'd better be ready to shake hands and be friends." On the contrary. I am suggesting that we begin articulating the expectation that people of faith stand up for their values, not leave it to others to clean up the mess of extremists who are allowed to run wild out of some foolish sense of tribal loyalty.
When some Jewish bigot suggests that Gentile life is of a lower order than Jewish life, it's up to me to address it. When some Jewish bully finds it gratifying to petrify a non-Jew just to exercise power, it's up to me to step in. When some Jewish demagogue tries to rabble rouse among the Jews and turn them against their neighbors, it's up to me to expose his evil. And if I do not meet my responsibility, then it is certainly not a measure of my Jewish integrity to protest when someone else does my job for me, even if they do it inelegantly.
Our task as partners in the covenant is to join God in closing the chasm between the ineffably profound blessing of bearing the image of our Creator and the daily experience of seeing that image degraded in a hundred different ways. It is a daily effort, because every moment that we neglect it the chasm grows. The gap that separates what we are from what we can yet be has a name – the name is evil. And as Edmund Burke, someone much wiser than I said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." The only thing necessary for the triumph of a corrupt and cruel Islam is for good Muslims to do nothing. The only thing necessary for the triumph of a repressive and arrogant Christianity is for good Christians to do nothing.
And with what adjectives shall I saddle Judaism in its evil mode? We are, after all, a small and powerless people, in spite of our prosperity and our influence and our hard work. Yet, when we neglect to tend the gifts we have to share with the world, then evil triumphs. When we do not model the coexistence with the world and each other that Shabbat represents, evil triumphs in this world. When we do not insist that the forbidden answers be considered when they are true, evil triumphs in this world. When we do not meet our responsibilities to others in our many communities, evil triumphs in this world. And when we do not hold ourselves responsible for the highest ideals of our own tradition, when we forget that kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is mixed up with each other, intertwined with each other, inextricably bound to each other, and therefore responsible for each other, evil triumphs in this world. The triumph of an evil Judaism is not just a defeat for Jews.
This world is a scary place. A lot of people are afraid and they are looking to leaders who can quote slogans and make bold promises to take away their terror. That's not how it works. Only by reaching across that chasm from the place of hunger, poverty, oppression, illness and loneliness to the place of ultimate human dignity can each one sit under his vine and her fig tree, and none shall make them afraid. We Jews have been given a hard task to help the many peoples of this world redeem themselves.
But fear not, for God is with you.