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Kol Nidrei, 5770/2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. 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

The Oscar for best picture of 1947 went to the movie "Gentleman's Agreement." It was based on a book by Laura Z. Hobson, who was a most interesting character herself. The plot of the movie was pretty straight-forward. A magazine publisher decides to do a series on anti-semitism in post-World-War-II America. He assigns the story to a widowed writer named Phil Green, who decides to do a first-person account. By letting it be known that he is Jewish – though he is really a Gentile – he intends to experience the barriers to Jews in society. However, his biggest lessons come not from being excluded from hotels or hearing his son called names, but from the personal relationships he has in which he discovers the "gentleman's agreement." The pervasive discomfort with Jews and other minorities makes non-Jews and Jews alike discriminate against things that are "too Jewish."

It's a pretty remarkable movie. Every other year I show it to my Confirmation class in a course on the image of Jews in American film. The teenagers who enjoy good movies like the film. The others find it almost mystifying. The subject matter of the film is mostly outside their experience as American Jews growing up in a community that celebrates diversity. Sure, there are inconsiderate aspects of life in general society – there will be a lot of homework to make up after tomorrow – but the story sounds artificial to them.

I mention that fact for two reasons. The first has to do with the back-story to the movie "Gentleman's Agreement." It was shopped to all the major studios in Hollywood in 1946. It was turned down by all but one. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, Universal, all of them would not make the movie. Only Twentieth Century Fox was willing – in fact, enthusiastic. Darryl Zanuck was the producer who headed the studio. He was the only studio head who was not Jewish. And though he was able to persuade playwright Moss Hart to write the screenplay, he could not find a Jewish director willing to do the film. Elia Kazan, who was named best director, was a Greek immigrant who came with his parents from Turkey. And the actors who starred in the film were mostly the most goyishe performers in the business: Dorothy McQuire, Celeste Holm, June Havoc, Jane Wyatt, Albert Dekker and a very young Dean Stockwell. John Garfield, whose real name had been Julius Garfinkel, played one of the two overtly Jewish characters – a tough Army veteran. The other was Sam Jaffe, who played a thinly-concealed version of Albert Einstein. And, oh yes, there was one other actor – the leading leading man of his day, the ultimate Gentile, Gregory Peck. He played writer Phil Green, whose real name was Schuyler Green, who pretended to be Jewish.

The movie was a sensation, and it opened the door to a new kind of socially aware drama that has become a hallmark of the American film industry. But of more importance to us tonight, the defining concerns of American Jews were finally put out in the open. Our discomfort with being identified as Jews because of our perception of firmly polite anti-semitism was exposed. All the Julius Garfinkels who had to become John Garfields, all the Isser Danileviches who had to become Kirk Douglases, all the Judith Tuvims who had to become Judy Hollidays were able to become the Dustin Hoffmans and Barbra Streisands and Harvey Fiersteins. By naming our secret, by bringing it out in the open, by acknowledging its hold on us, we were able to move beyond it.

But the irony of ironies was this: we were such prisoners of our own insecurity, we were so trapped by our own unwillingness to speak our anxiety, that it had to be done for us by non-Jews – only Darryl Zanuck, Elia Kazan, Dorothy McQuire and GREGORY PECK could move us forward.

Why is that? Did you ever stop to ask yourself, why is that? Why was it, then, as it has been so often in history that we cannot move past our own insecurities until we have validation from the outside? I don't think this is unique to us as Jews – we have plenty of examples of how people cannot move past their own concerns about racial prejudice, sexism, disparagement of the disabled, and the like until the suspected group validates and repudiates the concerns of the injured group. I can tell you, for example, that my friend Rabbi Ken Cohen, the Hillel Director at American University, pushed Jewish-Muslim relations ahead by centuries when he casually referred to Islam as a sister religion in a lecture he was giving. Who knew how insecure a billion Muslims were about whether Jews considered them equal partners in faith?

The answer to this dilemma may be contained in what I hope is a very familiar midrash about, of all things, bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. Rabbi Yochanan was famous for his ability to bring healing and comfort to those who were suffering. When he took sick himself, he was visited by Rabbi Chanina, who brought him healing and comfort. The Talmud asks, "Why didn't Rabbi Yochanan heal himself?" It answers, "The captive cannot free himself from prison."

So I want to suggest something to you tonight about a prison that has us captive, and how we might get free. And I want to ask you to listen carefully to what I suggest and not read more into what I say than what I actually say. And the reason is that I am going to go to a place that is filled with those insecurities, and they are likely to start screaming when I go there. I promise you, I will not betray you. I promise you that I will not disparage that which is genuinely sacred. But seventy years later, sixty-five years after the ovens of Auschwitz were closed, it is time for us to be liberated.

Let me start with what I will not say. I will not say that we should not remember. I will not say that we should not honor the memories of those who were lost. I will not say that we should allow any such thing to happen to our people – or any other people – ever again. I will not say we should not teach the generations about what was lost.

Here is what I will say. We have lived with two competing narratives of modern Jewish life. One is the Holocaust. The other is Zionism. I want to suggest to you that the guiding story of our people, particularly in the United States, should be the lessons of Zionism, not the tragedy of the Holocaust.

What has caused me to speak out tonight on this subject? It is because we are all sitting here with full bellies, secure in our place in American society and proud of the way we define ourselves as Jews, both collectively and individually. It is because we live in a time when Jews have unprecedented power, a statement I know makes some of you cringe, but is true nonetheless. We walk the halls of power as elected and appointed officials. We have nurtured the most effective advocacy groups in a system that values advocacy. We are doctors, lawyers, bankers, military commanders, journalists, artists, entertainment moguls, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, professors, real estate developers, manufacturers. We own homes. We have insurance. We have excelled in every field except professional hockey and the Roman Catholic Church, and between Jeff Halperin and Cardinal Lustiger we are making inroads there.

And one more thing. I saw a movie two weeks ago and it did to me what "Gentleman's Agreement" must have done to people like me sixty years ago.

The movie was "Inglourious Basterds." It was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. If you haven't seen it, you probably won't, so I am not concerned about telling you some things about it that may persuade you to see it, or to see it again.

First of all, like "Gentleman's Agreement," "Inglourious Basterds" is the product of a lot of Gentiles. Tarantino, like Darryl Zanuck, like Elia Kazan, is very not Jewish. The cast is overwhelmingly not Jewish, including the two stars, the European actor Christoph Waltz, who plays the villain, and the leading leading man in American movies today, Brad Pitt.

Secondly, like Darryl Zanuck, Tarantino was interested in the subject from the point of view of an observer, not a participant. He is a product of the movies – indeed, it is possible to watch this film without giving a thought to the actual plot if you are a movie aficionado. That's not to say that Zanuck was not distressed by anti-semitism or that Tarantino didn't care about the Holocaust, but they were almost beside the point.

But most of all, and most important for this discussion, "Inglourious Basterds" taps into an aspect of Jewish consciousness that we have been unable to express ourselves. It is something we have withheld, and it needs to be loosed in order for us to take the next steps beyond preserving the tragedy.

My friend Rabbi Irwin Kula, whom I mentioned last week, observed that there have been some 600 Holocaust films to date, and they have focused on Nazi evil and the persecution and suffering of the Jews. To be sure, there was resistance, but it was born of necessity. From "The Great Dictator," in which Charlie Chaplin plays both the evil Hitler character and his reverse image, a sweet and loving Jewish barber, to "Defiance," in which the guy who plays James Bond plays a morally conflicted resistance fighter, the movies that sought to capture some aspect of our deep tragedy have all made us out to be involuntary in our resistance as we were in our suffering. What could we do, we asked. We were left no choice. If they had just stopped, we would have also.

There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that we are better than all that. Our post-war hero became Simon Wiesenthal, a holy man who spent his time tracking Nazis and bringing them to the courtroom. Our collective response was the Eichmann trial, where the evidence of what was done to us was placed in front of a very civilized court, the judges being asked to render a verdict based on principles of law. The stories we have spun have been detective stories, both real and fictional, showing the power of the intellect and the persistence of asking questions.

I ask you to remember the gubernatorial campaign in the Commonwealth of Virginia, four years ago this very night – Yom Kippur. One candidate released a television commercial accusing the other candidate of being ambivalent on the rule of law, the death penalty. An outraged advocate of capital punishment – a Jew with a tragic story of loss in his life -- appeared on camera suggesting that the opposing candidate would have avoided executing Hitler if given the opportunity by the Virginia courts. Aside from the absurdity of the scenario, it reveals the worst offense the advocate could think of: bringing Hitler to trial and letting him off the hook.

Some of you may have engaged in the mind games that were popular among my friends when I was a teenager: if you had the opportunity to kill Hitler in cold blood, would you do it? And when inevitably one or another of us answered positively, we then debated who else was a candidate for assassination for crimes against humanity. That's where the game would break down.

But "Inglourious Basterds" is a fantasy of revenge. In this film, a group of mostly interchangeable American Jewish soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, playing a Tennessee hillbilly who is part Apache Indian, kill Nazis in cold blood. They do more than kill them, by the way, but you can go see the movie if you want to know how much more. Before the movie ends, the entire upper echelon of the Nazi government has been destroyed, along with much of German high society. And before the climactic moment in this on-screen holocaust – with a small "h," meaning a burnt offering – one of those indistinguishable American soldiers has the gleeful opportunity to empty his machine gun into Hitler himself, who is taken by such surprise that he dies with his eyes open, as if watching the Jew relish the occasion to riddle his dead body with bullets.

As I said, "Inglourious Basterds" is a fantasy of revenge. As fantasy, it can play fast and loose with history and historical truths. No such thing ever happened. But to my surprise, my complete and utter surprise, there was something cathartic and deeply satisfying watching this revenge fantasy play out. It was as if something I did not dare admit – my secret blood lust to do unto them what they did unto us – was being acknowledged, permitted and validated.

I was liberated from victimhood.

Please note that "Inglourious Basterds" is a fantasy of revenge. And lest you think I am commending revenge to you, please consider this text from Breishit Rabbah (24:6):

Ben Azzai said, the verse "this is the book of generations of Adam" is the most important principle in Torah. But Rabbi Akiva had taught "Love your neighbor as yourself" is the most important principle in Torah! Rather, a person should not say, "Since my neighbor humiliated me, I shall humiliate him with me; since my neighbor cursed me, I shall curse him with me." Rabbi Tanchuma said, "If you do so, know whom you humiliate: in the image of God was Adam made."

You don't need too much explanation of that. It isn't enough to treat others as you have been treated. Every human being, as a descendant of Adam, is in God's image – even Nazis – and when you humiliate God's image, you humiliate God. Our Sages sagely insist that revenge is an unworthy human activity. But they do not and cannot suggest that the desire for revenge does not exist – otherwise, why waste time prohibiting the action!

Lest you think I am manufacturing something out of whole cloth, please let me remind you of what came out of your own lips in the safe and sanctified environment of this sanctuary not more than a few minutes ago: We have sinned against You through impure thoughts; we have sinned against You…in secret; we have sinned against You through baseless hatred. Individually, perhaps you are more or less guilty of any of those offenses, but collectively? Who can deny them? Yet we have never had the courage, never had the trust to confess, "We have sinned before You through a desire for revenge."

And now, this movie director, with nothing much more on his mind that creating a piece of entertainment, somehow strikes all the right notes and extends a hand to help us into healing. All of the iconic villains of our nightmares are eliminated. The very essence of Nazi hypocrisy – culture, urbanity, dispassionate cruelty and condescension – are gathered in the bad guy and labeled for all to see. The notion that the every-day German was just like us, only swept along by the tides of history, is debunked in the character of a young and seemingly humble military hero. And the surprise victors in this effort – the interchangeable simple Jews and a collaboration between Jews and Blacks – give us a sense of what we have made happen for ourselves in post-war America.

I was liberated from victimhood.

There is tremendous reluctance these days to consider the casualties among our people victims. Resistance large and small lends credence to the notion that they fought back – and how can someone who fought back be a victim? But you and I know that victimization begins when a person becomes a target. The outcome is less defining than the effort. The Jews of Europe were the victims of the Nazis. They may have rejected with all of their effort the push toward the Final Solution, but they were designated nonetheless.

And by identifying with those Jewish victims, we see ourselves in their image. By casting ourselves as hunted, persecuted, hated, excluded, marginalized, ignored and dismissed – all of the things that victims are – we perpetuate the notion that such is the lot of the Jewish people and the individual Jew. By using the Holocaust, the Shoah, that living nightmare in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s as our defining narrative, we deny ourselves the one thing that our American experience and our Israeli experience has presented as the antidote.

Potency. Potency. Strength, power, effectiveness, influence, might. Not the ability to resist, not the wherewithal to respond, not the need for vigilance as a precondition of our very existence. But potency. When we are potent, we are in control of our lives. And when we are potent, we secure our own future on our terms, not on the terms of others.

If I am going to be honest with you, I have to point to the two places where the notion of our victimhood has been played out. The first is in the book you hold in your laps at this very moment. After you confessed your sins, you pleaded with God, Avinu Malkeinu: annul all evil decrees against us, annul the plots of our enemies, frustrate the designs of our foes, act for those who were slaughtered for Your sake, act for those forced through fire and water to sanctify You. Arrogance and pride are dangerous qualities, but we never even ask for self-confidence and self-appreciation. The liturgy of the day does not originate in the 1940s, but it winds its way backward through the centuries when we indeed lived in nervous anticipation of the next victimization. When we read about our suffering, we become persuaded at some level that suffering and insecurity are meant to be the native state of being a Jew. Instead of immersing ourselves in the empowering aspects of being a light of nations, of carrying proudly and openly the contributions Jews and Judaism make to civilization and the societies within, we dedicate our energy to preparing for the next resistance.

Which brings me to the second place we reinforce this notion of victimhood: the defense organizations that contribute so many stars in the constellation of Jewish life, and the defensive posture that is taken by so many more deliver the message to American Jews that we are in constant danger. These organizations do wonderful work, and they do it not just for the benefit of Jews and the Jewish State, but for people of every faith, every race, every nationality that suffers for who they are rather than for what they have done. Yet in their attempt to do this good work, they deliver a message of constant insecurity, in part sadly because it is a more effective way to raise necessary funds.

In just these past few weeks I have read material noting with alarm changes in the way the Roman Catholic Church struggles with its own theology, because it endangers Jews who are involved in interfaith dialogue. I have received cautionary information about how Bernie Madoff, whose victims were almost all Jewish, could be responsible for an uptick in anti-semitism in the United States.

Perpetual victims must always be afraid, they must always hedge their bets and watch their language and actions. And they justify everything they do as necessary to build a buffer between themselves and the hostile forces that surround them. The victim's heart pounds desperately, as the Torah says, at the sound of a driven leaf.

As long as the narrative of the Holocaust remains the defining narrative of American Judaism, our sense of self will always be defensive, it will always be defined by others, it will always be reactive to those who want to do us harm. And, ironically, if it is the identity we seek to preserve, we will need those who wish to do us harm to preserve that identity.

There is another narrative. It is equally present in our sacred texts and our prayers and our history, but we do not pay enough attention to it. It is first articulated in the Book of Exodus, where a nation of nameless Israelites lives their lives as victims of Egyptian oppression. That's their narrative – once we were great, but now we are defined by those who oppress us. The glory of our redemption begins when, instead of negotiating for the best we can get, we stand up for ourselves. Moses does not say, "If it's not too much trouble, could you ease up on us just a little bit?" Moses says, "Let my people go." Liberated from victimhood, the Israelites again have names. They stand up straight. They take their revenge on the Egyptians – despoiling them of riches as back wages, slaughtering the lamb – God of the Egyptians – and striking fear in their hearts. What was it Brad Pitt said in the movie?

"We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are... And when the German closes their eyes at night and they're tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with."

And having affirmed themselves, the Israelites march out of the Land of Egypt with a destination in mind: to be a free people in their own land. The rest of Jewish history, even when it is derailed by our own shortcomings, and the interference of hostile others, and exile, and persecution, the rest of Jewish history is to have on our own terms as Jews what we worked to establish 3000 years later with all Americans: to be a free people in our own land.

But unlike Quentin Tarantino's celluloid fantasy, our weapon is not cruelty and vengeance. Our vehicle to potency, our source of strength, our engine of effectiveness is the rich and energizing civilization that we created out of a thirst for life, not a fear of annihilation.

Our lives as Jews should be based on the contributions we have to make to the betterment of the world. Our sense of self should be strong enough to welcome the encounters we have with people of all persuasions. Our confidence in our ability to live in the world should be powerful enough to confront those who disagree with what we stand for. Our defense of our homeland should be with a sense of outrage that it is ever a question that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state within secure borders and without threat of aggression. We do not need to apologize for what is ours, nor do we need to justify it by our victimhood. If you want to know what Zionism is really all about, that's what it is – not arrogance and pride, but self-confidence and self-affirmation.

And out of that sense of strength, out of that sense of commitment to what defines us as Jews – our covenant with God to make a world of justice and compassion – we must be unashamed to stand for what is right and good, along with others who find their own way to that aspiration.

And out of that sense of empowerment, out of that sense of commitment to what defines us as Jews, we must be unashamed to stand up against what is wrong and evil. We must do so not out of a sense of being threatened again with victimhood. We must do so because that's our mission. When evil men with evil plans want to be cloaked in respectability, well, each of us must say what Brad Pitt said: I just can't abide that.

Some of you, I know, remain unconvinced. Look, I am arguing for a paradigm shift. And even with a thousand people in this room, especially accounting for the fact that some percentage of you large or small disagree with me, we are not even a drop in the bucket of the number of Jews in America, let alone the world. All I can ask you to do is begin the process, long overdue, the way a generation did when they walked out of "Gentleman's Agreement" and said, "We don't have to be in the closet anymore."

Perhaps I can put it more succinctly. Here are two pictures. I know you can't see them, but you know them. One of them shows a little boy in a coat and a cap. His hands are up in the air. A Nazi soldier points a gun at him. The other shows a young soldier standing in front of the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. His helmet is off, his eyes are trained upward, his comrade has an arm around him.

Which one is you?

We must remember that sweet boy, and all the many others. But we do not live his life, not in his context, not in our context. We live the life of that soldier, Yigal Yifat, not in his context, but in our context.

Tomorrow, I promise, I will talk about how the people and the communities we lost must inspire our lives. I will honor who they are to us and insist that we never forget them, nor what they suffered.

Tonight, because we are all sitting here with full bellies, secure in our place in American society and proud of the way we define ourselves as Jews, both collectively and individually, I remind you of something else. It is the genius of Yom Kippur that we can examine our lives with raw honesty and walk out at the end of the day with the capacity to seamlessly start anew. A fresh narrative for a fresh start. We are not victims and we are not potential victims. We are not resistance fighters and we are not potential resistance fighters. A movie didn't change anything, except the way we can look at ourselves. And here's what we see:

We are a free people in our own land.

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