It seems like every day we are seeing tweets, FaceBook posts, and news reports about fake news. Every time we read or hear any of this it raises the question, what is true?  What is false?  American politics seems to be the center of fake news, so let me share a great example from American politics.

How many of you know about the XYZ affair?

In 1797, at the beginning of the John Adams administration, relations with France, our ally during the Revolutionary War, became quite tense.  The French Revolution had changed France’s nature, with executions quite prominent, and many Americans, particularly in the Federalist party, no longer trusted the French at all.  President Washington, before retiring from office, even acknowledged that the former ally from our Revolution was in total chaos, and could not be trusted. Washington declared the United States should stay neutral in any conflict between France and Great Britain. The Democratic Republican party members, however, saw the French Revolution as a continuation of the ideals from our revolution, despite evidence that the fall of the French monarchy resulted in the madness of murders and oppression of many French citizens, eventually leading to a dictatorship – Napoleon.

President Adams was a Federalist, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, was a Democratic Republican. Great Britain was at war with France.  Jefferson, wanted the US to side with the French.  Adams, abiding by Washington’s policy, wanted to stay neutral. Jefferson met secretly with a French representative in Philadelphia, undermining Adam’s plans.  Then, Adams sent a three person delegation to France to negotiate with the French foreign minister, Talleyrand.  Talleyrand refused to see them, instead having them meet with 3 minor officials.  He insisted that the United States give a large loan to France (in reality at extortion) as well as America paying for the damage French naval ships had done to American merchant ships.  This became known as the XYZ Affair.  Thomas Jefferson believed, and put forward the idea, this affair was a hoax created by the Federalist party, despite factual confirmation of the despicable ways the French were operating.  What made Jefferson’s actions even more reprehensible, was that he and President Adams, had been friends coordinating on numerous previous items for America, including the Continental Congress passing the Declaration of Independence.

A key figure in pushing American neutrality, during the Washington and Adams administrations was Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s treasury secretary.  Hamilton was a realist, recognizing the disaster unfolding in France. Further, he knew that for our newly established country to reach a level of economic strength, we needed a trade agreement with Great Britain.  Jefferson hated Hamilton so much he secretly supported an extremely partisan newspaper, the Aurora, that condemned Hamilton as a monarchist, someone wanting to reestablish American submission to the British monarchy.  Anyone knowing Hamilton’s history recognizes the falsehood of this claim.  Yet Jefferson and his political allies constantly claimed Hamilton and the Federalists were monarchists.  Further, they claimed Hamilton’s financial policies were meant to create his own personal wealth.  The truth is Hamilton was being sensible by knowing America was not ready to participate in a war.  His economic policies formed the basis of American capitalism that would bring our country amazing strength.  Jefferson lacked moral consciousness, shown by his embracing of falsehood.  As our 3rdpresident, he utilized executive powers in the same way he condemned Washington and Adams.

You can see that whatever exists today has deep roots in American history.  Our tendency to ignore truth and to embrace falsehood that supports our ideology seems as strong now as in 1797.  To put this in language we hear a lot today, they were living in their isolated bubbles without caring about the boundaries of others.  I am sure you have heard lots of discussion, for example, how your FaceBook page is filled with links, stories, and postings that feed your political, religious, and personal perspectives.  And I would also guess that most of us have been guilty of posting comments that feed our egos and feelings without caring about the feelings of others.

What is at the core of this problem?  Well, there is never one answer.  The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt would say that we are driven mostly by our instinct and not by our intellect.  He came to that conclusion while analyzing why most people are stuck in their ideological political bubbles, despite what certain information might prove.  I agree with Dr. Haidt but I will add a couple of other aspects, both of which are appropriate for us to reflect upon as part of our process of repentance and atonement during the High Holidays.

If we were to make a real attempt to be morally conscious, we would be sensitive to the impact the words we write or speak will have on others.  I am not saying we should just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” together. There will always be disagreement. We just too often fail to handle that disagreement in a moral manner.  However, I believe there is a second question we need to ask about what pours out of our mouths – what actually is falsehood and what actually is truth?

Jewish tradition has strong statements on falsehood and truth.

Exodus 23:7 states, “Keep far from a false matter.”  The first dozen verses of chapter 23 are focused on certain themes.  First, nothing should undermine justice, that is, no one should do any action to skew a court case to favor either the wealthy or the poor.  It should be based on fact.  Second, there is a definite attempt to create peace and acceptance of others.  We are told to aid our enemy if their animal has gone astray or has fallen under a burden.  We are told to not oppress the stranger, as we were strangers in Egypt. Perhaps most significantly, is the stress on avoiding falsehood and its impact on justice for all, especially the poor – their needs should not be undermined by the desires of the wealthy.

The Talmud (Shavuot 30b – 31a) puts the statement “Keep far from a false matter” more explicitly in the context of how a judge in a court should operate.  The judge cannot accept bribes.  He cannot advocate for his own statements.  He cannot sit on a court with another judge he knows to be a criminal.  He cannot provide an advantage for a wealthy person over a poor person.  He cannot arrange for a second person to be a witness but not speak, having him there only for the appearance there are the required 2 witnesses.  He cannot even have a student who is an ignoramus sitting before him to observe the court as the mere presence of an ignoramus might cause the judge to err.  In short, the judge must do everything possible to distance himself from falsehood.

Now let’s look at truth. It says in the midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah, “What is God’s seal?  Truth (emet).  And why emet?  It consists of three letters, alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, mem, the middle letter, andtavthe final letter, confirming what it says in Isaiah 44:9, ‘I am the first, and I am the last and beside me there is no God.’”  The Talmud then shares this story about speaking truth:

Rava said, I once thought there was no one person who speaks only the truth. One of the rabbis said to me that even if they would give him all the riches in the world, he would not tell a lie, and told this story.  Once he visited a town called Kushta; whose inhabitants would not tell a lie.  And none of the people there died before his or her time.  He married a woman from there and had 2 sons with her.  One day, his wife was washing her hair.  A neighbor came and knocked on the door.  Thinking it would not be proper to tell the neighbor his wife was washing her hair, he said, “she is not here.”  Subsequently his 2 sons died.  The people of the town came and asked him, “What is the reason for this?” He told them what happened and they said to him, “We beg you, leave our town, and do not incite death against us.” (Sanhedrin 97a)

I am sure you are sensing the same questions as me this story raises.  Truth might indeed be God’s seal, but does that mean we must always tell the truth?  Are there situations in which we can or even should state something false, a lie? Have we, in reality, misunderstood what the concepts of truth and falsehood truly are?  The Talmud wrestles with these questions.

In Baba Metzia Rav Yehuda says there are 3 times one can deviate from the truth.  You can say you did not study a text even if you did. This promotes the value of humility. You can say you did not sleep in a bed, even if you did – as there might be some unseemly residue found in the bed, and you can lie to avoid shame.  Third – you can say you were not treated well by a host in order to prevent others from taking advantage of that person’s hospitality.  In summary, you can lie in order to be humble, to avoid shame, and to protect someone else’s situation.

In Ketubot we get a different approach.  In a debate between the conflicting schools of Shammai and Hillel, the question is how or if you should praise a bride who is  ugly. The school of Shammai says to stick to the truth and only praise the specific good qualities of the bride. The school of Hillel says you should call any bride fair and attractive.  The school of Shammai asks, should you praise her beauty even if she is ugly?  To which the school of Hillel replies that if you limit what you praise about the bride, it implies that the rest of her can be denigrated.  Hillel is not saying to praise anyone truthfully or falsely every time, but know there are certain occasions on which you must only issue praise in a full manner.

Perhaps the strongest argument in the Talmud justifying a lie (Kevamot) states that it is a mitzvah to not be truthful in a situation that will bring peace.  This teaching is based on a lie recorded in the Torah spoken by God. Here it is from Genesis 18, “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years.  Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself saying ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?’  Then God said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?”  There are numerous Jewish texts that draw on this passage from Torah to teach that a falsehood which keeps peace in a household is acceptable, even necessary.

Now comes a key question. How do we reconcile 2 connected teachings with a third that seems in contradiction?  Exodus 23:7 commands us to distance ourselves from falsehood. Truth is the value that should drive and connect everything – it is God’s seal.  Yet God’s lie is used to exemplify how there are times we should use falsehood to push forward other values: humility, avoiding shame, preserving respect for others, and advancing peace.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, an Orthodox rabbi, philosopher and theologian from the early 20thcentury, gives a key insight.  From Michtav mi Eliyahu, a book of his letters compiled by his students we get this thought.  “We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms to the will of the Creator; and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of evil in the world.”

Truth, in other words, is not simply what is factually correct.  Truth is an element that pushes forward goodness in our world; that helps us bring divine presence to our world.  This conforms to the midrash that proclaims truth to be the seal of God. We should not and cannot dismiss factual correctness.  We must always be aware of facts, and then put that awareness in a context that will forward goodness in the world.  Falsehood is more than pushing forward lies.  It is misusing knowledge to advance immorality.  If we tie this back to Exodus 23, it is misusing knowledge to advance the immorality we are commanded NOT to tolerate: the undermining of justice, especially for the poor, the undermining of peace, the abuse of the stranger.

We struggle with this because we tend to cling to idealized, inflexible definitions of morality and truth. Too many of us condemn those who perceive new knowledge changing how we should deal with morality as “moral relativists.”  Years ago I read an article in Newsweek written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  Williams stated we are not moral relativists.  We are simply always discussing what is our idealized truth – meaning the highest ideals that will push forward morality and God’s presence. The more knowledge we gain, the more our idealized truth changes.

Archbishop Williams also made an interesting observation about the relationship between our moral system and science.  We accept a system of science that is always being challenged, ergo always changing as our knowledge increases.  We also accept the need for having moral standards, but change in knowledge forces us to reconsider the parameters of the moral ideal.  The ending of slavery, the increased rights of women, and the acceptance of LGBTQ relationships are just 3 examples of how increasing our knowledge changed our moral idealism.  Those who do not accept those changes then call those of us who do, “moral relativists.”

Truth, then, is also accepting the reality of change in our understanding of how to best follow the moral commandments from the Torah.  As we mature, as we learn, our understanding grows and changes.  Truth is our commitment to improving and expanding our understanding of morality.  Denial of the reality that we are constantly learning new facts, thus adjusting our understanding of morality, is falsehood.  We must have faith that truthfulness exists, and that justice and peace are the highest goals we can pursue.  For God has always represented justice, as well as the high hope for humanity to use truth to reach up and embrace it.  As it says in Psalm 85, “Faithfulness and truth met, justice and peace kiss. Truth springs up from the earth, justice looks down from the heavens.”

Our attempt to constantly understand truth and falsehood, that is to understand what really advances morality at the highest level, is our human method to reach up and try to connect with God.  It is not only about fact and fiction.  It is about our attempts to reach the highest ideals.  As we begin our High Holidays, our time of teshuvahand atonement, let us look into our hearts and souls with the highest goal in mind, a deepening connection to each other that will lead to a deepening connection to the Divine.  May we strive for an embracing of truth.

Shanah Tova metukah


Who Is Cruel?

Once upon a time, a Chasidic rabbi, Rav Ya’akov Yitzchak told his student, Simcha Bunem, to make a journey to a distant hamlet.  When Simcha Bunem asked what the purpose of the journey was, his teacher remained silent. So Simcha Bunem took several of his fellow Chasidic students with him and traveled.  By the time they arrived at the small village the sky had already turned to dusk.  Because the village had no inn, Simcha Bunem ordered his coachman to stop at the first cottage.  He knocked at the door and was invited in along with his fellow students.  When they asked whether they could join their host for dinner.  The man replied that he had no dairy food and could only offer them a meat meal.

Instantly the Chasidim bombarded the man with questions about his level of keeping kosher.  Who slaughtered the meat? They demanded to know. Were the animal’s lungs free of even the smallest blemish, and was the meat salted enough to draw out all traces of blood as required by kosher law?  The interrogation would have continued had not a commanding voice from the back of the cottage called out to them.  They turned their attention from the owner of the home to a man who looked like a beggar sitting near the hearth smoking a pipe.  “My dear Chasidim,” the beggar began, “With regard to what goes into your mouths, you are scrupulous.  Yet, regarding what comes out of your mouths, you make no inquiries at all.”  When Simcha Bunem heard these words, he knew exactly the reason his teacher had sent him on this journey.

It is significant that a story from Chasidic tradition, a culture that embraces strict observance of Jewish law, reminds us that our commitment to a particular belief should not justify cruel action.  Last night I spoke about how real truth is our attempt to increase goodness in our world. Today we will explore a different approach – the undermining of kindness by cruelty.  And, I will ask each of us to honestly question ourselves:  are we cruel?

We begin with another question.  What is a basic source of cruelty?  The answer is pretty clear – anger.  Unless someone is so mentally or emotionally sick that they gain pleasure out of cruelty, it is anger that pushes us to a cruel action or belief.  The easier we become angry, the faster we slip from exhibiting kindness.  Many of us regret anger, and try to control it.  Some of us see anger as a justification for a belief or action we are taking.

Further, we need to consider what cruelty actually is.  Here I think we can draw on traditional Jewish teachings.  Yes, Judaism is filled with all kinds of rituals and laws a traditionally observant Jew will emphasize and follow.  Yet, there is also an amazing amount of focus between the Torah, Tanach, and Talmud on the necessity for kindness and a discussion of anger and cruelty.

Here is an aggadahfrom the Talmud. (Berachot 7a)

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi, “From where do we learn that the Holy One, Blessed be He, prays?”  As it is stated in Isaiah 56:7, “I will bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in the house of My prayer.”  It does not say “their prayer” but rather “my prayer.”  From here we see that the Holy One prays.  What does God pray?  Rav Zutra bar Tovia said, God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger towards My people for their transgressions, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes, and may I conduct myself towards my children with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond strict law.  Rabbi Yishma’el ben Elisha taught, “Once I entered the innermost sanctuary of the Holy of Holies to offer incense, and I saw the Lord of Hosts seated upon a high and exalted throne.  He said to me, ‘Yishma’el, My son, bless Me.’  I said to Him, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger and may Your mercy prevail over You other attributes, and my You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and may you enter before them beyond strict law.’  The Holy One Blessed be He, nodded His head.  This teaches us that you should not take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly.”  (Berachot 7a)

Interesting that God’s sole prayer is one to help God with anger management. Remember, we are taught in the first chapter of Genesis that humans are created in the image of God.  As Jews do not believe God is a physical being, “image of God” is not about appearance.  It is about emotions, intentions, spirituality and intellect. So we can draw certain lessons from this Talmudic story.  First, that God experiences anger yet understands how kindness, mercy, and caring must take precedence over anger, and all other attributes.  We humans should be imitating God’s priorities. Second, God struggles, ergo, of course we struggle.  God’s use of prayer is significant as the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is related to the verb l’hitpaleil, which means “to judge oneself.”  True prayer, then, is not about asking God to do us favors, but about examining if we are behaving the way God requires and models.  Third, God appreciates a blessing from a human, teaching us we should not look at fellow human beings in denigration.  Rather, we should be open to accept any person’s offered blessing.

Here is another question. How extensive is God’s anger?  The same page of Talmud addresses this.  It says in Psalms 7:12 that God has anger every day.  Yet, that anger lasts less than a 58 thousandth of an hour.  Indeed, Psalms also teaches us that the vast majority of God’s day is spent in kindness and mercy.  This page of Talmud also teaches that an evil person knows when God’s moment of anger occurs and uses that brief moment to justify their cruel actions. Now let’s consider this question: what is cruelty?

Rabbi Akiba, one of the key early Talmudic contributors, teaches this: “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a fundamental principle of the Torah, so that you will not say, “I was degraded, let my fellow be degraded with me; I was cursed, let my fellow be cursed with me.”  Rabbi Tanchuma adds to Akiba’s teaching saying, “If you do this, know whom you are degrading, for each person was made in God’s image.”  Cruelty, then, is degrading a fellow human being; ANY other human being, as we are all made in God’s image.  And remember, God’s image is not physical, but intellectual and spiritual.  A person’s physical appearance is irrelevant to God. It is their soul that must try to be as God tries to be.  Why am I stressing the need to dismiss the importance of physicality?  Because so much of our anger and cruelty is based on a physical appearance that makes us uncomfortable.  We are now experiencing a despicable episode of this in our country.

I sadly share some incidents.  A Yemenite American man, who along with his 3 youngest children were American citizens, committed suicide when his wife and 2 older children who were not citizens, were denied visas to join him because of the travel ban.

A middle-aged couple living peacefully in Brooklyn for 2 decades decided to visit their daughter and son in law – an American army sergeant who just returned from duty in Afghanistan – at his military base in upstate NY.  They were turned over to ICE and face possible deportation to their home country of Mexico.

A 63 year old Peruvian born grandmother, who became an American citizen, now has US agents trying to take her citizenship away from her, presumably because she was working for a fraudster boss.  This is despite the fact she fully cooperated with the police in the probe into her boss’s business.

A Guatemalan mother who crossed the Rio Grande this spring with her 8 year old son got caught by the U.S. border patrol, had her son taken away from her just before she was put on a plane back to Guatemala.  She cried that she could not go without her son.

Let’s add to these individual episodes the policy decision to retract the Temporary Protected Status of 195,000 El Salvadorians, 57,000 Hondurans, and 50,000 Haitians.  Yes, one can argue that legally that status is supposed to be temporary, yet, all of these folks fled their countries because of natural disasters or oppressive circumstances, and they are NOT living off of welfare here.  94% of the men and 82% of the women are working, contributing 4.5 billion dollars in pre-tax wages annually to our GDP.  Some are small business owners.  Reality is they have established positive lives here.  Why can we not modify the law and embrace their presence and contributions instead of just throwing them out?

We can add the annual increase of arrests of undocumented immigrants by 40,000 – most of whom have no criminal records.  We can add to that the still unresolved question about those protected by DACA or the “Dreamers.”  We can add to this an increase in the retraction of American citizenship from Hispanics born close to the Mexican border in Texas because of claims a midwife or doctor falsified the birth certificate – even though these investigations were concluded in 2009 and despite the fact that those under investigation are not criminals, but often people who served in our military or even the border patrol.

Those who support these policies will cite the necessity to abide by the law.  They will point out the need to keep criminal elements from coming into our country.  Those who oppose these policies will cite the fact that the criminal rate among immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, is less than the rest of our population.  They will say that opposition to current immigration policy is in the same class as opposition to racist policies overturned in the 1960’s.  I will add that no one of any common sense supports open borders allowing the admittance of criminals into America.  The problem is how we define criminality.  Is trying to illegally enter our country, while running from a horror in your native land, a wrong act?  Here, however, is the key question I ask of everyone debating these issues, what is the true common thread shared by all of the incidents and policies I just shared?

The answer is the center of my concern – we are talking about opposition to non-white people establishing their lives in our country.  If you doubt this opposition exists, then here is what Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham said on August 8, “In some parts of the country it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.  Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”  While Ingraham tried to qualify that she did not mean ethnicity, David Duke certainly saw it that way and embraced her statement.  Indeed, how can you be referring to a change in our population’s demographics, including immigration (which Ingraham later mentioned) and not be referring to people of color?  Ingraham, without intending to, made clear the true cruel, bigoted feelings of a significant segment of our country.

If we will be perfectly honest with ourselves, we must ask if we are part of that group of people who are scared over the demographics changing at a rate where white people will become a minority sometime between 2040 and 2045.  I am convinced that fear is the basis of support for the current policy approaches to immigration and the repeal of Temporary Protected Status for non-whites.  I am convinced that fear is why the status of the Dreamers has failed to be resolved.  I am convinced this racist stream is confirmed by the inarguable increase in the public presence of white nationalism.  By the way, this group includes an increased amount of anti-Semites who take anti-Jewish public positions such as Holocaust denial. If you need evidence of the climbing of white supremacy, just read about the racist robo-calls received even by some members of our congregation after Mayor Gillum won the Democratic primary for governor last month.

What I have just described is one of the worst examples of cruelty condemned by Jewish tradition – consistently so from Torah through Talmud to today.  If we are truly trying to act in the image of God, we cannot focus on the physicality of others, but their soulfulness.  Here are 2 clear citations from Torah.

From Exodus 23:9  “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), since you know the stranger’s soul, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

From Leviticus 19:34,35 “When a stranger (ger) lives with you in your land, do not persecute him.  The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your citizens. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”

The Hebrew word ger in these quotes can be translated as either alien or stranger.  The quote from Exodus reminds us that it is the soul, not the appearance that takes precedence, for we share elements of the soul with the stranger.  The Leviticus quote teaches our treatment of the stranger should not just be tolerance, but love.  By ending the verse with the phrase “I am the Lord your God,” we are reminded it is our task to try and emulate God.  The importance to our people of kind treatment of the stranger is amplified by constant repetition throughout the Torah.  It is re-enforced by teachings in Jeremiah and Ezekiel – all stressing not to mistreat the ger.

Yes, cruelty is failing to follow this very clear commandment from the Torah, but there is another part to cruelty as well.  Recall I shared an aggadah about God’s anger. Recall that the Talmud teaches God’s daily anger is about a 58 thousandth of an hour.  The same page also shows how a cruel person draws on the limited  moments of God’s anger to justify their cruelty.

The example it gives is Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet who is hired by king Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites.  Balaam is considered evil by most of rabbinic literature, but someone God took control of to convert his words from curses to blessings.  Talmud teaches that Balaam had knowledge of when God’s anger occurred. In Numbers 24:16 it refers to him as someone who has knowledge of the one who is most high (God).  In Numbers 23:6 Balaam declares, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed?”  The rabbis interpret this to mean that Balaam, indeed, any person who is evil, will use their knowledge of God to curse and oppress people.  They will take their knowledge that God has a brief moment each day of feeling anger, and use that to justify actions based on God’s anger. They will stress Psalms 7:12 that teaches us about the daily moment of God’s anger but will ignore Psalms 30:6 that states, “His anger is just for a moment, his favor for a lifetime.”

The person trying to justify an evil act will draw on a Biblical verse to justify that action, often ignoring the full context of the verse as well as the general direction of Biblical teachings.  Historically, this has been done by bigots, drawing on Biblical verses to support slavery, oppose equal rights for women, to condemn gays and lesbians.  All of this is a metaphor for a person drawing on the brief moment of God’s anger to justify an evil position.  When this happens, they are purposely ignoring the overall dominant themes of the Bible, Christian or Jewish, on justice, on acceptance of all people as children of God.

Last night I concluded my definition of truth by saying it is not simply about factual correctness, but real truth is what pushes morality forward in our world.  The truth we all must embrace is to search our own hearts and souls, to confront our own prejudices, our own bigotries.  A real truth is that we too often make our judgments based on appearance.  A real truth is that we need to connect to other people’s hearts and souls.  A real truth is that the atmosphere in our country today is inhibiting our ability to do this.  A real truth is that our treatment of immigrants and refugees is an expression of our personal moral failures.  A real truth is that too many of us worship the wrong elements of our world, those elements that feed our anger and help us justify wrong actions, even if they are technically legal actions.

What is it that causes God’s anger?  Rabbi Meir teaches that when the sun rises and the kings of different countries place their crowns on their heads and bow down to the sun, God grows angry.  So each day starts with that flashing moment of God’s anger, caused by ego and worshipping an idol.  But that moment flashes by and God’s compassion and faith in us drives the rest of the day.  The final questions we must ask ourselves are these.  What are we doing to justify God’s compassion for us?   Are we trying to be in God’s image by connecting to the hearts and souls of the strangers?  And finally, ask yourself – Am I cruel?

Now is the time when we are supposed to look into ourselves, to judge ourselves, as we know God will. Then, we must begin to change. The section of the Talmud I have been teaching closes with this thought.  A single regret or pang of guilt in one’s heart is preferable to many lashes by others that cause physical pain.  It is the shape of our soul that concerns God, not our body.  It is our willingness to judge ourselves in truth, not judge others that concerns God.  It is our actions to create shalom, with others that please God.  If we are serious about our teshuvah, our repentance, it will center not on our needs, but how we treat the needs of others.  May our journey in these Yamim n’orim, these High Holidays, bring us to a place not just of acceptance, but of love for the stranger.  May we truly live our lives in the image of God.  Amen.


The following is a letter I sent to each county commissioner.

To Our Leon County Commissioners:

I am writing to express my disappointment (well actually my anger) at the increased hesitation over proceeding to establish a Leon County Children’s Services Council.  The only concern I truly understand is over making sure it passes, so as NOT to deprive the underserved children of Leon County of the support they need.  In reality it is not only the children who need the services the CSC would provide. Our community at large will reap huge benefits when these children become adults.

One of the objections I am hearing, from numerous parties who oppose the CSC (in particular the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce) is we do not know the necessary details.  I am curious as to what details are missing. In fact, much research has been conducted and the proof has been long established about the needs to improve early childhood learning, literacy, as well as mental and physical health of young children.  Let’s look at just one example – reduction of crime

Multiple studies indicate that improving literacy will reduce the percentage of people arrested for a wide range of crime.  Here is one link to research:  https://literacymidsouth.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/incarceration-and-low-literacy/

The state of Florida uses 3rdgrade literacy rates to predict the number of prison cells that will be needed in the future.  Texas uses 4thgrade literacy rates.  A CSC that invests in a combination of early childhood education, literacy programs and mental health will impact the crime rate in Leon County. Further, the benefits will go far beyond reducing crime.  Businesses will benefit from an increased population that can provide workers and customers.  Our economic system will both save money (less folks put in prison) as well as be more productive.

There is a slew of evidence/research that covers many aspects of the benefits of the CSC. Perhaps most significant is the need to increase the self confidence and vocabulary levels of children by the time they are 3 years old.  Brains are about 90% developed by the time a child is 3 years old.  While development continues through adolescence, indeed until about 25 years old, the need to have positive programs for children 0 to 5 is obvious and will have the greatest impact on improving the adult population of the next generation.  A University of Chicago research program from 2016 gives the details on many of the benefits from improved early childhood learning programs.

Enough about details.  There are professionals in our community who are better able than me to inform you on the research done that addressing both needs and programmatic solutions.  In truth, the opposition mostly has nothing to do with either details or concern it will not pass.  Rather, the opposition to the CSC is fearful it WILL pass.


Well, because this opposition is led by folks who either:

  • Are very shortsighted in their assessment of what will truly benefit the community in the long run verses the short run.
  • Are mostly concerned about giving up some money in increased taxes.
  • Are opposed to any government program that is perceived as adding to “big government.”Some prefer to have it as part of the commission’s budget/agenda.
  • A combination of all of the above.

Allow me to address each of these “concerns.”

  • As stated above, the research on the long term benefits is clear. Providing necessary services especially to children 0 to 5 will bring the benefits to our community as stated above.
  • The half mil increase translates to just an increase of $50 of tax per every $100 thousand of property ownership. A person with a half million dollar house will pay $250.  This is affordable at every level especially when considering the long term improvements to the general community.  In addition, we have just received a tax decrease on the federal government level, and if we are honest, we must admit Florida is one of the lowest taxing states in the country.  Property owners can afford this with no problem.
  • This is not creating big government. This is a local decision that has to be renewed by voters.  Further, having children’s services be part of the commission’s budget and decision making every year, puts them at the mercy of political lobbying as opposed to assessment by professionals who know how to address the needs and have a built in cash flow to do so.  While I do not oppose programs for elderly or veterans, children’s needs are the only ones that truly affect the future of the community. They should NOT be at the yearly disposal of a group of county politicians.  The result might be the ending of programs that need a number of years to change the path of children, due to the pressure of folks lobbying for other needs or a budget difficulty.  All of this is why the independence of a CSC is actually critical.

You will hear from all those who are opposing the CSC that they care about children.  Here is the reality.  If you truly care about children, your focus should be on how to best get this done, not to find excuses to not pursue a CSC.  If you are concerned about the complexity of this fall’s ballot, put it on the primary ballot or declare a path to have it voted on for sure ASAP after this fall’s election.

I will be very blunt. If you do not find a way to create an independent council that provides needs for underserved children; which will in turn create numerous long term benefits for our community, then do NOT say you care about children.  Your words will be as meaningless as people who offer “prayers and thoughts” as their only response to school shootings.

Rabbi Jack Romberg

Recently I published an guest column in the Tallahassee Democrat criticizing the comparison of the political influence of the NRA to Planned Parenthood.  www.tallahassee.com/story/opinion/2018/03/05/opinion-nra-vs-planned-parenthood-bad-comparison/394038002/

Lynda Bell, the leader of an active anti-abortion group, wrote a response criticizing my interpretation of a Biblical passage.  I wrote a response that was shortened by the paper into a letter.  Here is the full content of my explanation of Exodus 21:22 to 25:

I completely understand the passion of Lynda Bell in her opposition to abortion. She is the leader of a group that leads the fight against abortion in Florida, so of course she sees Planned Parenthood as a mortal enemy.  What I would like to address, however, is the interpretation of Exodus 21:22 through 25. By insisting that her take on this Biblical passage is the only correct one, she misses my point that Biblical passages are seen differently by various religious traditions. I do not claim the Jewish perspective is the only way to read the passage, but that it is as valid as any perspective. So let’s look at the complete passage and see how it forms the basis for the Jewish perspective on assessing life.

Here is the full passage, 22) If men quarrel and hurt a pregnant woman so that her (unborn) child comes out and yet no further harm follows; he shall surely be punished, according to what the woman’s husband will lay upon him and he shall pay a determined penalty. 23) And if any further harm follows, then you shall give life for a life, 24) Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot. 25) burning for burning, wound for a wound, bruise for a bruise.

While the actual Hebrew has some wording oddities, this passage is not used to either justify or oppose abortion. Rather, it is the basis for establishing that there are different levels of life. The punishment for the loss of the unborn child is a fine, NOT a death penalty. The Torah has many examples of when a death penalty is the punishment for the loss of a life. This is not one, so the rabbinic sages of the first few centuries CE qualify fetal life differently than fully formed human life. In this passage we should note a few things. First, the husband is the one who has a say in the amount of the penalty. The further harm referenced in verse 23 is to the woman, which would then be punished by what is outlined in verses 24 and 25. If the woman loses her life, then the perpetrator loses his and so on.

The Talmud, which is the early rabbinic elaboration on Torah law redacted between 200 to about 600 CE, builds upon the difference between fetal life and fully formed human life. The example used for abortion arguments is a case in which a woman’s life is threatened by the birth of her child, the child can be aborted unless its head is emerging during birth. There are other examples showing different levels of life. Funeral rites are not required for the loss of a fetus regardless of the reason (miscarriage, accident, abortion). They are required for the death of a fully formed human. In the early 20 century, a leading rabbi in Palestine (before the establishment of the State of Israel) took these teachings and ruled that a woman who consulted him, could have an abortion because her doctor concluded the pregnancy would result in her being blind. Of course today we would question how this doctor could know this, but the point is the rabbi used our traditional perspective on the levels of life to make his decision.

Therefore, from a Jewish perspective, the mass murders of students at schools, the mass shooting in Las Vegas, or at the Orlando night club are more horrific than abortions, as they are murders of fully formed human life. I must, however, add this note that will make liberals unhappy. While the Talmud is clear that fetal life is not the same a fully formed human life, it is also clear that fetal life is human life. Ergo, the use of abortion as simply birth control would be condemned by Jewish tradition.

There is so much about all of this to discuss, and I invite Ms Bell to meet with me and set up a community, public discussion. If we do it civilly, perhaps we can find some areas of agreement to bring our community together rather than to verbally fist fight.

Sacred Space?

February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is about the creation of sacred space for the Israelites as they wander through the wilderness. God says to Moses vayikchu li terumah, “they will take a gift for me.” A key question here is why the use of the verb “take” instead of just “they will give me a gift.” Then begins a long list of valuable and beautiful materials that will be used for the space, along with this sentence, V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham, “They will make sacred space for me (a sanctuary) that I might dwell among them.” A question asked by Rabbi Yitzchak Arama is, since the Israelites experienced Sinai and learned that God is not material, why is it necessary to create a material sanctuary for God?

One answer is to read this not just literally, but metaphorically. The sacred space we create for God is about the world we create, the morality and/or goodness that are the result of our actions. A midrash from Pesichta d’Rav Kahana teaches that human action either draws or repels God’s presence from our world. If we act evilly, God’s presence leaves and retreats to heaven. If we act righteously, God’s presence dwells with us.

We are currently repelling God’s presence.

On Valentines Day – a day of “love,” 17 people were killed and numerous others wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. This is the third mass school shooting in our country since January 1 of this year. Please tell me what other major developed country has any where near the number of mass shootings as the Untied States. The answer is none.

One of the students killed was Alyssa Aldaheff, a 14 year old girl who attended Camp Coleman. A young man from our congregation, Andrew Goren, who is now a student at UF, was one of her counselors in the Kesher unit last summer. Here is what he texted me, “She was loved throughout the unit by her friends and her counselors.” Andrew attended her funeral today in Parkland, FL along with other staff members from Camp Coleman.   This sadness has touched many of us. Another one of our younger students is camp friends with Alyssa’s younger brother.

I have never been one who has been vocal on gun issues. I have always felt that gun ownership was not the major cause of our problems with violence. After the school massacre in Columbine about 20 years ago, I agreed with Pope John Paul II’s observation about our country, “America has to provide its children with a moral vision.” The problem is American culture; its obsession with raising the desires of the self constantly above the needs of the community, the idolizing of guns by a significant portion of the population. We worship the god of personal liberty to the point of forgetting the responsibilities and obligations we have to each other. In many ways I still believe these attitudes, which corrupt our culture, are at the base of what causes gun violence.

Now I feel that enough is enough. I am sick of the continued tragedies in which innocent people, most horrifically children in schools, keep getting murdered. Already numerous Republican leaders and right wing commentators are chiming in once more that this is not about gun ownership, but about mental health. The left, of course, makes this about gun ownership. Here is the reality. Both sides are right that their concern contributes to the problem. And, both are wrong if they think their perspective is the only correct way to view the problem.

But now I admit feeling real anger with leaders like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and President Trump, just to name a few. They all cite mental illness as the cause of the mass shootings, yet they fail to do anything to prevent gun ownership by those displaying mental illness that could lead to violence. This shooting is a prime example of what is wrong with our system. The accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, (who has confessed to the shooting), was expelled from 3 schools for exhibiting violent tendencies. He has at least a 5 year documented history of mental problems. The staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was warned to be on watch for him as someone who could pose a potential threat to the students. A staff member who saw Cruz enter the campus sounded an alarm and called for help, but the response was not soon enough to prevent the shootings.

Of course we must add to this tragedy the failure of the FBI to properly process the tip it received on Cruz the beginning of January. This is inexcusable!

However, here is a key question. How could Cruz legally obtain an AR 15 semi-automatic assault rifle given his tortured background? Here is another question. How can a person not old enough to even legally buy a beer be allowed to buy an assault rifle? But here is the most important question. What is our political leadership going to do to stop standing behind ideological lines and have real discussions on how to handle gun violence not only in schools but in our country period?!

The answer to the last question is – nothing.

Why? Because they are corrupted by idolizing the self as opposed to what is good for the community. They are corrupted by political ideology instead of truly caring about morality. Politicians care more about raising money for re-election than doing what the country really needs.

Who is to blame? Well, I certainly lay a good share of blame on the NRA. This is an organization that has become an immoral lobbying group for gun manufacturers. Their payments to politicians to prevent them from even having significant dialogues on the possibility of reasonable and effective gun laws is reprehensible. Marco Rubio received over 3.3 million from the NRA. President Trump received 30 million – and switched his view supporting a ban on semi-automatic weapons expressed in a book in 2000, to being even more radical than the NRA!  The NRA’s lobbying was successful in getting congress to pass a law a number of years ago, that prevents government agencies from even researching the connections between mental health and gun violence. This is beyond hypocritical. It is corrupt. In Florida, they successfully lobbied for our legislature to pass a law preventing doctors to have discussions about gun safety with their patients, so they cannot even discuss safe gun storage to prevent accidental shootings. We need to shout out and condemn the NRA for what it really is.

I also blame the 2nd amendment, or rather, those who now see it as freedom to obtain any weapon without restrictions. Do you really think the founding fathers, in particular James Madison who wrote the Bill of Rights, would have wanted the situation that exists today given the ultra advanced forms of guns existing now versus the single shot pistols and muskets existing in their time? Further, it is likely the 2nd amendment was written in the context of the importance in the early years of our country, of maintaining state militias. I have come to believe the 2nd amendment, at least as interpreted by certain groups, is not only irrelevant, but harmful. We live in a different world than the 1780’s.

Mostly, however, I blame us. We are failing to make our voices heard. We are accepting corruption. We have become too complacent. We should be inspired in our resistance and protesting by some of the students who survived the shooting.

One, Carly Novell, hid in a closet for 2 hours, much like her grandfather, Charles Cohen, did 70 years ago. He also was hiding from a mass gun shooter. What I love about Carly is her response to a tweet by Fox newscaster, Tomi Lahren which read:

“Can the left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda? My good ness, this isn’t about a gun, its about another lunatic.”

This was her response:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”

Other students who survived are protesting and pushing for change. They are providing the leadership us older folks have failed to do for them.

I do not claim to know what the real solution would look like. I do not know what changes to the laws will be most effective. I only know that the jabbering of right wing newscasters, the presence of the NRA, and ideological rigidity on all sides will not bring us to the answer. I strongly believe that protests and pressure on leaders at all levels can make a difference. Here is a reality. Poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of our country wants some kind of change to gun laws to address this problem. We must begin to speak out.

In Judaism, pekuach hanefesh, the saving of a life, is one of the highest values. The Talmud teaches that one who saves a single life is like one who saves an entire world. One who takes a life is like one who has killed a whole world. The 17 lives lost in the shooting are the destruction of 17 worlds. If we are going to create sacred space that invites the presence of God, we need to save lives, not kill them. We need to create holy space that recognizes the sanctity of life, that enacts laws to prevent the loss of life. When God says the Israelites must take something from themselves to give to God, that implies much more than just giving a superficial gift. We must be willing to take something from our self desires, our egos, and sacrifice it for the sake of our community at large. Perhaps then God will decide to rejoin us. If we do not take action, our prayers will be meaningless.

“If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you”  Psalm 137:5,6

These words from Psalm 137 deeply reflect the Jewish attachment to Jerusalem. It is a part of our history, our religious development and of our soul. One cannot discuss Jerusalem without evoking deep reactions, especially for those who have been to Jerusalem. I lived there for almost one year, the year I began my rabbinic studies. My experience there was life changing. My connection to the city is undeniable. Given the context of President Trump’s announcement recognizing Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, allow me to separate from my emotions for a moment and share some historical facts.

First, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem goes back up to 3,000 years. It has always been the capital of Judah, and we can confirm that archeologically at least to the 8th century BCE. At the end of the 19th century, before the Zionist movement began bringing new settlers to Palestine, the majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish. This included a Jewish quarter in the Old City. As Jewish immigration in the early 20th century increased Jewish presence in Palestine, Western Jerusalem grew as a Jewish area. In November of 1947, when the United Nations passed the resolution to create 2 states in Palestine, one Jewish and the other Arab, it included a clause that Jerusalem should be an international city, open to all and dominated by none.

The rejection of the United Nation’s resolution by Arab leadership in Palestine as well as the surrounding Arab nations meant Jerusalem became an open target for dominance by either side. During the 1948 war, Jordan captured and took control of the Old City and East Jerusalem. Immediately afterwards the Jordanians destroyed the Jewish quarter of the Old City. The Israelis took control of West Jerusalem and soon afterwards declared it to be the capital of the new state of Israel. In 1967 Israel took back the Old City and Eastern Jerusalem during the Six Day War. It is important to note that during the 19 years of Jordanian occupation of the Old City, no Jews were allowed to enter and pray at the Western Wall. Under Israeli control all religions that see Jerusalem as a holy city are permitted to engage in their religious activities.

Given all that I have related so far, it is clear to see why any Jew who cares at all about Jewish history, Israel, religious observance, or personal connections to Jerusalem; would feel emotional stirring by President Trump’s announcement recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promise to eventually move the American embassy there. However, as Americans and human beings, we need to look at Jerusalem and its status holistically; recognizing there is much more depth and complication than the emotional shout of “hooray” that we feel as Jews. In short, I agree with URJ President Rick Jacobs’ remarks at Shabbat services this past Saturday when he stated that as Jews of course we support the reality of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but we must question the timing and context of the announcement.

Why? To start there is the reality of what happens “on the ground,” both politically and in the streets of Jerusalem. The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as an eventual capital of their state if there can be a two state solution. The reaction is not capitulation but resistance resulting in violence – which is harming both Palestinians and Israelis. While we can list criticisms of Palestinian leadership, in particular their support and urging of virulent anti-Semitism in their communities; we cannot deny that the presence of Palestinian Arabs in the whole area once known as Palestine, is as legitimate as Jewish presence. That is the tragic sadness of two peoples, both with real historic and emotional ties to this area, but whose needs and connections are in conflict. How does the President’s unilateral declaring of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital contribute to a true, peaceful resolution of this conflict? It does not. It only adds to existing tension, in addition to the rising of distrust of the United States as a potential moderator/negotiator.

The bigger context than Jewish concerns is the seemingly random acts and declarations made by President Trump that stir controversy. There is no real strategic reason for many of his declarations other than a way to feed his unending narcissistic need of feeling the love and support of his base, and/or trying to draw some others into his base by playing with their emotions on an issue. Another example of this is his declaration of banning transsexual people from the military. His base loved that but those in responsible positions that have to deal with consequences made it clear this was not happening so fast (if at all). If the President is truly concerned about finding a peaceful solution for the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, this random declaration was a senseless act, thinking only for his short term desires not long term strategy.

We must point out that every American administration, whether Democrat or Republican, has put the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the larger context of being part of an overall peaceful solution. Trump, however, cares not about true solutions, but about his own, egotistical, emotional needs given any moment. I am saddened that a place I care about so deeply – Jerusalem – has now become just another tool for the con artist in chief.

It was the day after our last Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. I came into my office and saw I had a voicemail. I pressed the button to listen. Here was what I heard, “Heil Hitler! I am going to put you Jews into my concentration camps…” Some of the rest was garbled but it ended with this, “you Jews have to stop stealing our money.” A few weeks later we learned that a white supremacist group, The Republic of Florida Militia, had posted on FaceBook they were having a protest at Temple Israel. The incident turned out to be a big nothing, but was worrisome nonetheless.

But there is more. Our teens are experiencing anti-Semitic incidents in their middle schools and high schools at levels I have not witnessed in my 16+ years in Tallahassee. Shomrei Torah received 2 anti-Semitic letters. Now put this in the national context. The ADL reports that anti-Semitic incidents have surged in 2016 and 2017, as much as 86%. Most recently, white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, VA, shouted “Jews will not replace us!” as they marched through the city. Interviews with participants were clear about their hatred of Jews, stating the often held racist view that Jews control the country.

We Jews are not the only people experiencing hatred. This past June a white man in a Chicago Starbucks was filmed calling a black man a slave. In May racist graffiti was sprayed on LeBron James’ home in Los Angeles. In College Park, MD an African American, Richard Collins III, a lieutenant in the US army, a senior at HBCU Bowie State University, who was only days away from graduating, was stabbed to death by Sean Urbanski, a white student at the University of Maryland who was a member of the Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation.” Add to these more horrifying incidents like the murder of Philando Castile by a policeman in St. Paul, or the massacre of 9 members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church by Dylan Roof.

The existence of racisim and anti-Semitism is very real, and I see deep parallels. We Jews have an extensive history of suffering from anti-Semitism. The African American community has a sad and deeply disturbing history of being victims of racism in the United States; our country that prides itself on equality. It is time to face reality.

What is that reality? It is partly demonstrated by two events that occurred in Tallahassee schools last year. At SAIL High School a group of students laid down on the school grounds and created a human swastika. At Chiles High School for weeks a group of students displayed Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. It was only after a social media threat that the principle of Chiles banned their display. The reality is that we are failing to properly teach our youth about the history of bigotry, about how even symbols of hatred can be oppressive. We are failing to provide them with moral examples.

I am sure everyone here is appalled by the sight of a swastika. It is a horrible symbol of oppression, not just for Jews, but numerous others. I am not sure that everyone understands how, for many people, especially African Americans, the Confederate flag inspires the same emotions. Many folks are taught a version of Civil War history that excuses the leaders of the Confederacy; stating they revolted to protect state’s rights. Here is the fact. The state’s right they wished to protect was slavery. Further, the constitution does not give a state the right to secede from the Union. Ergo those who rebelled and formed the Confederacy were traitors to the United States: traitors who, knowingly or not, defended the right for whites to own black slaves.

How does the Confederate flag fit into this? It was a battle flag carried by Confederate armies. It symbolizes the actual war against the United States, and was adopted by racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, carried in their fight against attempts to create equality for African Americans. One of the most famous examples is the use of the Confederate battle flag by protestors supporting George Wallace, as he stood in the doorway of a schoolhouse to prevent the admission of blacks to the University of Alabama. Often when Wallace would speak, that flag would be displayed behind him, or on his podium. His speech in the doorway promised “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The Confederate flag is associated with the defense of segregation. To the black community, it has the same emotional effect as a Nazi flag does to Jews.

For the black community, the Confederate flag is a reminder of decades of the horrifying experiences they suffered. Recently Audrey and I had the chance to visit the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC. It is in the old Woolworth’s store where demonstrations to end segregation at its lunch counter took place. On February 1, 1960, four African American college freshman sat down at the white section of the lunch counter. Over the next several months the protests grew, with whites and blacks coming together to try and end segregation. I must say that seeing the actual lunch counter, while hearing this history, was intensely moving. More important, the museum presents the brutality African Americans experienced for over a century after slavery ended.

First was the degradation of segregation: separate schools, using separate bathrooms than whites, drinking from separate water fountains than whites, to be forbidden from staying in the same hotel as whites. The list seems endless. The museum had a coke machine from the 1950’s which was 2 sided. One side faced a whites only waiting room in a train station, the other side faced a blacks only waiting room. The side for the whites was a nickel cheaper than the coke for blacks, and although the machine had on it the cokes were ice cold, that was only true for the white customers. Schools were supposedly separate but equal. Just take a look at pictures of white classrooms and black classrooms during that era. The facilities and learning materials provided to blacks in public schools were disgustingly inferior, based on the thought that blacks did not have the same learning capacity as whites. It was thought, for example, that blacks’ brains would become non-functional above a certain altitude. It took the formation and success of the Tuskegee Airmen to demonstrate how stupidly wrong that was.

The most horrifying aspects of black life in post Civil War America were the violent vigilante actions by the KKK and similar groups. Earlier this year was a reminder of one of the worst episodes, the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955. Till was accused of flirting and dog whistling Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman. Till, from Chicago, was visiting family in Money, MS. He was abducted by Bryant’s husband and a helper; tortured and killed. His body, so disfigured it was not recognizable except by a ring he was wearing, was found in a river. The murderers were found not guilty. A number of months ago, Carolyn Bryant admitted that Till did not flirt with or whistle at her.

Emmett Till was a famous case. Have you ever heard of Ben Chester White? He was a sharecropper who at 67 years old in March of 1966 was shot 17 times by a KKK group to attempt to lure Dr. Martin Luther King to their area of Mississippi in order to murder him.

These are only two of the unending terrorist attacks that African Americans suffered, in addition to the inequality of segregation and denial of access to the resources necessary to lift themselves to a better life. Having a history of over a century of being treated as second class citizens, is it any wonder that the killing of African Americans by police ignites protests by Black Lives Matter? The incidents open the wounds of recent African American history and the systemic racism that still exists.

We, as Jews, should understand that feeling. A few weeks ago a congregant here made me aware of a FaceBook site called “Jewish Ritual Murders.” This site claimed that incidents of Jews killing Christian children for ritual purposes, dating back to early medieval times were true. It criticized Jews for not acknowledging that these murders are part of our history, as well as condemning us for refusal to admit that we have rituals requiring murder to obtain blood. The site attempted to appear logical, and moderate, by saying many religions have rituals requiring murder, so why don’t we Jews own our past? How many of you know of any Jew who has practiced the tradition of killing a Christian child to obtain their blood to make Passover matzah? That’s because there is no such ritual. There is nothing in Jewish text, tradition or practice that even mentions this. This is known as blood libel and has been used against Jews, to justify the oppression of Jews, for centuries.

Blood libel is likely the invention of an English Benedictine monk in the 12th century. A young boy, William of Norwich, was found dead in 1144. The monk blamed his death on local Jews; but as there was no evidence, the authorities did not prosecute anyone. In 1190, however, the Jews of Norwich were massacred in revenge for the murder – 46 years later! Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

There are numerous other accusations of Jews committing blood libel. One of the most famous is from 1475 and the death of a 3 year old boy, Simon of Trent in Italy. Torture was used to force false confessions from the Jews of Trent and 8 were executed.

These events can be read about on line today in radical Catholic sites that try to affirm them as proven cases of Jewish guilt, and the existence of ritual murder as part of Judaism. Add to this another aspect of Jewish history from the early middle ages. Jews were forbidden to own land or to practice most professions. An exception was money lending. This is used to accuse Jews of being shady characters, out to steal Christian’s money. Our historic oppression is twisted against us even today, feeding the flames of anti-Semitism.

We all know how recent history affected Jews. In addition to the Holocaust there was also strong anti-Semitism right here in America. Father Charles A. Coughlin used his radio show to deride Jews, implying their depravity in phrases like “international bankers,” and criticizing Jewish financiers for their attempts to control the world. As the situation for Jews grew worse in Europe, the Roosevelt administration did little to increase immigration quotas to allow more Jews to escape the Nazis. A group of American athletes supported a boycott of the Berlin Olympics in 1936, but Avery Brundage, chair of the American Olympic committee, refused to acknowledge the mistreatment of Jews in Germany. Later, as head of the international Olympic committee during the 1972 Olympics, Brundage refused to end the Munich Olympics after the murder of 9 Israelis by terrorists. For decades Jews were subject to quotas at many universities. My own parents were prevented from joining a social club in Fairmont, W. VA because they were Jewish.

Can anyone really criticize us for being a bit hypersensitive when anti-Semitic incidents occur? Can anyone really criticize African Americans when incidents arouse their recent memories of an oppressed existence in America? The historical memories of blacks and Jews are why our reactions to the events in Charlottesville, VA are so strong. Seeing confederate flags and swastika flags carried side by side ignites the worst fears in both of our communal memories. The prejudice we hoped would die is clearly still alive.

But Charlottesville does not represent the full reality of racism and anti-Semitism. It represents the extreme. Most Americans are not neo Nazis or white supremacists. The reality of bigotry is far more subtle, yet pervasive. It is present in ways we don’t often acknowledge or even recognize.

For African Americans the reality of bigotry is present in every day life. Yes, the police shootings get a lot of media attention, but how often do you either feel or witness distrust of blacks? When I was 23 and living in Philadelphia I was a big brother to a 9 year old African American child. The Big Brother headquarters were located in a north Philadelphia neighborhood that was mostly African American. It was just after a major snowstorm, and I needed to pick up some paperwork at that office. When I came out, my car was stuck in the snow. Every time I pushed the gas pedal the wheels just spun. I looked up and saw 4 young black men coming towards me. My initial thought was “Oh boy, I am in big trouble.” They knocked on my window and asked if I needed help getting out. I said yes, and the 4 of them helped push the car out of the snow. I offered them $10 but they refused, saying they just wanted to help. I must ask, how would you feel now seeing 4 young black men coming towards you with your car stuck in the snow? If you say the feeling of distrust is natural then think about how you would feel if it was 4 young white men.

African Americans sense the institutionalization of racism. And they resent when facts are twisted to deny the truth of their feelings. For example, I have seen posts in FaceBook dismissing the existence of institutional racism based on a Harvard study comparing the experiences of whites and blacks with police. The study shows that more whites are killed by police than blacks, so the concerns of blacks are belittled. However, that one statistic does not properly represent what the study really shows. First of all, it is not a vetted study. Second, it examined not only shootings, but the overall handling of people stopped by police. Items such as, the ratio of people handcuffed, thrown to the ground and in other ways physically mishandled showed that blacks are treated very differently from whites. The outlier was deaths caused by shootings. However, the study did not cover to what degree whites are stopped compared to blacks.

There is more. Studies have been done in which resumes of equal qualifications are looked over by companies looking to hire. If the name on the resume is an ethnic black name, like Jamal, that person is less likely to be called for an interview than someone named James. There is still a subtle, pervasive sense that blacks are not as capable as whites.

Blacks are seen as the prime recipients of welfare, as being lazy, as being the source of most crime. The ratio of blacks serving in prison far exceeds that of whites and one must ask, is it because blacks commit more crimes or because the sentencing is so different for blacks than whites? According to a survey done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2005 to 2012 black men received 5% to 10% longer prison sentences for similar crimes. Other studies show the difference as much as 60%!

No, most Americans are not white supremacists. But these institutional, embedded prejudices are proven, and African Americans must live with them, feeling them constantly. To me this is intensely sad. Last spring I know most of you were at least aware of, if not attending, the Requiem of Resistance. A core of the choir was the student chorus from FAMU. For most of them, this was the first time they ever had the chance to sing with a symphony orchestra. When the concert was over, those of us who organized the event joined the FAMU student choir for dinner at Cabos. I went around to each table thanking them for their hard work and talent. Every student told me how honored they were to participate and what a great experience it was. While we were eating, they broke into song, passionately singing gospel music. It was beautiful, but then I felt sad. Here was a room full of talented, wonderful young people, who are going to face difficulty because of bigotry based on their skin color. It will likely not be the outright hatred of racists, but the subtle societal and institutional roadblocks. They do not deserve that.

We Jews can understand exactly how African Americans feel. Despite the recognized heights of success many Jews have achieved, hatred is still alive. The typical accusations against Jews, that we control the media, the banks, and want to control the world – are all still alive. And we are also sensitive to statements. Remember a few years when Ann Coulter said in an interview, “We just want Jews to be perfected.”? That resurrected all the ill feelings about Christians who try to convert Jews. We do not see that as Christians expressing love for us as individuals they want to save from hell. We see that as hatred of Judaism and Jews.

We also fool ourselves in not recognizing that anti-Semitism exists on the left as well as the right. Oberlin College fired Joy Karega for anti-Semitic posts that included a picture of Jacob Rothschild adding the words, “We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.” Last night I related the anti-Semitic reaction of leaders of the Dyke march in Chicago this past June when they banned lesbians carrying rainbow flags with Jewish stars on them. We fail to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is rampant in the Arab world and that many Islamic leaders condemn Judaism as a religion of lies. Anti-Semitism exists across the political spectrum, which is why we feel its presence is often an underlying tone in society.

What is the reality of bigotry? No one is born a racist or an anti-Semite. We are all blank slates. We all have the potential for love or hate, depending on what we learn as we age. The presence of bigotry is complex. Yet I think the solution is rather simple and well expressed by 3 important commands from the Torah portion we will read this afternoon.

The first – “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” Rashi puts it very clearly, if you can save your neighbor, do it. I believe this is not just about throwing a life saver to a drowning person, but standing up for the rights that will preserve their ability to live the same as us.

The second – “You shall reprove your fellow and not bear a sin on his account.” If someone with you expresses bigotry or hate, correct them, teach them the truth, moral truth and factual truth. Silence in the presence of bigotry makes you a contributor to their sin.

The third – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not just the person like you, the person in your family or ethnic group, but the stranger, the person who is different.

It is Yom Kippur. It is the day we plead to God for forgiveness. One way we do this is through the words of al cheit.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to acknowledge the bigotry suffered by others.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to recognize sources of bigotry against ourselves.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to properly educate our children about the history of hate.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have committed before You by failing to rebuke acts and words of bigotry even when spoken by friends.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sin we have committed before You by failing to accept the stranger as ourselves.

For all these sins, Adonai our God, help us to find a path to repentance, to atonement, to creating a better, more just world.

Kein yehi ratzon – may this be your will.     Amen