Friday, April 19, 2013

Giving Bigotry No Sanction - Qedoshim 5773

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, that institution hosted a very interesting speaker. Her name is Irshad Manji, and she is a Canadian Muslim woman of Pakistani descent who may be one of the most controversial figures in the Muslim world today. She is a journalist who has written a couple of books on the idea of reforming Islam, and has been involved with projects designed to bring change to the Muslim world.

Ms. Manji had recently published her first book, The Trouble With Islam Today, in which she identifies many of the things that we in the West see as problematic within the Muslim world: its treatment of women, honor killings*, female genital cutting, slavery, and, of course, international terrorism and anti-Semitism. There is no question that much of today’s anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli hatred is coming from Muslims. (Last I heard, the suspects in the tragic bombing in Boston were Chechen; it is likely that they are Muslims.)

Knowing that she was standing before a group of Conservative Jews, rabbis and cantors and future clergy, Ms. Manji expressed hope that, while the Islam of the East is saddled with a range of social ills, the future of moderate Islam, something similar to non-Orthodox Judaism, lies in the West. She also pointed to a concept in historical Islamic jurisprudence called “ijtihad,” which fell out of common practice around the 10th century CE. Ijtihad is effectively the elevation of the self, the ability to think critically and make one’s own decisions within the sphere of shari’a, Islamic law. Ms. Manji advocates a return of ijtihad to Islam to bring the Muslim world into modernity, that introspection and self-criticism coming from Muslims in the West would yield a positive effect on the rest of Islam.

 photo coexist.jpg
A brief grammar note: Arabic, like its sister language, Hebrew, has binyanim, verb constructs that modify a shoresh, three or four root letters, into related verb forms. One of these binyanim in Hebrew is reflexive, and is referred to as hitpa’el, the “hit” at the beginning being the major sign of reflexive-ness. When found in this binyan, a verb reflects back on the speaker.**

I am by no means an expert in Arabic grammar. However, I do know that ijtihad is a reflexive form of the root from which the well-known word jihad, meaning “struggle”, is derived. So “ijtihad” literally means, “struggle with oneself.”

Now, I have just mentioned shari’a and jihad, words which have probably raised the hackles of more than a few of us in this room. Why is that? I’ll return to that question in a moment. First, a few words about the Torah.

We read today in Parashat Qedoshim an extensive list of laws known to scholars as “the Holiness Code.” They include such diverse topics as honoring one’s parents, leaving some of your produce for the poor, treating animals respectfully, dealing fairly with your business customers, and so forth. It is a fascinating look into the world of our ancestors and their expectations for how to interact with others. (It was also, as luck would have it, my Bar Mitzvah parashah, and I appreciate it all the more so today.)

Qedoshim (and the rest of Jewish tradition) should be studied not just as a law code, not merely a framework for righteous behavior, but also as a means to improving ourselves. Why does the Torah need to tell us to leave the corners of our fields unharvested, so that poor people in our midst can come and take food? Because our inclination is to be greedy, to take more for ourselves. The Torah is therefore challenging us to rise above our base natures, to struggle internally over what we want to do vs. what we should do. And this is a struggle with which we are all intimately familiar.

I would like to highlight one verse (Lev. 19:16):
לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי ה'.
Lo telekh rakhil be’amekha; lo ta’amod al dam reiekha, ani Adonai.
Do not go as a gossip among your people; do not profit by the blood of your fellow, I am Adonai.
While at first, the two halves of this verse do not seem to relate to each other, the 12th century Spanish commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra tells us the following:

Rather, “do not take a stand against the blood of your fellow” - do not conspire with violent men against him. It is obvious that many people have been murdered and otherwise killed on account of talebearing.

Ibn Ezra’s point is that talking ill of others causes bloodshed, because by contributing to the fear and hatred of others in your midst, you might actually inspire dangerous people to take action, even if that is not your intent.

I raise this because of the complicated issues surrounding the visit of the infamous Pamela Geller to our community last Sunday. Geller is an activist who decries the “Islamization” of America, and along with fellow activist Robert Spencer, the founder of “Stop Islamization of America,” or SIOA. This organization has been identified by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “deeply problematic,” and characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “anti-Muslim,” an analog to “anti-Semitic.” Geller is probably best known for leading the charge against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” You might also know her for these signs, which were placed in the New York subways by her other organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, only after a court battle to win the right to place them:

In addition to these endeavors, she regularly makes inflammatory and “preposterous” (according to the SPLC) statements. She promotes the idea of an extremist Muslim conspiracy in our midst, involving our government, our media, and even “left-wing rabbis” to impose shari’a on all of us non-Muslims. She claims that there is no such thing as “moderate” Islam, and is fond of calling her critics “Nazis” or “leftists” or “Islamic supremacists.”

She spoke last Sunday here in Great Neck at the local Chabad synagogue. There were perhaps as many as 500 people in attendance.

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel that Ms. Geller should not be given a forum at any synagogue. She puts herself forward as a defender of Israel, but what she and her organization are doing is characterized in no uncertain terms by the director of the ADL’s New York office, Etzion Neuer, as “bigotry.”

There is no question that the Islamic world has much to answer for. Many of the statements and actions by individual Muslims around the world that Ms. Geller points to on her website and at speaking engagements are, unfortunately, true. And those in their midst that tolerate hatred and despicable acts are guilty accomplices, and should rightly be taken to task.

However, that does not give us a green light to engage in the same types of hatred. And that does not mean that there is credible conspiracy to turn us all into Muslims.

Ms. Geller and her partners, Mr. Spencer and David Yerushalmi, the guy who is working hard to get state legislatures to pass ordinances that will prevent judges from consulting shari’ah law, and who also introduced her at Chabad on Sunday, promote themselves as fighting jihad. But what they are actually doing is something truly nefarious: they are creating a fear of something that does not really exist. There are no American courts that are giving American Muslims a pass on honor killings; the few American cases that I could find through Internet searches have resulted in jail time for the guilty parties. There is no attempt by anybody to bring Islamic law to public schools, or to force anybody to wear a veil, or to invade our public space in a way that violates our rights to live and practice our religion freely as Americans.

To imply that these things are in fact happening, when they are not, is talebearing. This is gossip. This is painting all Muslims with one brush.

Furthermore, these figures are exploiting the Jewish community’s fears regarding Israel. Israel has a much higher Muslim population, percentage-wise, than the United States, has Muslim judges (I have, in fact, been in an Israeli courtroom presided over by such a judge), and has a division within the Ministry of the Interior devoted to providing religious services to Israeli Muslims, and there is no fear in the Jewish state of creeping shari’a law.

Geller and her friends are really doing something shameful: they are deceiving ordinary American Jews into fearing something that just is not there. And they are further sowing division, not just between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also causing a wedge between Jews right here in Great Neck and elsewhere.

This is standing by the metaphorical blood of your neighbor. And we Jews, with the lessons that we have learned from centuries of oppression, of blood libels and pogroms and genocide, we know that fear and hatred leads to the shedding of actual blood.

In 1790, following his visit to the Sephardic synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, he President George Washington wrote the following in a letter to the congregation:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation... For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is our duty as American Jews to continue to maintain the ideals that President Washington invoked. To be pro-Israel, one need not be anti-Muslim. And bigotry and persecution have no place in our synagogues, in our holy places. We cannot lower ourselves to the level of the anti-Semites, because that just gives them more credibility, and more ammunition for their hateful ways.

Rather, it is our duty to reach out to and support the moderate Muslims in this world, and there are many, particularly here in North America. As Irshad Manji has suggested, by elevating the moderates, the ones who are willing to engage in introspection through the ancient Muslim tenet of ijtihad, we have the potential to change this equation for the better. Change will not come unless we raise the bar of dialogue, rather than lowering it; Pamela Geller’s hateful recriminations leave no room for respectful disagreement.

As a footnote, I would like to add that if Ms. Geller ever reads this sermon on my blog, she will surely call me all sorts of names, as that is how she works. She will suggest that I am part of the vast conspiracy to suppress what she calls “the truth.” None of these accusations will be true; but her doing so will prove my point.

The truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that we cannot be naive about the dangers posed by fundamentalists and zealots of all stripes, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and so forth. But there are more productive ways for us to save lives and support Israel than to succumb to fear-mongering in our community.

It is for sins of talebearing that Ms. Geller and her colleagues should be ignored. They have a right to say what they want, just as anti-Israel activists do, just as, I suppose, outright hate groups do, as long as it does not incite violence. But let us not give them a forum; let us give bigotry no sanction.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 4/20/2013.)

* The origin of honor killings is cultural, not endorsed by Muslim leaders; while it is abhorrent, it far predates the birth of Islam, and is related to the very principles we read in two separate passages in our parashah today, that mandate death for forbidden sexual liaisons. While Jewish society never enforced these killings, some traditional societies, including many which became Muslim in the 6th century and thereafter, maintained them. It is of course a shame and embarrassment that this practice still exists; perhaps as many as 5000 people are killed by their own family members each year world-wide. Muslim Men Against Domestic Abuse is one organization that is working to prevent these killings.

** Some Hebrew examples are:
  • lehit’orer, to wake up
  • lehitlabbesh, to dress oneself
  • lehitpallel, to pray (literally, to judge oneself)
  • lehitlonnen, to complain (interesting that this reflects back on oneself - not so good for the Jews, right?)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Being Holy

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
The first 18 chapters of the book of Vayiqra / Leviticus, which we have been reading since before Pesah, can be challenging for modern Jews. The Torah spends a luxuriously extensive amount of time on the (frequently gory) details of the ancient sacrificial cult, the form of worship that our ancestors practiced prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. But of course none of this applies to us today - we are fortunate that we communicate with God directly through the words of prayer, without a priestly intermediary.

And suddenly, Vayiqra opens up into another, seemingly more relevant way of interacting with God, a kind of counterpoint to the beginning of the book: rules of how to conduct ourselves with respect to others. Holiness may not only be achieved through sacrifice; it may also be attained by honoring one’s parents, paying a laborer his fair wages at the end of the day (rather than the following day), and not placing a stumbling block before the blind. The principles enumerated in this passage, to which scholars typically refer as “the Holiness Code,” are mitzvot / commandments of the sort that not only make for a healthy society, but also give us a basis for understanding that God’s demands of us are not merely personal or ritual in nature; they also require derekh eretz, respect in all our dealings with others. Holiness is not only achieved through coming to synagogue or singing Shema Yisrael with your children at bedtime -- it is also found in commitment to placing the needs of others high on your list of priorities, and sometimes above your own needs.

The Talmud tells us that several of the agricultural laws identified in Leviticus 19 must be taught to converts to Judaism, including leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested and not picking up fallen fruit, both for the benefit of the needy in your town. The message of these laws, the very essence and literal meaning of derekh eretz (“the way of the land”), is that we are obligated to take care of one another -- to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to clothe the naked. As we are far removed from the land itself and often cushioned from the sight of hungry and homeless people, the Torah’s challenge to us today is to pro-actively find ways to fulfill these mitzvot.

It is through providing for those in need that we may rise to the holiness that God expects of us. Qedoshim tihyu - you shall be holy.

Rabbi Seth Adelson