Friday, June 26, 2015

Idolatry and the Confederate Flag - Huqqat 5775

About a month ago, I was in Budapest with my family to celebrate my sister’s having given birth to a baby girl, her first child. We did not have a lot of time for sightseeing, but I did do something there that I had not done before: I went to the municipal flea market. It was a weekday and deep into the afternoon, so not many stalls were open. But of the handful that were, several had Nazi items on display for sale: SS pins, swastika rings, standard-issue helmets, a soldier’s jacket. Some of these items were, perhaps most jarringly, for sale alongside Soviet memorabilia and Judaica items as well.

Now I suppose that finding WWII-era military paraphernalia is nothing unusual, particularly at flea markets. But the fact that these things were casually, non-judgmentally on display, merely for sale next to Jewish odds-and-ends was particularly jolting, since it suggested that Hungarians do not quite appreciate how deplorable these symbols are, how they stand for hatred and killing and the worst that humanity has to offer.

I found it utterly fascinating this week that in the wake of the horrible killings at the Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a number of southern states are finally, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, moving to remove the Confederate flag from their public spaces. Yes, it is “only” a symbol, and removing symbols means nothing if it does not change the content of our hearts and minds. Taking down the flag at the South Carolina capitol building will not cure the problem of white supremacist activities in that state or anywhere else. But it is a step, and, at least with respect to Jewish tradition, a significant one. Allow me to explain:

We read today in Parashat Huqqat that might give us some insight into the scourge of hatred.

God was angry at the Israelites for complaining their way across the desert, speaking out against God and Moshe, and so, for inexplicable reasons, God sends serpents to bite them. What do the Israelites do? They apologize, but then ask for Moshe to intercede with God to get rid of the serpents. So God has Moshe build a seraph / winged serpent figure out of copper and mount it on a flagpole, and when anyone is bitten by a serpent, he or she is instantly cured.

But later there is a problem. This seraph-on-a-pole stays with the people for hundreds of years, and they forget its original purpose, but it continues to be revered. So later, as recounted in the book of II Kings (18:4), King Hezekiah destroys it as part of his anti-idolatry reforms.

Idolatry is one of the biggest no-nos of the Torah. The Talmud counts it among the three biggest sins, the three that Jews are forbidden to violate, even to save a life (the other two are murder and sexual impropriety). We are told in our halakhic codes that we must stay far away from anything that is in any way connected to idolatry. (The Hebrew term is avodah zarah, “foreign worship”).

So for example, we cannot eat foods produced by idolaters, or drink wine made by idolaters, lest these items may have been used in some idolatrous ritual. We cannot enter a temple containing idols. We cannot have business dealings with idolaters in the days immediately before one of their festivals because we may make them more happy and hence more likely to praise their idols. And so on. (It’s worth noting that true idolaters are hard to find today: Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and many contemporary pagans do not fall into this category.)

Why is avodah zarah / idolatry so reviled by Jewish text and tradition? Why must we avoid it so zealously? Because it corrupts us, it leads us astray. When the Israelites are told that they will enter the land of Canaan to possess it, one of the first obligations they are given is to destroy the bamot, the unholy altars of the Canaanites, lest they be tempted to worship. Throughout the Prophetic books, the Israelites struggle with the influence of Canaanite gods. And our tradition teaches us that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians due to the Big Three transgressions identified earlier. Idolatry is an infection that proves hard to remove, even though King Hezekiah tries valiantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because in the public discourse this week surrounding the church shooting and the removal of Confederate flags, all I could think about was avodah zarah. That flag is a symbol of a particular kind of idolatry: the idolatry of institutionalized racism.

Symbols are used precisely because they have the power to inspire for good or bad.  But hatred corrupts, just like idolatry. It leads people astray, to do things that are violent and disgusting, acts which damage people and society. And although defenders of the Confederate flag might claim that it is merely a symbol of Southern pride and/or culture or the principles of “states’ rights,” we know better. The flag is a symbol of slavery, of racism, of hatred.

Confederate Flag protest in South Carolina (16 images)

And furthermore, it is clear that even if all the Confederate flags in America were to magically disappear, it would not cure the pernicious problem of racism. It might drive it further underground. (Think of the worldwide collective guilt inspired by the Shoah; it drove anti-Semitism into the shadows for decades, but we see it now begin to re-emerge in all its insidious forms.)

But our tradition teaches us something very important here: that the way to eliminate a problem is to distance yourself physically from all of its trappings. We the Jews are still around, thousands of years after the idol-worshipping Canaanites, Babylonians, Hellenists and Romans are all gone. The strategy worked; you don’t find too many Jews today seduced by the appeal of Ba’al or Zeus.

And that brings us to an essential principle in Jewish tradition: that symbolic acts ultimately lead to a change in one’s behavior and/or beliefs. That idea is encapsulated in the following passage from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצווה, אפילו שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה - בא לשמה. שבשכר ארבעים ושתים קורבנות שהקריב בלק, זכה ויצאה ממנו רות.
Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name: One should always occupy oneself with Torah and good deeds, though it may not be for their own sake; because when one does something not for its own sake, eventually it comes to be for its own sake. For as a reward for the forty-two sacrifices offered up by Balaq, he was privileged that Ruth should be his descendant.
To explain, a midrash suggests that Balaq, the Moabite ruler who appears in next week’s parashah, and, by the way, is also mentioned in today’s haftarah. Balaq hires Bil’am ben Be’or to curse the Israelites, but Bil’am blesses them instead. So Balaq makes restitution by offering sacrifices to the Israelite God.  After doing so symbolically 42 times, his heart had truly changed, and thus he ultimately became the grandfather of the Moabitess Ruth, who is largely considered the first convert to Judaism, and is the subject of her own book of the Tanakh.

Judaism has always highlighted deeds over beliefs, because the performance of a deed, even without the proper kavvanah / intention, will ultimately change one’s motivation behind it. Do we all necessarily understand why we pray daily, wear curious ritual items during prayer, eat only kosher foods, abstain from certain creative or destructive acts on Shabbat? No. But we encourage fellow Jews who do not do those things regularly to do so. Why? Because after doing something 42 times, you will come to understand how the act improves your life, how it makes you a better person.

Our tradition teaches us that symbolic behavior, even if there is nothing behind it, leads one to change.

That is why we teach our children tefillah / prayer, or how to sing Shabbat songs, or how to participate in the Passover seder, etc. Because although we know that they will someday make their own choices about whether or not to be involved with Jewish life, the basis of having done something at least a few times will make the chance that they will embrace these rituals as adults much greater. Furthermore, the more often our children have participated in these rituals, the greater their chance of embracing their heritage for the rest of their lives.

If Rav Yehudah were here to counsel us on how to end the scourge of hatred, he would probably suggest that the way to cure racism is to compel everybody to seek out somebody of a different racial group, or even a different ethnic group, each day, and talk to that person, to spend some time getting to know him/her, to hear his/her story, to try to understand. You all know that each of us carries with us a certain amount of prejudice, a modicum of opinions that we form about people that are different from ourselves. But when we meet and get to know people from another group, those prejudices break down. The individual relationship outweighs any other opinions. And at first, while these inter-group conversations would be entirely symbolic, soon the symbolism would be replaced by genuine trust and admiration.

Now Rav Yehuda’s (theoretical) plan of action might be a little impractical. But we have to start somewhere, and the disappearance of the symbols of slavery might be a good start. Although, as many commentators have observed, taking down the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building will not change what is in people’s minds, it will certainly change the perception of what is tangibly acceptable, and what is not. And that will go a long way toward changing people’s thinking and behavior.

Hatred is idolatry. Racism is idolatry. We have to distance ourselves from the trappings of racism and hatred. Only that will cure us as a society.

Perhaps only with the coming of the mashiah / messiah will we eliminate hatred, racism,  anti-Semitism, and any other form of “my-people-are-better-than-your-people-ism.” But we CAN purify our hearts by working harder to lead more haters away from their idolatry. Let’s take down those Canaanite bamot. Remove the idols.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 6/27/2015.)

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