Sermon Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5779, November 2, 2018
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha
This has been a very hard week in the American Jewish community. The brutal Anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood last Saturday, the vicious murder of 11 Jews who had come to shul on Shabbes to pray and celebrate a bris, and the wounding of six others including four police officers, shocked and horrified the Jewish world, most of our country and much of the rest of the planet. This act by a crazed and rabid Anti-Semite spewing anti-Jewish hatred struck at the heart of what has always made America great: its capacity to allow everyone the ability to practice his or her own religion in peace, to have true freedom of conscience.
Religious bias and bigotry have certainly existed, and obviously still exist in the United States, but our nation has never passed laws that target religious minorities. Unlike so many other countries in the world, true freedom of religion in enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution and protected here. And even with the rise of internet forums that cultivate hate speech, the incidents of violent Anti-Semitic acts had been steadily trending downward for decades in America.
Until last Shabbes. While there certainly have been US terror attacks that killed more Jews—hundreds of Jews died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, of course—the Tree of Life-Or l’Simcha massacre was the single worst Anti-Semitic attack in all of American history. A long series of murderous mass attacks on so-called “soft targets,” schools, churches, nightclubs, concerts, and other public spaces, may have dulled our ability to respond to such horrors. But this was the first such mass murder to effectively target a synagogue.
If there is one moment of black humor in this—and I’m not sure there is—it was the fact that the gunman knew enough about Jews to target the back row of the synagogue, where congregants actually sit, rather than the front row where they rarely do.
The names of the murdered are included in our kaddish list tonight, and nearly every Reform and Conservative synagogue kaddish in the country, I expect: Irving Younger, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Rose Malinger, Melvin Wax, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Joyce Fineberg, Jerry Rabinowitz, Richard Gottfried, and Daniel Stein. They ranged in age from 54 years old to 97 years old. They were murdered at the beginning of Shabbat services in the synagogue, and the outrageous Anti-Semitic brutality of the shooter horrifies nearly everyone.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the community in Pittsburgh, and with the congregation of Tree of Life that was violated in this awful way. Life and joy were turned to loss and sorrow.
As usual, tragedy and outrage bring us together in America, and there were moving vigils and memorial events across the nation, including a very large one here at the JCC on Monday night that I had the honor of participating in with other rabbis and some cantorial soloists. Interfaith and multi-faith support poured out, and reassured Jews everywhere that we are not alone. A minister friend of mine, Canon John Kitagawa, sent me the famous passage by the heroic German pastor Martin Niemoller:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There has been a tremendous outpouring of support for the Jewish community from Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and members and leaders of all religious groups across the nation and across the world.
I just wonder what we will learn from this latest mass murderous attack.
You see, according to the Secret Service, last year, in 2017 in America there were 28 mass attacks—an average of more than two a month—that killed 147 people and wounded over 700. Those numbers may actually be low, since they don’t include the hundreds of people who were injured fleeing during the panic at the Las Vegas harvest music festival massacre thirteen months ago.
The totals for dead and wounded this year? We don’t know yet. There are still two more months to go.
We have become conditioned to the nearly routine insanity of violent attacks on churches, schools, nightclubs and theaters on a bi-weekly basis. In a way, the likelihood of such a terrible incident targeting a synagogue had become pretty high. It is awful to say this, but if churches, clubs and theaters are being attacked and pipe bombs put in the mail, temples are going to be next. Niemoller’s quote works both ways.
This recurrent American public violence is neither normal nor acceptable for a civilized society. We must decide that enough is enough. This time we must act to prevent a recurrence. It can be stopped, and we must insist that it is. We must do a better job identifying potential shooters. We must do a better job of protecting our own places of prayer, and our schools. We must do a better job of treating mental illness. And we must stop the flood of hostility that is washing over our country.
We have become conditioned to accept that hate speech, including Anti-Semitism, is simply part of our American right to free expression in 2018, especially in social media and in online forums. When the insanity of Charlottesville took place in 2017 most of us proclaimed that such a public display of hate speech, Anti-Semitism and racism had no place in our country. Yet we have continued to tolerate the open disparagement of prominent Jews by fringe organizations and allowed ugly insinuations about influential Jews to cross the line into slander, hatred and virulent Anti-Semitism.
This is also not acceptable for a civilized society and for its officials. We must decide that enough is enough, and act against it, and against those who practice hate speech.
None of us is truly safe so long as public hate speech is the order of the day in America, and decency is on the retreat.
I have been thinking a great deal about hate speech and its prominence in so many places in our society. It has become increasingly easier in our world to express unrestrained anger, to attack another human being as though he or she was not actually human. And it has somehow become acceptable for people on all sides of the political spectrum to do this, to speak of political opponents and entire groups of people with contempt and ridicule with absolute impunity.
Have you heard of the Noahide Laws? The Hebrew name for these is the sheva mitzvot B’nai Noach, and the Talmud derives these seven laws from the story of the flood in the second Torah portion of Genesis, and the covenant, the great Berit that God makes with Noah and his descendants. In Jewish tradition, these laws compose a universal code that establishes a basic level of morality for any and all societies, not just Jewish ones. There are people today, including some here in Tucson, who consider themselves Noahide observers, and therefore moral, which is the Jewish understanding of it. That brit of Noah’s was symbolized by the rainbow, eventually surpassed for Jews by the greater brit, the covenant given just to Abraham and his descendants in last week’s Torah portion. But the 7 mitzvot b’nai Noach were given to all humanity. They are more universal, and they still have followers.
I’ll give you the list of the seven laws, and I want you to think about something: which one of these seven great commandments doesn’t seem to belong?
The 7 Noahide laws are:
Do not murder
Do not steal
Do not commit acts of forcible sexual immorality, such as rape
Do not eat the limb of a living animal
Do not worship idols
Establish courts of justice
Do not commit blasphemy
As the Sesame Street song put it, “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong.”
Most of these make perfect sense. No society can consider itself ethical if it condones murder, theft or rape, and the idea of eating the limb of a living animal is repugnant, a form of torture of animals. The reason to insist that we don’t worship idols is that if we are to be moral we must know what rules to follow, and a polytheistic system means there will be multiple sources of morality—each god or idol may want something different. Any ethical code has to eliminate that potential variation or we can’t know how to be good. Finally, without courts of justice no aspect of this Noahide Code can be enforced fairly. All six of these laws, these mitzvot bnai Noach, make sense.
But how can blasphemy be considered in the top seven all time of religious laws, so important it is a nearly universal moral obligation? In today’s world, how many of us have had as single thought about blasphemy in our entire lives? Not many, I suspect. It sounds like some antique rule, long forgotten and essentially meaningless. If you are not sure God even exists how bad can it be to curse God?
Perhaps we are missing the point. What is blasphemy? Most of us think it’s cursing God, the mere use of a swear word and God’s name. Historically, it was stronger, the harsh cursing of God. If God exists and is powerful, this seems inadvisable, but in what way is it anywhere near as serious an offense as murder or rape or theft?
But what if blasphemy is something completely different. What if it means using speech to demean and attack human beings, to get us to think about other people as less than human? What if blasphemy is actually hate speech?
When human beings are created in the opening section of Genesis, the Torah describes us as being formed b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God; the Latin for that is Imago Dei, and it is an article of faith in Judaism and other religions. We each are created in the very image of the Divine.
When we curse another human being, when we engage in hate speech, when we express Anti-Semitism, or racism, or baseless hatred of another person or class of people we are actually committing the grave sin of blasphemy. We are not just cursing another person, or a group of other people who happen to look differently, or pray differently, or wear different clothing, or come from somewhere else. We are actually cursing God. We are committing a very real and contemporary version of blasphemy.
My friends, we cannot do more in a practical sense to help the victims at Tree of Life and in Pittsburgh than offer condolences and prayers. But we can do a great deal more to heal our society by insisting that hate speech of any kind must be eradicated: first, from our own speech, from our writing, posting, emails, texts and tweets. And then from the speeches of our elected representatives and those running for office, for whom hate speech should be disqualifying. And we can insist that it be banned from online forums and social media and talking head TV shows and newsfeeds.
We can insist on honesty, decency and respect in our public discourse and from our media. Honesty, decency and respect: old values, but ones we must revive. Before this cancer spreads any further. Before there are more shootings and attacks inspired by the blasphemy of hate speech.
It is up to us to choose to simply stop condoning hateful speech, to vote only for those who don’t practice it, to insist that social media, websites, and all the other interactive platforms in our own lives refuse to tolerate it.
Only when we make that commitment and stop pandering to our worst impulses do we have the right to hope that things will improve in our society—for everyone.
May this be our wish—for then we will be serving God’s wishes, too.