Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Purifying Our Hearts

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 24, 2017 – 28 Shevat, 5777

Back in December, white supremacists declared they’d hold an armed march in January against the small  (100 or so households) Jewish community of Whitefish, Montana. The events drew national attention. Most heartening, the local non-Jewish community stood up for and protected their beleagured neighbors. Relationships matter and remain one of the most potent forces by which we can confront hatred and bigotry. In early March, I’ll be flying to Whitefish on a rabbinic mission to express solidarity with the Jewish community, as a statement of gratitude to law-enforcement and the wider community for their righteous actions and to learn what was effective in these efforts.

Ben is a friend and a former congregant from our Cleveland days. He’s a veterinary radiologist who spends his days reading the x-rays of sick animals. He’s this big goofball with a huge heart, a house full of pets and a son-in-law who’s a rabbi. Ben also hails from Missouri and has five family members buried in the Jewish cemetery there that was recently vandalized. Fortunately, his family’s graves remained untouched.

There is a long and unfortunate history of Jewish cemeteries suffering such desecration. What stands out in this instance is how it has become a bit of a lightning rod for where America finds itself in this moment of her history. Vice President Pence made an unannounced visit in solidarity. A Muslim woman, Linda Sarsour, also started a kick-start style campaign to raise funds for the cemetery’s restoration. While her original goal was $20,000, over $120,000 have been raised to date. My friends on the left have been deeply moved by this action. Muslims helping Jews? Wow!

And then an east coast friend of mine with decidedly right wing politics started to send me links about Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian activist and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. Ms. Sarsour is also a proponent of the BDS movement, has called Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu “a waste of a human being” and once tweeted that “nothing is creepier than Zionism.” Indeed, Ms. Sarsour has even been recorded stating that her activism on behalf of minority groups stems not from concern for those groups, but as a strategic move to reduce Islamophobia. You can find the video link and time stamps to the relevant sections here. In other words, my friend is arguing that Ms. Sarsour intentionally manipulates people and that her good deeds in raising money for a desecrated cemetery ring hollow.

Such an appraisal strikes me as a bit too stark. The truth is that humans are complex, but we seem to have forgotten that.

Unfortunately, we live in a moment where many people on the left and the right view their relationship with Israel as an exclusive moral imperative. For those who do, as Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute notes, it becomes forbidden to find common cause with anyone when their stance on Israel “transgresses an impassable line.”

What he is arguing is that in today’s world, we often seem unable to maintain more than one moral imperative at a time. “If someone disagrees with me on Israel, I can’t entertain anything else they might believe nor can I view them as an ally when other values I care about coincide.”

If this stance were limited to Israel, it would actually be more palatable. But more and more, it seems like this is how our nation operates overall. We create absurd and limiting litmus tests of others. If you don’t believe X, then nothing else you believe matters. If you are not for/against the president, then Y.

It was in my first pulpit in New York. A Catholic woman telephoned me, wanting to know my perspective on abortion. She was livid that anyone would vote for a presidential candidate who supported abortion. Now Judaism has a very different view of abortion than Catholicism, and I could sense where this conversation might end up. Rather than answer her, I asked simply, “are there no other Catholic values than abortion? Isn’t  concern for the poor and the oppressed also a Catholic ethical mandate? Why does this issue of abortion erase all other Catholic teachings?” “Because it does!” she yelled, shocked that I could ask such a question. And then she hung up on me.

I don’t know the heart of Linda Sarsour. It is difficult enough to understand our own intentions or unravel our own complex motivations. Yet let’s say my friend on the right is correct and that Ms. Sarsour’s concern for minorities is solely motivated by her concern for her Muslim co-religionists. Is that so bad? As Rabbi Hillel of old reminds us, “im ain ani li, mi li.” –if I am not for myself who will be for me? Of course, he goes on to ask what sort of a person are we when we are motivated primarily out of self-interest.

Yet there is a still deeper issue at stake.

I’ve been engaged in interfaith dialogue for nearly twenty years. If I include the Interfaith Thanksgiving services my grandfather took me to as a child, it’s fair to say I’ve been involved for practically my entire life. Along the way, I’ve encountered beginners in this work and people who possess great sophistication. That’s how it should be. We are all learning. We are all moving along the path.

It was also in New York where I had my first great breakthrough in understanding. Despite organizing a retreat for Christian and Jewish seminary students while in rabbinical school, it’s fair to say that I viewed Christianity as a primitive and laughable religion that lacked intellectual heft. The notion of Jesus rising from the dead was bizarre at best.

But it was during those years that I developed a wonderful relationship with Sister Kathleen Deignan of Iona College. Together we put on a well-received interfaith concert of psalms. We spent long hours talking and one day, I finally got it. I saw Catholicism as she did, from the inside out. Its beauty. Its mystery and grandeur. Its love, sacrifice and forgiveness. And I was moved. Deeply moved.

Most of us don’t start our lives doing the right thing for the right reason. We have to be reminded to say please and thank you. We must be coerced into apologizing after a childhood fight even when we don’t really mean it. In other words, we fake it.

If we are fortunate, somewhere along the line the faking it turns into making it. We start to offer thanks because we are genuinely grateful. We begin to say please because we’ve developed a real respect and appreciation for other people. None of that would have occurred without practice or the relationships we formed along the way.

So yes, we ought to be capable of maintaining more than one moral imperative. We should figure out how to find common ground where we can work together even if there remain important or crucial areas where we will disagree. In all of this there is a deeper promise–a religious goal even. Eventually, if we keep developing these habits, we discover that we have changed the tendencies of how we think. One day we wake up and find that we’ve purified our hearts. We operate from a place of greater love, expansiveness and equanimity even as we maintain our commitments.

That’s the real goal. And that’s the real reward.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D