October 2, 2019
The Complicity of Silence—Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein (Rosh HaShanah 5780/2019)
The Complicity of Silence
Rabbi Peter J Rubinstein, Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019
As the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. It is written “Jagged blazes of lightning flashed across the sky, deafening roars of thunder echoed off the mountain tops and, a thick cloud descended and hid Mt. Sinai as in a shroud.”
And then out of the turmoil:
וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד
The blast of the shofar blared powerfully, intensely and called Moses and God to attention.
מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר, וְהָאֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל
“Moses spoke, and God answered him” and thus we received the Torah.
From that moment until today the discordant shrill sounds of the Shofar (which we will soon hear again) shatter our complacent self-satisfaction, arouse our conscience and even a bit of outrage at the brokenness we see in ourselves and the world around us.
The traditional 100 blasts of the ram’s horn call us to attention and compel us to recalibrate our values, commitments and vision each new year but this New Year, I think it is more essential than ever.
From my rabbinic colleagues across the country I know that these are difficult high holidays. With stark brevity the scholar Yehuda Kurtzer recently surmised “Jewish politics are eviscerating Jewish leaders.”
Rabbis have been warned, whether delicately or by innuendo, not to discuss political matters from the pulpit during these holidays. They are told anything touching on the political, could cause dissension if not a schism in their congregation.
Sadly, this enforced silence is also pervading our family gatherings, dinners with friends and public discussions in our institutions. We have been bludgeoned to keep a distance from discussing matters that are at the very heart of the present and future of our nation and this world.
Yet I believe that good people can disagree about issues as long as the integrity, intelligence or decency of those with whom you disagree is not called into question. Denigrating someone who has strong partisan views different from our own accomplishes nothing except furious anger, an abiding and frigid silence and possible loss of friendship. Though we may passionately disagree it is essential we talk about the matters that are occupying us and our nation.
So today I will touch on matters that should be discussed by all of us especially because I believe that everything is Jewish. For me it is unfeasible to disassociate Jewish values and sensibilities from our hopes for and love of this country and the society of which we are constituents.
The foundational principle which I suggest we take to heart this year is Hillel’s teaching:
וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִיש
“In a place where there is a lack of courage and noble character, you are mandated to be courageous and a person of strong and noble character. “
With that as our compass and guidepost and with some level of shame I confess “I am guilty” of not meeting that standard of courage. And I suspect I am not alone.
More often than not, I, we have been bystanders to the malice and extraordinary onslaught against the foundations of justice, liberty and character which are chronicled continuously as the lead stories in our media.
Reflecting on the current state of our nation the clergy of the Washington National Cathedral, at the very center of our democracy, wrote with minor editing on my part “We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from high office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”
I believe my Episcopalian colleagues are correct. Our determination to fix what we witness as broken has eroded. We are weary of the outrageous behavior of people in the public eye and the disregard of scientific research and of the battles over or disrespect of our institutions of law. In that regard I will not assign blame solely to any one side of the political spectrum.
But while we feel immobilized our young people are taking to the streets by the hundreds of thousands demanding to halt the assault on our environment, insistent that we take guns off the streets and caring for those incarcerated on our borders and separated from their children as an anti-illegal immigration tactic. And our young people are compelling us to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses and throughout our country because they are increasingly the victims.
Our young people care about our environment because they have already experienced the horrific effects of climate change connected by science to greenhouse gas emissions. Our children understand and properly expect that they and our grand-children and their grandchildren have an inviolable right to have pure air to breathe and water to drink and natural beauty to appreciate.
We’re living on a miraculous planet with ineffable scenes of exquisite beauty and majestic splendor. Let us help keep it that way so that our children’s children can lie on dew-covered fields and search the incomprehensible depth and beauty of a cloudless night sky as should be their inalienable right.
The Midrash tells us that upon creation, God guided Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden, exhorting them “Look at the beauty of what I created for you.”
God warns: “שֶׁלֹא תְקַלְקֵל וְתַחֲרִיב אֶת עוֹלָמִי Lo t’kal-kayl v’ta-cha-’reev et olami
Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy MY world. If you do, there will be no one to fix it.”
Caring for our environment is obviously a Jewish value.
But not only for the environment have our children taken to the streets.
Within five weeks after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 of their school mates were slaughtered, their classmates and parents and others organized the March for our Lives in which they vowed to make sure that what happened to their community never happened again.
Their movement has registered close to a million new voters and the 2018 midterm elections resulted in the highest percentage of youth voter turnout ever.
Their stated passion is straightforward “Not one more person be killed by senseless gun violence; not one more family wait for a call or a text that never comes. Their avowed mission is not to allow the normalization of gun violence to continue. In their words “We must create a safe and compassionate nation for all of us.”
To which we should say: Amen!
We will read on Yom Kippur afternoon:
לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ Lo ta-a-mod al dam ray-ehcha
“Don’t stand idly by while you neighbor is bleeding.”
That’s a Jewish value.
In addition to the environment and gun control we must also confront that in our day Diversity has become divisive. Rather than finding room for and embracing different ways of thinking, diversity has become a matter of identity and identity groups may not only dislike each other, they have become intolerant of each other. And we Jews have been caught in the crosshairs, the target of enmity both from the far right and the far left.
Our children on campus are bearing the brunt of much of it.
According to a new report “Harassment of students who expressed pro-Israel ideologies jumped 70 percent in one year and some 2,500 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. have been recorded since 2015.”
The Associated Press reported that “Capped by the deadly shooting that killed 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, assaults in this country targeting Jews rose 13% in 2018…. with more than a quarter of the 400 major violent cases recorded worldwide taking place in the United States.”
We had believed that anti-Semitism was on the wane but the hostility that has been stoked and encouraged in our day has changed that.
Whether it is because we’re Jews or support Israel we, along with others who are considered strangers or outsiders, are increasingly under attack.
No less than 36 times the Torah mandates that we welcome the stranger reminding us that we “were strangers in the land of Egypt”, and they despised us. Welcoming the stranger is a Jewish value. Just as we were provided a place of safety in this country when we needed it, we need to care for others who are yearning for a place of safety in this country as well.
Yes, the environment, gun control, immigration and anti-Semitism all have political and partisan ramifications.
And the result is that our silence and our inaction on these matters makes us complicit in a pervasive moral and political restlessness and this nation deserves much better from us, especially because these are Jewish values as well.
About this we cannot be silent anymore and leave it only to our children. We can no longer stand on the side lines.
Amos Guiora in his book The Crime of Complicity thoughtfully focuses on the bystanders during the Holocaust. These were the people who silently stood by and watched their neighbors and friends taken by the Gestapo and marched off to their certain death. He posits that “without bystanders, perpetrators would not have been able to commit the worst crimes in human history.”
By no stretch of the imagination are we witnessing anything that is even remotely equivalent to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, we are living through and witnessing and by our silence are complicit in horrific family separations, increasing hostility to Jews both on college campuses and in the halls of government. We’re witnessing the destruction of our environment and the incapacity of our elected officials to take even minute incremental steps to prevent the production and unchecked sale of firearms that, as of the first day of September resulted in more mass shootings in 2019 than there were days in the year.
I know that one day, in the not too distant future, my children and grandchildren and yours will look us directly in the eyes and with unswerving determination demand to know what we did we do to stand up for the stranger and the refugee. Or “What did we do to protect our children and their children from mass murderers in their schools or on our streets? They will indict us for not having saved them from drinking polluted water or forestalling climate change which already is resulting in rising sea levels, horrific floods and barely tolerable heat waves which hundreds of scientists testify will intensify if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at present rates.
Our grandchildren will have the right to know whether we were active in combatting anti-Semitism especially on college campuses and by elected officials.
Yes, we Jews have been slaughtered by the Crusades, the Inquisition, blood libel massacres, pogroms and of course the Nazis. Through every one of those horrors bystanders, for sometimes comprehensible reasons, stood by and refrained from protecting us even in the most minimal ways. There were always the few who stood up against the forces of evil, as there are today, but not enough of us are among them.
The majority of us have chosen comfort over conviction, words over action, justification over justice and, as a result, allow the degeneration of our principles, and the erosion of our character and along with it, the character of our nation.
Rabbi Jack Stern Jr., with whom I interned and adored, said this to his congregation at its Service of Responsibility in 1994:
“Through the years we have said that the God of life keeps calling to us all the time, not only in the risk-filled time of the Holocaust but in all those other times when God’s other children are lonely or sick or hungry or embattled. And again, ours is the choice: to be silent and stand by or to claim our right not to be silent and to respond the way the prophet did: “Here am I, Send me. (Is. 6:8)”
I’ll tell you what gives me hope.
For those of us who lived through the decade from 1963-1973 we may recall the horrors of that time. In November 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated. In April 1968 Martin Luther King was murdered and Senator Robert Kennedy was killed in June that same year. There were riots, massive demonstrations and protests throughout the decade. In August 1965 it took 4000 national guardsmen to control the riots in Watts during which 34 people were killed.
The Vietnamese War ended with over 58,000 US Military casualties. In response to the war there were massive anti-Viet Nam protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention and at Columbia University during which, with racial overtones, Hamilton Hall, then Low Library were taken over which ended only with the intervention of the police.
And when on April 30, 1970 President Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia student protests broke out on college campuses throughout the country involving, by some estimates, over one million students. Four days after Nixon’s announcement the Ohio National Guard confronted and opened fire on unarmed student protesters on the Kent State Campus. Four unarmed Kent State students were killed, and nine students were injured, one permanently paralyzed.
And then in the early morning of June 17, 1972 The Watergate scandal unfolded when several burglars, connected to President Nixon’s reelection campaign, were arrested for wiretapping phones and stealing documents in the office of the Democratic National Committee. That Watergate Scandal resulted in President Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974.
The decade spanning the early sixties and early seventies seemed anarchical, even nihilistic with riots and wars and protests, outrageous governmental scandal and killings and an ambient sense that it could not get worse.
And yet out of that decade evolved radically impacting legislation and movements: The Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty Legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966 and the first stand-alone edition of Ms. Magazine was published in 1972.
Within weeks of each other in 1969 the Stonewall riots, which birthed radical social change in the country, began on June 28th; the first manned moon landing was just weeks later on July 20th and then just weeks after that, on August 15th the Woodstock Music festival began. It was billed as 3 Days of Peace & Music and was a pivotal moment in music history and described as a defining event for the counter-cultural generation.
If we Jews have been rehearsed on anything it is that throughout our history there have emerged from the ashes of desperation the flicker and sparks of hope and new life. We have survived the murderous villainies of the greatest evil. We believe in the durability of the human spirit and that there is in each one of us the radiant visions of better days. We believe that there will yet be, as there have been in the past, compassionate leaders and decent men and women who form the matrix of society and together aspire to the nobility of humankind.
We are at a pivotal time in our nation’s history. Whatever your views of this nation’s leadership the character of our nation and this republic abides within and depends on us.
In a recent interview Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the greatest threat to our democracy is people who don’t care. She called our attention to Judge Learned Hand’s 1944 “The Spirit of Liberty Speech”. In his answer to his own question “What is the Spirit of Liberty” he admitted “I cannot [exactly]define it…the spirit of liberty is…in the spirit of America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all….”
That is the spirit for which we must all now rise up. That is the spirit upon which this country built greatness. That is the spirit which should drive us to be stalwarts in defense of the weak and the homeless and the disenfranchised along with its citizens. Those aspirations should drive us to be guardians of the natural world upon the health of which we depend.
This is a time for our vigilance and voices of both the empowered and the enervated. This is the time to reach hands across aisles and across dinner tables and to heal our wounded society and spirits.
Perhaps more than ever before we must be part of the action, not simply to vote but to support those we would choose to lead, to share our resources of energy and money and passion with those organizations fighting for what we believe we can’t do alone.
And it is not only for this moment. Silence is seductive. It puts us on the sidelines and makes us complicit whenever we choose the sidelines over action. But the sidelines are not the place for us, not as Jews and not as Americans. Let us intentionally make a difference, now and always. This is a time for each of us to rise up and proclaim “Hineni! Here I am! Send me!”
We are on the brink of a new year, a new chapter.
In keeping with Hillel’s dictum: Let us be courageous and of strong and noble character.
It is up to each of us, to all of all of us to breathe new energy into the spirit of liberty and justice, decency and morality, integrity and love. Especially on this day it is time to listen to the sounds of the Shofar that call us to awaken, reset, renew and repair ourselves, our nation and this creation.
More than any time before, I pray we may get on with…and KEEP AT IT!
With God’s help! Amen
Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)