In the words of the late rock musician, David Bowie: “This is not America.”
On August 12. white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.
They said they were there to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
But, they were really there to march against blacks and Jews. Three people were killed: Heather Heuer, the victim of a car driven into the crowd; and two policemen who were killed in a helicopter crash – as well as a black man who was seriously beaten.
The thugs were dressed in army fatigues. They carried semi-automatic weapons. They yelled: “There’s the synagogue!” Nazi websites had called for the burning of the building. The worshippers were so terrified, that the synagogue leaders removed the Torah scrolls, and told the congregants to leave by the back door.
The scum marched by torchlight. They were imitating the Nazi rallies in the 1930s, and the Klan rallies of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
What happened in Charlottesville did not stay in Charlottesville.
In the days and weeks after Charlottesville…
- Vandals shattered windows at the Holocaust memorial in Boston.
- Vandals shattered windows at a synagogue in Queens.
- Vandals painted swastikas on a synagogue in Alameda, California.
- And on a high school on Long Island.
- And on a high school in Stamford, Connecticut.
- And on a church in New York City that has shared its space with a synagogue.
This is not America.
- This is not the America that our parents and grandparents fought for in World War Two.
- This is not the America that offered refuge to Holocaust survivors.
- This is not the America that we want our children to love.
But, what I cannot get out of my mind is what the thugs were screaming in Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us!”
We have never wanted to replace anyone.
Quite the opposite.
The history of Western civilization is the history of the attempt to replace Judaism – and it has not worked
Christianity tried to replace Judaism. There is a reason why Jews don’t like the term “Old Testament.” It is a Christian term. It implies that Judaism is like your one year old IPhone – or like your operating system, which waiting for you to download as your special Rosh Ha Shanah gift to yourself.
Judaism needed an upgrade – or, so Christian theology thought.
The apostle Paul said: The mitzvot are gone. All you have to do is to believe in the risen Christ, who died for your sins.
The Church believed that God had abandoned the divine promise to the Jewish people. The Church believed that it was the new Israel, the new people of God.
Islam tried to replace Judaism. Islam taught that Mohammed was the final prophet, the greatest prophet.
Islam tried to re-write Jewish history. Why do you think that Palestinian leaders say that the ancient Temple did not really exist?
They are saying: your claim to the Land of Israel is a false claim.
Communism tried to replace Judaism.
Why was Communism so attractive to Jews?
Communism took the idea of tikkun olam, and it perverted that idea into a radical and negation of society. Communism wanted to create heaven on earth – and it succeeded in creating a hell.
Some Jews have also wanted to replace Judaism.
When people say “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” they are trying to replace Judaism, as a religion — with inward feeling – at the expense of everything else. That replacement for Judaism is unsustainable. It cannot last.
When people say “I’m not religious, but I am a cultural Jew,” they are trying to replace Judaism, as a religion – with vague ethnic memories, humor, attitude, and a ritualized viewing of Seinfeld re-runs. This, too, is unsustainable. It cannot last.
I worry about anti-semitism. I worry about anti-semitism—both from the Right, and from the left, where it tries to masquerade itself as anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism.
But, we have to be more than anti-anti-semites.
We have to be pro-Judaism.
What is the Judaism that I want you to affirm?
Consider the Coliseum in Rome. Jewish slaves built it. There were chariot races. There were gladiator battles. Animals were killed, and so were people.
The ancient rabbis asked: Are Jews permitted to visit the Coliseum?
Most rabbis said “no.” Because if you cannot consume blood with your mouth, then you cannot witness violence and consume blood with your eyes.
But, some rabbis disagreed. A Jew should go to the Coliseum.
Because if you go to the Coliseum, and you see a gladiator gravely wounded, with his opponent standing over him, ready to finish him off – some people in the crowd are yelling: Spare him! Others are yelling: Kill him!
The Emperor is in the crowd. If he wanted the gladiator to live — thumb up. If he wanted the gladiator to die — thumb down.
You must be in the Coliseum, so that you can scream: Let him live!
Because of your solitary scream, the Emperor might decide to spare that human life.
Even if you were the only one screaming for gladiator’s life.
The great German Reform rabbi, Leo Baeck, taught: “A minority is always compelled to think. That is the blessing of being a minority.”
I am asking you to fight racism and bigotry with every fiber of your beings – not only against Jews, but against blacks and Latinos and Muslims and immigrants and LGBT people.
I am asking you to speak of these things to your children and grandchildren.
I am asking you to remember: Jews are a minority. We are still the Other in America, and that means that we have to think about our role in society.
It is to enter the Coliseum of our culture, and to scream out for life — life for our ideals, and for the idea of America itself.
(as preached at Temple Solel, Hollywood, Florida, on Rosh Ha Shanah morning).