Charlottesville: Racism, Bigotry & The Torah’s Response




In this past week’s Torah reading, Parshat Re’ah, referring to the idolatrous and pagan altars existing in the land of Israel, the Torah commands the Jewish people: “You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; and their Asherim shall you burn in the fire; their carved images you shall cut down…” (Deuteronomy 12:3)


Why is there an obligation to destroy and dismantle the idolatrous altars established in the land of Israel? I can understand the Torah’s interest in keeping the Jewish people from being lured into Avodah Zarah, into idolatry and pagan worship, but why the need to actually destroy and dismantle the altars?


Those structures and statues represent an ideology and lifestyle which the Torah considers abominable. The culture of idol worship involved immoral sexual behaviors, human sacrifice and a host of other unethical practices and so even a representative structure may not remain. The Torah commands us to destroy the idolatrous structures to totally obliterate any vestige of that theology and remove any sliver of legitimacy that way of life may have held in society.


As I watched videos of protesters in Charlottesville calling for the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s statue, I couldn’t help but think about these verses in our parsha – to destroy that which represents something abominable.


That statue of the Robert E. Lee, General of the Confederacy surely represents the South’s philosophy during the Civil war which was pro-slavery, a practice which dehumanized an entire race of people in this country for decades.

This ideology must be destroyed and any of its remnants, like a statue, should not be allowed to stand. On the other hand, as some have argued, Robert E. Lee worked to end slavery after the civil war and if we condemn everyone who owned slaves where do we draw the line? George Washington owned slaves, do we take down his pictures and statues?


This is an important question but in my mind a distraction us from the real issue which is the hate, racism, and anti-semitism that surfaced in Charlottesville.


To hear bigoted, racist and anti-Jewish chants by white supremacists carrying flags with with swastikas – that is what what I want to speak about this Shabbat.

Going back to the issue of Avodah Zarah, the Torah again in this week’s parsha speaks about how it is spread in three ways: First through the “Navi Sheker” or false prophet who claims he is God’s authentic messenger and then uses his position to spread Avodah Zarah. Second, one who is induced by a family member to worship idols and third, the “Ir Hanidchat” -where the whole city has become so engulfed in idol worship it needs to be destroyed.


Why does the Torah describe three ways Avodah Zarah spreads, isn’t any one of them pernicious enough?


I believe it is to teach us the progression: Like any evil ideology, Avodah Zarah starts with a charismatic leader who uses the right time and his abilities as an articulate spokesperson to spread lies and hate. Hitler took advantage of the low state Germany felt after their defeat in World War One and used the Jew as a scapegoat for Germany’s problems.


The next way the Torah speaks of Avodah Zarah spreading is through family members inducing others. In the 1930’S there were kids, brown shirts, so influenced and brainwashed by the Nazi ideology that they turned in their own parents for not following the party line.


Finally the last step is the “Ir Hanidachat”- a city so corrupted with idol worship that it has to be destroyed.


The progression from one person to a family to an entire society teaches a lesson history has taught us again and again: hatred not called out, hatred not confronted will spread like a cancer until it infects and corrupts an entire society.


I have found Americans in general to be tolerant and open minded but there are significant pockets of narrowness and close mindedness ranging from the outright bigots to those uncomfortable with others whose ways of thinking and living are different from their own. We have a responsibility to speak out against the hatred and remind our fellow Americans that this country was founded on the principles of fairness and equality – that slavery was an aberration and a stain on this country’s history and that intolerance and bigotry have no place here.


As many of you know I just returned from leading the MJE annual trip to Israel and we were treated to an amazing talk by Dr. Michael Oren in the Knesset. To the left of the room in which he addressed our group was a synagogue, but as he emphasized to the right of our room was a Mosque for Muslim members of Knesset. A Mosque in Israel’s parliament. We should be very proud of how Israel tries to accommodate and even embrace the various non-Jewish minorities and ethnicities that make up the Jewish State.


Israel also recently delivered at least 10,000 meals to the African country of Sierra Leone, which is recovering from a deadly mudslide that devastated its capital and killed hundreds. Paul Hirschson, Israel’s envoy to Sierra Leone, said that Israel was the first country to provide tangible assistance to the country. This is not an occasional occurrence but a consistent Israeli practice.


America could learn a lot from Israel, especially at this time.


Speaking out against bigotry is our responsibility but it is only one of the Torah’s responses. The more powerful reaction is to carry out any one of the many precepts from the Torah which supports groups on the fringe. One such mitzvah is also found in this week’s Torah reading: “ (Deuteronomy 15:7) Taking care of care of the poor is a Jewish obligation. As Mahatma Ghandi famously said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” The Torah tells us no less than 36 times to “love the stranger”  and reminds us: “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. We began our nationhood as slaves and so we, perhaps more than any other nation, must appreciate the plight of the oppressed. Generally speaking we do and now we must double our efforts.


This attitude is all hinted to us in the new Hebrew month of Elul which we begin in the coming week. One of the acronyms for which Elul stands is: “Ish leraei umatonot l’evyonim”- “a man for his fellow and gifts to the poor”. On Purim we are required to give gifts to the poor and we think how this mitzvah is not limited to Purim but a responsibility all year round, particularly appropriate during the month leading up to the High Holidays.


In this week’s  parsha we also have the laws of kashrut spelled out. The Torah tells us what we can eat and what we cannot. Included in the list of non-kosher birds is the Chasidah, the stork. The Talmud asks why is this bird called Chasidah (which means kindness) and answers because the stork does acts of kindness with her friends. Rashi, the great Biblical commentator explains, it’s because she, the stork shares her food with her friends.So why is the Chasidah, the stork not kosher if she behaves in a praiseworthy manner?


This question is compounded by what the great Maimonides says in his work the Moreh Nevumchim (Guide to Perplexed) that the birds the Torah lists as not kosher are cruel and since, as it were, we are what we eat, we don’t want to adopt their cruel tendencies, but what’s cruel about the Chasidah if it draws its very name from the Chesed that it does? 


Some of the commentators ask: With whom does the Chasidah does her kindness, to which they answer: “Im chavruta” – only with her friends. Any living thing which expresses kindness only with her friends is unfit for Jewish consumption


Our obligation extends to all people, not just our friends. We have to learn all people, irrespective of one’s background,  race or ethnicity with the greatest live and respect. All must be treated in this manner because ultimately each of us is created in God’s image: “for in the image of God is man created”.(Genesis??)


And so besides speaking out again bigotry and hate let us also strengthen that love and resolve to do more for others, not like us, by increasing our acts of kindness to those in our community and beyond. 

In doing so we reveal God’s presence in the world around us.


Shabbat Shalom

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