One of the exciting new programs on offer this year at JCP is a Basic Judaism class co-taught by our inspiring rabbi-to-be Deena Gottlieb and yours truly. The course meets on Tuesday evenings in various members’ homes and is centered around a few books, plenty of texts, and a lot of conversation. In my nearly 25 years as a rabbi, classes like this always hum with new and old questions for those born Jewish and those choosing to express their curiosity in this millenia old tradition. Pirke Avot, a collection of Jewish ethics from the first century, a sage named Ben Bag-Bag once taught of learning, “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than that!”
That’s the thing about the Jewish timeline: it is not so much that it leads to a specific point in time as much as it represents a continuum of life and learning that allows us to always improve ourselves and our relationships with others in an effort to bring more justice, kindness and peace to our world. Like an ellipse comprised of a double helix, Jewish time returns over and over upon itself as well as pointing to a goal—what some refer to as the messianic age of universal perfection. But the rabbis themselves, who were aware of this propensity in humans to find all-encompassing solutions for the knotty pine of life’s enduring challenges, once said, “If you are planting a tree by the side of the road and someone announces the coming of the messiah, first finish planting the tree; then go greet the messiah.”
I’ll believe it when I see it, one might say; and in the meantime, our obligations are to build here, where we are now. And so, as one looks over a year in the life of a Jew, we see from Shabbat to Shabbat; from holy day to holy day; and from one Yom Kippur to the next the opportunity to polish the stone, to cultivate the soil; and to invest in a forward facing future that aims to achieve what Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirke Avot as well: “It is not your duty to finish the work; but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
These teachings come to mind with this week’s Shabbat reading, Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20-27) one of the core ethical tractates in the entire Torah tradition: The oneness of God; the centrality of Shabbat; sharing our fields with the poor; honoring parents; being kind to the stranger because we were once strangers in Egypt; not placing a stumbling block before the blind; showing deference to the aged; and on and on and over and over.
Rabbi Akiva was once asked by a student what was the most important principle in the entire Torah and he quoted Kedoshim as well. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” he said.
These days we need to be reminded of that over and over again. There is too much division in our land; too much denigration of the other; too much anger, too much violence, too much hatred. But you know what? We have been there before and we may be there again and so in recognition we need to learn and keep learning; do and keep doing; love and keep loving.
This past week, our Basic Judaism class visited the Center for Jewish History on 16th Street where Dr. Annie Polland, who runs the American Jewish Historical Society, hosted Eric Ward, Tony Michels, and Christina Greer. They discussed “Antisemitism, Identity Politics, and American Identity.” Ward and Greer are African American; Michels and Polland are Jewish academics. Each is deeply aware of the scourge of hatred of Jews and Blacks and countless others in American history that has yet to be eradicated, presenting for another generation, the challenge of facing history in ways old and new.
Someone asked Ward during the program if he was optimistic about the future, given the past lives sacrificed on the altar of the Civil Rights struggle (Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Martin Luther King and more and more and inexcusably more) and the rise again of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim ideologies. “I don’t think about optimism but I do have hope,” he said.
It’s not so much that the messiah will come, I thought; but we must plant trees of tolerance and neighborliness and love and justice and peace.
One of my favorite rabbis in history was Joachim Prinz, who was a Berlin rabbi and refugee to Newark, chased about by the Hitler regime for his activism and willingness to fight Nazism from the pulpit. Prinz delivered one of the great speeches at the 1963 March on Washington, nestled between Mahalia Jackson’s gospel song and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.” I guess it’s why some people never heard of him. But Philip Roth had heard of him and placed him at the center of his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, which imagines the anti-Semitic, “America First” leader Charles Lindbergh winning the 1940 presidential election and entering an alliance with Hitler. After Roth died this year and after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, the 92Y explored Roth’s prescience in seeing the rise of a new hatred in America today, from MAGA to the Alt-Right.
Prinz’s speech was in fact written by Naomi Levine and Phil Baum, two civil rights lawyers at the American Jewish Congress, who regularly filed amici briefs on legal fights in alliance with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. For instance, Naomi and her legal team at the AJ Congress helped create the original psychological research that helped overthrow “separate but equal” in the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court decision.
Prinz’s words continue to ring out to us today and in the spirit of “love thy neighbor as thyself” from this week’s Torah portion, I want to close by sharing words from these great and brave Jews of one generation to inspire us in our own to move ever closer to the promised land of peace, equality and justice for all.
“Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.
It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.”
Love thy neighbor as thyself can break the silence, can shatter the rock of hate, and can plant a forest of trees for all to enjoy the fruit and the comfort of peace.