“…it was not always goodness of heart which produced all these good works, but one of those unwritten laws common to so many families of the nobility. Their far distant forebears might indeed, centuries before, have practiced charity, help and support of their people out of pure love. Gradually, though, as the blood altered, this goodness of heart had to some extent become frozen and petrified into duty and tradition” (Joseph Roth, “The Bust of the Emperor,” 1935).
Joseph Roth was a journalist and writer who chronicled the demise of liberal European civilization between the two world wars, leaving a literary legacy that still haunts us today, 80 years after he died prematurely from alcoholism and despair as Nazism and Fascism destroyed his world. From his depictions of the Austro-Hungarian empire in its final decades to his searing and incisive observations from hotel bars and cafes spanning from Paris to Vienna and Berlin, Roth stands alone as one of the most prolific and critical voices of modern Jewish life. He had a way, as the above quote indicates, of capturing in a few brief sentences, the predicament of the Jew in modern times. Hardly one to glorify an often violent and disastrous past, Roth, though not observant, was keenly aware of the ways in which modernity eroded Jewish bonds of connection and obligation.
Liberated from the ghettos and the pale of settlement by 18th and 19th century Enlightenment rulers in France, Prussia and Vienna, the Jews began a process of acculturation and assimilation throughout much of Western and Central Europe. Jews gained citizenship along with natural and civil rights to become, if not fully realized, then at least aspiring members of national civic life throughout Europe.
This acceptance of the Jew as citizen reached its greatest expression in America. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” George Washington wrote to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” What an extraordinary document of Jewish history indeed, marking the exceptional place of the Jew in a pluralistic society that remains unmatched throughout the world.
Of course the American experiment in representative democracy remains a work in progress. The luminary abolitionist Frederick Douglass knew this when he said in his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”: “Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!”
Baltimore Rabbi David Einhorn, who while serving Har Sinai was a vocal abolitionist, was drawn into the slavery debate on the eve of the Civil War, writing and preaching his opposition to this inhumane treatment of God’s creatures. Christian preachers and even some rabbis, most notably Rabbi Morris Raphall of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, argued that the institution of slavery was biblically sanctioned. What disturbed Einhorn was that some Christian preachers argued that slaves were descendants of Ham, Noah’s son, who was relegated to a cursed existence. Other clergy, like Rabbi Raphall, deplored the abuse of the institution and using Talmudic law, argued for its “just and humane” application.
This was nothing less than evil to Rabbi Einhorn. “God created man in his own likeness,” Einhorn wrote. “This blessing of God has higher standing than the flood or Noah’s curse,” two Biblical texts often used by pro-slavery clergy to justify the treatment of the “sub-human” Africans brought to America in chains. His faith and belief in American exceptionalism meant he must argue with America and its immoral institutions. This was a belief rendered out of love. “There are enough churches and synagogues and temples, but there is little religion, little morality.” Rabbi Einhorn saw it as his moral duty to correct his nation and for this he was driven from his pulpit by a mob who chased him from Baltimore under threat of being tarred and feathered. He eventually served Keneseth Israeli in Philadelphia where presumably he found more “brotherly love” for his views.
The willingness to stand for what one believes, even to the point of arguing with God and the Torah traditions, has long been one of the most admirable, sustaining, and at times even vexatious manifestations of what it means to be a Jew. We don’t mean to be difficult; we argue out of love! And this, I believe, is an important lens through which to understand Abraham, the Biblical patriarch, who has the courage of his convictions and love of God to not only argue with but repudiate the Creator of the Universe.
In this week’s Torah portion, when God sees the evil being committed in Sodom and Gomorroh and seeks to wipe its inhabitants from the face of the earth, Abraham firmly objects. “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous people there? Far be it from You to do such a thing! To slay the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous shall be as the wicked! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25)
A defense lawyer who prosecutes God as Judge, Abraham remains in that regard the quintessential Jew, the loyal patriarch, the faithful prophet, who serves Truth and Justice as categorical and Divine manifestations of the God he serves out of love.
It is interesting to think of Joseph Roth’s remark in this context. When we think of those with weakened Jewish ties, or those who distance themselves from community; or when we think of the ways in which America can be so overwhelmingly hospitable as to make particular declarations of Jewishness to be at best unnecessary or at worst embarrassing, even shameful, Roth’s line rings true. A petrified or rote Jewishness is a danger to survival. “This goodness of heart had to some extent become frozen and petrified into duty and tradition,” Roth wrote in part because his observation stood as a reminder that there is always a place in our identities to claim Jewishness in the service of our yearning for and fealty to ideas like justice and love.
Who are we as Jews; indeed, who are we as Americans, without justice and love?
While it is undeniably true that none of us alone is capable of turning the tides of history, of parting seas, of saving towns, of reconciling one to the other, we are—with questions piled upon questions and arguments built upon arguments and listening hearts ever-open—in possession of the sacred bonds of hope that are beacons of light even in the darkest of days.
Abraham reminds us of our duty to bear witness, to testify when history challenges us. Living under Roman rule in the first century, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “The world endures on three things: justice, truth and peace, just as the prophet Zechariah taught, ‘These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth with your neighbor; execute the judgement of truth and peace in your gates; and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against your neighbor.’”
These texts and stories, harvested from history, are humbling reminders to us that the work before us remains to create a world, a nation, a community and a home founded on justice, peace and love.