Response to Charlottesville – Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

In Response to Charlottesville and Its Aftermath
Rabbi Jan Uhrbach – August 19, 2017

“See, I set before you today blessing and curse”  (Deut. 11:26).

Our Torah reading this morning opens with this stark binary, a clear choice point: blessing or curse.  Several chapters later, in parashat Nitzavim, the contours of that choice become even sharper:  “See, I have placed before you today life and good, death and evil… I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life…” (Deut. 30:15, 19).

There are moments when the stakes in our choosing seem especially high, when the choice we make is especially reflective of who we are, especially determinative of who we will be:  I set before you today a choice,  blessing or curse, life or death, good or evil.  Hayom.  Today.

The assault on America that happened last Shabbat in Charlottesville – and all of the aftermath that has followed – presents each and every one of us with that choice. Blessing or curse, life or death, good or evil.

But the Torah reminds us that that choice isn’t only before us in moments of heightened intensity. That choice is present before us hayom – every day, every moment of every day. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the urgency of the choices we face now are the direct result of the collective choices – life and death, good and evil – that we as a society have made continually up to now, choices large and small, every moment, every day.

This assault on America  wasn’t committed only by one particular group of racist, anti-Semitic hate-filled people who one particular day descended on a particular town.  We are rightly shocked and disgusted to see such evil in human beings (chas v’shalom, God forbid we should fail to be shocked!), but we should not be remotely surprised to see it here in our beloved America.

This hatred – this evil — has been an ugly underbelly of our country since its founding. It is a hatred that in recent years, especially in this last election, was cynically and systematically stoked and nurtured – or simply given quarter — for political and financial gain.  Those who have done so (and continue to do so) are every bit as guilty as the madman who drove a car into a crowd of peaceful people protesting hate; they have blood on their hands. 

But we shouldn’t harbor any fantasies that that this evil is newly created, or alien to American culture.  If we have gotten this far in life with such delusions, we have been privileged indeed, and dare I say, willfully ignorant.  No, shocking as it is, what happened in Charlottesville was not only not surprising, it was predictable and predicted: it’s been a long time in the making, the expression of a congenital pathology within the body politic of this country that too many have ignored or minimized or denied for too long. 

That isn’t to say that the horror we witnessed reflects the majority of this country. White supremacists and Nazis are a small minority in America. I believe that the vast majority of Americans are decent people, and that the values of decent people, our values, genuine patriotism, will prevail.  But they will prevail if and only if the majority of decent Americans take responsibility for those times in our past and present when we as a society – through action and inaction, through words or silence — have chosen death over life, evil over good. They will prevail if and only if the majority of decent Americans – people like us — begin to make better choices.

What will those choices look like?  What does it mean to choose blessing, life and good?  As I said, the Torah presents these choices as a stark binary:  good/evil, right/wrong.  And sometimes it really is that clear-cut. In the face of hatred, lies, violence and evil, choosing blessing and good means speaking and acting on truth.

Hayom.  Today we must all abandon excuses, reject false equivalencies, and speak out clearly and unambiguously against hate.  There is no place for equivocation when it comes to the evil of white supremacists and Nazis, and “alt right” is a gross misnomer. They are not “alt right” — they are wholly and entirely wrong. 

This obligation to speak truth falls especially on those who wield power or authority of any kind.  Any public official who cannot clearly and unequivocally condemn white supremacists and Nazis as evil and un-American – or in any way defends it — forfeits his or her claim to governance of the American people.  It’s that simple.  Similarly, any religious group or clergy person who turns a blind eye and fails to speak against this hate – or God forbid, defends it — forfeits his or her claim to speak in the name of God.  

In that regard, it’s easy to point fingers at certain religious groups  – especially some within the Evangelical Christian community — who have a great deal of accounting to do.   But we are not exempt.  Too many Jewish groups and leaders looked the other way – either because of putative support for Israel, or because of money — as known white supremacists, or those with Nazi ties, populated the White House. We have to take responsibility for that selfishness.  As this recent statement by a group of Orthodox rabbis says so well:  “no amount of support for Israel can shield Bannon’s extremism. Nor can philo-Semitism excuse Presidential waffling on the basic moral values of America.”

And of course, the obligation to speak and act on truth isn’t limited to those in power. It’s up to all of us to challenge hate and evil whenever we see it.

And that means we must be  willing and able to see it. “Re’eh – see, I set before you today blessing and curse.” As Jews, most of us are pretty sensitive to anti-Semitism; we can easily identify and name it, however subtly expressed, and we advocate vociferously whenever we do. But I came across this week a wonderful wordplay:  “If I didn’t believe it in my own mind, I never would have seen it.”  It’s obviously a playful twist on the usual “if I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it,” but it speaks a deeper truth: what we don’t want to believe, we often don’t see.

Too many of us haven’t seen racism and other oppression because we haven’t wanted to believe it.  Re’eh. See. We must educate ourselves about the history of racism in this country and the way it manifests today, so that we can be as sensitive to racism in all forms as we are to anti-Semitism — equally effective in naming it, and equally vigorous in acting to stop it.  As we enter Elul and begin our spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days, our teshuvah this year should therefore include some personal work into the things we fail to see, and why:  how hard it is for us to acknowledge our privilege, how reluctant we are to work toward real systemic change because of the sacrifices those changes might involve.  And we must commit to being truthful with ourselves about our own biases, and our own denials of, or excuses for, racism and other prejudice.

But rejecting evil in this way isn’t enough. That’s the emphasis in our parashah:  destroy falsehood and false worship, restrain your impulses, don’t be seduced.  But the later text, in Nitzavim, stresses something else. “Choose life.” We have to actively choose good, actively choose life.  That’s often much harder, and more complicated, than simply rejecting evil.  How does one choose life, choose good?  The answer, really, is the whole program of Judaism – from Torah study, to prayer, to observance. It’s all training in how to choose good. 

But without being overly reductionist, the latter text in Deut. 30 contains an essential key:

See, I set before you today life and good, death and evil, for I command you today, to love (l’ahavah)…. (Deut. 30:15-16)

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse… choose life – if you and your offspring would live — by loving (l’ahavah)…. (Deut. 30:19-20)

The key is love.  In context, the love referred to is love for God.  But we can’t even begin to think about loving God without loving God’s creatures, God’s image – human beings.  To choose the good, to choose life, means actively choosing love.  It means working on expanding our capacity to love, stretching the range and depth of our compassion, and extending ourselves to express and act on those ever-growing capabilities.

There is a practical aspect to this. Love and compassion ought never excuse or deny the reality of evil, nor stop us from acting to protect ourselves and society from a very real threat. Hesed (love and compassion) exists always in relationship to Gevurah/Din (justice, judgment, law, limits, boundaries). Anger and judgment are sometimes necessary to limit and contain the impact of hate, and pave the way for justice. But neither anger nor judgment, and certainly not hate, can defeat hate. Only love and compassion can do that, by overpowering it, and where possible, by transforming and healing it.  It’s hard work, and it takes a long time.  It’s about building real, complicated relationships.  For love to defeat hate, love has to be a verb, not a feeling – one has to continually choose blessing, choose life, choose good, by stretching to understand the other, by bracketing self-interest, by compromising and connecting, by acknowledging our own errors, and by forgiving others, so all of us can change and grow.

An example:

Last Sunday, I invited you to a vigil taking place in Bridgehampton in solidarity with Charlottesville.  Thank you so much to those who came.  The vigil was not spectacularly well-attended, and truth be told, I found the content neither comforting nor inspiring.  But I found great comfort and inspiration in the process of how it came to be, and in the reason why the content was so limited.  You see, that day, the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreation Center was holding its long-planned inaugural “Bridgehampton Day” – a gathering to celebrate the Bridgehampton Community and its heritage, highlighting especially the largely black community in the neighborhood of the Center.  Realizing this, the organizers of the vigil changed their plans and their location and combined the vigil with Bridgehampton Day, so as not to compete or preclude the Center community from participating in the vigil.  As a result, the vigil itself was significantly less satisfying – less “successful” — than it might otherwise have been. We didn’t get to express much anger or fear or grief, we didn’t sing, the planned speeches (including mine) weren’t given, no potentially viral footage was created. What happened instead was far more important:  a community came together, met each other, respected each other, bent and changed and compromised for each other. All because a few individuals, on behalf of us all, did the quiet unglamorous work of weaving a strong social fabric. Because they chose love, and they chose good. The perfect response to hate.

A second example:

You probably heard the announcement Sunday that a large Rally in Washington for Racial Justice has been scheduled for September 30 – Yom Kippur. When the news broke, my Facebook feed erupted with the anguish of Jewish activists expressing hurt, anger, disappointment, frustration and sadness.  How could this be?  If ever there was a moment when we ought to understand that racism and anti-Semitism are inextricably intertwined – that we must stand together and support each other – surely it is now.  How could the organizers have chosen  a day which will preclude most Jews from participating?  But soon, years’-long investments in relationship-building by a handful of leaders on behalf of us all began to pay off.  Instead of nursing wounds and hurling accusations, there was dialogue – I’m told at times difficult — and soon the organizers of the rally issued a remarkable statement, explaining why the date was chosen, committing to finding ways for Jews to participate (the next day, if need be) and offering the following:

Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.

     After the horrifying events of the past weekend in Charlottesville, and the remarks by the President suggesting that “both sides” are to blame, we understand more than ever the need for unity against those who hate us in our many identities.  We have learned from our Jewish friends that Yom Kippur is a day of making amends and of asking and receiving forgiveness. We hope that our sincere apology will be received with compassion, and that we will build a stronger relationship among all our communities as a result.

What a powerful way to beat back hate.  And in addition to participating when the time comes, you can fight hate now by going to their website, thanking them for the apology, and reaffirming your commitment to standing and working together. Choose life, choose, good, choose blessing. Choose love.

And by the way, actively choosing love is not only the most effect response to hate, it’s also the most comforting; it’s the best antidote for fear and despair.  We feel comforted and uplifted when we’re the recipients of active love, and when we witness it.  We can do that for others.

But choosing life and good by choosing love is important not only because as a practical matter it’s more effective, or because it’s comforting. 

On the surface the Torah presents these choices – blessing and curse, good and evil – as clear- cut, and sometimes they are, as in the case of Nazis and white supremacists. But most often, our choices aren’t quite so clear.

Sometimes the right choice is unclear for external reasons. The situation is complicated, and we must inevitably make choices without full knowledge of their consequences.

Other times, the right choice is unclear because it lies only in the proper balancing of competing values, and navigating dialectic tensions.  What is the right measure, the right time, the right context for each side of the tension?  It’s not always easy to know.

And sometimes, the boundaries between blessing and curse, or good and evil, are blurred not because the situation is unclear, but because we are unclear.  “Do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death,” we learn in Pirkei Avot.  None of us can afford to be complacent about our own moral core; we are all vulnerable to moral confusion, compromise or cowardice when we’re frightened, when we’re defensive or embarrassed, when we’re angry or vengeful,  when the choice before us entails financial sacrifice, physical or emotional discomfort, or personal risks, or when we allow ourselves to hate.

So one of the most important ways that each and every one of us now can choose blessing, life, and good is by working on our own souls: consciously cultivating a clearer and stronger moral center, developing our capacity to ever more sensitively discern the good.  Actively choosing love is one of the best ways I know to do that.  Extending one’s self in love, opening one’s self in compassion, is the gym circuit for developing moral muscles. It clarifies and refines our ethical intuitions, and shores up our moral resolve. Hate distorts our conscience and our souls; it makes us confused, frightened and weak. But every time we extend ourselves in compassion and love, moving out of self-interest and self-concern to love, understand and care for another, we strengthen our capacity and courage to act on our deepest values, and to do – as we are told 3 times in this week’s reading — “what is right in God’s eyes.”

See, I set before you today blessing and curse. I hope and pray that we will one day look back and see this day as a time of great blessing, however disguised it may be – a turning point, the beginning of a collective accounting, a collective healing, a time when America reclaimed both truth and love.  The choice is ours.