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January 10, 2020

Rabbi Robinson

“Safety is for the Godless and the faithless.” It’s one of my favorite quotes by Jewish writer, Elizabeth Wurtzel, who died this past week at the age of 52 from breast cancer. The author of Prozac Nation, among other books and essays and articles, she was both the infant terrible of the writing world and a major voice of Generation X, my generation. As David Samuels wrote in her obituary in Tablet magazine this week, “Lizzie was maddening, annoying… arrogant and self-obsessed. She needed to show that she was smarter than everyone else in any room, which she nearly always was. She was an unbelievably talented writer who made millions of people feel less lonely.” She had this attitude, this idea, that our existence is fundamentally fragile and unsafe and yet incandescently bright. As Jim Freed, her husband, wrote, her highs were higher than other people’s, just like her lows were lower. She knew how precious it is to feel anything at all.

In many ways, her voice speaks to this moment in history. We reel from the latest news from the forever war. We stand shocked—shocked but not surprised—by the news throughout the holiday of Chanukah and beyond of antisemitic attacks in New York and beyond, and we struggle and rage seeing the Facebook posts of a local politician diving head-first into anti-Jewish screeds.

Last Sunday, of course, there was a rally against antisemitism in New York and other places, which got meager attention in the national media. The leaders of the various Jewish organizations stood up and spoke out against the hate that is especially afflicting the Orthodox community: students assaulted on buses, women slapped in the street, men walking into Chabad headquarters threatening to shoot someone, and another fellow dashing into a rabbi’s home to slash at anyone in reach with a machete, among the many other assaults on our people. Politicians and the police have said all the right things. But so much of the response has been…predictable. The race to politicize these acts of Jew hatred started immediately; members of the current administration suggested that issue with the machete attacker was that his parents were immigrants. Liel Liebowitz called for the end of bail reform in New York in reaction to the man’s rampage. Left wing organizations made grand statements against antisemitism, but immediately added anti-Islamic hatred, as if embarrassed to talk about our own pain, our own suffering. We’d much rather rush to the barricades to combat racism and sexism and homophobia than mention our own needs for support.

Wurtzel herself had something to say about this kind of typical liberal Jewish response to Jew hatred, which is to try to explain and understand it. Not to justify it per se, but to try to see things from the perspective of the person out to get us. In a 2009 article in the Guardian, she writes, “Because trying to see all sides…such an instinct is particularly Jewish…we are always trying in our even, level, thoughtful way to see reason in the behavior of those who are lobbing rocket grenades at us. As a people, we are hopeless Talmudists, we examine all the arguments and try to sort out an answer.” In many ways, I’m reminded of a joke the Holocaust scholar and writer Deborah Lipstadt uses, quoting Irvin Berlin, that the anti-Semite is the person who hates Jews more than is necessary.

So, what are we to do in this moment? To be sure it is not the same as previous moments of antisemitic hostility; it is unique, as all moments are unique, and it is different from other folks’ experiences of bigotry in our country. But that uniqueness does not make it any less dangerous for us as a people.

I think Wurtzel, in her approach to life, had it right. The world is big and fragile and meant to be embraced fully without apology. Therefore, we need to respond without apology. First and foremost, that means calling out Jew Hatred every single time. Every. Single. Time. Strangers. Even our friends. Perhaps especially our friends. The aggressions to be sure: the explicit, overt expressions of hate that sometimes show up when people think no one is looking, but the so-called microaggressions as well. The “innocent” joke or the excuse made for the local politician, or the attempt to say that Jewish suffering isn’t the same thing, that the person speaking isn’t a Nazi, as if the only threshold for antisemitism is shooting up a synagogue. This week I was invited to speak at a rally on Saturday morning by a progressive clergy colleague, one I’ve worked with before. Shabbat morning. Before, I might have made apologies and excuses. This time, I made it clear that it was inappropriate and othering of us. I did it politely, and with appreciation for the person, but we need to be clear, without apology, that this is a line that cannot be crossed, and if it makes the moment uncomfortable, so be it. Better to have one uncomfortable conversation than allow someone to justify what they say or post, which may lead to violence.

We must call out hatred, but that’s not enough. We must also live our Jewish lives unapologetically. No, the world is not safe, and never has been. But hiding kippot under baseball caps and making excuses won’t make us any safer. Nor will it make our experience of Judaism any more joyful. We must live our Judaism out loud, proudly, and not as a reaction to the anti-Semite, but because we authentically love our Judaism and know that it has something of value to say to the world. The day after the attack in the rabbi’s home in New York, the community gathered in celebration as they dedicated a new Torah scroll. And, a few days later, 90,000 Jews gathered at Metlife Stadium to celebrate the end of the study of the complete Talmud. Both events were marked with dancing and singing and celebrating. We should learn from that and make clear that our values and our traditions are to be rejoiced and shared, not hidden away.

Safety is for the godless and the faithless. We are living in a time when our people are under threat. Now is not the time to go into hiding, to go underground. Now is not the time to hide our pain, or our joys. Now is the time to be maddening to those around us, and for our Judaism to be an incandescently bright light in the face of darkness. May this be so. Amen.