Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Heritage Shabbat 2022
As we observe Rabbi Drooz’ yahrzeit, I’m mindful of how so many of us, myself included, didn’t know him. We know his portrait, and the influence he had on the congregation, but there are fewer and fewer individuals who had a chance to meet the ‘gentleman rabbi’, much less work with him. That doesn’t mean, however, that his rabbinate is somehow fading. His passions for justice and interfaith dialogue have lived on and continue in the work of Pacem in Terris, which he was a co-founder, in the Rabbi Speaks, the radio program that he participated in for over 50 years, and which continues today. In the work of this congregation, to be sure. And in places you don’t expect to find it. As I think I’ve mentioned before, it’s not unusual at Rotary meetings for someone to ask me which congregation I serve and then press a copy of the collected invocations Rabbi Drooz put together during his time, that they’ve carried since they themselves joined, and how much his words—usually in rhyme—inspired them.
One of the aspects of interfaith work that guided Rabbi Drooz and so many other rabbis throughout their time was the need for authentic dialogue, authentic relations. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the URJ, once wrote about how quickly interfaith dialogue devolves to pablum; afraid to discuss our differences, we emphasize our commonalities. Nothing wrong with that, at least on the surface, but so often such so-called dialogue leaves unfinished business on the table. Afraid of offense or real curiosity, we end up making nice small talk without really learning anything about each other, denying one another the opportunity be challenged and, therefore, grow. Not that he ever thought that we as Jews were more correct than those of any other religion, but he understood the importance of being honest about who we are and what we’re about, to facilitate real engagement with others. As he wrote in a sermon in the 1970s, “We who declare ourselves modernists reject the view that there is a Jewish mystique, a special essence or a superior soul that belongs to the Jew. We believe, rather, that Judaism, the religion of this particular people, because of its unusual history and experience, has developed a way of life and a system of moral values which can bring spiritual fulfillment to all who adhere to it and practice it.” Which is to say, our morals and values are tied to our history and experience, and not just incidental. Likewise, when we share, we want to truly share what makes us us.
Our desire for authentic dialogue is not just a desire for more engaging and meaningful conversation. It’s also growing out of a suspicion of those who look for a kind of tokenism; the Jewish voice that affirms even the most odious perspective, as if to act as insulation against accusations of bigotry. Sometimes this comes in the form of a minority individual (however defined) coming to the rescue of someone who has said or done something inappropriate, or who holds an antagonistic political perspective. Just this past week, at the Olympics, the Chinese government had a person of Uighur descent help light the Olympic Torch. It was meant to stymie accusations of ethnic cleansing against that Muslim minority population in China. But for many, it was a reminder of the story of Helene Mayer, a woman of Jewish descent who carried the Nazi German flag in the 1936 Olympics, allowing the regime to deflect accusations of Jew Hatred and totalitarianism. In other words, there was no authenticity to either of those gestures; only using the minority as a shield.
Similarly, look recently at the discussion of the banning of Maus in a Tennessee school district. As many have commented, Maus and books like it get replaced by other Holocaust books that center a non-Jewish narrative: for example, the story of a rescuer, or of a child who is shielded from what’s going on, resulting in a de-centering of a Jewish narrative that is often more raw and powerful, but also more painful and disturbing. Maus, Night, Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz and similar works deny non-Jewish readers the redemption and affirmation that they seek; they refuse to smooth over the rough edges. There is no real dialogue, no real attempt to understand the experience of the Shoah. Only to smooth over rough edges and force the narrative into one that is easy to contain. And if they’re doing that with our story, what are they doing with the story of the Black narrative of bigotry, or the LGBT+ narrative, or the non-white immigrant narrative, etc. For Rabbi Drooz and for us, the narrative, the engagement, must be fundamentally true. Otherwise, it’s just another way to avoid difficulties.
In our portion, as we read a moment ago, we are commanded to have a light burning perpetually, and the Midrash reminds us that this is a human statement, a symbol of God’s presence. It’s also a metaphor in our tradition for our own willingness to shine a light in the darkness of ignorance and injustice, and to rekindle that light perpetually and let it shine for all those who would seek the light. Rabbi Drooz kept that lamp burning, and it is also our task to do the same, reminding others of our authentic experience and story, and pushing for a more authentic and meaningful understanding. In these ways do we inspire others and are ourselves inspired to do that holy work of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. May it be so, amen.