A little over a year ago, we watched, horrified, as torch-wielding Neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, including “Jews will not replace us!” Since then, white supremacist violence has raged in ways most of us never thought we would see again in our lifetimes.
And then white supremacists told us they would march again, this time through the streets of our city. Though outnumbered, the hate was palpable.
I must admit that it feels almost absurd to give a sermon or try to teach Torah about white supremacy. For one – you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that Nazis are evil. And even more so, isn’t our time better spent mobilizing in response?
When this hatred rises, there have been, and will continue to be counter-protests, and teach-ins, and vigils. We will stand up for a vision of a world that affirms that humanity was created out of one being – adam harishon – the first human – so that no person could ever say: “my ancestors are better than yours.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
We will stand up for a vision of the world that says humanity was created out of the dust from every corner of the earth, so that no person could ever say: “the place I come from is better than the place you come from.” (Rashi on Gen. 2:7; Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer 11)
Hate will be confronted with love.
There will be a lot of love.
But there’s still a lot of hate.
What do we do with it?
In our weekday prayers, we pray for many things – justice, healing, forgiveness… it’s a long list. Among these requests is one asking for God to uproot evil. You won’t see it on the High Holidays, since we’re focusing more on repairing ourselves. But the traditional version of this prayer packs quite a punch, and doesn’t mince words when it comes to begging God to uproot wickedness:
For the slanderers let there be no hope,
And may all wickedness perish in an instant.
May all Your people’s enemies swiftly be cut down.
May You swiftly uproot, crush, cast down
and humble the arrogant speedily in our days.
Blessed are You, God, who destroys enemies and humbles the arrogant.
In the more liberal siddur of my childhood, this very specific idea of asking God to root out arrogant enemies plotting against Jews was toned down. It was the early 90s, a simpler time. It was the era of the Spice Girls, the theme song from Friends, and painless airport security. Reflecting the time, the prayer was a universalized plea for an end to evil for everyone:
Let there be no hope for wickedness,
and may all the errant return to You,
and may the realm of wickedness be shattered.
Blessed are You, God, the destroyer of evil from the world.
Enemies and arrogant slanderers became abstract ideas of “evil” and “the realm of wickedness” – Of course, these are still seen as bad things, but… it’s missing some of the punchiness. Absent are the very real evildoers and enemies of the other version.
And while the more liberal version imagines a path toward reconciliation, the traditional prayer doesn’t leave much room for forgiveness, with all the uprooting and crushing and destroying and humbling and casting down.
Maybe the idea of praying for the downfall of your enemies makes you squirm a little. Jewish tradition, after all, records that God wept even at the deaths of Pharaoh and the Egyptians as they drowned in the Red Sea. (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b & Sanhedrin 39b) If God cried at the destruction of our uber-enemy, how can we be so vindictive, even today?!
That’s a compelling vision of love in the face of hatred. But I have to admit… I do want white supremacists and Nazis and anti-Semites to be eradicated.
I’d like to think that I believe in a God who is loving and compassionate and understanding enough to accept true teshuvah – repentance.
But I’m honestly not certain if I could forgive the armed Nazis who tormented my friends and colleagues as they fled their Charlottesville, Virginia synagogue on a warm Shabbat morning last year.
I am not entirely ashamed to admit that when the Nazi Richard Spencer was filmed getting punched in the face, I grinned. I, like many, googled: “is it okay to punch a Nazi?”
And I’m honestly not sure if I could open my heart to the white supremacist who plowed his car into Heather D. Heyer last year, murdering a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised.
I do want these evildoers to be uprooted, crushed, and cast down. And soon.
I do want an end to this arrogance.
And make no mistake – Nazi, anti-Semitic, white supremacy is the foulest manifestation of arrogance.
These evildoers have the temerity to say to others: “My soul is better than yours.” That it is somehow more deserving of love and life and peace. As if the God who created all of humanity in the Divine image make such distinctions. As if the God who we describe as full of compassion – El Maleh Rachamim – hasn’t imbued each and every one of us – equally – with a spark of holiness.
Nazi white supremacists arrogantly believe they are the ones who have the “right” view of the world. And not the Creator of all life.
I think this is why I now have trouble with the universal prayer of my childhood.
It’s true that you don’t have to believe in the God of every single prayer. When we pray, we’re not just speaking about one idea, we’re participating in a conversation with people from faraway times and places (thanks to my friend and liturgy-wonk, David Wilensky for articulating this idea).
But there isn’t some abstract, ghost-like wickedness wandering the earth that I hope God will magically eradicate, if I were to just pray hard enough. There are real human beings with evil ideas, who march through the streets with a message of hatred.
And here’s the thing – if all we believe in is an abstract, universalized idea of evil, we lose the ability to assign responsibility and to do something about it. Particularly at a time when hatred of Jews is minimized, when others gloss over the images of Hitler and the chanting of “Jews will not replace us,” we must ensure these dangers are not ignored.
We need to be able to point and say: “those who believe that some are more deserving than others of love and peace and kindness and safety are exactly who is meant when our prayers speak of the wicked, the arrogant, and the slanderers.” This unrepentant hatred is the enemy of the God who is full of compassion.
A robust freedom of speech is one thing, but there should be no room for Nazis or white supremacists to march in the streets without being named for what they are: hatemongers desecrating the name of God.
There are some who advocate ignoring these rabble-rousers, in the hopes that they are just childish agitators who will eventually go away without an audience. I understand this inclination. We have to do all we can to avoid a cycle of agitation. But I also believe we must not let this brand of hatred go unchecked. Judaism is not so much a religion of “turn the other cheek.” We have permission to be angry, upset, even aggressive. We need to be able to name this kind of behaviour as a chilul haShem– a violation of God’s sacred name – in the streets and in our prayers.
And doing so requires a willingness to hold two beliefs together that seem to be in tension:
One: that God is an overwhelming source of compassion, love, and patience, willing to forgive even some of the worst transgressions – if we make teshuvah.
And two: that God demands righteousness ourselves, and the ability to cry out when we see transgressions of that responsibility. This requires explicitly naming violations of God’s love.
Because God doesn’t want us to just believe in an idea of goodness. God wants us to be good. “What does God want of us,” the prophet Micah asks? To love mercy, but also to do and to make justice. To act with goodness. (Micah 6:8)
God doesn’t want us to just believe in an idea of love. God wants us to love each other with fierceness, each and every day. Particularly in the face of hatred: “You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge,” the Torah shouts out: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
But how is it possible to love, while at the same time hating evil and begging God to eradicate it from the earth?
Two thousand years ago, a rabbi named Meir lived with his wife, Bruriah. Their neighbourhood was plagued by evil hooligans, rebel-rousers who tormented Meir and Bruriah. Outraged at the hatred directed at them, Meir prayed for God to kill his enemies.
But Bruriah, his wife, didn’t counter hate with destruction. She said to him: “What are you thinking?! Don’t pray for the destruction of the transgressors themselves, but for their transgressions.” Brurirah, the story says, quoted the Bible to her husband (an audacious act for a woman 2,000 years ago!). She taught him that instead of praying for God to destroy the wicked, he should pray for God to have compassion on them, that they should repent. As the story goes, this is exactly what happened. (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 10a)
Our anger at the hatred of others is real and valid. It’s often precisely becausewe believe that all human beings are worthy of love and compassion that we get so angry when people violently and arrogantly say otherwise.
And it’s true that our tradition contains “prayers [that ask] God to do horrible and unimaginable things to [our] enemies.” (Victor Hamilton, Exodus, 425) It is full of validation of anger toward the hatred of others. “O God, You know I hate those who hate You,” cries out the Psalmist. “I feel a perfect hatred toward [your adversaries]; I count them my enemies.” (Psalms 139:21-22)
But our tradition also has the opposite voice: that of Bruriah’s. To counter hatred with love. To respond by aspiring to God’s compassion.
Judaism offers us a vision that is both optimistic and comforting, yet overwhelmingly challenging: the Jewish response to the hatred – no matter how painful – is not to pray for the destruction of others – as real and as valid as this inclination may feel at times.
But neither is it to live in a naïve fairy tale where evil is abstracted so far as to remove all meaning and sense of reality.
Rather, the Jewish response is to create more room for teshuvah; more room for empathy and love, more room for God’s compassion.
This was the response of Sarah Silverman – yes, that Sarah Silverman – who, when trolled on Twitter, instead of succumbing to hatred and name-calling, engaged Christian Picciolini, a once avowed Neo-Nazi leader with thoughtfulness. It worked. And now, he offers this wisdom: “Find someone who’s undeserving of your compassion and give it to them because they’re the ones that need it the most.”
This was the response that changed the life of Shannon Martinez, a Neo-Nazi. She shares: “a woman… extended compassion to me when I didn’t feel like I deserved it at all… By extending that compassion… it allowed me the space to shift and begin to look at my life.”
And this was the response of Bruriah, who instead of sitting back while others prayed for destruction, stepped up, and envisioned a world with more room for God’s compassion.
This is the hard work of being a reasonable, kind person today. Anger is okay – there are a lot of things to be angry about. But we have to not succumb to the depths of anger, transforming it into trolling hatred and destruction.
Rupi Kaur, the Indian-Canadian poet distills this deceptively simple idea:
To hate / is an easy lazy thing.
But to love takes strength / everyone has / but not all are willing to practice.
We have to search for goodness and take every opportunity to share love.
What then, to do with our prayer about hating wickedness, and asking God to destroy evil? The more I have thought about it; the more I have turned to those – like Bruriah, like Sarah Silverman – who advocate for love in the face of hatred… the more I have come to realize that when we pray to God to eradicate evil and evildoers from the world, we’re not asking God to vindictively punish them. We’re not asking God to magically strike them down with lightning. That’s not the God I believe in.
What we’re really doing is reminding ourselves that this behaviour is not a part of the great world we imagine God wants us to build. We’re attuning ourselves to an awareness of the proper order of the universe. We’re cultivating in ourselves an awareness of God’s compassion, and a practice of defining the world we want to build, naming the obstacles, and considering our own responsibilities.
Chloé Valdary, an African-American writer and activist, wrote after Charlottesville last year:
I was taught that if someone white makes assumptions about me or my people, the proper response is not to go around making assumptions about them… The proper response to prejudice is not to treat our close-minded neighbors as though they weren’t human; that is how they have treated us. It is precisely because I love myself that I refuse to hate another.
My parents embraced me and told me it was O.K. to be angry. They told me that this was a part of our past that we should always remember, but that one of its many lessons was to make sure to treat others equally — even if they did not respond in turn…
This is how I choose to understand the men and women who chanted ‘white power’ in Virginia. Hearing those words is deeply painful for me as a black woman, but it is so much worse for the broken people chanting them.
Chloé Valdary challenges us:
Do [we] have the courage and conviction to look the hateful monsters in the eye and offer a love so radical that it reminds them their hatred does not define them? That they can be greater than this if they so choose?
This is the hardest thing to do — and what I believe we have to do if we are to heal…
Do we want less hate and more love in the world? Then by all means, be morally outraged by the hatred of others. But don’t stop there – that’s the flaw. It’s a false dichotomy to suggest that we can only either be angry or loving.
I think what I’ve been searching for all along is a prayer that acknowledges this. That does not minimize the anger that so many people feel today, but still upholds the transformative power of love.
I’ve been looking for a prayer that is neither a fundamentalist plea for destruction, nor a naively kumbaya fantasy. What I want is an idea that lifts us up to God’s holy vision of what we can be; that acknowledges the messy, complicated state of the world, and inspires us to do something about it.
So here it is:*
Judaism tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. But not all neighbours are loveable. There are those who have done real harm. It is okay to feel pain, sadness, anger, and anxiety.
May we remember that evil can reside and take hold in any of us, so may we have the strength to confront it openly and honestly wherever we find it.
May we find the resilience in ourselves and others to keep doing whatever part we can in our little corner of a big, sometimes scary, world.
May we be okay with the pain we feel caused by the slowness of justice for all.
And while we desire a world of justice now, may we find patience, because we know the fight is long and arduous.
Hopelessness is a luxury forbidden to us. May our hope never run out.
*I asked on Facebook for people to submit their own prayers and pleas in light of the focus of this sermon. These words are edited from their submissions.