Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Vayishlach 5783
Galit and Samson, what insightful, important divrei Torah you’ve given this morning. I am so impressed with both of you on this day you become bnei mitzvah.
I feel that the fear in this parasha and the wrestling imagery and the anticipated confrontation fits the American Jewish experience of this week and this month very well. This is going to be my third sermon on antisemitism in five weeks. That’s a record.
Just to give you a sense of what has come across my rabbinic field of vision in the last week:
- As most people know, just before Thanksgiving, Donald Trump had dinner with Kanye West who has been spewing antisemitism, and the fascist, white nationalist, Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes. This week, Kanye and Nick Fuentes were on Infowars with Alex Jones where Kanye was praising Hitler. With 65 million followers, Kanye West influences four times as many people in the world as there are Jews in the world.
- This week, I met with parents at a public elementary school where swastikas were cut into trees and the principal of the school was refusing to address antisemitism with the community (and didn’t take the swastikas down for three weeks)
- I heard from two congregants this week about the hundreds of men in the group called Black Israelites who are now standing outside of Barclays Center every day in defense of Kyrie Irving, alternately saying that the Holocaust didn’t happen or that it did happen but it was a good thing, that we Jews are the spawn of the devil and are not the real Jews but that Black people are the real Jews and now that there’s an awakening to that fact, Jews are going to become slaves. This is happening a 20 min walk from here.
- I heard from a CBE member who is in college, a brilliant young woman who is very progressive and highly critical of Israel, but is finding that if she joins progressive student groups,she has to prove that she’s an antiZionist and cannot complain if people are antisemitic; and if she joins the pro-Israel students, she’s not allowed to criticize the occupation or the Israeli government.
- Yesterday one of the suspects who was arrested two weeks ago for planning a violent attack on a New York synagogue was let out on bail.
- An AP reporter called me this week to ask if I think that Jews will be safe in America in the future. Apparently another writer for Vanity Fair will be interviewing me on the same question next week.
- I was asked to participate in the Shine a Light on Antisemitism event in Times Square with the mayor and the governor, because we at CBE and our friends at Antioch Baptist Church are apparently the only synagogue and black church in the city who are actively working together on racism and antisemitism.
- Our state senator, Zellnor Myrie, asked for our guidance for his statement on antisemitism in Brooklyn and asked if we could strategize together on deed theft a problem I’ll say a little more about later.
- I had a long talk with the mayor’s faith liaison, Gil Monrose, about gathering Black and Jewish clergy in dialogue with the hope that one outcome would be a statement from Black clergy in New York against the Holocaust and against antisemitism.
That is all just this week.
Before I get into the parasha and what we need to do about this situation, let me just define antisemitism a bit, because there’s so much confusion around it. Antisemitism is a set of conspiracy theories – lies – about Jewish people. You know how you taught us, Galit, that when things go wrong people look for someone to blame? And when you don’t know who to blame, you sometimes end up blaming the wrong people? For more than 2,000 years, the world has been blaming the Jewish people for things that go wrong, and it’s become a habit. But the thing about habits is that even though it’s hard to break them, every habit has a starting point. And if you can understand how the habit got started, you have more ability to break it. That’s why I’m teaching the book AntiJudaism by David Nirenberg every Shabbat after services here in the sanctuary starting on January 7th. Because it is a history book of antisemitic ideas, documenting exactly how and why each of the major lies about Jews got started.
Part of what’s confusing about antisemitism is that it isn’t just one idea – it’s a bunch of different ideas that keep changing because people blame Jews for whatever they don’t like. For example, in this country when the world was in a Cold War between capitalism and communism, and being loyal to America was being capitalist, Jews were called commies and were blamed for communism. Now that a lot of people think that unregulated capitalism and extreme wealth are some of the biggest problems in the world, Jews are seen as capitalists in possession of illegitimate wealth. The same pattern is true for nationalism and colonialism – when they were popular in Europe, no one associated them with Jews. Now that they’re seen as evils in the world, Jews are portrayed as the most egregious perpetrators of them both through the State of Israel. Israel is an expression of Jewish nationalism (and I believe that Jewish nationalism has become excessive and dangerous). We can argue about whether Israel is a colonialist project (I would say no it is not, because Jews are indigenous in that land). Regardless Jewish people are not the primary force behind, or representatives of, either nationalism or colonialism. Let’s remember that North and South America, all of Africa, almost all of Asia, and all of the Middle East were colonized by non-Jewish Europeans, who also, by the way, started nationalism.
In addition, lately we’ve heard a lot of claims that Jews were responsible for the African slave trade. Now, there were Jews involved in the slave trade, and that is shameful, but the vast majority of people running the slave trade were not Jewish. Jews were not responsible for the slave trade, just like there were Jewish communists and certainly there are Jewish capitalists, but Jews are not the cause or driving force of either communism or capitalism.
So here’s the main point. If a Jewish person or a Jewish country does something bad, you should say “a person did something bad”, “that country did something bad.” Not “that’s what Jews are like,” or “that’s who Jews are,” or “this whole societal or global problem is all the fault of Jewish people.” You see the difference?
Now to the Torah. When our parasha opens, Jacob is afraid because he’s about to encounter Esau. In his prayer to God asking for help, he says “Katonti mi kol hahasadim v’kol haemet.” I’ve always seen this as a moment of humility from Jacob, who is saying to God, “I am too small for all of the goodness you’ve bestowed upon me.” That’s how it’s usually translated and understood. But Art Green reads it differently and more literally. He hears Jacob saying to God, “I have been made small by all of the goodness you’ve bestowed upon me.” In other words, Jacob is saying, “I haven’t had to grow because you’ve made things so good for me. It’s kept me small. And now it’s time for me to grow.” Maybe we can relate to this right now as American Jews. We’ve had it good and relatively easy in America. It’s enabled us to become small, meaning, to not make a big deal about our Judaism, to not make a fuss, to not be “too Jewish”, to blend in and succeed amazingly. And maybe now it’s time to grow.
Because we’ve got wrestling to do. Big wrestling to do.
Samson and Galit, you both talked about Jacob wrestling with himself. Did anyone notice that when Donald Trump had dinner with Nick Fuentes and Kanye West, the leadership of Orthodox Jewry and other Republican Jewish leaders were silent? At first, neither the Orthodox Union nor Agudas Yisrael criticized Donald Trump for that dinner. A number of people worked hard to persuade them to make a statement against Trump dining with Nazis. For days, they were highly reluctant to criticize him. It took a lot of work behind the scenes but eventually they turned on him and spoke out. It should not have been hard for the leaders of Orthodox Jewry or for any leaders in the Jewish world to denounce a former president and current presidential candidate dining with Nazis. This is a measure of how lost a portion of the Jewish world is right now. They have allowed uncritical loyalty to the Israeli government to become the sole test and measure of loyalty to the Jewish people, so much so that they have tolerated fascists, white nationalists, Nazis, and other open antisemites. It is a measure of ideological corruption and decay among our people that is shocking, deplorable, and indefensible. We have got to face this. This is the kind of wrestling with ourselves that is necessary right now.
As you both pointed out, Galit and Samson, many commentators imagine that Jacob was wrestling with a guardian angel of Esau, that he was in some sense wrestling with the other – the opposition, one who wants to do him harm. There are people out there right now who are speaking terrible lies about us, some of whom want us dead. There are many more people out there who are being influenced, who are hearing lies and don’t know what to think. And there are many people out there who know us and love us and will stand by us no matter what. We are a tiny minority in the world. We will always need, and be interdependent with, the other. We will always need to be in relationship with non-Jews. Rabbeinu Bahya points out that the verb here to wrestle vaye’avek is related to the verb chabek, to embrace. There’s not that much difference between wrestling and embracing, and one can lead to the other.
When it comes to Black-Jewish relations, a starting place in this wrestling and embracing is to remember that we are overlapping communities. Black Jews make up an important part of the Jewish community. And then we need to remember that we are living in a country decisively shaped by the enslavement of Black people and the caste system that grew out of it. The two most important elements to keep in mind are that the extraction of Black wealth is both historic and ongoing through things like deed theft right here in Brooklyn, and that Black people are consistently cast as criminals. One of the primary antisemitic conspiracy theories is that Jews are wealth extractors, a stereotype that predates the Black-Jewish relationship but hits a nerve in Black history and experience. To complicate matters, a disproportionate number of Jews have been and are engaged in deed theft in Brooklyn, meaning taking Black people’s houses illegally. What I said to Pastor Waterman, our friend at Antioch Baptist Church is, when that happens we should all denounce it together and say: “the people who did that are bad people,” not “that’s what Jews are like”. And when Black people say antisemitic things, if white Jewish people treat them like criminals and call for punishments, like just happened with Kyrie Irving, we are perpetuating systemic racism and not facilitating learning or intergroup understanding. Instead, our stance ought to be: “that thing you said was bad, let me explain why.” Better yet, by building relationships of trust with our Black friends and allies, they should say that on our behalf.
In the Torah, the wrestling between Jacob and Esau did lead to embrace between the brothers, and tears and kisses and forgiveness and seeing each other’s faces as if they were the face of God. I believe that’s possible for us too.
And finally, we wrestle with God, who made us Jews. Did You mean it to be this hard, God? We know we have become too small in our Jewishness. For a lot of us, it hasn’t been high on our priority list. We’ve been trying to provide for our families, to contribute our gifts to the world, to heal human society of its many forms of injustice, and to find a new way to live on the earth so our grandchildren will have a future. A lot of us don’t even believe in You, God, at least not in the ways that our ancestors articulated it, so we come into Your sanctuaries and wonder whether we really belong here. We kind of have one foot out the door. And because we haven’t really been challenged as a people in a long time, we haven’t had to claim being Jewish with our whole hearts and minds and souls.
We haven’t had to determine what we ourselves– each of us– absolutely love and are proud of about being Jewish– for a lot of people it’s not going to be prayer – or even Torah – but we each have to find something we love about being Jewish because it is who we are. It could be Jewish literature or history or comedy, it could be holidays and family and community – but it has to be something, so that we walk through the world with our heads up high about the brilliant, creative tradition we come from, and so that we feel real love and affection for our own people.
It is time for us to grow bigger, Jewish people.
So we can say wholeheartedly: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam SheAsani Yisrael. Blessed are You Adonai, our God, sovereign of the universe, for making me a Jew.