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Friday, 23 February 2018

The Consolidation of Evil sermon, Shabbat Zachor 2018

One of the things I used to love about Star Wars as a child was it very clearly defined good and evil. Darth Vader – dark and forboding, face covered by a mask, was evil. Luke Skywalker, wearing a white outfit, was good. Yes, it blurred the lines somewhat, and by the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader tried to atone for everything he had done, we understood that good people can become bad and that bad people can become good. Nonetheless, a polarized system of good and evil was clearly established. You either fought for good, or for evil. That’s very comforting, especially during childhood, because it makes the world a much easier place to live in. It makes morality a simple on/off exercise of either being righteous or being wicked.

The play Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand, ends in a similar way. In his final speech, Cyrano rallies against compromise. Cyrano didn’t see the world with nuance, he saw black and white, right and wrong. I lapped it up as a teenager, propelled as I was at the time into a confusing world. Such things were comforting. Perhaps that’s even part of the reason why Judaism appealed to me so much at that time as well. The Bible certainly contains nuance in terms of interpretation, but in terms of morality, not so much. There’s God’s way and then there’s the wrong way. You’re either for God or you’re not.

Shabbat Zachor is the epitome of that. The Shabbat before Purim, we read from two scrolls – one for the weekly Torah reading and one to read of Amalek. Remember what Amalek did to you, we read. The connection with Purim is because the Book of Esther (3:1) says that Haman was a descendant of Agag, which was the name of the King of Amalek. To quote Aish HaTorah’s commentary on this, “Haman’s desire to wipe out the Jewish people was an expression of his long-standing national tradition.” Indeed, they say that “Amalek attacked the Jews out of pure hatred – Amalek lived in a distant land and was under no imminent threat.” In other words, Jews good, Amalekites evil. It’s really a very simple system of morality.

With such a mindset, of course, one can excuse all sorts of horror because it’s done in the name of righteousness. So, ethnic cleansing – which is basically what Torah commands of the ancient Israelites as they go into the land – is seen as a righteous endeavor. The consolidation of evil into one convenient package outside of the self carries with it the potential for evil itself.  It also makes dialogue virtually impossible. Midrash tells us that when Esau was getting old he called his grandson Amalek and told him that he was unable to kill Jacob but now he entrusted the mission of exterminating them to him and to his descendants. It’s actually a disturbing story because it means that anyone descended from Amalek is immediately assumed to be a potential murderer of Jews. Politically, this has carried into modernity, with repeated references by Israeli right-wingers to Palestinians being descendants of Amalek. The consolidation of evil dehumanizes, which in turn leads to the potential acts of evil I mentioned before.

Aish HaTorah’s commentary is explicit in the difference between Jews and Amalekites. It quotes Talmud’s response to Amalek, particularly one word – Amalek happened (or in Hebrew, karcha) upon you (Deut. 25:18). It explains that word means coincidence, so Amalek is associated with randomness and subjective thought, while being a Jew means believing in absolutes. Life doesn’t happen by chance, as Amalekites think, but rather everything happens because God wills it. There are consequences to this kind of thinking. If you believe that God determines everything, then great, you’re good. But if you don’t, if you dare to think that God doesn’t control all and that sometimes bad things just happen, then even if you don’t intend to kill Israelites, you’re still basically acting or at least thinking like an Amalekite. This is taking things even further, from judging an entire people according to their deeds to know judging them by their thoughts, even if they haven’t expressed them!

Amalek therefore became the symbol of human evil in Judaism. Torah and then Talmud consolidate evil into one people who, most importantly, they felt were still amongst them. Was Haman Amalek? Was Rome Amalek? Were the Crusaders Amalek? Was Hitler Amalek? Basically, anyone who opposed Judaism was connected in their evil behavior.

I have a number of profound difficulties with this. Firstly, Judaism firmly believes in teshuvah, in returning to God, or repentance. It believes that no-one is born wicked and that everyone has free will. And yet at the same time, it holds that the descendants of Amalek not only act in certain ways, but even think in certain ways. It essentially shuts off any possibility of atonement for anyone descended from Amalek.

A second difficulty is the blatant racism of it. Sure, differing cultures around the world view the world differently, their understanding of reality and of humanity is different. But the very idea that there is one race of people who are hell-bent on evil is textbook racism. Our traditional was profoundly racist. Does that mean we’re bound to its racism? Of course not, but we have to acknowledge that millions of Jews around the world who take it literally feel that they are bound to that code of ethics and aren’t even aware that it is racism.

A third difficult with this is that it gives permission to call anyone evil. Sure, there are evil people in this world, and indeed a majority of people in one nation can be led to evil without even realizing it. We have seen this in recent history. But the idea of Amalek is insidious because it means that anyone can be accused without any potential recourse. Once someone is labeled a descendant of Amalek, there is no potential defence that they can provide for their actions. Whatever they say is an Amalekite lie.

A fourth difficulty is that over time Amalek transcended nationalism and in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox became a tool for internal Jewish intolerance. As Aish HaTorah state on their website, “in describing the actual battle with Amalek, the Torah says: "When Moses raised his hand, Israel was stronger. And when Moses lowered his hand, Amalek was stronger" (Exodus 17:11). Moses' raised hands symbolize the Jews raising their eyes heavenward in a commitment to God and Torah. "When Moses' hands are lowered" ― i.e. the Jewish people take a secular approach to life ― then we lose. It is a direct inverse proportion: Turning away from God automatically causes Amalek to rise, and vice-versa.” What do they mean by this? If you are Orthodox, you are with God. If you’re not, you’re Amalek. This isn’t an appreciation of the nuance of progressive spirituality, I read this as a declaration of non-Orthodox Jewish communities not only turning from God, but being as evil as those who would destroy us.

There is evil in the world. There is evil in this country. There are people who do evil things. There are people who were raised to be hateful and violent. We dare not deny the existence of evil. But consolidating evil and then accusing entire peoples or groups of being inherently and unchangeably evil or indeed of being descendants of evil-doers with a continued evil mission… that is a different thing. That is, perhaps, an evil thing in and of itself. I get that this country is extremely polarized at the moment, and that individuals are groups have deliberately been creating such a society for years. And I think we should call out individuals, or even organizations, that cause harm. But we must at the same time be aware of when we’re consolidating evil merely because it makes it easier for us to address a situation, because pointing the finger is far easier than the difficult discussions and compromises with people with whom we profoundly disagree that are necessary to bring about social change.

 One of the reasons I am proud to be a Reform Jew is because I am entitled to think in a modern way, and I am not theologically or philosophically bound to thinking in divisive ways that disparage entire peoples, or that can be used to basically call anyone who disagrees with me evil. Ultimately, when two sides of a profound disagreement both feel entitled to call each other Amalek, then the term ceases to have any meaningful value at all, other than to continue hatred.

So, this Shabbat Zachor, I’ll remember Amalek. Not as a hate-filled people who went out of their way to attack the Israelite people, because that literally makes no sense militarily or politically. Instead, I’ll remember Amalek as a creation of Torah, as a way of thinking about others that immediately brands them as evil, and it is that Amalek that I shall try to blot out from the face of the earth.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Why I Wish There Were a Hell

This sermon was delivered on 16th February 2018, after another massacre in a school, this time in Florida.

In my youth, I used to believe in heaven and hell. How could I not? Everything I read said that there was a heaven, and the natural corollary to heaven in Western culture is hell. I believed that when a person died they lived on in some other way. My 5-year old son said exactly that to me in the car the other day. As I became more aware of evil, I didn’t know of the Rabbinic concept of Gehinnom, a cleansing place, so I just thought that if good people go to one place, bad people must go to another. So, I essentially picked up on the idea of hell. Over time, my belief in an other-worldy hell disappeared before my belief in an other-worldly heaven did. What kept it going for a while was the old story that heaven looks just like hell, where everyone has long spoons to eat from a shared pot, but that in heaven the people use the spoons to feed each other while in hell they try to feed themselves with the impossibly long spoons, and fail. That was cute. In time, Gehinnom became a far more appealing theological position for me – the idea that except for the utterly wicked, whose souls are immediately destroyed, everyone goes through a period of cleansing before moving onto Gan Eden, the eternal, peaceful afterlife. That accorded with my understanding at the time that God is a God of love, who wants us to be righteous, who wants to share the Divine glory with us.

This week, after the mass murder in Florida, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the URJ, wrote a piece about how God cries with us over the senseless slaughter of children. I found no comfort in it. Maybe because I didn’t cry because I’m desensitized to this, as most of us are. We’re shocked and deeply saddened, and terrified for our own children, but in the face of such regular slaughter, we’ve had to at least partially numb ourselves to it. If God is a supernatural Deity, if God is conscious, does God really cry over this? If so, does God spend all day every day in tears at the senseless violence humanity inflicts on itself every single moment? Does God lament creating this world, or creating humanity?

In Parshat Noach, God becomes sick of the violence. It nauseates God.  “The Eternal saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised in the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. So the Eternal regretted that God had made humanity on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. The Eternal said, “I will blot out from the earth the people whom I created – people together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Gen. 6:5-7)

We tend to view that vengeful God as antiquated, but I must admit, right now, I crave it. I need it. If there is a Supernatural Deity, part of me hopes that God is on the brink of wiping out this disgusting, failed experiment and only holding back because of a promise made to Noah to not do so again. The events of this week make me wish that there were a hell. Everyone who takes money that blinds them to act, that allows them to turn away when other people’s children are regularly slaughtered, I wish there were a hell for such people. Not Gehinnom, not a place that cleanses them of their sins and then allows them to sit next to the righteous in heaven. I wish there were a place where they suffer for eternity.

It pains me that I don’t believe in that. It pains me because it means I have to face the reality that those who sit idly by face no consequences in this world or the next. I think back to Jean Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, in which three individuals end up in hell, which is each other. No fire and brimstone, no torture, other than each other’s company. Through that play, Sartre was trying to suggest that other people are our own hell, that essentially hell can be here on earth, but I can’t agree. I don’t think the people who deserve hell even give a damn. I think they are mentally impervious to this. I think their lust for power at all cost totally blinds them to this repetitive suffering. And moreover, they know that many of them are still likely to hold onto power even when the masses have a chance to change the political landscape. They are immune from hell, especially the hell that others have to go through because of their own inaction, and knowing that makes me nauseous.  I yearn for Divine justice and none comes.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites building the Sanctuary so that God may dwell among them. After the Tabernacle, the Temple was built to house God’s Presence. That was destroyed and then the Second Temple brought God’s Presence among the people once more. Since that was destroyed, God’s immediate Presence has not been with humanity. I would suggest that until the wholesale and repetitive slaughter of people, particularly children, is ended in our society, it would be impossible for God to dwell among us. I would go so far as to say that it would be offensive for us to suggest that God could currently dwell among us, or would even want to.  I understand that this may not be comforting for some, like those who find Rabbi Jacob’s notion of God crying over this tragedy comforting. But I can’t find comfort now. I’m not comforted when every day I drop my kids off at school and kiss them and tell them that I love them just in case it’s the last time I ever see them alive. There’s no comfort there. I can’t be comforted now. I can’t think that God dwells among us while we do nothing about this.

And I know that my wish for an eternity of visceral, tormenting hell for some individuals is an expression of my own anger, frustration and pain. I understand that. But I also understand that it is a convenient avoidance of my responsibility in this, too. Sure, I have spoken about the differing forms of violence endemic in this society to raise awareness and to slowly change society. But I’ve not yet called an elected official to try to make real political change. I’ve not yet supported any organization – like the ones whose details you can find on the table at the back of the Sanctuary – that is trying to bring about real change and stop these constant massacres. So if there were a hell, maybe I would deserve it, too. Maybe all of us who sit idly by and shake our heads and hug our kids and do nothing to stop the next massacre, maybe all of us deserve it, too. Maybe that realization, in and of itself, will be enough to bring about change in me, and perhaps in others, too, so that we might finally act. Or do we have to wait until, God forbid, we experience the true hell of this regular culling of children affecting  the ones we love?

Some of my Rabbinic colleagues have responded to the latest atrocity with poetry. Some have created new versions of the Kaddish to express their grief. I would rather not. I can’t currently look at this tragedy and immediately spring into a prayer praising God for life, as Kaddish does. Ashamnu, however, the prayer for begging for our sins, seems far more appropriate to me, so here’s my version this week:

We have sinned. We have permitted murder. We have accepted murder. We have tolerated murder. We have politicized murder. We have stood idly over the blood of our neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, all the while praying that our own would be spared of violence. We have called on the Divine for mercy when we showed none ourselves.  We have prevaricated. We have hidden our consciences and numbed our souls. We have ignored the cries of our society’s children’s blood that calls to us from the ground. We have shaken our heads and failed to act. We have been callous. We have tolerated violence throughout our society and have profited from it. We have succumbed to cynicism and defeat.

For all these failures of judgment and will, we will ask for forgiveness, but only once we have done everything in our power to end the slaughter of innocents in our society. For that, we pray only for strength. (And let us say, amen)