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The Ordeal of Civility – Rosh Hashanah

October 04, 2005

When I was seven or eight years old, I told a friend to “shut up.” I no longer recall what prompted it. When my mother heard about it a few hours later, she sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to speak to anyone in that manner. I thought she was overreacting and that if I explained what had happened she would not only understand but would compliment me for not having said something more inflammatory. I could have saved my breath.

My parents valued gentility. In large measure, this was the result of their upbringing in Europe. They believed that words matter, and they were often astounded at how words were used to describe or denigrate people. I cannot begin to imagine what they would think about the ordeal of civility today.

If you think that you speak in a vacuum, think again, especially if you have children. Children are ‘mirrors.’ They reflect what we say and how we behave. Children ‘mirror’ how we react to drivers who cut us off, and they can perfectly mimic what we say about people in the heat of anger or disappointment. The Talmud offers us this insight: “As long as the words are in your mouth, you are their master. Once they leave your mouth, they are your master.” It is true that actions speak louder than words, but that is not to suggest that words lack punch. Words harm and heal; they incite and inspire; they isolate and elevate. Words matter.

Let me give you an example of a word that is being used with increasing and distressing frequency in the most inappropriate manner. It is used to describe behavior that people find to be particularly offensive or abusive. It is the word “Nazi” appended to something that someone else does. I occasionally hear people refer to someone as a “teacher Nazi” or a “boss Nazi” or a “doctor Nazi” and in my experience it has always been someone Jewish who has used that phrase! For Jewish people to use a word that refers to one of the greatest killing machines in history as a way of describing someone’s behavior or attitude is astounding to me.

The use of the word “Nazi” to indicate distaste or disagreement barely generates a response, and that includes the halls of Congress. When Senator Robert Byrd {D, West Virginia} declared that Republican efforts to bar filibusters on judicial nominations were no different from Hitler’s strategy to achieve dictatorial power, there was no storm of protest. When Senator Rick Santorum {R, Pennsylvania}, on the other side of the same debate, said of Democrats objecting to the GOP’s stand, “It is the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, ‘I’m in Paris. How dare you invade me? How dare you bomb the city? It’s mine,” there was no call to censure him. When Robert Novak said that for Republicans to consider compromising with Democrats on the filibuster would be “like going to a concentration camp and picking out which people to go to the death chamber,” how many commentators responded with contempt and outrage?

Last year, Al Gore compared GOP activists to “brown shirts” and a columnist for Newsday compared the Republican presidential convention to “Nazi rallies held in Germany during the reign of Adolf Hitler.” United States Circuit Court Judge Guido Calabresi said that the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore was similar to “what happened when Hindenburg put Hitler in.” It would be one thing to dismiss such statements were they made by racists and idiots, but it is alarming when they are uttered by politicians, columnists and judges. The rhetoric is often as full blown and intolerant on the left as it is on the right. Michael Moore, the darling of the far left, writes in the introduction to his book Dude, Where’s My Country?, “For Rachel Corrie: Will I ever have her courage? Will I let her death be in vain?” That should give us pause.

Rachel Corrie was among a group of students from International Solidarity who came to the Middle East from Europe and America to protest what they considered to be Israel’s horrible treatment of Palestinians. They occupied churches in Bethlehem and mosques in Ramallah to discourage Israeli soldiers from entering them. They called themselves “human shields” in the belief that their presence would prevent Israeli soldiers from committing unspeakable crimes. The fact that Hamas and Hizbollah militants and snipers sought refuge in those churches and mosques was irrelevant to these high-minded idealists. Their claim to be “human shields” might have carried more weight had they also sat with Israelis in cafes, restaurants and pizza parlors in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, or ridden with them on buses in Beersheba and Haifa. Maybe their presence would have given suicide bombers second thoughts about carrying out their acts of carnage, but International Solidarity’s sensitivity and compassion did not extend to Israelis. Rachel Corrie stood in front of a bulldozer that was in the process of demolishing a house on the West Bank: a house that served as a transit point for guns and ammunition smuggled through tunnels, into the kitchen, and then out the windows to arm militants. She was told to move. She did not. She decided that playing cat-and-mouse with the IDF was a noble venture that carried little risk. The driver of the huge bulldozer thought she had moved. He did not see her. She was crushed by the bulldozer and instantly became a heroine to the far left and to Michael Moore. “For Rachel Corrie: Will I ever have her courage? Will I let her death be in vain?” The far left can be as outrageous and intolerant as the far right.

Intolerance knows no borders. In Israel, verbal overkill is often directed at Israelis by Israelis. In the weeks leading up to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, a Likud Party member called it “an order that was last signed in German.” A member of the Knesset set off a storm when he said, “Maybe we killed Eichman for no reason because he was also just following orders.” When Israeli soldiers approached the gates of Gan Or, one of the settlements in the Gaza Strip, to tell its settlers that they had until early Wednesday morning, August 17th, to leave before they were pulled out of their homes – this after a plethora of publicity in the Israeli Press, information in the media, and eviction notices handed out to settlement leaders as well as homeowners – it was not uncommon to hear scores of settlers shout at commanders of the police special forces, as did Moshe Weiss of Gan Or, “Nazis in black are standing facing me. You look just like the photos of Nazis facing Jews! In Bulgaria, they killed my whole family in black suits like this!” And it was not uncommon for the unit commander, in this case Meir ben Yishai, to draw Mr. Wiess aside and try to calm him, saying, “Moshe, Moshe, this is the uniform of the State of Israel’s special forces.”

It was only six weeks ago – during Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank – that settlers and hooligans threw bricks and acid at unarmed Israeli soldiers and police who arrived to escort them out of their settlements. These ‘true believers’ strung barb wire around their synagogues, turned them into fortresses, established launching pads on the rooftops from which all kinds of projectiles were hurled, and made it exceedingly difficult for the IDF to remove them. Most of the settlers engaged in nonviolent protest, but enough of them violently resisted that Israelis characterize what they are enduring as a conflict between halacha and mahmlachah – between Orthodox law on the one hand and sovereignty on the other hand. It is an internal battle between demagogues and democracy.

Three of the most heinous crimes committed by Jews in the modern State of Israel – in February, 1994, Baruch Goldstein slaughtered Muslims bowed in prayer at a mosque in Hebron; in November, 1995, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin; and in July of this year {2005}, Eden Natan-Zada murdered four Israeli Arabs on a bus in Shfaram – have all been committed by fervent, right wing Orthodox Jews. Chief rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Avraham Shapira instructed soldiers in the IDF to refuse to participate in Gaza roadblocks. What Torah are some Orthodox rabbis and yeshivot teaching their disciples? A settler on the West Bank grabbed a gun from a guard at the settlement’s perimeter and killed four Palestinian workers. He later said, “I am not sorry for what I did. I hope someone also kills [Ariel] Sharon.” From whom do these disciples of destruction receive their marching orders? What Torah verses have they taken and twisted to justify their claims that murder and mayhem are morally justifiable? The statements by some right wing Orthodox rabbis that rabble rousers and killers who claim to act in the Name of God are acting on their own volition ring hollow. People moved to many of the settlements because they support the philosophy of fervent Orthodoxy. Two weeks prior to Eden Natan-Zada’s murder of Israeli Arabs, he sought refuge in a settlement that continues to advocate the teachings of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and his outlawed Kach movement. What fires did those settlers stoke to further fan the flames of Natan-Zada’s rage?

But if we are going to be honest – and what better time than now, on this first day of the New Year – there are times that some of us are intolerant when it comes to Orthodox Jews. We occasionally disparage and marginalize them through what passes for humor or is condemnation clothed in sarcasm. Orthodox Jewish dress, beliefs and ritual observances are so different from ours that some of us are uncomfortable or offended. Most of them think that we are abdicating religious responsibility, choosing convenience over conviction, seeking the least demanding levels of Jewish observance, and that we are on the outer edge of what it means to be a Jew. Many of us see them as dismissive of Jews who are not Orthodox, exclusive rather than inclusive, and resistant to change. We throw verbal bombs at each other: “Get over yourself” we say to them, while they reply, “Go within yourself to discover who you really are.” Instead of bridges, we build barriers.

I know this from personal experience, which is the best, and sometimes the most humbling, teacher. I confess that I have occasionally harbored unpleasant thoughts about our Orthodox brothers and sisters. On one of my trips to Israel, I was standing in the plaza facing the Western Wall, enjoying the sights and sounds, when I was approached by an Orthodox Jew: a man in his seventies, wearing a long black coat, matching black beard and black yarmulkeh. He was color coordinated. I was wearing jeans and a brightly colored, short sleeve shirt. The contrast could not have been greater. He approached me with his hand held out, palm up. Nothing subtle about that. I was undoubtedly thinking to myself, “Here we go again.” I looked at him and said, “Yes?” He immediately replied, “I have a family.” I thought that was a good opening line and so I told him, “I have a family.” He immediately told me, “I have three children.” I am sure that I thought to myself, “That is an incredibly small family for an Orthodox household,” but I responded in kind: “I have three children too!” At which point he held up his hand and said, “Five.” We had stumbled on some form of Jewish poker, and I laughed and gave him the shekels that I had promised myself he would never see. But first I told him that I am a reform rabbi. I told him that I, and reform Jews like me, love our People and our faith. That I, and reform Jews like me, are committed to Israel and to Jews throughout the world, and that while he and I differ philosophically, and in matters of ritual observance, and in our commitment to religious pluralism, I know that he and I are raising our children as Jews. And that, it seems to me, is worthy of support.

Building bridges is sometimes easier than we think. In the words of our prophets, the paradigm of people for whom we must care are the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan. If we start with them, we will expand the circle of caring to embrace everyone. That circle knows no boundaries: it extends beyond one’s faith, race and ethnicity. It is the primary lesson about how words become deeds: deeds that develop trust, grant dignity and create connection. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Abraham Verghese of San Antonio volunteered to help people who made their way to his city {‘Close Encounter of the Human Kind’ by Dr. Abraham Verghese: The New York Times ‘Lives’ 9/18/05, p.192}. He treated numerous patients during his 2:00-8:00 a.m. shift at mobile medical facility, most of them suffering bronchitis, sore throats, stress, and with blood sugars and blood pressures that were out of control. Their illnesses were linked to the problems of homelessness, disenfranchisement and despair. Dr. Verghese tells the story that one man told him: “For two nights after the floods, [I] perched on a ledge so narrow that [my] legs dangled in the water. At one point, [I] saw Air Force One fly over, and [my] hopes soared. ‘I waited. I waited,’ he said, ‘but no help came.’ Finally, a boat got him to a packed bridge. There, again, he waited. ‘I am so sorry,’ [Dr. Verghese] said. ‘So sorry.’ He looked at me long and hard, cocking his head as if weighing my words, which sounded so weak, so inadequate. He rose, holding out his hand: ‘Thank you, Doc. I needed to hear that. All they got to say is sorry. All they got to say is sorry.’”

At some point during these High Holy Days, many rabbis are going to refer to the prayer called the oo’n’taneh toe’kef and they are going to quote the lines, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water.” They will tie that last line to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. They will bemoan, as we all do, the tremendous loss of life, property, jobs, hopes and dreams as a result of that devastation. I do not believe that is what our angst is all about. It is not about “who shall live and who shall die” – it is about who could have saved lives; those who could have prevented the grief and anguish; those who should have delivered food and medical supplies to people in greatest need; those who should have arranged airlifts of more patients from hospitals, and provided more buses for those who had no cars; those who should have stocked the Superdome with food, water, blankets and over-the-counter medicine. Many of us are still dismayed at the glib words of our leaders, from the President down to governors and mayors, who were so busy avoiding responsibility for what happened. Remember President Bush’s reply to reporters’ questions about who was responsible for the fiasco of the Federal and State response that doomed so many citizens of New Orleans? He said, “Now you want to play the ‘blame game, and I’m not going to do that.’” Then he fell on his plastic sword, appointed a commission that is going through the motions, and will perhaps make passing reference about complacency and cronyism.

Who is responsible? The President, who a week into the war in Iraq flew onto an aircraft carrier to proclaim “Mission Accomplished” but took his sweet time to set up a command post on a naval vessel hovering off of New Orleans and waited two weeks before he set foot in that city; the Director of Homeland [In]security who said that he did not have information about the extent of the devastation for a full two days after Katrina crashed ashore; and the Director of FEMA who dilly-dallied while disaster struck and later claimed that things were pretty much in control with but a few glitches here and there.

This is a President who rushed back to Washington from Texas in March of this year to intervene in the sad, lingering case of Terri Schiavo, signing a “Compromise Bill” – an extraordinary legislative move to give the Federal District Court jurisdiction to order the reinsertion of a feeding tube that a State Court allowed to be removed – and, with tube inserted, to thus permit a Federal judge to launch a new inquiry into the legal and medical questions surrounding the Schiavo case. This is a President who said, “I will continue to stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans.” Where were you, Mr. President, when the hurricane hit New Orleans? Where were you for all those Americans? Our leaders owe a collective ahl chet sheh’chah’tahnu to the American people. “All they got to say is ‘Sorry.’ All they got to say is ‘Sorry.’”

When God told Moses to send leaders to survey the Promised Land, they were told: “See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak?” Is a country strong because of its military might, its industrial power, its infrastructure and economy? Undeniably, yes. But there is another kind of strength. A country is great not because its citizens are strong, but because they are compassionate. It is this strength that our prophets – Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah – spoke about when they addressed the children of Israel in the Name of God almost 2800 years ago:

“Not by might, nor by power,

but by My spirit, saith the Lord” {Zechariah 4:6}

“The Lord of hosts is exalted through justice,

and God, The Holy One, is sanctified through righteousness” {Isaiah 5:16}

“It has been told you what is good

and what the Lord requires of you:

To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” {Micah 6:8}

“Learn to do well:

seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless,

plead for the widow” {Isaiah 1:17}

“Hate evil, love what is good,

and establish justice in the gate” {Amos 5:15}

The words of the prophets informed and inspired, and though the people often tired of hearing them because the prophets relentlessly criticized the vast distance between caring and doing, and the tendency of rulers to pontificate and seek league with the like-minded and powerful, while they – the prophets – constantly championed the cause of those who had precious few to speak on their behalf. In time, the hammering repetition of the prophets’ words had an effect, and the People came to understand that if they did not change their behavior, ‘the day of the Lord’ – the long understood time of redemption – would not be a day of deliverance but a day of doom! The message and demand of the prophets was that we must do better. When we disparage one another; when we stereotype the stranger; when we forget that the other person, like us, is also created in the Divine image, we chip away at the common bonds that might yet unite us.

In the midst of doubt and despair; beset by drought and famine, siege and exile; warned about placing too much reliance on military alliances, and the folly of fighting wars that could only lead to doom; their eloquent, passionate, powerful words are consistent calls to conscience in our People’s history. Their primary message was that there must be a correlation between what you say and what you do. Words matter. Deeds count.

Who is righteous? According to the prophets, it is someone who makes the Presence of God tangible in this world by what he or she says and does. I offer you these words from the Talmud {Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a}: “Where,” the sages asked, “shall we look for the Messiah? Shall the Messiah come to us on clouds of glory, robed in majesty and crowned with light?”

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi {3rd century,CE} put this question to the prophet Elijah himself. “Where,” Rabbi Joshua asked, “shall I find the Messiah?”

“At the gate of the city,” Elijah replied.

“How shall I recognize him?” Rabbi Joshua wanted to know.

“He sits among the lepers,” Elijah said.

“Among the lepers!” cried Rabbi Joshua. “What is he doing there?”

“He changes their bandages,” Elijah answered. “He changes them one by one.”

That might not seem like much for a Messiah to be doing, but apparently, in the eyes of God, it is a mighty thing indeed.


Rabbi Elliot J. Holin