In April 1963, Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been leading sit-ins and marches, which were “conveniently” made illegal after he arrived in town. Shortly after he was arrested, a number of white clergymen, pastors, bishops, and yes, a rabbi, wrote an open letter denouncing the protests. In a response written on paper that was smuggled into jail, King wrote what became known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
There are many themes in that letter but there is one that I would like to highlight, and that is tension. Martin Luther King was a big proponent of tension. To quote a few lines from that letter: “I must confess,” he writes, “that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not …the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
He continues, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
You see, Martin Luther King dreamt of a world filled with tension; filled with people of different faiths and different countries, with convictions that were certainly worth dying for. A world in which ideas are debated and discussed and ultimately, resolved. Not a world where apathy reigns supreme; where we just shrug our indifferent shoulders and scroll on to the next item. No, Martin Luther King’s utopian dream was one of peace, but not of the passive kind. It was peace that was filled to the brim with friction and justice.
Now, Martin Luther King, as you all know, was heavily influenced by the Bible, by the Torah. His prose in many places are paraphrases of the prophets. And of course, of all the Biblical narratives, it is the story of the Exodus – this week’s Parsha, what Zach just read from the Torah, that influenced so much of the soul of the civil rights movement.
One thing that I find a little challenging about the Exodus narrative is the morality Ten Plagues. You know, it’s not like G-d needed the ten plagues to force Pharaoh’s hand to get the Jewish People out of Egypt. He’s G-d after all! He could’ve just taken the Jewish People out of Egypt… We didn’t need Moshe to come back to the palace time and time again only to hear, “No, no, no I will not let them go!” And we didn’t need all the Egyptian people suffering like they did. Yes, there was an educational element for the Jewish People to witness G-d’s power, but we are a peace-loving people. Oseh shalom bimromov, G-d is a G-d of peace. What’s going on here? What is the real purpose for the drawn-out drama of the ten plagues?
Perhaps – who knows for sure, but perhaps G-d wanted tension. Perhaps leaving Egypt without any tension would have been peaceful! But it would be a negative peace, sorely lacking justice. And the truth is this is precisely what G-d tells Abraham a few hundred years prior, when He lays out a vision of the slavery and the subsequent Exodus. “Your children” G-d say, “will be slaves in a foreign country, and I will then take them out. V’gam es hagoy asher ya’avodu, and in regards to the nation that enslaves them, dan anochi, I will judge them!” Justice and confrontation was always an integral part of the plan.
And so – Moshe is sent to Pharaoh, to engage him in debate. And plague after plague, the Egyptian belief system is challenged, from the supremacy of the Nile to the inborn holiness of the firstborn, every one of their ideas is put to the test. And then, and only then, is the Exodus complete.
It is complete because it came about through the clash of two worldviews that were forced to confront one another. The exodus was complete because those who were guilty were punished and those who weren’t were saved. Tension, G-d was teaching us, is not to be avoided, it is to be welcomed. It is important, it is crucial.
And Zach, I think this is a very relevant lesson for you. Because Zach, you have been blessed, you really have. You have awesome parents. They are adored by so many people in this room and beyond, and for good reason. They are kind, they are principled, and they are earnest. Your parents are community-minded; despite their busy professional lives they have both been and are incredibly active in the shul…
… you’ve been blessed with amazing talents – you’re a great actor, you’re a cook, you’re an exceptionally talented writer, I’ve seen up close at our Bar Mitzvah program how you’re a natural leader, you’re articulate, you’re intelligent.
But here’s the deal, Zach – you could close your eyes right now, with all that support and all those talents, and you can just coast to success in life. Because you won the lottery. Great family, great DNA, great talents. It’s all there for you to coast on. You could lead a successful life without having to try all that hard. Really.
But if you do so, while you may succeed, you will also be failing. Because if the Exodus taught us one thing, it is that a life without tension is not worth living, it is not a life. Some people’s role in life is to overcome tension and some people’s role in life is to find that tension. Because the truth is, the tension is always there. Only that some people are given the opportunity to ignore it. But when we do so, when we coast in life, when our objective is just to get by, just to be decent, just to relax, we do so at our own peril.
To quote Dr. King once again: “We… are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
What he says about racism, is true about so much else. The tension is there; we get to choose if we want to bring it to the fore.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Judaism and what it is that excites me about it. I love our traditions, our faith, I really do. Those of you who know me, know that. The typical reasons that I hear from other people who love Judaism are things like, the serenity of Shabbat, the warmth of community, or the comfort of tradition. And I’ll be honest, none of that talks to me. They’re nice, but they’re not compelling. You know what is? You know what I realized really gets me?
The idea that every day I am blessed with waking up I need to justify my existence, that yesterday’s success is not a hook on which to hang my future, that if I’m not growing then I’m not living.
The Jewish idea that we are to never accept the status quo and we are to challenge not only ourselves and all our convictions but also to question the world around us, the way things are run, questioning our leaders, and according to our faith, questioning even G-d Himself.
The fact that there are a lot of commandments in Judaism and yes, that could be overwhelming, but it also ensures that we are never there, that there’s always something to aspire to. It’s the tension of Judaism that excites me.
What the Exodus from Egypt, Yetziat Mitzrayim taught us is that the tension-filled life is the only life worth living. Rav Tzadok Hakohen, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, suggests that the Hebrew word for Egypt – Mitzrayim alludes to this very idea. Mitzrayim, he suggests, is made up of two words – MEITZAR which means a narrow place, and YAM, an ocean, the symbol of expansiveness. What our experience in Egypt, in Mitzrayim teaches us is that in order to experience any form of expansiveness, of freedom, of success, we need to first experience the straits, the tension, the friction of a challenged life.
And the beauty is that we are commanded to remember the Exodus every day of our life. That this drama is a never-ending cycle of friction and resolution; of unbelievable growth and then realizing that there’s still so much more to do.
That’s my blessing for you Zach, and really for all of us. That we live a good comfortable life, yes. But also, that we live a life of tension. That when we have a question, we don’t ignore it. We grapple with it, and we don’t move on until we’ve resolved it. That when we feel like we’ve made it, with our family life, with our connection to our faith, with our relationship to G-d, with our personal growth, that we realize that we’ve only just started, and we dig deep and we ask ourselves, what’s next? That we sensitize ourselves to hear that rumble and roar that emanates daily from our soul, thirsting for more and not being content with resting on our laurels.
May you, Zach, and may we all merit to experience our own personal Exodus, our own personal Yetziat Mitzrayim; both the Meitzar and the Yam, the tension and expansiveness, the friction and the freedom, every day of our lives. Mazel Tov!
Today’s topic is Judaism and racism. Let me begin by saying that this will be a very long talk. I hope the guy davening mussaf keeps that in mind.
Racism and Judaism is an important topic and therefore one that I would like to address honestly. Now, of course you should expect all topics that I discuss to be addressed honestly, but to be quite honest, in perusing the world wide web, I think it’s safe to say that much of the Jewish treatment of this topic is either polemics or apologetics. It’s either Orthodox apologetics cherry-picking Torah sources or it’s Jews of other denominations and sometimes Orthodox ones blatantly ignoring Torah sources and making up ideas that are not found in our tradition.
I could just get up here, as I imagine some of you though I would, and say, Judaism does not believe in racism, but some Jews are racist, and be done with. But if we are going to have an honest conversation, then let’s be honest. So I will be sharing sources, some that we are more comfortable with and some, less so.
And with that introduction, let’s begin, is Judaism racist?
I believe the answer is, it depends and it depends.
It depends first and foremost on how you define racism. And it also depends on which school of though you identify with.
Let’s begin with a definition of racism. According to the Oxford dictionary, racism can be defined in two ways: One, “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
I do not believe that any Jewish source would endorse that form of racism. As we’ll see, that form of racism would not only be not endorse but is prohibited on a number of counts.
But there’s another definition, one that is closely related, and that is this: “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
So the second definition is a belief that races are different, and maybe even superior to the next; a racial theory. The other, is acting out on those theories, by discriminating or antagonizing other races. And obviously there is a fine line, a dangerously fine line, between those two definitions.
With two working definitions in mind, a theory of race and acting on it, in mind let’s go through the sources. And let me preface, there are a lot of Jewish sources that say a lot of things. Our tradition though has been one where there are accepted authorities and the minority views have been left to academia alone. So I will be sharing with you classical, mainstream views only.
The first is that of Maimonides, the Rambam. In the final section of the laws of Shmittah, he writes the following moving statement: כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם
Any individual in the world (Earlier in the section he referred to Jews by name. Here, he is clearly speaking about all of humankind.) אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני יי לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את יי והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים
Any individual in the world whose spirit awakened them, whose wisdom guided them, to separate themselves, to stand before G-d, to serve G-d, to know G-d, and to grow in an upright fashion, just like G-d created them…
הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה י”י חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה”ז
Such a person is sanctified, kodesh kodoshim, holy of holies. G-d will be his portion in the world to come and in this world…”
The Rambam, quite clearly states, that the highest level of spiritual greatness is achievable by any man or women, of any race and of any background. Kol ish v’ish, anyone at all, can become kodesh kodoshim, holy of holies.
This is a view endorsed in the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who numerous times, where the Torah seems like it is discriminating against one race, specifically, the children of Cham, the inhabitants of Canaan, Rav Hirsch creatively interprets each section to be in line with the meritocracy that Rambam is promoting. You are not born into greatness. You must achieve it. And anyone and everyone is welcome to try.
This view is not even talking about conversion and its obvious implication that regardless of race one is accepted fully into the Jewish fold. According to the Rambam, a non-Jew can achieve the highest levels of spiritual superiority. This view is certainly not racist at all.
However, there is another view, in its most extreme form, it is expressed by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the author of a book known as the Kuzari. He writes (section 1) that the Jewish people possess what I will loosely translate as a spiritual gene. Some intangible spiritual capacity that gets passed on from generation to generation. We have it, he writes, and non-Jews do not. And because we have it, it sets apart from all nations. We are, according to this view, spiritually superior.1
This view is racist, at least according to the second definition, that racism is the belief that different races have different qualities, especially a belief that deems one race superior to the next. This is it.
But there are two qualifications. The first is that Rav Yehuda HaLevi is not distinguishing the Jews by race. Race is defined as a group with distinct physical features or a shared set of qualities, history, or language. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s point is that the spiritual gene transcends all of that. Whether you look like this or that, whether you are a practicing Jew or not, whether you know an iota of Jewish history or speak the language, you are a Jew. Judaism, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, is arguing transcends all forms of physical description.
But stating that we have, as Jews, a superior spiritual gene is close enough to racism that we could ignore that last point.
But here’s the second point, if we were to ask the author, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, what is the role of the Jewish People in the world? Why did G-d make us spiritually superior? To answer this question, he shares the following analogy (section 1:43) and says, “The Jewish People are the heart of mankind.”
You see, Rav Yehuda HaLevi, in describing the Jewish People as a heart, means to say that we are connected to the other nations; the hands, the legs, the eyes. And in describing the Jewish People as a heart he means to say that we are here to give to the other nations.
So yes, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi believes that Jews are superior. But in the sense that they are tasked with providing life, in this case, spiritual life, to all the nations of the world. This is one of the most original sources that speak of the Jewish People being a light onto the nations. So while he does promote a theory of race, it is the furthest from a classic example of racism.2
And so is Judaism racist? The answer is yes, with some important qualifications. According to one view, and a view that is promoted by many of the mystically-inclined, and according to one definition of the term, the answer is yes. Judaism, according to this view, does believe that Jews are a superior race. But where this theory differs from every other theory of race is the implication of its superiority. Whereas every racist group who believes they are superior see the other group or groups as undeserving; underserving of land, undeserving of education, or in the extreme, undeserving of life. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s view of superiority demands of the Jewish People to care more, to give more, and to be more, especially as it relates to others! We are the heart of the human race!
Moving on, are there Biblical sources that indicate that certain skin colors are more beautiful than others? Once again, the answer is, it depends. In one of the most famous episodes that invoke one’s skin color, Moshe’s brother and sister describe Moshe’s wife as being a Kushite, which literally means black. What they mean by that though varies widely.
Rashi suggests that ‘black’ is a euphemism for ‘beauty.’ Others, such as Chizkiya ben Monoach, the Chizkuni, understand that they were saying the exact opposite. That the color of her skin made her less than attractive.
Now ,is it appropriate to say that the cultural norms of the commentators’ society influenced their writings? I think so. To say that this commentator, writing in 13th century France, had associated the color of one’s skin with beauty based on the cultural norms of one’s time tells us a lot about him. And even if we were to accept this racist approach as the only approach, it still only informs us of the cultural norms of Moshe’s time and how Miriam perceived black people. It does not tell us in any way how the Torah defines beauty.
As an aside, an important aside, even if the Torah was speaking negatively about black skin, the Torah was certainly not endorsing white beauty! Jewish Caucasians did not exist! If this entire shul would go back in time to the times of the Exodus, those who look like me, pale skin and all, would have a far harder time blending in with the Jewish People than those in this room who are black! Let’s be honest here. We don’t have pictures but I am confident that my blonde-haired, green eyed daughter looked nothing like Sarah, Rebbecca, or Rachel.
Either way, I don’t see how the Torah is defining for us as a universal truth, as to what is beautiful and what is not. At the most, the narrative is to be understood in the context of cultural norms.
And so, does Judaism promote a theory of race? Some say yes, and some say no. The Torah has laws that distinguish between one race and another, is that predicated on a theory of superiority and inferiority? Some say yes, and some say no. And does the Torah imply that the color of the skin is associated with beauty or the lack thereof? Some say yes, and some say no.
But now I want to share with you some things that are agreed upon by all; by every single Jewish authority throughout all of time.
Is one allowed to speak negatively about an individual or a group of people? According to every Torah source, the answer is no. Unequivocally.
Is one allowed to make a person feel bad, inferior, or unwanted? According to every Torah source, the answer is no. Unequivocally.
Is one allowed to judge an individual or a group, based on the color of their skin? And again, according to every Torah source, the answer is no. Unequivocally.
I’m embarrassed that it has to be said, but it has to be said; there is no place for racial comments, for racial slurs (!), and for racial practices in Judaism. And yet, I hear it all the time. Some of the comments are extreme and some of it is “benign” but all of it should be 100% unacceptable. And it’s not. Because let’s be honest, you could make a racist joke among a group of Orthodox Jews and people will either laugh or at the very least, you could get away with it. And that’s unacceptable.
Even according to the most “racist” theory in Jewish thought, the idea is for us to care more, not less!
But let’s get a little more personal and a little more practical.
This Shabbos, we are celebrating Jews of Color. Jews of Color include Jews African-American Jews, Asian Jews, Hispanic Jews and Jews of other non-”white” backgrounds. Some Jews of Color or converts, many, many are not. But it really doesn’t matter3. Because there is nothing in the Torah that defines the look or the culture of a Jew. You could eat kugel or cornbread, you could listen to reggae or k-pop, you could wear a pollera colora or a turban, and still be a Jew. I am about as Ashkenzai as it gets; I have Polish and Hungarian blood running through me. And I like my culture, I really do; I like the food, I like the music, and I like the way I look. But it’s a culture and it’s an ethnicity. That’s all it is. There is nothing distinctly Jewish about our music, our dress, our food preferences, or our complexion. And us Ashkenazic Jews sometimes forget that. In essence, a Shabbos dedicated to Jews of Color is celebrating Judaism; a multi-cultural group of people of shared beliefs and/ or shared ancestry.
But let’s get even more personal. There is a crime issue in our immediate community. And as far as I could tell from what I’ve read from police reports, virtually all of those crimes were perpetrated by black youth. Now let’s keep in mind, while let’s just say 95% of those crimes were perpetrated by black youth, not even close to 5% of black people caused those crimes. But let’s just say, you’re walking down the street, it’s late at night, and you see a black man. Do you cross the street to avoid him or do you keep on walking?
Let me share with you a personal story. This past Tuesday night there was a rash of violent crimes in the immediate area. In Cross Country, a man entered a home illegally and proceeded to tie the homeowner up so he could rob the house. A little while later, three men attacked two men on the street and took their belongings. The alleged perpetrators were all described as black.
I knew this. I read the news. Wednesday morning I was on my way to shul at approximately 6 AM. It was dark outside and the streets are virtually empty at that time. As I was heading to my car, I saw a tall black man walking my way, and I froze.
I froze for almost a milli-second before I realized that it was my neighbor from down the block who was walking his cute little dog. But you know what, and this hurts me to share it, but I know that he saw me freeze. I could tell from the way he said good morning. I could tell. And that hurt. It hurt him and it hurt me.
And so I ask you, as a community, how do we balance our security needs, our legitimate security needs, with the Torah’s demand for kindness, for being welcoming, and for being caring?
It goes without saying that racist slurs or putting down entire communities is not only counterproductive but is completely and patently against Jewish law. It is unequivocally forbidden. As Jews, and really as humans, our concern when walking down the street must be not only about when to take out your pepper spray or how quickly you should run away. Our concern when walking down the street must also be to try to say hello, to say good day, to make sure that you are fulfilling your role as a member of the Jewish faith, and maybe even the Jewish race, the role of looking out and care for others, of being the heart of the world.
As a community, our concern cannot be limited to building walls and investing in better and better security. Those things are extremely important but for every dollar we invest into Shomrim or NWCP, should we not be investing a fraction of that for programs that help rehabilitate the youth that are perpetrating these crimes? Should we not be joining hands with the black community in one way or another to bridge the tremendous divide that stands between us? Is that not a true reflection of genuine Jewish values?
I’ve been talking for a while and I’m going to wrap it up and tell you what I hope you take away from what I said. I hope you walk away from this talk with the following ideas: Yes, there is a strand of thought in normative Judaism that distinguishes between races. But even according to that view, the role of this so called spiritual gene is not a license to be an arrogant or disparaging individual. It is an obligation to be a heart or a light to all people of all walks of life. According to all views speaking negatively, making people uncomfortable, and even judging entire groups of people as one, all of that is blatantly against Jewish Law.
I hope you walk away from this walk recognizing that culture and religion are not the same thing. It is as compatible to be an American Jew as it is to be an Indian Jew. And historically, it is the Caucasian Jew that is novel and not the other way around.
I hope that after this talk, every time you think about protecting yourself, you also think about how caring you are for others; be it with a hello, or with participation or donations to the many organizations that are looking out for those less fortunate; our neighbors. Or in the words of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, our hands, or feet, or eyes.
But I also hope you walk away with hope. Because despite all the negativity, I am filled with hope. Thank G-d, there have been many who have taken steps in the right direction. To name a few,
Former councilwoman, Riki Spector, was beaten a few years ago by two black teenagers. Today, she is an advocate for those same kids. She helped enroll them in U-Empower, one of many programs that empower underprivileged youth in Baltimore by giving them jobs, mentoring them, while ensuring that they stay drug-free and in school.
A group from Shomrim recently started meeting with a black pastor from downtown to help work together on tackling crime, to share best practices and to create a bond.
And a synagogue in Pikesville decided to dedicate a Shabbos to having open and frank conversations about race, racism, and what it looks like for a Jewish community. (That would be us.)
And so I am hopeful for a better tomorrow. Because it all starts with a conversation. Studies have shown that the most efficient way to break down walls between groups is through dialogue, getting to know one another. That’s what we’re doing today, and that’s what I hope you continue to do tomorrow.
I’ll conclude (for real) with a story (shared with permission).
A little while ago, one of my children was trying to describe someone from shul. My daughter said, “You know, the woman who wears a cool scarf on her hair.” I didn’t know who she was talking about. A number of people wear scarves. “You know, she always smiles.” A lot of people smile. “You know, she has a baby.” Thank G-d, there are a lot of babies here. And finally she said, “You know, her skin is dark.”
That was the fourth attempt she made at describing this person. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, I am confident that a child, and certainly a Jewish child, would have first said, they are black and they would have probably used a different word. Thank G-d, we live in a time that that is no longer the case. Our skin color, our culture, is a feature, one of many that make us who we are.
May we merit a day that “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” May we merit a day when the Biblical and Jewish belief of Tzelem Elokim, of man, of all of mankind, being created in G-d’s image, in its myriad of shapes and colors, is acknowledged and practiced by all.
1Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi suggests that a convert cannot experience prophecy for this reason as he or she is lacking this spiritual gene. The irony, of course, is that his book was written as a dialogue between a potential convert, the King of Kazar, and a rabbi. It’s worth noting that others who identify with this spiritual ‘gene’ understand that at conversion, the convert adopts a spiritual gene. This is mentioned explicitly by the Ohr HaChaim and by the Maharal.
2Ironically, it is the Rambam, in his introduction to Cheilek, where he explains that the world was created for the intellectually elite and the role of those who are not is to provide for the elite. Not a racist theory but an extremely elitist one.
3 Rav Moshe Feinstein, the leading Halachic authority in America in the last century, in the midst of a complex responsa about the Jewish status of a group from Ethiopia, writes the following: “And I suffered great anguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, G-d forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. And it seems to me these people are behaving so only because the color of the Falashas’ skin is black. It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – because there is no distinction in practical application of the law because they are black …”
I spent this past week in New York. Traffic, terrible. Food, delicious. But that’s standard and this week was unique. You see, I left Baltimore on Sunday under a dark cloud. Shabbos afternoon, my brother dressed in Shabbos clothes with a kippah on his head, was walking down Pimlico Rd. to go to shul and a car drove by. The car stopped and the man in the passenger seat rolled down his window and poured a cup of coke on my brother. My brother joked that being Israeli he’s used to anti-Semitic violence in the form of rockets and he would take a cup of coke any day. But jokes aside, it was jarring to be the recipient of blatant anti-Semitism in our quiet community. Later that night, out with my family, we heard the frightening news of a machete-wielding man who entered a shul in Monsey and stabbed numerous people. Monday morning, I went to shul in Queens, New York, for shacharis and took the first open seat I found. It happened to be near the door. A moment later I started wondering if I had been foolish to sit so close to the door. What if someone walks in with a gun, with a knife? I am right in the line of fire.
So let’s just say anti-Semitism was on my mind.
With anti-Semitism on my mind, I initially appreciated what I read on the news later that week: “90,000 Jews Gather to Pray and Defy a Wave of Hate” blared the Thursday headline of the New York Times. Or, “90,000 Jews gather in celebration of Talmud after anti-Semitic attacks: ‘We will not be intimidated’ – from Fox News. Or this from the Times of Israel, “Under tight security, 88,000 US Jews celebrate 7.5-year Talmud cycle.”
What these major news outlets were describing was the Siyum HaShas, which means the completion of the entire Talmud. The Siyum Hashas is an event that occurs every seven and a half years celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi, a daily learning cycle of the entire Talmud. If you were to learn one page of Talmud a day, it would take seven and a half years to complete the whole thing.
The idea of learning a page of the Talmud every single day was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a leading scholar in pre-war Europe. What started off as a small initiative, taken up by a few people, has in recent years, grown in leaps and bounds, especially through the translation of the Talmud by Artscroll. And after every cycle of 7 and a half years, a huge event takes place to celebrate the accomplishment. In the past it had been held at Madison Square Gardens, and this year, on January 1st it was held in MetLife stadium and had over 93,000 participants.
It was this event, the Siyum Hashas, that was covered by these major news outlets, all describing the Siyum in light of the recent uptick of anti-Semitic attacks in New York and across the country. Again, to quote the New York Times: “On a windy and biting cold day, the gathering offered a chance to affirm their faith in the face of those terrible acts. Some believed the event contained echoes of Jews who were held in ghettos or concentration camps during the Holocaust and resisted their persecutors by saying clandestine prayers, teaching their children the Torah or furtively blowing a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana.” Or as Fox News put it, “the historic completion of the study of the entire Talmud, sending a strong message of resilience days after a stabbing in a New York rabbi’s home left five people wounded.”
But ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you something, I was there, I was at the Siyum Hashas at MetLife stadium, and what I just read to you from Fox News and the New York Times, it is fake news. It really is.
Because you see, there was virtually no mention of anti-Semitism during the entire four-and-a-half-hour program. No mention of bricks thrown in Crown Heights or knife attacks in Monsey. Instead, speaker after speaker, video after video, there was only one theme – Talmud Torah, the study of Torah; how Torah is our lifeblood, how it is our oxygen. That’s all I heard the entire event.
Sure, there was extra security and more guards than usual. But that just provided a greater opportunity to demonstrate what a life guided by our Torah could look like; it was just an opportunity for the 90,000+ crowd to thank each and every one of those guards, which they did, something I saw with my own eyes. And yes, I, like so many walked into that event looking over my shoulder, saddened by the sight of large guns held by the security guards, but within a few moments I was swept up with the tangible joy in the air; joy that I cannot remember experiencing in my life.
As but one example, after they finished the final lines of the Talmud, the orchestra broke into joyous music and all 90,000 Jews started dancing. I had the pleasure of being on the ground level, dancing together with my son, two of my brothers and my father, and as our circle spun, looking up and looking around and watching all 90,000 people sway back and forth as one.
I wish we could have all been there. I wish you could have experienced it, just those twenty minutes of dancing for yourself because I’m not doing justice describing it. My son turned to me while we were dancing. He said, “Abba, why are you crying?” I had tears streaming down my face and I tried to explain to him that they were tears of joy. He’s young, I don’t know if he understood. But I silently prayed that he too would one day have an opportunity to cry from joy. I prayed that the experience of the Siyum would make an impression on him and he would realize that Judaism is not a faith of fear or protest or victimhood. I prayed that he would see that our faith is one of knowledge, one of joy, and one of connection; to each other and to G-d.
That was the Siyum Hashas that I experienced. Instead of Never Again, people said, let’s do this again – in seven and a half years. Instead of focusing on martyrs, the vast majority of the event focused on people, people like you and me, with busy lives, who somehow found the time to study a page of Talmud each and every day. Like my friend, the lawyer, who lives a few blocks away, and manages to find the time to teach the Daf Yomi. Or the picture I saw of a Daf Yomi class in Rabbi Teichman’s shul on Smith Avenue where one of the participants was wearing a Ravens jersey. The class was taking place during a game, and this brave soul took a break from watching the game to study. Or those who studied their daily page on a subway car or listening to it on a Podcast on their commute to work. Or the story I heard of a boy from Baltimore who went to the last Siyum Hashas with his father and he wasn’t that excited about being there. And the father told his son, “Come along with me, meet all the rabbis I want you to meet and if you do, I will give you whatever gift you want.” And after sitting through the Siyum Hashas, this disinterested 13-year-old boy was so inspired that he turned to his father and said, “Dad, you know what I want for my gift? I want you to finish the entire Talmud and do the Daf Yomi.”
Sure enough, his father did finish the Daf Yomi cycle, and this Sunday, that 13 year-old-boy who is now 20, will be starting the next cycle with his father. So do yourselves a favor and ignore the headlines. Because what I just described to you, that was the real Siyum Hashas. And that is the real Judaism; it is joyful, it is intellectually stimulating, it is emotionally-riveting. And it is something Fox News or the New York Times cannot capture or even comprehend.
In this week’s Parsha, after Yaakov hears the unbelievable news that his son is still alive and decides to move the entire family to Egypt, the Torah says that Yaakov sent Yehuda before him to prepare. “V’es Yehuda shalach l’fanav el Yosef, l’horos l’fonov Goshna.” The Torah does not tell us how Yehuda is preparing? What is he doing in Egypt before the family arrives?
The Medrash Tanchuma says something astounding. It says that Yehuda was sent to prepare a beis Talmud, a place for them to study Torah.
There’s a part of me that reads that and says, c’mon, they didn’t have a Torah yet. What kind of study hall was he preparing?
But then I imagine the authors of this Medrash, gathered in some room, about two thousand years ago, reading this passage in the Torah and asking themselves the same question we asked, what would Yehuda be preparing as his family enters this new foreign land? What would be the one thing they would need to survive? Is it security? Is it a beautiful home? Is it good jobs?
And the only thing they could imagine that the family of Yaakov would truly need is a study hall. Historically, I’m not sure. But the message is priceless and powerful.
Yes, the Egyptians would soon turn on the Jews, like the Babylonians and the Persians would do years later. And yes, they would suffer at the hands of too many nations to mention, but the sons of Yaakov and their sons and their sons would survive. Not because they rallied in defiance of their enemies. No. Don’t believe the headlines! They survived because Yehuda had already defined for them what it means to be a Jew. Their Judaism was not a reactive force, ready to fight back when attacked. Their Judaism was proactive – before they even got to Egypt, Yehuda had set up a study hall. To be a Jew means to have a foundation of Torah that cannot be shaken by all the evil winds in the world. When your Jewish identity is defined by its beauty, by a deep and daily connection to the Torah, then all the anti-Semitism in the world just bonces off of you, it makes no impact.
Now I know that Daf Yomi, the study of one page of Talmud each day is not practical for most of us. (Not all of us, but most.) But what is the foundation of our Judaism? Can it be more positive than defiance of our enemies? And can it be more consistent than every Shabbos? Can it be a Mishna a day? A halacha a day? A chapter or even a few verses of the Torah each day? A mitzvah a day? Something! Something beautifully Jewish that we can engage in every day of our lives.
Yes, there is growing anti-Semitism, and not just in the world, but down the turnpike and even down the block. But from the inception of our nation, our most effective tool was not to simply fight back – although that’s important as well. Our most effective tool was to set up a study hall before we even entered a new land. Our most effective tool was to strengthen who we are, not who we are against or who is against us. Arguing over who is more anti-Semitic, white nationalists or Hebrew Israelites did not keep the Jewish People alive throughout the millenia. Arguing over Hillel and Shammai, Abaye and Rava, Rashi and the Rambam, did. Our most effective tool has been by immersing ourselves in our legacy, in our tradition, in what makes us who we are, and that is the Torah. In the words of the great 10th century Babylonian leader of the Jewish People, Rav Saadia Gaon, “We are a nation only because of our Torah.”
I mentioned earlier that Rabbi Meir Shapiro was the one who started the Daf Yomi. The truth is it was his mother who started the Daf Yomi. (h/t Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for this beautiful story -) The story goes that one day as a little boy, Meir Shapiro woke up and found his mother crying. He asked her what’s wrong and she said that the Melamed, his teacher, wasn’t available that day. “Mommy,” he said, “he’ll be back tomorrow. It’s just one day.”
His mother shook her head. “Meir’le, you’re too young, you don’t understand. Each day is precious. If you miss a day of learning, you can never make up that day.” And with those words, and with those tears, the Daf Yomi movement was born.
May we recognize the importance of connecting to our heritage each and every day, and may our tears of yearning for more; more Judaism, more Torah, and more G-dliness in our lives, may they be transformed into tears of true unbridled joy.