Loving Dead Jews – Second Day of Rosh Hashana

It was the height of Chutzpah. Too surreal to be believed. Too unimaginable to be made up. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz was standing together with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, in Berlin, fielding questions from reporters. Suddenly, one reporter’s hand shot up and asked a question about the upcoming anniversary of the Munich massacre half a century ago, in which eleven Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, a group linked to Abbas’ Fatah party. “Mr. Abbas,” the reporter asked, “do you plan on apologizing to Israel and Germany for the attack ahead of the 50th anniversary?”

The question infuriated Abbas. Irate, Abbas responded instead, by citing allegations of atrocities committed by Israel since 1947. “If we want to go over the past, go ahead,” Abbas, who was speaking Arabic, told the reporters. “I have 50 slaughters that Israel committed in 50 Palestinian villages… 50 massacres, 50 slaughters, 50 Holocausts,” he said, taking care to pronounce the final word in English.

What chutzpah! Can you imagine? Accusing Israel of perpetrating a Holocaust in Germany?! Surely, Abbas would have been thrown off the stage! Surely, the German Chancellor would have instantly rebuked Abbas and disavowed his comments. But instead…he was met with silence.

Germany’s popular BILD newspaper published an outraged story about the incident, under the title “Antisemitism scandal at the federal chancellery.” It expressed shock that “not a word of dissent [was said] in the face of the worst Holocaust relativization that a head of government has ever uttered in the chancellor’s office.” To be sure, in the coming day, there were apologies issued by the German government. But in those crucial moments, the German Chancellor remained silent. 

Why? Or better yet, how could such a thing have happened? Germany is so committed to rectifying any wrongs done by their country. How could the German Chancellor be silent?

The answer, or at least one answer, lies in the central message of a book I read this year by Dara Horn. The title of the book is startling and deliberately provocative. It’s called, “People Love Dead Jews”. The Holocaust garners world sympathy. But the Holocaust reminds us of the past. When it comes to say, Israel, a living, strong Jewish state – the world can’t stand it. People love dead Jews. Live Jews? Not so much.

If you listened closely to the condemnations that followed Abbas’ comments, it was mostly about the trivialization of the Holocaust. It was NOT the blood libel against the Jewish State. That people didn’t care about too much. And that I suspect, is what confused the good Chancellor.  A blood libel against Israel did not warrant immediate condemnation. But when he realized that he also trivialized the Holocaust- that we must condemn. 

Horn’s book does an incredible job proving this sad truth. Here’s another example she gives related to the Holocaust. Once again, the height of Chutzpah. Too surreal to be believed. Too unimaginable to be made up.  In the opening chapter she describes a kippah-wearing man who was discriminated against for his Jewishness. He was not beaten, but he was barred from wearing his kippah at work. Where did he work? You’re ready for this? The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Barry Vingerling was asked to wear a baseball hat to cover his kippah in one of the most well-known sites dedicated to tolerance! And specifically, tolerance for Jews! After four months, they finally relented and allowed him to display his faith. As Horn put it, “Four months seems like a long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder if it is a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.” All the sympathy in the world for poor dead Jew, Anne Frank. But none made available for the living, practicing, vibrant Jew, Barry Vingerling.

This is not just about a perversion of the Holocaust. One more story: On July 13, 2022, at 3:40 PM, Yossi Hershkop, a young Orthodox man, was attacked in New York. He was punched repeatedly, needing hospitalization for his bruises. His five-year-old son sat a foot away, witnessing his father, his rock, his source of stability, being reduced in front of his eyes.  This was not a mysterious crime. It took place in broad daylight. You can watch a video of the perpetrators beating Yossi. You can see the security camera footage that catches their faces and the license plate of the car that they drove off in. You would think that with this much information, the police would have caught the criminals immediately and brought them to justice. But that’s not what happened.  A full two weeks later, Hershkop, exasperated, tweeted how his son is too traumatized to walk outside. The tweet went viral, caught media attention, and magically, later that day, the first arrest was made.  

I imagine many of you never heard of this incident with Yossi Hershkop. Unfortunately, many of us are unaware of the almost daily violent attacks against Orthodox Jews in New York. Despite a dramatic spike in incidents, they almost never make the news. Not only do they not make the news, these crimes, even when they are reported, almost never lead to prosecution. Of the 118 adults arrested in the past few years for antisemitic incidents, only one has been sent to jail for his crimes. Local activists assume that around 80% of crimes go unreported because Jews in New York have lost faith in the justice system protecting them. 

Why didn’t they care about Yossie Herskop? He was a Chabad Chossid. He had a beard, tzizis were out. He was a vibrant, religious, living Jew. But the world only loves Dead Jews. This is exactly Horns’ point. Here’s my final and most telling example – when a politician or famous actor makes an antisemitic remark and then apologizes, where does the Jewish establishment take him?

To Washington, to the Museum of Tolerance. Far better than going to Washington to see dead Jews, you know where they should be taken? To Brooklyn to see live Jews, with their peyos flying, kippah on their head, trying not to get smacked by a passerby. But that’s not where they take them. Because – people love dead Jews.  

It’s a chilling book with a chilling thesis. But as I was reading it, an even more chilling thought occurred to me. It’s not just “People” who love dead Jews. You know who else loves dead Jews?

We do. Jews love dead Jews. For example:

  • What’s the one day a year the entire American Jewish community makes sure to come to Shul? Is it Purim with its incredible exuberance, children in costume, and lively music? No. Its Yizkor. We pay tribute to the dead.
  • What’s one value that all Jews can embrace? Is it Israel with its incredible success? Miraculously rebuilding the country? Reviving our ancient tongue, regaining sovereignty after 2000 years? No. It’s the Holocaust. Israel is deemed too offensive for many. Living, vibrant Jews are too controversial to talk about. But not 6,000,000 dead Jews. 
  • What’s the one ritual that we all hold dearer than any other? Is it Torah study? That incredible chance to connect to our ancient wisdom? Is it prayer, that incredible opportunity to speak directly to the Almighty? No. It’s a yahrzeit when we say Kaddish for the dead. For dead Jews.

Do you want to know who also realizes this? Our kids. The next generation. There’s nothing less inspiring than when children see the thing that matters most to their parents about their Judaism is dead Jews. I once asked a child what shul is. His reply? “Where my family goes when someone dies.”

There is an age-old question as to why the Torah does not speak of the afterlife. It hints, it alludes, but it never spells it out. It’s only when we arrive at the Oral Law, the Mishna, the Talmud, that the afterlife is discussed explicitly. Why is that?

Allow me to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Ernest Becker in his classic The Denial of Death argues that fear of our own mortality – of death – has been one of the driving forces of civilization. It is what led the ancient world to enslave the masses, turning them into giant labor forces to build monumental buildings that would stand as long as time itself. It led to the ancient cult of the hero, the man who becomes immortal by doing daring deeds on the field of battle. We fear death; we have a love-hate relationship with it. Freud called this thanatos, the death instinct, and said it was one of the driving forces of life.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Torah is silent on the afterlife, in what happens after death, because “Judaism is a sustained protest against this worldview. That is why “no one knows where Moses is buried” (Deut. 34:6), so that his tomb should never become a place of pilgrimage and worship. That is why, in place of a pyramid or a temple such as Ramses II built at Abu Simbel, all the Israelites had for almost five centuries until the days of Solomon was the Mishkan, a portable Sanctuary, more like a tent than a temple. That is why, in Judaism, death defiles and why the rite of the Red Heifer was necessary to purify people from contact with death. That is why the holier you are – if you are a Kohen, more so if you are the High Priest – the less you can be in contact or under the same roof as a dead person. G-d is not in death but in life.”

Today, on Rosh Hashana, as we plead with G-d for life. Zachreinu l’chaim, Kasveinu b’sefer Hachaim, if you listen really closely, you could hear G-d ask us: Can you write Me into your life? Can our relationship, your relationship to Judaism, be about the life you live and not your deceased family members who are no longer? Can it be about connection and not guilt? Can it revolve around Torah study not the recital of Kaddish? Can it be a year of life?

And so, if I may be so bold. On this Rosh HaShana, 5783, perhaps we can make the following resolutions:

  • For every Yahrzeit candle we light, we should light a Shabbos and Yom Tov Candle, or do an extra Mitzvah. 
  • For every Kaddish we recite, we should recite and better understand one of the treasures of Jewish prayer. 
  • For every Yizkor service that we come to Shul for, we will come on a Simchas Torah or a Purim. 
  • For every Holocaust program, or article we read, we will connect with an Israel event or Torah learning session to enrich our appreciation of Yidishkeit. 

I started this talk with the growing challenge of anti-Semitism, I may have gone a little astray. But not that far astray. As we speak about and think about rising antisemitism, we always come back to the question of what can we do? How can we respond?

Let me share with you how Dara Horn responded. In the final chapter of the book, People Love Dead Jews – and I am sorry for the spoiler, she writes as follows. After the antisemitic shooting in Pittsburgh, the New York Times reached out to her for comment. After the antisemitic shooting in Poway, the New York Times reached out to her for comment. On December 10, 2019, there was an attack in New City, New York. Instead of reporting on the clearly antisemitic nature of the attack, many of the newspapers decided to focus on “context” – the fact that in recent years, many Jews have flooded this small town and there is some tension between Jews and those who had been living there before. Aside from the implication that neighborhood disputes should be taken care of by donning tactical gear and trying to storm a Jewish school… it was also completely irrelevant as the attackers were not local to New City.

Be that as it may, at this point, Dara Horn was tired. She was tired of being the spokesperson for dead Jews, and so she turned her attention elsewhere, to a gathering that was taking place at around the same time that also caught her attention. 90,000 Jews met at Met Life stadium in New Jersey. It was not a protest against antisemitism, it was a celebration of life. These Jews were celebrating their completion of a seven-year cycle of daily Talmud learning. That, thought Dara Horn, is what I want to focus on.

To quote her, “I suddenly knew what I wanted to do… I began to study the Daf… and something magical happened when I switched over from looking online at news reports about anti-Semitic attacks to joining some of the online Torah study platform…After the dark weeks I had just sleep-walked through with anxiety and worry about anti-Semitism, I experienced a strange and unexpected feeling, an undeniable sense of welcome and relief. It was like coming out of a cold dark night, into a warm lighted room…And while I still read today’s old, old news about anti-Semitism. I also run away from it, toward the old, the ancient. I turn the pages of Torah texts, carried by fellow readers, living and dead who all turn the pages with me.”

If I could add one more suggestion, inspired by Dara Horn, every time we hear or read about another antisemitic act this year – and unfortunately, we likely will, let’s go to a class that day, let’s go online and listen to a lecture, let’s open a siddur, let’s open a Jewish book. Or even better, pre-empt it – Let’s make this a year of chaim by filling our lives with more Judaism, more Torah, more life.

The story of the Jewish People is not one of survival against those who tried to kill us – that’s a victim narrative, it places death at the center of our faith, and it’s just not true. The story of the Jewish People is the story of a group of people who chose life, and who continue to choose life. We will, of course, remember and give respect to our past and to our loved ones, but we will also live our own Jewish life, by praying more, by studying more, by living more.

May G-d bless us with a year of life. Amen.

Written with Rabbi Avi Goldstein 

Rupture and Reconstruction Revisited Parshas Shmini

This past Thursday, we observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In Israel, a siren goes off, people stop in the streets, and reflect. They remember loved ones. They imagine the many relatives they never met. And they silently lament the ongoing and seemingly never-ending assault of antisemitism.

Over the years, my reflections on the Holocaust have evolved, as they should. As a young child, the Holocaust was a nightmare, quite literally. I would think Nazis were gathering to invade us, or maybe even hiding in my closet. Trauma, as I spoke about last week, gets passed on. As I got older, prouder in my Jewish faith, I thought of the Holocaust in the terms of heroism. The stories I heard of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Stories of people maintaining their faith in G-d in the face of such godlessness. More recently, I have been thinking of the Holocaust in terms of the long-lasting trauma to survivors and their descendants. Memory is alive; it is malleable and ever shifting. It is a weakness of the human condition, but it’s also a strength, it’s beautiful. If our memories don’t take on new meaning and cannot be seen from fresh perspectives, then it is not only our memory that is dead, but in some way, we are as well.  

And so today, I want to revisit the Holocaust from a fresh perspective; fresh, at least, for me, and that is from the perspective of Jewish law and practice.

In 1994, Professor Haym Soloveitchik, the son of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, penned what is considered to be one of the most important articles and assessments of Orthodox life. The article, titled, Rupture and Reconstruction argued “that from the beginning of the twentieth century and continuing after World War II, the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry, contemporary religion lost its roots or, more precisely, what he called “a mimetic tradition,” (from the word, mimic, to copy) a phrase which from that day on entered the Modern Orthodox lexicon. In the past, not only values but also religious practice was conveyed by living example, and not through texts. The absence of a continuous tradition, or masorah, led to religious insecurity; people now turned to detailed texts, as opposed to their parents and elders, to learn how to observe Jewish law and live an observant lifestyle.” (R. David Brofsky)

The impact, he suggested, led the Orthodox community to shift to the right and to more chumra, more stringency as Jewish texts tend to cautiously advise more stringent practices, even if the community they were written from and for, did not always act in the same fashion. And so, Professor Soloveitchik lamented this rupture in our mesorah, in the parent-to-child-tradition, caused by the Holocaust, which created a community that was dependent on books, and therefore more conservative in their approach to Jewish law and practice.

In the two and a half decades since he wrote his essay, the shift to texts over community, has also caused the exact opposite phenomenon, one that is equally, if not more, lamentable. As many have pointed out, the explosion of Jewish education for men and especially for women, the existence of the internet and social media with all its sharing abilities, has caused a tremendous amount of kulos, of leniencies, to be shared and adopted widely. Instead of turning to their shul rabbi, many an observant Jew, turns to rabbi Google, where he or she could often find not just an answer, but quite often, the exact answer that they’re looking for.

A prominent rabbi once told me that when a congregant asks him a question, he also Googles it. Not to look up the answer, but to know what alternative approaches he has to contend with. It’s like going to the doctor after you’ve spent a few hours on WebMD and the doctor has to reassure you that, “No, not every headache is a brain aneurism.”

Muhammad famously described the Jewish People as the people of the book. But he was mistaken. We are first and foremost a people. Full stop. A nation. A family. Yes, we have a book, but it is called a Toras Chaim, a Torah of life. It is a living book. Not only is it relevant in every age and era, but it is constantly evolving. Where does it evolve? Right here. Among the people, in a community, in discourse, in dialogue, and debate.

This week’s parsha speaks of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Vayehi bayom hashmini, and it was on the eight day. The eight day of what? For seven days preceding the inauguration, Moshe taught Aharon and his sons how to serve in the Mishkan, what to do, how to do it. But he didn’t use a book, he didn’t even give a lecture. Moshe himself served in the Mishkan and the Kohanim observed. The mimetic experience was born.

And on that very day, Nadav and Avihu, two of the most brilliant rising stars of the Jewish People, slated to be the next leaders, they died, actually killed by a heavenly fire. Why? Our Sages teach us that they were waiting for the elders, Moshe and Aharon, to die, so they could take over.

Now you have to understand – this wish of theirs, for Moshe and Aharon to die, was not selfish, and not as cynical as it may sound. Moshe and Aharon were old men. They were likely a little out of touch with the sentiment of the people. Nadav and Avihu, they “got it.” And they were fully capable of learning, of teaching, of communicating to G-d and receiving Divine instructions. “Moshe and Aharon, you did a great job; you got the Jewish People out of Egypt, you brought them the Torah. But now it’s time for the new generation. Enough with the old men.” 

What they failed to appreciate is that without the elders, without the connection between the past and the present, without their roots, they had nothing. That is not Judaism. The text is not enough; the community, the relationships developed in a community, the experience of learning from one another, that is who we are. That is what means to be a Jew.

Community is not only the medium through which we study and apply the law, it is the driving force behind some of the most challenging laws in the Torah. The second half of the parsha describes in great detail the laws of Kashrut; of what we can and cannot eat. Although we cannot fully understand why certain foods are allowed and others aren’t, in a very general sense, the rules of Kosher, as difficult as they may have been and sometimes are, have kept us united. They have forced us to live in close proximity to one another. For all the complaints of mark-ups and the like, what price would we not pay for the gift of community?

In the tenth century BCE, King Solomon, the Gemara tells us, instituted the Eruv, the mechanism through which a semi-public domain can be treated like a private one. People can mock the Eruv, people can fight against the building of an Eruv, but tell me, is there anything that had a greater impact on ensuring that we live next door to one another? There’s a reason King Solomon was described as the wisest of men.

And then, years later, as the Jews were dispersing all over the world after the destruction of the Temple that King Solomon built, another visionary came on the scene. His name was Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, and according to many, he is credited with instituting the Beis Knesses, literally, the house of gathering, the shul. It was designed to be a place where people could pray and to learn, but also to gather. You could pray at home – G-d is everywhere. You could learn wherever you’d like – all you need is a book. But for Judaism to survive, you need a community.

***

If I were to be perfectly honest, I relate deeply with Nadav and Avihu. I sometimes think I know what’s best for the Jewish People, and the old rabbis, the ones who can’t even turn on their phone, let alone keep up with the latest Jewish Twitter controversy, they’re out of touch. I relate to Nadav and Avihu, because I too, prefer to serve G-d alone, as they did. I sometimes feel lost in the crowd or distracted by a congregation. I feel that when I pray alone, my tefilah is more elevated. I’d like to believe these are holy sentiments. But they are not Jewish sentiments. Because Judaism is not just a faith. It is a peoplehood, a community, a family.

The Holocaust caused a rupture in our community life with lasting impact. Though radically less dramatic, the pandemic did the same. It’s really nice to see so many of you coming back, but there are many scratching their heads, wondering, why bother. And they’re in good company! Nadav and Avihu, the all-stars of the Jewish youth, felt very much the same, and I too have a hard time articulating why people should start coming back to shul. But I think the answer is this:

We serve G-d, and we study books, but first and foremost, we are a people. As we learned this past year, a Zoom family get-together is just not the same. Learning on one’s own is nice, but real Jewish learning takes place in the walls of the noisy study hall. There’s a lot of really good information on the internet, but I would never trade that in for the wise advice of my personal rabbi – even when I disagree with him. And praying in one’s home can be uplifting, but G-d, our Father, listens more closely when we stand together as one.

For every rupture, there is a reconstruction. I look forward to rebuilding with each and every one of you; growing together, learning together, praying together, and with a deep and shared appreciation for the central role of peoplehood in our faith, becoming an even stronger community than we were before.