A Call to Remember JFK’s Values and Not Only The Way He Died – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, November 22, 2013

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?’ is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Shabbat Vayeshev – Friday, November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We encourage you to share this post widely, to comment below and in other venues and continue this valuable discussion on the legacy of President Kennedy.

This Shabbat held on this national anniversary is more than it appears to be. Yet so much of the community discourse has boiled down to the question you probably asked each other on your way in tonight: Where were you when you heard the President was killed?

In the coming hours, as Jews around this country and the world observe Shabbat study they’ll encounter- this week’s Haftarah portion, the teaching of the prophets from the early chapters of the Book of Amos. In these scriptural verses, the Israelites’ unjust behavior and stubborn refusal to be educated out of their ugly ways is strongly admonished by the prophet, and they are warned of the severity of the punishment to come against them for creating a climate where injustice is the norm. Even a warrior leader who is swift, strong and purported to be fierce would not be able to escape the reckoning that would come (Amos 2:14-16.)

Tonight as our nation continues to mourn JFK’s assassination, we recall his rise to the Presidency with a swift and strong reputation, and shake our heads at the realization that 50 years have passed since a horrible day of reckoning for that generation came! The Dallas Morning News front page today quotes local Mayor Mike Rawlings in saying of the assassination: “We all grew up that day. Our collective hearts were broken.” The Amos passage to which I’ve alluded is also won about growing up and seeing the heartbreak in the world.

Amos raises a string of seven rhetorical questions that each use different metaphors to convey one message, which I believe is: If you look carefully at events, if you pay close attention, you will come to understand what caused them. Among his questions, Amos asks: “Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey? Does a great beast let out a cry from its den without having made a capture?” (3:3-4).

The implication is that when God punishes Israel, when that lion roars, when that great beast cries, the people will see that it was their own actions that brought about the wrathful consequence that occurred. Amos tells us there will be no mistaking it. The people Israel will realize it got torched by the very fiery climate it established and decided was an acceptable status quo. Then the suffering we would experience would not be pretty. When I try to channel the anguish that is contained in the subtext of the Amos passage, I think of feeling doubled over in pain and shock. I think of the rising of all the would’ves and could’ves and should’ves after an incident like an assassination in which human beings clearly exact devastating punishment on others. It simply leaves us breathless – not the kind of breathlessness of awe – but the kind of being choked and therefore unable to move let alone breathe or speak.

There is little in this passage of what rabbis call a nechemta, a comforting concluding word to leave the listener feeling their wounds somewhat salved. It is one of the more difficult Hebrew prophetic passages on the ear…like reading or hearing the depictions in the news stream of the horrific wreckage of the typhoon in the Phillipines – or the details of the gas attack in Syria this past summer. You want to recoil from what you hear, to avert your eyes, to block your ears, to shelter yourself. To wish it weren’t so and have that wish materialize.

Seems right then – that it should be spoken of on this extraordinary Shabbat, falling on this secular date in our calendar: November 22, 2013:  the 50th time our nation remembers the brutal gunning down of an American President in the midst of a crowded Dallas parade. When you watch the Zapruder film footage, you see the tragedy of an American President’s head blown off right in front of you. There is no escaping it: you are forced to come to terms with how ugly, how painful and ugly were the final moments of John F. Kennedy’s presence physically in our midst.

That loss is often on my mind when I visit Washington, D.C. Just this last spring I visited with a delegation of our members at an event in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. It is called the Consultation on Conscience and it is held once every two years. On the closing day of the conference, numerous lawmakers and shapers of policy spoke to delegates of our Reform congregations around the country, many of whom grew up and matured into adulthood during the rise to power of the various Kennedys.  Something about that era, I believe, helped propel many to believe in the power of activism and public service, alongside the activism of Robert, Ted and Jack Kennedy. They believed that change was possible and so did Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina who spoke to us about the likelihood of passing comprehensive immigration reform. That optimism and hope was expressed to us by a path-breaking Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who told of her efforts to break the partisan divide that has locked up so much of the progress we are seeking in Washington.

But there was no doubt that the presentation that captivated everyone was the one by Congressman Joe Kennedy of the 4th District in Massachusetts. Joe Kennedy simply had a different affect than the others addressing us. You know the sight I was seeing ! When nearly any group, especially populated by congregational leaders in their 60’s or 70’s hears a young man named Kennedy representing a district in Massachusetts speak to a crowd about what is possible if our nation’s voters and leaders are willing to work together, folks who are present simply can’t look ahead to the Kennedy standing right before them. Rather they look over their shoulder and remember. They remember the Kennedy whose death stained our nation’s conscience permanently. They remember the Kennedy whose Presidency and whose era in American culture ended right in front of them. They remember the one whose profile in courage has since been beaten into a million pieces by the hundreds of theories about why he died and who killed him.

Shabbat itself is a bit of healing solace from that kind of remembrance. We are summoned on Shabbat to remember creation, to guard our memories of freedom. And this is all symbolized in the presence of these two Shabbat candles, which classically on our tables represent shamor (guarding and protecting Shabbat) and Zachor (remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy.) Each week these candles light a path of spiritual guarding and remembrance for Jews in proximity to their glow.

Some who are here tonight know of what I speak. They are here in remembrance of the very first Shabbat they’ll ever be without a beloved spouse or sibling or colleague in twenty-five or maybe fifty years. Others gather in this chapel for the 10th or 20th or 17th or 27th time they’ll say Kaddish for a friend. Others of us aren’t here because of a loss at all. But just by sharing with the people around you that one of the things that bring you delight, comfort, learning and rest is your path of coming to celebrate Shabbat in our community, we are making a zikkaron, a memorial, a memory-trigger for the people in our lives can remember.

And I know I’m young enough that I wasn’t alive for the grief which struck the nation after the Kennedy assassination. I can only try to be of comfort as those who were alive tell me how torched our own national culture felt by the hateful climate which had surrounded President Kennedy previous to his death, a climate that made it possible for the spectacle of his murder to be exacted in such a publicly tortuous way. I was told by teachers and parents and grandparents growing up that the days that followed November 22, 1963, were among the most soul-searching days in their lives.

But I was alive and do remember what it was like to see the day when a nearly successful assassination attempt was perpetrated on President Reagan, and that was awful enough to see. Honestly, no matter how partisan our country becomes, I’d just as soon never want to see a president’s life be threatened again. But I’m not sure if it matters that it is a round number, 50 years, since JFK’s death, an even or an odd number since he was killed.

As I remember the Reagan shooting, I believe it was the late spring and I know for sure it was 1981. But I don’t think that there is much to be unlocked about the meaning of a Reagan Presidency on the approaching anniversary of 33 years since gunfire nearly stole another president from his elected place leading our nation. The remembrance of that tragic attempt at murder was an attack on our sense of wholeness. It remains a symbol of our vulnerability. It makes us ask: if you can get to the President, then how can anyone be safe?

Twenty years after the spring when Reagan was shot, I became a rabbi, and that day assumed the role in our Jewish community of being and radiating a non-anxious presence in times of consternation, sadness and intense vulnerability. That is my job. In the midst of an inhumane situation, Iam bidden by our tradition to look for the humane, I am as a rabbi to call people to join me or perhaps even to lead me in a path toward humane and compassionate action- through prayer, study and acts of kindness and assistance.

Just a few weeks ago in my own rabbinic study, I was called for assistance by a fellow rabbi whom I have never met before on what will undoubtedly be one of the most memorably difficult days of his career. It had been passed along to him that I would be a good person to call because of my experience in doing something fairly rare in the rabbinate: memorializing someone who was a murderer.  He had only a few minutes – but was looking to put his head in the right frame and to wrap his ideas around the right words and offerings to make sense of the senseless.

We read of the kind of death he was dealing with all the time now.  A man threatened by a sense of helplessness and sickness and depravity feels out of control when his wife tells him at a public event that she intends to leave him – and he threatens her and then chases her out of a restaurant and in a rage, pulls out a weapon he obtained in case just such a situation arose. The man kills his wife and then kills himself.

You’ve all read stories like this! And it happened just a month ago near the community of my rabbinical colleague of mine, garnering all the more attention because it happened to a prominent community family. My colleague who needed advice was to conduct the funeral in the next few hours for the man who had just three days earlier murdered his wife, and another of his colleagues would, the very next day, officiate in a burial at the wife’s graveside.

The rabbi who was calling me needed guidance and discernment. Sadly I’ve been through this situation twice in my career. That’s for another sermon. But here’s what I told him. I said he should name the rage as soon as possible during the service. He would need to speak immediately to the anguish in the hearts of all assembled for the ugly way in which this man’s life ended and the hostility and blood spilled in its final moments. But I told him that it was essential- to find some thread, some purpose, some reason why the man lived as well.

To me that is the purpose of remembrance. Why do we live? What is our purpose? It can’t be only to intentionally orphan our own children. Can it? He should ask that question, I said. But not be tempted to answer it all at once. Respond, I said. Allow the voice of our tradition to respond, and allow a bit of silence to respond as well.

On this Shabbat, fifty years after Kennedy’s assassination, a lot of us are raising our voices from the silence and asking for what did he live? For what moments in time to be remembered? As citizens of the United States, our President’s human frailties, actually precisely since Kennedy, are on daily public view, exposed at any given moment by a thousand different networks and webcasts. When filled up with life, Kennedy was one of the first presidents who really mastered that fact to his advantage. But when his life ended and his body was riddled with gunfire, it was ironically in the same public glare of exposure in the public eye that he was taken.

An article in the NY Times by historian and Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek today shared some of the meaningful exposures of those snapshots we remember of the life in President Kennedy’s service. It helped express for what he served, those things for which people hailed or assailed him.

Dallek explained that among the most vocal of Kennedy presidential critics excoriated his civil rights record. He mentions in his article:

  • Kennedy’s “delay in signing an executive order ending segregation in public housing, which he had promised during the 1960 campaign;
  • His appointment of segregationist federal judges;
  • The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s complaint that Kennedy lacked the “moral passion” to fight for equal treatment of blacks
  • Kennedy’s foreign policies, especially on Cuba and Vietnam.
  • The Bay of Pigs failure and Operation Mongoose, the plan to assassinate or at least depose Fidel Castro,
  • His decision to raise the number of military advisers in Vietnam, combined with his
  • Alleged support for the coup that killed the South Vietnamese president…”

All of these accusations that Kennedy showed weakness during his presidency have some real merit. But then in the same article he reminds us of the more shining moments in Kennedy’s thousand-day presidency. Dallek mentions:

  • Kennedy’s role and his astute diplomacy during the October 1962 confrontation with the Soviet Union over Cuba,
  • His outreach for rapprochement with Castro,
  • His having reached an agreement with Khrushchev for a nuclear test ban treaty that eliminated radiation fallout in the atmosphere.
  • His decision ultimately to put a civil rights bill before Congress in June 1963.
  • The requests he made in his Inaugural Address — for Americans to put their country ahead of their selfish concerns and to peoples everywhere to join in a new quest for peace — found substance in the Peace Corps which he invented.
  • His call in May 1961 for a manned mission to the Moon and
  • His speech in June of 1963 urging Americans to re-examine their attitude toward the Soviet Union.

I read Dallek’s review of Kennedy’s shining life-affirming moments and thought to myself- aren’t these values for which he stood- the discovery and the determination and resilience and the courage it takes to inspire citizens to look at the world with new eyes and not be afraid to speak of that vision and gather fellow citizens to share it!

On the 50th anniversary of the day of reckoning and rage that tore our leader out of the heart of our nation. I’d say thank goodness he did live. He did stand. For no matter whether you are a Kennedy or an Obama, a Reagan or an Eisenhower, whomever you are as President you are ultimately a human being- a representative- one who is willing to put their energies out in front of us for the purpose of improving our nation and calling us into unity. So those times, and not the sting or even the horror of the way you died are what ought to light up a path to unity- to light it with candles of remembrance of your legacy and guarding of your vision.

As we leave tonight, I know you will ask one another- where were you when you first learned that the President was killed? It is fair. It is reasonable. It is a worthwhile question. But I’d direct you to consider not simply that day but all the ones before it as well.

  • Sixty years ago this past August, as a naval lieutenant, Kennedy’s boat, was performing nighttime patrols near New Georgia in the Solomon Islands, when his PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.  Kennedy gathered his surviving crew members together in the water around the wreckage, to vote on whether to “fight or surrender”. Kennedy stated, “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.” Shunning surrender, the men swam towards a small island. In that effort, Kennedy towed a badly burned crewman through the water with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. He personally towed the wounded man to the island, and later to a second island, from where his crew was subsequently rescued. And for these actions, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps medal, for his heroic conduct, his endurance and his leadership in saving lives.
  • Fifty one years ago around now as President John F. Kennedy extended the first President to issue security guarantees to Israel, and fifty years ago he became the first US president to allow the sale of advanced US weaponry to Israel (the MIM-23 Hawk.)
  • In just two months, it will be the 53rd anniversary of Kennedy’s Inaguration. I know you remember the most famous words he uttered that day about calling us to serve our nation. “Ask not when your country….” etc.

But I’d call to your attention, on this night when we are all in need of a nechemta, a comforting word, to hear it in the following words of our President, words which we would do well to hold to as a standard for today’s national leaders, in each and every branch of our national and state government.

Kennedy said on a cold inaugural day: “Let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and that sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

It is a shame that we haven’t lifted a finger to fulfill that vision, that direction of his leadership….nearly as much of a shame as the way in which President Kennedy died.

Keyn Y’ hi ratzon. May his words be realized, and may God reckoning us all.