The Face of Hatred: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Rosh Hashanah Morning, September 21, 2017

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Thursday, September 21, 2017. We encourage you to add comments below and to share a link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter so as to continue the opportunity for dialogue on the important questions and topics it engenders.

It is the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, a time of renewal, hope and possibility. But this year, as the first of Tishrei has arisen, I feel relief. I’m genuinely relieved this past year is over. It was not good for the Jews. What shook us up so much? The real question is: what didn’t? Desecrated Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats at community centers, students bullied in schools, and efforts to normalize disturbing anti-Semitic trends from the political left and right- ranging from vicious anti-Israel BDS propaganda to the excusing away of white supremacism and klan style bigotry.

By Chanukah of this past year, I began to hear from people that the color and vibrance of holiday traditions were fading into dull tones due to the toxicity in our culture. Later in the year, that dispiriting feeling got inside me as well. This spring, we hosted the community-wide Yom Hashoah observance for Jewish Cleveland, and I was asked to give the keynote. As the service approached and up until I spoke, I was trembling. Why feel so burdened? Perhaps a veil was lifted before my eyes in 5777 on the enduring and pernicious disease of anti-Semitism and the searing and endemic racism in our society. This all makes me ache to hear the shofar blast. I don’t just want a new year. I want last year over and done.

If only transformation of our culture were as simple as praying for a better year in temple. It’s not.

If 5778 is going to be the year that redeems 5777, we must address hatred directly. But we won’t need a road trip to Charlottesville to do it. There is more than enough hatred right here within our own Jewish community. It would be tempting but foolish to pretend such hostility is absent. Our sages did not hide the fact that rage and animus lies within us. The fact that we haven’t rid ourselves of it does not mean we have failed. It means we are human, and we are in pain, and that God may be in pain as well.

A story. This one doesn’t take place on the first of Tishrei. It takes place on the first of Cheshvan, eleven months ago. I was in Israel with a group from temple, and I received an invitation from our Reform movement’s leadership to travel to Jerusalem to join them at the Hakotel hama’aravi, the Western Wall of the ancient temple. We were going to the Kotel to participate in a peaceful demonstration led by Reform and Conservative movement leaders, to show solidarity with women seeking religious equality, and demonstrating at a site precious to us, what it looks like when Jews pray in an egalitarian fashion.

Earlier in the fall, the Israeli government had decided to abandon an agreement they had publicly negotiated with all Jewish movements to create a space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. So on the first of Cheshvan, we came through the Dung Gate to the Old City. There were approximately 200 of us, many cradling Torah scrolls. We gathered at the entrance to the Kotel, proceeding at a cautious pace, singing prayerfully and walking with dignity. A few people behind me was Lev Caruso, a young man from our synagogue who was on a gap year studying in Jerusalem. I told Lev that morning that although I knew we would not be welcomed at the wall, that he should not be afraid that we would be in harm’s way.

I was wrong. Dead wrong. A poisonous response awaited us. Fellow Jews swore at us and called us Nazis. They tried to grab Torah scrolls from us and we had to push back to protect them. I didn’t have to throw a punch or duck one, but others did. A man spat in my face. Shoving, pushing, fighting, and intimidation ensued.  I was seeing with my own eyes the very thing our rabbis warned us about: sinat chinam, abundant, unchecked hatred. The live feed of the demonstration showed those of you here at temple a sight I’d hoped you’d never see: your rabbi shoving and pushing in what emerged as a kind of brawl between those of us intent on helping women to pray in peace at the wall, and those who would do anything they could to degrade us. As we approached the plaza, I was jostled between Israeli police and counter-demonstrators, both trying to stop us from worshipping the way most of the world’s Jews pray. What no video could show, however, was what I looked like inside. Yet I’ll tell you: I was a wreck..

To encounter others who disagree with you at the Kotel on any day is expected. Judaism honors dissent. It could be described as the essence of our history. But what we encountered at the Kotel was beneath the civil dissent our tradition demands and demonstrates. I was astonished to see our own people ordered by their rabbis to call women whores and the rest of us idolaters. They wanted nothing less than that we be physically harmed, degraded and injured.

We were not deterred. Some began to clap and hug one another in exultation. I approached the western wall and I wept. I stood alone and wept at the Kotel for I believed that God had just witnessed the depths of human depravity. I believed that God, if there is a God, wept with me at the wall, because they hate us. Let me say it again: they hate us.

My question this Rosh Hashanah is do you hate them back? Do you? I struggle to answer. The days of penitence that commence today, direct us to contemplate the range of emotions in our own hearts. We are admonished to scrutinize our conduct, and get ourselves near those who may have wronged us or we them. But to do that: you first have to answer this question: Who? Who, if anyone, do you hate?

Author Sam Keen in his book Faces of the Enemy (Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986) tells us we hate the one we do not know. He writes:

“Start with an empty canvas. Sketch in broad outline the forms of men, women and children. Then dip in to the unconscious well of your own disowned darkness with a wide brush and stain the strangers with the sinister hue of the shadow. Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as your own. Obscure the sweet individuality of each face. Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes, fears that play through the kaleidoscope of every finite heart. Twist the smile until it forms the downward arc of cruelty. Strip flesh from bone until only the abstract skeleton remains. Exaggerate each feature until man is a beast, vermin, insect. Fill in the background with malignant figures from ancient nightmares- devils, demons, myrmidons of evil. When your icon of the enemy is complete you will be able to kill without guilt, slaughter without shame. The thing you destroy will have become merely an enemy of God, an impediment to the sacred dialectic of history.”  

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s how Jews were treated by others through history. But it is also the way anyone in power, including us, have rationalized our aggression toward a vulnerable “other.” We hold the target of our aggression in ignorance, for it is easier to excuse ourselves that way for hateful conduct in which we engaged. This is not something we like to admit. Instead we blame the media for feeding us suspicion of other cultures. Or we blame the rage we feel on what parents and teachers didn’t teach us in our homes and schools. It has been all-too-convenient during this past year to suggest aggression is the fault of the President or the Congress and each of their policies. But it’s just not that simple. Many factors contribute to the toxic cocktail of ignorance and hatred, including Torah. Yes, Torah!

See how Miriam and Aaron, in one of their worst moments, traffic in xenophobic rhetoric about their sister-in-law Zipporah. Her sin? She is a Cushite woman, they say. “Moses married a Cushite!” And all we know at this stage in the Torah about the Cushites is that their skin was of darker complexion. She was dark skinned, and because of this she was being degraded by her own new family!

In another instance, the biblical Sarah, once she gave birth to Isaac, shamed Ishmael, the son conceived at her own request by Abraham and Hagar. Sarah lashes out at Hagar and Ishmael, saying, “cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” She does nothing to conceal her hatred. Ishmael’s name is not used. She just calls him “boy.” You and I both know that calling someone “boy” and the “son of a…” while not even speaking their name is a way you objectify a person. It is a way you dehumanize them. It’s how you let them know you hate them.

As a rabbi encountering these Torah passages, I am torn between two instincts. On the one hand, I want them out in the open to show that our ancestors were human and flawed. But I also recoil at them. I wish I could hide them from public view, so no one would read them and think that this is what it means to be a Jew. I want people to recognize Judaism for its nobility, its ethics and its righteous mission.

You may remember that shortly after I arrived here at Fairmount Temple eight years ago, I led a trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories composed of rabbis, imams and ministers. Several days into this pilgrimage, we made a trip through two Israeli security checkpoints into the Palestinian territories and onto the campus of Bir Zeit University just outside of Ramallah. While at Bir Zeit, we met with a professor who spoke to us about his work to combat hatred in the Middle East.

He wanted his students to grow tolerance and understanding. He pleaded with us to share resources and bibliographies. You have to understand. What he said contradicted everything I had learned growing up. Bir Zeit was always portrayed to me as a hotbed of radicalism and danger, a place we should hate with everything we’ve got. If Israel in the 80’s and 90’s were trying to quell a Palestinian incitement to violence, one of the first steps they’d take was to close Bir Zeit. Twenty years later, here I was at Bir Zeit, learning about efforts to build a path to peaceful co-existence! Honestly I didn’t know what to believe.

After our meeting, I sat in the courtyard outside one of the Bir Zeit classroom buildings.  Nearby were a few female students, who asked us what we were doing at their college. We told them that we were hoping to learn how to help Christians, Jews and Muslims bridge their differences. The young woman sitting closest to me, whose name was Ensaf, looked us in the eyes and confessed with some trepidation that in her whole life, she had never met a Jew. She didn’t believe she ever would and didn’t know what she’d do if she met a Jew in person.

A moment of tension hung there between us. I didn’t know what to say. But I couldn’t just stay silent. “You just met a Jew,” I said. “I am a Jew.” I wondered whether I had spoken too sharply. I worried that she’d be afraid or ashamed. But just then, her eyes opened wide and she let out a nervous laugh. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for coming here.” She seemed genuinely appreciative that a Jew had traveled such a distance and crossed so many boundaries just to meet people like her. Then she began to pepper me with questions about Judaism, Israel, and our traditions.. In an instant she leapt from ignorance and suspicion to a place of knowledge and genuine heartfelt inquiry.

Her name was Ensaf. In Arabic it means “fairness” or “righteousness.” In Hebrew, En Sof is actually one of God’s own names, referring to God who has “eyn sof” no end to God’s capacity to strengthen and bless us. I didn’t take a picture of her. But if I close my eyes right now I can see her. I can see exactly what her green eyes looked like when they opened wide.

Judaism teaches us that it is human nature to question whether such a person from an enemy people has the capacity for redemption. But even with these human doubts, our rabbinic sages beckon us to try. We are to look within the person with whom we are in conflict, whomever they are, and search for “sparks” of goodness. Judaism tells us to “expand rather than contract” to “pray instead of curse” and above all, to “rescue the sparks” of decency and righteousness within another human soul that might otherwise be scorched by hatred and remorse. (You Are What You Hate: A Spiritual Productive Approach to Enemies, Jerusalem: A Still Small Voice – Devora Publishing, 2009), p. 190-191.

Her name was Ensaf. In Arabic it means fairness or righteousness. I’ll probably never see her again. But after a 5777 that left me so troubled, remembering that few minutes with Ensaf gives me hope. It is not a perfect hope. It is surely is weakened by the climate of ignorance and hatefulness that is still pervasive on the West Bank. It is a hope shaken by the hateful conduct of the Jewish men, women and children who spat on us and sought to degrade fellow Jews at the Kotel last fall. But hope remains. In just a few minutes almost seven years ago, a young woman studying at a college on the West Bank helped me to remember that when people hate us, nothing is truly accomplished when all we do is hate them back.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Freedom involves letting go of hate, because hate is the abdication of freedom. That is what Moses taught the people who were about to enter the Promised Land. Don’t hate the [Egyptian] people who persecuted you. Instead, learn from that experience how to build a society without persecution…Build a life, a family, a future, a hope. Hate makes us slaves; therefore let it go. Do not wage war on the children of darkness. Make sure instead that you and your children are sources of light.” (Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, (NY: Schocken Books, 2015) p. 250-251

It is the first of Tishrei, a time of renewal and possibility. In the New Year ahead, I pray we will live in a way equal to this vision. We and our children and their children can be sources of light, rescuers of goodness in every human soul, and a people who will never ever give up on freedom and peace. Amen.