The Jew as Other: Personal Reflections on Visiting Uncomfortable Places – Cantor Sarah Sager Sermon at Shabbat Worship, Feb. 9, 2018

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the sermon shared by Cantor Sarah Sager at Shabbat Evening Worship on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. She shared with the congregation her findings on two recent trips abroad, one to Spain and the other to Poland in the Fall of 2017. We encourage you to share the link to this teaching by email, or to Facebook or Twitter to continue the conversation it engenders. In addition, you may make comments below to respond or to add your thoughts.

Twice this fall, I was surprised.

Thanks, especially, to the support and encouragement of Rabbi Nosanchuk and my colleagues, I had the thrill of traveling to Spain with 30 of our congregants for 11 days in October. I briefly returned to Cleveland from that trip and then left again, on a mission to Poland with the Hebrew Union College Board of Governors.  They were two very different experiences – albeit both were outstanding, deeply moving, unforgettable, and even transformative.

The first surprise came in Spain. Given the rich history of Jews in Spain the trip was conceived as a Jewish Heritage Tour.  I worked closely with our guide, Nir Nitzan, to ensure that our itinerary in Spain had historical Jewish as well as secular interest.  Those of you who have traveled with Nir – whom Rabbi Nosanchuk introduced and “gifted” to this congregation, know that his passion and the focus of all of his trips is on learning and education.  He strives for every traveler to gain a broad and deep appreciation of the country that is being visited.

A couple of months before we left for Spain, Nir came to Cleveland to spend an evening with our group tracing the history of the Jews in Spain from the very earliest settlers during Roman times, or possibly as early as the Babylonian era. There had certainly been Jews in Spain anywhere from 1500 – 2000 years before the Inquisition.  One of the last suggestions Nir made to us that evening was to read a book about Beatrice de Luna.  He assured us:  “She is a fascinating, remarkable figure in our history.”

How many people have heard of or know of Beatrice de Luna, known also by her Hebrew name, Gracia Mendes Nasi?!?

The name was vaguely familiar to me, but I really didn’t know much about her so I took out a book and discovered a fabulously wealthy, philanthropic, intelligent, shrewd, influential, and exceedingly savvy Jewish business woman. She controlled one of the vast fortunes of the Renaissance, she helped finance monarchs, and she developed an escape network that saved hundreds of Jewish conversos, or superficial converts to Christianity, from the Inquisition.  She herself lived outwardly as a Christian but never lost touch with the Jewish community and was frequently one step ahead of the clutches of the Inquisition which ultimately spread from Spain to Portugal to Italy and loomed threateningly over much of Western Europe.

While the story of Beatrice de Luna or Gracia Mendes Nasi was a revelation in many ways, the surprise was how deeply impacted her life was by the evil and cruelty of the Inquisition. As with so many cataclysmic events, learning about it through the eyes of a single individual, feeling the terror and seeing its horrors through her experience – a woman who had power, connections, influence, and stature and was still entirely vulnerable to the forces of the Inquisition – afforded me an understanding of this time in our history I previously did not have.  I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that over the years, whenever I heard the term, “Spanish Inquisition”, I would think of the line from the song in My Fair Lady sung by Henry Higgins:  “I prefer a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition than to ever let a woman in my life!”  I did not realize how that association trivialized the entire concept in my mind.  It was sobering and profoundly saddening to realize that the Inquisition was the Holocaust of its time, replete with executions, burnings, confiscation and/or destruction of property, displacement, and the formulation of laws as the foundation of the “legal” prosecution of a targeted group.

For all intents and purposes, Spain was Judenrein long before Hitler came to power.  As Professor Samuel Kassow, an American historian of Ashkenazic Jewry and, remarkably, the Scholar-in-Residence of our mission to Poland, said: “Hitler didn’t do anything original.  He just did it more efficiently.”  There is no question in my mind that there is a direct line from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust.

While I was surprised by my own belated realization of the cruelty and destructiveness of the Inquisition, I was not prepared to encounter another Golden Age – of Polish Jewry, no less!! A trip to Eastern Europe was never high on my “bucket list”, but when I saw the possibility of this particular mission, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up!   I learned, from Professor Kassow, that Jews have been in Poland for a thousand years, that the first Polish coins minted, in 1206 CE, had Hebrew inscriptions because the mint masters were Jews, that the first century of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from 1569 until about 1669 is often referred to as the Paradisus Judacorum, the Golden Age of Jewish life in Poland.  Granted relative autonomy, Jewish communities enjoyed economic growth and stability, Jewish culture thrived with the opening of Talmudic academies and centers of learning, as well as a proliferation of Jewish literature, secular and religious.

Eventually, the Commonwealth deteriorated. Growing poverty and discontent gave rise to increasing anti-Semitism.  And yet, even after this Golden Age, Polish Jewry continued to grow and to flourish.  Part of the current revival of Jewish life in Poland is based upon the non-Jewish polish appreciation that “one cannot understand Polish history without Jews or Jewish History without Poland”.  This is a complex story of competition and cooperation, conflict and coexistence, separation and integration.   In 1939 there were 3,500,000 Jews in Poland, which was 10% of the population.

I never expected to enjoy Poland, to find charm and grace in its cities, to be moved and inspired by non-Jews’ acceptance of the shameful parts of its Jewish past, and by their honest embrace of a contemporary Jewish revival. The non-Jewish father of one of our tour guides was the founder and is the Director of the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow which, every summer, boasts over 25,000 attendees from around the world.  I never expected to hear Jews make a distinction between those Poles who did nothing during the war to help the Jews and those who actively aided and encouraged the Germans.  I was reminded that Poland was a defeated, even humiliated country at the mercy of its German occupiers and that it was a crime, punishable by death, to aid Jews.  We found we had to ask ourselves the hard questions:  how many of us would help our neighbor if it meant putting our own families at risk?

Even now there is a heated discussion in Poland around the identification of Poland as complicit in the Holocaust, especially by those who speak of “Polish death or concentration camps.” The debate seems to be driven by the Law & Justice Party that contends the camps were conceived, built, and operated by Germans, that many non-Jewish Poles were also arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Third Reich and that, unlike some other countries, Poland did not have a collaborationist regime working for the Nazis.  For many Jews, this is nothing more than an attempt to shield Poland from an honest examination of its wartime attitude toward Jews.  The issue has inflamed passions on all sides and demonstrates, at the very least, how intimately interconnected are the Poles and the Jews.

Part of the thrill of traveling with Professor Kassow was that, in addition to his tenure at Trinity College, he was a consultant to the POLIN Museum of History of the Polish Jews, which opened on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto just 4 years ago. He was responsible for two of the eight core exhibitions.  He proudly introduced us to this remarkable and endlessly fascinating state-of-the-art museum whose Hebrew name, POLIN, means in English either “Poland” or “rest here” and is related to a legend that tells of the arrival of the first Jews in Poland.

[Recently, the word “POLIN” was added to the Museum’s name in order to incorporate the legend of POLIN, which tells how Jews fleeing persecution in Western Europe came to Poland, where they heard birds chirping the Hebrew words “Po-lin! Po-lin!” In Hebrew “po-lin” means “rest here.” And so, when the Jews heard the birds, they considered it a sign from heaven that they had reached a safe haven where they could develop their spirituality, culture and learning unfettered.]

Professor Kassow was also involved in the restoration of the Ringelblum Archives, a treasure trove of original documents saved in the Warsaw Ghetto by historian Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum. As 19-year-old David Graber wrote in 1942:  “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground….I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know ….We would be the fathers, the teachers and educators of the future….May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened…in the twentieth century….May history attest for us.”

It did and Dr. Kassow hosted us at the opening of the permanent Exhibit of the Ringelblum Archives at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

With all that I learned, with all that I experienced, including visits to Auschwitz and Treblinka, where I had the privilege, in both places, of chanting Eyl Male Rachamim for our group and, at Auschwitz, of Hatikvah that brought me to tears of realization that our presence at those factories of death was the ultimate evidence that they had failed in their mission;  With all of it, there are still only partial answers to the questions that go back to the dawn of human history, to our slavery in Egypt, to exile in Babylonia, to the destruction of the Romans:  What is it about the Jew that invites challenge and antipathy?  Why the Jews?  Why do we so often find ourselves cast as The Other, the sub-human, extra-human, non-human, Other?  I am convinced that only by making us less than or an aberrant form of human, can we – or any group – be subject to such victimization.

We see it in Pharaoh’s objectification of the Israelites, in the Spanish monarchs betrayal of an entire population that had brought them immeasurable benefits, in the Germans’ scapegoating their own citizens. We see it today in the popular demonization of Israel – and in the objectification of other peoples as well.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg hypothesizes in his book, The Jewish Way, that the reason the Jew has historically been singled out for condemnation and assault is because we are the only ones who will not submit or conform to another’s concept of ultimate truth, authority or faith.  We are uncompromising when it comes to belief.  It’s not that we think we are better than anyone else.  God knows, we have our share of scoundrels and criminals.  But there is a core to our faith that does not, cannot be touched – to do so would be to render us no longer Jews.  We may differ as to points of observance, we may have a variety of opinions as to how or whether God manifests God’s self in the world.  But the unique nature of God we do not debate.  God is One and from that understanding flows everything else we believe.  God is One – and we will have no other gods before the One. We will not worship Kings or Dictators or Presidents.  We know that the work of our hands is just that, whereas God’s works are infinite wonders.  God is One means that God is not Buddha or Mohammed or understandable as three.

According to Rabbi Greenberg, there is something about our steadfast belief that engenders a perceived moral stature that is inherently critical of pretense, self-aggrandizement, narcissistic self-importance, and human deification.

Our loyalty is to God, never to human agency, and that loyalty is felt as an affront and an insult to those who perceive themselves as gods. Rabbi Greenberg would not suggest that our enemies have thought this through and analyzed it.  On the contrary, it comes out in far more primitive ways:  in Pharaoh’s fear, in Ahasuerus’ antipathy, in Hitler’s paranoia.  The only solution is clearly articulated in Torah:  to love our neighbor as our self.  We cannot objectify our neighbor – or anyone – if we love them as ourselves, as if they are irrefutably and immutably human – because they are.

We know the heart of the stranger, we know the horror of it, the destructiveness of it, the sheer terror of it – having ourselves been strangers in Egypt, in Spain, in Germany and Poland.

Even with currents of right-wing activity grabbing the headlines in Poland, I left feeling hopeful about the future, although with a simultaneous sense of sadness about the past. Both of my trips this fall left me with a tremendous sense of loss.  After every tragedy, every national crisis, our people have gone on, moved forward, refused to be defeated or eliminated.  But it has cost us – and it has cost humanity.

Given our history, if we ask what must our response be to evil, that I can answer and it is no surprise. It is as simple as it is profoundly difficult.  It is to do what every commandment of our tradition tells us to do:  to guard and protect the divine spark within every child of God.