Here is the sermon I delivered at Temple Beth Hillel.
Shabbat Shalom, Moadim l’simcha. I hope that this Passover week has been liberating and delicious.
While these are my wishes and hopes for all of us this special week, unfortunately, I have been quite worried this week. My worry stems the news this week and from the modern day plagues so many in our world deal with on a daily basis. At my s’darim in addition to the 10 drops of wine at my Seders, all of us around the table added modern plagues; hunger, ignorance, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were just a few that Seder attendees suggested.
Jews are not the only people with sacred observances this week. Today is Good Friday. On this day the Christian and Catholic world commemorate the death of Jesus. According to the Christian Bible, after Jesus was sentenced to be tortured by crucifixion, he carried a wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem from the court at the Fortress Antonio adjacent to the Temple Mount to Cavalry the spot where he would die. The place of Jesus’s death is today, found inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which was built over the last several Stations of the Cross.
Today in Jerusalem thousands of Christian pilgrims walk the Via Dolorosa – the street of suffering – marking the 14 Stations of the Cross which trace the final footsteps of their messiah. Some carrying large wooden crosses as they imagine Jesus to have done.
There are some who will misinterpret the readings from the Bible and blame Jews for the death of Jesus. And in history, this week has been one filled with a history of anti-Semitism. And in our own day as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, our local Lutheran Bishop, Guy Erwin sent the following letter to the pastors in his synod as they prepared for Holy Week worship:
I want to encourage, even urge you, to consider carefully the impact of the words you use in worship this week. Starting with Palm Sunday, we use scripture readings this week and next that often refer to the opponents of Jesus and the disciples simply as “the Jews.” In the context of the earliest Christianity, when it went without saying that Jesus and his closest followers were themselves Jews, the listener would know that what was meant were “those who opposed Jesus” or, more narrowly, the religious leaders. I want to tell you that I believe it appropriate and proper for you to alter the readings if you need to, to make this point more clearly and avoid misunderstanding …
And particularly in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, when we are doing our best to be both charitable and honest in our recounting of our church’s origins, we should be especially aware of the pernicious nature of quiet anti-Semitism. I would like us Lutherans to be known today as a church that deals directly and honestly with the shadows in its past, and which rejects prejudice against Jews or members of any other religious community.[i]
Bishop Erwin understands the covert and overt anti-Semitism and the complicated history between Christian Holy Week scriptural readings and hate crimes against Jews.
One of the manifestations of anti-Semitic hatred was the blood libel.
“The “blood libel” refers to a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians – especially Christian children – to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread). It is also sometimes called the “ritual murder charge.” The blood libel dates back to the Middle Ages and has persisted despite Jewish denials and official repudiations by the Catholic Church and many secular authorities. Blood libels have frequently led to mob violence and pogroms, and have occasionally led to the decimation of entire Jewish communities.”[ii]
The blood libel is still around today in many forms. Right-wing Christian extremists who predict the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus use it. Radical Islamic warriors have picked up on the rhetoric to perpetuate their own propaganda against Jews and to justify attacks on Israel.
In our own country in this era of alternative facts we are seeing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial coupled together from government offices. On Tuesday, the first day of Passover, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was answering questions about the heinous use of chemical weapons on citizens of Syria. Spicer made a completely incorrect and horrendously offensive statement when he said, and I quote, “You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”[iii] Spicer then continued to dig himself into a hole stating, ““He [Hitler] was not using gas on his own people the same way…” and then went on and “added awkwardly that he was aware of “Holocaust centers” and that he meant that Hitler did not use gas in the middle of towns.””[iv]
These blatant lies are more than misstatements. They are revisions of well documented history. And they are part of a pattern of Holocaust denial. Unfortunately it gets worse. Dr. Deborah Lipstadt is a Holocaust scholar who was sued for libel in England by a Holocaust denier, David Irving. You can see this story portrayed in the film, Denial. Dr. Lipstadt wrote in The Atlantic today:
Spicer’s inept historical analogies may have attracted the most media attention in the United States, but they hardly constituted the worst recent such transgression. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a long term Labour party stalwart, engaged in a far more premeditated attempt to manipulate World War II history. For the third time in a year, he repeated his claim that Zionists and Nazis engaged in “real collaboration” in the 1930s. According Livingstone, the Nazis did the Zionists’ bidding, including forcing rabbis to stop giving sermons in Yiddish, setting up training camps for Jews who wanted to go to Israel, and selling them arms.[v]
And then in France, Lipstadt writes:
…Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right French National Front, who stands a chance of winning the presidency in the forthcoming elections, contended that France bore no responsibility for the Val d’Hiv roundup of 13,000 Jews in the summer of 1942. The Jews were held for days in searing heat and horrific conditions—little food, water, or facilities—until they were deported. Most ended up in Auschwitz, where they were gassed.
For over two decades French leaders from across the political spectrum have acknowledged that this roundup was instigated by French authorities, conducted by French police, and supervised by French officials … To their credit every French president since Chirac has reaffirmed responsibility for this blot on France’s history.
In contrast, Le Pen attacked the fact that French children are taught of their nation’s complicity. “I want them to be proud to be French again.”
In making this claim she echoed her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, the former party leader and a man with a long record of anti-Semitism, who has resurfaced in recent weeks with his oft-repeated statement that the Holocaust and gas chambers were just “details in history.” …[vi]
We know too well that the gas chambers were more than details in history. They represent one of the darkest periods in the history of humankind. Every time a leader takes the microphone and makes anti-Semitic statements or those that deny the horrors of the Holocaust they are attempting to normalize their views. However we know our history.
History is what Passover is all about because our history is an active history. We do not just tell the story of what happened then, long ago. Our tradition instructs each one of us, “bchol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’elu hu yatza mi’Mitzrayim”, in every generation every single person is to see themselves as though they went forth from Egypt. From degradation to celebration, from enslavement to freedom, from despair to hope.
And so we will tell the story, tell our story. We will speak out when we hear lies and falsehoods and call on our friends and partners to stand with us and speak out. We will not get stuck in worry and fear. We will continue to teach the story of our people to the next generation as our parents and grandparents did for us.
I’m ready to get to work. Are you?