We have just passed a dark anniversary: two years since the murder of eleven Jews at worship in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Let us pause to recollect the eleven, to pray that their names be remembered, to pledge that we ourselves will not forget, and to recommit ourselves to work for justice, on behalf of all victims of racism, antisemitism, and in particular, for them: Joyce Fienberg, 75, Richard Gottfried, 65, Rose Mallinger, 97, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Daniel Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 88, and Irving Younger, 69, brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54; and Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86.
The latest development in the judicial process of trying the (alleged) murderer, Robert Bowers, is that the presiding judge turned down a defense motion to dismiss the federal charges proceeding from the Hate Crimes Protection Act and the Church Arson Act. That is welcome news for those wishing to see justice in this case (as opposed to those who cheered Bowers on, who agree with his statement that he wanted “all Jews to die”, and who celebrate this anniversary --- sick as that sounds, it is part of American life today.)
Let us remember why Bowers (allegedly) invaded the Tree of Life synagogue on that shabbat in October, two years ago. It was the shabbat dedicated to celebrating the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and assorted other extremist groups, detest HIAS, because it helps non-Whites to immigrate to the United States.
The “Hebrew” in HIAS is a matter both of institutional history and of ideology. The following statement, from the HIAS website, succinctly explains what HIAS has done and what it does today: “HIAS has a long, proud and extensive history in the realm of refugee and asylee assistance. HIAS was founded in 1881 to assist in the resettlement of Russian Jewry in the United States who were escaping poverty and pogroms in their homeland. Later on it would help more refugees in both World War I and World War II, with nearly two dozen of its employees being killed in concentration camps or on the battlefield trying to assist Jewish refugees escape the horrors that awaited them. HIAS ultimately managed to help 40,000 European Jews escape that continent during the Holocaust. It continued its work through the decades, and helped Soviet Jewry find a safe haven in the United States and other countries during the Cold War period.
“To date, HIAS has managed to resettle more than 4.5 million refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish. As the numbers of persecuted Jews has diminished, HIAS has directed its efforts to help other vulnerable groups throughout the world. On the national level, HIAS engages in advocacy in Washington D.C., and, on the international level, assists refugees in many ways with offices in nine countries.”
The era of mass Jewish immigration to the United States is over (for now). Why do Jews still support HIAS? Why haven’t a majority of Jews gone down the same ugly route as many other American groups: in one generation a people of immigrants, and only decades later, a xenophobic citizenry seeking to deny American sanctuary to anyone outside their own ethnicity? From Know-Nothings and Nativists in the 19th century, to W.A.S.P.s and Eugenicists in the early 20th century, to the supporters of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 (using anti-Communism as a fig leaf to deny entry to would-be immigrants), to the contemporary bars placed before all immigrants, legal as well as illegal, there is a sinful, shameful story. This is the story of a succession of Americans, only too eager to climb aboard Lifeboat USA and then pull up the ladder after themselves, leaving “suckers” and “losers” to drown or be eaten by sharks (piscine and human).
Some Jews have assimilated enough into American society as to feel the same way. But most Jews continue to care about immigrants, even when those immigrants are not Jewish. Why is that?
To be even-handed, some of the answer has to do with another kind of assimilation. Some Jews on the Left have assimilated into the cross-cultural norms of Liberal America, just as some Jews on the Right have assimilated into the inter-religious norms of Conservative America.
But that is not the complete answer! There is a deep well of humanitarianism in Judaism, from the very beginning of the religion. Contemporary Jews who foreground that humane impulse in their own Judaism are selecting from a wider menu what suits their taste, but they are not injecting an anti-Jewish note into the religion itself.
I believe that we see the beginnings of this humanitarianism in this week’s Torah portion, “Lekh Lekha.” It is the first third of the story of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. In chapter 15 of Genesis—a very famous story — God establishes a covenant with Abraham (although, at this point in the story, his name is still “Abram”).We like to tell the first part of the story, where God tells Abram to step outside, to look up to the heavens, and to try to count the stars. As surely as the stars are too numerous to count, just so, will Abram’s offspring be too numerous to count. (This is part and parcel of the old Semitic sense that we are blessed when our tribe increases.)
But we don’t typically retell the entire story. In the continuation of the narrative, Abram falls into a trance and receives an extraordinary revelation. God tells him about his family’s destiny: “Know well that your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, and that they shall be enslaved and afflicted…” (Genesis 15:13)
This foretelling of the “iron cauldron” of Egyptian slavery is the acorn, from which the entire oak of Jewish compassion grew. Being slaves, at the time of our national birth, did not make us bloodthirsty, seeking only revenge against the Egyptians. Remarkably, it made us more compassionate. The Bible enjoins us, time and again: Do not abhor an Egyptian. Know well the heart of the stranger/immigrant, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. Take heed to secure equal justice for the stranger no less than the home born. Over and over, the Bible stresses that the lesson to be learned from our formative enslavement is not self-absorption, but the very opposite. Doubtless, the Bible stresses the point and returns to it, because it is working against the natural tendency to hold grudges.
The Rabbis inherited and amplified this altruism as a mark of being a follower of Abraham: “Anyone in whom are there these three traits is one of the disciples of Abraham, our father… a generous spirit, a modest mien, and a humble soul… The disciples of Abraham, our father… inherit the world to come.” (Pirke Avot 5:19)
It has been said that Jewish history is “paranoia confirmed by experience.” That is sadly true and continues to be true in America today. Charlottesville, 2017, Pittsburgh, 2018, Poway, 2019… and I fear that the list will continue. Surely, we need to defend ourselves. But just as surely, we need to continue to care for all of God’s children. That’s what God wants of each of us.
Rabbi Michael Panitz