FIRST DAY ROSH HASHANAH
September 29, 2011
Rabbi Dr. Ronald L. Androphy
If it were not for a judge’s ruling, on Tuesday, November 8th, the citizens of San Francisco would be going to the polls to vote on a referendum to ban the practice of circumcision.
We may ridicule this attempt to outlaw a ritual that is at the very core of Judaism. We may laughingly dismiss the anti-circumcision ban as being so “left coast,” thinking, “It is, after all, San Francisco.” We may have felt certain that the referendum would have been defeated; we may have had faith that even if it were enacted the circumcision ban would be ruled unconstitutional by a court.
But, my friends, let us not be so smug in our assumptions, for San Francisco is not the only locale where circumcision is being condemned, nor is circumcision the only Jewish practice that is being challenged. At this very moment the Netherlands is considering whether to ban shechitah, the traditional Jewish method of slaughtering animals for kosher food. If passed, Holland will join Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden in banning the practice. At this very moment, similar anti- shechitah campaigns are underway in Australia, New Zealand, England, and Denmark. And lest you think that this type of campaign takes place only overseas, an anti-shechitah initiative was recently ruled off the ballot in Washington state.
As those of you who have been with me for the past twenty-eight years are keenly aware, I am not, nor have I been, a person or a rabbi who sees anti-Semitism lurking behind every tree. In fact, I have delivered sermons, even on the High Holy Days, in which I have declared that anti-Semitism is no longer a major challenge or issue for us Jews, and should not consume a tremendous amount of American Jewry’s energy or resources. I have suggested that the fact that almost every one of the Ivy League colleges and universities and their Sisters – schools that not so long ago placed quotas on the number of Jewish students they would accept – have had Jewish presidents or deans of their constituent schools; the fact that most Gentile families do not oppose their children’s marrying a Jew; and the fact that few Fortune 500 businesses are Jew-less – all demonstrate that anti-Semitism has virtually been vanquished.
Well, the High Holy Days are the occasion on which we admit our mistakes. So let me admit my error: Anti-Semitism is not dead; rather it has reemerged in a particularly insidious form: this contemporary anti-Semitism is not an attempt to kill Jews. No; understand it for what it is: Today’s anti-Semitism is an attempt to delegitimize Judaism. That’s right: it is an attempt – curiously not primarily from the right, but equally, and I might even add “especially,” from the left – to delegitimize our Jewish religion.
Don’t believe me? Let’s examine the San Francisco referendum. Those who were proposing the ban claim that circumcision is a form of mutilation over which the victim, in our case the eight-day old boy, has no say. They claim that it is unfair to inflict such permanent damage on a child who has not reached the age of consent. But let me ask a question: why are these people fighting only circumcision? Why don’t they seek to abolish, for example, the piercing of young children’s body parts? I am certain you have seen babies who have had their ears pierced. Now you might argue that ear piercing is reversible in that a person can let the holes fill in. Not always. And I am sure you have seen young children with other parts of their body pierced, obviously before the age of legal consent. Why not ban that? You know, we live in an age in which tattooing has become the rage. How many men and women did you see this past summer — when people wear shorts, and short-sleeve shirts or tank-tops — sporting tattoos on one part of their body or another? How many times have you seen men and women who look like walking cartoons with their arms and legs almost fully tattooed? I have also seen children with tattoos, children far below the age of legal consent, and I have a feeling that there are more cases in San Francisco than there are on Long Island, and despite laser abrasion, tattoos are still extremely difficult to remove. Why don’t the anti-circumcision supporters try to abolish child tattooing and/or child piercings? I’ll tell you why: because their goal is to delegitimize Judaism.
Need further proof? – Look at the rhetoric they use. They employ words like “mutilation,” barbaric,” and “child abuse” to describe circumcision. These are words of delegitimization. Is anyone here in favor of mutilation? barbarism? child abuse? Of course not. What they fail to mention is that a brit milah, a circumcision performed by a skilled mohel, is not barbaric at all; it is invariably quick and safe. While I am not going to tell you that a bris is painless, I doubt very much if any of us males remembers his bris or was irreparably harmed by it.
As all of us know, brit milah is one of the foundational mitzvot of our Jewish religion. Every Jewish family knows that circumcising our infant males at the age of eight days is what we Jews do; it is constitutive of being Jewish. That is why bris is probably the most observed Jewish ritual, even amongst unreligious or non-observant Jews. A Jewish boy without a bris, while still Jewish, is an incomplete Jew; he always stands in need of repair. A bris is the hallmark of male Jewish identity; it is the quintessential symbol of male Jewishness. That is why throughout history Jews have fought and sacrificed their lives in order to circumcise their young.
And what about the anti-kosher slaughter campaigns? Shechitah, the traditional Jewish method of killing an animal in a kosher manner, reflects the Jewish concern for what is called in Hebrew tsa-ar baalay chaim — not causing pain to an animal. In the hands of a skilled shochet, using the required razor-sharp knife, an animal is killed almost instantaneously, and virtually painlessly. When I was in rabbinical school, I saw kosher slaughter performed. I was as close to the animal as I am to the people seated in the third row. The shochet drew his long, sharp knife across the cow’s neck, there was a massive outpouring of blood, and, almost instantaneously, the animal was dead. No lowing, no contortions of the animal’s face, no screaming; the animal didn’t even blink its eyes.
What the anti-shechitah movement is campaigning for is to require that all animals be stunned, either electrically or percussively, prior to slaughter. Supposedly, this causes the animal less pain, but I cannot imagine that being shocked with electricity or being smashed on the skull with a high-powered pneumatic device, is painless for the animal. From the kosher standpoint, stunning is problematic because it causes coagulation of the blood, and prevents its free flow, as is required.
By banning kosher slaughter, these people are undermining one of our cardinal Jewish observances. Whether you personally keep kosher or not, you must be concerned that attempts are being made to ban a traditional Jewish practice, a ritual that has been observed by our people for thousands of years. And, again, the opposers of kosher slaughter are using the language of delegitimization: they call shechitah “cruel,” “barbaric,” “inhumane,” etc. And who is in favor of anything “cruel,” “barbaric,” or “inhumane?”
Switzerland first enacted its anti-shechitah ban in order to keep Jews out of the country. Once Jews began fleeing Russia and Poland in the face of pogroms, Switzerland did not want to be inundated with what they considered to be backwards, dirty Jews. So it passed laws to prohibit kosher slaughter so that Jews would not immigrate to Switzerland. See, even in the 1890s the Swiss did not want us, a situation that would be repeated during the Holocaust. But in Europe today the anti-Semitic, anti-kosher slaughter campaign is more devious. The European Union is considering a requirement that all meat bear a label indicating whether an animal was stunned before slaughter. Obviously, kosher-killed meat would not bear such a stamp; some treyf meat would, some would not. Sounds harmless, no? But here’s the insidious part: what would happen next is that there would be a campaign to pressure stores to carry only meat that was stunned prior to slaughter, and/or to boycott meat that was not derived from animals that were stunned. Sounds relatively benign, right? But, as you probably know, only the front quarters of an animal are koshered in the United States and Europe; the hind quarters are sold to non-kosher meat packing companies. This helps keep the price of kosher meat lower than it would otherwise be. But imagine that under pressure from the anti-shechitah movement, stores would no longer buy meat that came from the hind quarters of kosher-killed animals. The price of kosher meat would at least double or triple, rendering keeping kosher extremely difficult.
And the attempt to delegitimize Judaism does not end with bris and shechitah. It even goes to the very heart of Judaism. As all of you know, I have earned a doctorate in Bible. Those of you who took a Bible course in college undoubtedly learned about the Documentary Hypothesis, the theory, enunciated in its clearest form over 120 years ago by the German Protestant scholar, Julius Wellhausen. This theory suggests that the Torah is not a monolithic text, but rather an edited book comprised of four different strands written over a period of approximately 500 years. As a Bible scholar, I can tell you that much of the Documentary Hypothesis is beneficial for the study of the Bible, and much of it is simply wrong and is no longer accepted in the realm of modern Bible study. Today, however, an even more daring theory has gained considerable acceptance: this minimalist hypothesis claims that none of the Bible was written before the Persian Period. What this theory suggests is that there never was an Israelite/Jewish presence in the land of Canaan/Israel prior to the fifth century B.C.E. In other words, there was no Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; no Moses and Exodus; no Joshua and Conquest; no King Saul, David, and Solomon; no Kingdom of Judah or Kingdom of Israel. Its more radical expression denies the historicity of such great prophets as Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah. While I am not a Biblical fundamentalist, while I do not believe that everything the Bible records occurred exactly as stated, while I realize that the texts and stories of the Bible were subject to the some of the same forces of transmission and story-telling that characterize all literature, nonetheless, I maintain that substantial evidence – archaeological, linguistic, etc., — supports much of the Bible. Do you realize what this theory – the product of European universities – means for us Jews? It totally delegitimizes our religion; it totally delegitimizes our claim to the Land of Israel. It says that the Jewish religion is a sham, and that we Jews have no right to the Land of Israel.
Which leads me to the most concentrated attack against the Jewish people, and that is the attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel. And, my friends, at this point the attacks against Israel – especially in Europe, but also here in the United States – go far beyond demanding that Israel surrender the West Bank and Golan Heights. These attacks deny that Israel has any right to exist as a Jewish state. In other words, these assaults delegitimize Israel. Israel, they claim, has no right to exist – not within the 1947 Partition borders, not within the 1949 armistice borders (which are the pre-Six Day War borders), and certainly not within Israel’s current borders. They would argue that the Jewish State of Israel should be erased. Just look at the boycotts against Israeli products that have been organized around the world. Until recently these embargos were directed only against products that emanated from the West Bank, Golan, or Gaza. More recently, however, the sanctions have involved a boycott of all products made in Israel, no matter whether those items derive from the West Bank, etc., or whether those Israeli products are produced within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Some of these boycotts have been successful in Europe (witness the recent closing of the Ahava store in London), some have failed on college campuses here in this country – but almost all of these boycotts today unjustifiably equate Israel with South Africa of the apartheid era, and just as many people refused to buy goods from South Africa, so, according to these anti-Zionists, should people boycott Israeli products. And these attempts to delegitimize Israel will only become more pronounced and more vociferous with last week’s appearance by Mahmoud Abbas before the United Nations seeking the UN’s recognition of a Palestinian State.
As all of us know from seeing the article that has circulated on the internet, if a person boycotts Israeli products, he/she will have to give up his smartphone, her computer, etc., since all of these technological devices were invented in Israel. Such a person would also have to refuse many forms of medical treatment since many medical devices and pharmaceuticals were developed in Israel. Nonetheless, these Israel delegitimizers should have all of us worried. With the Palestinians about to proclaim unilaterally a Palestinian State, these delegitimizers will make Israel’s already tenuous standing in such international forums as the United Nations even more unstable. Israel’s existence as we know it is very much in the balance.
So what do we have here? We have an attempt to delegitimize bris, the basic Jewish symbol of identification for males; a challenge to the legitimacy of shechitah, the indispensible method of eating kosher meat; the denial of the sacredness and basic historicity of our Bible, the foundation of everything we Jews hold sacred – our religion, our rituals, our morals and ethics, our history, our homeland; and a massive campaign to deny Israel’s right to exist as an independent Jewish state. So what is left? Not much, and that’s the whole point. By delegitimizing much of what is Jewish, these modern anti-Semites do not intend to kill us physically; they are out to destroy us spiritually and to rob of us all Jewish distinctiveness.
And this attack against us is not coming from its usual sources: right-wing, super-nationalistic groups like the skinheads and neo-Nazis. These attacks against Jewish individuality are coming from the academic and political left.
I am certain that most of us here today, including me, consider ourselves liberal to one degree or another, though I am well aware that here on Long Island there is a tendency for former liberals to magically transform into conservatives. Nonetheless, those of us who view ourselves as liberal must realize that liberalism today, at least in its academic form, has changed radically. No longer is liberalism about supporting rights of all people, like fighting against discrimination and supporting liberalization of immigration laws, and the like. Academic liberalism today basically works toward the elimination of all distinctions amongst people, especially those associated with First World groups like Jews, and in its political forms its goal is the elimination (which is a polite word for “destruction”) of all supposedly bourgeois societies. It does so by branding a group’s distinctive practices as “barbaric,” and its society as “evil.” And since we Jews are one of the most distinctive ethnic/religious groups, and since these delegitimizers know that Jewish rituals and our Bible are major factors in our distinctiveness, they label our practices “barbaric,” and question the validity of our sacred texts. And since the State of Israel has been one of the most successful countries on the face of this earth in terms of economy, technology, education, social services, and integrating immigrants; and since Israel does exert authority over more than a million Arabs on land that these groups erroneously consider Arab land, the State of Israel is vilified and its legitimacy denied.
That modern academic liberalism is the epitome of hypocrisy is manifest in a phenomenon that occurs on many college campuses, an action that defies logic. As you probably know, Israel is frequently maligned on college campuses, and pro-Israel speakers are commonly heckled and prevented from speaking, even though a university campus is supposed to be a bastion of free speech. But the ludicrousness goes beyond that. Isn’t it farcical that many feminist groups on college campuses have issued anti-Israel resolutions and taken anti-Israel, pro-Arab stances? Something is wrong here. How free exactly are women in Arab countries? In many they cannot vote. In some they are not allowed to drive a car. In all Arab countries they are legally subservient to their husbands, fathers, and brothers. How many Arab women have been murdered in honor killings by male members of their very own families? Yet, these women’s groups on campus, which include many Jews, incidentally, praise the Palestinians and condemn Israel, the very country in which women have more rights, have achieved more equality, and have attained the highest levels of success than in any other country in the Middle East or in the rest of the world, for that matter. Let me ask a question: would any woman here today want to live in an Arab country?
Or what about gay and lesbian groups on college campuses that have denounced Israel and proclaimed their solidarity with the Arabs, or those GLBT groups that have prevented Israeli representatives from marching in gay pride parades in Europe? How can they condemn Israel and voice support for the Palestinians and Arabs when homosexuals have been executed in Iran and other Arab countries, have been maimed and imprisoned in others, and have been victims of, for lack of a better term, embarrassment killings in the Palestinian controlled areas? Do you know that many Palestinian homosexuals flee their homes in the West Bank or Gaza, and settle where? – In Israel, which takes a live and let live attitude towards GLBT people and hosts one of the most popular gay pride parades in Tel Aviv. I would love to ask the members of these college LGBT organizations if they would want to live as open, active homosexuals in any Arab country; somehow I doubt that they would. Yet, the delegitimization of Israel and anything Jewish is so rampant that it causes these activist groups to endorse ridiculous positions that fly in the face of the very principles for which they were created. That’s how deep and pernicious this anti-Israel, anti-Jewish campaign has become.
My friends, these modern anti-Semites are out to deny the validity of everything we Jews hold sacred: our Bible, our religious traditions, our Jewish way of life, and our ancestral homeland. It is not that they are out to kill us; instead, they want to destroy us spiritually, they want to destroy us religiously, they want to destroy us politically. They want to obliterate everything that is unique about the Jewish people.
And we must not let that happen.
Those of you who have been here over the years know exactly in what direction this sermon is heading. You can probably guess – correctly – that I am going to suggest that the way we counter this modern anti-Semitism that seeks to deprive us of our uniqueness and our identity is through greater devotion to Judaism; more observance of Jewish laws, rituals, practices, and traditions; stronger determination to conduct our lives according to Jewish morals, ethics, and values; and greater allegiance to the State of Israel.
Specifically, if bris is under attack – we make sure that we circumcise our male children. If attempts are being made to outlaw the traditional Jewish method of slaughter – we keep kosher. If the validity of our Bible is challenged – we both study and live by the Bible. If the very existence of the State of Israel is questioned and threatened – we increase our support for Israel, through visits, through financial donations, and through political activism. If Jewish uniqueness is derided – we celebrate our uniqueness.
All of us here today must decide what Jewish course of action we want to undertake this year. All of us here today must decide what Jewish rituals, traditions, and observances we are willing to assume this year. All of us here today must decide on those Jewish values and ethics by which to live this year. All of us here today must decide on how we will demonstrate our support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people this year. All of us here today must decide how we will demonstrate our support for the synagogue and the Jewish community this year. And every person here today must decide on how he/she will express through ongoing deed and action his/her uniqueness as a Jew.
If we fail to engage in any of these actions, then we will hand a victory to these modern anti-Semites who seek our delegitimization, and, trust me, Judaism will become a bastard religion, our Bible will be viewed as a forgery, and Israel will become even more of a pariah state, God forbid.
One final thought: as a Rabbi, I do not want anti-Semites to define how I express my Judaism. Yes, I have just asked you to assume greater Jewish commitment and identity in the coming year in the face of the multitudinous attempts to delegitimize much of what is Jewish. But that should not be the only reason we embark upon a more intense Jewish way of life. We must do so primarily because it is the right course of action to undertake, and because it can add tremendous meaning and significance to our lives.
Remember: it has been the Jewish willingness to be distinct and unique that has not only molded us into the extraordinary people we are as individuals and as a people; through our distinctiveness and our uniqueness we Jews have contributed disproportionately to the betterment of the entire world, the world whose creation we celebrate this day.
I call upon each and every one of you: do your share so that עם ישראל חי — the Jewish people continues to exist!