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The Rabbi's Desk: Poway and Anti-Semitism

04/30/2019 05:08:18 PM


Dear Friends,

This latest attack on a Jewish house of worship elicits a variety of feelings and reactions. The murder of Lori Kaye who was engaged in the very same Avodas Hashem that we were engaged in the same morning, leaves us mournful, angry, and shaken. The brave and noble actions of Poway Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein are a source of inspiration and pride. After being shot in the hands, Rabbi Goldstein summoned the strength and courage to offer words of comfort and encouragement to his flock in the midst of their frightening ordeal. His heroic behavior displayed a steadfast resolve to triumph over the evil that faced them quite literally.

Allow me to offer a framework by which we can process the variety of feelings engendered by this dreadful incident followed by some practical suggestions. 

Deborah Lipstadt, renowned historian and valiant defender of Holocaust memory, has observed that anti-Semitism has always existed and will stubbornly persist waiting for its moment to lash out. In her words, anti-Semitism is like a virus that “lives even when we can’t see it and when given the right opportunity,  emerges and does its terrible damage.” 

This observation can be appreciated more deeply with an insight of Rabbi Menachem Ziemba hy”d, one of the Torah giants in pre-World War II Poland who lived his last years in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Through herculean effort, Rabbi Ziemba actively promoted Jewish practice and Torah study in the Warsaw Ghetto and was an inspiring leader to those trapped in the ghetto. He was gunned down by the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Indeed, his Yahrtzeit was this past Wednesday of Chol haMoed Pesach, 19 Nissan.

Rabbi Ziemba analyzes a curious phrase quoted by Rashi in describing the reunion of Eisav and Yaakov. At the climactic moment when they first meet and embrace, the Torah has a set of dots over the word - וישקהו / and he kissed him - which Chazal understand as implying that Eisav kissed Yaakov insincerely. Rashi then adds a comment of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that the dots actually suggest the opposite. While Eisav bears hatred for Yaakov in general, the dots here indicate that this kiss was an exception to his generally felt antipathy and that Eisav sincerely felt compassion for Yaakov at that brief moment and kissed him wholeheartedly. Rabbi Ziemba focuses on Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s language in describing Eisav’s hatred:

אר"ש בן יוחאי, הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב אלא שנכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו Says Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, it is a known halachah that Eisav hates Yaakov. At that moment, however, his compassion was aroused and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

What does it mean that Eisav’s hatred is a הלכה היא בידוע / a known halachah? Describing this as a halachah makes no sense here since we aren’t discussing a matter of Jewish law whatsoever. He is describing an emotion of Eisav and his descendants, not a matter of observance. What then does the word halachah mean in this context if its not referring to Jewish law. Rabbi Ziemba explains that - הלכה היא בידוע / a known halachah - means that the hatred of Eisav is an enduring reality that defies logic. The hatred of Eisav endures in the anti-Semitism of his successors towards the descendants of Yaakov in future generations. And the enduring reality of anti-Semitism is based not on any logic or reason. Jews will always find that there are those who hate them simply for being Jewish, and any pretext or explanation for such hatred needs no logical basis. Rabbi Ziemba elaborates on the illogical nature of anti-Semitism by noting astutely that we have been hated for being capitalists and we have been hated for being communists. We have been hated for having too much power and we have been hated for being weak and downtrodden. We have been hated for being intellectually gifted and we have been hated for being when viewed as subhuman leaches on society. We have been hated for being too religious, holding onto an ancient heritage, and we have been hated for trying to be too secular and cosmopolitan. Even today, I would add, we have been hated for being foreigners in the countries of other nations and we have been hated for daring to build our own homeland.

Anti-Semitism as a הלכה היא בידוע, an enduring reality having no logic to it, can grow virulently off any pretext. In one sense, anti-Semitism is diabolically resilient and steadfast. It will always exist, as Deborah Lipstadt observed, and can grow in any climate as Rabbi Ziemba teaches.

And just as Anti-Semitism as a הלכה היא בידוע is diabolically resilient and steadfast, we Jews have been resilient and steadfast in standing up to its threat. Though we have suffered on countless occasions and in incalculable ways, we as a people have remained resilient and steadfast with God’s help to ensure our survival. In other words, if Anti-Semitism is a הלכה היא בידוע, our resistance to anti-Semitism has been a הלכה היא בידוע as well. And it is this version of the הלכה היא בידוע that Rabbi Goldstein embodied as he faced violent anti-Semitism threatening to take his life and others.

Our challenge now is to establish our own הלכה היא בידוע, our own resilience and steadfastness towards the following efforts in combating anti-Semitism. 

• It shouldn’t take incidents such as this to appreciate the work of our CSS leadership and volunteers. Everything they do serves to maintain a high level of security for all of us, from the time spent training to the various responsibilities they assume. It is imperative that each of us show our appreciation when we enter and exit shul. This is precisely why our Annual Dinner will be recognizing the CSS members to show our hakarat ha-tov. Additionally, CSS is always looking for volunteers. If you haven’t already, please consider joining their team.

• Yom haShoah needs to become a הלכה היא בידוע. It must be an event to which every one of us attends because we must, not because we need to be inspired or moved or convinced to come. Our Yom haShoah commemoration is one of the key elements to combating anti-Semitism and a necessary ingredient to educating ourselves. Equally important, our participation maintains a deeper connection to the Holocaust which cannot be attained by reading articles or sharing posts. 

• We must root out extremist rhetoric and ideology from our media consumption and avoid what I like to call ‘disembodied debate’. Disembodied debate is the sort of dialogue that takes place on social media where conversations lack the moderating force of being in the physical presence of another living, breathing human being. Social media platforms are a place where too many people come to reinforce their prior held beliefs. Debate on social media rarely leads to productive dialogue and contributes instead to more polarity. We must replace social media dialogue with face to face interactions, because these will compel us to see the humanity of our opponent as we discuss and debate ideas.

These proposals can lead us closer to a time described by the Prophet Yeshaya (ch 11 v9):

לֹא יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתוּ בְּכָל הַר קָדְשִׁי כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ דֵּעָה אֶת יְהוָה כַּמַּיִם לַיָּם מְכַסִּים In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done. For the land shall be as filled with knowledge and understanding of God as water covers the sea.

May it be Hashem’s will that these words are fulfilled speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Poupko





Mon, December 6 2021 2 Tevet 5782