Sunday, December 30, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor: A Response to Racist Attacks Against Muslims

The following is a sermon I delivered last Friday night at Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel.  I have been shocked at the vitriol directed against me, the Muslim Community and the ADL in the days following our press conference announcing the campaign combatting racist anti-Muslim ads on RTA buses. 

Love Thy Neighbor – Parashat Vayechi  
December 28, 2012
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

This week we read the end of the Joseph story and the book of Bereshit (Genesis).

From here on - our story moves from the private to the public - we have moved from a story about a family – the Children of Israel (B’nai Yisrael) – to a story about   people – the Nation of Israel (Am Yisrael).

Exodus begins a story that unfolds to impact the whole world.  The second book of the torah is very different than the one which precedes it.  The rabbis note that the 1st words in the book of Exodus are“v’ehleh shemot b’nai yisrael. - and these are the names of the children of Israel.” They observe that it is highly unusual to begin a chapter with the word “v’eyeleh”“and these”.  This teaches us, they say, that the book of Exodus, although radically different in style and scope than the book of Genesis, is a continuation of the story.  The “vav” in V’eyleh shemot - is a storytelling technique.  In other words:   “OK, you’ve heard the beginning, now let us proceed with the rest....”And ..... here it is....”

In Genesis, the scene is set for the foundation of a people.  Exodus picks the story up - not as a separate chapter - but as a continuation of an epic story - with a new dimension added - that of national consciousness.

This weeks parasha is about tying up all of the loose ends of Bereshit - it is also about what comes next - the connection between the past , present and future - the stage is set for God’s liberation and divine plan to unfold.

One of the most powerful and telling narratives in this week’s parasha comes when Joseph and his brothers have returned from burying their father, Jacob in the cave of Machpelah in the land of Canaan. We read:

Genesis Chapter 50
4. And when the days of his mourning were past, Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh, saying, If now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I beg you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying,
5. My father made me swear, saying, Behold, I die; in my grave which I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I beg you, and bury my father, and I will return.
6. And Pharaoh said, Go up, and bury your father, according as he made you swear.
7. And Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt,
8. And all the house of Joseph, and his brothers, and his father’s house; only their little ones, and their flocks, and their herds, they left in the land of Goshen.
9. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company.

The Rabbis ask an interesting question.  Why did Joseph and his brothers go to bury their father with such a large company of Egyptians – chariots and horsemen?  Also, why did they leave their wives and children behind?

Perhaps it was because of the honor that was bestowed upon Jacob – the father of Joseph – 2nd only to Pharaoh….  Or maybe it was for another reason.

Maybe, the children were being left behind as hostages – to make sure that the brothers would return.  Maybe the horses and chariots were guards….

Maybe this is a deliberate foreshadowing of what is to come in the next chapter – when we are enslaved in Egypt by a new king.

The rabbi’s paint a very explicit picture of Egypt’s duplicity vis-à-vis the Israelites. In the midrash we read of how, shortly after Joseph’s death, a new king arose – who gradually, almost imperceptively, enslaved our ancestors.  At first, they were asked to build cities – for pay.  Indeed, even Pharaoh himself, the midrash teaches, was in the trenches with Egyptian and Israelite together.  After a while, Pharaoh and the Egyptians stopped working, but the Israelites continued. After a while, their pay was reduced and their freedoms curtailed until they found themselves enslaved.

It is chilling to read these midrashim in light of modern history.  We know that the Nazis, in their attempt to dehumanize the Jews, also gradually restricted Jewish rights and began a process of enslavement that progressed to the horror of the Shoah.  We also know that had people spoken up in the beginning – if there had been protest from within Germany – or anywhere in the world, for that matter, Naziism may not have succeeded.

Many, if not most Jews, share a passionate concern for civil rights and liberties.  We who have experienced the terror of dehumanization and extermination understand better than anyone how vitally important it is to safeguard the dignity and humanity of all peoples – friend and foe alike.

I speak of this tonight because this past Monday morning – December 24th, I participated in a joint press conference with Imam Karim Abuzaid of the Colorado Muslim Society, Jeremy Shaver – director of the Colorado Interfaith Alliance, Scott Levin – Director of the Mountain States Region ADL and other members of the Denver Muslim Society.  The purpose of the press conference was to call attention to the advertising campaign that the Muslim Society was launching entitled “Love Thy Neighbor.”  For the next few weeks, several busses in Denver will be displaying banners with the words:  “Love Thy Neighbor” prominently displayed alongside verses from the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran that reflect these values.  The banners were created in response to ads placed on buses for four weeks in Denver, New York and Boston. Paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the ones in Denver read: "9,757 Deadly Islamic Attacks Since 9/11/01. It's Not Islamophobia. It's Islamorealism.[i]"

Rather than combat these racist ads with lawsuits or demonstrations, the Colorado Muslim Society, along with the ADL and the Interfaith Alliance decided to teach us that we need to focus on ways to build bridges between peoples – not demonize them.  Hence – “Love Thy Neighbor.”

Some of you may have read about the Ad campaign in the Denver Post this past Tuesday.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that our little press conference generated a lot of publicity – not only here in Denver, but in websites and blogs around the world.  Many people have responded positively to our initiative, but there also have been some negative responses.  The other day, I received an email from someone I did not know which read, in part: 

Rabbi Joe Black, have ever heard of taqyyia,have you ever read passages of the quran full of hate for Jews, and how muslim duty/ jihad is to kill till the last Jew, do you listen or watch the news, do you see how they destroy Churches and slaughter Christians?  In Nazi Germany some Jews tried to be friends with the SS, they where called Capo.  Please, make us, Jews, proud, and stay away from the muslim snakes. They laugh at you in private.

I understand that Imam Abuzaid and I differ on many theological and political issues.  But, I also believe that he is an honorable man.  If we allow our fears and ignorance to blind us to the humanity of any group of people – if we allow the hate-mongers among us to demonize others because of their ethnic or religious heritage, or the color of their skin, or how they love and who they love then we are giving in to hopelessness and bigotry. 

Are there Muslims who hate us?  Yes, of course there are.  But there are extremists in every community.  The author of the original bus ads is a Jewish woman named Pamela Geller.  Her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) has likened Muslims to Savages in her previous attempts at Defamation .[ii]  As Jews, as a people who are committed to finding and celebrating the sacred in every aspect of life, we must be extra vigilant to ensure that justice is celebrated and protected – for all. 

Next week we read how fear and suspicion plunged a nation into bondage and servitude.  If we do not speak up for those who are wronged, who will speak up for us?  As Rabbi Hillel taught: 

Im Eyn ani li mi li?  U’kshe ani l’atzmi mah ani?  V’im lo achshav ey-matai?…..  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am ONLY for myself, what kind of person am I?  And if not now, when?”

Let us pledge to work together to rid the world of hatred and violence.  But let us do so from a framework of justice and hope.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Here's a link to the original article. Make sure you also read the comments to see the depth of distrust and hatred of Muslims that has permeated our culture.