In the Torah portion we read for this Shabbat, Parashat Ekev, Moses is speaking to the people – reminding them of their history. We find the following in Deuteronomy 8:3:
And God tested you, and let you hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your parents know; that God might make you know that Humankind does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of Adonai does Humankind live.
In a Midrash[i], the Rabbis asked question: How did God test us? Manna was Divine food – how was that a test? The answer they gave was that it tasted different for each person who ate it. They then compared the taste of the Manna to the way in which each individual Israelite heard God’s voice at Mount Sinai. For some, the voice of God sounded like a blaring siren. For others, God’s voice was soothing – the sound of a parent. Each person was able to hear God in their own way – according to their own experience and their need.
I love this Midrash! A key component in Jewish thought is that, throughout the generations, we have held on to this concept of God speaking to each of us according to our ability to hear. This vitally important idea has been one of the reasons that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived and thrived over the centuries. Our modern faith is built on the dual premises of flexibility and accountability. We celebrate both the accessibility of societal change and the necessity to seek God’s presence in the everyday experiences of our lives. We continually affirm and reaffirm our eternal covenant with the Divine that binds us to one another while working to fulfill God’s promise of Redemption through the performance of Mitzvot and the keeping of our traditions.
While there have always been individuals and groups within our community who have felt a necessity to assert power and authority by attempting to legislate a uniformity in religious practice, communal involvement, and political affiliation, such attempts always have failed. We Jews are – and have always been - a stubborn people. The idea that God speaks to each of us in a unique voice has been an essential aspect of our religious experience and communal strength from Sinai until now. Any attempt to speak for the entirety of the Jewish people has been met with ridicule at best – and condemnation at worst.
In addition to how we have seen ourselves internally, Jews have often had vitally important relationships with the ruling powers of the lands in which we have found ourselves. There have been times in our history when Jewish scholars, doctors, philanthropists, teachers, even Generals have played key roles in the unfolding of political dynasties – serving as advisors and leaders in their own right.
Of course, our history is also replete with examples of how Jewish communities that felt secure in their position as important and influential participants in society and governance suddenly found themselves serving as scapegoats for the ills of whatever country they may have found themselves. As we have painfully seen with horror here in the United States, anti-Semitism can lie dormant for a period of time, but under the right conditions, it can creep out of the sewers when tensions are raised and fear is ripe.
In 1894, a French Army Captain named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason. Even though there was no evidence to support this claim, the wave of virulent anti-Semitism that swept through France and accompanied this accusation – as well as the trial that followed - became one of the inspirations for a young Austrian Journalist named Theodor Herzl to form a unified Zionist movement that came to fruition two years later in Basel Switzerland. Herzl, an assimilated Jew, felt that if charges of disloyalty to France – the birthplace of the Enlightenment – could spur such hatred and fervor, then there was no hope for the Jewish people outside of their own homeland.
Similarly, many German Jews who fought in World War One – who had medals and commendations from the highest military sources – could not fathom the concept that their beloved country might turn against them. Hitler’s claims of Jewish disloyalty meant that the ovens of Auschwitz were filled with the ashes of decorated Jewish soldiers and their families – who just a few years earlier had fought for what they though was their beloved homeland -Germany.
It is for this reason that charges that our president recently levied against Jewish Democrats are so profoundly disturbing. Speaking about congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar’s support of the BDS movement and the recent decision of Prime Minister Netanyahu to change his mind about allowing them to visit Israel, President Trump accused Jews who vote for Democrats of having "either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."
Setting aside, for a moment, the question of to whom he was charging Democratic Jews of being disloyal – was it Israel? the United States? or the Jewish people in general? – the notion that political affiliation can become a litmus test for bona-fides of patriotism, Zionism or Judaism is chilling in and of itself.
Let there be no ambiguity here - I disagree strongly with Representatives Tlaib and Omar. I believe that their support of a movement that seeks to paint Israel as a pariah state is both offensive and dangerous. But most other members of the Democratic party as well as the vast majority of the American Jewish community share my beliefs. The best way to deal with their claims is to refute them forcefully and work to ensure that their constituents hold them accountable – both in Congress and at the ballot box. By attempting to tie their offensive comments to an entire political party, in addition to stirring up ancient anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty, our President is also creating a situation where the cherished US bi-partisan support for the State of Israel is being threatened. That does not bode well for the future of the Jewish State. The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to be a willing participant - at worst, or is taking a “hands off” approach - at best, is also deeply disturbing. This can be seen as yet another dangerous step towards creating a reality where an increasingly Right Wing Israeli government sees itself free to unilaterally destroy the prospect of a two state solution and eradicate more and more democratic principles in favor of a totalitarian regime where Fundamentalism and triumphalism reign supreme.
Please understand – my remarks this evening are not intended to be political in nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am speaking about values – Jewish values. My fear is that by injecting religious identity into the political arena, our President is endangering the vital foundation of separation of religion and governance upon which our nation is founded and is enshrined in our Constitution.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reminds us that “…Humankind does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of Adonai does Humankind live.” Let us remember that it is our values as a people – enshrined in our sacred texts - that have ensured that Judaism has thrived for over 4,000 years. Our prophets proclaimed an exalted vision for the world. If we remain silent in the face of injustice, bigotry, falsehood or demagoguery, we do so at our own peril.