Sermon On Orlando Massacre

Shabbat Naso, 2016
Dear Friends,
Let me begin tonight by offering a casual definition of the word “stereotype.” A stereotype is a generalization (usually about another group of people) that we resort to because it helps our minds to sort the world into neat, low stress categories. Whether it’s “those Jews,” or “those Mexicans,” or “those immigrants,” or “those Republicans [or Democrats]” or “those gay people,” or “those Muslims,” or any other subset of humanity, stereotypes enable our intellects to idle along in what the late novelist David Foster Wallace called “our default setting.” By “default setting,” David Foster Wallace meant the unexamined assumption that “my individual consciousness is the center of the universe.” In that sense stereotypes help me maintain the illusion that I am not only separate from, but far superior to, the object of whatever stereotype I’m embracing.
Even believing that other people are subject to stereotypes or prejudices and I’m not, is a kind of stereotype.
I mean, I know: it’s Shabbat, and we are really good people – or, at least, people who consciously strive to be good people – and none of us wants to believe that our souls provide safe harbor for any truly serious, ugly prejudices or stereotypes. But if we do what Judaism calls cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, if we do enough peeking around in our attitudes (and I certainly include myself here) you and I will probably find some assumptions about other people that metaphorically resemble the nasty stuff that collects in the very back of your refrigerator until it has grown a fungal beard. These would be attitudes that don’t jive with the loving, accepting stance suggested by the Torah’s teaching that we are all created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
Let me hasten to say that discovering that we have less than loving thoughts about our fellow human beings isn’t “evil,” per se. We are human, and wrestling with prejudice is part of what it is to be human and to have a mind and heart. That said, it doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for monitoring our attitudes, stereotypes and prejudices and pulling them out of the back of the of our psychic fridge for closer examination.
Suppose, for example, I toss out the phrase “Orthodox Jew.” What images – or, to put it another way, what stereotypes – does that phrase conjure up?
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is a series of mental pictures: men with beards and skullcaps and maybe large, flowing, prayer shawls. Or perhaps we picture Hasidic Jews with black hats, black coats and side curls. Or maybe an Orthodox Jewish woman with a long skirt and a kerchief or wig, pushing a baby carriage with three or four other small children in tow.
Or perhaps the phrase “Orthodox Jew” awakens some feeling of fear or insecurity within us, tempting us to stereotype “The Orthodox” as intolerant of all other Jews. Or we focus upon haredi Jews in Israel, harassing feminist women trying to lead a women’s minyan at the Western Wall, or throwing stones at secular Jews driving on Shabbat.
Sometimes, this kind of stereotyping will even rear its head during a Shabbat morning Torah study session, in the form of, “But don’t the Orthodox believe that…” And then I have to launch into my spiel against stereotyping. I have to explain that, as is the case with Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and other Jewish denominations, orthodoxy, especially in the United States, is not monolithic. It is a spectrum, running all the way from ultra-Orthodox Jews in upstate New York who are akin to “our Amish,” living in an earlier century and consciously and deliberately keeping the 21st century at bay – all the way to modern Orthodox Jews in large, urban areas who binge on Netflix and go out of their way to buy fancy, kosher balsamic vinegar. And everything in between.
There is a beautiful Hasidic riff on a verse from Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus, “Do not turn to idols…” The comment says that “do not turn to idols” actually means, “Do not turn to the cherished constructions of your intellect.” In that vein, stereotyping itself is a kind of idolatry, not only because it obscures tzelem Elohim, the divine image, in the other person, but also because it substitutes “the constructions of our intellect” for the reality of that person that God has created.
So, yes: Orthodox Jews.
My earliest memory of encountering Orthodox Jews in any sustained way was not a positive one. I have some relatives in Israel, and during my first year of rabbinical school, I had Shabbat dinner with some of those family members. They invited some students from a nearby yeshiva to dinner, and I found myself pummeled with hostile questions and assumptions about Reform Jews being “responsible for the destruction of the Jewish people.” Not an auspicious introduction.
But since then, I have had the opportunity to enjoy wonderful relationships with some Orthodox teachers and colleagues, both in the more distant past and during my time here in Austin. I’d love to tell you a bunch of stories about that but, to get more to the point, my experiences illustrate a basic truth about stereotypes and prejudices: stereotypes and prejudices tend to melt away of their own accord under the bright light of personal relationships with members of The Other Group. It’s much harder to say something about “those others” when you have friends or coworkers among them.
Through those experiences and relationships, over the years I have come to understand that within the complex, patchwork spectrum of American Jewish orthodoxy, there is a community of folks who, while utterly committed to traditional Jewish observance, are equally committed – in the name of Torah – to egalitarianism, feminism, environmental stewardship, LGBTQ acceptance, progressive social policies and a variety of other commitments and attitudes that are outside the bounds of what leaps to mind when we hear the phrase “Orthodox Jew.” What follows is my most recent encounter with this kind of Jew.
You may remember a few months back that there was a pretty huge brouhaha (a word which I enjoy saying, although not as much as the word kerfuffle) around the fact that Donald Trump had been invited, as one of the then contestants for the Republican presidential nomination, to speak to the huge, annual policy conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Just as there was handwringing on the part of some American Jews about his being invited to speak at the conference (although all the other candidates from both parties had also been invited), there was also handwringing in the Jewish press about the multiple standing ovations that Donald Trump received during his address.
There was less press coverage, however, about a moment during that speech when an Orthodox rabbi from Washington DC named Shmuel Herzfeld stood up in the audience, raised up his hands with his tallit draped over his head and shouted out, “This man is wicked. He inspires racists and bigots. He encourages violence. Do not listen to him” (after which, not surprisingly, he was escorted out of the venue).
Now, regardless of how you feel about Donald Trump, this is certainly challenges another stereotype about Orthodox Jews, the stereotype that says that “they” only care about the complexities of Jewish ritual observance, not about what’s going on out in the world (beyond support for Israel and Jewish day schools).
In reflecting later on about this experience, Rabbi Herzfeld wrote the following in a Washington Post editorial: “Whether [Donald Trump] supports Israel is irrelevant to me. If a person inspires bigotry and racism, we should not overlook those character traits just because he says something with which we agree. Just the opposite: that he does agree with us on some issues makes his message even more dangerous, as it can make his bigotry and racism more palatable.”
A few days after I read this editorial, I found myself discussing with our own Rabbi Rebecca Epstein how impressed I was with Rabbi Herzfeld’s righteous indignation. She smiled and told me of a rather remarkable coincidence, that her in-laws, Barak’s parents, are active members of Rabbi Herzfeld’s congregation and that he is, indeed, quite an amazing fellow.
That conversation with Rabbi Epstein put Rabbi Herzfeld even more brightly on my radar screen. But then, more recently, I learned of something that he and members of his community did in the aftermath of the unspeakably hideous mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, an atrocity that I know has shaken many of us to our core.
Sunday, when the killings took place, happened to be the first day of the festival of Shavuot, when we remember both the beginning of the wheat harvest in ancient Israel and, much more strongly, celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Traditional Jews in the Diaspora observe a second day of each major pilgrimage festival from the Torah, with the result that, for Orthodox Jews, last Monday was also a festival day.
But Rabbi Herzfeld wanted to do something to respond to the tragedy, and what he did is worth taking in.
After the end of the festival on Monday night, he gathered together members of his community and took them to downtown DC, to a gay nightclub, to express solidarity with its patrons. Here, I will let him tell the story in his own voice:
“When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah.
As Orthodox Jews, we don’t travel or use the Internet on the Sabbath or on holidays, such as Shavuot. But on Sunday night, as we heard the news, I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.
We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers.
I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.
Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.
We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that we had so much in common. We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. My co-clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and she lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.
Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.
After that we moved to the outdoor makeshift memorial service at Dupont Circle. There, too, we did not know what to expect. But as we gathered around the circle, people kept coming up to us and embracing us. One man we met there told us that his daughter sometimes prays with us. Others were visiting from Los Angeles but joined in full voice, clearly knowing the Hebrew words to the song we were singing.
As we were singing, I looked over at some gay members of our congregation and saw tears flowing down their faces. I felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain. But I also felt that the night was a tremendous learning experience for me. I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”
So, you know that self-serving stereotype that Reform Jews have a lock on social justice advocacy within the Jewish world and “The Orthodox” only care about ritual and Talmud study? There is another idolatrous conception that melts away in the bright light of reality.
I want to pull one other lesson out of this latter episode. When we know that something terrible has happened, even something far away, and we feel helpless, and we feel that there’s nothing we can do, we need to remember what the members of Rabbi Herzfeld’s congregation, in Washington, DC, many hundreds of miles away from distant Orlando, did. They found a gay bar, went in, and expressed their solidarity with that community. They did something. So there’s always something to be done. Hearing the story has brought new meaning to the quote from the Mishna that I’ve been using for my email tagline for decades, now:
“You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”
Shabbat Shalom to all of you.
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