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Dignity and Justice for All

Hayyey Sarah 5778 / 3 November 2018

November 5, 2018

In the wake of the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue, the question I have heard more than any other has been, why the Jews? What is it about us, our history, our essence, that attracts such virulent hatred? However stunned we might have been by the news out of Pittsburgh, the phenomenon itself is hardly surprising. At our daily minyan, we invite anyone marking a yahrzeit to share a memory of their loved one. This past Monday afternoon, one man told a story of his grandmother, as a child, hiding in a small oven to escape a pogrom in Eastern Europe, shortly before her family fled to America. Even for those of us whose ancestors came from other parts of the Jewish world, the threat of violence hung over every-day life for centuries. But why?

To be sure, we won’t find one conclusive solution to such a broad question. I would, however, like to suggest at least a partial answer. From the beginning, in its very first chapter, the Torah poses a fundamental threat to human power structures. In presenting humanity as created in the Divine image, our scripture asserts an inherent and inalienable dignity that transcends any society, political regime, or time period.[1] Human value that derives from the Creator must belong to all people, no matter their religion, race, or nationality.

Even after the Torah shifts focus onto the Jewish people in particular, it maintains a sense of broad perspective on humanity. From the book of Exodus forward, the Torah hammers one bedrock refrain: כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם, “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[2] Nor does the Torah leave it up to us to draw our own conclusions: we hear explicitly, וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם, “You shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[3] This love extends beyond feeling into the realm of doing. As Rabbi Shai Held writes:

In responding to the stranger… the Torah asks both for the feeling of love and for the concrete actions that flow from it… The Torah does not drive a wedge between action and emotion; on the contrary its ideal is to integrate them – to feel passionately about God and to observe God’s commandments, to care about people and to act caringly toward them.[4]

The Torah calls us to serve a God who demands justice for the weak and upholds the rights of the powerless. It insists that we act as God’s agents on earth, standing up to injustice large or small wherever it appears. In setting that expectation, the Torah inherently challenges power and privilege.

The terrorist who attacked Tree of Life Synagogue, ימח שמו, cited HIAS in particular, and Jewish support for refugees and immigrants more generally, as prompting his choice to attack Jews in this moment. I was frankly delighted to hear, when news reports began to focus on this particular issue, that representatives of HIAS and other Jewish interviewees emphasized, yes, as Jews we do want to welcome refugees into our country. Yes, as Jews, we do want to help immigrants establish themselves in this land – as our own ancestors did not so long ago. Our desire to see America open its doors to the tired, poor, huddled masses from Africa, Syria, and Myanmar is no conspiracy theory, not a false accusation to refute. It is a core value that we rightly own as clearly and publicly as we can.

There may have been a time when we experienced anti-Semitism as a unique phenomenon – our own distinctive brand of suffering – but I’m not so sure. Over the week, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Leo Frank. I don’t know how familiar his name is in Philadelphia, but growing up Jewish in Atlanta, Georgia, the Leo Frank case was central to our understanding of the Southern Jewish experience. In April 1913, a young girl, Mary Phagan, was found strangled in the basement of the pencil factory where she worked. In a trial that was widely criticized, on the basis of flimsy evidence and the testimony of the likely perpetrator of Phagan’s murder, Leo Frank, a twenty-nine-year-old Jewish man who also worked in the factory, was convicted of killing Phagan. A year later, after Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s sentence from execution to life imprisonment, an anti-Semitic mob seized Frank, took him to Mary Phagan’s home town, and lynched him there.

To be sure, this is one of the seminal moments in American anti-Semitism, one of the events that precipitated the Anti-Defamation League’s founding. At the same time, but for the race of its victim it bears all the markers of a typical Jim Crow lynching. Having grown up with this story as an example of particular Jewish suffering, it strikes me now that it is also a story about the violent manifestation of racism in the Jim Crow south. The two experiences of persecution, an American anti-Semitism that by any historical measure is far less prevalent and less threatening than in any other time or place, and the pervasive and brutal violence against African-Americans that defined Jim Crow and persists in many corners of America to this day, turn out to be less distinct than we might once have imagined.[5] 

What, ultimately separates the attack on Tree of Life from the murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, three years ago? In both cases a faith community welcomed a new face into their house of worship. In both cases, once inside, a white terrorist committed cold-blooded murder. In both cases vicious, hateful prejudice lay behind the crime. At the same time, the killing in Pittsburgh was just one of many mass shooting incidents in the past week. Some, like the murder of two African-Americans in a Kentucky grocery store, were racially-motivated; others, while not motivated by any overt bias, still reflect symptoms of a deeper sickness in our society – a culture that, by any reasonable measure, fails to properly value the inherent dignity of human life.

The same currents that now link all Americans through the tragic consequences of hatred and bigotry also bind us together in ties of love. If nothing else, our experience of anti-Semitism in America today is separated from past generations by the sheer fact that countless fellow citizens, of all religions and no religion, stand by our side against those who would threaten our place in this great nation. As you may have seen on our Instagram and Facebook this past Monday, the children of Tenth Church Preschool, just two blocks away, sent posters with messages of love and support for our own preschoolers. When our grandmothers and grandfathers hid in closets and basements as Cossacks raged outside, no neighbors came forward to stand in solidarity. Today, even in a time of darkness, we are blessed that all people of good faith are linked in the existential struggle of love over hate, good over evil – the struggle of those who stand for human dignity, for all human beings, against those who would exploit others for personal gain.

Our demand for human dignity does not rest with any one political party, nor does it lead to one specific set of policies. It is possible, and indeed essential, to recognize and insist upon human dignity no matter what your stance may be regarding immigration, reproductive rights, the size of government or any other issue of public concern. True concern for human dignity, however, must preclude our imposing our own religious or social views on those who believe otherwise. Basic dignity is fundamentally incompatible with racism and transphobia, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments, homophobia and Islamophobia, misogyny and exploitation of the poor. The only credible claim for human dignity is one that extends to all people: rural poor together with urban, people of color with white people, all gender identities, families of all shapes and sizes.

We have a sacred moral obligation to stand up for every soul in this country, whether your people came in a caravan across the Mexican desert or a caravan of ships to Plymouth Rock. Our Torah teaches that dignity is inherent in our being created in God’s holy image; and if anti-Semites and bigots find that voice so threatening that they will resort to violence, let us resolve to raise our voices yet louder. Let us drown bigotry with a chorus of love. Let us bury hatred deep under a bed of compassion and fellowship. Let us teach our neighbors and our children and our grandchildren that this nation belongs, and has always rightly belonged to those who seek to lift others up, to lend a hand, to give and to serve.

Let us also remember that we have an election in three days’ time. We have a sacred responsibility, as American citizens, to choose representatives who will carry our fight for dignity for all Americans to Harrisburg and all the way to Washington. We need leaders who will expunge from the halls of power any remnant of racism, homophobia, misogyny, ethnic bias, any claim that stands in the way of dignity and human rights for all of us. We need to lift up voices of hope and fellowship in the face of calls for fear and division. We need representatives who won’t feel under pressure to “tone down their rhetoric” after a tragedy because they have spoken to and about others with kindness and generosity all along. Above all else, we need leadership we can be proud of. It is our civic duty, and it is our sacred calling.


[1] Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2017), 7-8.

[2] Ex. 22:20, 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) enumerates at least three dozen different ways in which Torah gives expression to the Israelites’ experience of being strangers and the attendant necessity of protecting other strangers.

[3] Deut. 10:19; cf. Lev. 19:33-34.

[4] Held, Heart of Torah, Vol. 2, 63-64.

[5] For a related perspective, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev’d ed. (New York: The New Press, 2012), 204-208.