CIt is August 16, 2017 and I am on a river ship sailing along the Danube River from Budapest to Vienna and onward to Nuremberg, eventually to conclude this journey in Prague. I arrived in Central Europe the same way my father did almost 75 years ago -- on a plane. Only he jumped out before landing.
I have watched the unfolding of the most horrendous weekend of a horrendous year from afar. In my professional life with a non-profit, I have had much to say with the help of my team. I do not need to comment on the dangerous man in the White House in this column; just about everything I might say has been published already. But I do want to speak to rabbis and the people who pay their salaries.
I am reading anguished messages from colleagues on Facebook and in blogs, many of them beginning with the disclaimer that they assiduously avoid politics in their rabbinic capacities. They continue to proclaim that the Battle of Charlottesville has alarmed them to the point that they can no longer be restrained. And they conclude with words reminding us of the truly frightening conduct of everyone from a reckless bigot with a car to the President of the United States.
Those are the rabbis I address. They are the ones who have held their tongues out of some combination of humility and self-preservation. Synagogues are filled these days with unpredictable Jews; not just their convictions on public policy are unpredictable, but the bad behavior they will exhibit if they hear something about the world around us of which they do not approve. "I'll have you fired!" has become more than an empty threat from bombastic blowhards. It has become the sacred mission of tiny minds, right and left alike, who take the word "sanctuary" far too literally and want the rabbi locked up in it. Rabbi and congregant alike have come to the conclusion that the tradition is only about matters of theoretical ethics and internal yearnings. Any intrusion of the world with which we interact -- the body politic --by the rabbi is considered a betrayal worthy of dismissal and an actionable offense.
All of you, take a look around you. Do you believe that Nazis with torches materialized since January 21? Do you think that the path to the White House chosen by its current occupant was simply a fluke? Are you so naive as to consider yourself blameless for the frightening world that must now be explained to our children and grandchildren?
Shame on you. This is our fault, the fault of everyone who was sanguine about society and polite about politics. "Let me not offend, lest people turn from synagogue, from Judaism, from God!" Every pulpit should resound with the defense of innocent citizens, including the children of African Americans or any other race, the faithful of Muslims, the people who eschew a Western faith or any faith at all, and, yes, the Jews. No one should walk out of a kiddush or oneg shabbat without having been reminded of their responsibility to seek justice, to love mercy, to raise up the fallen and to deny a foothold to bigotry and oppression.
And if people disagree, insist that they make their case in terms of this tradition we seek to preserve. None of this, "I come to synagogue to get away from this stuff" or "who are you to tell me what to think." Laziness -- physicial, spiritual or intellectual -- is a betrayal of the Jewish call to activism. What is a mitzvah if not a commandment to act in a particular way when the inclination is to abstain?
I know that there are synagogues in which prayers and homilies could be transplants from any time in history. Believe in God, trust in God, pray to God. Focus on the words of prayer, on the words of the Torah reading, on the hafatrah, where timeless thoughts reside outside the turmoil of the world beyond these walls.
The rabbi unwilling to speak to the challenges of the day is no rabbi. The congregant unwilling to engage the mandates of the tradition is a heretic. And both are cowards.
It is not too late to reclaim the promise of this country nor to gift America with the better angels of our tradition. The Nazis and nationalists and narcissists who are distracting us from the real work of preserving this world in all its diversity take another step forward every time a rabbi, teacher and preacher in Israel steps out of the way. The chasm between neighbors widens every time the sermon topic looks only backward, only inward, never forward, never outward. The worth of our ancient and modern wisdom is devalued when the rabbi is shackled to his desk, warned by bullies on the right or the left not to go into the streets. That's how we got here.
Yes, it is my opinion. It is how I have tried to live my adult life since this title was attached to my name. I never had the courage that my father showed when he parachuted into Europe to fight the good fight. I tried to find it in my own way. Rabbinic collegues, fellow Jews, open your mouths and step up.
The only excuse left is cowardice.