Kol Nidre 5778: Liberate
By most accounts, Bishop Vincentas Brizgys was not a vicious anti-Semite. When he died of natural causes at 88, his obituary in the Chicago Tribune lauded him as a longtime resident who “ministered to refugees. . . in more than fifty years of service to the Catholic church.”
That obituary did leave out some significant details. In 1941, Vincentas Brizgys was the newly-installed bishop of Kovno, Lithuania. When the Nazis invaded that summer, a desperate Jewish delegation came to plead for his help. After hearing them out, the bishop replied succinctly: “All that I can do is pray.” Then, in the words of a secret report issued by the German Einsatzgroup charged with the annihilation of European Jewry: “Bishop Brizgys forbid his clergy to intervene in any form in favor of the Jews.”
After the war, Brizgys moved to Chicago, where he led the pastoral care department of Holy Cross Hospital for twenty-nine years. He was, by most accounts, a kindly, decent man. And yet in June of 1941, he stood idly by and commanded his underlings to do the same while his neighbors—37,000 Jewish men, women, and children—were executed in the forest on the outskirts of his city.
If Vincentas Brizgys wasn’t a Nazi war criminal—what was he? The bishop of Kovno was a cleric who believed that faith communities should steer clear of temporal matters. Like many religious leaders of his era—and our own—he insisted that houses of worship should avoid politics. And so while Kovno’s Jews lay dying in the ditches that they dug, Bishop Brizgys fixed his gaze firmly heavenward. The vast majority of his countrymen and women followed his lead.
Last summer, as I walked the streets of Kovno and Vilna, I was astounded at how many churches line the borders of the former ghettos and the roads to the killing fields of the Ninth Fort and Ponar. The Nazi transports carrying the victims to the slaughter rolled past, day and night, unhindered as local priests and churchgoers went about their rites in ordinary time. These clergy and parishioners dismissed the humanitarian act of rescuing Jews—which was also undeniably political—as a course best avoided by a church that perceived itself above the taint of worldly affairs.
This circumscribed approach to religion has enabled a great deal of evil. Martin Luther King addresses this concern in Letter from Birmingham Jail, his searing response to the Southern white clergy who considered political advocacy at odds with faithful community. Writing from his prison cell in April of 1963, King rebuked moderate rabbis, priests and ministers for being “more cautious than courageous.” He lamented:
I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
Un-Biblical, indeed. Torah has no patience for disengaged spirituality. It’s the most un-ethereal of holy books, focused on the mundane labors and frequent failures of flesh and blood human beings. The God of Israel has plenty to say about political matters, directly addressing poverty, violence, immigration and bigotry. The very first chapter of Genesis offers the still-revolutionary principal that every woman, man, and child is created in the Divine Image. The heart of the Hebrew Bible is the unapologetically political tale of a people’s journey from slavery to freedom; its fundamental teaching—repeated thirty six times—is the radical manifesto: You shall not oppress the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. And though we commonly translate tzedakah as charity, the biblical root of the word, tzedek, means liberating justice, which Torah commands us to pursue diligently—lest we go down in infamy with Bishop Brizgys and the clergy on the receiving end of Dr. King’s epistle.
In speaking of liberation, let me be clear: synagogues are not the place for campaign rallies and partisan endorsements. There are good Jews across the political spectrum throughout Israel and America—and in our congregation. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians are all welcome here, as long as they support our community’s mission of Jewish learning, spiritual growth and acts of lovingkindness. But let there be no doubt: CABI will continue to fully engage in national and communal affairs from a perspective rooted in progressive Jewish values. Because as Elie Wiesel warned all of us: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” On Yom Kippur, we reaffirm that ritual piety without social justice is the worst form of religious hypocrisy. Listen to tomorrow morning’s haftarah portion, where Isaiah proclaims:
This is the fast I want:
Let the oppressed go free,
their bonds broken.
Share your bread with the hungry,
and welcome the homeless into your home.
When you see the naked, clothe them.
All people are your kin; do not ignore them.
Two thousand years ago, our Rabbis debated whether or not Jews were allowed to attend the gladiatorial games. Many argued no, Jews should not support such inhumane carnage in the name of sport. But some disagreed, insisting that Jews not only could but should attend. Why? Because those brutal contests would almost always end with one combatant on the verge of defeat, his opponent standing over him, sword in hand. At that moment, the crowd is on their feet, yelling. Some cry, “Spare him!” while others shout, “Finish him off!” That’s when everyone turns to the Emperor in his royal box. He gets to decide—thumbs up, the gladiator lives; thumbs down, he dies. And so, the Rabbis say, you must be there to scream with all your might, “Let him live!” Because of your voice, the Emperor might decide to spare that losing gladiator’s life—even if you are the only one pleading on his behalf.
That’s why we engage in political action as proud Jews. Because our calling is to stand in the Coliseum of our culture and cry out for life—for our ideals, for the voiceless, and for the future of American democracy, which is far from assured.
My friends, the hour is urgent. Ant-Semitism is resurgent in America, on both ends of the political spectrum. Racism runs rampant, and nativist bigotry toward Muslims, Latinos and other immigrant communities tears at the fabric of our nation. This is no time for American Jewry to shy away from political action, to cower behind what Dr. King called the “anaesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” This is an hour for audacious deeds, to take a bold stand for ourselves as Jews, and for our neighbors, too. As Hillel taught: Im ayn ani li, mi li? Uch’sh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? V’im lo achshav, aymatai?—If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? If we are only for ourselves, what are we? And if not now, when? The best response to anti-Semitism is to redouble our Jewish commitment; our most fitting reply to other forms of oppression is to build strong coalitions with allies from minority communities and other vulnerable groups. This is the season to say what we mean and mean what we say. Now is the time to resist, with words and deeds.
But here’s where it gets complicated: Even as we confront injustice, we should also labor to kindle hope in pockets of hopelessness. As we battle bigotry, we must guard against writing off large segments of our population as deplorable, even if some of their beliefs are just that. The God of Torah insists that no living soul is entirely irredeemable. Our resolute resistance should be constantly coupled with bold outreach, with the kind of radical love that conquers fear. Our challenge is to step outside our comfort zones, to offer our listening ears, our open hands and our compassionate hearts, even—or especially—to those whose views are deeply anathema to us.
Rabbi Mordecai Liebling was in Charlottesville when white supremacists marched down the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us.” In his profoundly empathetic response to that event, he wrote:
I bring to this the perspectives of a rabbi, the son of Holocaust survivors and the grandson of those murdered by Nazis. We face a difficult challenge: we cannot tolerate white supremacy yet we must listen to the fear and pain that many of its supporters carry. . . Dehumanizing and dismissing them leads to more hatred. We must stand up against hate and for love, while we advocate for policies that bring about more justice.
So how do we simultaneously resist and reach out?
Many would reject the premise from the outset, suggesting—not entirely unreasonably—that resistance and outreach are irreconcilable.
But lamrot ha-kol—despite everything—Judaism asserts otherwise. As Rabbi Shai Held points notes, our tradition teaches that the world is complex and often contradictory, and the religious life asks us to hold seemingly antithetical truths and experiences concurrently. Or as the brilliant Israeli kabbalistic scholar Biti Roi once instructed me, “Either/or is for simple math. We Jews live in the paradoxical world of both/and.”
This path is difficult, yet essential, for it is what transforms our resistance from ordinary politics into spiritual practice. A both/and perspective recognizes that as broken as our world appears, it is not neatly divided between good and evil, “us” and “them.” Even the best of us carry some bigotry, and even the worst may still contain some flickers of the Divine. And so the most radical resistance of all is to gather those sacred sparks in our flawed humanity and raise them from fear and darkness into holy light.
Consider the life’s work of African-American actor, author and jazz musician Daryl Davis. For the past thirty years, he has been befriending white supremacists and shifting their worldviews. He starts by listening. As he says in Accidental Courtesy, the documentary film chronicling his life: “When you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way, when you give that person a platform and let them air their views, they will reciprocate.”
Indeed. Since he began holding conversations with Ku Klux Klansmen, two hundred have disavowed their memberships and given Daryl Davis their robes. He keeps those white sheets in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people. Through the power of listening, by treating people with heinous views as humans first and foremost, Daryl Davis has altered destinies. His outreach and his resistance is one and the same, summed up by one short question that has been asking for three decades now: How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?
How do we resist and reach out? We can learn from the story of Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson.
Derek Black was the heir apparent of white supremacist aristocracy. His father, Don Black created Stormfront, the Internet’s largest white nationalist site. His mother, Chloe, had been previously married to Derek’s godfather, David Duke. They homeschooled Derek to become a leader of the white supremacist movement, and by age 19, he was hosting his own radio program.
When Derek set off to New College in Sarasota, Florida, he did not share his family history. After attending an introductory campus meeting about diversity, he concluded that the quickest way to be ostracized would be to declare himself a racist. He kept quiet and fit in, watching zombie movies and eating pizza with his dorm-mates—while sneaking out each weekday morning to call in to his white nationalist radio show. He’d rant for a few minutes about immigration, then go back to the dorm to play Taylor Swift songs on his guitar.
. . . Until one night in April 2011, when Derek noticed an electronic message posted to all students by an upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups and stumbled across a familiar face.
Have you seen this man? the message read, and beneath those words was a picture. Derek Black: white supremacist, radio host. . . New College student. How do we, as a community respond?
Derek’s friends felt betrayed. Strangers flipped him off in the streets and most of his fellow students simply stopped speaking with him. But Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew at the college, had a different idea. He sent Derek a text message:
What are you doing Friday night?
Matthew Stevenson had begun hosting Shabbat dinners for a small group of students in his apartment every weekend. The guests were Christian, atheist, black or Latino—anyone open-minded enough to sit through kiddush. Now Derek Black—who had not received a single social invitation since being outed—joined them, arriving with a bottle of wine to share. “Let’s treat him like anyone else,” Matthew instructed his other guests. Derek was soft-spoken and polite, and he came back the next week, and then the next, and pretty soon became a regular. Over this time, he gradually stopped posting on Stormfront and started inventing excuses to get out of his radio show. A few weeks after he graduated in May of 2013, Derek Black went into a bar, took out his computer and wrote out a confessional letter:
After a great deal of thought. . . I have resolved that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism. I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.
The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all. I am sorry for the damage done.
He continued to write for several more paragraphs before addressing his words as an email to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group his father had considered a primary adversary for 40 years.
“Publish in full,” Derek instructed. Then he hit “send.”
Few of us are as brave as Daryl Davis, Matthew Stevenson or Derek Black. I don’t anticipate an outpouring of Shabbos dinner or happy hour invitations to Klansmen and neo-Nazis. But these heroes should serve as outsized exemplars to the rest of us, who can simultaneously reach out and resist in small, routine, intimate yet still significant ways. Let’s speak—and more importantly, listen—with folks with whom we profoundly disagree. Let’s strive to stand up to oppression without losing site of the oppressor’s humanity. Let us step outside our comfort zones and acknowledge the real fear and pain that undergird so much bigotry and contempt.
Let us ask: How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?—and then begin, slowly but steadily, to know one another, across the countless lines that divide us.
Bishop Vincentas Brizgys did not muster the moral courage to rescue Lithuanian Jews. But on a quiet Shabbat afternoon late last May, my daughter Rosa and I paid a pilgrimage to the home of a man who did. Perched on a leafy hilltop overlooking the center of Kovno, Chiune Sugihara’s house is unremarkable on the outside, save for some Japanese lettering on the gateway. But inside is the office where Sugihara—Japan’s wartime vice-consul to Lithuania—issued thousands of visas to Jewish refugees, in direct violation of his superiors’ repeated orders not to do so. He also persuaded the Soviet authorities to allow these Jews passage across the country via the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, where they boarded boats to Tsuruga, Japan. Sugihara continued to write these visas, by hand, until the consulate was closed and he was forced to vacate his post. According to witnesses, he was still issuing visas even after boarding the train, throwing them into the crowd of desperate refugees lining the tracks as it pulled out. It is estimated that Sugihara’s visas saved around 6,000 Jews; today, nearly 40,000 descendants of those refugees are alive because of his quiet, bold resistance.
Chiune Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko were well aware of the dangers. They knew he would lose his job and they worried that the Nazis might arrest their entire family because they’d helped Jews. But this diplomat knew the limits of diplomacy, when caution must give way to bold, humanitarian, political action. Chiune Sugihara rescued Jews because he loved his neighbor as himself. As he put it, "They were human beings and they needed help. I am glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them. . . in the spirit of humanity and neighborly friendship.” Chiune Sugihara knew that sometimes extraordinary political means are the only path to just and humane ends.
Tomorrow morning, we will read the Torah message at the heart of this most sacred season:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse.
Choose life—Act. Resist.
Choose blessing—Reach out.
With words and deeds, with our heads and our hands and our whole hearts, let us resist and reach out, that we may long endure upon this good land.