Editor’s note: This was a drasha delivered by Rabbi Schiowitz at Teaneck’s Congregation Shaare Tefillah on Shabbat, August 19.
I would like to begin with a yasher koach to members of our community who have been standing in a respectful and compelling manner, opposing the anti-Semitism surrounding the eruv controversy in the Upper Saddle River/Mahwah area.
During my travels during the past couple of weeks, a number of people have asked me why members of our shul and of Teaneck/Englewood area are so invested in the eruv case.
I think that there are two reasons: It is Jewish and it is American.
It is a Jewish value to oppose discrimination, and also to express our identification with the challenges of all Jews. The Rambam said:
רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק ג הלכה יא: הפורש מדרכי צבור ואף על פי שלא עבר עבירות אלא נבדל מעדת ישראל ואינו עושה מצות בכללן ולא נכנס בצרתן ולא מתענה בתעניתן אלא הולך בדרכו כאחד מגויי הארץ וכאילו אינו מהן אין לו חלק לעולם הבא
Although all Jews have a portion in the World to Come, there is none for a person who is observant but does not identify with the struggles and challenges of all Jews, but rather takes the attitude that this is “their problem and not mine.”
And it is American to support the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” which was reinforced by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
And equal means equal rights and equal opportunity. Equal rights to use the public spaces and equal rights to live where we want, and any effort to limit those rights on the basis of race or religion is immoral and un-American. So we deplore the anti-Semitism that we have witnessed because we are Jewish and because we are American.
Sadly, there have been a number of recent opportunities to be reminded of the existence of anti-Semitism and racism in our county and in our country. This summer we saw the sentencing of the two terrorists who attacked shuls and homes in Bergen County, and this week we witnessed the deadly results of violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
However, I think that it is useful to distinguish between these different forms of anti-Semitism. Even though they all have common roots, there are significant differences that need to be thought about. Aakash Dalal and Anthony Graziano hated Jews. I do not know why and I do not understand it, but there was profound hate. They said it and they acted dangerously upon that hatred. I do not believe that they would say that they believe in any form of equality. I do not think that they would say that they agree with the words of our Founding Fathers. And the same is likely true of the neo-Nazis.
However, I suspect that if you would ask any person walking down the street in Mahwah or Upper Saddle River if they believe that everyone is created equally, I think they would all say yes. If you would ask them if all citizens of the United States should have equal rights, they would say yes. If you would ask if they believe in the First Amendment that ensures free exercise of religion, I am sure that it would be yes again, and everyone has a right to live wherever he or she chooses.
And therefore, the really troubling question that we really need to ask ourselves is how such a population can find itself making statements that literally sound like Nazism.
I think that we can gain some insight on this from our parsha, where we learn from the midrash that we may not create agudot:
רמב”ם הלכות עבודה זרה פרק יב הלכה יד: ובכלל אזהרה זה שלא יהיו שני בתי דינין בעיר אחת זה נוהג כמנהג זה וזה נוהג כמנהג אחר, שדבר זה גורם למחלוקות גדולות שנאמר “לא תתגודדו” לא תעשו אגודות אגודות.
We are commanded to preserve uniform religious practice in order to avoid divisive conflicts in our community.
This has other familiar applications, such as publicly following a personal minhag that is inconsistent with the community. Thus, for example, if a person from Israel is in the U.S. for a chag, he keeps only one day, but in order to maintain consistency with the community, he must keep Yom Tov for two days whenever in the eye of the public, to avoid machloket. This is despite the fact that everyone knows that the person is Israeli, and everyone knows that an Israeli only keeps one day.
Similarly, the Gemara says that if you have a minhag, such as not working on Erev Pesach, you would not be able to keep that minhag if you are in a place where the community does not have that minhag, in order to keep the peace. However, the Talmud concludes that lots of people do not work on a given day and it will not be noticeable that you are keeping the minhag, and therefore it is permissible.
Thus, we see that we are very concerned about avoiding too much diversity and variation, lest it lead to machloket, and this is done even at the expense of compromises in the Halacha and minhag.
Why? Why must we presume to be so intolerant of variation?
Indeed, many poskim acknowledge that in America, where there is no set minhag, people may follow their own personal minhagim.
I think that the answer is that when something is really important to you, even part of your basic identity, it becomes very difficult to tolerate differences. I think that this is a human weakness and something that needs to be overcome. However, the Torah addresses that flaw and says to try not to highlight variation of religious practice within our community, because we want to engender a feeling of unity and harmony.
Nevertheless, ultimately, we must learn to be at peace with those whom we differ with, even when our differences relate to core values. And we must be equally intolerant of those who attempt to remove that opportunity from society. This halacha reminds us, however, that this is not easy.
Thus, we must create laws and enforce laws to eliminate terrorism and racism, and thankfully our country tries to do that. And secondly, those people who do believe in equality must be reflective and identify those biases that may be subconscious and are part of our human imperfection of discomfort with those who are different from ourselves in ideology or lifestyle, and overcome them.
A radio program I heard recently had a segment about racism, and the person being interviewed advocated for this type of reflection. She said that if you see a black man walking behind a white woman and you feel nervous, you have to wake up and realize that this is a racist thought and should be corrected—because sometimes a person thinks that he believes in equality but part of his emotions do not. Then the mind must direct the heart toward truth.
Abraham Lincoln opened the Gettysburg Address by citing the Founding Fathers who founded this nation on the notion that all men are created equal. It is noteworthy that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves themselves. And yet he cited their teaching to argue that the founding vision of this country is equality and not slavery. This irony highlights the fact that a person can truly believe in equality but can still have racism in his heart at the same time. The Founding Fathers believed in equality, which was not actualized until many years later by Lincoln, and even then we did not achieve equality until much later, or perhaps not even yet, completely.
Thus, I think that we need to find ways to eradicate outright discrimination as well as subconscious biases.
I think that this should give us all pause for reflection. I think that the members of these Bergen County communities need to be reflective on their own biases—that may have been subconscious but are now quite blatant.
I think that the Hasidic community can be reflective on how they have been behaving as neighbors, such that people should really say, “We love when Jews move in because they enhance our neighborhoods.”
But it is easy to find the flaws of others, and the thing that is on us is to be reflective of ourselves, and not for others. We ourselves should also be reflective of the subconscious biases that we may have and not even realize, but that we need to look for and root out. For the ship of לא תעשו אגודות has sailed, and we can no longer address discrimination by maintaining uniformity of religious practice, because we do not live in a shtetl. We live in a diverse and integrated society. Just because we are often victims of anti-Semitism does not mean that we are immune to prejudice, biases and racism, whether it is by gender, by color, by religious denomination or by Hasidic sect. Let us look into our hearts and truly eradicate any and all prejudice from our minds, our speech and, of course, our actions.
By Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz
(printed with permission)
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the rabbi of Teaneck’s Congregation Shaare Tefillah.