Guest Blogger: Judy Stanton’s Dvar Torah for Sisterhood Shabbat 5775, Parshat Bo

Note: It is my pleasure and honor to share with you a Dvar Torah written by a member of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, Judy Stanton.

Shabbat Shalom.

I want to thank Deb Sikora for giving me the honor of delivering my 3rd Sisterhood Shabbat d’var Torah.  It’s also, coincidentally, my 3rd d’var on Parshat Bo. In 2011, I explored the many different calendars by which we live. In 2012, I discussed tradition and changing gender roles in modern Judaism. This year, as I re-read Bo, it was a bit difficult to choose a central topic, plus I’m one of those people who find it all too easy (and enjoyable) to wander off in whatever directions an idea leads me.

But the recent horrifying attacks in Paris, coupled with the world-wide threat of radical Islam, plus the unending conflicts between Israel and her neighbors got me thinking about the concepts of collective guilt and collective punishment. Parashat Bo has a lot to teach us about these.

Our starting point is Exodus: chapter 11, verses 4 – 6, where Moses delivers God’s terrifying warning of the deadly tenth plague to Pharaoh. This translation is by Robert Alter:

And Moses said, “Thus said the Lord: ‘ Around midnight I am going out in the midst of Egypt.  And every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the slave-girl who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn of the beasts.  And there shall be a great outcry in all the land of Egypt, the like of which there has not been and the like of which there will not be again.’ “

And again, in chapter 12, verse 29, where the wording is slightly different:

  “And it happened at midnight that the Lord struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and every firstborn of the beasts.”

These are very troubling verses.  God seems to be is punishing the innocent along with guilty! Collective guilt, collective punishment!  Rabbinic commentaries attempt to explain and justify God’s actions. The eminent 16-century Italian rabbi, philosopher, physician and scholar Ovadiah Sforno characterized Pharaoh and “the captive in the dungeon,” as, respectively, “the most guilty and the least guilty.” Rashi wrote that “the Egyptian slaves themselves looked down on the Israelites and took joy in their suffering.” Commentary in our Eytz Chaim chumash says that the non-Israelite slaves were punished because they did not join with the Israelites to rise up against their common oppressor.

I agree with Sforno’s assertion that the Pharaoh was “the most guilty.”  As leader of the Egyptian nation, he sealed its fate by his judgements and actions. But who were “the least guilty?” Was the entire Egyptian population really to blame?  After all, how much control did they have in their own lives?  Weren’t the vast majority of them virtually powerless?

And what a cruel punishment is meted out! The death of the firstborn — whether an infant, an adult, or a young ram growing its first set of horns — was the ultimate demonstration of God’s power.  Not even the Pharaoh—a god within his own culture— was spared.  None of his people—who worshipped him and believed he could protect them—were spared. Imagine the impact of thousands of dead herd-beasts in an agricultural society!  And what is the worst thing that can happen to a parent but the death of a child?

But I think the tenth plague was also a demonstration of the power of God’s mercy and compassion.  After all, God could have destroyed the entire nation of Egypt. Why didn’t God do that?

It’s a natural human reaction to rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemy, as Moses, Miriam and the Israelites did when the Egyptian army drowned in the Sea of Reeds. But a midrash from the Talmud teaches us that, “the Almighty chastised the angels and said, ‘How can you sing when my people are dying?’ ” (Talmud Sanhedrin, 39b)  It was not a happy occasion for God.  I assert that God grieved for God’s children, just as the Egyptians did for theirs.

We follow God’s example when, during the Pesach seder, we empty wine from our glasses drop by drop while reciting the ten plagues. It’s a powerful reminder that our rejoicing must be tempered by acknowledging that often it comes at the cost of others’ suffering.

I believe this idea lies at the heart of conflict resolution and is the basis for the administration of true justice.  And when we recognize our common humanity, it’s much easier to “refrain from doing to others what is distasteful to ourselves,” as Rabbi Hillel taught. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

We modern, Conservative-Egalitarian Jews do not practice blind obedience.  We question authority and parse halachah, striving to maintain our core values while adapting in a changing world.  We acknowledge the complexities and contradictions inherent in life and in conflict. Like the great sages of the Talmud, we agonize over how to deal with brutal realities without ourselves becoming brutalized. We struggle against the natural longing for revenge instead of justice.  And, because of both our long history as outsiders, and our current status as accepted and valued citizens, we abhor bigotry.

Unfortunately, this is not the case where fundamentalism and fanaticism hold sway. But before I go any further, let’s define those terms.

Most authoritative dictionaries define fundamentalism primarily within the context of either Protestant Christianity or Islam. For our purposes, I prefer this generalized definition, as cited in Webster’s New College Dictionary:

 Fundamentalism is a strict adherence to or interpretation of a doctrine, set of principles, etc., as of a social, legal, political, or religious group or system.

So what is a fanatic? According to the Oxford Online Dictionary:

A fanatic is a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal especially for an extreme religious or political cause. The fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.

One comment I read online added:

“The fanatic is a person who is so sure that his or her views are the truth that they see anyone who holds different views as evil or inhuman.”

There is a difference between fundamentalism and fanaticism.  An anonymous contributor to the website Quora wrote:

“A fundamentalist wants to strictly adhere to the correct doctrines of his religion; a fanatic wants to make you adhere to them.”

This is my own definition:

A fundamentalist is someone who sticks to his guns.  A fanatic is someone who uses them.

We are all aware that Jewish fundamentalism and fanaticism are very real, and pose a  threat to the state of Israel and to Judaism itself. In Israel, the fundamentalist rabbinate sets rules for the secular population.  They wield far too much power, both personal and political.

These days, the terms “price tag attacks” and “settler violence” are all too familiar to anyone who follows the news from Israel.  Many of these fanatics are admirers and followers of the late Meir Kahane.  We remember with sorrow the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a 27-year-old Jewish law student named Yigal Amir, who told the court that he did it because Rabin wanted “to give our country to the Arabs.”

So why do people become fanatics?

For answers, I turned to a classic work that I first read in my teens, that time of of life when most of us search for answers to “the big questions” and begin to create a separate identity from our parents’. “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer, was published in 1951 and instantly recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen. Hoffer, the son of German immigrants, was a self-educated, lifelong learner who worked as a longshoreman and laborer for most of his life.

In 168 pages, Hoffer analyzes and dissects the motives and responses, the potential and power, of “the true believer.”  I’m going to share a short passagefrom  the book;  please keep in mind that this was written during the aftermath of World War II:

 All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them… breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

A central tenet of Hoffer’s states that it is from among the frustrated, the alienated,  the directionless, that charismatic leaders draw their followers. The typical follower feels personally inadequate, often worthless, and blames outside forces for his or her personal failures.  People are hungry for certainty, and sometimes it’s a toss-up as to whom they will follow. For example, in pre-Hitler Germany, a young person was more likely to join the Communists rather than the Nazis, if that’s what his/her friends were doing.

The radical Islamic terrorists who murdered the staff of “Charlie Hebdo,” and Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered four Jewish people in a Parisian kosher market, fall within these psychological parameters.

Remember, the fanatic’s mindset is an either/or mentality. I am right, you are wrong.  We are right, all of you are wrong.  The fanatic has no problem in assigning collective guilt and meting out collective punishment.

Extremist Jewish settlers are a tiny fraction of the total population in the West Bank, but their destructive actions have an enormous impact. They believe with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their might that the Torah is literally true and that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews.  The only authorities they recognize are God and Torah. They are religious, not political Zionists, and for that reason alone, they are very dangerous.

Now, there is no denying that the underlying structures of a society are what create fertile ground for radical movements.  Nations everywhere, throughout human history, have been  plagued — and I use the word deliberately—by the deep schisms within society.  A schism is a split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief.  From schisms come “isms” – racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism. An “ism” that is shared by the majority of a population becomes a part of the national psyche.  In modern terminology, it’s deemed an “institutionalized” ism, such as institutionalized racism.

At this level, the concepts of “collective guilt” and “collective punishment” play out within the context of mass movements, which may incorporate governmental laws and policies.

I have neither the time nor the credentials to explore the enduring nature of anti-Semitism.  But I have to admit there are times when I wish I could stand up in front the whole world and say, “Why are you all so obsessed with us Jews?  What is your problem?  Go away, leave us alone!”  (By the way, that’s the polite version.)

As we confront the current alarming rise in anti-Semitism, which is fueled in great part by anti-Israel fundamentalists and fanatics, what I find most disturbing is the intolerant attitudes of and escalating actions by students on college campuses here in the United States and elsewhere.

Young people are natural “true believers.”  They pour their energy and passion into trying to right the wrongs of the world—as they perceive them. And they are impatient!  (I speak, of course, from personal experience.) They are especially vulnerable to falling under the sway of leaders and teachers who seem to know all the right answers and have all the solutions.   And, whether consciously or not, they feel guilty about their own privileged existence. So they fight for the underdog! Excoriate the oppressors!

American college students can’t change American history, and they don’t seem particularly eager to give back the land they live on to the Native Americans, but by golly, at least they can make sure the Jews don’t do the same thing!  Jewish students are often leaders of these groups.  Their dedication to justice is admirable, but they have a double dose of guilt to assuage. (I’m not being facetious.) The worst part may be that they don’t understand they’re helping empower the fanatics.

In Israel, young Jewish extremists carry out “price tag” attacks and shout “Death to the Arabs!”  They throw rocks at Arabs and they throw rocks at the IDF, both of whom they consider heir mortal enemies.

Collective guilt, collective punishment.

So what can we do?  Quite a bit, actually.  We must make our moderate voices heard. Join together with moderate voices from the Islamic community to counter the fundamentalists and fanatics who seek to divide and destroy, both here and around the world.  Support the Masorti movement in Israel and the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement there.  Check out organizations like “Stand With Us” to learn how to counter anti-Israel propaganda. Subscribe to the online newsletter published by “U.N. Watch,” which monitors the United Nations’ actions, and advocates for human rights for all the people on this planet.  Come here tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. for the presentation by the Syracuse Area Middle East Dialogue Group.

There isn’t a nation on earth whose citizens are of one mind.  Utopia is not just unrealistic; it’s unobtainable, because we are imperfect beings.  The United States is our home; Israel is our spiritual homeland and we will continue to support and defend them.  But we must constantly be on guard against the longing for certainty. We must find a balance between passion and rationality if we are to “create the change we want to be.”

And let’s leave the collective judgements to God.

Shabbat Shalom