Recent Issues

By: Rabbi Mark L. Winer, President of the

Florida Democratic Party Caucus of American Jews

and President of

FAITH: the Foundation to Advance Interfaith Trust and Harmony

We Jews live in a complicated, “BOTH/AND” world.

We have BOTH never enjoyed more acceptance and freedom than at this time in history—AND yet the number of anti-Semitic incidents is rising in much of the world.

Pew Foundation polls (2017) show that non-Jewish Americans feel “more warmly” toward Jews than toward any other religious group in American society, outside of their own. And, according to those same polls, European “warmth” toward Jews has never been higher. France leads in favorable views of Jews (92%), followed by the UK (86%), Germany (80%), Spain (75%), and Italy (71%).

At the same time, in the first three months of 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have tabulated a significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents, including multiple bomb threats and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester. And 4% of Belgian and French Jews moved to Israel between 2014 and 2015, citing the rise in their country’s anti-Semitism as a key factor in their decision (Institute of Jewish Policy Research).

This is the paradox of Pesach this year.

Shver Tsu Zayn

a Yid, as we say in Yiddish – it’s still “hard being a Jew.”

This Shabbat, just before Pesach, is called

Shabbat HaGadol

—the Great Sabbath. The prescribed Torah portion of Tzav continues the detailed ritual prescriptions for temple sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus. In many Orthodox synagogues, the rabbi gives the longest sermon of the year, dwelling at length on the meticulous ritual observance of Passover. In contrast, in the

Haftarah

for

Shabbat HaGadol

, the prophet Malachi warns the people that God will only accept sacrifices when they also practice social justice—not lying, paying fair wages, and caring for the vulnerable.

Shabbat HaGadol

concerns BOTH particular rituals AND universalistic values: freedom, redemption, social justice, and family.

Our Seder next week inextricably intertwines BOTH ritual AND ethics. We eat

maror

to remind us of our ancestors’ suffering when they were slaves in Egypt, and we eat

matzah

to recall our oppression and poverty. We recite

Avadim Hyenu

, “We were slaves in the Land of Egypt,” and

HaLachma Anya

, “This is the bread of affliction”—

Haggadah

passages foundational to Jewish ethics. We listen to God’s exhortations to remember our origins as impoverished slaves, and from there to identify with the poor and disadvantaged.

Our tradition aims for the Seder as a whole provide us with an experience of redemption (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5).

In the

Haggadah

, the prophet Elijah heralds the final redemption, which by definition reconciles all irreconcilable differences. The rabbis of the Talmud insisted that God grants free will, and yet all is determined—another seeming contradiction. According to our tradition, when Elijah arrives to announce the coming of the Messiah, he will resolve all such contradictions. Similarly, in the

Haggadah

text, redemption includes BOTH punishing evil AND rewarding good.

Unfortunately, BOTH/AND thinking is not widespread these days. The wave of populism in America, Europe and Israel reflects, among other factors, a longing for simplicity. Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump’s presidency in the U.S., the rise of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France all resulted at least in part from this desire to solve complex issues with simple answers.  The bigoted authoritarian personality views the world through a lens of power—which, by its very nature, is rooted in “either/or,” “black or white” thinking.

Judaism, however, enshrines BOTH/AND thinking, thus ingeniously teaching Jews how to navigate real life. In the modern world, we Jews simultaneously become BOTH a part of the broader culture AND maintain our distinct identity. More than a few commentators on Jewish participation and integration in the modern world have suggested that we Jews have flourished because modern non-Jews have in fact become more “Jewish.” Nowadays, almost everyone lives at the intersection of a variety of identities and communities. Many individuals experience the alienation and anomie of “the lonely crowd” in the way Jews often functioned in the medieval world, and learned to master life’s complexities.

We Jews know from history that we must remain vigilant in fighting anti-Semitism, and we most effectively fight anti-Semitism by linking our destiny to others who have experienced their own version of the “slavery in Egypt” narrative—by striving together toward a world that no longer has slaves or masters. The Hitlers of the world often start with Jews as targets, but add a range of “others” such as Muslims, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and refugees, which is why anti-Semitism is essentially best understood as one particular manifestation of human bigotry. Thus, we strengthen the Jewish future BOTH with particularistic vigilance against anti-Semitism AND by enlarging the “we” that opposes all prejudice.

What is more, we Jews gain the greatest respect—from others and from within our own ranks— when we BOTH cherish our distinctive identity and culture AND devote ourselves to building a world of mutual respect and celebration of difference.

About the Author

: Mark L. Winer served as a full-time pulpit rabbi for 30 years in the New York area, and 13 years in London. He is a sociologist (with a Ph.D. from Yale) who has written widely on interfaith relations and contemporary Jewry. For many years, he led interfaith activity for the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). In 2014, Queen Elizabeth II appointed him a “Member of the Order of the British Empire” for “building interfaith dialogue and social cohesion in London and the UK.” Mark and his wife Suellen live in Boca Raton.