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Rabbi Wes Kalmar Sermon - "Rabbi Norman Lamm Z'TL and Some Thoughts about Racism" - Parshat Naso - 13 sivan 5780

This past week the Jewish world lost a giant.  Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, z’tl, was the President and Chancellor of Yeshiva University, Rosh HaYeshiva at RIETS, a rabbi for many years at the Jewish Center in Manahattan He was a scholar, a Talmid Chochom and a rabbinic leader of the Jewish people par excellence.  His leadership, organizing of Jewish religious institutions, scholarship and sensitive and penetrating works on the state of the Jewish people have been a guiding light for our community.   With books and articles on diverse topics: from Chassidus to the State of Israel, and from Torah U’Madda to the nature of society at large,  so much of what our community stands for and holds most dear have been buttressed by the thoughts of Rabbi Lamm.  He helped save Yeshiva University in the 1970’s.  But more than each of his individual positions, achievements, books, articles or speeches, it was the way he lifted the level of the dialogue about what it means to be a Jew in today’s world.
 
This weeks Torah Portion of Naso – begins – Naso es Rosh – count the heads or lift up the heads of the Jewish people. It is a curious word to use. For the word Naso –can mean to count, to lift up, to carry, or to forgive.  I belive it is used here is to tell us that we should not just count people as numbers – but to recognize – that each and every one of them is unique.  And we should lift them up – we should elevate every individual.   
 
This past week has seen the rise of world protests instigated by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  And we have seen protests against racism and violence and we have seen protests that turned into violence and curfews and bloodshed and anger and pain.   I hope you will take a look at the statement of the Orthodox Union on this matter and to the very thoughtful pieces of Rabbi Heshie Billet (Rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere – and Mechutan of the Michels) and Rabbi Steven Burg (CEO of AISH Global) which I have included at the end of my sermon below.
 
I don’t know what Rabbi Lamm would have had to say exactly about the events of the past week.   But I do know that in his long career he wrote many drashot, many sermons about the evils of racism.  From the 1950s through the 1960s he wrote many drashot dealing with the scourge of racism.
 
In a sermon in 1963 entitled The Religious Foundation of Business – Rabbi Lamm decried the evils of racism in business practices as ‘employing false measures’ and he compared racism to idolatry – of denying the Godliness of others and denying God by using false practices. 
 
In a 1964 Sermon entitled “Insights Into Evil” he addressed the more subtle forms of racism that become accepted in more enlightened society and sadly sometimes in our own Jewish community.  Rabbi Lamm asks - If racism is  idolatry? – how can any rational good person come to accept it?  He answers that what often happens is a slide into falsehood.  Good reasons are given for evil.  “I am not racist, but … look at the statistics,” “I am not racist, but… “ “I don’t discriminate but …”  To Rabbi Lamm, this gradual slide into falsehood typified many modern forms of idolatry like racism, which he called “one of the most pernicious and idolatrous doctrines in the memory of living man.”
 
In a Sermon on Naso from 1959 entitled “A Jewish Definition of Peace” Rabbi Lamm looked at another part of this week’s parsha - the blessing of the Kohanim – which ends – ViYaseim Licha Shalom – and He shall establish peace for you.  In defining the Jewish nature of understanding peace Rabbi Lamm quoted the Jewish Greek philosopher Philo, who said that the nature of the many idols of the ancient world was very war like – they were always battling one another.  Hence the religious philosophy of idolatry is one of war – of conflict of highlighting differences between people. People make an idol out of the idea - my way is better, my approach is better, my way is the only way.   And one who is following multiple gods, in our day – multiple loyalties, whether they be political, class, intellectual or racial – they are all idolatries.  Rabbi Lamm wrote “When a man acknowledges only one God, one universal father and creator of all men – there can be no war, no conflict, no division and dissension.”
 
The Jewish world shall miss the uplifting wisdom of Rabbi Lamm.  But in his memory - let us be “Lifted Up” – Naso es Rosh, recognizing that each and every one of us has value – every human being needs to be treated as a child of God and as one who was created with the tzelem elokim – the image of God in them.  And ViYaseim Licha Shalom, may God help grant peace to us all. A peace in which we banish the idolatry of thinking there is only my approach and I must go to war against all others. A peace in which we recognize that we are all children of the one God, and make room for each other, in harmony and with good will towards all.  And the true Peace in which we see the end to external war and internal war, a time of health and happiness for all mankind.
 
Statement by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in the Wake of the Death of Mr. George Floyd and National Protest
 
Today, in the wake of last week’s death of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis and days of protests that have followed, the leadership of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (“Orthodox Union”) issued the following statement:
We are saddened, sickened, and outraged to have seen another broadcast video of an African-American man dying at the hands of police officers.
Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a political issue. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on.  As religious Jews, we believe the most important starting point for the national discourse that must take place is the recognition that all people are created in the image of G-d and that each human life is of infinite value. Indeed, the United States of America was founded upon this principle and, at its best, persistently strives to make it manifest in America’s laws and policies.
Yet, we are again witnessing that too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this brutal and unjust treatment is antithetical to basic American values.
People of good conscience must never turn a blind eye when people are being deprived of their human dignity and even their lives. Indifference is not an option.  The right of citizens outraged by these events to engage in peaceful public protest is to be protected as a fundamental right. But that should not lead to violence and vandalism, including assaulting law enforcement officers.
We plead for an end to the violence in the wake of this tragedy. We pray for comfort for grieving families and friends. We pray for peace across the United States while the legal process moves forward. We also join in the demand for a full investigation that results in rightful accountability and actual justice.
In 2019, the American Jewish community experienced its most deadly, violent and disturbing outbreak of anti-Semitism. Thus, we are acutely sensitive to the essential imperative to foster tolerance and respect in this highly diverse society in which we live.
We call on all Americans to unite in the pursuit of justice and brotherly love and respect, regardless of race, creed or color. In this encounter, let us all seek greater understanding amongst our fellow men and women – all of whom are created in the image of God. Let us work in partnership toward eradicating all forms of bigotry and racism and making the United States the “more perfect union” we all pray for it to be.
 
From Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere
 
Black lives absolutely matter. Human life, in general, for all people – absolutely matters. The past three months of our lives, we have made tremendous sacrifices precisely because we value human life infinitely. Not just Jewish life, but the lives of all humans. How do we react to the chaos that rules America today? As an Orthodox Jewish community we must condemn racism in the strongest possible terms! I recently shared with our community the story of my teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who demanded that his students attend a protest at the UN in 1968 when the black Ibo tribe of Biafra was being ruthlessly annihilated in the Nigerian Civil War. RAL taught us that we must care for all human life and that we thus must rally against this genocide. We arose early, prayed vatikin, had a shiur for 2 hours, and then made our way to the UN on a frigid below zero morning. Of the sixty people who attended the rally, forty seven were white YU boys with their Rebbe.
 
There is a real history of racism in this country that Jews must actively oppose, especially given our own history of being victims of anti-Jewish racism. When our Congresswoman, Kathleen Rice, organized a meeting with black clergy after the shootings in the Carolina church, Rabbi Hain and I attended the meeting and we each expressed solidarity with the African American community who were the victims of horrific racism. Our fellow black clergymen were deeply appreciative of this Jewish expression of solidarity. Black Jews also matter. I went to Ethiopia in 2006 with an Uri Ariel, an Israeli MK to try to lend support to the remaining black Jews left in that country. The State of Israel engineered two major missions to bring tens of thousands of black Ethiopian Jews to Israel during the last two decades of the previous century. Unfortunately, there is racism in Israel as well. But the black community in Israel is an important part of a diverse Israeli society, both in the IDF and in all parts of the social fabric. We must oppose racism there too.
 
The response of small but very vocal and violent segments of society in America during the last week has brought shame to America. As America struggles to slowly emerge from the Corona pandemic, we are assaulted by lawlessness. The riots, the theft, the looting, the graffiti, the destruction of property and the uncontrollable violence is disgraceful. The indiscriminate attacks on police officers all over the country is outrageous. And the anti-Semitic references by too many rioters is frightening to all of us. Let me acknowledge that there is a problem of police brutality that disproportionately affects African Americans. We must oppose this trend. There are also a majority of police officers who are not racist and who are trying their best to protect all Americans and who are suffering deeply as a result of so much anti-police sentiment. We must support these officers.
 
Violence and anarchy are never, ever the answer. Indeed, the violence is doing immense harm to the very people it claims to support. This should raise red flags for all Americans who oppose racism. Who is responsible for these attacks? The riots are driven by extremists on the far left and on the far right who thrive on anarchy and chaos in American society. It is not a universal uprising of all black people! It must be noted that overwhelming majority of African Americans have nothing to do with the chaos. They too are victims of the hooligans. From the perspective of our Jewish community, we must be wary and aware, because too often anti-Semitism converges within all of these movements, even though it has no rational or historical relationship with this American political and social problem. Although we as Jews must support measures to oppose racism in America, there is unfortunately a complicated history between Black Lives Matter and the Jews. Wikipedia writes that “Black Lives Matter is international human rights movement, originating in the African-American community, that campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people. BLM regularly holds protests speaking out against police killings of black people, and broader issues such as racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system.” It is noble to fight racial injustice. I support this aspect of the BLM platform. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer was a heinous crime. But the movement has also been implicated in anti-Semitism, and this creates a major problem for me. The Movement for Black Lives a group affiliated with Black Lives Matter issued a platform in 2016 which used the word “genocide” regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. They have called Israel and apartheid state and they have advocated for BDS. They have condemned Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in the Golan Heights. In an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe on August 12, 2016, Alan Dershowitz wrote, “It is a real tragedy that Black Lives Matter — which has done so much good in raising awareness of police abuses — has now moved away from its central mission and has declared war against the nation state of the Jewish people.” Dershowitz added that Black Lives Matter is not monolithic and “is a movement comprising numerous groups. ... But the platform [which includes these statements about Israel] is the closest thing to a formal declaration of principles by Black Lives Matter.” He called on “all decent supporters of Black Lives Matter” to demand removal of the paragraph accusing Israel of genocide from the platform. There is unfortunately also more subtle anti-Semitism, perpetuated at times by well-meaning people who have come to see a false zero-sum game between blacks and Jews. For example, in an article in today’s Jerusalem Post a well-meaning black Reverend, Anthony A. Johnson misses the point. He says, “Put yourselves in our shoes for a moment, imagine what the response of the Jewish community would be if George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor were Jewish? No doubt it would reach biblical proportions.” He is so off base. Countless Jews have been murdered in America, as a direct result of Anti-Semitism. Did America burn? Did anyone riot or destroy property? Did the outrages of today occur anywhere? The JPost also reported that on LA,“A number of kosher stores and synagogues were vandalized and looted in the uptown Los Angeles neighborhood of Fairfax, between Saturday night and Sunday morning, by people protesting police brutality following the killing of George Floyd......Some of the synagogues damaged as a result of vandalism, graffiti and looting by protesters..... It was also reported that Congregation Beth Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in Los Angeles and also on Beverly Boulevard, was defaced with antisemitic graffiti that read "F**k Israel" and "Free Palestine" scrawled along its walls.” Jews must stand with our African American brothers and sisters to help make positive change for them, but we must ask them to quash all forms of anti-Semitism in their ranks, too.
 
This brings me back home and back to today’s riots. We must know that what we are up against in these violent riots is an anti-American movement looking to disrupt normative American life, a movement that harms ALL Americans, including those it claims it supports. We must be prepared to articulate this to our elected officials and to the Police Department. We must support the NCPD. We also must put things in the correct perspective. This is harmful for black Americans too. This does not help solve the real injustices suffered by that community. The greater African American community is not at fault. We must condemn racism and police brutality. I am confident that this too shall pass. We must continue to pray and to trust in G-d. We have confronted Corona, we have suffered painful losses of friends and family, and we have remained strong. We have shown how much human life matters to us. We must continue to uphold safety rules as we begin to emerge into a chaotic society. We must be strong and resolute in advocating for our civil rights, our stores, and our synagogues and schools. This too shall pass. I have full confidence in the Nassau county Police Department. Before I conclude, I want to acknowledge an event of violent rioting that affected the Jewish community exactly at this time of year, 79 years ago. On June 1-2, 1941, on Shavuot, a violent pogrom was perpetrated against the Jewish community of Baghdad in Iraq. In the rioting and looting which followed, more than 180 Jews were murdered, more than 1000 were injured, and Jewish property was destroyed all over the city. This event is known as the Farhud. It marked the beginning of the end of 2600 years of continuous Jewish communal life in Baghdad. Edwin Black has written an excellent book called, The Farhud, which I highly recommend if you wish to learn the details of this Jewish tragedy. What America is experiencing now is its own ‘Farhud’. It is extreme violence with the goal of destroying the fabric of a great society. We must oppose this by working in peaceful and productive ways toward opposing racism and defending and upholding everything that is great in this great country.
 
Statement of Rabbi Steven Burg – CEO – Aish Global
 
Dear Aish Family,
 
It has been quite a week around the world. Between corona, protests and rioting the world has never seemed so complex. I spent the past week doing numerous TV and radio interviews regarding antisemitism. Many of you have reached out to me expressing your feelings. As you are my family, I wanted to express my general thoughts in a very personal manner.

When I worked at the Simon Wiesenthal Center I got to know the African American community on a very intimate level. One speaking engagement stands out in my mind. I was speaking at a meeting of the NAACP in Manhattan. We talked about how close the Jewish community and the African American community were during the civil rights movement. Ultimately we decided to try to renew our bonds and work closely in the future. 

That night I had decided to come early so I could attend the board meeting before I spoke. The main topic was the incarceration of young men aged 16-24. I realized that I did not fully understand the pain of their community and the struggle that they experienced regarding the fear that they had for law enforcement. Thankfully, I was involved in a program run by the Simon Wiesenthal Center called Tools for Tolerance. That year we trained 6000 NYPD Sergeants in how to deescalate situations and practice community policing. 

I have never forgotten the lessons I learned during those years. We must be sensitive to the African American community. What happened to George Floyd was horrific and intolerable. We must stand against unnecessary violence especially when it comes from law enforcement. That must be coupled with the fact that the majority of police officers are good people trying their best to keep us all safe. We must help both sides come together and forge a pathway towards coexistence and peace. 

Having opened up my heart you regarding my thoughts about the protests, I want to be firm that there is one aspect that must never be tolerated. Frequently those that hate Jews and Israel find their ways into liberal movements and use them as a cover. No where has it been more apparent then the BDS movement. Unfortunately it does not stop there. 

Who could forget that when the leaders of the Women’s March were asked to condemn Louis Farrakhan’s remarks referring to us Jews as “termites,” they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Black Lives Matter has consistently incorporated Anti-Israel groups into their organization. I have asked them on many occasions how this could possibly help their cause. Intersectionality has given an opening to antisemitic and anti Israel groups to hide their hate behind other causes. 

This was the background which culminated with synagogues in Los Angeles being attacked this past week. I found that I could not remain silent as hate messages were scrawled on our sacred houses of worship. This was not an accident. While the Jewish people must be a light unto the Nations we must be sure that the Jewish people stays strong. (Click here for my Newxmax interview.)   

I was told by some that we should stay quiet about the antisemitism that was occurring because “we shouldn’t make this about us.” My friends, I have much love and sensitivity for the world at large. But there is no scenario where a Jew gets attacked that I won’t scream from the rooftops. We must always look after our family. This was the point I made over and over again to the media this past week. (Click here for the The Mark Levin Show interview.) 

As Jews we must care about every human being on this planet. We have stood for morality and ethics for thousands of years. It is inherent in the DNA of a Jew. Simultaneously, we must always have every Jew's back. We must defend each other no matter what the cost. That is what defines family. May the Almighty help to heal the world and give comfort for all those in need. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Steven Burg
CEO, Aish Global
Mon, March 8 2021 24 Adar 5781