Friday, August 18, 2017

On Idols, Idolatry, and Statues

New Orleans completes removal of Confederate monuments with take down of Robert E. Lee statue

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we find a continuation of Moses’ second sermon to the Israelites. A significant part of the conversation is focused on reminding the Israelites of what they are to do when they conquer the land of Canaan. This comes with a particular emphasis on not falling prey to the foreign gods of the Canaanites.

With this in mind, Moses tells the Israelites of the “laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that Adonai, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth” (Deut. 12:1). 

To this end they are to, “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name for that site” (Deut. 12:3).

There is a lot of emphasis on idolatry both in the Torah and in the Neviim, the prophetic writings. One might think that God has an inferiority complex because God constantly demands the destruction of idols.

But there is something else going on here. Idols are man-made objects. They are the creation of human hands designed to represent something. The problem with idols is that it is of our human inclination to worship the work of our own hands rather than celebrate God’s creation. It is not that God has an inferiority complex, but rather God is concerned that we will elevate our idols above all that is holy.

What seems to be clear is a warning against making the work of our hands into false gods. Statues too can fall into this category. This is the core of what we are wrestling with as a nation. The question is are some of our statues a demonstration of history or an idol representing supremacy? 

If one places the needs of statue above the humanity of a fellow human being, they have effectively made that statue into an idol. 

Tearing down idols is both a physical and metaphorical ideal. It is about placing God and divinity at the center of our world. Only when we tear down the idols of hate, can we truly make the land holy for what is good and decent. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville

In the very first Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby showed their new creation punching he-who-will-not-be-named in the face, a full year before the U.S. entered WWII. It was a deliberate decision as Simon and Kirby were "morally repulsed" by the actions of Nazi Germany. As Simon later said, "The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too." The first issue of Captain America went on to sell over a million copies. We fight Nazis, that is what we do. We do not embolden them because we believe in taking on hate in all corners, at all times, in all places. 

Let's get a few facts out of the way. The Civil War was fought over the desire to own fellow human beings. General Robert E Lee was a traitor. The myth of General Lee may be lauded by many, but the man was no saint. His statue and other similar statues have been erected not to commemorate the Civil War but to intimidate. The US fought a war against the Nazis. Millions were killed by the Nazis and millions more died fighting them. These are facts, not beliefs. 

What transpired in Charlottesville this past week was not a one time event. It represented a corruption of history by some who believe their skin color and religion make them superior to their fellow human beings. Why they keep allying themselves with history's losers says much about their psyche.

As a result, one warrior against hate was murdered in an act of violence. Many more were injured including some seriously. And two law enforcement officers died while doing their duty to protect the public.

I for one am angry. I am angry that we have to keep fighting battles already won. I am angry we have to keep fighting hate. But I am also hopeful. For the dozens who stood up for hate, hundreds stood up against it. Clergy marched arm in arm. Fellow human beings, fellow Americans of all races, religions and backgrounds said, "No! Not in my back yard!"

When it comes to hate there are only two sides. The right side and the wrong side. To those who stand with Nazis and the KKK, you are on the wrong side. Plain and simple. 

Yes, we will need to keep having conversations and continue the hard work of coalitions to fight against the persistent, endemic, infections of racism and antisemitism in this country, but in my heart I believe love will defeat hate. Maybe not in our day, but one day. 

May the memories of our latest warrior against hate, Heather Heyer, always be for an abiding blessing. She did not deserve this. By all accounts she was a good and decent person. Yet we are reminded that when hate rears its ugly head, it is often the good and decent who suffer sometimes the most.

We will not remain silent. We will not equivocate. We will stand with the righteous of all nations and give hate no quarter. It will find no sanctuary. As long as we remain united, it will not win.

And then we shall one day see the vision of Isaiah come to fruition where all shall live under their one vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.