Immersed in the Waters of Torah: Responding to Antisemitism by Living Full Jewish Lives

Delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer at Shabbat service on 1/3/2020.   

The lights of Hanukkah now dim, I can see as clearly as ever, how desperately the world needs our light. I have been outraged to witness American Jews attacked in antisemitic acts on every night of Hanukkah and beyond.  And I have taken solace, and found inspiration from your presence in our Community and knowing we stand together.

One of our responses to antisemitism needs to be the practical security review.  The recent security updates that have been reported to the congregation over this passed year, already address the rise in antisemitic acts and so, for that we can feel a sense of reassurance, even in a world without complete certainty.

Another of our responses to antisemitism is the expression of solidarity with other the Jews, the welcoming of solidarity from non-Jews, and the readiness to reach out in solidarity when other groups are in need.

Tonight the response to antisemitism I’d like to focus on, is perhaps the most critical of all.  We respond to the rise in antisemitism in the very same way, that we respond to every single day: by living full, vibrant Jewish lives. Just as we publicized the miracle of Hanukkah with our Hanukkiot in the windows, we boldly and publicly live lives inspired by Torah, mitzvot and the generation of Jewish who came before us.

Last week, leading antisemitism and Holocaust historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, wrote:

“In a month of terrible anti-Semitic attacks, including a stabbing of multiple people at a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, the news that most depressed me did not involve violence. It was not something done to Jews but something Jews did. synagogue in the Netherlands is no longer publicly posting the times of prayer services. If you want to join a service, you have to know someone who is a member of the community.  When Jews feel it is safer for them to go “underground” as Jews, something is terribly wrong—wrong for them and, even more so, wrong for the society in which they live. Jews have taken and are taking anti-Semitism very seriously. Non-Jews must do the same.  You must do so, not solely for the sake of the well-being of your Jewish neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. (Though that would be laudable.) You must do so for the sake of the well-being of the societies in which you live. No healthy democracy can afford to tolerate anti-Semitism in its midst. It is one of the long-term signs of rot in that democracy. If you care about democracy, you should care about the Jews among you, and the anti-Semites too.”

Dr. Lipstadt’s important article came with an unfortunate title, I am guessing the title was written not by her but by the publisher.  The article was entitled, “Jews Are Going Underground.”  No, Jews are not going underground.  Jews are standing strong, and together, in our communities, guided by Torah, and walking a path of mitzvot. Every one of us in this congregation makes that a reality; and every one of us shares the responsibility to make it so.

Sometimes more dormant, sometimes more active, Jew-hatred has existed throughout our history.  I’d like to share with you wisdom from a past generation, found in a text in Talmud Bavli/the Babylonian Talmud, in Berachot 61b.  During the time of this parable, in the 1st century, the Romans have banned the Jews from studying the Torah.

The story reads: Once, an evil government decreed that no Jew was to engage in Torah.

Papus ben Yehuda approached Rabbi Akiva who was gathering a group in public and engaging them in Torah.

Papus said to him, “Rabbi Akiva, aren’t you afraid of the ruling government?”

Rabbi Akiva replied, “Here is a parable for you.  To what can this matter be compared?  To a fox who was walking next to the bank of a river, and saw fish who were gathering from place to place.

The fox said to them, ‘From what are you fleeing?’

The fish replied: ‘From nets that people are bringing onto us.’

The fox said to the fish, ‘Do you want to come up onto dry land, where you and I can dwell together as our ancestors dwelled together?’

The fish answered, ‘You are the one who is known as the most clever of the animals?  You are not clever!  You are a fool!  If the place that sustains us causes us fear, the place that would kill us, would, all the more so!”

With the end of the parable, Rabbi Akiva leans into Papus and concludes: “And so it is with us now.  We sit and engage in Torah, as it is written in it, ‘For it is your life and the length of your days.’  Thus, if we go and ignore Torah, all the more so, we threaten our lives.”

They say that only a few days later, Rabbi Akiva was arrested and apprehended into prison.  Then they arrested Papus ben Yehudah and incarcerated him next to Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Akiva said, “Papus, who brought you here?”

Papus replied, “Happy is Rabbi Akiva who was arrested on words of Torah.  Oye to Papus who was arrested on words of nothingness.”

Is the meaning of the parable clear?  An escape to nothingness is no escape at all.

What is the point of protecting Judaism, unless we are living it?  What is the point of preserving Judaism for the future, unless we are walking a path of Jewish life today?  What is the point of defending ourselves, unless we are sustaining ourselves.  As the fish say: If the place that sustains us causes us fear, then the place that would kill us, would, all the more so!  And as Rabbi Akiva says: We sit and engage in Torah, as it is written in it, ‘For it is your life and the length of your days.’  The fish understand, Rabbi Avika understands, and I believe you and I understand: the purpose of our Judaism is to immerse in the waters of Torah, to pursue lives of meaning and purpose through the mitzvot — to pursue what Rabbi Donniel Hartman calls: the essential Jewish responsibility to build a life of moral and spiritual greatness.

This is not Rome. Still, our tradition offers wisdom for today.

Join me in committing and recommitting every day to living our Jewish lives.


Share your Jewish practices and their meaning to you, with non-Jews — and if you don’t have a lot of meaningful Jewish practice going on right now, use this moment as an excuse, to examine how to take your Jewish life a little deeper.

Share that Judaism– your Shabbat practice, your study, your star of David, your tzedakah– with co-workers, at the home and school association meeting, at the gym, with the cab driver.

I want the world to know you.  I want the world to know your Judaism.

May we live our Jewish lives, fully, that we may never say ours is a life lived on words of nothingness…that we may say our lives are lived on words of Torah.