Loyalty: To Bigotry No Sanction, Washington’s Slave Quarters, and the Holy Ground of Our Nation’s Struggle

Rabbi Maderer delivered this D’var Torah on Shabbat, 8/23                  

Two days ago, the Reform Movement’s rabbinic arm released the following statement:

“The Central Conference of American Rabbis is dismayed by President Donald J. Trump’s politically charged and divisive statement referring to Jews who vote for Democrats: ‘I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge, or great disloyalty.’ The deployment of this classic antisemitic trope should raise serious concerns for every member of the Jewish community, regardless of one’s political party.  Throughout our history, Jews have been maligned by the dangerous, antisemitic speech of individuals in positions of power who accused us of placing loyalty to Israel or Judaism over loyalty to the lands of our sojourn. Often, those accusations have contributed to violence against Jews and expulsion.  American Jews are well informed voters—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—who are deeply devoted to American values, including bipartisan support for Israel. The suggestion that Jews, or any religious group, should be affiliated with any one political party is un-American and should be challenged directly and unequivocally.”

As our Rodeph Shalom clergy and leadership affirmed in our congregational email yesterday, we stand with those words.

Furthermore, I’d like to briefly comment on the most recent events, that led to the absurd disloyalty accusation. As most of you know, I am committed to Israel and believe Israel’s security is critical to the Jewish people.  And I care deeply about a Two-State Solution that would offer dignity to the Palestinians. I also oppose the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions, or BDS, movements.  BDS does not protest Israeli policy, such as the occupied territories. BDS opposes a 2-State solution and advocates for policies, that I believe are meant to wipe out Israel’s existence.

US congresswomen Omar and Tlaib subscribe to BDS.  Rep. Tlaib acted in bad faith when, within her request which then granted permission to enter Israel, she volunteered to respect restrictions on BDS activity while in Israel—and then days later accused Israel of silencing her and treating her like a criminal.  In response to the conflict the US congresswomen published a cartoon by a known anti-Semitic commentator.  I believe they are highly problematic figures.  Even so, I support the overwhelming number of Jewish organizations, from across the political spectrum, that have agreed that sitting members of Congress should be welcomed to see Israel firsthand. Barring them helps no one except perhaps the extreme right and extreme left, who seek to use Jews to further divide us all.  (Compelling thinking on what a welcome could look like, here from Rabbi Josh Weinberg).

I felt compelled tonight to name the politicization of Jewishness and the tropes of antisemitism.  Yet, I don’t want us to allow the noise to distract us from the Jewish values and from the American principles to which we aspire.

How do we prevent the negative from setting the agenda for our Jewish lives?  I admire the strategy developed years ago, by the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, and other college campuses.  When a visiting BDS group was planning to demonstrate on campus, the Penn Hillel leaders wanted to oppose; yet they did not want to give the BDS demonstrators excessive attention.  So the Hillel leaders created a festival of Jewish learning that was bigger and better, which took place on the very same day as the BDS demonstration.  There, they lifted up Jewish identity, Jewish commitment and Jewish values.

Some of you, just sent off your child to college campus—I have faith that this is the kind of positive leadership, they too, have the capacity to show—they will be guided by the enduring values they learned in your homes, and in our congregational home.

To take a page from Penn Hillel, let’s lift up, not only what we deplore, but also and even more so, what we cherish. For our response to degradation is to be present here, for our Jewish lives, doing what we already do—in prayer, in caring community, in Torah study, in social justice.  And our response to the degradation of American democracy, is to lift up our nation’s authentic foundational teachings:

On August 17th, 1790, Moses Seixas, from the Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, delivers a letter to President George Washington. Seixas writes: “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude, behold a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all, Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine …” (excerpted)

Incredibly, President Washington responds, quoting the Jewish leader.  He writes: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration, is spoken of, as if it was, by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”  (excerpted) .

On display at the National Museum of American Jewish History in our very own city, the letter demands our leaders give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  But the principle does not come easily; it has always required our relentless pursuit.

Picture yourself standing on Independence Mall, just south of Market Street.  The museum with the letter, to your left.  What is just across the grass, from the place where Washington’s “bigotry no sanction” letter lives?  The excavated slave quarters of the very same George Washington.  That grass on which you stand—that space in between, is the struggle—the complex tension within one man. The principles were not achieved easily, even for George.

And the principles are not achieved easily, when it comes to us. We share the tension: protect the self –and-  welcome the other.  That is the struggle of Reform Zionism: commitment to Israel –and- commitment to Palestinians.  That is the struggle of the synagogue—secure our building –and- welcome the stranger.

For me, that space, across from Independence Hall, that space of Washington’s struggle, that space where some of us stood together 2 weeks ago for the Tishe bAv vigil for immigration justice—that is holy ground because it tells the story, of the truth of our nation– that justice and freedom do not, and have never, come easy.  That holy ground in between, reminds us, that we have always struggled for righteousness—in our country, in our community, in our very self.

We need the reminder to strive for righteousness, so that we do not take it for granted.  We need the reminder because any of us can be at risk, can fall into the trap of demonizing the other, especially when we feel afraid.  We need the reminder to strive for righteousness, so that we never neglect to stand in solidarity with others, who are vulnerable too.  For any of us can be accused: disloyal.

When we feel the tension, when we feel the fear, that can tempt us to protect only ourselves, when we feel distance from our commitment to the “bigotry no sanction” side of Independence Mall, our Jewish tradition is here for us, with values of Torah, reminding us who we seek to be, on our spiritual quest.

Our enduring values guide us, to understand our most fundamental words of Shema—our message of oneness.

Our enduring values guide us, to understand our Talmud’s lesson, that we all descend from the same ancestor, so that none of us could think our lineage is superior to another’s.

Our enduring values guide us, to understand our Midrash’s message, that one who gains honor, through the degradation of a fellow human, has no share in the World to Come—the world to come is a symbol of what ought to be.

There is no disloyalty issue here.  Steadfast in our Jewish values, and in our American patriotism, standing side by side with all religions, races and nationalities of origin, may the work of our hearts, and our hands, help to shape a world, which gives, to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.