Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
07 August 2015
Humility, Gratitude, Responsibility:
Choosing Life through Text
This week, Israel laid to rest a beautiful soul. Shira Banki, 16 years old, was among the six people stabbed by a religious fanatic at the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Tragically, Shira succumbed to her wounds a few days later.
Her parents said she was “full of life and love,” an “intelligent, gentle, curious, musical girl.” She had been a concert pianist from a young age. Her parents went on to say, “All of her innocence, beauty, happiness and goodness fell on the altar of hatred, malice, cruelty, and ignorance… We are left with pain, longing, and shock that every parent would rather die than feel.”
One Israeli rabbi said: “In what upside-down world are the Bankis considered secular and the murderer…considered religious?” To do that is to cede to extremists the religious tradition we claim to uphold.
Certainly, the parade attacker Yishai Schlissel, may his name be blotted out, used religious language in the anti-gay pamphlets he circulated. He described the parade as “blasphemous,” a “march for abomination.” “It is incumbent upon every Jew to risk beatings or imprisonment and together to stop the desecration for the sanctity of His name. If we refrain from declaring war, they’ll feel free to spread this shame all over the world.” He also said on an ultra-Orthodox radio station that it’s worth doing “something extreme” to stop the Jerusalem Pride Parade.
So he acted in the name of Judaism. He acted in our name. And he had Jewish sources to back him up. Leviticus says that homosexual behavior is an abomination. Biblical stories depict zealots rampaging murderously for God, and being praised for it. That darkness is embedded in our texts, and if left unchecked it has consequences that are terrible and very real.
The question for us then is: what is the Judaism that we stand for? How is it different, what does it value, what is its vision?
It is not biblical literalism, and we should be proud of that. We understand the Torah to be a product of people situated in particular social and historical settings. However divinely inspired the authors were, new contexts render some of their words less relevant in each age. We do not practice bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. Are we selective in our interpretation? Of course. Everyone is. The best anyone can do is be intellectually honest about it.
God placed before the Israelites life and death and told them: choose life, that you and your children shall live. We also choose life: we choose a life-affirming approach to our text and tradition. We choose a path that doesn’t lead to murderous rampage in the name of religious piety. We reject a death-dealing Judaism.
We choose humility, and responsibility, and gratitude. I’ve spoken about these virtues before, and I find them shining through anew in this week’s portion. There are dark passages here too, about slaughtering all the nations in our way, leaving no one alive. But there is also light.
Let’s start with humility:
“Know, then (says God), that it is not for any virtue of yours that Adonai your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deut. 9:6) Lest all the talk of chosenness go to our heads — God reminds us God loves us in spite of ourselves, not because we somehow merit God’s rewards and blessings.
Moses describes the land of plenty into which the Israelites are about to cross, and how full their fields and bellies will be. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deut 8:10). When you settle and prosper, never forget where you came from. Be grateful for the blessings in your life, earned or not.
These culminate in responsibility:
“Cut away…the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For Adonai your God is God supreme and the Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). Lest you think conquering tribes and settling their land is all we’re about, hear this: God is a champion of the vulnerable, the marginalized, the outsider. Being a follower of this God — being a Jew — means taking up these causes.
The Pride Parade attacker, like the Jews who burned a Palestinian family home in the name of Judaism, killing the toddler Ali Dawabsha who was inside, thought he was doing God’s will. They call themselves Torah-True Jews.
But they fail at humility, unwilling to admit their cosmic limitations. They fail at gratitude, so discontented with their lot that they burn to make others suffer. They fail at responsibility, forgetting the command to befriend the stranger, for we were strangers, too. They fail, in the end, at Torah by turning it into an idol. They destroy God’s image in their fellow human being.
To say Kaddish now for Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsha, along with our own, is to accept the burden of their memory. Zichronam liv’racha — may their memories be blessings by reminding us of the Torah we stand for, and agitating us to act more humbly, more gratefully, and more responsibly — in the name of Judaism — for as long as we walk this earth.