This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) opens with the injunction of setting judges and officers within your gates. The proximity of this portion to the month of Elul has given way to an interesting inner connection, the idea that we have to set up judges and guards at the gates of our own person: eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Not just what comes out – our anger, our words, our desires – should be checked before it comes out, but also what comes in.
The work for betterment is not just for our inner souls. As we work internally, we are supposed to be working externally as well. Our individual improvement is to be mirrored in our collective improvement. The opening injunction of this portion is to be applied in several levels: our individual, our collective and even the level of the very judge we are speaking about.
After watching the special CNN Report, “Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America,” and I state that my Judaism has never and will never be defined by Antisemitism. There are so many joys and blessings, connections and inspirations that make up what it means for me to experience being Jewish. And, at the same time, hatred of the Jewish people, antipathy for Jewish culture and values, maliciousness toward the State of Israel, and suspicion of the Jewish faith cannot be ignored. Cannot be wished away. Must be recognized as a real threat.
We spend too much time trying to figure out where to place the motivation of those who attack Jews, whether through speech, vandalism or brutality. The temptation is to color code these incidents as we do with all things with the ridiculously arbitrary red and blue label of domestic politics. Perhaps there is an inevitability of making those connections. Yet, there is a common denominator for all of those who do violence against Jews whether they display a swastika, carry the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, cry out death to Israel, or burn a cross. Whether we are labeled as an inferior race, invisible puppet-masters, faceless oppressors, or diabolical evildoers, the message is the same. You do not deserve to be treated like a human being.
Jews are by no means the only people in this country or this world who face such dehumanization or who bear the wounds and scars of a history of persecution. And Jews have for generations found ways to be on the side of the vulnerable, to extend our own teachings about repairing the world beyond our own communities. I continue to believe that a world that protects the vulnerable and celebrates the many ways there are to be a human being, is a world in which Jews too will thrive with dignity and opportunity.
For that to be true we must put forward our own Jewishness and lift up each other’s way of being Jewish. And we must insist that no form of degradation of Jews be acceptable in politics, culture, religion, or academia. And, sadly, we must know that this degradation is out there finding more and more dangerous expression. Having to be more wary in this world is alien to my public Judaism. In that I know I have been fortunate and that no one connected to a particular kind of identity can take their safety for granted. I refuse to ignore or look away from those who think of me as undeserving of life, livelihood and well-being even as what it means for me to be Jewish will always go beyond anyone’s imposed definition.