Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Land of the Covenant: Rosh Hashanah 5779

On Friday evening of October 3, 1980, towards the end of Simchat Torah, Palestinian terrorists set off explosive-filled saddlebags left on a motorcycle parked outside a Paris synagogue. Although the synagogue itself was damaged, all of the people killed were on the sidewalk outside. Two of the four killed were non-Jews who simply happened to be passing by the synagogue when the bombing occurred. That night, French Prime Minister Raymond Barre said that the terrorists “meant to attack Jews going to the synagogue but they hit innocent French people crossing the street.”

His words seemed to imply either that the Jews who were targeted were either not innocent or, more likely, were not truly French. While Prime Minister Barre soon apologized, he spent the rest of his political career and indeed his life dealing with charges of antisemitism. Why was this statement not so unusual for France? Because Barre’s antisemitic rhetoric was not contrary to basic tenets of France, which is a tradition-based, ethnic society, not a covenant-based one like the United States.

In October 1980 I was a senior in college and while I heard about the bombing, it wasn’t until many years later in graduate school that I learned about Barre’s comments. But hearing about them didn’t surprise me. I had relatives in Israel who emigrated from France in the early 1960s. They were originally from Lithuania, survived the concentration camps, and moved to France shortly after the end of World War II. Their children, roughly my contemporaries, were born and educated in France and spoke French like the natives they were. But as Jews, they never felt completely comfortable in France and were never fully accepted. Mainstream French society considers French people to be truly French not just if they have citizenship, but if they have the same ancestry, blood, lineage -- and even religion, because to be fully French is to be Catholic even though most French people are not particularly religious. As much as French Jews try to be French, they will always be a little bit different. And while the problematics of Muslim integration in France are extremely complicated, the sense that Muslims like Jews can never be fully French surely contributes to the problem as well .

The ethnic nature of belonging is not unique to France, of course. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, LORD Jonathan Sacks, is the Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and an important public intellectual in the UK. In a commentary on the weekly parasha Ki Tavo which I quoted when we read that parasha last week, Rabbi Sacks remarks on the difference between American and British monuments. He notes that in the United States, monuments like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials contain passages from the writings of those who are memorialized therein. By contrast, British memorials simply have the name, the dates, and the positions the person occupied or what they were famous for.

Sacks says that this is because England is a tradition-based society whereas the US is a covenant-based society. “In a tradition-based society like England things are as they are because that is how they were. England, writes the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, “was not a nation or a creed or a language or a state but a home. Things at home don’t need an explanation. They are there because they are there.”

“Covenant societies are different,” says Rabbi Sacks. “They don’t worship tradition for tradition’s sake. They do not value the past because it’s old. They remember the past because it was events in the past that led to the collective determination that moved people to create the society in the first place. The Pilgrim Fathers of America were fleeing religious persecution in search of religious freedom. Their society was born in an act of moral commitment, handed on to successive generations. Covenant societies exist, not because they have been there a long time, nor because of some act of conquest, nor for the sake of some economic or military advantage. They exist to honour a pledge, a moral bond, an ethical undertaking. That is why telling the story is essential to a covenant society. It reminds all citizens of why they are there.”

France, the United Kingdom, and many other European countries are having difficulties figuring out their identities because their societies are changing. Whereas not so long ago the UK was almost entirely white and ethnically English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish, today those four ethnicities make up only about 80 percent of the population.

I am not making a value judgment by saying that changes in population makeup are difficult to adjust to in societies like France or the UK which have been fairly homogeneous. By contrast the United States has historically, despite the very serious blind spots we have had around issues of race, been a nation defined not by identity but by ideals.

President Lyndon B. Johnson said in his inaugural address: “They came here—the exile and the stranger— . . .They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”

President George W. Bush said, in his first Inaugural address: “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.”

And last week President Bush and President Obama shared similar thoughts in their eulogies for Sen. John McCain. President Bush said that Sen. McCain “loved freedom, with the passion of a man who knew its absence. He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.” And President Obama said “John understood, as J.F.K. understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline; not on what we look like, what our last names are.”

Presidents of both the Republican and Democratic parties have emphasized that what makes us Americans is not a common ancestry but our fidelity to a common creed. But perhaps no one has said it better than Rob Tibbetts, whose daughter Mollie disappeared in Iowa in July and was found, having been murdered, about a month later. The man charged in Mollie’s murder is Mexican and seems to have been in the United States illegally. As a result, the murder of Mollie Tibbetts has been used as a cause celebre by those arguing for a more restrictive immigration policy, construction of a wall on the Mexican border, and greater efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.

Rob Tibbetts wrote earlier this month in the Des Moines Register: “I am Hispanic. I am African. I am Asian. I am European. My blood runs from every corner of the Earth because I am American. As an American, I have one tenet: to respect every citizen of the world and actively engage in the ongoing pursuit to form a more perfect union.”

If you go to the Lincoln Memorial you will see an example of what Rabbi Sacks noted about American monuments. There is of course the majestic, brooding, statue of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French but there are also long quotes from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address. For me it is a haunting place and every time I go there I cry. It is sacred ground for us as Americans. But here is the interesting thing -- last Shabbat I asked anyone present in the congregation who had at least one ancestor living in the United States when Lincoln was president to raise their hand. Not a single person did so. Are we less moved by the Lincoln Memorial because our ancestors were not here during the Civil War? Is Lincoln’s story less our story? Are we somehow less American because during the Civil War our ancestors lived in Russia or Germany or the Ottoman Empire?

While there are those in this country who would deny us our proper place in American society, like those who marched through the historic Grounds of the University of Virginia with tiki torches last August, chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” we are not the only targets of racism and white nationalism in the United States.

Let’s be clear -- many of these phenomena are not precisely new, but there has been an uptick over the last two years or so. It seems like every day there is another story in the news about police being called because black people have the audacity to be reading in the lounge of the dorm in which they reside or selling lemonade outside the house in which they live or swimming in the pool owned by their HOA or changing the tire on their own car. On our southern border, Hispanic children were taken away from their parents with less tracking and accountability than is used when a prisoner has his belt and shoelaces confiscated.

The covenant of the United States is uniquely enmeshed with the covenants of Judaism. The Pilgrims consciously modeled their society on ancient Israel. Benjamin Franklin suggested that the United States get rid of English and adopt Hebrew as its official language. Both Franklin and Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Great Seal of the United States should depict the Exodus and Moses. Here is Franklin’s description of the design he wanted:

Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Interestingly, the Hebrew term for the United States is Artzot Ha-Brit, the Lands of the Covenant -- a coinage which dates back at least to 1857.

Rabbi Sacks writes: “covenant societies are not ethnic nations bound by common racial origin. They make room for outsiders – immigrants, asylum seekers, resident aliens – who become part of the society by taking its story and making it their own, as Ruth did in the biblical book that bears her name (“Your people will be my people and your God my God”) or as successive waves of immigrants did when they came to the United States. Indeed conversion in Judaism is best understood not on the model of conversion to another religion such as Christianity or Islam, but as the acquisition of citizenship in a nation like the USA.”

As both Jews and as Americans, we are uniquely positioned to remind our country of its own values. As we remind ourselves of our covenant through each prayer, each act of tikkun olam, and each mitzvah that we perform, we are enacting ourselves as true Americans. Our ideals are those of our founding fathers, memorialized in covenants that we act on. And we are called upon to remind others of what America stands for.

When the Constitutional Convention was held in 1787, its deliberations were secret. When the Convention ended, anxious citizens gathered at Independence Hall to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. A certain Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

As Jews and Americans, may we prove equal to the task.

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