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HHD 5771

Rosh Hashanah

They. Them. Those. Pronouns. By common definition, a pronoun is meant to take the place of a noun. Yet often times, the use of a pronoun to refer to a person who differs from the norm in some way and is meant to dehumanize the individual. To strip away from that person or that group some of its humanity. Turning them from people, into others.

What if you opened up your e-mail and saw the following headline: “Join us in our opposition to a planned synagogue near Wall Street.” After reading further, the statement blamed the entire Jewish community for the depraved actions of a few.

Imagine if the letter spoke at length about Bernie Madoff, Jack Abramov, Meyer Lansky, and others to create a picture of Jews which is far removed from reality. Needless to say, the first word out of your mouth might be “anti-Semitism.”

Imagine that pundits on radio and television would echo the sentiment that the financial collapse we’ve all experienced is the work of those elites who’ve lauded risky financial instruments and perpetrated fraud against the American public.

Then, just as they reject the notion that a synagogue of all things could be built near the site where so many people had lost their American dream, these pundits don’t forget to mention from the corner of their mouths (as quietly as possible) that “most of them are good people” and that “maybe it would make more sense for them to build their synagogue farther away from Wall Street.”

The above scenario, based on Herb Goldman’s recent article in the Jerusalem Post, is not a perfect corollary to the “Ground Zero Mosque.” It is, however, equally as disturbing as it paints as evil an entire group based on the egregious actions of a few individuals. For we have indicted all Muslim Americans for the actions of 19 insane men by saying a mosque near Ground Zero should be prohibited.

There is no question that a great number of heinous acts have been carried out by Muslims. But to cast judgment on an entire religion would be no different than if the world perceived Judaism to be vengeful based on those Jews (such as Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir) whose murderous acts they claimed to have been in God’s Name

So let us begin by clarifying some facts about what has erroneously been named the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which, incidentally, is neither a mosque nor is it at Ground Zero:

The planned community center, at 51 Park Place, halfway between Church Place and West Broadway, is at its closest two full city blocks from where the North Tower once stood. And if you have ever walked the city, you know how long a New York city block is. At thirteen stories, the proposed building will be dwarfed by neighbouring structures, blocking it from being seen from Ground Zero.
There have been mosques located in this part of the city for thirty years, reflecting the local ethnic makeup. Whenever a group of coreligionists live and work in a common area, they often build a house of worship so that they can gather in prayer. Not unlike the cramped shtiblach that are wedged in between storefronts in New York City’s Diamond District. To assert that the Muslim community is deliberately erecting mosques as a sign of victory is inaccurate, inflammatory, and offensive.

Furthermore, the proposed project is not actually a mosque. Like us, Muslims can, and do, gather for prayer in any structure. And like our synagogues, a building must have certain features to be considered a mosque. For example, the most recognizable architectural feature of a mosque is the minaret, the tall, slim tower from where the adhan – the Muslim call to worship – emanates. There will be no minaret at Park 51. There will, however, be several prayer spaces set aside for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and men and women of other faiths. This Islamic community center is no more a mosque than a JCC is a synagogue. In fact, a look at Park 51 AND the 92nd Street Y (as in YMHA) reveals the following common amenities: a fitness center, swimming pool, art gallery, lecture hall, preschool, and a café which adheres to the dietary restrictions of the community it serves.

The planned community center, that will be located a few blocks from Ground Zero, is being exploited by politicians, pundits, and the talking heads. Take, for example, this recent ad from a Political Action Committee:

“On Sept. 11, they declared war against us. And to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at ground zero.”

They. Who are the “they” in this ad? Are “they” the terrorists who subscribed to an extreme and fanatical form of Islam? Or are “they” the building organizers who are adherents of Sufism, the far-more moderate approach to Islam? Heck, why not just lump ‘em all together as this sign, held up at a recent protest, declared:

“All I Need to Know About Islam, I Learned on 9/11”

More than anyone else, we know what it is like to be “other.” How many times, in how many countries, have we been the ones referred to as “they?”

On May 30, 1806, by Imperial and Royal Decree of Napoleon I, the Parisian Sanhedrin was convoked. But wait, you say. How could the Sanhedrin, which was the Supreme Court and legislative body of ancient Israel and was formally disbanded in 358 CE, be reconstituted by a non-Jewish Emperor of France?

The simple answer? It couldn’t.

Napoleon had no religious authority to convene the Sanhedrin. That did not prevent him from assembling a group of 112 prominent citizens. Known as the “Assembly of Jewish Notables,” these gentlemen were handpicked by representatives of the French and Italian governments. Once the “Assembly” had been given a list of twelve questions and had crafted their response, the “Great Sanhedrin” was summoned in order to ratify the answers. A good move on the part of Napoleon. By using an ancient symbol of Jewish authority, it lent an air of validity to the undertaking as well as ingratiating the Emperor to the local Jewish community. Moreover, it raised Messianic hopes in a people who were seeking salvation from (clearly) unlikely sources.

The questions in question – and there are twelve of them:

1. Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?
2. Is divorce allowed by the Jewish religion? Is divorce valid, although pronounced not by courts of justice but by virtue of laws in contradiction to the French code?
3. May a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian woman? Or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?
4. In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?
5. What conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion?
6. Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?
7. Who elects the rabbis?
8. What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?
9. Are the police jurisdiction of the rabbis and the forms of the election regulated by Jewish law, or are they only sanctioned by custom?
10. Are there professions from which the Jews are excluded by their law?
11. Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?
12. Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?

Each one of these questions honed in on those rituals, beliefs, and practices perceived to be outside the pale of normative French behaviour. Will they be Frenchmen? Or just a bunch of Hebrews content to maintain their oddities and pollute the French way of life? However, Napoleon wasn’t interested in the answers to the twelve questions. He was interested in the answer to ONE question. If emancipated, WILL the Jews be loyal to France or OR WILL they be a fifth column and rise up against it?

Listening to a recent story on the BBC News Hour, I was struck by one particular statement. A gentleman, commenting on the problem with all of the Muslims living in the United States, stated that he uses the following question as his litmus test:

“Do they follow Shari’a law or US Constitution law?”

Shar’ia is the sacred law of Islam. Similar to Halacha, Shar’ia deals with both personal and secular topics, including such areas as crime, economic behaviour, sexuality, hygiene, and diet and, like Jewish Law, there are varying interpretations of Shar’ia. In fact, both our word, Halacha, and the Muslim term, Shar`ia, mean “the way.”

“Do they follow Shari’a law or US Constitution law?”

His question sounded eerily familiar. Except that the “they” have morphed from Jews to Muslims.
For there is no difference to the host majority culture when it comes to the cultural “other.” Here is a general rule. If a statement is being made about “other,” insert “Jew” in its place. And if the revised sentence makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you know that this is just another form of hatred.

The BBC story continued with a response from University of Northern Florida professor, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, who said, “There is no action from within the Muslim community to either implement Shari’a law to use, to transcend, or to circumvent American Law.” I am guessing this was not the first time his loyalty was called into question.

There is a new hatred in town. It is called Islamophobia and it is poisoning our society. Though the term is relatively recent, first appearing in the 1980’s, its roots can be traced back as far as the beginning of Islam in the 7th century CE, when it came into immediate conflict with the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the myriad of contributions made during the Middle Ages by Muslims to philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, and the sciences, Christian polemics set out to undermine Islam throughout history by portraying it and its adherents as evil, barbaric, and committed to global domination. Contemporary Islamophobia has become, as noted by Muslim-American writer and commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, “the accepted form of racism in America.” Since 9/11, we are living in a time of suspicion and fear that has turned into vitriolic hatred. It is disgusting. It is destructive. And it is unacceptable. Certainly, it is unacceptable for Jews to fall into this trap.

As a house of prayer, our shul opens its doors to all who desire to enter. Two afternoons a week, we make our social hall available to an afterschool academic program that draws its participants from outside our shul community. Not long ago, a Muslim mother and her children were walking down the hall. There was nothing suspicious about their presence. Nothing malicious. And yet they were being watched. A member of congregation, attending to some business in the front office, did not take his eyes off of them until they left the building. Regarding the “other” as suspicious in no way ranks as a hate crime. But it certainly sends a strong message. One of exclusion. Of inhospitality. And, possibly, of hate.

A great many articles have been written in recent weeks on the topic of Islamophobia and its pervasive grasp on polite society. What is particularly frustrating is how easily people misread the point of these articles. A great deal of the comments obsesses over the number of hate-crimes against Jews vs. the number of hate-crimes against Muslims. As if that ratio somehow disproves the concept of Islamophobia.

There is no question that anti-Semitic attacks far outnumber anti-Muslim attacks. Yet, I assert that this isn’t a contest to see who has suffered more hate-crimes. Must we remain the larger victim in order to “win?”
The vitriol against all things Muslim does nothing to bring peace. Not here. Not in Israel. Not anywhere. Be angry against those who have done something to deserve it. And then seek out those who, like us, call out for peace.

Our Rabbis pose the following question in (B. Talmud) Tractate Yoma (9b):
Why was the first Temple destroyed [in 586 BCE]?
 Because of the three offenses committed [by the Jews of that period]: idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder…
But why then was the second Temple destroyed [in 70 CE]?, given that the Jews of that time studied Torah, kept the Commandments, and performed acts of Tzedakah?
 Because groundless hatred was prevalent. This teaches us that the offense of groundless hatred is the equivalent of the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder.

The first Temple, which was destroyed for very serious sins, was rebuilt after just seventy years. The second Temple, which was destroyed for what appears to be a less offense, has yet to be rebuilt. Why such a disparity?

Many years ago, Rabbi Aaron Kreiser, z”l, Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, offered this insight:

“When people commit terrible offenses, and severe suffering befalls them, they sometimes step back, realize the evil they have done, and repent. Such was the case with many members of the Jewish community in the aftermath of the first Temple’s destruction. But people guilty of “groundless hatred” never repent because they never acknowledge their sin. Even at the very moment they might be quoting to you this Talmudic statement condemning “groundless hatred,’ they will still justify their own personal hatreds, and can explain to you why their adversaries are worthy of being hated. Thus, although the sin of “groundless hatred” might seem to be less serious than sins such as murder and idolatry, no one repents of its commission, or roots it out of his or her heart. And that is why we are still not worthy of having the Temple rebuilt.”

Our adversaries are NOT those involved in the construction of Park 51. Our adversaries are NOT the Muslims we might encounter in our daily lives. While it is true that those who perpetuated the horrific crimes on September 11th were of the Muslim faith, the vilification of all things Muslim is just wrong. As is the intolerance that has grabbed hold of us. There were Muslim victims that day. And there are kind and moderate American-Muslims who continue to be victims of hatred and prejudice.

As we enter this new year of 5771, imagine what our world might look like if we took to heart the words of the late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, z”l, who said, “The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred. Perhaps the Third Temple will be built because of causeless love.”

In šāʾ Allāh
כן יהי רצון

May this be God’s Will!

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, 12 September 2010 5:52 pm

    Please repeat – as often as needed.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 12 September 2010 5:56 pm

      Thanks, Pamela. I have…and I will.

      I am gratified to report that the overwhelming majority of my congregants were glad to hear these words spoken from the pulpit. The sadness, for me, is the reaction from those who are so blinded by their own hatred and prejudice that they have categorized this as a “political issue” and are unwilling to take to heart God’s imperative to love the stranger.

      May this be a year in which we see enduring peace.

  2. Sunday, 12 September 2010 7:46 pm

    You are simply awesome – and my hero.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 12 September 2010 8:35 pm

      The feeling is completely mutual, my bosom friend.

  3. Sunday, 12 September 2010 8:01 pm

    Thank you for these words that needed to be said.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 14 September 2010 10:25 pm

      That is truly what I am here for.

  4. Sunday, 12 September 2010 8:43 pm

    It takes a lot of guts to get up and say your piece like this. Yashar koach!

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 12 September 2010 8:45 pm

      A lot of guts with a bit of stupidity and naiveté for good measure 😉

  5. Amitzah permalink
    Sunday, 12 September 2010 9:19 pm

    I don’t think there was anything naive or stupid about what you said. It is definitely something that needs to be heard.

    Yasher koach.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 14 September 2010 10:25 pm

      Thanks, Amitzah. And thanks for being the inspiration.

  6. Monday, 13 September 2010 12:43 pm

    Well said and should not only be repeated but published with as large an audience as possible.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 14 September 2010 10:25 pm

      Thanks, my friend.

  7. Tuesday, 14 September 2010 8:02 pm

    Can I send this to my sister? I am really worried about her. I know she has a great heart, but is caught up in fear….:(

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 14 September 2010 10:26 pm

      Fear is powerful. Of course you can send this to her. Keep me posted.

  8. Rabbi Hillel Cohn permalink
    Friday, 29 October 2010 5:54 pm

    יוצא מן הכלל

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 31 October 2010 10:43 pm

      .תודה, רבי

  9. hikeagiant2 permalink
    Thursday, 2 December 2010 5:17 am

    What is unnerving to me is that throughout history this ‘groundless hatred’ is so pervasive, and that this fear of ‘the other’ (culture, nationality, religion, or whatever is different from one’s own) is generally so unresponsive to reason. In my heart, I believe that the Muslim American community has as much right to build a cultural center, wherever, as any other group – and I still found myself listening to those that protested and spoke out against its construction, wondering if this project were, in fact, ‘insensitive’ to the tragedy of 9/11. Thank you for the words that brought clarity to my thoughts and confirmed what I hope to be my ‘better self’.

  10. Monday, 12 September 2011 1:59 am

    I came to your site today via Write On Edge. After reading the WonE prompt, I clicked on this essay from your header. Ironically, today is the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I can’t think of a more peaceful and positive thing to read on this day than an essay about tolerance. The blogosphere works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?

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