By Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
The day in July that I heard about the passing of Elie Wiesel, I knew immediately that I would want to honor his memory this Yom Kippur. So often I have quoted his teachings during the High Holidays, especially in the martyrology, Eleh Ezkarah, as I did today. This Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our responsibilities as Jews and as human beings, and as we will soon recite Yizkor, the Memorial prayers, it seems only right to take time to remember Elie Wiesel’s legacy and to commit to honoring him by our actions.
Earlier, I shared Wiesel’s basic biography. In the weeks after his death I had the privilege of hearing personal memories shared by people I know who were connected to him. My teacher Reuven Hammer, a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, in a touching essay, wrote about Wiesel special ties to our international organization of Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Hammer recalled his first encounter with Elie Wiesel at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in the early 1960s. The executive vice-president of the RA at the time, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, had befriended the young Wiesel, who was dating his secretary.
Wanting to provide greater exposure for this little known writer, Wolfe Kelman invited Wiesel to speak at the RA’s convention. Rabbi Hammer writes, “None of us who attended will ever forget Wiesel’s talk. His appearance in itself told a story – young, thin, gaunt, he seemed the very embodiment of the survivor, and his words were equally haunting. The result was that Wiesel was besieged with invitations to speak at Conservative congregations throughout Canada and the US, launching his career as a speaker and as the representative of the Shoah.” http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Reminiscences-of-Elie-Wiesel-459415
Rabbi Kelman also introduced Wiesel to two of the great figures of the Jewish Theological Seminary at that time, the renowned Talmudist Saul Lieberman and the venerated Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both Lieberman and Heschel became influential on Wiesel, helping him to find his way in retaining his Jewish belief and practice, while not succumbing to easy answers to the difficult questions the Shoah poses for believers. Wiesel’s ties to the Rabbinical Assembly were so strong, Rabbi Hammer reports, that while not a rabbi, Wiesel was granted honorary membership in the RA, a membership he retained throughout his life.
And what a life it turned out to be. His writing was remarkable and he was an inspiring public speaker who captured the attention, not only of the Jewish community, but of the entire world for the ways he challenged us all. Though he is primarily remembered as a Shoah survivor, the fact is that of the sixty or so books Wiesel authored, relatively few of them addressed that issue. The vast majority of his books were reflections on Jewish thought, drawing upon his rich knowledge of the wisdom of Biblical, Rabbinic and Hasidic literature. Wiesel always saw himself first and foremost as a teacher, seeking to inspire Jewish commitment, a most worthy goal given all that had been lost by our people during the Shoah. Running through his work are important lessons about what it means to be a Jew and what it means to be a human being.
In preparing for the High Holidays this year I came across something by Elie Wiesel that I read during our Rosh Hashanah service in 1992. It was from an ad in the New York Times (9/27/92) placed by The American Jewish Committee as part of a series in which prominent Jews were asked to respond to the question, “What Being Jewish Means to Me.” Their hope was that the ads would motivate Jews to deepen their ties to the Jewish people and to our rich culture.
Re-reading it since his passing, I still find it deeply meaningful.
WHAT BEING JEWISH MEANS TO ME
I remember: as a child, on the other side of oceans and mountains, the Jew in me would anticipate Rosh Ha-Shanah with fear and trembling.
He still does.
On that Day of Awe, I believed then, nations and individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, are being judged by their common creator.
That is still my belief.
In spite of all that happened? Because of all that happened?
1 still believe that to be Jewish today means what it meant yesterday and a thousand years ago. It means for the Jew in me to seek fulfilment both as a Jew and as a human being. For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together. To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God.
Naturally, I claim total kinship with my people and its destiny. Judaism integrates particularist aspirations with universal values, fervor with rigor, legend with law. Being Jewish to me is to reject all fanaticism anywhere.
To be Jewish is, above all, to safeguard memory and open its gates to the celebration of life as well as the suffering, to the song of ecstasy as well as the tears of distress that are our legacy as Jews. It is to rejoice in the renaissance of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the re-awakening of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. It is to identify with the plight of Jews living under oppressive regimes and with the challenges facing our communities in free societies.
A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in former Yugoslavia, in Somalia or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.
Elie Wiesel Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 1986
Last week in my sermon on Zionism, I spoke about my appreciation of Conservative Judaism’s special capacity to hold on to seemingly opposite poles of belief, while finding a way to balance them. Wiesel, perhaps influenced by Rabbis Heschel, Lieberman and Kelman was adept at this same balancing act. He held together his disappointment in God for failing to prevent the devastating evil of the Holocaust with his need to continue to relate to God in very personal terms and to remain in that relationship. As this reading makes clear, Wiesel rejected the idea that Jews are either universalists, primarily concerned with the wellbeing of all people, or particularists, focusing only on the needs of our own people. He held on to both of these precious poles in an admirable fashion. It is no wonder that I have always been drawn to his thinking. He represents to me the very best of our faith, deeply rooted in our tradition, openly wrestling with it and urging us to see that as Jews we have a responsibility not just to the Jewish people, but to all of humanity.
His being honored with the Noble Peace Prize in 1986 reflected the fact that the world looked to Elie Wiesel to provide us with a moral compass and he rarely disappointed. An incredible example of his speaking truth to power was in 1985 when Wiesel was the leading voice of our Jewish community challenging President Ronald Reagan’s plan to visit Germany and lay a wreath at a German Military Cemetery at Bitberg where many Nazis were buried, while not planning to visit a single concentration camp. Despite significant pressure to desist, Wiesel used the opportunity of his being awarded the Congressional Medal of Achievement to tell President Reagan in person, during a nationally televised White House ceremony, not to go to Bitburg. "That place," he told the president "is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the ss."
In his last years, Wiesel was strident in calling out the Obama administration about the threat posed by Iran and condemning the atrocities being committed by Syria’s Bashar El Assad. Despite their differences over how to deal with these issues, President Obama continued to consider Elie Wiesel a respected friend and at the time of his death referred to Wiesel as, “one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world.”
I regret that I never got to hear Elie Wiesel speak in person. But I still remember listening to a recording of him lecturing at Carleton College in the mid-1980s. As I recall, he was speaking on a theme that was particularly important to him - the sin of indifference, the “tempting but dehumanizing power of apathy.” His long time personal assistant Martha Hauptman quoted him as often saying, “I came to a conclusion that the peril threatening human kind today is indifference, even more than hatred. There are more people who are indifferent than there are people who hate. Hate is an action. Hate takes time. Hate takes energy. And even it demands sacrifices. Indifference is nothing, but indifference to hatred is encouraging hatred, and is justifying hatred. So what we must do — I mean your peers and mine – is fight indifference.”
At the end of the lecture I recall, in the question and answer period, one of the students attending asked, how, with so many difficult things going on in the world, can any of us know where to intercede in addressing the world’s many problems. Wiesel’s response to that question, as Hauptman reports hearing him say many, many times, was, “Do something, anything, start somewhere, anywhere.”
Wiesel’s response to that question imprinted itself deeply in my heart and I have often thought of his saying. “Do something, anything, start somewhere, anywhere.”
So what do you think Elie Wiesel would be saying, if he was still with us, about the hatred that abounds in our world and shockingly the hatred that abounds in our country? What do you think he would say about the apathy of those who stand by idly while this hatred is expressed? I am already feeling Wiesel’s absence when I hear the degrading language used to speak about people, about refugees and immigrants, about Muslims and about people of color. And of course he had a special message for us as Jews as I read earlier, “For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together. To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God.”
It falls upon each of us to consider how we respond to Wiesel’s challenge. For me, this past year, there were at least two responses that I felt especially compelled to pursue with our congregation. One that I mentioned this past week on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah was to engage more deeply with our Muslim and Christian neighbors in this community to deepen our relationships and get to know each other better. The creation of a Tri-Faith Collaboration, which Adath is co-sponsoring, is an important step we will continue to pursue in the face of the kind of hate and scare tactics that are being used to alienate us from each other.
The other area where we focused much attention at Adath in the past year was on the issue of racism in this country, about which I spoke last year on Rosh Hashanah and that we followed up with many learning opportunities. David Bernstein, the new head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs put really clearly and succinctly what we learned in a recent article in The Jewish Week (10/6/16):
“Today, the United States incarcerates more than 2 million people, more than any other nation. Among this population, people of color are vastly overrepresented. One out of every 15 black men is currently in jail and one in three will be incarcerated during his lifetime. African-American men and women are far more likely than whites to be harassed by police, and subjected to excessive use of force. They are less likely to receive adequate legal representation from a desperately underfunded, over-extended public defender system. Draconian drug laws put many productive people in jail for long prison sentences. Upon reentry, former inmates are disqualified from many jobs and services and often end up back in jail.” That sums it up quite well and he concludes that, regardless of a Black Lives Matters platform that trouble us, we must as a Jewish community “find our own voice on civil rights.” We must “join the cause of helping America live up to its own ideals of equality.” I would add my appreciation that our Rabbinical Assembly, through which Wiesel launched his career so memorably, has taken a similar stance in its public statements.
Last year, to advance this cause, I spoke about TaNehasi Coates’s powerful book Between the World and Me. Today I recommend another book that brilliantly conveys how justice is too often applied inequitably in our country. It is Just Mercies by Bryan Stevenson, an African American, Harvard trained lawyer who writes movingly about what is needed to right the wrongs of our justice system.
This year our spring adult learning series will take a closer look at the American justice system, exploring issues of policing, sentencing, and our role as Jews in supporting teshuva, penitence and re-entry into society after time has been served. I hope you will join us. I also invite you to a gathering here at Adath on Sun Dec 4 when Jewish Community Action will hold a summit for our Twin Cities Jewish community to decide what our priorities for actions will be to advance racial justice in the State of MN. We have set an ambitious goal of getting 300 (said 400 by mistake) Adath members out for that gathering. Please speak to me or to my wife Cindy Reich, or to Larry Park, who are heading up this work, if you want to become more deeply involved in recruiting people to engage in conversations at Adath about the issue of race.
We offer many opportunities at Adath to act on Elie Wiesel’s challenge to “Do something, anything, start somewhere, anywhere.” But I recognize that you may be drawn to act in some other area in which our world is in desperate need of repair. As Wiesel recognized, knowing the teachngs of the Hassidic masters, that each of us needs to find our particular path in overcoming what he called “the sin of indifference.” Each of us can make our own contribution to this end. What I think we share in common though is the challenge of staying focused on the task.
Before the holidays we had a really interesting discussion at the synagogue over Friday night dinner about the way many of us leave the synagogue after the holidays feeling lifted up, even inspired, to be our best selves and to make a difference in the world. But over time that feeling wears off. So let’s think about how to make ourselves accountable for the commitments we make today. It is only natural that people need some way of keeping on task to carry out our good intentions. In the Mussar initiative, (starting Monday Oct 31), to which I have invited our congregation to study and internalize Jewish middot- qualities of character, we build in accountability for our work of improving ourselves by assigning each participant a chevruta- a partner with whom to discuss their progress. In responding to the challenge of Elie Wiesel to do something, anything, I would suggest the same approach. Pick a chevruta with whom to check in to discuss what you are doing to make a difference in the world. We will assist this by sending out a reminder each month on Rosh Chodesh, the start of each new Hebrew month, asking our members how they are living up to that challenge. If you wish, we welcome you to write back to us to describe what you are doing.
In this way we can honor Elie Wiesel’s incredible life and respond to his vision as each of us answers his challenge to become more Jewish and more human and to be living reminders of God. We can heed Wiesel’s call to “Do something, anything, start somewhere, anywhere.” God forbid that Elie Wiesel has left this world and we will have ignored his call to us to overcome what he considered the greatest of sins- the sin of indifference.
During the Yizkor service, as we honor the memories of those who have passed, I hope that you will also take some time to reflect on how you will respond to Elie Wiesel’s call.
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