One thing that is on many of our minds this Shabbat, as we begin a secular new year, is the alarming rise in anti-Semitism and hatred and violence expressed toward Jews. Even if we can attribute at least some of the acts that have happened to those who are mentally ill, we are forced to acknowledge that the problem is much bigger. Many of us never thought we would see these types of violent attacks and hateful rhetoric in this country, in our lifetimes. But here we are.
But here we are. And what are we to do?
There are a number of things that can and should be done at the “meta” level—help ensure that there is adequate security at places of worship/gathering that could be targets; make sure that people who are struggling with mental illness don’t slip through the cracks, create juvenile rehabilitation programs, etc./organizations working in partnership with one another; it has been a bright spot in all of this.
But what can be done on the micro or individual level—in other words, in our day-to-day lives? In addition to showing up in solidarity and support whenever people are victims of hatred or violence, I have one other thing to suggest, inspired by something in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash.
Just briefly, let me remind you what happens in the portion. Jacob had a number of sons, one of who, Joseph, was his favorite. His brothers, jealous of their younger brother, sell him off to slave traders who take him down to Egypt. Jacob thinks that Joseph has been killed. In Egypt, Joseph eventually found favor in the house of Pharaoh, and was appointed to oversee the storage of grain to carry them through the years of famine that Joseph, a skilled dream interpreter, had predicted would occur after years of famine. Meanwhile, back in Canaan, famine hits, and Jacob sends his remaining sons to Egypt to get grain.
In one dramatic scene in this week’s portion, Joseph questions his brothers, who do not recognize him, about their beloved father, still grieving over the supposed death of his missing son. First Joseph turns aside to weep, but then reveals his identity to his brothers: “I am Joseph, your brother.”
“I am Joseph, your brother.” Those words were famously spoken by the late Pope John XXIII, when he received a delegation of rabbis who were visiting. Before he became Pope, his name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli; he was the papal nuncio in Turkey during the Holocaust and acted in various ways to save thousands of Jews. After the war he did everything he could to influence Catholic countries to support the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1958, he ascended to the papacy, and chose the name John XXIII, he said these words, “I am Joseph, your brother.” Pope John XXIII began a process of reforming Catholic liturgy, eliminating from it any disparaging words about the Jews. In 1962, he initiated a series of reforms in what came to be known as Vatican II. One significant achievement of Vatican II was the declaration Nostra Aetate (“In Our Times”), which addressed the relationship of the church to Judaism and other world religions. It brought about a revolution in Christianity’s attitudes toward Jews. For the first time there was a declaration negating any claim that the Jewish people was responsible for the death of Jesus. Moreover, it rejected the doctrine that the Jews had been cast out by God and the church had come to take their place. The document also contained a firm condemnation of anti-Semitism (Pope John Paul II defined anti-Semitism as “a sin against God and mankind.”) (Rabbi David Rosen, Ha’aretz, May 7, 2013).
While some of us would argue that anti-Semitism can be traced back all the way to some parts of the New Testament, the particular version of it that was connected to the Catholic Church dates back to 1215, when a pope decided Jews have to be recognized by their way of dressing: a special hat for the men with a cone in the middle, and a scarf with blue stripes for the women.” The Catholic Church cracked down even more with the Counter-Reformation, and then in 1555, Pope Paul IV locked Roman Jews in the Ghetto.
Pope John XXIII wanted to end what had been called centuries of “contemptuous” church teaching about the Jews. Despite objections, and obstruction, in 1965, Nostra Aetate was finally issued.
As Rabbi David Rosen, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, wrote on the 50th anniversary of the issuing of the document in 2015, it was truly a revolutionary document. “That [it] took us from a situation where the Jewish people were seen as cursed and rejected by God, and even in league with the devil, to a situation now where [the pope said] it is impossible to be a true Christian and be an anti-Semite, and that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is an eternal covenant, never broken.”
Others said that Nostra Aetate was also responsible for recognizing that there are positive elements in other religions and that through interreligious dialogue, stereotypes and prejudices can be overcome.
So why am I sharing this? I think that all of us need to seize every opportunity to say to others around us our own version of: “I am Joseph, your brother.” We need to seize every opportunity to help people—friends who are not Jewish who perhaps don’t know a lot about Judaism, co-workers, other students or teachers at our or our children’s schools, even people we interact with at the grocery store or on the street—to help people better understand Jews and Judaism—our traditions, our culture, our history and beliefs. If you are nervous about doing so, I will happily coach you or provide you with talking points. In fact, I will even offer to come to your child’s school or to your place of work, to your neighbor’s church or mosque—to do a short teaching about who we Jews are. I am serious. I truly believe that it is through the is kind of informal interreligious dialogue, humanizing of those some still see as “other,” that we can overcome and break down stereotypes and prejudices. This is a time not to shrink in fear, but rather, to stand tall and proud and be ambassadors for our tradition and our long and rich heritage.
Chamatz v’amatz, Moses told Joshua: Be strong and courageous. Let us be so as well.
Rabbi Zari Weiss
Jan 3, 2020