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What we think of as the Great Commandment—-what we heard from Mark 12—-would not have come as a surprise, let alone a shock, to Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors. He repeats the Shema, a daily prayer for the ancient Israelites found in Deuteronomy and still recited by Jews today:
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. And as for you, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Jesus was Jewish, a member of the indigenous people of Israel. His followers were Jewish too.
But we did hear two passages from the Bible that were a bit shocking, didn’t we?
I have a theory about such passages: If a scriptural line or sentiment shocks you, that’s because it is intended to. You’re supposed to be shocked, maybe startled out of complacency, when the Bible says alarming things. Like “anyone who desecrates the Sabbath is to be put to death.” (How important is the Sabbath? This important!)
Any line that makes you wince and turn your head? It’s telling you just what you need to pay attention to.
We have a tendency to avoid the shockers. For instance, I am not sure I’ve ever heard the entirety of Psalm 137 spoken aloud in church, have you? It’s not that the Psalm is obscure or unpopular; It’s neither. Indeed, most of us automatically hum the reggae version when we hear the first line: By the rivers of Babylon…
It’s a good Psalm, a beauty.
So why do we stop at Verse 6?
Because verses 7, 8, 9 are awful and shocking. That last line, especially: “Happy is the man who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Horrible. Killing babies? Happily?
There is context for those words, of course, which the original hearers would’ve known. The Jews in exile in Babylon were grieving the death of so many loved ones, the loss of almost everything they owned. Their city, Jerusalem had been laid waste and her great temple destroyed. They wept over the agony of a forced march from Judea to Babylon, over their present cruel captivity and their bleak future.
There is, moreover, ample evidence that ‘to dash in pieces their little ones’ was a common enough sequel to military victory among the non-Jewish peoples of the Ancient Near East. It is unlikely that Babylon had instructed its troops to be unusually merciful.
It is very likely that this had happened to the infants of Jerusalem, the enraging images afterwards indelibly imprinted upon the Psalmist’s mind. The line really ought to be read with an emphasis upon the word “your” Happy the man who kills your little ones… just as you killed ours.
On Thursday, I was invited to speak in Portland, at a gathering to mourn the more than 1,400 human beings, among them nearly 500 children, deliberately slaughtered by Hamas terrorists in Israel on October 7, 2023; to pray for the healing of 4,000 still hospitalized, and for the safe return of roughly two hundred taken captive as hostages, among them old people, infants and toddlers.
Forty or fifty of us assembled, under the watchful eye of Portland P.D., in the center of the city. A chilly wind made it difficult to keep our candles lit as we prayed and sang, listened, and spoke. When it was over, many—-too many—-participants came up to me to express heartfelt, even tearful, gratitude for my presence, for my words.
They should not have been all that grateful. That is, they should not have felt any need to be: I should not have been the only non-Jewish clergy, the only non-Jewish speaker there. If things were as they should be, gentiles would’ve outnumbered Jews at such a gathering.
Things are not as they should be.
Last week, there was a similar candlelight vigil held here, in Camden. J____ C____, the organizer of the event, was likewise grateful, to the point of tears, for every person who showed up. He did say most of the attendees weren’t Jewish: if you were there, thank you and Thank God.
Did you know that J____ asked all of Camden’s clergy to come to the vigil? Invited them to be present, to speak and pray?
In fact, J____ didn’t just ask. In his own words, he begged them to come.
Only one Christian minister showed up: Pastor Adam of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church. God bless him. Most of the others, J____ reported, didn’t even bother to respond to the invitation.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand;
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand;
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.
And they’ll know we are Christians by…
At the vigil in Portland, I told a story that I grew up with, and that my children grew up with in their turn: It’s one I’ve told here before, but maybe it bears repeating. It is the apocryphal story of the Danish King Christian and the rescue of the Danish Jews.
During the German occupation in World War Two, the story goes, when the Nazis were in full and brutal control of everything, an order was given for all Danish Jews to identify themselves with a yellow star sewn onto their coats.
The Danish King, his army vanquished, had no means by which to protect his Jewish citizens. So instead, he gave his own order: All Danish citizens must wear a yellow star. And he sewed a yellow star onto his own royal robes.
By this act of visible solidarity, he ensured that the Danish Jews could not be singled out for cruelty or harm. They were safe in a sea of stars.
This is, as I say, an apocryphal story, a myth that conveys, at the level of a child’s understanding, a reality and an essential truth. In reality, and uniquely among the countries under German occupation, Denmark’s Christians maintained such determined, protective solidarity with their Jewish neighbors, even at the risk of their own lives, that nearly all of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust.
My children listened to the story and internalized the truth it held: Visible solidarity — what we sometimes call “standing with”— can be life-saving.
One day, my son Zach came home from school insisting that I help him sew a rainbow patch onto his coat. When I asked him why, he explained that the other boys in his sixth-grade class had been making fun of gays and lesbians. They used the word “gay” as an insult.
“If I wear a rainbow patch on my coat, maybe any kid who has a gay uncle he loves, or a lesbian mom, or thinks he might be gay himself…maybe that kid won’t feel like he’s standing there all alone. I’ll be standing with him. Those boys will have to be mean to me, too.”
I’ll confess that, at the time, I did not react nobly to Zach’s request. Gripped by protective cowardice, I didn’t want my little boy to make himself a target, even for sixth-grade mean boys.
In my partial defense, let’s recall that this was back in the 1990s, when open and enthusiastic support for gays and lesbians was much rarer. Our neighborhoods were not aflutter in rainbow flags, most churches were not open-and-affirming, the White House wasn’t hosting Pride picnics in the Rose Garden, and every school didn’t have school counselors and civil rights teams leaping to the defense of the odd first grader who might not be sure whether he wants to marry a boy or a girl when he grows up, or, for that matter, be a boy or girl.
Zach was going to be the only kid in his school with a rainbow sewn to his coat.
I didn’t say anything, but Zach read the look on my face. “Mom,” he said. “It’s like the stars, and the Danish Jews.”
The risk that my darling Zach might be bullied or ostracized was not non-existent. But it wasn’t existential:
Zach didn’t risk being beaten or murdered. Our church at the time was known-to-be pro-LGB; lesbian and gay couples held hands in the pews: nobody threatened to firebomb us. The First Universalist Church did not need to have police officers parked outside during services.
Throughout my life, I’ve spent an…eccentric…amount of time studying the history of the Holocaust. Trying to understand—perhaps along with many of you—how a nominally decent and civilized society could have permitted the wholesale murder of Europe’s Jews.
Well, here was one hint: That little clutch of anxiety I felt as Zach handed me a needle-and-thread and a rainbow patch.
Between then and now, there have been plenty of other hints; Plenty of moments I could witness, in myself or in others, how even minor risks to one’s own convenience, professional advancement or social ease can stimulate moral myopia, and moral cowardice. But none has been as stark and frankly appalling as what has been on view over the past two weeks.
Let’s begin with the obvious: The only event to which October 7th can be meaningfully compared is the deliberate campaign of annihilation carried out by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen during World War Two. These special units operated behind the advancing German Army. When they set out to commit deliberate mass tortures and mass murders of innocent civilians, the Nazis did try to keep it a secret. Not because they thought they were doing wrong, but because they figured the rest of the world just wouldn’t understand.
Well, that wasn’t a problem for the glorious martyrs of October 7th: They videotaped themselves in action on the Jewish Shabbat, downloaded and live-streamed, posted on Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok: Happy men dashing infants against the rocks, and much, much more.
Hamas apparently believed they could trust their righteous supporters in Palestine and around the world to place their actions into context. They had faith that there would be those who would speak of occupation and oppression, who would explain, for instance, that when the terrorists…that is, the freedom fighters…broke through the barriers dividing Gaza from Israel, they were escaping from “the world’s largest open-air prison.”
OK, it’s a prison that happens to have at least one five-star hotel…and a swanky shopping district with an indoor mall, where Hamas muckety-mucks can spend their hard-earned humanitarian aid on designer clothing. Anyone who checks out these amenities on the internet might begin to suspect that Gaza is not exactly the Warsaw Ghetto, or a Soviet gulag, nor even a Southern slave plantation—whose escapees and resistance fighters, incidentally, never made murdering old people and children their priority.
But never mind: the people who matter could be counted upon to remain ignorant or lie: They would declare that the situation in Gaza is “desperate.” So desperate that even those little kids on the kibbutzes had to be counted as “settlers,” legitimate targets for “resisters” with legitimate grievances.
The faith of Hamas was not misplaced: Here in America, the day after the news of the atrocities broke, a certain Michael C. Wilson, age 64, of Philadelphia, invited the members of a large and boisterous crowd to give a round of applause “to Hamas for a job well done.” The crowd obliged, cheering and ululating for good measure.
Wilson explained that those ordinary Israelis living in kibbutz Be’eri and kibbutz Nir Oz weren’t like you and me, but instead they were just like southern plantation owners, waking up in the morning to find the field hands in the house with knives, ready to, and I quote, “ cut their ___________ throats.”
“When I heard the news,” Mr. Wilson declared, “I smiled.”
Mr. Wilson is an activist, but he is also a middle-aged businessman, the proprietor of a contracting business that has served the city of Brotherly Love for 35 years.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan, an emergency room doctor, Dr. Dana Diab, who works at Lenox Hill Hospital, posted video images on her Instagram of the attack on the Re ‘Im music festival. Dr. Diab added a caption: “Zionist settlers [are] getting a taste of their own medicine.”
A professor from Cornell University declared at a rally that he found the events of October 7th “exhilarating.” “It was exhilarating, it was energizing. And if [people] weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, the shifting of the violence of power, then they would not be human.”
I would imagine his Jewish students were not exhilarated or excited. But a proctologist in Tampa was pretty stoked: He took time away from performing colonoscopies to tweet out his support for the Hamas attacks: “It’s about time!” he wrote, under an image of a sunlit Palestinian flag. Also in Florida, a dentist and his boyfriend Instagrammed themselves gleefully ripping down posters bearing images of the children, women, and men still being held hostage in Gaza.
At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a rally in support of Hamas actually chanted “Glory to the Martyrs…Glory to the murderers/Glory to the resistance” before yelling “We will liberate this land/by any means necessary.”
By “this land” they did not mean Wisconsin, although to the truly orthodox, the US too is “stolen” and “occupied” land. (Just a heads up.)
By “martyr” and “resistance,” they meant the killers and gang rapists who dragged women away by their hair, blood streaming down their legs, the heroes who kidnapped elderly holocaust survivors, bravely slaughtered infants in their cribs, and burned houses with whole families inside. And more. And worse.
By any means necessary—so glory to those guys.
Happy the man who dashes your infants against the rocks…and happy the building contractor, the E.R. doc, the proctologist, the dentist, professors, and students who saw the dashing man’s TikTok video and liked it.
Some have seen irony in such reactions, coming from students and professors at elite universities: As journalist Nellie Bowles pointed out, quote,
“The ..same people who will have an apoplectic fit if you accidentally say ‘master bedroom’ are now gleefully shouting…’glory to the martyrs.’”
Nellie Bowles’ wife, the indomitable reporter and editor Bari Weiss, wrote:
“Now we know who would have looked at Jews shoved onto cattle cars and said, “Well, they did undermine the German economy.”
“Now we can see exactly how people manage to always come up with a reason for why the Jews deserved it.”
When my dad told me the story of the Danish Jews, and when I, in turn, told it to my own kids, I would’ve sworn that in America and Europe, in the 21st century, the call to action it contained would—as with Zach and the rainbow—need to be translated from solidarity with threatened Jews to solidarity with other threatened people. Surely American Jews and European Jews were safe?
At the Thursday night vigil, as the rabbis led us in song, several groups of young men driving or walking past Monument Square shouted, “Death to Israel! Death to Israel!”… among other alarming things.
Well, all right. Young men are notoriously stupid and loud, when they feel they have permission to be so. (We were glad for the presence of cops.)
Thinking of the folks I met at the vigil, I wonder: Will the loud stupid shouts of their self-designated enemies be remembered? Or will the more vivid memory be of the absence of their presumed friends—the Christians, and Christian clergy?
They will know that we are Christians by our…
By the way, I’ve discovered a blind spot among my friends and relatives this week, so in case you share it, let me shine some light: You know those guys who shouted “Death to Israel” and “__________ the Jews?” at a bunch of mostly middle-aged and older Jews, plus a few little kids and a disabled guy, at Monument Square? They were definitely not White Christian nationalists.
The Portland police officers there with us, the heavily armed police officers and activated soldiers now deployed around the country and across Europe are not guarding Jewish lives from angry white conservative males, the Ku Klux Klan, nor even what our president has called the MAGA-Fascists.
Before October 7, 2023, and its aftermath, maybe it still was possible to imagine that vicious anti-Semitic bigotry was a right-wing, poorly-educated, white Christian redneck thing.
The calls are coming from inside the house: Murderous anti-Semitism is now overwhelmingly a left-wing, expensively educated, and Muslim thing.
Before, October 7th, 2023, we could tell ourselves that anti-zionism wasn’t the same as anti-semitism, that words like decolonization and phrases like “by any means necessary” would not, could not possibly encompass deliberate, planned rape, torture, and slaughter.
And before October 7th, we could fool ourselves into believing that standing up for causes already lavishly embraced by everyone we knew… was evidence of our community’s moral health, and our own moral courage.
Remember the halcyon days of summer 2020, when hundreds, even thousands of people showed up at vigils and protests across Maine to protest the death of George Floyd? Remember the one in Camden?
Along with town officials, police chiefs, and plenty of clergy, there were kids present. So if a Camden high schooler wished to sew a Black Lives Matter patch onto her coat and wear it to school, her parents need not have fretted that she would be bullied or ostracized: Hers would be the majority opinion, the one held by all the cool kids and approved of by all the elite colleges she might wish to apply to. By 2020, indeed, it was a sentiment that had been proudly displayed on signs springing from our lawns like mushrooms since the Ferguson riots of 2015, and they’d never been taken down. Our kids have been seeing those signs from the school bus windows since grade school.
Was that sentiment wicked or wrong? Of course not.
But here’s a question for you: Is the relationship between crime, violence, and policing in poor, minority communities complicated?
How about the history and politics of Ukraine, of Russia, and eastern Europe in general: Any complexity there? Any nuance?
And yet up went the signs and flags, with their simple principles, their basic and inarguable slogans. In this house, we believe…
Do Jewish lives matter?
Then where are the Israeli flags? Where are the stars of David?
You can order these, as you may order anything on earth, from Amazon Prime. You are welcome to take one of the cheap, flimsy flags I’ve put at the back of the sanctuary. Siem stuck ours onto our mailbox with refrigerator magnets. But a Star of David patch or flag isn’t difficult to make at home. Two equilateral triangles, one on top of the other. It could be colored in blue and white for the Israeli flag…or maybe with rainbow crayons, to honor the fact that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East that guarantees the rights of LGBT+ persons, including their basic right to life.
An acquaintance of mine provided me with a lot of reasons why she would not be posting a Star of David on her Facebook page, an Israeli flag on her front lawn, a patch on her coat. After the usual discourse on complexity and nuance, occupation, desperation, she admitted that a pro-Israel bumper sticker on her car might mean that her car gets vandalized. She won’t put an Israeli flag in her window because she doesn’t want her window to be smashed.
I understand the fear. I felt it myself, when my son handed me that rainbow patch to sew onto his coat. Besides, I was there, in Portland, when men were shouting Death to Israel. They sounded like they meant it. So, believe me, I’m not judging her.
I’m asking you:
Is this woman right to be afraid? Here, in mid-coast Maine? She wasn’t afraid to put a Ukrainian flag in her window, a Black Lives Matter bumper sticker on her car: COEXIST, Planned Parenthood, Bernie for President, Keep Your Dogma Off My Karma: If she can’t display a star of David without provoking a mini-Kristallnacht in her driveway, what does that say about our community?
It seems the lesson of the Danish Stars does not, in fact, need to be translated from solidarity with threatened Jews to solidarity with other threatened people. No need to change symbols: It’s the star again, the Jews again. Appalling cruelty being met with moral cowardice and mute or mumbling self-protective apathy…again.
John James, a representative in the U.S. House, a black man whose parents grew up in the Jim Crow South, noted: “We like to talk about what we would do if the Holocaust happened or if slavery happened. Well… I would like you to…understand, when you look in the mirror,…this is how you’re responding to the modern-day Holocaust. This is how you are standing up to evil…”
Or failing to.
I understand being afraid. But I don’t want to look in the mirror and see a moral coward. I don’t want anyone I love to have to see themselves that way, and I don’t want moral cowardice to be a characteristic of my community either. I love my community and I want to be proud of it.
Do Jewish lives matter?
If so—then say so.
Loudly, simply, publicly, and often, without caveat or apology or mealy-mouthed both-sides-ism. To anyone and everyone who will listen.
There should be stars of David sewn on our jackets, stars of David hanging around our necks, stars of David posted in our windows and on our social media, stars of David shining from the walls of our churches, a sea of stars in which our Jewish friends, neighbors, visitors and family members can find solidarity, reassurance, and safety.
Believe me. They need this.
It is not complicated. You don’t have to know more than you already do. Ask yourself: Why do we leave the last verse off Psalm 137? Listen to your discomfort: It is telling you that to us, as Christians and as civilized persons, there is no context, historical or otherwise, that can excuse or even explain the planned and deliberate murder of babies, the planned and deliberate rape of women, the planned and deliberate wholesale slaughter of unarmed, defenseless human beings, not as collateral damage, but as intended targets because and only because they are Jewish.
If someone sees your star of David necklace or bumper sticker or flag, and asks why you display it, the answer is as simple as that. Jewish lives matter. I stand with Jews. If anyone comes for the Jews, seeks to break their windows, key their cars, intimidate, insult, wound, bereave, torture, dispossess, or murder Jews, then I am a Jew.
Am Yisrael chai!
Sermon: The Stars at Monument Square
October 22, 2023
MARK 12: 29-31