A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 11.5.21

November 5, 2021

The Eile Ezkerah, or the “Martyrology” that is recited on Yom Kippur tells, in poetic form, the horrific torture and execution by the Romans of 10 great rabbinic sages. Though the account is quasi-historical, it does reflect the genocidal treatment of the Jews of Judaea at the hands of the Romans in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt (ca. 132-136 CE). The Eile Ezkerah recounts the story of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who summons ten of Israel’s greatest sages and, referencing the story of Joseph, tells them that they must pay the price, mandated in the Torah, for the kidnapping of Joseph by his ten brothers. Since the brothers’ crime went unpunished in its day, justice must be done now. Hadrian cites Deuteronomy, which decrees death for one who kidnaps and sells the victim into slavery (Deut. 24:7).


Sadly, the use of Torah to justify persecution of Jews did not end with Hadrian. Consider this 13th century report from Sefer Yosef HaMekannei:


“A Dominican friar encountered Rabbi Yosef on the road to Paris and said to him: ‘Your father [the Patriarch] Jacob was a thief, and there has been no usurer like him; for a single bowl (of lentils) that was worth half a coin, he purchased the birthright which was worth a thousand coins! (Sefer Yosef HaMekannei 16)


Sefer Yosef HaMekannei is a 13th century apologetic/polemical work. These types of texts were written by Jews (this one is from Northern Europe) in response to theological and philosophical attacks from Christians (like the common accusation that Jews are usurers). This above quote is noteworthy in the context of this week’s Torah portion. It is referring, of course, to the well-known passage that we will read this Shabbat, in which Esau comes to his brother Jacob, famished, and asks him for a bowl of lentil-stew which Jacob has prepared. 


Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. 

And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished…” 

Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 

And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” 

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 

Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright. (Genesis, 25:29-34)


The classical commentators have a host of ways of interpreting this text, but of interest in this moment is how the Dominican friar chose to interpret it. Biblical texts have been used, sometimes in context and sometimes out, since at least the time of Hadrian, to justify the persecution of Jews. The fact that the justifications are preposterously flimsy is irrelevant.


As we have all been reading (if not personally experiencing), there has been a significant surge in antisemitism in the United States over the past few years. An alarming report released by the American Jewish Committee last week entitled 2021 State of Antisemitism in America states that one in four American Jews “has been targeted by antisemitism in the past year, and almost half have resultantly altered their behavior” (Ha’aretz, Oct. 26). The report goes into significant detail around the numbers, but even on the surface, it is disturbing. I don’t need to list the high-profile attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions – we’re all familiar with them. But there has been a vast increase in smaller-scale, personal attacks, both physical and verbal, as well as acts of vandalism, in ever-growing numbers.


The political right tends to blame the rise of antisemitism on the “radical left.” They point to politicians who make remarks critical of Israel (Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are two favorite targets), support for the BDS movement on college campuses, and a general “woke” sense of empathy with the Palestinian people. The left places the blame squarely with the ever-growing “radical right,” pointing fingers at the rogues’ gallery of Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and a host of other nativist/nationalist hate groups who emerged, or at least were emboldened, through the Trump era. On the one side, it’s a political form of antisemitism, one which conflates Jews with Israel and blames the former for the deeds of the latter. It’s a pernicious and back-handed way of expressing ancient biases, cloaking them in “political correctness” and holding an impossible double-standard, confusing political action with knee-jerk re-action based in a gross oversimplification of an extraordinarily complicated matter. On the other side, it’s good-old-fashioned Jew-hatred, the kind that comes with swastika flags, skinheads, and thugs whose aim it is to do physical violence. The “very fine people” from Charlottesville and many of the “patriots” from the January 6th attack on Congress are people with hatred burning in their hearts; Jew-hatred is as convenient an outlet for it as any. 


The question is, given that we have been through this movie so many times before, why is the American Jewish community so complacent? Why are we not acting to curb this trend? We know where these stories end, and it is never pretty. Perhaps the vast political chasm and the finger-pointing within the Jewish community is part of the problem – if right-leaning Jews see the left as the problem, and left-leaning Jews see the right as the problem, then divided we fall. While we will never agree on all things political, I believe we must find common ground when it comes to the threats that face us in our day-to-day lives. One in four American Jews has been targeted by antisemitism in the last year! That is truly frightening. 


The antisemitism that we are looking at in 2021 is not based in Biblical verses. But its justifications, on the right and on the left, are as flimsy as those of the Dominican friar or of the Emperor Hadrian. What will we do to combat it? This is a conversation worth having.


I wish you all Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam Levine