A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 2.12.21

This is a head-spinning time for American Jews. For decades now, Jews have played prominent roles in American government. Jews have run on presidential tickets. Jews have been appointed to the Supreme court. Eric Cantor served as the House majority Leader for three and a half years, making him the highest-ranking member of Congress up to that point. Numerous Jews have served in both houses of congress, have served as chiefs of staff to various presidents, and have held top advisory and Cabinet positions.

The latest change in government has brought more Jews into positions of influence. An article in the English language edition of Ha’aretz three weeks ago noted that there is now a solid minyan in top Cabinet, deputy, and advisory jobs in the Biden administration (eleven Jews!). This in itself is noteworthy. No one in the Biden administration is “counting Jews.”

And of course, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has now surpassed Eric Cantor as the highest-ranking member of Congress. Whatever you may feel about Senator Schumer, it is certainly a point of pride for American Jews that he has achieved a position of such power and prominence. And as we say in Hebrew, al achat kama va’chama! – how much more so for Brooklyn Jews, that a boy from Marine Park sits in the first chair in the Senate.

As we celebrate these achievements, however, a dark cloud is growing over the nation and over congress in particular. While Donald Trump’s impeachment defense lawyer David Schoen was simulating a kippah with his hand (kudos to him from making a bracha over the water he was about to drink – shehakol nih’yeh bid’varo), the Jewish community was still trying to make sense of the profoundly disturbing show of support shown by 199 Republican members of Congress for their colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene, the unhinged conspiracy theorist, Q-Anon adherent, and virulent anti-Semite.

Taylor Greene famously subscribes to the Q-Anon conspiracy theory which echoes classic anti-Semitic tropes mined from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the 120-year-old anti-Semitic publication that has been the inspiration for the killing and persecution of countless Jews. She herself has written that “the secret, Satanist cabal [that the mysterious and anonymous] Q believes rules the world is funded by George Soros and the Rothschilds” (according to another article in Ha’aretz). In other words, Jews control the world. According to the Washington Post, “she shared a video in which a Holocaust denier claimed that an ‘unholy alliance of leftists, capitalists and Zionist supremacists have schemed to promote immigration and miscegenation’ with the purpose of ‘breeding us out of existence in our own homelands.’” Recently, she claimed that “space lasers” controlled by the Rothschilds (again with the Rothschilds!) were responsible for the devastating Camp fire in California. She has posed with neo-Nazis and has supported other odious anti-Semites.

Aside from these anti-Semitic rantings, she has also repeatedly advocated violence and the killing of politicians and other figures she doesn’t care for – these have gotten a lot of attention, so no need to go into the details.

The Trump era has birthed, exposed, and mainstreamed all sorts of troubled extreme-fringe groups and ideas. That someone who holds such lunatic views has made it to the halls of Congress is disturbing, but not altogether surprising. That she has the support of so many of her colleagues, however, is cause for deep alarm. To quote Dana Milbank (of the Washington Post), “You don’t have to be a scholar of 20th-century Europe to know what happens when the elected leaders of a democracy condone violence as a political tool and blame the country’s ills on the Jews.” Political expediency, which appears to be driving the support or silence of these lawmakers in their response to Taylor Greene and her ilk, is a cowardly excuse, a scoundrel’s refuge.

Taylor Greene’s gestalt is not about policy – it’s about a vision of America as a place for White Christians, where all others are marginalized, excised, or worse. The Jewish community must be hyper-vigilant now. On the one hand, we enjoy considerable influence in Washington, more than at any other time; on the other, there is a growing normalization of anti-Jewish (and anti-Muslim) attitudes in the American political conversation that must not be allowed to gain any more traction. Our elected leaders must stand against this barbaric and hateful rhetoric, and must act to bring down the temperature.

We read this week in our parasha, When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make restitution (Exodus 22:5). The fire is started. How will we keep it from spreading to the grain?

Our parasha also contains the first two mentions of an ethic that is repeated, according to the sages, no less than thirty-six times in the Torah: the injunction to “not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9). We can extrapolate from this message the idea that compassion, respect, and even an active duty to care for others and see to their welfare is baked into our religion and our Torah. These are the cornerstones of a just and godly society. As I have said before, our ancestors were trying to create a society that was the diametrical opposite of Egypt, a place of godlessness, hatred, intolerance, and indifference. Our vision for a society built in partnership with God has sustained us for three millennia. With God’s help, the minyan in the Cabinet can bring some of the light of Torah back into the conversation.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine