excellent Rosh Hashanah sermon"
September 23, 2006
Morning of Rosh Hashanah
By: Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl
Once again, I am most grateful to Rabbi Block for
inviting me to occupy the pulpit and to deliver the
sermon on this morning of Rosh Hashanah. As many of you
are well aware, preparing sermons for the High Holy Days
is a formidable, anxiety-producing task for rabbis.
Hours are spent in formulating the thoughts and crafting
the words which will be delivered to the largest crowds
of congregants that assemble during the year. Yet, we
rabbis often wonder about the actual effectiveness of
our sermonic efforts.
One of my colleagues tells a story about Joe and Moe,
two Jewish friends, from two different synagogues. One
day they got together to compare notes after the High
Holy Days. Joe asks Moe: “So how were services in your
synagogue?” Moe answers: “Beautiful, inspiring! The
cantor was breath-taking. The choir was awesome.” Joe
continues: “So what did the rabbi talk about?” Moe
answers: “The rabbi talked about thirty minutes.”
So on this 41st Rosh Hashanah on which I will deliver my
sermon, I will aim to speak much fewer than thirty
minutes. Nonetheless, I hope that the message I am about
to convey will not only reach not your mind but will
also touch your heart and your soul, as I feel so
passionate about this issue.
This morning, I want to talk about the two sons of
Abraham and about Judaism and Islam, the two religions
derived from them. We just read the story of the Binding
of Isaac in our Torah portion. In Orthodox and
Conservative synagogues, which observe two days of Rosh
Hashanah, this is actually the reading for tomorrow,
their second day of the holiday.
This morning, in those synagogues, they read the
previous chapter centering on Ishmael, Abraham’s other
son. In subsequent years, Isaac became a patriarch of
Judaism, while Ishmael became the father of Islam. In
the last five years, since 9/11, the Muslims, who are
the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s older son, have
been vilified. They have become the butts of vicious
defamation and prejudice.
Now I am aware and grateful that Americans no longer are
willing to tolerate bigotry. Though prejudice may still
lurk in some hearts, it is now unfashionable to express
it openly. The “N” word is now strictly taboo. So are
anti-Semitic sentiments, like those which Mel Gibson
recently shouted in his drunkenness. Individuals and
organizations that persist in their bigotry risk losing
not only money but also prestige and clout.
Yet there is one painful exception to all that I have
just said. Many otherwise well meaning and intelligent
Americans who consider themselves free of prejudice do
not hesitate to defame Islam. They have accused Islam of
fomenting violence. They have labeled every Muslim a
terrorist. Even prominent religious leaders are now
spreading obscenities about the faith of Islam and seem
to be getting away with it.
Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist, Billy
Graham, repeatedly charges that the Muslim religion is
“wicked, violent, and not of the same God.” He argues
that the Koran sanctions hating and killing people who
are not Muslim. Similar poisonous words about Islam also
hurl forth from the mouths of other prominent
evangelists, both locally and nationally.
Last week, Pope Benedict XVI ignited a world-wide fire
storm of protest, after delivering a speech in his
native Germany. In it, he quoted a Byzantine Christian
emperor from the 14th century, who accused Islam of
being “evil and inhuman.”
Sadly, few outside the Muslim community have condemned
the ranting of these church leaders. Anti-Muslim bigotry
seems to be our last remaining legitimate prejudice. We
need to ask if Islam deserves this defamation.
A year after 9/11, Lynn, and I, together with several
family members, visited Ground Zero in New York. There
at that tragic site, we painfully contemplated the
devastation which the 19 terrorists wreaked on September
11, 2001. We are well aware that all 19 were Muslims.
They hoped to enter Paradise by destroying these tall
edifices of Western capitalism and the men and women who
occupied them. They also succeeding in striking fear
into the hearts of all of us who always thought that
life here in the United States was safe and secure.
Furthermore, we are aware that all the homicide bombers
of scores of innocent men, women, and children in Israel
are Muslim. So are those sick minds of Hezbollah who
shot lethal rockets into Israel. They sincerely believe
that their heinous actions represent the will of Allah.
Should we therefore not conclude from these facts that
the Muslim faith is grossly hateful and evil? Absolutely
We can not always judge a noble religion by its ignoble
practitioners, just as we can not judge a Beethoven
symphony by a fifth-rate orchestra that plays it. The
Beethoven symphony remains a classic of musical
artistry, in spite of the inferior instrumentalists who
attempt to interpret it. Terrorists are, in actuality,
counterfeit representatives of Islam. They represent a
Now I realize that few, if any, Muslims have openly
disapproved of these atrocities. [My note: This is not
accurate. All leading scholars and organizations have
strongly and unequivocally
spoken against such
representing over 650,000 Muslims condemned such
atrocities and extremism] I can only try to explain
their hesitancy to do so, not defend it. Possibly they
fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones
still living in Arab countries, should they speak out.
Few are willing to become another Salman Rushdie, the
Muslim writer. His critical comments about his Muslim
faith community brought on death threats and even a
fatwa calling for his assassination.
Yet I have worked closely with many very fine, reputable
Muslim leaders, like Imam Omar Shakir, here in our own
community. I have listened to the loving, inclusive
words of Imam Feisel Rauf and other noble adherents of
the Muslim faith every summer at Chautauqua Institution
in New York. These men and women deplore violence. They
labor for a world of Now I realize that few, if any,
Muslims have openly disapproved of these
atrocitiesharmony and peace. They are the Muslims who
represent an authentic Islam.
Lynn and I have good Muslim friend, whose name is
Mohammed, living in London. Two years ago, he flew from
London to Toronto and then drove to Chautauqua to
deliver a major address. As he approached the
U.S.-Canadian border near Buffalo, United States
security officials detained and harassed him for eight
hours. They ignored the fact that he had presented full
documentation of his Chautauqua invitation.
During these eight hours, he asked permission to go to
the bathroom, which the officials denied him. As a
result, he wet himself. When Lynn asked him: “Weren’t
you furious at the callousness of the security guards?”
He replied: “No, I wasn’t angry at all. I just felt bad
that the system had so dehumanized these border
officials.” When I heard his response I thought: “What
nobility of spirit! What an exemplary representative of
the best of Islam!”
Rabbi Irving Greenberg once
advised that it doesn’t matter which movement in Judaism
you belong to, as long as you are ashamed of it. Let me
extend that to a broader context. Every one of the three
major world religious communities, whether Muslim,
Christian, or Jewish, contains elements which should
cause shame, because of hostility against other
religious groups. These are the corruptions of the true
spirit of each of these three major world religions.
Let me cite one or two examples in each category. The
Roman Catholic community certainly should not be proud
of John of Capistrano. This Church leader came to
Krakow, Poland, to speak hatred and incite pogroms
against the Jews. Yet he was canonized as a saint of the
Church. In fact, one of the four missions here in San
Antonio is named in John of Capistrano’s memory.
Protestants also should recoil from the vile sentiments
of Martin Luther. Luther wrote a pamphlet he called, On
Jews and Their Lies. In it, he told his readers: “Know,
Christians, that next to the devil, you have no enemy,
more cruel, more venomous, and more violent than a true
Jew.” Fortunately, both the national and the
international Lutheran church bodies have officially
denounced Luther’s anti-Semitic spewings.
Closer to us in time are the scores of Christian
clergymen in Nazi Germany who were staunch supporters
and advocates for Hitler. And what about those
Christians who call themselves pro-life, but commit
murder at abortion clinics?
Certainly we Jews are not exempt from misguided
religious zeal and bigotry. We need to be ashamed of Dr.
Baruch Goldstein, who claimed to be a religious Jew. Yet
this fanatical physician, a graduate of a reputable
Brooklyn yeshivah, over a decade ago, massacred almost
two dozen innocent Muslim worshippers. They were praying
at the sacred site in Hebron, where our Biblical
patriarchs and matriarchs are buried.
We also can not be proud of Yigal Amir, who, in the name
of the distorted Judaism he embraced, assassinated Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Amir considered Rabin’s
willingness to trade land for peace to be a mortal sin.
Like the radical Muslim terrorists, Amir used religious
texts to justify murder.
Therefore we should realize Islamic leaders do not have
a monopoly on hatred of the other. We all bear some of
this stain. The plague is on all of our houses.
And what about the charges that the
Koran foments violence and hatred
against non-believers? One Muslim writer
commented that there is enough in the Koran for people
of extreme tendencies to find their way to a global holy
war. Then he added that there is also enough there for
people of a different mindset to find a path to
enlightenment and peace. If you look hard enough, you
can find evidence of hostility to outsiders in all of
our Scriptures. But you can also find many sublime and
For example, in our Hebrew Bible,
in Deuteronomy 7, God orders the Israelites, upon
entering the Promised Land, to wipe out every man, woman
and children among the seven pagan nations. Yet our same
Hebrew Bible teaches us to treat the stranger kindly and
lovingly and to look forward to the day when God’s house
will be a house of prayer for all peoples.
The New Testament contains scores of anti-Jewish verses.
One of them speaks of Jews as a brood of vipers and
mentions a synagogue of Satan. Yet, other passages, like
the Sermon on the Mount, emphasize love and caring.
Similarly, Islamic scholars do acknowledge the darker
side of the Koran. Yet its central message is absolutely
peace loving and positive.
Why then does this prejudice persist? Perhaps because we
human beings often feel fearful, insecure and
inadequate. We are afraid that we are not enough.
Therefore, in order to feel important, we are driven to
put down someone else or some other group. Prejudice
gives us false security. It is a destructive solution to
our own fearfulness and low-self esteem.
We Jews, like all people, need to recognize and battle
this tendency to resort to prejudice. In particular, we
should sensitize ourselves to the rampant bigotry
against the Muslims. the other family of our forefather
Why? First of all, we Jews owe a debt of gratitude to
the Muslims. Let us remember that one of the most
creative and fertile periods of Jewish life took place
in Spain and other lands where Muslims held sway. The
Golden Age of Jewish poetry, philosophy, and literature
flourished under Muslim sovereignty.
In addition, it is in our own interest as Jews to fight
this anti-Islamic menace. Bigotry against any group is
not only morally reprehensible. It is also bad for Jews.
Hatred spreads like a malignancy beyond its original
target. Who can assure us that those preachers who
defame Islam will not eventually begin to malign Judaism
and other religions as well? Indeed, bigotry knows no
But most important, it is grossly reprehensible for us
as Jews to be prejudiced against any people. We need to
avoid something as seemingly innocent and fun as sending
e-mails contrasting the large numbers of Jewish Nobel
Prize winners with the tiny numbers of Muslim Noble
Prize winners. If we want to boast about our Jewish
intellectual giants, let us not do so at the expense of
another religious group.
We who have been the targets of hatred, persecution,
harassment and mass murder for over 4000 years
intimately know the agony and humiliation of the victim.
We who have taught the world to love our neighbor and to
regard every human being as a child of God can not allow
ourselves to harbor even a shred of bias against any
Our task then, as members of the family of Abraham, as
we begin this New Year, is to fight this anti-Muslim
sentiment, whether in others or in ourselves. Let us
pledge to educate those Jews and others who defame
Muslims and the faith of Islam. And let God be the
ultimate Judge of which religions are correct and not
allow fallible human beings to rob God of that