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Newsletter for October 2010
an 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
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 not!
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 distorted Islam.
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 atrocities. An online petition 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 uplifting passages.
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 Abraham.
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 boundaries.
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 religious community.
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 prerogative.
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