Regular readers will recall – one hopes! – that, thanks to the extra month intercalated within the Jewish leap year, our last Scroll covered two months without major Jewish holidays. Our holidays come roaring back this time around with Purim in mid-March this year followed by Passover in mid-April. Passover, of course, is one of the שלוש רגלים (Shalosh R’galim), the three pilgrim festivals, the epitome of major Jewish holidays; while Purim stands as arguably the “most major” of the minor (ie non-Yom Tov) holidays. “Be a tail of lions rather than a head of foxes,” teaches Rabbi Matya ben Charash in Pirkei Avot (4:20), but let’s not be judgmental. Of note also, Yom HaShoah, whose date is set to correspond with the extirpation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on the eve of Passover in 1943, falls within our span.
These sacred occasions share an uncomfortably contemporary link: antisemitism. Antisemitism, of course, runs a gamut from mere disdain or insult to genocide. Unsurprisingly, the events that join our permanent calendar tend to reflect the harsher side of this spectrum, while – thank God! – our experience of antisemitism in living memory in this country has tended toward the gentler side. (Look a bit further back in history here, or move a bit further out to South America, Europe, or the Middle East in recent decades, and the murderous end of the continuum reveals its continuous ugly presence.) However, I’m sure we all realize that the level of both rhetorical and actual violence towards Jews in this country has escalated worryingly in recent years.
One small step toward addressing this problem would be for the Senate to confirm Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, easily among the foremost living scholars of the Holocaust and antisemitism, to the position of Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism (SEAS) to which she has been presidentially appointed. Unfortunately, it seems that some in the Senate feel Dr. Lipstadt is disqualified from the position for having the temerity to call out hateful speech by powerful people (ie themselves); I happen to think the very purpose of the position is to call out hateful speech and behavior, only the more so when it comes from the powerful or influential.
Back to our topic, the slate of holidays in our span present slightly different flavors of hatred. Purim is – until modern times – the classic example of pure genocidal antisemitism. Haman’s goal is that all Jews everywhere he can reach be destroyed; there is nothing they have done wrong to deserve it, nor anything they could change to avert it. There is no ransom to be paid, no exile to be fled to, no conversion to be tolerated. Only death for every Jew will satisfy Haman’s bloodlust. This is racialized hatred; in Haman’s eyes, the Jews are a type of human being, a race, which must be destroyed. Haman, a descendant of Amalek, is acting on the eternal, seemingly unchangeable hatred of Amalek for Israel. The Torah tells us that God is at war with Amalek and the hate it represents in every generation, and in the fullness of time will eliminate it from human experience. (Ex. 16:8-16) Please God, soon.
Passover shows a hatred that is amenable to mass murder if it comes to it, but really aims for enslavement and exploitation to benefit the oppressor. Violence is not itself the goal of this hatred, but a tool for control of the oppressed. It is a less rabid, more selfish type of hate. Interestingly, the Torah admonishes us not to despise the Egyptians (Deut. 23:8). Perhaps, with the passage of time, a self-serving hatred can be outgrown or overcome.
The Holocaust arguably blends the worst elements of both types of hatred above. Sorry, Whoopi, but Nazi antisemitism is fully racialized. It treats Jewishness as not only a biological matter, but as an incurable genetic defect or disease, which cannot be cured, only eradicated. It regards Jews, and other targeted groups, as a category of humans who are not fully human, and thus excluded from any intrinsic human rights up to and including the right to live. The ultimate goal of Nazi antisemitism was – is – genocidal extermination of every living Jew. But the original German Nazis were also quite practical and selfish; realizing that killing every Jew immediately and visibly was not feasible and would be diplomatically damaging, they decided they could tolerate an extended and gradual campaign of genocide so long as they extracted preexisting wealth, ongoing slave labor, merciless medical experimentation, and other “benefits” from the tortured existence of Jews under their control. They joined every bit of Haman’s irrational bloodlust with the full measure of Pharaoh’s selfish cruelty. May God obliterate such inhumanity from under the heavens.
Before concluding, I must add that there is at least one other important variation of antisemitism marked within our calendar, though not within the span of this Scroll. Not long ago at Chanukah, we remembered a battle with oppression that was directed not at destroying Jewish bodies, but at destroying Judaism. That is to say, Antiochus’ goal was not to kill each of us, but to kill our beliefs and identity; to make us no longer Jews, but something else (specifically, Seleucid Greeks). In this endeavor, he was also supported by Jews who saw personal advantage from it, or who genuinely believed Hellenic culture was superior to their own. The Chanukah story thus has within it elements of a Jewish civil war as well as an external villain.
Historically, this has been the most common variety of antisemitism, particularly in its Christian incarnation. It may sound tamer than the genocidal varieties, but has also led to a great deal of death and suffering in the course of history, fueling destruction of entire Jewish communities during the Crusades, expulsions from just about every part of Europe at one time or another, and the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition, as well as providing a springboard for the Nazi style of antisemitism. This type of antisemitism often presents itself insidiously as love – “we love you so much, we want you to become like us” – but this is the “love” of an abusive relationship: “I love you; I just hate everything about you.” While the other types of antisemitism seem to be making a roaring comeback lately, this type has always had a strong presence in American culture, from the many missionary groups which specifically and openly target Jews, to the deceitful “Jews for Jesus” type cults which attempt to co-opt Jewish symbols and language to convince vulnerable Jews that what is in fact Christian theology is merely some new form of Judaism.
The various holidays on the Jewish calendar which remember episodes of oppression – and our outlasting them – remind us that we must never be complacent, but must take precautions to protect both our bodies and our souls from those who hate us and would destroy us either as living beings or as a community of faith and tradition. Fortunately, one of the strongest defenses we have on both fronts is our unity and mutual support, despite our various differences, within our congregation, within the Saratoga and Capital District Jewish communities, throughout the American Jewish community, and among the Jewish People worldwide.