Rabbi Andrea's Sermons
What is antisemitism?
Two years ago, if you remember, the council of our city voted in favour of the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Such a definition does not equate to the criticism of Israel, and of Israeli policies (despite what you may read here and there).
Rather it establishes that it is antisemitic to deny us, the Jewish people, the right to self-determination which for all the other people in the world is taken for granted.
I regard that day a highlight of my Rabbinic career. I still remember sitting in the public's gallery together with almost all the other Rabbis of our city and other religious leaders, Christians and especially Muslims. They all wanted to show support for our community at that critical moment.
Not everybody was happy with the result; the most notable exception was a small, vocal, and not always law-abiding clique of pro-Palestinian extremists. Their spokesperson thus presented an opposite motion. According to that motion antisemitism was "to hate the Jews because they are Jews". Such a formulation will make legitimate expressions such as "I hate the Jews not because they are Jews but because they are usurers, conspirators, child killers, racists etc.". Such a position is nonsensical.
It was upheld by a pathetic person, a man whom we all know, and who also happens to be Jewish. Antisemites are always happy to welcome sympathetic Jews in their midst.
Nonetheless, let us consider it carefully; because the opposition to Jewish self-determination is not always expressed in an extreme way. It appears in a more diluted form; let's call it "soft-core", in between the lines of some editorialist or as part of the beliefs of many anti-racist militants.
It sounds like this: antisemitism is racism. I am against every racism; therefore, I am not antisemitic.
What's wrong with that? (you may ask).
The problem with such a lofty and idealistic statement is that antisemitism is not a form of racism like any other.
The average racist hates, or fears, different groups because he thinks they are inferior to him. He's terrified by blacks, Latinos, Arabs, (or Italians) who want to rise to his social level. Hence he calls for legal measures to enforce the hierarchy, to keep these inferior people (usually darker-skinned) "in their place".
But the antisemite does not believe that we Jews are an inferior race. Even at its peak, in Nazi Germany, we Jews were not segregated or persecuted because of supposed biological inferiority.
The antisemites believe that we Jews betray and conspire. He fantasises about a secret conspiracy to which all the Jews belong, whose ultimate goal is to establish Jewish power over the entire world. It's not clear what we Jews want to do when we achieve this world power we lust for.
In the 70s the leader of an Argentinian antisemitic party covered himself with ridicule during a debate on TV with a Jewish liberal politician. He revealed to the public that Jews were about to build a secret base in Patagonia and from there to establish control over all Latin America (science fiction; and of bad quality).
Few antisemites know with certainty what the Jewish conspiracy wants to achieve. And they are usually, as you see the most ridiculous among them.
Antisemites just believe that such a conspiracy exists, and express their belief in a somehow diluted form. They may tell, or think that Jews always help each other, that Jews never play by the rules, that Jews are too powerful... very general, not detailed beliefs, which as you see can be cultivated by the Far Left, by the Far Right, by religious fundamentalists and, in short, by every political party that needs a scapegoat, an enemy to blame, an adversary to mobilise against.
You see that antisemitism is not racism like any other. Assuming that being anti-racist (whatever this means) "is enough" to counter antisemitism is wrong and not correct. There is an enormous difference between these two statements:
"XYZ are an inferior race" and "XYZ are a part of a conspiracy".
Of course, racism is an abomination, and we Jews should be at the forefront of the fight for equality (actually we often have been and are, in places such as South Africa or the American South). But antisemitism deserves different treatment, different legislation and a different, more articulate, definition.
In the part of Torah that we have read, one passage points exactly in this direction. I am referring to the history of Hagar and Ishmael.
Sarah is annoyed because her son, Isaac, is bullied by Ishmael, the son of Abraham's concubine. So Sarah asks -actually she orders- Abraham to separate the family from Hagar and Ishmael, in other words, to send them away. Abraham is reluctant, but God tells him to obey Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael will survive in the desert. The Torah says that Ishmael is the progenitor of the Arab nations. This indeed is the moment of the separation between the ways of the Jewish nation and the ways of the Arab nation. And, very importantly, God himself demands such a separation despite Abraham being reluctant at the beginning. The text of the Torah puts in front of the reader a remarkable difference between the descendants of Hagar/Ishmael and of Sarah/Isaac. Ishmael will rule on a large swath of territory and will have plenty of children and grandchildren, while Isaac will have only two sons, Esau and Jakov, whose birth will be not easy.
Truly, two different calls, two different histories, two different destinies. This is not only a legend or a myth: it is an actual historical reality: we Jews are a small tribe, the Arabs are many nations. And while we both encounter racism and hostilities, they are different kinds of racism and different kinds of hostilities.
Racism is evil, we must counter it, and it is our duty to do what we can in order to have a more just and more equal society. But such a fight, such an important battle must be conducted without losing sight of the cultural and historical traits that the Biblical story, and the Rabbinic interpretation, explain so well.
In other words, we must fight against racism because we are Jews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and not in the weird and ineffective ways that a radical with a badly hidden agenda, enounced to the City Council of Brighton and Hove, two years ago.
LECH LECHA. REAL AND IMAGINED FAMILIES
I will remember last week as the "horseshoe week". I have received good news from both sides, the Far Right and the far Left. Good news, I mean, for myself. And bad news, hopefully, for both kind of antisemites. Two words about the Far-Right one, because I am sure you know enough about the Far Left. On Monday an Italian friend informed me of a journalists' investigation about the fortunes of an Italian lawyer whom we both know since High school. I have never been in good terms with that schoolmate. He was a Fascist and, obviously, an antisemite. Then, in the 90s, the Italian Neo-Fascist Party changed its skin and to a certain extent, its ideology. You perhaps remember when their leader went to Israel in a visit, put a kippah on his head and stood in reverence at Yad Vashem. Personally, I was kind of sceptical, but gradually I changed my mind, and now I believe he was sincere. My Fascist schoolmate took it very badly. Especially because he and a group of his comrades were quickly expelled from the new Party, who was now nationalist but not anymore fascist. As racist and antisemites, they were not tolerated anymore (an idea that may work for today's Labour Party...). My former schoolmate is now a lawyer. He is the kind of a lawyer who privately boasts about not having Jewish clients, and winning with Jewish lawyers: you got the idea. He is also high profile personality in the racist homophobic and chauvinist Party led by Matteo Salvini,the "Lega" - former Northern League. That is not surprising because that Party had become home for many Fascists and antisemite. He had done well: until last week when it became known that over the last years he has become the recipient of a considerable flow of money from Russia. Which may or may not be legal. Apparently, he helped himself with part of it). Still, the big news is that such money is channelled into -hold on it- "cultural activities". Publishing houses, review, cultural events... all about "Traditional Europe" or "Western civilisation". Regular visitors of these events are sinister characters who call themselves intellectual (the most notorious is a man named Alexandre Dugin). And they are of course all antisemite, anti-Zionist, and engaged in a war against the corrupting influence of "lobbies" of various kind, including obviously the Jewish one. Now I move to the other side of the horseshoe. Unsurprisingly the books and the authors that these people advertise and sell, can easily be found on the bookshelf of your average Corbyn supporter. Especially those supporters obsessed with spiels about liberal democracy that it is not really a democracy, and about the Jewish State in the Middle East that for them is a colonial enterprise; they are also very erudite about Jews killing babies, stuff that if you remember, some years ago was spread around the Internet by a Labour councillor of Bognor Regis (first he denied to have spread these lies, then he admitted he was the author but refused to apologise) I am not the first to notice how the two opposite extremes, in fact, overlap; and how similar they are in their hate for democracy, for modernity, and of course for us Jews. That's their appeal, after all. Militants who embrace the cause of the Far Right, or of the Far Left, are very similar for devotion to their leaders. But also for their deep insecurity and the need to be part of a herd. A thing that really impresses me is how both the extremists, Far Right and Far Left are obsessed with family. The Far Right makes a big fuss of the "Traditional Family" that they say they are the only ones to defend. Which is the stuff of a nightmare: authoritarian father, submissive mother, children always disciplined (and never loved). Also Far Left, especially nowadays, is about an equally nightmarish family. Their leader continually repeats that his parents have met in Cable Street. They believe that such a red conception is proof of not being antisemitic. Scores of militants who all come from "Communist families". How often you hear sentences such as "my father was a Communist, my grandfather was a Communist" (and I always want to ask: and they achieve nothing, right?) The families in the Far Right and in the Far Left are only very similar. They never change, they never develop. True to be told, these family are probably more imagined than real. Children exist only to reproduce the world of their parents. They grow up in the shadow of parents and exist only because of being similar to the parents. How different is the family of Abraham and Sara, the first Jewish family. When they meet, Abraham and Sara change. They change their names. Abram becomes Abraham, "father of a multitude of nations" and Sarai, "my princess", becomes Sara, the Matriarch. Abraham and Sara love each other. It is the first loving family in the Torah. There have been other unions before. There was desire, e.g. of Adam for Eve, but it was not love. The Torah gives us no account of any dialogue between Adam and Eve, or Noah and his wife. They talk to God, they answer to God, they lie to God. They do not talk to each other. Abraham loves Sara, and Sara loves Abraham because God planned for them to be a family. God will appear other times later in the Torah. He will give all sort of commands: "build an altar" (to Jakov) or "bring the people out of Egypt" (to Moses). Abraham is commanded to build a family. But not the static family of the political utopia and extremisms! It's a family which grows, develop, a setting for intricate dynamics. Abraham is commanded to circumcise his son. To inscribe the Divine Law, the commandment, the Jewish identity, in his son's genitalia, in the most intimate part of the body. And a few lines after that, the terrible moment of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Abraham is reminded that his son does not belong to him. Abraham learns that children belong to God, that they grow up, they become adult and gradually, get out of our control. There are so many things we can learn from this extraordinary and revolutionary concept: God reveals Himself in the family and commands us to give education, Jewish education, to our children. But I think that the most profound, the most radical element of the story is this: that the Jewish family, is a real place. It's a place where children evolve and grow, where the parents learn how to be parents, Jewish parents, while the children grow and become Jewish adults. This is incredibly different, radically different, in fact, is the opposite of the imagined families of political extremists -Left and Right, that often infantilise their followers. In political utopias people never grow up, they remain perennial children, unable to decide by themselves, they only have to trust Party/the Movement and do what the Party/Movement wants them to do. And guess what: both Far Right and Far Left do not like us Jews with our complicated and very real families. Both Far Left and Far Right cannot understand our commitment to Jewish education and are opposed to our faith in the potentialities of human beings to change, to evolve and become better.
This week's Torah portion is the favourite ... of the atheists.
It tells the story of Noach and of the Flood. Babylonian sources such as the "Epic of Gilgamesh" narrate a similar story. The Babylonians, as you know, were next-door neighbours to the Israelites. So the atheists claim, from many many years indeed, that in the Torah there is nothing original. It is not a divinely inspired text.
There is a slightly more patronising version of the same argument. It postulates that a giant flood actually happened. And that all the populations of the Ancient Middle East had some sort of memory of that event. The story of a single righteous man (Noah) who survives the Flood together with his family, is thus the Israelite version of such a common myth.
Those who see the Biblical narrative in this way may not charge the author of the Bible of copying his homework. Yet in the story of Noah, they see nothing original or divinely inspired.
The same can be said of the Tower of Babel, the other event that is narrated in our Torah portion and that we have read today. Stones and steles of the Babylonian times carry inscriptions about sovereign who built monuments known as ziggurats.
Archaeologists have located the remnants of these ziggurats in various sites around Baghdad. Once again, our "friend", the atheist, may notice that there is nothing original in the Torah and that the Bible is a just a bunch of ancient legends.
Figure out the atheist gloating after he (or she) has proven that Judaism is, like every religion nonsensical. See? The Bible is only a collection of old stories. Perhaps some of us have even personally met this archaeologically savvy irritating atheist.
Well, my answer is: I don't care.
I have never bothered about the historical plausibility of Biblical narrative. Neither I am impressed by the claim that some parts of the Torah are re-edited version of something else.
I don't care, and let me explain why.
First of all, the Bible is not a history book, neither it deals with science. History books and science books are written in another way; they provide the readers with more details, for example, the date or at least the year of a particular event. And on this respects, the Torah, the Pentateuch, is incredibly low. Dates are not given, most of the characters are nor even named; think of "Pharao" in Exodus.
We do not read the Torah because we want to learn the history of the Ancient Middle East. We read the Torah because of its profound moral teachings which are organised and exposed indeed in a unique way.
Let me talk about this week's Torah portion, the juxtaposition of the Tower of Babel with the Flood. These two stories are about order.
On one side God decides to destroy the world with a flood, because "all the flesh was corrupted": all the living beings were responsible for lawlessness (hence, all the form all life, including animals, deserved to be cancelled).
Unsurprisingly, Christians have built a great deal about this lawlessness. They look at the term with prudery; as if humanity deserved to be destroyed because they were having too much fun in the bedroom.
But the literal meaning of the root ש ח ת, which occurs twice in the same verse (6:12) is "to be rotten, to be broken" and it means to a variety of transgressions. With all the respect for the Christian theologians, here the text indicates that humanity, like all the rest of living beings, were responsible for many transgressions.
These sins were not only, or not mainly, of sexual nature. Indeed the text is far more specific when, in the following verse, these transgressions are named with a Hebrew word whose meaning is sadly familiar to us contemporary Jews. Hamas: violence.
It's not a chance that the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has named itself in that way. To resume: The earth was filled with chaos and violence. Hence, God decided to destroy it.
On the other hand, at the end of the Torah portion, when humanity decides to build the Tower of Babel, they are incredibly disciplined and ordered. It's a totalitarian dream.
Indeed, totalitarian regimes love to build towers. The highest unoccupied building in the world is in Pyongyang, 105 floors, more than 1000 feet with mostly nothing inside (it was supposed to be a hotel). To build such a high building, you need discipline workers and misunderstanding are not tolerable, because the orders need to be shouted and perfectly understood. To stop the enterprise, God creates a diversity of languages. Once human beings are blessed with many languages, they cannot cooperate among themselves anymore. And they have to cease the construction of the tallest building that humanity ever planned to erect, cannot continue anymore.
On one side, you have the absolute disorder, the chaos., the loss of boundary between man and animals, and the violence, to such an extent that God finds it intolerable.
On the other hand, you have an absolute order, discipline. Human beings are turned into elements of a system, each one in its own narrow place. They are all focused on one single goal: it is the kind of social harmony that dictators love.
These two scenarios, the absence of order, and the totalitarian order are juxtaposed together in the same Torah portion in an intentional way.
The Torah portion opens with the words Ele Toledot Noah "these are the the lines- of Noah" and it ends with another series of toledot - lines (11:7) Ele toledot Shem, this is the line of Shem (one of the children on Noah). These are genealogies, family lines, along which wisdom and experiences are transmitted and remembered.
There are two gigantic representations, the world before the Flood, and the plurality of languages. They are put together and framed by stories of toledot, of descendants and lines.
This is the thing with us Jews, we always talk about family, as doctor Freud shows well...
The two pictures, the two scenarios, or -if you like- the two dystopias of complete disorder and absolute order, are displayed in front of our eyes. We have to learn from these scenarios and pass along the generations both the memory of chaos and violence (which Noah witnessed) and the opposite horror of totalitarianism, of a State which rules every part of individual life.
Let's meet again with our friend, the archaeologically trained atheist. He shows us the ruins of the ziggurat and lectures us about the nonsense of every religious belief. "see, these stones? They really are the real remnants of what the real Tower of Babel was in reality".
To which we Jews reply that we see profound moral teachings, such as the encouragement to cultivate our differences and our identity where he, the atheist, sees just a pile of stones.
With all the respect for our atheist friends, I believe we lead a better life.
And then they came for Gal Gadot.
Last Sunday, the Israeli actress announced that she has teamed up with the director Patty Jenkins for a movie about Cleopatra. A woman actress, a female director, and a female screenwriter, for a movie about a woman. It sounds perfect, and appropriate for the post-#metoo Hollywood times, correct? Wrong. The always vigilant "woke" ring who always patrol social media, did not take it well. They massively went on Twitter to let the universe know how outraged they were, because of what they call "cultural whitewashing". An Israeli actor playing the part of an Egyptian character is, you see, an offence to all the Middle Eastern minorities. There has also been a column making the same case on The Guardian (where else?) Cleopatra herself was of Greek heritage and probably white; but who cares. The character belongs to the Egyptians, Egypt is in the Middle East, and no Israeli Jewess can be allowed to impersonate a Middle Eastern character. We do not belong to the Middle East, they claim. One militant wrote: "It is a truly insulting slap in the face. Any Middle Eastern/Arab actress would have been a far more correct choice." And another echoed: "Her playing an Arab woman is no different than a Nazi playing Anne Frank". "Shame on you, Gal Gadot" -tweeted another one- "Your country steals Arab land & you're stealing their movie role". This one anyway was my favourite: "Of course, she's from Israel, and Hollywood is dominated by the likes of her, which ain't a secret". So you get it: Gal Gadot is an Israeli Jewess. Hence the role of Cleopatra must go to someone else. Why? Because Gal Gadot is Jewish. Remind me please the name of the ideology that classifies human beings in worthy and unworthy on the basis on their birth. I'll help you: it's called racism. And racism against the Jews is called: antisemitism. Let's say it plainly. Gal Gadot has been a victim of an antisemitic attack. Antisemitism hits you even if you are one of the most successful actresses in the world and one of the most paid. Antisemitism hits you even if you are a critic of the Netanyahu government and a campaigner against "the Occupation of Palestine". No matter how loudly and how publicly you speak against the "Nation-State Law" that the Israeli Government was about to approve. Antisemitism hits you nonetheless. Gal Gadot does all of this, by the way. She ticks all the appropriate boxes of the Left-leaning Jew and Liberal Zionist. Yet, this is not enough, and for several militants, she is still guilty of colonialism and a complicit in the theft of Arab land. It's a sad and depressive story. And it's an old one. Very old. The accusation to the Jews to "steal other people's land" is not new. It does not begin with Palestinian nationalism, and it is not a reaction to the defeat of Arab armies in 1948. It was already around in the time of Rashi, more than 900 years ago! In his comment to this week's Torah portion Rashi asks: "Why does the Torah commence with the account of the Creation?" I think it's a brilliant question. We are so used to the Bible's beginning that we do not question it. But why does our Holy Book, which is the foundation of Jewish Law, include the narrative of the Creation? The Torah is a book of laws; it is the story of a people. Why does it have this "cosmological" beginning? Rashi's answer is incredibly profound. "Should the peoples of the world say to Israel, "You are robbers because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan" [when you entered the Promised Land], Israel may reply to them, "All the Earth belongs to God; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased". To appreciate the depth of Rashi, we ought to remind that he wrote and lived in Medieval France. At that time, the main occupation of noble families was to fight one against the other, for conquering lands and enlarging their dominions. In Medieval times, the land was acquired by force. Sometimes it could happen that the Emperor gave the rights over certain parts of his dominion to some family, as a reward for some war enterprise, like the Crusades. But even in these cases, military force was needed to keep other competitors at bay. The land used to belong to the strongest and to the ruthless. The robberies were the rule. Well shielded in their Universities, funded by sovereigns and rulers, scholars wrote at length to justify violence and abuses (certain things do not change). They did so via references to the laws and consuetudes dating back to the time of the Romans. But everybody took for granted that the stronger have every right to crush the weaker and to take his land. Enter Rashi, our Teacher. He thoughts differently. And his views were shared by all the Jews of his time (more of this later). They thought, and we think that it's not up to human beings to decide who rules the land and who owns the land. It's up to God. We don't know whether Rashi has ever shared this opinion with his French non-Jewish neighbours. We can only imagine their shocked reactions of them if and when it happened. Probably it was something like: "and what God has to do with thaaat?" (sorry I cannot reproduce any Medieval French accent). Remarkably, no Jew ever disputed this opinion of Rashi! Now, let me remind, in case you have forgotten, that we Jews tend to be quarrelsome. There's nothing we enjoy more than a discussion on different interpretations. Just pop into Limmud once to know what I mean. Or just join one synagogue's committee (now I've killed any recruiting efforts, sorry). We never miss an opportunity to disagree. Therefore it is noticeable, that no Jew had ever disputed the Rashi's statement, as bold as it may have sound at that time. Every Jew agrees that all the earth belongs to God, and God decides to whom it should go. Let's get back to the antisemitic abuses that Gal Gadot has endured. Slanders and lies that were around already at the time of Rashi, and probably before. The bad faith of the abusers is evident. It's not even the case of debating whether a black character should be played only by a black actor. Cleopatra was a Mediterranean woman, Gal Gadot is a Mediterranean woman. Ethnically speaking Gal Gadot is more than qualified to impersonate Cleopatra. Whoever attacks Gal Gadot is not defending any minority from the perils of stereotyping and cultural appropriation. It's just antisemitism, pure and simple. And the reason for antisemitism is this. We Jews are countercultural. At the times of Rashi the law of the strongest ruled the relations between human beings. The weaker could only accept the defeat and adapt to life as subjects. And we Jews continued to teach that the relations between human beings must not be grounded in prevarication. Rather the foundations of law are Mercy and Justice, that is -ultimately- God. Today we live in a cultural environment where the accident of birth dictates what one can and cannot do. If you are a Jewish actress and want to impersonate an Egyptian queen, scores of "woke" thugs will punish you for the terrible sin of "cultural appropriation". They are like the violent nobility of Medieval times, used to win battles through terror and prevarication. And even if this is the accepted cultural norm, we Jews continue to teach and to believe that your birth is not your destiny, that through hard work and talent you can become a diverse person, hopefully, a better person. Your birth is not your destiny, regardless of what arrogant Medieval nobility and contemporary so-called social justice warriors, want you to believe. I look forward to watching the movie produced by Gal Gadot, and I am sure she will be an excellent Cleopatra. Or if not, I will welcome the debate, as per our tradition.
Who's Gedaliah and why should we fast?
Who's Gedaliah and why should we fast?
In the Jewish calendar, the day after Rosh ha Shanah, 3rd of Tishri, is a day of fasting. Tzom Gedaliah, the fast of Gedaliah. I suspect that not many of us are aware of this. During this time of the year, between Rosh ha Shana and Yom Kippur, we have so many things to do. And this specific date always escapes our attention. Moreover, on Rosh ha Shana, Rabbis have the opportunity to talk to a much larger audience than they usually have and the last thing they probably want to hear is "Ehi folks, tomorrow there's a fast to observe." Tzom Gedaliah is not a widely observed recurrence, and I believe that very few of us have ever observed this prescribed fast for such a day. Nonetheless, I believe it offers us the opportunity to think of issues relevant, especially for this day and age. To begin with: who was Gedaliah and why do we fast on such a day? The events are narrated in the Book of Kings, in Jeremiah and in greater detail by the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Gedaliah was the governor of the region of Judaea. The Babylonians appointed him after the First destruction of the Temple and the conquest of Jerusalem in 582 BCE. He was, by all accounts, a good guy. Under his rule, part of the Jewish population that had gone into exile came back to Judaea. There are actual historical records that these returnees had planted vineyards, which means they were definitively planning to remain and to start up in business. Gedaliah did not have much power, but he did the best he could. Egypt, the other superpower in the area, did not get along with the Babylonians. Now enters Ishmael ben Netaniah, another Judean military officer. He was given the task to kill Gedaliah by the king of Ammon (roughly speaking, modern Jordan), who was an ally of Egypt. Before Rosh Hashanah Gedaliah was told that Ishmael wished to kill him and take over as governor. Upon hearing this, Gedaliah stopped the men who wanted to kill Ishmael because he could not believe that Ishmael would ever do such a thing. Instead, Gedaliah welcomed Ishmael Ben Netaniah into his home as his Rosh Ha Shana guest, as an act of kindness which ultimately cost him his life, because Ishmael murdered Gedaliah, together with most of the Jews who had joined him. After the slaughter, the remaining Jews feared the vengeance of the Babylonian King and for a good reason; Gedaliah, had been killed by a Jew. They then flew to Egypt, which proved to be the end of Jewish self-determination and the reason why the observance of fasting the day after Rosh ha Shana was instituted. Tzom Gedaliah. Even though this is not widely observed, there is something to learn from the story of Ishmael and the murder of Gedaliah. What caused the death of Gedaliah? Our gut answer is his naivete. He did not want to believe that Ishmael, a fellow Jew of the same social class, could really want to murder him. Perhaps he also thought that, by inviting Ishmael and his comrades to a banquet on Rosh ha Shana, he could talk to Ishmael and persuade him to give up his plan. Wait a minute: are we fasting because we want to warn ourselves not to be naive? Not to trust in our fellow Jews too much? This is not such a thing that we, adult human beings, need to learn! We already know that "the first time you cheat on me it's your fault, the second time it’s my fault because I was too naive" (that is an Italian proverb, by the way). Not that we need to fast one full day to be reminded of that. Perhaps the death of Gedaliah had been caused by something else, something deeper. There are some clues in the narrative: the murderer's name, Ishmael. The connections with Egypt. Ishmael came to the feast, which he turned into a killing, with ten fellows. After having killed Gedaliah, he threw him into a pit. Etcetera. Scholars have pointed out that the story of the murder of Gedaliah is a retelling of the story of Joseph; ten brothers wanted to kill Joseph but they threw him into a pit instead; they then sold him to the Ishmailites, and he ended up in Egypt. The story of Gedaliah and the story of the sale of Joseph have this in common: they are about hate. The hate between brothers. Groundless hate, as the Rabbis say: sinat chinam. Here we begin to see what Tzom Gedaliah has to teach to us, especially today. The hate between brothers and the hate that causes divisions in the Jewish people is still here. Anti-Zionists against Zionists; Orthodox against Reform; self-appointed Jewish defenders of the "traditional family" against LGBT Jews. Obviously, we cannot agree on everything: a plurality of opinions and positions is a healthy thing. But we always risk forgetting that the person, the fellow Jew, who happens to have different opinions from us, is a human being like us. That he or she has the same rights, dignity and needs. That is the sinat chinam, the groundless hate which Tzom Gedaliah warns us about every year, while Yom Kippur approaches. All our opinions and our beliefs can degenerate and cause tragedies. Like the murder of Gedaliah, that, in the end, brought exile upon all the people. There is a famous joke about Tzom Gedaliah: One Jew saw another eating on Tzom Gedaliah and asked why he wasn't fasting. He answered, "In the first place if Gedaliah had not been killed, would he still be alive? And in the second place, if I had been killed, would Gedaliah fast for me? And in the third place, I don't fast on Yom Kippur, so why would I fast on Tzom Gedaliah?" Of course, as a Rabbi, I would like you to fast on Yom Kippur. But, even if for any reason you decide not to fast on Yom Kippur, please do not forget the teaching of Tzom Gedaliah. The person in front of us, who happens to disagree with us, is a human being like us. And we always ought to find common ground, always. Have a meaningful and easy fast
In Memory of Amos Luzzatto z''l
And so, towards the end of this challenging year, sad news came. Amos Luzzatto passed away. He was the president of the "Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane", the equivalent to the Board of Deputies in Italy. He passed away two days ago aged 92 years old.
There were obviously obituaries in the Jewish media. Amos was a direct descendant of the great rationalist commentator Shmuel David Luzzato, the ShaDal. He was a student of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Israeli thinker: Orthodox, yet somehow radical, and definitively on the Far Left of the spectrum.
Amos Luzzatto was extraordinarily knowledgeable of Talmud, Midrash and Rabbinic literature. All of this, mind, lishmah, for the sake of learning. Although far more literate than many Rabbis, Amos Luzzatto was a surgeon, not a Rabbi.
You'll read all of this in the obituaries. But I, as an Italian Jew, want to remember Amos Luzzatto, the Jewish community leader, first in Venice, then at a national level.
If you had visited any Italian synagogue or any Jewish museum in Italy during the 90s and early 2000s, you would have noticed that restoration works were being carried out. That was when Amos Luzzatto was the President of Unione delle Comunita' Ebraiche Italiane. Before that, Jewish buildings in Italy were run down and poorly kept. Provincial communities were struggling with low numbers so Amos Luzzatto led a great revamping of Jewish life all over Italy, in partnership with City Councils and local authorities, the Government, and even the Catholic Church.
Around the year 2000, for the Catholic Church's jubilee, many historical buildings were restored in Italy, as a massive wave of tourists were expected. Amos Luzzatto made sure that Jewish buildings were fixed too. Making the State and the Church pay for the synagogues: that was a great job. Even greater was including synagogues in tourist's itineraries. Now everyone who visits Italy, even if he's a Catholic pilgrim, realises that in Italy there are Jews too and they become aware that we were there from millennia before Christianity was even born.
These are extraordinary achievements. But I also want to remember Amos Luzzatto because he was a man of the Left. This may sound strange: between 1998 and 2005 Italian Jewry was led by a man who had carried the membership card of the Communist Party. And still, he was a member of the same Party after it changed its name.
Amos was not unique. Many Jews of his generation found a home in the Italian Left. Still, very few of them remained in the Communist Party while it was becoming more and more pro-Palestinian and therefore antisemitic. There are disagreements as regards to when and how this happened. Perhaps the lowest point was in the 80s, but Jewish members were bullied already after the Six-Day War. Anyway, the trend is undeniable. For decades the Communist Party was not a Jewish friendly environment. Nonetheless, Amos Luzzatto never gave up his membership as City Councillor in Venice. When he became chair of the Unione delle Comunita' Ebraiche, it was not the time of the Cold War anymore, but the Left was still more pro-Palestinian than pro-peace, and so was Italy in general.
Things have changed: nowadays in Italy, it is generally acknowledged that antisemitism and antizionism stem from the same root (to quote the former President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, himself a former Communist too). Palestinian terrorists do not enjoy protection from the secret services anymore. And synagogues and Jewish museums are open to the public.
It has been a momentous transformation, bringing Italian Jewry from the margins to the centre of cultural life, and eradicating antisemitism from the Italian Left. It could not have happened had Amos Luzzatto been in another place.
During the most discomforting moments of the last years, when Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes were running the Labour Party, I often thought of Amos Luzzatto. If he had succeeded in changing, or at least softening, the antisemitic culture of the Italian Communist Party, something similar could happen in the Labour Party in the UK. That was my thought. And it gave me some comfort and optimism. "Ce la potete fare!" told me a common acquittance. "You can make it". And indeed, we did make it. Antisemites now have a less comfortable life in the Labour Party.
One of the reasons why Amos Luzzatto was such an effective leader was that he knew everything about Italian Jews. He knew all the stories and details, some of which are too saucy to be reported by a Rabbi!
But this I can report. There was a Jew in Turin called Leo Levi, who was a Socialist. It was when Fascists were in power, and the Turin police took pleasure to torment the Jewish Socialist, an enemy of the State. At a certain point, Leo Levi had enough and left Turin, moved to Palestine and opened a bakery, but that's another story.
Anyway, the police once put Leo Levi in prison for a couple of days, just to intimidate him, as the police do in totalitarian States. It happened that Leo Levi was released on Shabbat. He then refused to leave the prison because "walking such a long distance, from this place to my home, on Saturday is against the laws of my nation". They had to keep him inside for one night more, expenses paid (kosher food of course).
At that time the religious rights of the Jews, including keeping Shabbat, were still protected by the Italian law. The police of a Fascist State were furious when they were told that there was the law of another nation observed in the very same State they live!
But Leo Levi was just being consistent. As a socialist, he was an atheist, but an atheist Jew, remains a Jew, so calling the mitzvot and the commandments "laws of a nation" was legitimate.
Amos Luzzatto loved this story because, like many Jews of his generation, he had some problem with God. As a scientist, he felt the tension and the conflict between religion and science. From a scientist' point of view, there's no difference between religion and superstition, so the acceptable form of Judaism is being an atheist Jew. If you believe that faith is nonsense, then you do not want to talk about the Jewish faith. You see yourself as part of the Jewish nation.
Amos Luzzatto believed that we Jews, the Jewish nation, could be part of the multi-ethnic, and multi-national, united Europe. That we were one nation among the others and could live safe under the same European roof. In his vision, our rights were safe, and we Jews were safe if our culture was acknowledged to be part of European culture.
Amos Luzzatto was not alone to have such a belief, in the 90s. Many cultivated Jewish leaders at that time were confident that a multi-cultural society, and a multi-national Europe, were the future. And that was a good thing for us, the Jewish nation.
Such a vision turned out to be too optimistic. Nationalism is still around. And I mean, the bad, intolerant form of nationalism. The nationalism of the Fascist police, not of the Shabbat observant Leo Levi.
Of course, it is a blatant small-minded attitude. But racism and intolerance are raising their ugly head all over Europe. It is happening here in the UK; and also on the Continent: in France, Hungary, Poland and - most worryingly - in Germany too. The populist parties that are opposed to the refugees are also opposed, one way or another, to us Jews. Worse, they believe that mass migrations are orchestrated by some Jewish-ran conspiracy. How many MPs cultivate the belief in such nonsense we don't know. How many candidate MPs will try to turn these racist tendencies in votes and consensus, we can only speculate. But unfortunately, racism and antisemitism are here to stay, probably for a long time.
It's a sober and depressive thought. We will have to learn to defend ourselves and our rights in every possible way. But, again, I cannot but think of the life and the teaching of Amos Luzzatto z''l. Just like with Left-wing antisemitism, we can make it, "ce la possiamo fare". Barbarism will lose, and civilisation will prevail. And we Jews are here to stay.