Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yom Kippur Sermon: The video "The Innocence of Muslims"


Yom Kippur Day
This is the time when all of us need to step back for a moment and reflect on both the inner and the outer worlds we live in. It seems to me that, at this hour, the one issue that dominates the news and absorbs much of our attention is the issue of Muslim rage. Rage is a frightening term and one that is so often used when Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are moved to violent protest in their respective countries. They take this rage into the streets, where people are often injured and some are killed, and now that rage is focused on a 14 minute trailer to an apparently non-existent film called “The Innocence of Muslims,” which mocks the prophet Muhammad, and thereby ridicules Islam. The American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy security officials were killed in the attacks on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the chain reaction of mob anger against the original video demonstrates vividly just how wide a chasm exists between the Muslim East and the West.
On Yom Kippur we are supposed to strive for reconciliation with our neighbors. The mitzvah of teshuvah commands us to do what it takes to reach out for conciliation before we can hope that God will forgive our transgressions. I know of no other people who try as hard as we do to make peace, yet, time and again we face intransigent adversaries who refuse to work with us for peace.  The frustration  this impasse awakens in  us can instill a kind of cynicism that there will never be peace in the Middle East whether we are viewing the current riots and protests through the lens of American foreign policy or simply from the perspective of Jews throughout the world..
What does one do when a person or a people refuse to accept our outreach? I am not speaking tonight from a tactical or strategic perspective for I am not a foreign policy expert. I do, however, understand the religious complexities of the Middle East and I see the moral and spiritual chasm between two civilizations with completely different expectations about how they want to be treated in the world let alone  how to make peace. My remarks today, therefore, come from a moral and spiritual perspective.
We also have our own reason to exhibit rage at the terrorist acts perpetrated against Jews around the world this past year. We struggle ourselves with the anger and fear that Jews are not safe in the world and it is understandable that we feel that sense of outrage rising  to the surface of our emotions  when  terrorists in France murdered a rabbi and two children at a Jewish day school in Lyon, France. We too fill up with unbridled anger when terrorists murder Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Are we not justified in accusing Arabs and Muslims for desecrating Judaism for the crimes of murder? Should we have taken to the streets and created the same kind of mayhem, including death and destruction?
The ultimate tragedy is that Muslims and Jews both believe in one God and have sacred scriptures that adjure us to “seek peace and pursue it. Yes, we have a right to our rage and yet we still hold back and we fight for the moral high ground and restrain ourselves sometimes to our own detriment. We know what our religion teaches and we do not lose hopes that not only will justice be served but that there will be voices on the other side that will rise above the fray to stop the violence.
Judaism‘s tradition of atonement begins with the high priest, about whom we read in the afternoon services on Yom Kippur. It is recorded in the Mishnah that the first thing that the high priest did before beseeching God to forgive the nation was to admit his own transgressions and those of his family first and then perform the rituals of expiation of sin. In other words we cannot put ourselves above others as if we were morally superior. We are all capable of mistakes and missing the mark which is the meaning of the Hebrew root word for sin-Hatah.
The Talmud tells us that when we are trying to reach out to someone to make peace and they do not accept our conciliations (piusim), we are instructed to approach them three times before we are exempt from the duty to make teshuvah.
Furthermore, we learn from our sages that when someone is furious and consumed with anger that we leave them be and do not try to deal with them until their anger subsides. All of these points strive to teach us that we must exercise all our efforts to go above and beyond for the sake of peace. At the same time when a person is incapable of listening and stretching spiritually to meet us and we have exhausted all our energy to reach them and been unsuccessful we may defer to God to make the best judgment. As it is written in the Ethics of the Fathers,
“Everyone with whom the spirit of mankind is pleased, the spirit of God is pleased with him or her; and everyone with whom the spirit of mankind is not pleased the spirit of God is not pleased with him or her.” (3:13)
It is impossible to reconcile with people who are in a state of rage. We see this today with the protestors throughout the world who shout slogans against America and Israel. There is not much more we can do right now except to watch with sadness and anger until their rage subsides. Many of us have expressed to me the same viewpoint that it is time for America to stand strong and do what it takes to pursue and destroy these radicals in the streets of so many capitals in the world. In a way we are facing an adversary who refuses to accept efforts by our leaders to condemn this video before the Islamic world. Are we really convinced that an eye for an eye approach will solve the problem either?
If we listen to the rhetoric emerging from the protests they appear to have a common theme which reflects their expectations that America should eliminate this video and punish the Egyptian Copt who made it in the first place. There are even those demanding that he be put to death. Of course, it is hardly surprising that people who live in autocratic regimes, or who live in places where the pulse of the streets seems to impact government opinion and policy, are unable or unwilling to even grasp a culture where the law protects all kinds of speech-even hate speech.  It is probably futile to attempt to explain to someone who has never experienced democratic freedoms why Americans are willing to tolerate something that degrades and insults millions of people all over the world.  For them, such insults are whether intended or a reflection of the moral indifference of the West towards the feelings of Muslims, a legitimate reason to spew their own version of hate speech and violence throughout the world.
Unfortunately it is not so different when trying to make peace with someone who has completely different expectations about a disagreement and how to resolve it. For some there is not enough common ground to agree on what two parties supposedly disagree about. We can’t even discuss our differences in a rational way let alone contemplate the possibility that the parties can reach an understanding.
That is certainly the case where Islam interacts with the West, and with Israel in particular.  The point here is that we try to understand the one we hope to reconcile with. We may have deep disagreements but, nevertheless, we try to understand where the anger is coming from before we reach out to them. If we understand their anger, be it justified or not, then we might have a chance to communicate in a meaningful way. This situation regarding the video and the Prophet Mohammed reflects a deep gulf that separates Islam from the rest of the world. To my mind, the rage over the video is really an expression of anger at the West and its so-called surrogate Israel. It is an old story indicative of centuries of anger in the Muslim Arab world at the West.  If we all want to get beyond the blame culture and really understand what is going on then we need to spend the time to learn the history of the battle for the leadership of the world between the Arab nations and the rest of the world.
This situation reminds me of the person who is so consumed in their own anger and rage that they cannot even imagine or contemplate how to get beyond their anger in order to find a solution to the problem. Too many centuries have gone by where Muslims perceive their history as a series of humiliations at the hands of Western societies. Remember the Arabs in particular spent the last four hundred years under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Then came the British in the 19th century and afterwards the state of Israel alongside the new American empire that currently leads the world. From the Arab perspective especially their modern history is about being subjected to one humiliation after the other and with the Jews and the Americans as the most recent  so-called imperialists in a long line of leaders who they believe want to insult and demean the core identity (the Prophet Mohammed) of the Arab peoples. What is so sad and tragic is that they never seem to engage in sufficient introspection as to how they may have contributed to this history or how they can make a new future for themselves.
This outbreak of protest is less about a pathetic video that we all condemn but is likened to the person who is so caught up in their anger that they are unable to reason with anyone anymore. It is like they are falling in a downward spiral with no way of stopping. Words do not get through and rage takes over. It is next to impossible to reach a person let alone an entire civilization of people who succumb to that kind of rage.
 Yet there are moments especially recent events where, in fact, at least some sane voices have stood against the tide of irrational hatred.  Even in spiritual matters an example stands out. One is the most senior Muslim cleric in Egypt, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa is reported by CNN as saying that conflict is not the answer. “We live together and we must respect our neighbors. “These cartoons (in the trailer video),” he continued, “spread hatred and we call for peace.” He added, “Islamic leaders “fear the spread of hatred against their religion and oppose the mocking of any religion.” He urged an end to the cycle of different groups attacking each other.    Now all I ask for is that his ecumenical sentiments be extended to the Jews the next time there is an attack against the Jewish people.  Some will be thinking “fat chance rabbi.” You may be right but it is our duty to hold out the hope that people like the Mufti can see the light.  Some will say I am na├»ve but I say Judaism teaches that we never give up on the possibilities for peace. To do that is to give our adversaries the greatest moral victory they seek from us.
Far be it from us to condemn the right of people to protest. But we must condemn the Muslim rioters from taking human life and destroying property and dividing peoples within a nation. There can be no justification for what happened to our diplomat and staff at the American consulate in Benghazi. We should denounce these people in the strongest terms. I only wish, as I wrote in my recent newspaper column, that they should be as outraged and ready to protest at the gates of Baashar al-Assad in Syria for murdering 20,000 citizens of his own country. It seems to me that his is where the rage should be channeled.
But blaming the West and Israel for everything that the Arabs resent does not get them anywhere and only perpetuates their cycle of rage without resolution to the problems between nations. Yom Kippur is about coping with people who do not think like we do. It is hard to make peace with someone that is angry but we are challenged by our own sacred writings to not give in to cynicism lest we imitate the actions of our adversaries. Our role is, as stated in the Ethics of the Fathers, to “Be of the disciples of Aaron, pursuing peace, loving humanity and bringing people closer to Torah.”
Remember the words of the book of Proverbs where in the search for wisdom we find the blessings of a righteous life even when it is impossible to make peace with an adversary. The Arabs use the term jihad, to originally refer to a great spiritual struggle and yet its application in real terms often leads to violence and perpetuates this longstanding and unresolved conflict. So be it then and let us declare our own jihad which refers to another kind of spiritual struggle which is to hold the moral high ground. Maybe Yom Kippur is also about spiritual and moral restraint as it is typically about changing the spiritual landscape. Proverbs summarizes it best.
“Do not sew seeds of evil or betray those who trust you.
Do not quarrel even with those who do not have your best interests at heart.
Do not envy the violent or imitate them
For one who strays from the path of peace turns away from all this is holy o
Only the upright are intimate with God.
The houses of the wicked are condemned, but the homes of the just are blessed.
Do not underestimate the power of association.
Align yourself with scoffers and you will scoff,
Practice humility and you will be appreciated.
The wise merit honor, the legacy of the fool is disgrace.” 3:27-35

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