Politics in places of worship?

Recently I was invited to give a sermon at the Friday evening service in one of our synagogues. Because of the coincidence that this year the dates of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) falls together with the US commemoration of Veterans Day, it is I, a Holocaust survivor, who was honored by the invitation to share my thoughts on these two important anniversaries.

Before I go any further, let me briefly recall to you the content of these two special anniversaries.

Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass was a pogrom on Nov. 9-10, 1938 against the Jews throughout Nazi Germany. The Nazis, more particularly the Nazi paramilitary organization SA, also called the Storm Troopers or Brown Shirts, torched over 1,000 synagogues, vandalized and looted Jewish homes, schools and 7,500 Jewish businesses, killed 71 Jews and arrested some 30,000 Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps. The name Kristallnacht or in English, Night of Broken Glass, refers to the litter of broken glass left in the streets after these pogroms.

The pretext for the violence was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jewish student. Grynszpan engaged in the murder as a retribution for the Nazi deportation of Polish Jewish residents in Germany to a no-man’s land at the border of Germany and Poland where the Jews were unceremoniously dumped. Grynszpan’s parents were among the group and so, understandably, he was very upset and worried.

German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, having consulted with Hitler on how the assassination could be antisemitically exploited, urged a group of SA during a large SA rally to engage in violent reprisals against the German Jewish population. The pogroms were to appear as spontaneous antisemitic demonstrations by the German population.

This violence was the overture to subsequent governmental bureaucratic anti-Jewish steps leading to the Wannsee Conference in 1942 and the decision taken there to end the so-called Judenfrage or “Jewish Question” by means of “the Final Solution,” i.e., the Holocaust or the systematic murder of the Jews of Germany and its occupied countries.

Veterans Day, to be commemorated and celebrated on the 11th of November, is an official United States public holiday, observed annually, that honors military veterans, that is persons who served in the United States Armed Forces, living and dead.

This said, I personally feel deeply indebted especially to those American veterans who fought in World War II. While I was liberated by Soviet Russian forces, who along with Great Britain, were our allies in that war, I am deeply grateful to all the allied forces who defeated the Nazis and liberated us, concentration camp prisoners, whose days were numbered. We survivors too, would have been murdered had it not been for these brave Allied soldiers who gave their all to defeat the Nazi enemy.

These are the facts which speak for themselves. Anyone interested to go deeper into these two anniversaries and their meaning can easily do so by going to an encyclopedia. In such a reference book the two “items” will be mentioned separately and in more detail. But there will be no discussion to be found there with regard to how the two relate to each other. That is left for me to do in the evening sermon I was invited to give.

Why, to begin with, should a relationship between Kristallnacht and Veterans Day be explored eight decades after their occurrence? Academic interest in history? Sure. Why not? Should we not continually enlarge our knowledge and understanding of the past? In this particular case, given the particularity of our situation in present-day America,, a reflection about the clash of the two worldviews that Kristallnacht, on the one hand, and Veterans Day, on the other hand, represent, is particularly relevant. The two political orientations as they existed in those years, stood in crass opposition to each other: Germany with its ideology of Nazism and the USA with its rooted tradition in democracy.

This is not the place for me to elaborate on the two opposing worldviews. What I want to deal with here is the question whether it is appropriate to discuss the politics inherent in this clash in a synagogue. In short, should a visiting speaker on erev shabbat in a place of worship, in a sermon, deal with politics? The question I am raising here is particularly relevant in these days because of the tensions existing between the two major political parties in our land and the probability that in my audience there will be both Republicans and Democrats, some of whom may feel insulted by the comparisons I plan to make between then and now.

I was pastor of a church in D.C. during the Watergate scandal, geographically located four or five blocks from the White House, Mr. Nixon’s residence. During many a sermon I saw people get up and walk out in protest of what I said. Should I risk the same kind of a scenario as a guest speaker in a synagogue?

How can a Jewish Holocaust survivor remain silent after Charlottesville? And how can I claim the name “Jew” for myself having personally experienced the excruciating pain of being forcibly separated from my parents as an innocent fifteen year old boy and have nothing to say about the equally innocent migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border? Yes, these are polarizing times we live, yet distinctions must be made between good and bad, decent and indecent, righteous and dishonest. Whether we like it or not, to be a “good person” was then, in Hitler times, and continues to be today, connected to one’s political orientation.

As an immigrant to America, fleeing Communism, I came to this country because I knew it was a great country. I love this country and I am eternally grateful for what this country has given me. But when I hear Mr. Trump and his followers shout “Make America Great Again” and know that what is meant is really “Make White America Great Again,” I shudder at the transparency of this mantra that points to racism, fascism and the resulting perversion of democracy.

I remember well the person sitting in our synagogue good many years ago who, whenever the rabbi made the slightest allusion to politics, shouted “No politics from the pulpit!”

How wrong he was! The Bible and particularly the great biblical prophets never hesitated reminding their kings of having neglected righteous behavior, going so far as to jeopardize their very lives.

There is no escaping “the political.” To refuse speaking out against lies, especially in the context of a place of worship, is cowardice.

To refuse to take a political stance is to take a political stance.

I have been inspired by a book, lent to me by a Christian friend. The book’s author is Audre Lorde, a black poet, feminist writer, political activist and New York State’s Poet Laureate from 1991 to 1993. I quote from her book Sister Outsider, (p. 43), “But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive , by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.

And it is never without fear – of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective.”

And so I repeat: to refuse to take a political stance publicly is to take a political stance.

Ergo: I will not remain silent as to where I stand politically and will ask the folks before me to join me.

Crime and Punishment, PART II.

In juxtaposing Kristallnacht, the epitome of evil and Veteran’s Day, the celebration of those who served in the US Armed Forces, we encounter a prime example of a clash between evil and goodness, the latter in form of human heroism and ultimate sacrifice in an effort to defeat evil.

Why the existence of evil? A perennial question, asked from the very beginning of civilization.

In my search for an explanation for the existence and persistence of evil three books helped me immensely toward an understanding of this phenomenon. Needless to say, my present comprehension is far from completely satisfying given the complexity of the problem.

Here are the titles of these helpful books in my quest to understand: James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide, Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler.

Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk and poet, labeling the Nazi killers as insane, allows us to believe that normal people, people like you and I, could never commit crimes like the Nazis did. Merton’s way of thinking might make us feel comfortable because it puts distance between those murderers and us. It suggests that you and I could never sink as low as the Nazi German murderers did.

But couldn’t we really? Aren’t also we vulnerable to thinking and doing evil? Is not our DNA the same as that of those Nazi antisemitic war criminals? A frightening thought indeed… So where does evil come from?

Let us begin with a brief look at the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 45:7 we read:

“I form light and create darkness, I make shalom (peace/wholeness) and I create ra (evil). I am the LORD, who do all these things.”

Theologians have done mental somersaults to make this statement defensible and acceptable. I have never considered their effort sufficiently persuasive. When one realizes, however, that ancient Israel’s prophets radically departed from the multiple Middle Eastern religions’ dualistic theologies to come up with and follow monotheism, it became necessary to give credence to the existence of a single god only rather than to two or more competitive gods, and thus to the belief that this single god had created the universe and all that it contains, and so also the realities of good and evil. This explains Isaiah’s statement concerning the origins of good and evil.

The talmudic sages, in their post-biblical teaching, suggest that in each baby born there exists an equal amount of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, an equal inclination toward good and toward evil. These sages knew that good and evil are not just acquired through life experiences but that we humans have an INNATE capacity for the good and for the bad. They taught that while the inclinations are in balance at birth, each person during her/his life must choose between nourishing or suppressing one or the other.

Both the rabbinic and the Christian church teachings, the latter explaining the existence of evil as original sin inherited via genetic continuity from Adam and Eve and their alleged first sinful act in the Garden of Eden, a teaching categorically rejected by Judaism, do have in common the belief that there is, in fact, a dark side to our human psyche.

Experiments at Yale University’s so-called Baby Lab, dealing with the phenomena of early childhood predispositions have demonstrated that babies not yet able to verbalize recognized and reached for a puppet showing kind behavior over a puppet exhibiting mean behavior. Experiments with older children suggested that when a wholesome socialization process had taken place, the children developed a healthy sense of altruism.

The good news is that our attitudes and dispositions are influenceable. We are not fatalistically determined. We are able to reorient ourselves depending on the quality of the influences we are exposed to. Let us reiterate here that inclination or predisposition must not be confused with irreversible fate. All that we have learned is that we all are capable of being good or becoming perpetrators of evil.

Primo Levi, brilliant author, keen observer of concentration camp life and survivor of Auschwitz writes:

“They (the guards) were made of the same cloth as we, they were average human beings averagely intelligent, averagely wicked. Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces.”

Having been there myself, I have no choice but to agree with Primo Levi.

We all, human beings that we are, are capable of doing evil things. This our capacity is an inherited one from the drive for survival of our ancestors – so-called hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene period (about 250,000 years ago) of development of homo sapiens.

Waller, one of the authors I mentioned above, sends the reader to the recently developed discipline of Evolutionary Psychology. He explains: Universal “reasoning circuits” drive our human behavior. These were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our ancestors. These circuits designed themselves in response to problems our ancestors faced, like detection of predators, decision making what is safe to eat, alliances for self-and tribal defense, selection of mates, etc. The development of these circuits took place gradually and experientially over very large periods of time. Waller suggests we think about this development as an unconscious process, something like a self-learning computer. This is not “intelligent design” that functions toward a predetermined goal and is driven in that direction by an intelligent mind or, say a deity.”

We should think of our brains as wired to deal with competition such as for instance competition for obtaining scarce resources like food. Competition of this kind led to conflict between individuals and groups. Collective defense became necessary.

This brings us to our human dark sides. We prefer kin to non-kin. Helping our kin by hurting our non-kin competitors can be advantageous. We all have needs and desires and so, to attain these, WE get into conflict with “them.”. It is “we” against “them.”

This is not to say that people are evil. This is merely to point out that we have acquired psychological mechanisms that make us CAPABLE of evil. When our reasoning circuits are activated by certain cultural, psychological and social triggers we can become evil.

What are some of these triggers?

Much depends on the society within which we live and that society’s world view. Societies hold world views which include presuppositions, intentions, meanings, rules, norms, values, principles, practices, etc. Societies hold core values which include judgments as to what is good and moral, evil, a-moral or immoral. Different societies provide us with a lens through which we look at our life and the lives that surround us. This lens enables us to make decisions for good or evil.

It is important to remember that cultural models do not dictate our human thought and behavior but can and do influence them.

Simplifying, it can be said that our American society values personal independence, freedom of choice, personal uniqueness and personal achievement. German Nazi society, on the other hand, focused on the group. In Fascism and Nazism the emphasis is on obedience, conformity, tradition, law and order. Here the group shapes the individual. Human identity is based on the group which defines itself as race, ethnicity, tribe, religion and nationality. Conflict arises when the self-definition of various groups produces in-groups which stand in tension with or oppose out-groups. It is again “we” against “them”.

The Nazis identified the Jews as the out-group that needed to be annihilated. The Jews’ cause was evil; the Nazis’ cause was sacred. Nazi Germany’s survival, Germans were taught, was dependent on the destruction of the Jewish race.

A rabbinic saying comes to mind: mitzvah goreret mitzvah ve-averah goreret averah – “A good deed leads to another good deed and a transgression leads to another transgression.”

When hatred of “the other,” i.e., the members of the out-group, is taught relentlessly from early age, lying and the doing of evil become what Hannah Arend in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem called “the banality of evil.” Lies and hatred become something that anchor themselves deep in the human psyche until brutality and murder become common activities. They become the “daily normal.” Euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing, evacuation, resettlement, final solution” and others become part of daily conversation and nothing evil is imputed to these terms which, in reality, are facades for murder.

The descent into the hell of evil is gradual. But once arrived there it is very hard to escape. The process of dehumanization as witnessed in history and also by myself in the Holocaust, and how such dehumanizing of perfectly normal innocent human beings can be achieved by means of psychological manipulation and coercion, has been demonstrated experimentally by the “Milgram’s Experiment” at Yale University and the “Stanford Prison Experiment” and others.

James Waller makes the point that evil persons are very often not the product of WHO they are but of WHERE they are. They come gradually under the influence of evil social forces and are pulled into their vortex. By participating in evil, evil embeds itself in their very being and takes over.

This recognition does not excuse the doing of extraordinary evil. Perpetrators cannot be absolved by the notion that others under similar conditions have done or would be doing the same. It has been documented that there were men and women during the Holocaust who refused to be killers and stopped participating in their units’ murderous activities. Perpetrators retain full moral and legal responsibility for the atrocities they commit.

How can we, as individuals and as a society, cultivate the sensibilities that will counteract the forces that lead to the commission of brutalities, dehumanizing,  genocide and mass killings?

I believe that honest education has humanizing effects. When proper education is internalized and applied, such education can be a powerful antidote to personal and collective inhumanity. Without being able to go into the details of what such an education entails, let me suggest that helping young people think critically is the most important element of such an education. Encouraging students to ask “why” is, in my opinion, the first step toward endowing them with the ability to distinguish truths from half-truths and downright lies, the latter being something we are being subjected to on a daily basis, these days.

In my opinion, the only way toward eliminating evil thought and evil actions depends on a serious rethinking of our educational process with emphasis on the absolute necessity of ethical behavior.

Crime and Punishment, PART I.

The commemoration of Crystal Night, (German, Kristallnacht), the night of November 9-10, 1938 with its anti-Jewish brutality continuing for a few additional days and this year’s Veterans Day, fall together on November 11. Because of this unusual coincidence of the anniversary of one of the darkest days in Jewish history and one of the most redeeming acts in that same slice of history coming together, let me invite you to reflect on both these historical events.

First, let me summarize what these two anniversaries commemorate. Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass was a pogrom against the Jews throughout Nazi Germany. The Nazis, more particularly the Nazi paramilitary organization SA, also called the Storm Troopers or Brown Shirts, torched over 1,000 synagogues, vandalized and looted Jewish homes, schools and 7,500 Jewish businesses, killed 71 Jews and arrested some 30,000 Jewish men. Because of this significant number of prisoners, the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen had to be expanded to accommodate them. The name Kristallnatch or in English, Night of Broken Glass, refers to the litter of broken glass left in the streets after these pogroms.

The pretext for the violence was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jewish student. Grynszpan engaged in the murder as a retribution for the Nazi deportation of Polish Jewish residents in Germany to a no-man’s land at the border of Germany and Poland where the Jews were unceremoniously dumped. Grynszpan’s parents were among the group and so, understandably, he was very upset and worried.

German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, having consulted with Hitler on how the assassination could be antisemitically exploited, urged a group of SA during a large SA rally to engage in violent reprisals against the German Jewish population. The pogroms were to appear as spontaneous antisemitic demonstrations by the German population.

It is no exaggeration to state that this anti-Jewish violence was the overture to subsequent governmental bureaucratic anti-Jewish steps leading to the Wannsee Conference in 1942 and the decision taken there to end the so-called Judenfrage or “Jewish Question” by means of “the Final Solution,” i.e., the Holocaust or the systematic murder of the Jews of Germany and its occupied countries.

Veterans Day, to be commemorated and celebrated on the 11th of November, is an official United States public holiday, observed annually, that honors military veterans, that is persons who served in the United States Armed Forces.

This said, I personally feel deeply indebted especially to those American veterans who fought in World War II. Statistics inform us that 16.5 million men and women served in the Armed Forces during WW II of whom 291,557 died in battle and 670,846 were wounded. While I was liberated by Soviet Russian forces who, along with Great Britain, were our allies in that war, I am deeply grateful to all the allied forces who defeated the Nazis and liberated us, concentration camp prisoners, whose days were numbered. We, too, would have been murdered had it not been for these brave Allied soldiers who gave their all to defeat the Nazi enemy.

By juxtaposing the two historical events, grieving over one and celebrating the other, we touch upon something much deeper that meets the eye – namely the problem of evil, a problem that to this very day has not been resolved.

Why does it exist? Who is its author? Why does it continue to persist? What can and should be done against it? Etc. While for me it would be either pure foolishness or the height of human hubris to claim to have the answers to this quandary, a sober reflection might help us make some sense of it all.

In Part II of this blog, soon to follow, I will try to throw some light on the origin and continued existence of evil both from a theological, anthropological and psychological viewpoint.

 


I would like to take this moment to include my next public speaking engagements, which you can also view here: https://walterziffer.com/schedule/

Thursday, November 8 – in the evening
Asheville’s AB-Tech College

Excerpts from my Holocaust experiences and comments.

Friday, November 9 – Shabbat evening service
Bet HaTephila Temple in Asheville

Talk/Sermon regarding Veterans Day and Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).