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Retrieving the Scepter

By Rabbi Rafi Rank

The passivity that has historically characterized the Jewish people is certainly a design of the rabbis who were traumatized by the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the debacle of the Bar Kochba Rebellion (135 CE). Faced with a pagan regime that was unsympathetic to Jewish ideology or autonomy, Judaism had to be recreated for a temple-less and state-less people. The rabbinic plan included a turn to passivity and a rejection of militarism. The theory seemed to be that as long as we posed no threat to the ruling powers, we would diminish the chance of our being militarily decimated. The plan worked and we're alive today to prove it.

Our inclination to lay low and never rock the boat probably kept Jews from committing sundry horrors which Christians, wielding unchecked political and religious authority, easily perpetrated. More importantly, the rabbis transformed Judaism into a portable religion independent of a temple or specific land. They nurtured within the people that love of knowledge and decency that made us valuable assets to many a Medieval regime. But passivity had its limitations, and the Medieval period proved that landless, unarmed people live without security, forever at the mercy of the ruling powers. We were exiled repeatedly, our property stolen, our loans went unpaid by powerful debtors that permitted us no recourse to courts, our women were raped, our leaders kidnapped, either ransomed for huge sums or murdered. The Shoah (Holocaust) was not a creation ex nihilo. It was the bottom of a moral pit, a pit that a hateful populace had been digging deeper and deeper for some 2000 years, bottoming out in the death camps of Twentieth Century Poland.

It is very difficult to change others. It is difficult enough to change ourselves. But in order to take control of the Jew hatred we so often face, it is we Jews who need to change. We need to assume a certain amount of responsibility for the existence of Jew-hatred. People hate us with immunity. This must stop. We must respond to Jew hatred in such a way that people will think twice before acting against us. But will we, as Jews, be able to do this and yet remain true to our sacred texts and heritage? I believe that the answer is yes.

Leviticus 19:18 is a section of the Torah that prohibits vengeance or bearing a grudge. These are sacred mitzvot that we must observe. But responding with strength to hatred is not about vengeance. Our response to hatred is not about getting even. It is about exposing the fundamentally undemocratic, racist, and anti-western orientation of modern day anti-semitism. We must attack--verbally, financially, and legally--those social forces that would not only hurt Jews, but undermine the democratic society that has done so much for Jews and all other peoples. This is not about vengeance which is small mindedness and pettiness. This is about justice. Pursuing justice is mandated. Jews must do something today which historically we have failed to do until it is too late-recognize who are enemies really are and act decisively.

Proverbs 15:1, is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Tanakh: "A gentle response allays wrath; a harsh word provokes anger." It is advice that works with people who may be angry, or hurt, or emotionally troubled, but who are fundamentally respectful and loving. As for people who hate your guts, a gentle response will only fan the flames of their hatred. In this week's parashah, Vayehi, Jacob addresses all of this children. And to Judah, the son after whom our people is named, he says: The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet; So that tribute shall come to him And the homage of people be his. (Genesis 49:10) When did we lose the scepter?

Rabbi Akiba was a great figure in rabbinic history. He understood what his colleagues were advising when they advised passivity. But he thought the world of Bar Kochba and supported that rebellion passionately. It was, in the end, an ill-fated move. The timing was wrong. The odds were against us. And yet he acted with resolve and power because Rabbi Akiba knew that such strong principles and convictions contradicted nothing in Judaism itself. The power we must wield is certainly not as dramatic as Akiba's rebellion, but we must act with decisiveness and resolve, self-esteem, strength, assertiveness, and power. We can no longer walk this world like nebishes. The time has come to retrieve the scepter.

Rafi Rank is Rabbi of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, NY as well as Vice President of the International Rabbinical Assembly

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