Senator Lieberman, the Golem, the Death of Jesus, and the Real Cause of Anti-Semitism

The nomination of Senator Joseph Lieberman for Vice-President was one of the most important moments in American Jewish history. For the New Haven Jewish community, it was an incredible moment. This is a man whom a lot of us know personally. We see him at the Kosher Deli. For those of us who have been his supporters for years when he ran for offices including Congress, Attorney General and then Senator, well, we were busting with pride and personal excitement. To state the obvious, the nomination of Lieberman was a fantastic shock because we did not think that it would ever happen to a Jewish person. At my family’s Friday night dinner table a few days before the announcement, the adults told the children that it would never happen. We were thinking about anti-Semitism. We were proud but we were worried.

Now some weeks have passed, and, for the most part, we’re feeling less worried. The nomination of Lieberman does not seem to have awakened the anti-Semitism that we feared. Is anti-Semitism out there? Is it right here in our community and our state? Don’t be misled: There’s plenty of hatred, plenty of ignorance. What we have learned is that, for right now at least, anti-Semitism in public is not fashionable. But don’t pretend that it’s not there: It is. If you ask my daughter Rachel, who works in Senator Lieberman’s office in Washington, how much hatred is pouring into that office, you’ll learn that none of this is smooth or easy.

Here we are on Rosh Hashanah, happy with ourselves, happy with life, full of pride. It is the time when our Jewishness is at the max, when we are full of pride in our religion and our people. And yet, there have been many moments in our lives when, to tell you the truth, being Jewish has been very difficult. Being different from the majority is hard enough. December is hard enough. But when you have been the victim of prejudice, or a cutting remark about your people or your religion, it gets to you in a way that you never really get over. Someone said something 50 years ago and it’s still there, gnawing at you.

I was raised in Maryland. My father was a rabbi so my Jewishness was not exactly a secret. My father’s synagogue was burned to the ground by anti-Semites. I grew up hearing things that make me shudder even today. I had pennies thrown at me.

Some place inside every Jewish heart is a question: “Why do people hate us?” Every time we hear of a madman shooting innocent people or of the waves of hate coming over the Internet, we wonder: “Why? What did we do to deserve this?”

I’d like to speak today about one theory concerning anti-Semitism. There are many theories about anti-Semitism and many reasons for it. I’m giving a course this fall in the Midrasha Institute about these issues. Today I just want to talk about one theory, a theory you probably haven’t heard before. I’ll get into it in my own roundabout way.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about Judaism and magic. Of all of the stories about Jewish magic, the most famous is that of the Golem. The Golem was a kind of Frankenstein monster, created by Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, a great scholar and leader of his community. By harnessing the power of the Name of G-d, Rabbi Loew was able to create a kind of living robot who would do important errands for him. The Golem could not speak but it could follow orders.

We are speaking of the Jewish community of Prague in the sixteenth century. The Jewish people were always at the mercy of their anti-Semitic neighbors. The Golem was a kind of Jewish Columbo, who acted as a detective to figure out what was really going on.

On Erev Pesach, on the Eve of Passover 1584, Rabbi Loew was chanting the prayers and he made a mistake. Instead of saying that G-d changes the seasons, “umachalif et hazmanim,” Rabbi Loew said that G-d “sours the seasons”, “umachamitz et hazmanim.” Now you or I might make such a mistake, but Rabbi Loew didn’t make such mistakes. What frightened him was the ill omen that seemed to be involved. He assumed that G-d had made him make this mistake. He figured that there must be a hint in the fact that he said umachameetz, to make the seasons hametz, leavened, soured. There seemed to be a connection to chametz and to matzah. He told everyone to stop praying immediately, and sent the Golem to his house to get two different matzahs, a regular piece and a piece of Shemurah Matzah, special matzah used at the Seder. The Golem came back with the two matzahs, and Rabbi Loew told him to taste them. The first piece was fine, but the shemurah matzah made the Golem deathly pale and full of pain. The matzah had been poisoned.

The anti-Semites of Prague were full of glee: “Look at these stupid Jews,” they said, “They poison each other at their holy festival meal.”

Rabbi Loew decreed that no one should eat any matzah made in Prague, that it was chametz, because he was so worried that most of the matzah was poison. He then did an investigation and found out that on the last day of baking, two non-Jewish men, called Redbeards, had been hired to help bake. Rabbi Loew sent the Golem to the house of the Redbeards to look for any suspicious vials of liquid or packages of powder. The Golem was back in an instant, with a box of powder that had the same odor as that of the poisoned matzah. Rabbi Loew had the Golem return the box of powder to the Redbeards’ place. He then went to the police. When the police interrogated the Redbeards, they explained that a certain monk had told them to do it. The monk wanted the Jewish people to stop observing their religion by making the matzah poison. He wanted to make it seem that Pesach was a holiday of death. He wanted to connect all this to the accusation that the Jews had killed Jesus on Passover; now they would be punished by dying from poisoned matzah on the same holiday.

This anti-Semite wanted to accuse the Jewish people of a terrible thing that he had done. He had poisoned the matzah. But G-d made Rabbi Loew make the mistake, and gave the community the Golem, so that they would not suffer and so that the accusations of the anti-Semites would be demonstrated to be false.

I have always thought of the Golem as a quaint subject of magical stories. Now I understand the deeper meaning of these stories. Just as we love superheroes like Superman who have the power to save us, so the Golem was a mythical creature who, in our fantasies, saved us from the injustice of anti-Semites.

But notice something else, and this is crucial: The Golem shows that the crimes committed are not committed by the Jewish people who will suffer for the crimes but by the anti-Semites themselves.

This fits perfectly with the theory of Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel in Holland in 1656 who said that people who hate Jewish people notice something about themselves and then project it onto the Jewish people. This psychological theory of projection, centuries before Freud, is a fascinating explanation of what anti-Semitism is.

Anti-Semitic accusations are about crimes that the Anti-Semites did.

The world’s evils, the evils of the non-Jewish world, are made into Jewish evils.

Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah, I gave a sermon about the movie Shine. I pointed out that this popular and seemingly harmless movie about a young piano prodigy was actually astonishingly anti-Semitic, turning the father of the prodigy into a concentration camp victim, which he was not, and then into a kind of Nazi who preyed on his innocent son. It was saying: “You see, don’t have so much sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust; they’re as bad as the Nazis.”

My point, especially to all of the nice people who saw the movie and missed what was going on, was that we must see anti-Semitism in its subtle forms. We need to see how anti-Semitism even creeps into our own thoughts and expressions.

Today I am trying to explain that not only is this true, but that we can learn historically where the lies come from. If we can understand where the lies come from, we can defend ourselves against anti-Semitism in a very different way. We can stop being defensive, we must stop half-believing the lies.

They took our money, and said that we stole other’s money. Look at history and see how one nation after another would bring the Jews in, allow them to prosper, and then take their money and throw them out. They took our money, and accused us of being moneygrubbers. And they still do.

They sold slaves, and called us the slave traders. On a local campus, here in New Haven, this lie of saying that Jews were the principal slave traders has been perpetrated. But do you know what? There were a lot more black slave traders of black slaves than there ever were Jewish slave traders. There are black slave traders to this very day.

One of the most important stories in the history of anti-Semitism is that of Alfred Dreyfus. Around a hundred years ago in France, this Jewish officer was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. He was innocent, but in the most celebrated case of its time, Dreyfus was found guilty, stripped of his military rank in a horrific public humiliation, sent to Devil’s Island, to torture and inhuman cruelty, all for something he didn’t do. But somebody did do the spying. Guess who? One of the accusers. The real spy was a man who had received money from the Jewish financier Rothschild, needed more money, got it by spying against France for the Germans, but then was instrumental in framing Dreyfus for the crime that he had committed.

Watching the horrible scene of Dreyfus’ public humiliation was a Viennese journalist named Theodore Herzl. Herzl had been only nominally Jewish before this event. But Herzl became the father of modern Zionism because he realized that without a state of their own, the Jewish people would always be at the mercy of lies and hatred.

Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel’s theory that anti-Semites accuse Jewish people of their own crimes has been utilized by a modern scholar named James Shapiro, first in a book about Shakespeare and the Jews and now in a new book about the German passion play. This horrible play, though somewhat modified today, is about the killing of Jesus by the Jewish people.

Of all the stories, of all the accusations, of all the reasons for anti-Semitism, it is the accusation that the Jewish people killed Jesus that has been the most destructive. So let’s talk about it.

After researching this issue for years, after digging into every primary source and after reading the best modern scholarship on the subject, I have come to a strong and positive conclusion:

The anti-Semites turned a story about a Jewish man who was killed by non-Jews into a story about a non-Jewish man who was killed by the Jewish people.

The Romans were the only people in Judea who could execute anyone. No Jewish person could execute anyone. In fact, it would have been a capital crime for a Jewish person to do so.

Early Christianity, trying to spread in the Roman Empire, did not want to blame the Romans for the death of their savior. While trying to convert the Romans, it just wouldn’t do to blame them for the death of Jesus. But the death of Jesus was a key part of the story. You have to blame someone. Who do you blame? There’s only one other candidate: The Jewish people. Never mind that they couldn’t have done it. Never mind that in your own story all of the masses of Jewish people loved Jesus. Blame it on the Jews. And while you’re at it, turn Jesus into an Aryan hero who really wasn’t Jewish at all.

And while you’re at it, make up a character named Judas. Make him up out of whole cloth to represent the Judeans. Get it: Judas-Judea-Judaism. But where will we get the story about Judas? I know: Look in the Bible in the story of David. David, after all, is the ancestor of the Messiah. Now let’s see here, when there was a revolution against King David, one of his advisers went to the other side; he betrayed his king. If you follow the story of this adviser who sold out, detail by detail, you will find that the story of Judas was plagiarized from that earlier story. It was made up.

I’ll say it again: The execution of a Jewish man by non-Jews was turned into a story about a non-Jewish man who was killed by the Jews.

That’s the formula: Blame us for what they did!

In understanding anti-Semitism, we must be like the Golem, detectives for the Jewish people, trying to understand where the false accusations come from.

Be proud of your Jewishness.

And if anyone says that the Jews killed Jesus, or that Jews are moneygrubbers, or any other such canard, be prepared with the facts. You learn more about the accuser than the accused.

A personal story. The week of the Democratic convention, I was on vacation with my family in Virginia. We were down there because our son Danny was participating in the Maccabi games. The Maccabi games are the third biggest sports event in the world, next to the Olympics and the Pan-American games. The participants are thousands of Jewish teenagers from around the world.

So here I am, in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, at VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University, and I’m out of place and frankly I’m bored by the speeches and welcomes. But then at a certain point, the lights go out and the spotlight is on one large delegation of young Jewish athletes after another. There’s one from Great Britain and one from Michigan and one from Venezuela and one from Canada. And each delegation in its own distinct outfit walks in, carrying a banner, yelping and dancing. I don’t even know it, but the tears are streaming down my face. All of the centuries of hatred and persecution and ghettos and concentration camps and we’re still here and we’re young and proud and free. And then just in case I don’t get it, here come the athletes from the State of Israel. And I’m so moved that I can hardly breathe. I look at Dorene, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, who’s crying and cheering at the same time. And then here’s the group from Connecticut, and in the middle is my son Danny, gabbing with a girl. He could be at a party for all he knows. I’m weeping and he’s flirting. And then I realize that that’s just perfect, because to him, anti-Semitism is part of history. Thank G-d, he didn’t go through what I went through, or G-d forbid what his maternal grandparents from Europe went through. He never had pennies thrown at him. Instead, he’s a Maccabi athlete, one of five thousand, and all of them collected pennies, 600,000 pennies, to give to disabled kids. And all of this is happening in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.

Later that night we went to a motel and I watched a nice Jewish boy being nominated for Vice President of the United States.

And I realized why the anti-Semites will lose. They will lose because they were never right about us to begin with. The horrible accusations they made about us were really about themselves, and evil, in the end, will always self-destruct.

Whenever people spread evil gossip, or make up accusations out of whole cloth, think about it: They are revealing more about their own lurid imaginations than about anyone or anything else. They are projecting.

We Jewish people, for all we’ve been through, will prevail.

And if there were ever a time for us to be confident, the time is now. But that does not mean that we should pretend that hatred is gone. What I’ve tried to do today is to make you think about where the hatred comes from. It comes from ignorance, and prejudice, but mostly it comes from the imaginations of people who are revealing their own evil by their crazy accusations about the Jewish people. That’s what the investigations of the Golem showed.

They poisoned the matzah and then said that we did.

We didn’t kill Jesus; he was a Jewish man who was a threat to the non-Jewish Romans.

Dreyfus wasn’t a German spy; one of his accusers was.

We are the Jewish people. We have survived for thousands of years, through all of the genocide and persecution, because we knew that the haters and killers were wrong about us.

So when someone in your workplace says that the Jews killed Jesus, don’t let it go. Answer from knowledge.

If someone makes a crack about the Jews and money, or even a so-called compliment about Jews and money, don’t let it go.

Whether or not Joe Lieberman becomes Vice President, we have a right to be proud and thrilled. And we should learn the lesson that ultimately, truly being Jewish can earn the respect of others. Being observant does not have to be a handicap. We don’t have to hide it. People respect a person who follows his or her religion. But you have to be consistent about it. You can’t pull out your Jewishness when you want a day off. You have to be consistent.

So here we are on Rosh Hashanah 5761, proud to be Jewish.

We read on Rosh Hashanah about Isaac, Yitzhak, he who laughs. We have a right to feel joy, to feel triumph. Those who laugh last, laugh best.

To all of the anti-Semites who ever filled our lives with their hatred, we can say, “We’re still here, and, thank you very much, we’re doing very well indeed.”
Rabbi’s Past Messages

Rosh Hashana 5761