I will start with a story that many of you may already know.
The two great luminaries of the late first century BCE Jewish world were Hillel and Shammai. One day a non-Jew came to Shammai and said, “If you will teach me all of Torah while I stand on one foot, I will become a Jew.” Shemmai, who was working on a project at the time, took the ruler he had in his hand and pushed the man away.
The man then went to Hillel and offered the same deal. Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary-go and learn it.” (Adapted from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
I do not want to understate the importance of the “go and learn it”, but my theme this evening is “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.”
When I was ten years old, a fifth grader, there was a boy in my class. I cannot remember his name and only vaguely remember what he looked like. In those days, things like cooties and similar stuff were taken seriously and, it was whispered, this boy had cooties and every manner of flaw. He was isolated and picked on mercilessly.
Looking back, I can see no reason for this singling out of one boy for mental cruelty and bullying. Perhaps he looked just a little odd or was quiet. I really have no idea. Yet the banter and gossip was enough that he gave me the willies. I had an actual physical reaction when I came near him in the form of queasiness- as if he really was some disgusting vessel of disease or plague.
I will admit that one time, I saw him walking home from school and I tried to play the bully myself. I wanted to be just like my friends and one of the guys. I felt bad when I tried my bit of shoving and teasing and horrible afterward. That afternoon, sitting at home, I decided that I would try to be nice instead of cruel. There was no moral or ethical theory in my 10 year old brain. Rather, there was a sense of wrongness in my child’s heart. I think the fact that I still feel some guilt over my attempt at cruelty tells you what an impression it made.
I kept to my resolution. I made it a point to always greet him and say hello and smile, even though I still had a physical desire to shy away from him. This happened in the spring of the year. I would like to think that I would have continued reaching out to him and we might have become friends. However, the next year, after a family move, I was at a new school and it was my turn to be the reviled outsider. I truly learned about “what is hateful to you, do not do to another.” I took some comfort, during my own experience, that I had already rejected the role of bully before I found myself in the role of victim.
My story tells us a little bit about the power of gossip, rumor, and innuendo. I had a physical reaction to that poor boy just because of listening to what was being said about him. The Talmud has much to say about gossip. It asks, “why is gossip like a three-pronged tongue? Because it kills three people: the person who says it, the person who listens to it, and the person about who it is said.” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b)
It is said that tana recited before R. Nahman ben Isaac: “A person who publicly shames his neighbor is like someone who has shed blood.”
To which R. Nahman answered, “You have spoken well. I have seen that when someone is shamed, the color leaves his face and he becomes pale.”
Abbaye asked R. Dimi, “What do people in Palestine most carefully avoid?”
He answered, “Putting others to shame.”
The text later goes on to state, “It would be better for a man to throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbor to shame.” (Babylonian Talmud Bava Mezia 58b-59a)
It is well to think, concerning gossip or spreading tales about others, “how would I feel if people were speaking of me this way?”
What is hateful to you, do not do to another.
We have seen in the story from my childhood how rumor and shaming made one innocent boy’s life a misery and how such rumors poison those who listen and those who tell. Who among us has not read numerous stories in the news of young people driven by cruel words to suicide? How many of us have heard of those whose reputations and lives were destroyed by whispers or even bold assertions of lies, half truth, maliciously interpreted truth? We see it every day on so called news shows. The venomous tongue of the oft repeated accusation, even it is merely to say, it was reported in thus and such source that so and so….
Do we have a responsibility to speak out against gossip, public shaming, and innuendo? In the Perkei Avot, R. Eliezer says, “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own.” (Avot 2:15) This is explained in the Fathers according to R. Nathan (chap. 15), “How so? This teaches that even as one looks out for his own honor, so should he look out for his fellow’s honor. And even as no man wishes that his own honor be held in ill repute, so should he wish that the honor of his fellow not be held in ill repute.”
Thus, we must try to protect the reputations of others. Indeed, even if they are different from us. A favorite saying of the rabbis of Yavneh was:
I am a creature of G-D and my neighbor is also a creature of G-D.
I work in the city and he works in the country.
I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work.
Just as he cannot excel at my work, I cannot excel at his work.
Will you say that I do great things and he does small things?
We have learned it does not matter if a person does much or little, as long as he directs his heart to heaven. (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 17a)
What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. Do not gossip about or shame him or her, defend his or her honor, and respect your fellow, even if he or she is quite different from you.
Now what has been said about individuals can be said about groups of people.
Consider how we Jews have been treated over the years. We were spoken about as the source of all the world’s troubles. It was said that we poisoned the wells, causing plague-even when we too were dying of plague. People knew we made our matzah with the blood of Christian children, even when Bishops proclaimed it ridiculous because Jews did not eat blood of any kind. Later we were somehow both the nexus of predatory capitalism and the spreader of world communism, even when banks owned by Jews were rare and the leaders of Communist countries espoused antisemitism. We were and are accused of controlling the media when our influence is limited.
No matter what facts or counter arguments were brought to bare, truth could not batter down the oft repeated lies of gossip and hate mongering. Even in our own republic, until fairly recently, we were denied our rights because of this ill will and ill repute generated of years of lies and ignorance.
The historian Jonathan Sarna reports that it took an act of the legislature of the State of Connecticut to get permission to build a synagogue in New Haven in 1843. There was outrage among some in the Christian community. The New Haven Register editorialized: “The Jews have outflanked us here, and effected a footing in the very centre of of our own fortress. Strange as it may sound, it is nevertheless true that a Jewish synagogue has been established in this city-and their place of worship was dedicated on Friday afternoon. Yale College divinity deserves a Court-martial for bad generalship.”
The same story was repeated in Washington D.C. Where the congress had to intervene to allow the construction of a Synagogue in 1856. Later, once attempts to ban the building of synagogues on the overt basis of them being Jewish institutions became unacceptable, other reasons were brought forward, from issues of traffic to the fact that synagogues would attract rats. Dr. Sarna reports such arguments being made as late as 1999 in New Rochelle, NY. Fortunately, as the acts of various zoning boards and legislatures have shown, our Christian fellow citizens followed the version of Hillel’s dictum propagated by Jesus of Nazareth, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Mat. 7:12) and granted us the right to build houses of worship just as they cherished the right to do the same.
Even the issue of respect and sensitivity was raised against Jewish worship. After the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, several Protestant chaplains felt that it was inappropriate for a rabbi to take part in an interfaith service and pray over Christian dead. In the end, three separate ceremonies were held, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Some of the Protestant clergy held fast to the teaching of Jesus and, in protest, attended the service conducted by Marine Chaplain Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn rather than the Protestant service. Here is part of what Rabbi Gittelsohn said.
We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, negroes and whites, rich men and poor–together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.
Any man among us the living who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts up his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the rights of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them here have paid the price.
What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.
We have been told that there is a certain people scattered about and dispersed among the peoples in all the states of the Republic; and their laws are different from those of our country therefore it is not good for the country to suffer them. I am speaking, of course, of Muslims. We are told they are all alike. Any moderation coming out the Muslim community is a ruse, any evidence of good citizenship is a trick. And the gossip and innuendo take their toll. We are given quotes out of context and separated from their interpretive tradition; we are told that Osama bin Laden is right and that the version of Islam he espouses is the only true Islam; is Islam. And like children told repeatedly that he has cooties or she is stinky, we shudder in revulsion and fear.
What is hateful to you, do not do to another.
I do not doubt that there are those who have an honest emotional upset at the Park51 project, yet there were certainly Christians who had a problem with a rabbi praying over their battle dead. Yet the hysteria that has arisen over this barely started and unfunded project has spread to other states and cities where the argument of the sacredness of downtown Manhattan cannot be raised. There have been acts of violence against individuals and acts of vandalism against building sites. Is Murfreesboro, TN so sacred that a Muslim community center and mosque cannot be built there?
I am heart sick for America. Where is the toleration and respect for the individual of George Washington, who said in his instructions for hiring men to work at Mount Vernon, “If they are good workmen, be they of Assia [sic], Africa, or Europe. If they may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or a Christian of any sect or they may be Atheists”?
We are bigger than this, both as Americans and Jews. How we have let winged rumor fly carrying the three-pronged poison tongue of gossip and slander. How we have let fear overtake our ideals and better selves to cause outrage over a community center and house of prayer to boil over into rage and hatred.
What is hateful to you, do not do to another.
We do not have to look back very far in time to when we were the ones whose religion was incompatible with democracy and freedom. When we were the ones whose conspiracies threatened freedom and well being. When we were the ones who, in putting our synagogues in proximity to Christian sites, were being insensitive and selfish. Oh, well I know that few, if any, reputable commentators say that the Park51 project should be stopped on legal grounds. Instead, they say, in all sincerity that it is a question of sensitivity. Yes, following the unspoken subtext that all Islam is alike and this community center and mosque is victory mosque rather than the next natural step of a growing Muslim community whose children have lost their lives in service to the Republic.
Let us not forget that we are required to defend the reputation of our fellow. We are not allowed to be silent.
I beg you this evening, as we enter the days of awe, look into your heart. Be it regarding another individual, a small group of people or a large group of people, whether you need consider your words or your action, or your silence or your inaction, think how you would feel in the other’s place. Remember history, the history of our people and of our nation. Remember the ideals of Judaism and the founding fathers. And always, always remember:
What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary-go and learn it.
A sermon for Rosh HaShanah Eve 2010, September 8, 2010, Erev 1 Tishri, 5771, by Rabbi Seth F. Oppenheimer