Paris! Hope in the Face of Terror

Dr. Daniel Havemann, The Probst of the Lutheran Church in Segeberg, standing with me in the Marien Cathedral after my sermon on November 15, 2015
Dr. Daniel Havemann, The Probst of the Lutheran Church in Segeberg, standing with me in the Marien Cathedral after my sermon on November 15, 2015

The Probst of the Lutheran Churches of Bad Segeberg, Dr. Daniel Havemann, has been incredibly gracious, kind and welcoming to Vickie and me. He invited me to preach the first sermon I delivered in Germany in 2014 in the historic Marien Cathedral in Bad Segeberg. This year he invited me to preach at the end of my visit. It is as though Dr Havemann’s friendship and authority created a protective and comforting bracket around our extended stays in Germany.

Our joy, of course, paled against the anger and sadness caused by the horrific attacks on Paris.

Pundits are telling us to accustom ourselves to this new reality of dozens of people mercilessly murdered by savage forces in the name of religion.

I refuse to do so.

Fittingly the text about which Dr. Havemann requested I preach—long before the Paris event—was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

No text could have been more fitting.

Our Rabbinic Sages probably could not have imagined the magnitude of the attack on Paris. They had no concept of mass coordinated assaults on innocent civilians in sports stadiums and theaters with sub machine guns and other weapons of mass destruction.

But because the Torah tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah were so wicked that The Eternal One destroyed them, our Sages’ fertile minds gave us graphic pictures of how depraved those societies were.

Three Midrashim

In Sodom visitors had one size bed. If the guest were too tall, they would lop of his legs at the point where he or she would fit. If the person was too short for the bed, they stretched him until he fit. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109B)

Another Midrash tells of one of Lot’s daughters who violated a law of the city against feeding the poor. In Sodom that was a capital crime, and Lot’s daughter cried out to the Eternal One to save her from the punishment of being burned alive for her offense. (Pike d’Rabbi Eliezer 25; Bereshit Rabbah 49:6)

There was also a law in Sodom against welcoming guests into one’s home. Of course, the Torah tells us that Lot violated this law by not only welcoming guests but also protecting them from the assault of an angry mob outside.

Lot’s wife, though, the Midrash teaches, wanted to betray her husband to the authorities of Sodom. She went to neighbors to borrow salt because, she said, her husband wanted to offer a tasty meal to her guests. That is the reason, the Midrash concludes, that Lot’s wife was eventually turned into a pillar of salt. (Bereshit Rabbah, 51:5; 50:4)

Yes, the depravity of Sodom parallels the depravity of those who attacked Paris. Anger and rage are appropriate responses, but despair is not.

Our tradition forbids us to abandon hope that things can be better. It is for that reason that Israel’s national anthem is called, “התקוה, Ha-Tikvah, The Hope.”

Another story (that I first heard from Ambassador David Saperstein when he spoke at the congregation I served, Temple Isaiah in Columbia MD in the late 70’s makes this point:

Once there was a man who travelled to Sodom every day asking the people there to repent their evil ways and to change. The scoffed at him and mocked him. But every day he would return with the same message of repentance.

When he returned home his wife and family chided him, “Why do you go down there day after day? Don’t you know those people will never change and become like you?”

“You may be right,” the man would answer. “Perhaps those people will never change and become like me. But I must go down there—day after day—so that God forbid, I do not become like them.”

And so

Even in the face of wickedness that defies description, we must never abandon hope.

We must continue to dream of and work—each in our own small ways–to bring nearer the day of which the prophets dreamed when:

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal One as the sea bed is covered by water. (Isaiah 11:9)

And all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees with none to make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

As I Travel to Germany: Elul Thoughts (III)

One of my most precious possessions is a copy of the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin printed in Munich in 1946 on presses once used for Nazi propaganda. A Talmud printed on an erstwhile Nazi printing press is a powerful symbol of our privilege to use our time, our talent and our material resources to help replant vibrant, progressive Jewish learning and living in the places where the Nazis tried to destroy them.

In this volume (page 40B) we find one of the most uplifting of rabbinic teachings whose message is particularly appropriate during the last month of the year, the month of Elul: Each of us should see ourselves as half innocent and half guilty, as though our good deeds and our bad deeds completely balance one another. If we then commit one good deed, we tip the scales in our favor!

What a marvelous metaphor! How wonderful a place would our world become if each of us went through life committed to making our next deed a good one.

My late and beloved Ulpan teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, used to say, “It is not just a gift for Jews that we created a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the forty-day period (starting at the beginning of the month of Elul) leading up to it. It is a gift for all humanity.

We each have talents and abilities, and our goal—particularly during the days of Elul–is to ask ourselves, “What particular talents and abilities do I posses? Am I using them only for my own enrichment or enjoyment? Or do I—and if not can I—find ways to use these gifts for the benefit of others.

As I head to Germany to spend time preceding and during the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and for several weeks thereafter speaking and teaching in synagogues and churches as well as the University of Potsdam School of Theology, it is with the hope that I may use my modest talents to spread knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Jewish ideals and thought in a place that once tried to extirpate the gene pool and practices of our people.

Like my prized Talmud tractate I was born in 1946. My late father, Leo Fuchs, was arrested on Kristallnacht in the city of Leipzig where he was born and grew up. I look forward with both trepidation and joyful anticipation to delivering the sermon at Leipzig’s annual Holocaust commemoration this year.

My presence there I hope will represent the message that the Munich Talmud conveys. In a place which once was ravaged by hatred and destruction, the reaffirmation of the vitality and goodness of Jewish thought are once again encouraged to flourish.




Why I am Going to Germany

In a recent meeting the head of Germany’s United Jewish Appeal, Nathan Norman Gelbart, said in his address that the German Jewish community is scared “because these are things that have not occurred since 1933.”

Random attacks on Jews and Jewish groups in Europe testify that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe as my wife Vickie and I prepare to embark September 14 on a ten-week stay in Germany to work in synagogues, schools, and Lutheran churches to promote greater understanding and mutual respect.

The emotional highlight of the visit will doubtless come on November 9 when I speak at the annual Kristallnacht—known in Germany as Pogromnacht—commemoration at the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the magnificent church where Martin Luther once preached and where Johann Sebastian Bach served as organist and choirmaster from 1723 until he died in 1750.

My father Leo Fuchs was arrested on Kristallnacht, an event that has both haunted and inspired me since I first learned about it in 1969. When my son, Leo Fuchs—a school principal named for my father–heard that I would speak there, he immediately made arrangements to fly to Leipzig from his home in San Francisco for the occasion. My cousin Irene is also coming from London.

This will be my third visit to the city where my father was born, grew up and where (as three sterling dishes that I treasure attest) he won citywide doubles championships in table tennis in 1929, 30 and 33, the year Hitler came to power.

My first two visits could not have been more different. In 1982 I was turned away at the East German border crossing, Oebisfelde, when I naively told the passport inspector that I was a rabbi on my way to Leipzig to visit the city of my father’s youth. Only after a day long detour Berlin where I reinvented myself as an art teacher eager to visit Leipzig’s famous museums did I receive a visa.

At that time the Jewish communal headquarters in Leipzig was a tiny dusty, hard to find cramped suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. In 1935 there were 18,000, 14,000 of whom perished in the Shoah.

When Vickie and I visited in 20ll, by contrast, we found the spacious Jewish community offices in a lovely refurbished synagogue. The young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community–revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants—personally guided us to the places where my relatives lived.

Ursula Sieg, regional Pastor for Church-School Relations of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of North Germany, is painstakingly coordinating our upcoming pilgrimage with a packed schedule of sermons, lectures and dialogues. Her motivation is to have Germans learn about Judaism and further Germany’s yeoman efforts to promote mutual understanding and respect. She has enlisted and received moral and financial support from the  Förderverein Judentum in Schleswig-Holstein (Society for Support of Judaism in Schleswig-Holstein), the Progressive Jewish Community of Kiel and the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin and Potsdam for these efforts. We are very grateful to Pastor Sieg and all of those who are contributing to making our visit a reality.

Last winter when Pastor Sieg first proposed the idea to me, it seemed a natural step in the remarkable progress Germany has made to atone for the horrors of the Hitler era. For example in 20ll and 2012 as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I signed papers that helped lead to the establishment of the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. The agreements paved the way for the formal arrangements for the German government to fully fund the new institute, which offers B.A. and M.A. programs to students from Germany and beyond, including those studying to be rabbis and cantors. I Iook forward eagerly to returning to Potsdam to lecture and interact with students and faculty at the school.

With recent developments, though, the entire timbre of my visit has changed. Now my joyful anticipation is tempered by the reality that anti-Semitism in Europe –and even in Germany where anti-Jewish demonstrations are barred by law—is surfacing once again.

“Why are you going there,” people have asked? “You will do as much good as one bailing water from a rising river with a teaspoon.” Their challenge makes me toss and turn at night. I certainly do not believe I can cure the world, Europe or specific Germans of anti-Semitism. But I am also heartened by the way the German government—beginning with Chancellor Angela Merkel–and most of the German people officially and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.

Still I am wary. The current war in Israel and Gaza—and the world’s reaction to Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens from the terror of Hamas whose very existence is predicated on Israel’s destruction—gives credence once again to the notion that we Jews are, as the Moabite seer Balaam proclaimed long ago, “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9)

But still I will go. I will go with joy and gratitude for the people that invited me. I will go with the knowledge that many in Germany are eager to learn about the faith and way of life that gave birth to Christianity.

On my first visit to Leipzig, I had to visit the city zoo because on Kristallnacht the Jews of the city were rounded up and made to stand in the stream that flows through it. There, former neighbors and friends spat on them, jeered them and threw mud on them. In 1982 I stood on a bridge that straddles that stream weeping inside as I imagined my father standing in the water on that horrible night in 1938.

But as I was leaving the zoo I walked past a den of timber wolves where a cub was nursing in peaceful bliss at his mother’s breast. That scene etched itself into my heart as a symbol of the harmony that God wants us to strive for in this world.

I don’t expect anti-Semitism to disappear because I will spend ten weeks in Germany, but I feel that destiny is calling me to do my best. If enough people pick up their teaspoons and join the effort we can stop the rising waters of anti-Semitism from overflowing.