As I mentioned last week, my remarks this evening will constitute my own personal Jewish response to the Syrian crisis.
Last Shabbat, after sharing Rosh HaShanah with you, I was moved to put my thoughts about Syria into a letter, which I then sent to President Obama and other members of Congress. Though the format is a bit different than what we are used to, I’d like to share with you, tonight, the contents of the letter I sent.
Two quick notes, before I begin.
First: much has happened since I wrote this last weekend. Perhaps most significantly, the Russian proposal to end this crisis diplomatically by collecting and destroying all of Syria’s remaining chemical weapons gained some traction.
As you will see in a moment, I am in favor of the use of force. I believe that the use of chemical weapons was a moral atrocity that demands a response from us, and the world. Let me digress for a moment to explain why.
If you and I committed a terrible atrocity with a weapon, and our society responded simply by collecting the weapon and making us promise that we’d never do it again, where would the justice in that be?
One can hardly think of the situation at hand without being reminded of the Cain and Abel story in which we read: “Vayomer – God said…Meh aseeta? What have you done!? Kol dimay akheekhah – the blood of your brother – tzoakim ay-lie – it literally shouts or screams to me min ha-adamah – from the very ground.” In hearing the anguished shouts, I humbly submit to you, we are challenged to do more than simply confiscate Assad’s weapons of mass destruction.
The second observation I want to share, which alludes to our discussion last week about pluralism, is that obviously this situation is more complicated than my straightforward observations suggest. There are many legitimate perspectives on the crisis that deserve our attention. I hope you’ll join me next Friday at our 8 PM service, when we will have an open discussion about Syria. I am anxious to hear your thoughts.
Now, the letter I sent to the President of the United States:
September 7, 2013
Motzei Shabbat Shuvah 5774
Dear Mr. President:
Although the thoughts in this letter are my own, they’re carried on the wings of the prayers of the nearly 500 member-families of Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale, NY. During this High Holy Day season, you, your family, the rest of our Government, and all the brave women and men of our Armed Forces are in our thoughts and prayers. Our community is grateful to them, and to you, for your service to our country.
I write to you today at the conclusion of Shabbat Teshuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance). Every year, Shabbat Shuvah (as it is also called) falls in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has written: “This Shabbat, like all of the Ten Days of Repentance, is suffused by the sense of gravity and the dread of sinning that characterizes these Days of Judgment and Mercy.”
Although we Jews are encouraged to be self-reflective about our behavior throughout the year, Jewish folk mythology and the themes of the High Holy Days make it only natural for us to give special consideration to the path of our lives during this season.
It is in that mindset that I write to you today about Syria and whether our country should risk the lives of our precious young people who volunteer to serve, in order to help innocent Syrians on the other side of the globe. I am proud to offer my support for your recent proposal to use limited force against the Assad regime. It is a crucial and necessary step in policing this despotic criminal.
My own understanding and modest expertise in Judaism informs my approach to the Syria question.
As I have done my own internal self reflection these last few days, I’ve been left with a profound sense of guilt. I, like so many Americans, was embarrassingly silent about Syria until the news of the use of chemical weapons in recent days. The UN’s estimate that more than 100,000 Syrians have died during the conflict was released months ago...and yet it is only now that I am moved to write to you! As I struggle to understand my own shortcomings - as a human being, an American, and a Jew, I’m reminded of two lines from the confessional prayers that my community offers on Yom Kippur:
Al cheyt she’cha’tanu lifanecha: B’eemutz ha-lev...
Al cheyt she’cha’tanu lifanecha: Beefreekat ol...
For the wrong we did before You, O God: By hardening our hearts...
And for the wrong we did before You by casting off responsibility...
Both of these sins are classic Jewish expressions of apathy, constituting a profound indifference to that which is going on in the world. With humility, I must admit that I am guilty of these sins, as are so many others.
I draw comfort in this painful moment of self-awareness from my teacher Dr. Avivah Zornberg. In her commentary on the Book of Exodus, Zornberg speculates about God’s apathy...as an answer to the question of why the ancient Israelites remained enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. Zornberg seems to suggest that apathy is a kind of inevitable experience for all that exist. We are fated to experience apathy from time to time, until we can find it within ourselves to open our eyes to the world around us.
According to my own Jewish worldview: there is something positive that can come out of one’s realization of having missed the mark: we can commit ourselves to do better in the year ahead. Thus I write to you, Mr. President, to encourage you to lead us forward, by taking action in Syria, instead of another year of passively watching from the sidelines.
In informal conversations that I’ve had with some of my congregants, some have asked why we need to get involved. Unlike the circumstances in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, this is an internal domestic matter for Syria, they say. Particularly if the United Nations Security Council continues to cast off its responsibility, my congregants ask: why should this be America’s problem or concern? What business is it of our’s to get involved?
Rabbi Israel Salanter (of 19th century Lithuania) was a prominent teacher of Jewish ethical living. He wrote: “Most people are concerned with their own financial well-being and their neighbor’s soul. Better that they worry about their own soul, and their neighbor’s financial well-being.” His notion becomes even more relevant if we strike the word financial and worry about the “well being” of others more generally.
Salanter’s precept speaks to the limits of privacy.
Judaism, of course, has a long-documented history of upholding a basic right to privacy. The Talmud notes: “Rabbi Akiba said to his son: Do not enter your own house suddenly [i.e. without knocking and receiving permission to enter]. All the more so: do not enter your neighbor’s home suddenly either” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 122a).
And Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) passionately wrote that a society without privacy will bring upon itself “an eternal destruction of human life, and a bane of justice and integrity, happiness, and peace.”
Nonetheless, Judaism endorses a fundamentally communitarian approach to living, which is to say that “mind your own business” can, and should, be superseded from time to time. Being part of a community, both locally and globally, implies that we have an obligation toward one another that goes beyond respecting our neighbor’s privacy. If we have good reason to believe, for example, that someone is being harmed next door, we all have a basic responsibility to either get involved or call 911. And I thank God every day that I live in a country where those resources are available.
At its core, this is a Jewish principle, whose roots are in Leviticus 19:16, which reads: “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” And our rabbis explain: “Do not stand by idly when another’s blood is shed. If you see someone in danger of drowning, or being attacked by robbers […] you are obligated to rescue that person.”
The question of whether this idea applies to Syria perhaps hinges on what it means to be a neighbor in the 21st century.
There was a time when we might have been able to argue that what happens over there doesn’t have an impact on what happens to us here. But that moment has long since passed. Today, we live in an interconnected world. When someone thousands of miles away can post a video to YouTube that we can view mere seconds after its upload, we become neighbors....in the sense that it becomes indefensible to suggest that I should care less about those Syrians than my fellow New Yorkers, simply because of the geographic or cultural barriers that exist between us.
(Parenthetically, Mr. President: I don’t know if this is true in your home, but I can tell you how surprised I was to learn from many families with teens here that so many young people have a closer relationship with strangers on the other side of the world whom they know via online chatting - often in connection with Internet-enabled video games - than they do with the families that live next door to them.)
I believe that we have a Jewish moral obligation to involve ourselves, based on the principle that our Syrian neighbors are in trouble. And that, regretfully...if no one else in the world is going to step in, then it must fall to us...not because of our role as the ‘sole superpower’ of the world, but out of the realization that we became that superpower in part because of the so-called “Judeo-Christian” values that inform so much of who we are as a country and society. Out of a sense of fidelity to the values that make us who we are: the ethos of not standing idly by, and the commitment to love our neighbor (i.e. the Syrian) as ourselves...we can, should, and must act.
In thinking about Yom Kippur, Mr. President, I cannot help but also think of the dramatic words that Jews around the country and the world will recite to welcome in Yom Kippur this coming Friday night. We recite a prayer called Kol Nidrei (“All Vows”), a prayer in which we beg God to forgive us for failing to keep the promises that we made in the past, and the ones we have yet to make in the future.
For me, the core Jewish promise that hangs like a backdrop behind the conversation about Syria, is the essential Jewish commitment to never forget the horrors of the Holocaust.
Particularistically, Jews remember the six million so that we might work together to monitor world anti-Semitism to insure that the attempted genocide of the Jewish People is never allowed to happen again.
But more universalistically, we proclaim “Never Again” as we consider the relations that we have with all of our global neighbors. In this post-Holocaust world, the Jewish People is uniquely positioned to advocate for engagement with the world’s most vulnerable. Though the Holocaust was unique in terms of the scope of its hatred and violence, we Jews nonetheless empathize with the senseless suffering of the Syrians. That empathy grows out of our Scripture, which teaches us that: “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
With this sense of empathy and obligation in mind, Elie Wiesel wrote: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. […] Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
And it was that very same set of Jewish values that motivated the teacher that you and I hold dear, Rabbi David Saperstein, to once write: “When should America intervene? On the one hand, we cannot police the world, stop every civil war, right every wrong. On the other hand, we must never let the argument that we cannot do everything, everywhere, prevent us from doing anything, anywhere. There are times the civilized world must try to draw the line.”
Mr. President: I have touched on the sin of apathy and our responsibility to correct it; as well as the eternal Jewish promise to Never Forget. But I would be remiss if I did not add a brief word about Zionism.
Zionism is the sacred belief that the Jewish People have a right to a State of their own...the State of Israel. As an American Jew and proud Zionist, I am gravely concerned about Israel’s ongoing safety and security, both in terms of Syria’s own internal instability on Israel’s border, and about the implications that America’s actions may have on the larger question of Iran, and the need for its nuclear program to be eliminated. We must act in Syria so that Iran knows we are prepared to police her as well.
As my community and I pray for the peace and well-being of Israel and her neighbors, I cannot help but call to mind Justice Brandeis, who asserted that: “Every American Jew who aids in [the Zionist project], though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live[in Israel], will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”
It is with Brandeis’ spirit in my heart that I write to you today, out of the fundamental belief that if we do right by our obligations to the innocents of Syria, and to the State of Israel as well, that ultimately it is these United State of America that will be most strengthened in the long run.
Once again: I wish blessings of good health and much fulfillment to you, your family, and to all of the members of our Government and Armed Services in the year ahead.
Rabbi Jeffrey C. Brown
 Gen. 4:10
 A Guide to Jewish Prayer, p. 143.
 See The Particulars of Rapture.
 See, for example, the writing of Rabbi Emil Fackenheim.
 Deuteronomy 10:19
Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time, p.177.