In my last column I recounted how last month I traveled to Rwanda, at the invitation of President Paul Kagame, to speak at Amohoro National Stadium to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide. A survivor took the microphone, and in a slow voice, recounted episodes from the slaughter of the country’s minority Tutsis.
The stadium was filled with the sounds of women quaking, men thundering, children shrieking. The sounds were of the trauma of people reliving the horrors as they were recounted.
The UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, got up and said that never again must mean just that, never again. But even as he said it, children continued to be gassed in Syria. Women were being machined gun to death in South Sudan. Christians were being slaughtered in the Central African Republic.
Because the world has yet to embrace Jewish values.
The Jews were the ones who taught the world that every human being – Jew, Christian, Muslim, and atheist; white, black, and every shade in between – were created equally, all in the image of God. The Jews were the ones who gave the world the Ten Commandments, with its fiery exhortation, “Thou shalt not murder.” And the Jews were the ones who declared, in the book of Leviticus, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
Let my Christian brothers speak of loving your enemies. Let my Catholic friends tell me to turn the other cheek. When it comes to mass murder, I cannot but reject both New Testament teachings. Instead, I embrace Solomon’s proclamation in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” I will embrace what King David proclaimed regarding the wicked, “I have hated them with a deep loathing. They are as enemies to me.”
Because Lincoln hated the abomination of slavery he fought to stop it, as he said in 1854 in Peoria, “I cannot but hate slavery. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.”
Because Churchill hated Hitler, he inspired a nation to fight the beast. The French, who did not hate Hitler, collaborated with him instead.
Loving victims might generate compassion for their suffering. But hating the perpetrators generates action to stop their orgy of murder. While innocence should evoke compassion, evil should evoke only contempt.
Our organization, This World: The Values Network, whose gala dinner is this Sunday, Lag B’omer, is dedicated to the spread of universal Jewish values. In so doing, we seek to bring healing and justice to a world that seemingly cannot be healed.
Where the Greeks spoke of fate, the Jews spoke of destiny. We Jews reject the disempowering belief that our future is scripted in the stars, that what we will become already has been decided from the moment of our birth. We do not accept that life must be tragic, and we are doomed to live out a future over which we have no control. To the contrary, the Jews gave the world the idea of choice, of setting moral goals that are within our reach to attain.
When I was a boy, I saw my parents argue. I had little peace. As a child of divorce, the statisticians told me that I was likely to live out the same fate. But at my bar mitzvah I had the privilege of one of the last private audiences with my great teacher, the Lubavitcher rebbe, who looked at me penetratingly. In his blue eyes I saw a sea of infinite compassion as he said to me, “You will grow to be a light to your family, your school, the Jewish people, and the entire world. Believe it, and it will be so.”
We Jews reject the evolutionary model of men as inseminators who will always gravitate to many women. We teach instead that every man must honor one woman. Who would have believed at our higher academies of learning today we would have an epidemic of one of five women facing sexual assault? This is a disgrace, and there is no excuse.
My Judaism taught me that whether or not I stayed married had nothing to do with parental history or biology and everything to do with personal choice. Would I take my wife for granted or show appreciation for a soul mate? Would I criticize or would I compliment? Would I be selfish or selfless? The future was entirely in my hands. It was my choice. And there is no more empowering idea in the world than the Jewish emphasis on personal accountability and choice.
My Palestinian brothers and sisters condemn Israel and blame it for the spread of Hamas violence. If you stopped humiliating us with checkpoints we will stop blowing up buses, they say. Yet the Jews of Germany, as Alan Dershowitz argues, were subjected to the most inhuman cruelties, but they never took it out on German schoolchildren.
Victor Frankl spent three years in Nazi death camps. In his classic “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he says the Germans took away everything from him. The pleasure of love, by gassing his wife. The joy of hope, by exterminating his family. The exultation of freedom, by incarcerating him behind barbed wire. His very humanity, by branding him with a cattle iron. And his human dignity, by forcing him to defecate in a bucket. But there was one thing they could never take from him – his choice of how to react to it. They wanted him to claw like an animal, but he could still choose to share his last morsels of bread with those who were even hungrier than he. They wanted him to surrender all to despair but he could still choose to live with faith and belief.
I have watched how the media already has picked apart our dinner. It is a motley collection of opposites, they say. Sheldon Adelson, they said, believes in the Republican Party. Sean Penn is a socialist. Chris Christie said something objectionable about Israel. Rick Perry said one thing in a debate that should overshadow any other achievements.
To all of them I respond not with Christian but with Jewish values. I could not care less what people believe. I don’t much care how they vote. And I don’t much care if they make verbal gaffes. What do I care about is what they do.
Judaism is a celebration of righteous action. In Judaism it’s not belief in a savior that will get you into heaven. It’s the good deeds you do – the mitzvot you perform – that will create heaven on earth.
And if we believe it, it will be so.