Shlomo Lewis: Atlanta, 5771, might as well be 1935
Rabbi Shlomo Lewis
It finally found its way into my synagogue’s newsletter. Making its rounds on the internet is a sermon entitled “Ehr kumt” (Yiddish for “he’s coming”) given during last year’s Jewish High Holidays by Rabbi Shlomo J. Lewis of Atlanta’s Etz Chaim (Conservative) synagogue. The piece, also called by its admirers the “Sermon of the Century,” has been reproduced on all the usual Islamophobia hate sites, the Republican Jewish Committee’s web site, and its notoriety has increased due to commendations for Lewis by the Georgia legislature and the US House of Representatives. I won’t reproduce the almost 4000-word piece because it’s simply too long, but if you haven’t read it you will find it here.
Quite simply, it’s nothing but a piece of hate speech by a religious leader. Not only that, it’s a piece of dreck delivered at a pulpit by a rabbi on the first day of Rosh Hashanah — a day for introspection and self-examination, not high political theater.
I read and found the sermon very offensive, as I do any time a preacher, rabbi or imam takes to the pulpit to bludgeon his congregation with bigotry. It reminded me of an exchange with a Muslim neighbor who emailed me that “I want to tell you that the situation in the U.S. now is similar to that in Germany in 1935, where bigotry, hatred, lies, and wide-spread discrimination against a hunted minority were very common.” His deepest fears, true or only partially true, made me wonder what sort of ranting about Jews was common in German churches in 1935.
I thought about this while I re-read Rabbi Lewis’ sermon and it struck me as ironic that a Jew — a rabbi no less — would willingly play the part of religious Hetzer.
In the Germany of 1935, while there were certainly members of the clergy like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller, or Karl Barth, who spoke out clearly and with almost as much passion as Jewish prophets themselves against the Nazi regime, for the most part the Pfarrer (pastors) of mainly the Evangelische (Lutheran) church (but also the Catholic church) practically tripped over themselves in embracing the new German culture war on Jews. Even the church itself was enlisted in the persecution. Susannah Heschel has documented this sad chapter of German religious history.
Rabbi Lewis reminds me of a pastor in some Pomeranian backwater who chose to deliver — not a homily on redemption and hope — but the most virulent, anti-Semitic diatribe he could think of on an Easter morning in 1935, using some of Lewis’ own themes and words to paint a portrait of Jewish evil. The pastor might have invoked passages from Martin Luther’s 1543 pamphlet, “Von den Jüden und ihren Lügen” (About the Jews and their Lies), as Lewis seems to take his from the world of Islamophobia.
On this holiest of days Lewis led with a martial theme:
“We are at war. We are at war with an enemy as savage, as voracious, as heartless as the Nazi.”
Ridiculing what he regards as present-day “moral relativism” and political correctness, Lewis’ prescription is to return to the imagined moral absolutes of an idealized World War II:
“Evil — ultimate, irreconcilable, evil threatened us and Roosevelt and Churchill had moral clarity and an exquisite understanding of what was at stake. It was not just the Sudetenland, not just Tubruk, not just Vienna, not just Casablanca. It was the entire planet.”
The evil that faces us, then, according to Lewis, is Amalek — the personification of evil and existential threat. Lewis then continues the story for which his sermon is named. It is the story of none other than the neo-fascist Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky showing up at a synagogue in Kovno, Lithuania, and warning the city’s Jews of impending doom. Lewis embellishes the story to paint Jabotinsky as a prophet:
“When Jabotinsky came, he delivered the drash [sermon] on Shabbos morning and I can still hear his words burning in my ears. He climbed up to the shtender, [lectern] stared at us from the bima [pulpit], glared at us with eyes full of fire and cried out. ‘EHR KUMT. YIDN FARLAWST AYER SHTETL — He’s coming. Jews abandon your city.’ We thought we were safe in Lithuania from the Nazis, from Hitler. We had lived there, thrived for a thousand years but Jabotinsky was right — his warningprophetic. We got out but most did not. […] We are not in Lithuania. It is not the 1930s. There is no Luftwaffe overhead. No U-boats off the coast of long Island. No Panzer divisions on our borders. But make no mistake; we are under attack – our values, our tolerance, our freedom, our virtue, our land.”
These last words are exactly the same ones our German pastor would have used in 1935: Unsere Freiheit, unsere Ehre, unsere Heimat. Lewis doesn’t even have any idea of how distastefully he has expropriated the same language used against Jews by Nazi collaborators.
At this point, the congregation is transfixed. Lewis is working the pulpit, reciting Prophet Jabotinsky’s words. But this time the villains are not Nazis or the mutable forms of Amalek — but Muslims. High Holidays be damned, Lewis is not in a forgiving mood. Muslims — all Muslims — are guilty by association. If they aren’t perpetrators, they’re mute enablers of evil:
“Today the enemy is radical Islam but it must be said sadly and reluctantly that there are unwitting, co-conspirators who strengthen the hands of the evil doers. Let me state that the overwhelming number of Muslims are good Muslims, fine human beings who want nothing more than a Jeep Cherokee in their driveway, a flat screen TV on their wall and a good education for their children, but these good Muslims have an obligation to destiny, to decency that thus far for the most part they have avoided. The Kulturkampf is not only external but internal as well. The good Muslims must sponsor rallies in Times Square, in Trafalgar Square, in the UN Plaza, on the Champs Elysee, in Mecca condemning terrorism, denouncing unequivocally the slaughter of the innocent. Thus far, they have not. The good Muslims must place ads in the NY Times. They must buy time on network TV, on cable stations, in the Jerusalem Post, in Le Monde, in Al Watan, on Al Jazeera condemning terrorism, denouncing unequivocally the slaughter of the innocent — thus far, they have not. Their silence allows the vicious to tarnish Islam and define it.”
Of course, the same could be said about his own congregation’s — most any Jewish congregation’s — silence on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but Lewis’ point is clear: there really are no good Muslims because even the “good” ones have thumbed their noses at their obligation to destiny and decency. And worse: they haven’t chosen sides properly in the Kulturkampf. For the remainder of his talk, Lewis doesn’t bother making a distinction between terrorists, Islamic radicals, Islamists, political Islamists, or just plain Muslims. His audience knows what he means.
But what Lewis is peddling is stronger than just Kulturkampf. It’s War of the Worlds or maybe an old-fashioned Evangelical Apocalypse:
“Let us understand that the radical Islamist assaults all over the globe are but skirmishes, fire fights, and vicious decoys. Christ and the anti-Christ. Gog U’Magog. The Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness; the bloody collision between civilization and depravity is on the border between Lebanon and Israel. It is on the Gaza Coast and in the Judean Hills of the West Bank. It is on the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv and on the cobblestoned mall of Ben Yehuda Street. It is in the underground schools of Sderot and on the bullet-proofed inner-city buses. It is in every school yard, hospital, nursery, classroom, park, theater — in every place of innocence and purity.”
As in many shuls, Lewis is playing to a crowd that sees Israel as a beleaguered Western force of good fighting forces of darkness and evil (translation: Muslims). The rest of Lewis’ rant is reserved for whining about Europeans, NGOs, the United Nations, the “liberal” media, and Christian Liberation Theology. For Lewis it’s not just about terrorism. It’s about the Muslim hordes knocking on the gates of Vienna while the liberal appeasers make tea for them.
Next, Lewis paints Islam as a disease to be eradicated:
“Let’s try an analogy. If someone contracted a life-threatening infection and we not only scolded them for using antibiotics but insisted that the bacteria had a right to infect their body and that perhaps, if we gave the invading infection an arm and a few toes, the bacteria would be satisfied and stop spreading. […] Anyone buy that medical advice? Well, folks, that’s our approach to the radical Islamist bacteria. It is amoral, has no conscience and will spread unless it is eradicated. — There is no negotiating. Appeasement is death.”
I found this disturbing and repugnant because, once again, my neighbor had a point. In 1935 German propaganda posters portrayed Jews as a bacteria.Yad Vashem has also documented a series of “educational” materials published at the time in Germany which included descriptions of Jews as:
“… foreigners threatening to displace the Germans from Germany. As hyenas strike disabled animals, Jews are portrayed as preying upon disadvantaged Germans/Christians. Other animals included in these comparisons are the chameleon (the great deceiver), the locust (the scourge of God) […] and the tapeworm (the parasite of humanity). Finally, Jews are compared to deadly bacteria, which threatens the existence of the human race. Just as deadly bacteria must be exterminated, so must the Jew.“
Now concentration camps and crematoria hopefully weren’t in the back of the good rabbi’s mind when he talked of “eradicating” the Islamist bacteria. But what in God’s name was he thinking? I suspect, for Lewis and his right wing political message, God didn’t even enter the equation. This was not adrash. It was a political rant, an abuse of his position.
Lewis then moves on to a meditation on the story of an Afghan woman who was a victim of an “honor” disfigurement by a relative– something which unfortunately occurs in numerous developing, not just Muslim, countries. For Lewis, though, it’s all about Islam:
“If nothing else stirs us. If nothing else convinces us, let Bibi Aisha’s mutilated face be the face of Islamic radicalism. Let her face shake up even the most complacent and naive among us.”
Lewis then finishes with a rhetorical flourish, once again using the neo-fascist Jabotinsky’s words:
“A rabbi was once asked by his students….’Rebbi. Why are your sermons so stern?’ Replied the rabbi, ‘If a house is on fire and we chose not to wake up our children, for fear of disturbing their sleep, would that be love? Kinderlach, di hoyz brent.’ Children our house is on fire and I must arouse you from your slumber. […] My friends — the world is on fire and we must awake from our slumber. ‘HER KUMT.’”
This was the end of a pathetic performance that should never have taken place at a synagogue, much less the pulpit, and never on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This was the kind of outrageous performance one expects from Glen Beck or David Duke.
On the same day, my rabbi, in contrast — also at a Conservative synagogue — talked about new beginnings. He cited stories, without embarrassing individuals, of people who had made enormous, positive changes in their lives over the course of the year. It was as inspiring and sweet as Lewis’ was repellant and hateful.
What now for Rabbi Lewis, flush with his 15 minutes of fame? He’s back at it again. His latest message to his congregation is again a long political piece you’ll just have to read to understand why the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted separation of church and state. I sincerely hope Rabbi Lewis’ congregants don’t need him for spiritual matters pertaining to Judaism or for pastoral counseling. Because this is a guy truly obsessed with seeing evil in Muslims and too busy writing his political screeds.
Original post: Shlomo Lewis: Atlanta, 5771, might as well be 1935