Several months ago, in the lead up to the American election, I found myself at an interfaith conference in Montreal. Susannah Heschel addressed the audience. Her powerful words, which seemed to be a clarion call, seem all the more important after Charlottesville. Heschel reminded us that the root of the Hebrew word alimut — violence is alef lamed mem — meaning elem “silence.” She asked us how we could dare abandon God to these fanatics — and certainly the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, KKK supporters and all the alt-right haters who have sprung up like poisonous mushrooms are indeed fanatics. With our silence, we allow violence and fanatics to proliferate. And finally, Heschel excoriated us…in particular “us” meaning liberal Jews, for having become “so insipid.”
We can be proud that rabbis such as Mordechai Liebling and other Jewish clergy and rabbinical students did not remain silent. They traveled to Charlottesville to take part in the counter-rally and spoke out. Some Jewish organizations have spoken out as well. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett condemned the rally and called on US leaders to denounce anti-Semitism.
Liebling’s voice was in support of something broader: “It’s really important for Jews to be visible in this space and stand up for love and for God and for democracy… it is important to make sure that each of is us is treated as we are in the image of God.” Like Susannah Heschel’s late father, Civil Rights activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, Liebling was referring to the rights of all Americans.
But where are the voices of the rest America’s faith leaders? And what of faith leaders in Canada and the rest of the world? As a Canadian, I am all too aware that my country is not immune from the venomous hatred of white supremacists. The US Catholic bishops have spoken out in very clear terms condemning the rising tide of racism that resulted in the ugly rally. But where are the voices of the liberal Protestant social gospel tradition that have so easily found the words to criticize Israel over the complexity of the last 50 years in the West Bank?
A recent article in “The Atlantic” reveals that some faith leaders belonging to this group have been crystal clear in their condemnation, connecting white supremacy and asking their followers to rebuke it “in the name of Jesus.” Others have been oddly vague, if not veering on tepid. They speak of hope and love without condemning the hate. While some Evangelical pastors have not even mentioned the words “racism” or “white supremacy,” others (the Southern Baptists) have referred to the alt-right white-supremacist ideologies as “the anti-Christ and satanic to the core.” No mention of a response from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) was included in the article.
The “Atlantic” article referred only to Christian voices. It is essential that leaders of all faiths — Jewish (of all denominations) Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, Sikh and Indigenous speak out. Make no mistake. We cannot afford to be insipid, nor can we abandon God with our silence. Don’t wait for miracles. The responsibility to speak out and to act is ours.
In 1963, when President Kennedy invited Abraham Joshua Heschel to the White House, he sent the following telegram: “Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church and synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice … The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
That hour is once again upon us. It is time for all faith leaders to speak out strongly unified by a call to action. A renewed call for repentance and personal sacrifice. A renewed call for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.