This sermon was delivered in my synagogue in Forest Hills on Shabbat Shuvah, September 11, just last week. It was the first time I addressed the proposed construction of the mosque/community center near Ground Zero from the pulpit, and obviously, because it was September 11 and the day after Rosh Hashanah, it carried great emotional weight. I wanted to share it with all of you…
As we stand in judgment before God during this sacred season, our petitionary prayers for mercy are fundamentally rooted in the idea of memory- Zochreinu l’chayyim, melech chafetz ba’chayyim, remember us for life, sovereign who delights in life! God remembered Sarah in her old age, God remembers the worthy deeds of our ancestors, and we pray that God judge us with compassion on account of those memories
In that context, it seems entirely fitting that we should find ourselves gathered together this Shabbat Shuvah on September 11, exactly nine years to the day after the horrific and catastrophic terrorist attack on our city, even as, in the here and now, the jury is still out on the fate of our mortal souls.
As much as any other day in our secular American calendar, with the possible exception of Memorial Day, September 11 has become the closest thing to a (secular) yahrzeit, if you will, that I can think of- a day of institutionalized memory. We have, I know, members of our congregation who observe a collective day of yahrzeit for friends, neighbors and family members from their shtetl, because they know the day that the Nazis came and murdered them. We, too, know the day, and the time, when fanatics fueled by an irrational hatred born of the toxic mix of religion and politics came to our shtetl and murdered almost three thousand innocent people. We know, because we saw it with our own eyes. Nine years later, it is still physically and spiritually painful to remember that day, and the suffering that it caused…
For the past few weeks, an issue related to the painful legacy of September 11 has been monopolizing the thoughts and concerns of many Americans and particularly New Yorkers. I am referring, of course, to the proposed construction of what would basically be an Islamic JCC with a prayer space in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero.
In print and electronic media, on synagogue and professional listservs, in living rooms and dining rooms around the country and indeed around the world, this proposed project seems to have tapped into the memory, anger and pain that remains with us from 9/11. But even more significantly, it also seems to have tapped frightening reservoirs of a more global xenophobia and Islamophobia, made exponentially more toxic by virtue of the fact that this is an election year, and some politicians are fanning the flames of the fire for political gain.
Throughout the summer, I read with great interest the comments that were offered on our congregational listserv on this subject. I chose to refrain from commenting because, quite honestly, the complexity of the issue, at least as I was seeing it, seemed to make what was right and what was wrong much less obvious to me than the strident positions that were being staked out. But I feel that it would be irresponsible at this point not to comment, particularly because a number of people have asked me, and we are here together on September 11. There can be no more appropriate time to comment than on this day of remembrance.
As I see it, and I am obviously not alone in this perspective, there are two dimensions to this issue, the legal dimension, and the extra-legal. In that sense, it is not unlike the way Judaism compartmentalizes complex issues. There is the halachic dimension, and the extra-halachic dimension. The halacha, being a legal system, usually sees the world in black and white. It tells you what you may or may not do, and that’s its job- not to equivocate, but to state a position clearly. To use the classic formulation, either the chicken is kosher, or it’s not. In our tradition, midrash and commentary discuss the why’s, shoulds, and shouldn’ts. They deal with how you feel about what the halacha says you must do.
To address the legal dimension first, clearly, the halachic sensitivity is obliged to acknowledge and recognize that legally, there is absolutely no reason- assuming zoning, permits, and the like are all in order- that this mosque shouldn’t be built where the proposed site is. The law, whether American or Jewish, is not concerned with what people think or feel; it is concerned with legalities, with yes and no, permitted or forbidden. In a strictly legal sense, there seems to be very little to discuss.
Where it all gets complicated is in the extra-legal dimension, where sensitivities come into play. Once again, our tradition has a stikingly relevant teaching from the halachic domain.
In classical rabbinic parlance, the fact that something is mutar– permissible- doesn’t make you chayyav, obligated to do it. You are not obligated to do something just because you are permitted to do it. How many of us have had similar conversations with our children, trying to make them understand how, for an obvious example, to handle their freedom. Being allowed to drink, or able to drink, is not the same as it being a good thing to go out and get drunk.
Applying this teaching to the subject at hand, we get to the thorny issue of sensitivities relating to the proposed construction of the mosque. Just because the law says that it may be built near Ground Zero doesn’t mean that the decision to put it there is necessarily a wise one or a good one.
It seems clear that a good number of family members of those who perished on September 11 aren’t comfortable with it, and public opinion polls seem to indicate that a good number of New Yorkers aren’t either.
Personally, I think it is grossly unfair, as the Mayor has done and others as well, to either imply or overtly state that anyone who has an issue with the location of the mosque is either an Islamophobe or a racist, or somehow “missing the point of America,” as President Obama has as much said. I think I understand America just fine, thank you, and I don’t think that putting the mosque davka two blocks from Ground Zero is such a fine idea. No one owns the memory of September 11, and good and reasonable people will disagree about the wisdom of this project.
But having said that, I feel constrained to say immediately thereafter that the more that I have witnessed what I think clearly is a virulent strain of Islamophobia and racism unleashed by this project, the more I have come to believe that, if only to say “that is not me, and that is not us, that is not New York and that is not America,” at this point the mosque must be built near Ground Zero.
How horrifying it has been to read and hear of a cabbie being stabbed because he is a Muslim, a mosque being set on fire, of a Christian minister vowing to burn a stack of Korans on 9/11 as an expression of utter contempt for Islam, of good and loyal American citizens of Muslim extraction being literally scared to leave their houses on 9/11 because of the possibility of physical harm coming to them and their children… If letting our own, American-bred rabid crazies out of their cages is the price we are obliged to pay for a principled opposition to a questionable idea, then I will surely say that it is not a price worth paying. And if politicians are fanning the flames of these unhealthy expressions of opinion, then in so far as I’m concerned, that’s a powerfully good reason not to vote for them.
I don’t believe that the idea to build the mosque as originally conceived was a wise one, but the damage I see coming from abandoning it at this point is far worse than a subjective question of sensitivities. It would essentially declare to all who are watching that we have caved to the least rational voices among us. My opposition to this project has nothing in common with those people I referred to earlier, and I dare not allow anyone to think that it does.
All people of good will and sound mind need to affirm resoundingly- especially on Shabbat Shuvah, when we are suspended in judgment before God, that we are all created in the image of God, and to tarnish an entire people because of the actions of its most extreme element is to do unto others what has been done to us far too many times. We have been there before, and it is a very, very bad place to be.
Shabbat Shuvah is the time to access our better angels, our noblest sense of self, to surmount fear and loathing and show why we are better than those who brought our city to its knees nine years ago this morning. We are not them, and thank God for that! We are who we are, and who we are is exactly what we should be focused on this Shabbat Shuvah. May we be found worthy to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, not because of our ancestors’ merit, but because of our own.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation