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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Yitro- there are no heroes, there's just us

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon or read it below:

Hymie Simon, Joe Kurtzberg, Jerry Siegel, Joe Schuster. These may not be familiar names to you, but if you don’t know these men you certainly know their creations. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Superman. And to be honest, Simon, Siegel, Kurtzberg, Schuster. Well, they are kind of familiar names. You don’t get much more haimische than Hymie Simon! 

In 1940 Simon and Kurzberg- or Jack Kirby as he was better known, created Captain America. On the cover of the first issue their new superhero is pictured punching a Nazi officer. In the same year, Superman appeared in a comic strip collecting Hitler and Stalin from their respective headquarters, flying them through space, and depositing them at the league of nations. 

The comic book superhero genre owes so much of its identity to the imaginations of young Jews in New York during World War Two. Far away from the events unfolding in Europe, and yet painfully aware of what was happening, they imagined characters who could bypass the normal orders of proceedings, operate outside above and beyond government and the rules and laws of nature and science, and bring salvation to those in harm's way- while delivering  a solid punch to the face of the bad guys in the process! 

And you can see why in the midst of war, and in the uncertainty of the world that followed, these characters retained their appeal. When the world is unsatisfying, when it doesn’t seem to offer you that which you desperately need, then the fantasy narrative is reassuring, almost seductive. When you feel utterly powerless, it can help to imagine that there is a force strong enough in the world to tip the balance of its fate. These heroes emerged against the backdrop of evil, as a tool of emotional resistance. 

The world of the comic book or cartoon, good vs evil, has a comforting simplicity. And the villains are so clearly villainous, they look evil, they have scary eyes and vicious teeth and creeping tentacles and murderous plans for world domination. Just as it is comforting to imagine a hero who has beyond human abilities to save you, so too is it for all of the bad in the world to be organized into a tidy narrative, and given a name and an explanation- and our world is as attached to the narratives of villains as it is to the ever growing cast of heroes. While new saviors appear on the scene regularly- the image of the shady underworld villains, puppet-masters controlling the world, a shadow-world order, bloodthirsty and power hungry has remained alarmingly consistent since the medieval period. 

It’s the simplicity of this explanation- this lie- that makes it so pervasive and so attractive. Underneath all of the apparent complexity of the world, there is a shadow structure, real people who control the world, evil people, us

Last Shabbat, when a man from Blackburn showed up at a Texas synagogue he did so under the delusion that the rabbi of that synagogue would call the chief rabbi of America and he would be able to get what he wanted. 

He believed that Jews control the world. 

It’s a delusion, but one with horrifically real ramifications and one that is horrifically real in the minds of too many. 

Much is to be said about the implications of this for Jewish safety, but we are in shul, and we’ve just read Torah, and I want to talk together about what this means for Jewish purpose, for Jewish action. What does it mean to be a Jew who wants to make a difference in the world- not because of some bizarre goal of world domination- but because of a profound sense of calling, purpose, covenant? How can we resist these ideas, and also own the fact that we do want to make a difference in, and shape the future of our world and the society we live in. 

I’m really proud of the people who go out into the world wearing their Judaism on their sleeve, who feel moved to act because of their history, their values, the example they have seen set in their communities. Being Jewish teaches us to be other-oriented, to understand our collective mission to be about being God’s partners in the building of our world. It impels us to be active, to seek change.

It has often, it does still often mean that there is a perception Jews are overrepresented in some spheres of life, and the undercurrent of that observation is that this is a reflection of some nefarious power arrangement. We are too good at advocating for our community’s needs, too good at accessing government resources, too good at being heard in the media, too active on social issues. Too darn present for comfort. 

Immediately before the giving of the ten commandments, God says to the assembled Israelites that if they do all that they are told they shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy, treasured, nation, an am segula. A chosen people.

The old joke goes that the Jews turned around to God in the middle of the 20th century and said ‘can’t you choose someone else this time?’. 

Of course the answer is no. This is what we have and this is who we are. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

There are no superheroes and super villains, there’s only us. And I don’t mean us in the narrow sense of us here in this room, or us the Jewish community. I mean us, as in all of us. 

The thing I’ve come to see more and more as I have worked in communal life is that if there is one thing that can explain why it is that our community works the way it does, and that's an understanding of the idea of us. Mutual responsibility, fates intertwined, a sense that we need each other. Care, love, purpose, family, community. 

When Jewish life works it's because we have an abundance of us-ness. And when Jewish life stands out in particular contrast to the rest of society, it’s often when that society is experiencing division, stress, and a breakdown of togetherness. 

The activist Eric Ward says about antisemitism that:

“It distorts our understanding of how the actual world works. It isolates us. It alienates us from our communities, from our neighbors, and from participating in governance. It kills, but it also kills our society.” 

Resisting antisemitism internally, requires more and not less of us. More love, more presence, more connection, more pride, more boundary crossing. Jews don’t influence the world by controlling it, we impact the world by acting from love within it, and my greatest fear beyond the physical threats is that when antisemitism rears its ugly head around us that it might diminish our desire to live our Judaism this way, that it might make us want to shut off, and close our hearts and our doors to the world. 

Some days, I wish the magic phone existed. I wish when someone is sat in front of me with a problem that I had a phone I could pick up a person I could call who would fix everything and make it all go away. It would be so much easier if we did have some control over the world. But we don’t, and I don’t have a magic phone but I do have a phonebook full of community members, and together we have enormous power to build a different world, and I’m not afraid of that power, I’m excited by it and I know that together day by day we will build this world from love.

Cantor Zoe sings Olam Chessed Yibaneh https://rabbidavid.bandcamp.com/track/olam-chesed-yibaneh 

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782