fbpx

We Need an Eleventh Commandment – Do Not Fear: A Rabbi’s Sermon

Our way of life is under attack and we must not fear or let it affect the way that we live out our Judaism. We have to think clearly and steer toward a collective bright future for the Jewish People.
[additional-authors]
January 26, 2022
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Earlier this month our community enjoyed our first Shabbaton at Brandeis-Bardin since before COVID. It was meaningful, and communal, and spiritual and fun. We observed Shabbat together in our bubble, safe from the world around us. Then, late on Shabbat morning, news slowly crept into our bubble about the horrifying hostage situation in a synagogue in Texas.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the heroism of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the other three hostages and all of the members of various law enforcement and government agencies, who responded to and confronted the threat and prevailed. I’d like to acknowledge faith communities who issued statements of support for the Jewish Community on Shabbat and on Sunday. And I’d like to credit God for the triumph of goodness over evil.

It has been a difficult week as we continue to process the event. Ten hours of a hostage standoff in a synagogue on Shabbat is basically the worst-case nightmare scenario for rabbis and synagogue leaders across the country.  

I can assure you that our Executive Director Renalee Pflug, President of our Board of Directors Janet Schulman and I have already taken steps to ensure our continued security, including our attendance at security briefings, and we are in the process of planning an active shooter training seminar for our community. You will receive more information about this in the days and weeks to come.

Over the last weekend I used the word “sobering” a great deal to describe the events. I think if you’ve lived in Jewish organizational life within the last several years, an event like this was absolutely imaginable. It now fits as part of a long list of violence against synagogue communities from Tree of Life to Poway to Colleyville. This doesn’t even begin to include all of the antisemitic violence on the streets of New York targeting Jews, violent attacks against Jews throughout this country in other major cities, vandalism against Jewish organizations, social media conspiracy theories against Jews, and so on.

The events in Colleyville were sobering, but not surprising.  

Renalee and I were both invited by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to attend a Zoom meeting last Tuesday of over 1500 American synagogue leaders, organized by the Orthodox Union, in partnership with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The special briefing included remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Undersecretary for Counterterrorism John Cohen, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate, and Attorney General Merrick Garland, among other government officials.

On that call, each of the government agencies echoed a similar message that this country—as part of the larger world—has an antisemitism problem and it’s growing. Antisemitism is on the rise in every sense. A representative from the FBI explained that 63% of all religious hate crimes in the U.S. are aimed at Jews. It’s a staggering statistic.

I left the call with many different thoughts. First, we are lucky to live in a country in which every federal, state and local resource is spent addressing dangers against the Jewish community because there are many places in the world in which Jews still face violence without any kind of government assistance. This country has not always been committed to helping Jews. We should appreciate America in 2022.   

We are lucky to live in a country in which every federal, state and local resource is spent addressing dangers against the Jewish community.

And, at the same time, as said by many officials on the call, the government cannot tackle this problem alone. Jewish communities need to form a network and share information and techniques and security protocols. And I’m especially proud that Adat Shalom and its Board, have taken many steps over the last few years to provide increased security for the congregation—including cameras, more armed guards, and applying for security grants. We continue to take this threat very seriously and react accordingly. Every synagogue in America needs to be protected, including ours.

Second, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that some of the difficulty we face is of our own making. Many of the facts in this case were acknowledged by every government agency—including the identity of the terrorist as a radicalized Muslim from the UK and his antisemitic motivation in taking hostages in a synagogue. However, these details did not make it into the initial FBI statement, or the reports by the AP, BBC and New York Times, all of which seemingly wanted us to think it was a coincidence that he entered a synagogue and took Jewish hostages. The biggest fool could have looked at the fact that a radicalized Muslim terrorist whose demand was the release of another Muslim terrorist and acknowledged the virulent antisemitic nature of holding a gun to Jews in a synagogue on Shabbat morning. Yet, many Jewish leaders, especially in progressive denominations, have trouble coming to that conclusion because it doesn’t fit their New York Times mindset. But we, as a Jewish community, have a responsibility to respond to facts and not force the facts to respond to a preconceived narrative.

We have to be able to honestly name the antisemitism that we are facing. Radicalization to violence against Jews can come in many different forms, and indeed it has. We have to be able to speak openly and honestly if we’re going to confront it. Instead of a left perspective or a right perspective, we need a more comprehensive Jewish perspective in which we acknowledge a serious antisemitism problem in this country on both the right and the left. We have to be able to name it and discuss it openly without hesitation.

Third, neither of these ideas—increased security or increased honesty—neither will defeat antisemitism. Antisemitism has existed since the times of Genesis when the Egyptians refused to sit with the Israelite brothers. Antisemitism will always exist. So how do we face it?  How do we combat it?

We must proudly practice our Judaism. In this, our congregation absolutely did the right thing in holding our Shabbaton. As a community, we proudly, happily celebrated our tradition, our Torah and our togetherness. We need to be prouder and louder in the face of hatred.

Decades ago, in response to the Shoah, Emil Fackenheim declared the 614th Commandment, forbidding us to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. During Parshat Yitro, when we read the Ten Commandments, I think it is incumbent on us to recognize an Eleventh Commandment:

Do not fear.

Unfortunately, I feel fairly certain that there will be more antisemitic attacks here in this country. Yet, I walk around with a kippah on my head every day in public. I do it for myself because I think I should. I also do it for other Jews to know that I am willing to wear our shared identity on my sleeve. And I do it to warn others that Jews are present wherever I am. I’m not affected by the fear, by the hysteria, by the media.

I have learned an important lesson from my grandparents, from my parents, from our collective family in Israel, that to be Jewish today means that we cannot live in fear. It is our responsibility to live out our Judaism for all to see. We have to signal our way of life for other Jews to witness—posting on social media about programs at the shul, articles in which we’re proud of Israel, unafraid of consequences.

I have learned an important lesson from my grandparents, from my parents, from our collective family in Israel, that to be Jewish today means that we cannot live in fear.

How will co-workers react if they know you attend services? Or that you keep kosher? Or that you support Israel? Don’t be afraid any longer.

However we decide to protect ourselves out there—two armed guards or ten armed guards—inside our buildings and inside of ourselves we must remain true to our tradition, to our Torah and to God. We can learn from our brothers and sisters in Israel; they suffer attacks, and they refuse to allow these attacks to interrupt their way of life because that would be a victory for our collective enemies. Our way of life is under attack and we must not fear or let it affect the way that we live out our Judaism. We have to think clearly and steer toward a collective bright future for the Jewish People.

If you were to ask me, “Is there disease that threatens the future of Judaism?” I’d say absolutely, yes. It’s not the disease that most of us spend our day thinking about. The disease is antisemitism. The reason it threatens us is because at the same time that younger generations are already choosing to not affiliate with organizational life, now overwhelming social pressure encourages them to be ashamed of their tribal family and to be ashamed of supporting the State of Israel.  

We know that it’s always been easier to walk away from Judaism than it has been to be a Jew.

But walking away from the Jewish tradition is not worthy of us. It does not honor the fact that we stood at Sinai and received these Commandments. It’s not respectful of our parents, or our tradition that was handed down to us. It’s not respectful of those around us. Do not fear. We have each other. We always have.


Nolan Lebovitz is the Rabbi of Adat Shalom in West LA.  He is also the filmmaker behind “Roadmap Jerusalem” and “Roadmap Genesis.” This was a sermon delivered to his synagogue.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Beauty Without Borders

I was amused by this scene of an elderly, ultra-Orthodox couple enjoying a coffee while a sensual French song came on. Do they have any idea what this song is about? I wondered.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.