Last week, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee attacked two young Jewish men wearing kippot in Berlin, shouting and cursing at them, and hitting one of the men with a belt. A video of the incident went viral and captured the attention not only of Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller but also German Chancellor Angela Merkel who called the episode "horrifying" and stressed the need for appropriate reaction. In response to this crime and other public episodes of anti-Semitism, on Wednesday, more than two thousand people, from all walks of life, some of different faiths, some professing no faith at all, came together to don kippotin rallies throughout German cities. Reinhard Borgmann, a 65-year-old Jew whose relatives perished in the Holocaust and whose mother only survived because she hid from the Nazis said, "As Jews, we want to be able to move freely, whether with kippah or without. We want to be able to practice religion in peace and not be discriminated against and not live in fear. And this event tonight is a sign and an important one."
But shockingly and dishearteningly, this episode of violence has not been the only incident. There has been religious bullying at a Berlin primary school. And earlier this month, German rap duo Kollegah and Farid Bang received an ECHO award, the equivalent of a Grammy, for best hip-hop album. In their lyrics, the rappers said that they plan "to make another Holocaust" and in another song remarked that their bodies are "more defined than Auschwitz prisoners." Originally, ECHO organizers believed that these lyrics only expressed "artistic freedom," but when Campino, lead singer of German punk rock band Die Toten Hosen accepted a separate award, he seized the opportunity and said, "In principle, I consider provocation a good thing. But we need to differentiate between art as a stylistic device, or a form of provocation that only serves to destroy and ostracize others." Past winners of Echo awards said they would return their awards if the decision to honor the German rap band was not rescinded. Finally, following the criticism, the German Music Industry Association apologized saying, "We as a board estimated all wrong and wanted to promote the artistic freedom at the wrong place. We will take care that such things will not happen again in the future [and] we deeply apologize for all of that to you and all other people whose sentiments we have hurt." BMG, the rap group's distributors responded to the controversy by donating 100,000 Euros to combat anti-Semitism in German schools. Even the rappers themselves, took an opportunity to apologize for the distress they've caused, even though, their damage is already done.
Amidst the nature of these events and the more than appropriate response organizationally and at the highest levels of German leadership, is the difficult timing. We have just celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern day State of Israel, and a week earlier, commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, incidentally, which was observed on the night of the ECHO awards in Germany. But let us not lose sight of the response, the outcry, the perceived unacceptability, more than seventy years after the conclusion of the Holocaust. The events are troublesome, obnoxious, inappropriate, awful, and condemnable. Sometimes it seems as if people will never learn. But what is encouraging about these terrible recent events is that sometimes people do learn, sometimes people and cultures can grow, and sometimes, even out of the ashes, we see that a different kind of redemption is not only possible, it may yet prevail.
But the core of responsibility comes back to us and it comes back to the commanded nature of our covenant with God that was established since the very beginning. In Leviticus 19, we read the "Holiness Code," so called because God teaches us, "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." The obligations that follow -- honoring our parents, observing the Sabbath, respecting that which we sacrifice, leaving the corners of the field for the poor, not to steal, not to lie, not to deceive another person, not to engage in fraud, not to pervert justice, not to slander, to love our neighbor as yourself, and to live with honesty, among others -- are the very responsibilities that must continue to define us.
But there's something more here, specifically in the nature of God teaching us to be "holy." We often think of "holy" as something lofty, elevated, higher, spiritual, or perhaps even unachievable. But "holy," kadosh, simply means, "separate" or "set apart" or "differentiated." Of course, one can read into this definition that "holy" might mean walling ourselves off, but then we would be separating ourselves from the community of which we are intrinsically a part. We have to be in the world together, not escape from it and pretend that it doesn't exist. But being different, and being proud of our differences, and creating a world where it is safe to be different, and where we can respect other people's differences, and they respect ours, is a possible understanding of what it means to be "holy."
I recently attended a multi-faith conference,where it was stressed that we need to use the term "multi-faith" rather than "inter-faith." "Inter-faith" suggests that we are losing something, giving something up. Multi-faith stresses that we have our faith, that others have theirs and that we seek to respect and learn from each other's journey, without seeking to influence or change it. Human beings are so different from person to person, that even as we search for holiness among our people, even as we search for holiness throughout our planet, we also yearn for a holiness that respects the individual journey that defines each of us.
Holy is not about aspiring to every single rule or every single commandment. That's impossible for even the most ritually observant of any religious practice. We don't get there some day and then say, "I'm holy now." Holy is a process. Holy is something we build, something we encourage. Holy is the journey, however different that journey may be from person to person. Holy is not only what we aspire to; it is how we aspire to it.
And part of that aspiration, is celebrating and taking pride in who we are, in our uniqueness as individuals, in the values, rituals, traditions and teachings that shape us as a people, rather than feeling that we should be afraid, or thinking that we need to give them up and assimilate. Maybe someday, there will be no need to denigrate another. Maybe someday, there will be no need for such victimization. Maybe someday, in the words of Isaiah, "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox." The wolf won't change the lamb into a wolf; the wolf will be fine that the lamb is there. And animals of different species will be comfortable together. Maybe someday, the very uniqueness, the very holiness of our world, the very pride in who we are and who we can become together, will be recognized and realized. Such is the holiness to which we aspire, and toward which God continues to guide us.
Leviticus chapter 19.
Alliance of Virtue for the Common Good, February 5-7, 2018, Washington D.C.
Isaiah 11:6-7, Bible Gateway Translation.