In the summer of 1958, Groucho Marx took his daughter Melinda, friend Robert Duan and Robert’s daughter Judy for a six week trip to Europe, including a visit to Germany. While in Germany, they attempted to visit the cemetery where Groucho’s grandmother was buried, only to find the entire Jewish section had been eradicated by the Nazis. A few days later, Groucho hired a car to take them to East Berlin, where he asked to see the remains of Hitler’s bunker and last resting place. They found it much the way it was right after the war; a heap of wreckage and rubble. Marx got out of the car, stood atop it, and proceeded to do a frenetic Charleston routine; an ultimate act of defiance. No one laughed. They left Germany the next day.
It’s worth reflecting on that image, of Groucho Marx literally dancing on the grave of Hitler, without even a hint of humor in the moment, as we continue to process the events of the last few weeks. Rabbi Koppel, in conversation with me, reflected that it seemed as if the march in Charlottesville sent the entire Jewish community into shock, and that we were—are—still wrestling with what we should be doing. I mentioned this to a non-Jewish colleague, who said that he shared with his congregation the following question, based on the prophets: are we responding to the Tiki-torch Nazis out of righteousness or out of rage?
We might ask the question whether or not it matters; why shouldn’t we respond out of our own rage and pain? Wouldn’t we be justified to react in that fashion? To meet the forces of evil—and lets be clear, we are discussing evil—in the same manner they approach us?
This week we read in our Torah those words that we as Jews, and especially as Reform Jews, have clung to for generations; tzedek tzedek tirdof, Justice, Justice you shall pursue. The Hasidic leader Rabbi Simcha Bunim understands the repetition of the word tzedek—Justice—to mean that we must pursue justice in a just way. We cannot, must not say the ends justify the means, for to do so means that we are no longer truly pursuing a just, compassionate and sacred world. Instead we are pursuing our own agenda, one filled with bad intentions. Or, through our actions, no matter our intent, instead of spreading justice, we create the fertile ground for more injustice in the world. We have seen this again and again as people who once pursued righteousness now seek to feed their own egos, or well-intentioned programs and efforts turn out to backfire on the very people they were supposed to help. So it is with us as well in this moment. I know it’s scary right now, and exhausting, and sad, and infuriating. The old punk in me would like nothing better than to curb-stomp some skinhead thugs. But that isn’t justice; it’s not even close. Surely the times demand that we act and act we must. But we won’t become them. We will not allow their hate, their penchant to violence, their disdain for justice to make us act out of fear and rage. We will not let them dictate the rules of the game. No; we will act with a defiant love in our hearts, a love for God and this world and our neighbors and our tradition as radical and provocative as dancing on Hitler’s grave. We will not shrink from our mission as Jews, but step forward, reminding others of God’s hidden light in the world, that will only be revealed when we lift up the poor, support the oppressed, and care for the stranger in our midst, for we know what it means to be the stranger. We will act with courage, but not hate, strength but not rage, justice but not zealousness. The moment is calling to us, and we must answer the call, to do justice justly in the world and cause the shadow of hate to crawl back under the rock.
In 1941 Woody Guthrie put the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. His music was his weapon against tyranny and hate. Groucho’s weapon against injustice was a crazy Charleston. Our weapon is Torah, guiding the work of our hands and the words we speak. We move forward, mindful of the words of the psalmist we say from now until Rosh Hashanah, Hope in God! Be strong and of good courage. Hope in God! Amen.