Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur: 18-19 September 2015, translated by Robert Ley
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Delphine Horvilleur: « There is no scapegoat today »

We have now arrived at one of the most solemn sabbaths of the year, one that carries a particular name “Shabbat Shuva”.   This special sabbath of return and repentence falls in the heart of yamim noraim the “days of awe”, between the time of judgement, Rosh Hashana, and the time of forgiveness, Yom Kippour.

Perhaps you know that there was a time when the Rabbis delivered sermons on only two occasions: the sabbath prior to Pesach, to ensure that everyone was ready to get out of Egypt and that the hamets would disappear, and on Shabbat shouva when the people of Israel anxiously awaited the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.

Nowadays, though they speak a great deal more (too much perhaps) and week after week, Rabbis hold to tradition on this special sabbath in the Jewish calendar and make a call for repentence or deliver a solemn sermon on the meaning of forgiveness.

That’s exactly what I had in mind when preparing these remarks. But that was before..… before I turned on the radio and heard something that left me utterly speechless, which staggered me and made me want to scream!

It was a weekday morning on a national radio station with a very wide audience. A journalist was interviewing a producer known for his film “Welcome” about the migrants of Calais. When she asked the producer, Philippe Lioret, why he had accepted to come and speak about migrants when he had just explained that he was not qualified to do so, the producer replied as follows:

“I have had this thing in my head for a while and I said to myself, hey, I never heard anyone talk about this. I said to myself: but who is responsible for all this if we look back in time? (…) Yes, I said to myself, the Six Day War for example, is it so far back, 67?   The Israelis went into the West Bank and Gaza and dispossessed the Palestinians, was that not the start of a terrible thing for Arab identity which now brings us this sort of explosion of Muslim fundamentalism, which, I think, is really responsible for at least two-thirds of the crazy migrations that are happening to us today.”

So there you have it, on the radio at peak hour, a possible explanation, a clue, a particular causality for the events we are living through today, flowing directly from the Six Day War and the Israeli occupation.

Are we innocent because one day we suffered?

I admit that this “invitation to think about the origin of fundamentalism” left me speechless. Far be it for me to seek to justify the Israeli occupation or to underestimate its consequences for the region. But that is not what I want to discuss on this Sabbath eve.

Listening to those remarks, I thought what an extraordinary opportunity they provided for us to think about the meaning of responsibility and guilt;   and hence how profoundly relevant they were to Shabbat shouva, to what it is we are expected to meditate, to think about on this solemn day. Let me explain: by implicitly accusing Israeli policies of responsibility for the development of Muslim fundamentalism, to have been (to repeat his words) “the start of a terrible thing for Arab identity”, the author of these words engages in what could be called a powerful process of removing responsibility from the guilty.

Suddenly, the guilt lies elsewhere, somewhere else completely, not on the side of the perpetrators, the violent fanatics or the bloody barbarians, but on the side of others altogether who might provoke violence or resentment. Suddenly we deny any real responsibility to a group of men, and in so doing infantilise a nation, a culture, a group, preventing them from facing up to their History as adults… and to blame another, much more adult and more directly identifiable.

This approach is both dishonest and unsound: if one decides to excuse one group (those of “Arab identity” as suggested by the interviewee) in the name of past suffering, wounds or traumatisms …. why would this same reasoning not apply to the group that is suddenly held responsible? Why not look into the experience of that other group for a justification, a pain, an element of history which would excuse that group in turn? (Strangely, that analysis is not to be found.)

In all logic, such a chain of excuse and irresponsibility is never ending. Or to put it more simply, are we innocent because one day we were hurt?


None of us can escape responsibility

But what has all this to do with Shabbat shuva?

At this solemn moment in the Jewish calendar, when we are peparing ourselves for Yom Kippour, we are asked to excuse no-one and especially not ourselves, or rather to lay our faults at no-one’s door but our own. To accept that our sufferings, our pain, our past do not define us and do not express all that we are.  To assert, rather, that as adults we are expected to deal with this “thing” that is our identity without thinking that some other person has hurt us so badly that our responsibility is limited.

This process of accepting responsibility is complex and painful. It is the very meaning of the ritual of teshouva which we must follow.

On Yom Kippour, in all synagogues, we recount the ever so famous episode of the ancestral ritual of the scapegoat.

There was a time, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, that the sins of the people could be loaded onto a goat, i.e. an “other”, a time when we could escape our responsibilities by transferring them to that “other”. But what Kippour teaches us is that that time is well and truly past. There is no scapegoat today. And each of us, individually and as members of any group, ethnic or religious, a nation or a family, must accept responsibility for whatever, in his heart, has led to misdeeds and failings.

On this day, none of us can escape responsibility. Our sins are ours, our fanaticisms are ours and our fundamentalisms are ours, regardless of the difficulties, griefs, injustices and spoliations of which we have been victim.   We may build ourselves up provided we do not do so on someone else’s back.

May we, as full adults without infantilism, hear this message which belongs neither to Jews nor to others, this appeal for personal and collective responsibility as the only path to true forgiveness and without which no peace is possible.

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

© Menashe Kadishman

© Menashe Kadishman


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Lire aussi: Aujourd’hui naît un monde
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Delphine Horvilleur is a Rabbi at MJLF – Paris and Director of « Tenou’a – Atelier de pensée(s) juive(s) »

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