WASHINGTON (JTA) – Rosh Hashanah is a time to celebrate God as Creator and to reinforce our belief that all human beings are created in God’s image.
My teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the reason the Torah condemns idolatry so forcefully and with such severe punishments is because human beings are the true image of God. If we bow down to a false image, to an idol, or enslave ourselves to a god within, then we are denying the true divinity in each and every human being.
By being created in God’s image, humans are endowed with dignity and rights. By being created in God’s image, human beings must be responsible to their Creator. And this is the time of year when God calls everyone to account.
We need to engage in a searching self-examination, a “heshbon ha-nefesh,” regarding the desecration of these fundamental principles of our faith.
Over the past seven years, U.S. military and intelligence officials have committed acts of torture, of cruel and inhumane punishment, on people held in custody. There is irrefutable evidence that U.S. government officials, directed by government leaders, have violated American law and the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of detainees. The image of God is under cruel assault in Guantanamo and in unidentified prisons in foreign countries.
Detainees have been subjected to the extremes of hot and cold, forced to stay awake for 20 hours a day and not allowed to go to the bathroom – they are force-fed while being bound to a chair and defecate in their own clothes. They have been subjected to waterboarding. Many detainees have been pushed to the brink of insanity.
These are all acts of torture that violate the fundamental principles of our republic and the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.
Why have we allowed this to happen? We are afraid. We are afraid that we might be attacked again as we were on Sept. 11, 2001. We are afraid that it might be an even more horrible attack, taking even more innocent lives.
If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we have worshiped a strange and alien god – the god of national security. It is a god who demands that we sacrifice some of our most
cherished principles on its altar: the right to a fair hearing, the right of the accused to examine all evidence used against him, the right of the accused not to be treated cruelly and inhumanely.
We have become so enthralled with this strange and alien god that we have become blind to how much we have harmed ourselves and our legitimate national interests. American credibility on human rights
issues around the world has been shredded. It is in tatters. When we speak out on the human rights abuses of others – whether in Darfur, Zimbabwe or China – the world laughs at us.
What right do we have to speak when we have ourselves have locked up hundreds, if not thousands, of people and treated them cruelly? How can we promote democracy in the world if we do not adhere to its principles at home?
This is not just a political problem. We are in the grip of a profound moral and spiritual crisis. Like the biblical patriarch Abraham, we have to shatter the idols. We have to realize that we undermine our security and our national interests when we violate the very principles on which this country was founded.
What should we do? We must act. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is sponsoring a petition that will be presented to the president-elect shortly after the election. The petition asks the newly elected president to issue an executive order banning all cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees shortly after being sworn in on Jan. 20.
In addition, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America has invited synagogues to join its K’vod Habriyoth Campaign. More than 40 congregations have signed a statement declaring that torture is immoral.
As Americans, we face many problems. Yet we cannot face up to any of these problems if we compromise the basic principles on which this country was founded. May God give us the wisdom to realize the spiritual crisis in which we find ourselves and the courage to shatter the false idols we have worshiped.
May this New Year be a year of truth and courage.
(Rabbi Charles Feinberg is the associate rabbi of Adas Israel in Washington and a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. This article was adopted from a Rosh Hashanah sermon.)