Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Etz Chaim Responds to Critics About his Sermon on Radical Islam

Special for the AJT

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5775, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim delivered a sermon intended to “Wake folks up to the dangers of radical Islam.” In the past few days, the sermon has been reprinted and taken out of context by multiple websites and blogs. Headlines such as U.S. Rabbi: All Muslims guilty, should be exterminated” have been used to describe the Rabbi’s speech. The AJT’s David Cohen was there when the Rabbi spoke, and knows first hand that this headline could not be further from the truth.

As editors of the Atlanta Jewish Times, we felt that fair and accurate reporting was necessary to deconstruct various points Rabbi Lewis made in his sermon, and provide him with an opportunity to respond to his radical critics.

Rabbi Shalom Lewis

Atlanta Jewish Times: During this past week numerous websites and blogs have included pieces bashing you and your Rosh Hashanah sermon.  Most of the criticism is along the general lines of:

This year’s speech is filled with racist platitudes, demonizing the religion of Islam, and calling for a new World War against Islam.

What was the purpose and intent of your sermon?

Rabbi Shalom Lewis: The intent was to wake folks up to the dangers of radical Islam; that it is not just a threat to Middle East stability but poses an existential threat to western civilization as well. I wanted people to realize that since we live in a globalized, interdependent world with open borders and easy access, we are all affected and must all be diligent in condemning and preventing terrorism.  When you read the text of my sermon, it is very clear that I am not calling for a new World War against Islam, but rather a war against radical Islamic terrorists. For people to claim otherwise, is to distort what I said.

AJT: Certain people have argued that the following quote from your sermon was a call to exterminate all Muslims. 

“The fury of ultimate evil is upon us and we must act – not to contain it. Not to degrade it. Not to manage it. Not to tolerate it, but to exterminate it utterly and absolutely.”

What did you mean by your statement and what or who were arguing should be exterminated utterly and absolutely?

Lewis: Nonsense. To call for the extermination of all Muslims is obscene and offensive to me as a Jew and as a human being.  If that was what I meant then that is what I would have said-clearly. The text speaks for itself-the ‘ultimate evil’ is violent, radical Islam. That is what needs to be exterminated.    I condemn the brutal deeds of  Muslim extremists. I in no way condemn the faith of Islam.  As Jews, we are taught that the righteous of all nations, including Islam, are blessed by God for their righteous behavior.

AJT: Your critics claim that the following quote from your sermon means that you are saying that Muslims are immoral and do not deserve to live in the same world as Jews.

“I am all for dialogue, but we are dealing with a moral species that eats its own, kills it’s young and celebrates innocent death as homage to God.”  

What did you mean by this statement?

Lewis: In context, the reference refers clearly to Isis, Hamas, Taliban and all the other terrorists groups who diminish the sanctity of life-even the innocent life of their children. The Muslims who are immoral are the Muslims who behave immorally-the radical Islamists and their twisted brand of Islam. Such behavior has no place in the civilized world.

AJT: Why do you think that people are misreading your sermon and taking statements out of context?

Lewis: The enemies of truth are just that. To expect honesty from the radical Islamic community and their supporters is like expecting honesty from the Nazis. They will lie, distort, twist, cherry pick to make their point and promote their corrupt cause. The sermon obviously hit a raw nerve;  otherwise,  it would have been ignored.

AJT: Do you have any regrets about your sermon, or are there any portions that you wish you would have stated differently?  Why?

Lewis: I am proud of the sermon and would not change a word in it. It is honest and needed to be said-now it needs to be heeded. Asked by some if I would do it again, my answer is absolutely yes. As a rabbi, as a Jew, as an American, as a lover of freedom I felt compelled to express my feelings, my  concerns, and my fears.

Read the original and full sermon here at the Etz Chaim Website: https://etzchaim.net/ehr_daw_2014