The Responsibility of Knowledge

A Speech at Free Synagogue
Mount Vernon, New York
Sunday, November 16, 1997

By Larry H. Spruill

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad

Our Father who art in heaven, Holy is thy name…

Qul hu wa La Hu Ahad
Al La Hu Samad
Lam Ya Lid Wa Lam Yu Lad
Wa Lam Ya Kul La Hu Ku Fu Wan Ahad

I open my address to my brothers, the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with prayers declaring the onenessss of God in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. It is so important to establish the truth of what the Ishmalites say in the Arabic language…they talk about oneness, the indivisibility of Millatu’l Ibrahim which is translated as the religion of Abraham.

We all profess the oneness of God Almighty..El Shaddai…We all seek oneness with God…But it is the desire of our merciful God that we seek oneness in love among the diversity of His creation…that is among all of humanity.

This has been and remains the greatest challenge to humanity. How difficult it seems to be to create what Dr. M.L. King declared as the “beloved community on earth.”

In fact, on March 25, 1968, about one week before the brutal assassination of Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the sixth-eighth annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly introduced Dr. King to those distinguished holy men of the Jewish faith with these powerful and challenging words…

Where does moral religious leadership in America come from today?…Where does God dwell in America today?…Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us. The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves. Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way. I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King. May everyone present give of his strength to the great spiritual leader, Martin Luther King.

Our God prefers peace over war…harmony over discord…prosperity over poverty…and knowledge over ignorance…These paths and options remain ours to choose and pursue. The choices we collectively make are our responsibility.

The topic this morning is the responsibility of knowledge. It is the title of a key note address scheduled to be given by Eli Wisel next spring to a group of educators in San Antonio, Texas. I do not know what the content and perspective Dr. Wisel will bring to these profound words.

In any case those four words…The Responsibility of Knowledge were engaging enough to capture my imagination. I could not wait until March 1998 to hear Dr. Wisel’s message. I am sure he will deliver a life altering presentation on the subject. I will be there to receive it.

However, I was provoked to discover their meaning for myself. I felt challenged and compelled to contemplate the meaning of responsibility and knowledge for myself and their influence on the direction of the community in which I live. The interpretation which has emerged is what I bring to you this morning.

My hours of contemplation will have been profitable if I have discovered meaning and present some application to help us better understand the social crisises prevalent in our daily lives here in Mount Vernon.

There is so much division, polarization, distrust, lawlessness, violence, moral depravity, racism, sexism, misunderstanding, poverty, premature death and most of all ignorance.

In the Old Testament book of Hosea (4:6) God said…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou has rejected knowledge, I will reject thee.

The book of Proverbs says, Fools hate knowledge. When I was growing up the F word that would certainly get one a slap across the lips by my mother’s fat little hands was to call your brother or sister or any one “a fool.” I didn’t understand why she hated that word so much. Now I do.

Equally hated words from my our lips to my mother’s enormous ears were “I don’t care.” Those words were forbidden in our household. The reason is also clear to me now.

My mother understood the relationship between knowledge and responsibility. Thomas Jefferson left us the powerful maxim… Freedom requires knowledge and responsibility.

My mother did not know Dr. Wisel nor had she read the works of Thomas Jefferson. But somehow this very simple southern “Negro” woman knew that the key to success in this era was for her children to hunger and thirst for knowledge and to expand their sense of responsibility beyond the personal and the selfish concerns of materialism.

With her limited Jim Crow education my mother taught me and my brothers and sisters that the acquisition of knowledge must be driven by service to humanity. She taught us that to whom much is given much is required. So, I have spent my fertile and lucrative academic years in my local high school and the somewhat provincial city of Mount Vernon.

Why? Because as a child born in the segregated south and raised in the 50s and 60s I was taught that those with knowledge have broad responsibilities…especially community and societal responsibilities.


What separates humanity from the beast of the earth is not our thumb and tool making capabilities as some scholars suggest.

Yes, it is our ability to reason, to search for answers and solve problems. But, science has shown us that insects and monkeys also can make creative tools to sustain their survival. Even the lower forms of life instinctively solve problems and creatively overcome obstacles before them.

But, humanity has enriched minds and thought processes. I like Einstein’s definition of intelligence…He said intelligence is What to do when we do not know what to do. What to do when we do not know what to do. I love it…

So intelligence according to Einstein is not content…it is not how much we know…But it is content plus creative action based on what we know…and in that process of solving our problems we construct and create new knowledge.

So you and I are God’s greatest creation because we are responsible…free will agents… We are RESPONSE ABLE. We are able to respond in meaningful ways to God…to one another…and to every crisis, obstacle, trial, tribulation, every social problem we are confronted with…We are able to grow knowledge and be RESPONSE ABLE.

Everybody knows something. Everybody has knowledge. We are responsible for the quantity, quality, and use of what we know. (By the way, knowledge is simply what we know.)

So many know a lot about things that are worthless to the progressive development of humanity. Then there are those who know specific, finite areas of knowledge that can be fed to a small few and also not a direct benefit to the mass of humanity.

Each one of us must teach one. It is our individual responsibility to teach…our children, students, employees, congregations, etc…We are able to respond to those who need to know something that we know.

(There are many who have skills that could help in the new efforts to govern and lead our schools into a new era…into a revival of academic excellence. You and I are able to respond. You and I are required to respond because you and I have knowledge. This does not mean that the current trustees, superintendent, administrators, teachers, parents etc. do not have knowledge. It only means that this district has not had to select a new superintendent in two generations (25 years). It means that district has never had a majority of minorities on the school board.

To make mockery is irresponsible. I challenge you to step forward and offer your individual and collective knowledge to the emerging ethnic groups.) I know that the fear of rejection and the dynamics of politics are restraints but those things do not change what you know…nor do they reduce your responsibility. You know thus you are responsible.

Because we know we must not retreat but step forward and be selfless givers of what we know. Not for political manipulation but for the progressive development of our community and all of humanity. Because we have knowledge we are response able and must be risk takers.

Over the past year I have acquired a deeper understanding of the plight of humanity. I was taught a life altering lesson by an obscure young man named Herschel Greenspan…His story taught me the meaning of the RESPONSIBILITY OF KNOWLEDGE.

Herschel Greenspan knew about the destruction of life in the earliest days of the holocaust. Herschel Greenspan felt responsible for what he knew…with the vigor of youth he knew that he was able to respond.

Herschel Greenspan’s story brought the reality of November 9, 1938 into my life in way that has changed me forever. Today, I need to talk about Kristallnacht. I want to talk about Kristallnacht. I need to. I must. I have gone to talk to survivors. They are a tough audience. I immediately threw away all of the prerequisites for dialogue. I did not require them to talk about slavery and I would not allow them to require me to denounce Farrakan. We agreed.

I asked them to meet me where I was. A human of African ancestry trying to see the world through the eyes of Herschel Greenspan. I refused to let anyone trivialize my effort to experience the meaning of Kristallnact.

For a moment, the historical experience of my people in America did not matter. I only wanted to be allowed to really feel and know and be responsible for knowing the truth of Kristallnact. I wanted to be transparent…open and vulnerable. I knew that the survivors in the audience were skeptical. I knew that they did not really take me seriously. But because I knew Herschel Greenspans story, I felt responsible to talk about its meaning for all humanity.

The world is a delicious but very dangerous place. We know what must be done in our community. So I come to reaffirm the unity of our existence and mutual interdependence. I come to see you and talk to you. You have invited me so I think that you need to talk to and see me as well.

I want to rehearse what I learned from Herschel. I need your patience and gentle criticism of what I think I know about the Jewish experience in Europe. I know that I am talking to the converted and preaching to the choir. But I must say that it is important for me to tell this story today. I have committed myself to tell this story to non-Jewish audiences throughout the year for the rest of my life. It is now my knowledge and I am responsible.

It is critical that I tell this story today without apologies. Far too many people of all races are willing to succumb to neo-nazi propaganda about the authentic records of the German pogroms against the Jews. As an educator, African and human being I am honored to be here as your guest. Bear with me.

From 1933-1939 Adolf Hitler, by bluffs and threats gained control of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and conquered Poland. This was the beginning of his attempt to conquer the world. He also wanted to get rid of people whom he believed were “inferior,” and of less value than other people. This included several minority groups, but Hitler expressed most of his hate and anger against the Jews.

He established state sanctioned pogroms forbidding Aryan Germans to do business with Jews, and placed signs forbidding Jews in their Aryan shops and businesses. Aryans were not permitted to marry Jews, mingle with Jews, go to Jewish doctors, or live near Jews. Hitler tried to expel the Jews from Germany and any other country he conquered, but that was too difficult. Besides other countries refused to accept them.

Adolph Hitler was possessed with destroying the Jews. He drew up his “Final Solution.” His final solution was a cover-up for his plot to murder all the Jews in Europe. Some German people who were not Jewish opposed Hitler’s plans. He murdered them too. He put six million Jews to death. Many Germans had to work on the program to kill all of Europe’s Jews. This was one of the darkest times in the history of all humanity. We all know the name Adolph Hitler. Far too many children and adults do not know the name of Herschel Grynszpan.

The name Herschel Grynszpan remains obscure and insignificant for most of humanity. This seventeen year old German-Jewish refugee responded to evil and injustice the way young people tend to–impulsively. What he saw happening in Europe in the Fall of 1938 was horrifying. These terrifying events were so incredibly inhumane, he could not understand why this rolling and mounting snowball of evil was not being challenged and resisted. Herschel felt response able for action against what he knew.

It was not something he read about in the newspapers or heard on radio. Herschel was Polish, but had been raised in Germany, and had escaped to France because of the Nazi persecutions of Jews. The boy’s father had been among thousands of Jews deported to Poland in sealed boxcar trains. Herschel received letters from his father describing the terrible journey and the inhumane conditions in the camp. Herschel had knowledge. He felt responsible. He knew he was response able.

The teenage boy felt he had to do something to protest what was happening to his father and people. So, on a November 7, 1938, Herschel got up and while at breakfast he took out of his wallet–a picture of himself and wrote a message on the back to his relatives. First in Hebrew, he wrote the words “with God’s help.” Then the rest of the message was written in German: “My dear relatives, I couldn’t do otherwise. God must forgive me. My heart bleeds when I think of our tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I have to protest in such a way that the whole world hears my protest, and this I intend to do. I beg your forgiveness.”

Herschel left the hotel… went to a gun shop and purchased a handgun. He went to the German embassy in Paris to kill the German Ambassador. Fortunately, for the Ambassador he was in the bathroom taking his morning constitutional. Instead Herschel shot and killed a low level German functionary.

Poor Herschel did not understand the monstrous events his sacrificial act of frustration would unleash upon his people and the world. Seventeen year old, Herschel felt personally responsible…he had no other choice. Seventeen year old Herschel knew the truth about to overtake his people. He felt that he had to do something drastic. So he bought a gun and killed a German.

The option chosen by seventeen year old Herschel Grynszpan was the long awaited excuse Hitler needed to escalate his Final Solution to the Jewish problem. Herschel gave Hitler the incident to set off an unprecedented wave of anti-semitism. Europe would never be the same again. The world would never be the same again.

November 9, 1938, marked the real beginning of the tragedy for the Jews. There are many Jews still alive who were in Germany and Europe at the time. When you mention November 9 survivors still shudder. I had to also learn to shudder.

On the night of November 9th, all the synagogues in Germany were destroyed. Small and large, elegant and plain, costly and inexpensive, small town shuls and huge urban showplaces—all were destroyed. Glass was smashed, buildings burned. Torah scrolls, arks, curtains, prayer books were torn and burned. Homes, furniture, china, artwork, offices, stores, and any other property belonging to Jews were also destroyed. It was as though a single torch suddenly passed over the entire German nation.

The Nazis used kerosene to start fires and bombs to destroy the synagogues. They forced their way into Jewish homes. They beat, killed, and humiliated the people. They stole or destroyed their property. Feather beds were torn and ripped open. Clothing was stolen. Violins were smashed. Every Jewish home was ransacked. They went in and out of apartments burning, looting, killing and smashing the things and lives of the Jews. This went on in big and small cities out into the rural hinterlands. This was a barbaric time. November 9, 1938 was beginning of the neo-dark ages in Europe.

From that day, more men were sent to Buchenwald. There was very little for Jewish families to eat. No one would sell food to Jews. Doctors refused to treat Jewish patients. Jewish children were banned from schools. All Jews were fingerprinted. A large J was stamped into Jewish passports. Jews were forced to wear a yellow star on their clothing.

The term Kristallnacht emanated from the sick minds of the masters of lies and Nazi propaganda, Goebbels and Goring. They denied that there had been any plundering or looting. Goring said, “No Jew had a hair of his head touched. Thanks to the outstanding discipline of the German people, only a few windows were broken in the riots.” Following the cynicism of their leaders, the Nazi rank and file labeled their night of terror and vengeance upon the Jews as Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night–The Night of Broken Glass.

Like Hitler, Herschel’s death is shrouded in mystery. His highly publicized trial drew international audiences. He was still a kid caught in the midst of violent and troubled world. He was detained. It was more advantageous to the Nazis to keep Herschel alive. He went from French jails for minors into German prisons and eventually concentration camps. He vanished. He became a mythical figure. No one knows when he died. Many claim to have seen Herschel as late as 1945. But no one really knows how Herschel Grynszpan died. Herschel’s parents and brother and sister all survived the war. They eventually found a home in Israel.

Poor Herschel Grynszpan did not know that it was not personal. He did not understand the magnitude of what was happening and soon to take place in Germany’s Europe. It was an attack on the entire Jewish people.

As an individual, he could not stop the volume of hatred and evil unleashed upon the earth by the Nazis. His simple and perhaps foolish act of heroism unleashed and opened the door for an unprecedented time of testing of Jewish faith in their God. Even Moses and the children of Israel were more secure than the Jews in Hitler’s Europe. Herschel felt responsible. In fact all of humanity was responsible.

The tinkling glass was the demonic announcement of death and destruction. Every American needs to internalize the Krystallnacht experience. We need to see it in Oklahoma City. We need to see it in the torching of the Korean Church in Queens. We need to see it in the scorched golf courses in Westchester. We need to see it in the LA riot.

There are lives today being shattered like the glass in Hitler’s 1938 Europe. Oh how we need to see the new SS Guards. Oh how we need to see the forces of evil and destruction walking through our families and communities.

Kristallnacht is a night of terror. Kristallnacht is not the broken glass of joyous Jewish weddings but the perverted sound of window panes crushed by clubs and the butts of rifles. This is a night of terror. It is a night of tinkling glass. Forgive me if I have been exhaustive. I am trying to understand the experience. I need you to help me do that.

When we can come together and share and remember and break bread and dream together we begin to build the bridges toward the Beloved Community Dr. King talked about. That America that community, that neighborhood, that city where people are judged by the content of their character and behavior and not by the color of their skin, religious faith, gender, physical handicap, language, national origin, or even their sexual orientation. It will not be easy…but we know from Herschel Grynszpan we have little choice.

The world is still a very dangerous place for those who love peace, truth and justice. The great American democratic experience, the hope of humanity is threatened with failure not from without but from within the hearts and souls of the American people. We are yet unable as a nation to confront the color line and all of its frightening ignorance with courage and rationality.

Time is running out. We are on a collision course with ourselves–that is with the unresolved contradictions between our creeds and commitments to authentic racial democratic practices and lifestyles. What will we do with the colorful peoples of the world that are flocking here and blanketing our nation from sea to shining sea. The browning of America is happening as I speak. Most are not coming solely for economic prosperity.

Prognosticators have declared our nation financially and creatively bankrupt. They say the year 2000 begins what many have called the Asian Century. The Noble Peace Prize winner, the venerated and sainted Mother Theresa has declared America the most impoverished nation in the world. She said that America has lost its moral treasures and ideas. It leaves little for its people to believe in and be nourished with. She said we no longer offer the world the moral guidance and hope initiated by the founding fathers.

So is there hope for a revived, renewed and restored America? If so, it will spring forth from ordinary people with extraordinary faith in the inherent goodness of all humanity. There is no place for bigotry and racism in balanced God-fearing American families.

We must resist the evil of racism. We must courageously support freedom, justice and equality for all Americans. We must courageously advocate life, liberty and the right to pursue happiness and prosperity for all Americans. This is the America Mother Theresa was talking about. Bigotry and racism cannot be a part of our 21st century. We must go back to the beginnings…basics. WE THE PEOPLE are America. We do not all look alike. We do not all have the same national origins. We do not all pray alike. We do not all speak alike. We do not all have the same gender. We do not all have the same sexual preference. We do not all have the same physical capabilities. We are diverse. We are different. We are America. We must sing as a chorus in complete harmony on the issue of never again shall WE THE PEOPLE allow a Krystallnacht, a holocaust, slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, Apartheid, pogroms.

I wrote a poem in which I closed my eyes, made myself a Jew and transported myself to Germany on November 9, 1938. The opening lines are as follows:

Larry H. Spruill

Night of tinkling glass
Shattered dreams
Surreal screams
Frightened souls
Terrified by
Unleashed evil….
upon indiscriminate humanity
Tinkling, tinkling glass…
Fractured mirrors of life…
Walking on broken shards
Crunch, Crunch, Crunch…
Goose stepping boots…
Coming to take me away…

[See my blog entry entitled "Kristallnacht."]