Category Archives: RJL Biography


Kosher supermarket in Paris attacked by terrorists

Let me share two quotations with you, both translated into English from other languages. Here is the first one: “Look, these people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal wisely with them because they have greatly prospered and increased; otherwise they may join our enemies in the event of conflict and rise up to fight against us.”

Here is the second quotation: “We can no longer assimilate the new people that keep coming in. They’ll end up in ghettos, in inter-ethnic conflicts, making demands and claims and for their particular group, and causing religious and political provocation. These things are a direct consequence of a massive immigration that overshadows our national identity and brings with it more and more visible increases in radical behavior, with all its claims and demands. This community, with its clannishness, has poisoned national cohesion and threatened security, which are the very firsts of our freedom.”

The first quotation is a translation from Hebrew. Uttered by Pharaoh to his courtiers thousands of years and found in this week’s Torah portion (Exodus 1:9-10), it describes the king’s concern that the growth of the Israelite population might swamp and subvert the stability of ancient Egypt.

The second is a translation from a speech given in French by Marine Le-Pen at the Cambridge Student Union in England just under two years ago. In her remarks Le-Pen highlighted the dangers posed by elements of her country’s population whose ideals and beliefs threaten to undermine the values of French civilization. While not exactly equating France’s entire population of roughly 5 million Muslims (approximately 8% of the population according to a 2010 study of the Pew Research Center) with “radical Islam,” Le-Pen neither defines nor distinguishes between Muslim immigrants in general and those who advocate radical views.

Marine Le-Pen’s words really aren’t so different from Pharaoh’s; both are xenophobic. Perhaps Pharaoh had good reason to be fearful of the Israelites — though the Torah is silent on the matter and there is nothing to suggest provocative behavior on the part of Jacob’s descendants. On the other hand, the rabbis teach that throughout their sojourn in Egypt, Israel not only dwelt separately from the Egyptian people, but declined to intermarry, never took Egyptian names, and refuse to abandon the Hebrew language. In other words, they remained committed to remaining separate and distinct from the society in which they lived.

If it is not hard to grasp that Pharaoh’s suspicion of the Hebrews was based on their aloofness from Egypt’s language and culture, it is perhaps not so difficult to understand the growing numbers of French individuals who have become increasingly suspicious of Muslim immigrants. Does this justify such sentiments? Absolutely not! What rabbi would justify Pharaoh’s enslavement of our ancestors? As for Marine Le-Pen, we cannot forget that she comes from a family and political party that has denied the significance of the Holocaust and has had scathing things to say about Jews and Israel. The adumbration of Le-Pen’s words in Pharaoh’s simply remind us that xenophobia is hardly a new phenomenon.

France is a country in crisis. Civilized individuals the world over were shocked by the brutal murders of those killed at the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. A day later a police officer was killed in Montrouge in a related attack, while yesterday a kosher grocery was also targeted by Islamic radicals. As disturbing as these incidents are, they are part of a much larger pattern that repeats itself time and again. In December knife attack in a police station in Tours and car-ramming attacks in Dijon and Nantes on three consecutive days . . . hundreds of French citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria . . . not to mention hundreds of incidents of anti-Semitism ranging from beatings to vandalism against Jews in multiple French cities.

The French government has recently passed tough new anti-terror laws allowing it to shut down jihadist websites, revoke passport privileges and deny re-entry to insurgents who fight with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS.

Yet no law can change the basic alienation of many young Muslims living in French slums, who are economically disadvantaged and lead lives of isolation in sprawling urban slums with no stake in the Western ideals of free speech and cultural pluralism. These are the breeding grounds of resentment, a pressure cooker in which those with little reason to hope for better things are vulnerable to jihadist recruiters who promise salvation, glory, and the chance to be a part of something larger than themselves. Even if only 1% of France’s Muslim population were to fall prey to the fanatical rhetoric of radical Islam, there would still be 50,000 individuals receptive to those who preach the message of glorious martyrdom; and were that number only 1/100th of the Muslim population, there would still be 5,000 ripe for extremism. Having seen the mayhem caused by just four people over a period of a few days, this is a frightening thought.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, (Sotah 11a) when Pharaoh became concerned with the growth of the Hebrew population he called together his three most trusted counselors: Reuel, Job, and Balaam. Reuel urged Pharaoh to treat the Israelites well, to accommodate their differences while still giving them a stake in Egyptian society. Job, on the other hand, took a neutral stance, declining to recommend a particular course of action to Pharaoh. Balaam, the last of the three counseled harsh treatment to break their spirit and put them in their place. In rabbinic legend, it was none other than Balaam who suggested to king the practice of drowning the male children of the Hebrews.

France, like Pharaoh, stands at a crossroads, free to take the advice of Reuel, Job or Balaam. It can seek to counter the alienation of Muslim youth; it can choose to do nothing; or it can give into the xenophobia of Marine Le Pen.

To opt for the last choice will only lead to failure — not only because it will corrode the very values of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” that exemplify the best of French civilization, but because the promoters of holy war exult in any action that creates more discontent and dislocation within France’s immigrant communities.

There have been many condemnations of the terror attacks of the last several days from Muslim authorities around France. It would be dangerously cynical to dismiss such sentiment as pure posturing; I believe the revulsion they express is absolutely real . . . as is their fear of a backlash against all Muslims.  Let us not forget for a minute Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim policeman killed in the line of duty while responding to the attack on Charlie Hebdo; let us not forget Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee of Hyper Cacher, the kosher supermarket in Paris, who saved Jewish shoppers by quickly hiding them in a freezer, turning off the electricity, and locking the door to keep them safe.  Bathily, at considerable risk to himself, escaped from the building to apprise the police of the situation — only to be arrested as an accomplice, spending 90 minutes in handcuffs before finally convincing the police of his innocence.

These individuals should give us pause before we slander an entire religious group.  Yet I would respectfully submit that the time has come for the 99% to do more than protest that such atrocities do not represent the real Islam, or that they violate specific precepts of the Koran and the hadith, the prophetic traditions taught in Mohammed’s name. Islam, like both Judaism and Christianity, contains a wide variety of textual traditions — all three Abrahamic faiths have narratives to support a full spectrum from the most peaceful and conciliatory statements to the most brutal and intolerant. It no longer suffices to disown the jihadists; the Muslim community in France must co-opt them. That there is no hierarchy in the world of Islam as there is in Catholic Church makes it difficult for one group or leader to claim the fealty of all Muslims; indeed, the worst excesses of violence are those perpetuated by Muslims against other Muslims. Nevertheless, the 99% who shun the path of hatred must stand up more vigorously to the 1%. The battle is not for the soul of Islam, it is for the souls of Muslims around the world.

The sad fact remains is that the Muslim establishment has largely stood on the sidelines in the aftermath of anti-Semitic attacks on French Jewry, remaining quiet or excusing such violence as but a natural reaction to frustration with Israeli policies toward the Palestinians . . . as if kidnapping a Jewish teenager on a Paris sidewalk as he walked to synagogue and then dumping his lifeless body constitutes a logical quid pro quo for the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

But for the Muslim community to succeed in exposing the criminals who hide behind the facade of Islam, it will require an active partnership with the French government, and above all, with the 92% of the population who aren’t Muslim.

Perhaps the French people might gaze beyond the Atlantic, beyond the Americas and the Pacific to Australia. In the wake of a terror attack in downtown Sydney invoking Islam, thousands upon thousands of ordinary Australians sought to reassure Muslim citizens that they need not fear a backlash of intolerance. It began rather spontaneously with a tweet from a woman named Rachael Jacobs, (whom I’d like to believe is Jewish):

“the woman (presumably Muslim) sitting next to me on the train silently removers her hijab . . . (next tweet) I ran after her at the train station and said, ‘Put it back on. I’ll walk with you.’ She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute – then walked off alone.”

Soon this led to other posts:

“If you take the #373 bus by Coogee or Martin Place, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule”;

“I’m a semi regular commuter on the Mandurah Line. If you see me, #illridewithyou. I’ll be wearing this scarf” (accompanied by a picture of a scarf).

In just one twelve-hour period, more than 150,000 residents of Sydney and other metropolitan areas tweeted to #Illride with you . . . could one ask for a greater investment of outreach and support than that?

I reject the stark black and white views of knee-jerk reactionaries, even as I am painfully aware of the great distance we have yet to go. I continue to believe that a time will come when the Muslim community of France views an attack on a synagogue as though it were a desecration of a mosque; a time when the Jews of France will be among the first to stand guard against those who would vandalize Islamic houses of worship. A time when an Ahmed Merabet and a Lassana Bathily are the kinds of heroes all our children aspire to becoming. Whether now or later, humanity will eventually have to face the simple choice between riding alone with only hate and suspicion as companions, or riding together with respect and empathy. After 9/11 we heard the French tell us “We are all Americans.” Now we are all Charlie . . we are all Jews . . . we are all Muslims . . . we are all French. I would be happy if we were all simply God’s children, realizing that we must journey together on God’s earth. As for me “Je vais voyager avec vous — I’ll ride with you” is the only way to travel.

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Pictures at an Exhibition: The Difference between Art and Pornography in an Immodest World

 Michelangelo’s David (1504)

This past week, the Jacksonville City Council President, Clay Yarborough, visited the Museum of Contemporary Art-Jacksonville. This was his reaction:

It stunned me to walk into a City-owned building and be greeted by a large picture of a naked woman, particularly because the tenant is receiving over $230,000 in General Fund taxpayer dollars through the Cultural Council this fiscal year. The picture is in plain view of anyone entering, including school children. This issue works against our efforts to promote a family-friendly Jacksonville and downtown. We are trying to promote a positive moral climate in our city and though some will defend the pornography by labeling it ‘art,’ we need boundaries in order to be healthy, especially where it concerns our children.

The image that bothered Mr. Yarborough was not from Hustler or Penthouse. Rather, it was that of an obviously pregnant woman reclining on a couch wearing nothing more than her birthday suit. It is but one of a series of photographs taken by artist Angela Strassheim, intended to illustrate transitional points in the lives of women.

MOCA refused to take the photograph down, while Mr. Yarborough’s plea to pull the plug on funding to the Cultural Council fell on deaf ears at the Office of Mayor Alvin Brown. If I were a cynic — which I’m not, but I know how to think like one when I want to — I’d suggest that this tempest in a teapot was a win-win for all concerned. Clay Yarborough’s outrage added to the esteem in which his socially conservative base of supporters hold him; Mayor Brown portrayed himself as a champion of the First Amendment; and I would bet that this brouhaha has yielded in the last week more visits to the museum than would otherwise have been the case.

I don’t share our City Council President’s opinion. Art has long claimed the human form as fair game for depiction; indeed, much of the Christian art of the Middle Ages depicted scantily clad individuals, bared breasts and all. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pornography” is defined as, “Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings (emphasis added).” Are human beings really incapable of anything but salacious thoughts when viewing art that includes nudity? If your answer is “yes”, say good-bye to painters like Goya, Titian, Cezanne, Picasso, Rubens, Manet and countless others. Indeed, by insisting that Strassheim’s photo was pornographic by definition, Mr. Yarborough unintentionally degraded women by seeing nothing more than a sex object.

The price for living in a blessedly open and free society is the willingness to tolerate specifically those expressions of speech, verbal or visual, with which we disagree. As the 18th century playwright and thinker, Francois-Marie Arouet — better known as Voltaire — once wrote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” It is this which is the essence of free speech. As a parent living in an open society, it is my responsibility to know what my children are doing on their computer or watching on television; it is also my responsibility to know what they will see before I bring them to a museum. It is time-consuming and laborious work, often imperfectly performed because I’m only human and cannot always anticipate every curve-ball in advance. Still, this is the only way in which to navigate  between our responsibility as parents and our need to uphold the freedom which is our country’s greatest asset. Look, I may not approve of the drunkenness I sometimes see at sporting events, especially when I am present with my children, but I have no plans to lobby the city to cut off funding projects related to stadium improvements until the Jaguars or Suns ban the sale of alcohol.

Still, something Mr. Yarborough said does resonate with me, even though I disagree with the context in which it was said: “ . . . we need boundaries in order to be healthy . . .” (emphasis added). The fact is we live in a society that does not value tzni’ut, modesty. The issue is not about how we view art, but our own self-image. The problem is not at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but on highway billboards, internet websites, snapchat or instagram, and the glossy pages of magazines which objectify women — and sometimes men — in a fashion that degrades and diminishes them. The problem isn’t in the galleries, but in the clothing children, and sometimes their parents wear, clothing that is meant to distract and advertise, which is confused with elevating and enhancing.

The early 20th century German-Jewish Bible Scholar, Benno Jacob, has this to say about clothing, “Clothing is not merely a protection against the cold or ornamentative. It constitutes the primary and necessary distinguishing mark of human society. In the moral consciousness of man it serves to set him higher than the beast. The status and glory of man are reflected in the character of his attire. Just to be clothed already lends dignity to man.”

How striking to note the central role that clothing plays in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Humanity comes into being wearing its birthday suit; there is no consciousness or shame at being naked. The sly serpent of Genesis 3 is described as ערום (arum) in context meaning shrewd, clever, cunning; yet in Hebrew ערום more generally means “naked”! The biblical play on words is quite deliberate — through the act of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the consequence of humanity’s newly found sentience is an awareness of and an embarrassment at being naked. With the attainment of full human consciousness, the very first thing Adam and Eve do is to cover themselves with fig leaves. Their action, of course, is paralleled by God. As the Torah teaches, “וַיַּ֩עַשׂ֩ ה’ אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָ֧ם וּלְאִשְׁתּ֛וֹ כָּתְנ֥וֹת ע֖וֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵֽׁם — And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).

Nowhere else in Genesis — or in the entirety of the Bible, for that matter — does the text inform us about God’s role in the invention of the accouterments of civilization. Greek mythology explains how Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the sake of humanity, Native American legend relates how people learned to hunt, while other cultures possess stories about the etiology of tool-making and house building. Judaism, however, is absolutely silent on all these subjects, presuming as a matter of course that human beings used their God-given ingenuity to discover agriculture, building and metal-working on their own. But it is none other than God who invents clothing, not Lord and Taylor, but rather, Lord as tailor, who personally dresses Adam and Eve for their foray into the cold world outside Eden’s gates.

“Man, who was created in the Divine Image,” the late Nehama Leibowitz wrote, “must not rest content with what nature has endowed him. He must strive to rise higher. Man is the only creature in the universe who does not rest content with his natural skin, but covers his nakedness with a garment given him by his Creator, symbolizing his role as priest in the temple of nature.”

Samuel Butler, the English novelist, once said, “Fashion is like God, man cannot see into its holy of holies and live.” Yet the “holy of holies” of fashion can be rather a profane place. Surely a multitude of present-day designers can boast that they have been employed by royalty, having designed the Emperor’s clothing many times over. One need not be a proponent of the Mea Sh’arim look of the ultra-Orthodox, long sleeves and ankle-length dresses, to note the sad contrast between Jewish ideals and the contemporary couterier’s decision to let it all hang out.

The Jewish value of tzin’ut, modesty in one’s clothing is not rooted in prudish contempt for the human form. The 1st century Hillel praised bathing because it allowed him to pamper his body; Rabban Gamliel would offer a blessing to God whenever he came across a person of great beauty. We celebrate our bodies because God created them, and the totality of our being is reflective of the Divine Image in which we are made. The medieval Iggeret Hakodesh (the Epistle of Holiness) teaches, “We the possessors of the Holy Torah believe that God, may God be praised, created all in wisdom and did not create anything ugly or shameful. For if sexual intercourse were repulsive, then the reproductive organs are also repulsive. [Yet] it is said, “The Rock whose work is perfect” (Deuteronomy 32:4) and “God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) . . . God created man and woman, fashioning and forming all their organs, placing them in their form. God did not create anything repulsive.”

Yet the intention of the above is a far cry from the sniggering anatomical jokes and the “wink wink” nudging of men when a scantily clad woman walks by. That some women — and men, for that matter — dress inappropriately for worship is not a reflection of contempt for the sanctity of a house of worship and what it stands for; rather, it is merely an extension of the absence of modesty in the world at large, the product of a society that relegates tzni’ut to the margins of the mainstream, to the quaint Amish and out-of-sync Satmar of society. It is the failure of parents who do not teach their children that a certain modesty in dress preserves the inner human being from assault by the coarseness of daily life. It is a symptom of a culture in which myriad T-shirt logos glorify foul language, drugs, violence, or toilet humor. Perhaps above all, it is a failure of self-respect, as if the manner in which we can best draw attraction to ourselves requires we expose to the world our skin instead of our skills.

In the eyes of Judaism, clothing does make the person — but not in the sense implied by the crass commercialism of the fashion industry. The issue is not whether rayon humanizes us more than cotton, or whether Donna Karen is more ennobling than Calvin Klein, but rather how the clothing we choose to wear can make us more cognizant about being human.

Scripture teaches, “הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָה־’ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶיךָ — God has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:9) “To walk modestly with your God” means to eschew the garish, the vulgar, and the lurid in speech or in dress. In biblical idiom God is described as “clothed in righteousness.” We who wear garments of wool, cotton, linen or nylon must seek also to cloak ourselves in righteous behavior. If not, no matter how fashionable our garb may be, we may be far more naked than even we realize.

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The Revolution (of the Heart) Will Not Be Televised; Reflections on Ferguson, Missouri

Tear gas envelopes a woman kneeling in the street  with her hands in the air after a demonstration in Ferguson, MO.

I spent my childhood in a community very different than Ferguson, Missouri in many ways.  Located on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, Dobbs Ferry was a bedroom community of the Big Apple.  Yet despite being a suburb, the village felt much more like a small town than an extension of suburban sprawl.  The business district consisted of two streets — Cedar and Main — a single supermarket, one high school, and eight traffic lights. Both the fire department and the ambulance corps were staffed by volunteers. The village hall on Main Street was a quaint affair — not only did it house the fire and police departments, but contained a courtroom, the village clerk’s office and, in the back of the police department, two jail cells.

I did not attend the local public schools because my parents enrolled me in a Jewish day school. Indeed, as a teenager I became a commuter myself, taking the Hudson line train to Grand Central Station each weekday morning to attend school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  Often I would return home well after dark because of extra-curricular activities or visits with friends who lived in the city. When I arrived at the train station, I would usually walk home except in inclement weather — my house was just under a mile from the station.  Dobbs Ferry was a safe place to grow up in; crime was very rare.  I can’t remember either my parents or I ever being worried about being attacked or accosted on that solitary walk from the train station.

During those adolescent years, my father’s health steadily deteriorated from Parkinson’s Disease. Blessed with devoted home health care aides, we were fortunate to be able to keep him at home until nearly the end of his life.  I have very warm memories of the men who cared for my dad’s physical needs: Dalbert, who came from Jamaica; Akwasi, who served in Ghana’s merchant marine before emigrating to the United States; and Glenn, a young man from Guyana, who eventually went on to become a train engineer with Amtrak.  They, too, used to walk from the train station to our house.

Only one thing distinguished our respective walks from the station. In all the years of growing up in Dobbs Ferry, a patrol car never stopped me, no matter how late at night I might be walking. Dalbert, Akwasi, and Glen, on the other hand, were each stopped by the police on multiple occasions, queried as to where they were going and why, and asked for ID. Of course, I was white, and they were black.

We have all been riveted to our television screens by the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, the conflicting testimony of what transpired that fateful day, and mostly the outrage of a community that sparked angry protests and violence. We have listened to pundits blame everyone from the officer to the police department, from the mayor and the city council to Michael Brown himself.  Depending on where you like to set your radio dial or surf the internet you will hear dramatically different explanations of events in Ferguson.

I don’t know what happened and I won’t speculate. I wasn’t there. Officer Darren Wilson should be considered innocent until proven guilty, not because he is entitled to special treatment as a policeman, but because that is the standard required by our judicial system.

In thinking about Michael Brown’s death, I keep coming back to the memory of all the years I walked home alone without ever being stopped by a police officer, while Dalbert, Akwasi and Glenn were stopped time and time again. We may have an African American President and an African American Attorney General, but that doesn’t mean that time has magically inoculated American culture against racism.  To be sure, we have made giant strides in the half-century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed. That which was taboo for minorities 50 years ago we now take for granted; the kind of bigotry that once was commonplace would be unacceptable today.  Yet who would be naive enough to say “And they all lived happily ever after”?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh, we encounter a beautiful sentiment, but one that on the face of it, has never been true:  אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן כִּֽי־בָרֵ֤ךְ יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֙ ה’ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹֽתֵן־לְךָ֥ נַֽחֲלָ֖ה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ — “There shall be no needy among you since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 15:4). How could Scripture so blatantly deny the existence of poverty, when we know that the poor have been a constant since the dawn of organized society? Indeed, the Torah itself appears to recognize the error of this assertion — just a handful of verses later, we read: כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ. . . — “For the needy shall never cease to be in your land . . .” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Why would the Torah maintain that poverty shall not exist, yet in the same breath, admit that it does?

The rabbis themselves noted this, and in midrash posited that far from contradicting one another, the first statement speaks to an ideal, a world not yet in existence in which everyone acts ethically.  In such a society it would be inconceivable for poverty to exist; the second reference, however, focuses on the reality of the here and now, a world in which there are stark contrasts between the haves and the have-nots.

The parallel to prejudice in American society is clear.  Rooting out segregation legally hasn’t changed the fact that any resident of Jacksonville knows the predominant color of particular neighborhoods. You will not see too many African American families living in Ortega or on Mandarin Road along the St. Johns River; by the same token, you will not see very many white residents in New Town. The absence of legal barriers does not mean that the legacy of hundreds of years of discrimination has magically disappeared.

Indeed, the very homogeneity of our neighborhoods ensures that the people we most see, and the kids on the block our children play with  will reinforce stereotypes and perceptions about the folks we don’t see except in passing. Yes, we have taken huge strides and  must acknowledge the progress we have made, but for whites walking on the street at night in a white neighborhood, were they to turn around and see someone walking behind them — the manner of that person’s dress, that person’s gender, and the color of his or her skin would instantly translate into either a sense of relief or heightened anxiety. As for the police, they do not live in some parallel universe, they are part of the same society in which we live.  Why would we expect a white policeman to be more impervious to stereotypes and fears than any other white individual?  That there are often higher crime rates in minority neighborhoods certainly won’t mitigate racial profiling at a subconscious level, even when not a matter of  official police department policy.

I was raised to believe the policeman was my friend, but then again I grew up in an overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent suburb.  In African-American neighborhoods, children grow up with a visceral distrust of the police.  For a very long time, sheriffs and police departments were an integral aspect of institutionalized racism.  And given communities like Ferguson, where the majority of the population is black and the police force overwhelmingly white, are we really shocked to witness the degree of mistrust between the residents and they who “protect and serve”?   Though I never asked them, it would not surprise me that Dalbert, Akwasi and Glenn might have had a very different perspective on the police officers who stopped them simply because the latter found the presence of black men in a white neighborhood at night inherently suspicious.

Birmingham, Alabama police attack civil rights demonstrators, May 1963

Many years ago I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, located in a suburb of Munich, Germany.  During that trip I attended a synagogue service and noted the jackbooted, uniformed police officer who stood guarding the buildng from terrorist attack.  Unsmiling, he held a sub-machine gun at the ready.  I knew intellectually that he was born long after the end of World War II, and that he stood at his post to protect a Jewish institution from harm.  Yet even as I was cognizant of these facts, it was a creepy and eerie experience.  If you can understand why I felt as I did, why is it so difficult to fathom the discomfort the African American community has with white police?

In confronting the challenge of poverty, Parshat Re’eh ask us to do two separate things: לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָֽבְךָ֗ וְלֹ֤א תִקְפֹּץ֙ אֶת־יָ֣דְךָ֔ מֵֽאָחִ֖יךָ הָֽאֶבְיֽוֹן — “You shall not harden your heart or close your hand to your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7). It is not accidental that the Torah speaks of the heart before the hand. We can legislate fairness, we can reshape the external contours of our world with our hands. But a transformation of the heart cannot be achieved by any legislation. It will not happen with the stroke of a president’s pen or a plethora of commissions or boards of inquiry.  Only the heart can change the heart, only the individual can look deep into his or her soul and shine the sometimes remorseless light of truth on his or her inner fears, predispositions, and the visceral reactions we have to the human being from the proverbial other side of the tracks.  

The musician, Gil Scott-Heron, once sang, “The revolution will not be televised.” Ultimately, Michael Brown’s death and the protests of Ferguson shown in HD aren’t the revolution; they are only the symptoms of here and now. The real revolution, the revolution of the heart cannot and will not be televised. It will  live in the conversations we have with our children, in the diversity of the people we go out of our way to know better, in the jokes we refuse to laugh it, and in the efforts we make to understand that “the other” is only a reflection of the Divine Image in which you and I are created.  Michael Brown may or may not have threatened Officer Wilson; Darren Wilson’s actions may or may not have been racially motivated.  One thing for sure; a reflection of God’s image was left dead on a Missouri street.

No, the revolution won’t be televised.  But God will still be watching.

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Some of you may not realize I used to own a Maserati.  While thrilling to drive such a beautiful car, nothing could protect my Granturismo from the realities of the road once I had left the sheltered security of the showroom: the fellow who misjudged his skill at parallel parking and dented my front grill; the tree sap from the pine trees under which I parked; the reckless driver who sped through the red light and caused a fender bender involving my vehicle.

Okay, I confess; I never did own a Maserati . . . But I like to think that the ethical ideals of Judaism which I strive to practice are a spiritual equivalent.  Yet ideals, like new automobiles of any make or model, are vulnerable once they are driven in traffic and have to contend with bad drivers and the unpredictable elements of nature.  Reality has a way of eroding even our most cherished ideals.

Take Parshat Pinhas, this week’s Torah reading.  This particular sedrah is top-heavy with descriptions of the special sacrifices made on Shabbat and each of the holidays, a group of sacrifices we collectively refer to as musafim, and the basis of the additional amidah prayers we recite on Shabbat and festivals.

One of the most interesting sacrificial configurations is connected to the fall festival of Sukkot. Unlike any other holiday, the sacrificial menu changed each day of the celebration — specifically the number of bulls offered on the altar decreased by one as the festival progressed. Thus, on the first day of Sukkot 13 bulls were sacrificed, on the second day 12 and so on, until on the last day of the holiday, only 7 were offered. The sages couldn’t help but notice the diminishing number of animals offered each day and came up with a beautiful explanation. Doing some quick math, Rabbi Elazar observed that the total number of bulls offered equals 70, corresponding to the ancient rabbinic notion that the world consists of 70 different peoples. As such, Rabbi Elazar maintained that on Sukkot Israel offered a sacrifice for the well-being of each nation — whether friend or foe, a worshipper of idols or the one God (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 55b). This is a beautiful and powerful expression of the strong universalism and respect for all humanity that pervades Judaism.

Yet fast forward to the time of Rashi, roughly 1,000 years later, and we’ll see that he focuses not on the universal ideal of praying for all of humanity, but on the diminishing number of bulls offered each day. He writes, “ הם כנגד שבעים אומות עובדי גילולים שמתמעטים והולכים סימן כליה להם . . . — This stands for the 70 idolatrous nations of the world (literally, “worshippers of filth”) who will dwindle and decline, a sign of their destruction.” Rashi certainly knew of the more positive midrashic spin on the sacrifice of the 70 bulls — why quote this one instead?

We can only speculate what prompted Rashi to convert a generous expression of universalism into its very opposite. It would not be far-fetched, however, to suggest that it could have been the First Crusade of 1066, which Rashi, living in northern France, witnessed toward the end of his life. The havoc wreaked by these marauders upon the Jewish communities of the Rhineland and the Danube was both extensive and devastating. Could anyone blame him for feeling angry at the events that scarred and embittered him? Yes, reality has a way of denting our ideals — sometimes only temporarily, in other instances permanently.

I, too, have ideals: I want to see peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. I believe a two-state solution is ultimately necessary, and would support a great deal on Israel’s part to achieve this goal, including the sharing of Jerusalem as a capital for both countries. But it doesn’t matter what I want, when those who wish to be our enemies prefer the path of death and destruction.

Israel must do what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of her citizens. Whether it requires a ground invasion of Gaza, increased bombing from the air, the targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders or all three, there are times when the needs of the hour preclude us from having the luxury of pure ideals, which reside in a rarified world isolated from the reality of rockets being fired into the heart of Israeli cities. Undoubtedly there will be innocent Palestinians killed by Israeli gunfire, this is the reality. But it was not the Jewish State that escalated the violence by deliberately aiming missiles at the population centers of the Gaza Strip. And even in the midst of the violence, the IDF still calls families on the phone before firing upon civilian dwellings, and drops empty shells on rooftops as an advance warning. It is amazing how in the midst of war and death, Israel still manages to hold onto some ideals.

But none of this changes an essential fact — Israel must do what she must do, and we must support her at this hour because her children — our brothers and sisters — have a right to live in peace in their own ancestral homeland without running to bomb shelters morning, noon or night. And this right must be asserted and taken, not politely requested. To this end I urge you to participate in the emergency Federation appeal that is seeking to raise within our community $30,000 in aid within the next two weeks, as part of a $10 million campaign across North America.

Let us recall it’s not only our brothers and sisters who are faced with danger at this moment. It is our own children, four of whom from this congregation are spending the summer in Israel: Michael Appel, Jenna Levin, Jenna Levine, and Micah Rubin. Yesterday morning, Micah’s parents, Perrin and Dr. Devon Rubin, went to Israel as originally scheduled. A week from tomorrow my own Susan will also leave for Israel. Am I nervous? A little. Am I supportive and proud? A lot. Reality may erode some ideals, but it only strengthens others. We cannot and will not bend to the thugs of Hamas.

I pray that our children will return to Jacksonville safe and sound. Of one thing I am certain. Having seen Israel and the Jewish world come together in this hour of crisis, having tasted the threat with which Israelis must live all the time, Hamas will have only succeeded in transforming our teens into even stronger and more passionate Zionists, young adults who will know more fully than even their parents the price that Jews must pay to have returned to their ancestral homeland.

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Aaron’s grandson averts a violent plague among the Israelites by taking the law into his own hands and killing an Israelite prince, Zimri ben Saluh, along with his Midianite consort, Kozbi bat Tzur, both of whom engaged in licentious idol-worship brazenly and publicly. While the rabbis are ambivalent about Pinhas’ zealotry, the text of the Torah praises his action, and God rewards Aaron’s grandson, saying, “הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם — Behold I shall give him My covenant of peace” (Numbers 25:12).

The Ba’alei Mesorah, the sages of the early Middle Ages who standardized the way in which the Torah text appears in every scroll, codified the phrase “briti shalom — my covenant of peace” be written with a broken vav in the word shalom, i.e., a straight line broken into two discrete sections. By writing the word shalom in a defective manner, perhaps they sought to communicate the thought that a peace created by fanatics and zealots will always be broken and incomplete — an ironic commentary on shalom, which comes from the Hebrew root shalem, meaning whole.

The ideal of peace that many of us so deeply cherish has been broken, fragmented like the shrapnel of cluster bombs dropped on one’s enemy. Instead we can only hear the echo of Jeremiah calling to us from antiquity to eschew false promises of peace, to ignore those who call out, “. . . שָׁל֣וֹם ׀ שָׁל֑וֹם, וְאֵ֖ין שָׁלֽוֹם — “they who call out ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

Yesterday afternoon before Shabbat I read a beautiful d’var Torah in Hebrew, written by my colleague Rabbi Mauricio Balter. He wrote about the agonizing moral dilemma of knowing that, despite all the precautions taken by the IDF, innocent Palestinian children created in God’s image no less than Israeli children, are being killed. I cannot condemn him for his nobility of sentiment; he lives in Beersheva, and runs with his neighbors, his wife and children to the bomb shelters each day, sometimes several times in a day. He made aliyah and put himself in a situation where he and his family face danger. I can only admire and marvel at the ongoing steadfast embrace of his ideals.

Yet I also cannot forget there are few, and quite probably, no imam anywhere in Gaza or the West Bank preaching such beautiful sentiments to their communities. I cannot forget that pure morality can only be achieved when one is willing to be killed in order to avoid killing. Writing more than 75 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi, the supreme hero of non-violent resistance who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among others, offered this advice to Jews the world over: “If I were a Jew and born in Germany, I would consider Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon. Suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy . . . “ And to Jews living in Palestine, he counseled, “They should seek to convert the Arab heart. They can offer Satyagraha in front of the Arab and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them. They will find the world opinion in their favor in their religious aspiration.”

With all due respect, Gandhi’s struggled against the British, not the Nazis or even Hamas. The British Empire possessed a sense of morality, even if warped by colonialism; the English played by a set of rules.  If the West had employed Gandhi’s prescriptions for resistance against Hitler none of us would be alive in this room. Fascism would rule the world instead. And if the Jews of the Yishuv had done the same, there would be no Israel, just dead Jews.

Judaism teaches that morality is infinitely precious, but it does not outweigh the preciousness of life. And while we are forbidden to take another’s life wantonly or indifferently, we are told unequivocally that our lives are no less precious than anyone else’s. When someone comes to kill us, we must kill him first. Period. And so the violence of those who hate us must be stopped; and if our enemies will not stop it, then we must do so.

As human beings we can rebuild our ideals; but we cannot bring back to life the dead. We can only try to protect and defend our brethren and children as effectively as possible. It is a heavy burden to watch the erosion of one’s ideals, but this year we live not with the universal hope of the ancient rabbis who envisioned a world of peace, but with the midrash of Rashi, the prayer that our enemies be diminished one by one, that the rockets be stopped one by one, that the kidnappings end one by one.

And please God, perhaps next year, or the year after that, or even the one after that, may we be able to afford the blessing of ideals we cherish so deeply.

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This week the World Zionist Organization (WZO) launched a campaign to encourage as many individuals as possible to write letters to the families of Eyal Yiftah, Naphtali Frankel and Gilad Sha’ar, the murdered Israeli teenagers whose bodies were recovered this past week. The WZO will deliver the letters to the families personally at the conclusion of shloshim, the 30-day mourning period that began the day of the funerals.

Even a message of a single line will be be appreciated. Write a note yourself and encourage others to write as well. Messages may be e-mailed to, or posted to: Office of the Vice Chairman, World Zionist Organization, Post Office Box 92, Jerusalem 91000 Israel.

The text that follows is the letter which I have written to Naphtali’s parents, Rachel and Avraham Frankel, Eyal’s parents, Ori and Iris Yiftah, and Gilad’s parents, Bat-Galim and Ofir Sha’ar, and shared with members of the congregation this past Shabbat morning:

Dear Rachel and Avraham, Bat-Galim and Ofir, Ori and Iris,

My name is Jonathan Lubliner, and I am a Masorti — or as we say here in the States Conservative — rabbi. Though I am writing this letter on a Friday afternoon, it is my intention to share it with members of my congregation, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, at Shabbat services tomorrow morning. I will also encourage them in the week ahead to write their own letters to you as part of the World Zionist Organization’s חיבוק של אמונה, “The Great Embrace” campaign to reach out in solidarity to your families.

As a congregational rabbi I frequently encounter death. Much of the time the deceased are men and women who have lived full lives and die in the ripeness of their years; sometimes they pass away peacefully without pain, at other times it is only after suffering a protracted and debilitating illness. On occasion, our community also confronts exceedingly painful tragedies — cases of murder, suicide, the death of the young, whether due to violence or disease. No matter the circumstances, I always remember the example of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar: “ וַיֵּֽשְׁב֤וּ אִתּוֹ֙ לָאָ֔רֶץ שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים וְשִׁבְעַ֣ת לֵיל֑וֹת וְאֵֽין־דֹּבֵ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ דָּבָ֔ר כִּ֣י רָא֔וּ כִּֽי־גָדַ֥ל הַכְּאֵ֖ב מְאֹֽד — They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering” (Job 2:13). The silent presence Job’s friends offered was their greatest gift; when they opened their mouths and sought to explain the reason for his tragic losses, however, they brought not comfort, but quite the opposite. Having lost a child myself, albeit under dramatically different circumstances, I remember feeling impatient, even angry, at those who sought to comfort me with platitudes and pat explanations such as “God must have wanted her” or “Only the righteous are taken so young.” Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, they who seek to comfort in such ways arrogate to themselves a role that belongs to God alone. “הַנִּ֨סְתָּרֹ֔ת לַֽה’ אֱלֹקֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹ֞ת לָ֤נוּ וּלְבָנֵ֨ינוּ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם. . .” is what the Torah teaches us: “The hidden belongs to the Lord our God, while only that which has been revealed concern us and our children” (Deuteronomy 29:28).

I do not understand God’s presence or absence in Eyal’s, Naphtali’s, or Gilad’s deaths. My wife, Susan, and I can only feel your brokenness and sorrow as ones who have also experienced the loss of a child: we are all too familiar with the self-recriminations of “if only I had . . .” as we fall prey to the mistaken belief as parents that we are somehow omnipotent or omniscient where our children are concerned: aren’t we supposed to protect them from all harm? Shouldn’t we be able to foresee all potential dangers that may come their way?  We, too, know what it’s like to look at other young people of the same age and wonder, “What would our daughter be like if she were alive now?”

Yet while the ache never disappears entirely, one day dawn arrives to temper the long night of grief. You will let go of the tightness you carry in your stomach, the weight upon your shoulders; yes, life will forever be different, but you will again love the precious life God has graciously given you, you will feel the love of all who are near and dear healing the rawness of your soul. The scars remain for they are the price of love, but come one day — and for each of us the journey is different — you will thank God for the sunshine and the light of morning. I have read the words you have spoken to the world in the last few days, and know you have faith in a God who is rofeh Yisrael, a healer of Israel’s heart, and a healer of your own.

We are truly an “am k’sheh oref,” a stiff-necked people, as the Torah calls us. Fractious and argumentative, we hold divergent opinions about the fate and future of the territories, the best way of living with the Palestinians, the definition of what it means to live in a Jewish state, the relationship between haredim and hiloni’im, the ultra-Orthodox and the secular, and what role Diaspora Jewry should play regarding Israel. Yet when Eyal, Naphtali and Gilad were kidnapped, and later when their fate became known, in an instant those differences were set aside. It did not matter whether one was Orthodox or not, religious or secular, hawkish or dovish. At a visceral level we were reminded of the truth of the talmudic assertion, “כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה — All Israel is responsible for one another” (B.T. Shevu’ot 39a). Throughout Israel and the Jewish world we felt a collective sense of shock and loss because the Jewish people truly have, if you will, a sympathetic nervous system which connects our capacity for shared celebration or grief.

By the same token, I have no illusions that this sense of unity will prove anything but ephemeral — this is not cynicism, just the way of the world. People return to the ordinary rhythms of living for it is simply part of being human. And differences of opinion are not bad things, as our sages of blessed memory teach in Pirkei Avot, “כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם — All disagreements that are for the sake of heaven are of lasting value” (5:17). Still, Gilad, Naphtali and Eyal reminded us that the ties which bind us to one another are really there beneath the surface and cannot be severed; but we must bear in mind that only to the extent we cherish those binding ties and their indestructibility will our divergences of political and religious opinion truly be for the sake of heaven.

It may be that some of the letters you are receiving refer to your sons as martyrs. I confess I do not like this English word or the way the term is used in our time. The word “martyrdom” reeks of death and revenge, it is a wolf who hides in sheep’s clothing of righteousness. Eyal, Naphtali and Gilad are exemplars of Kiddush Ha-shem, of what it means to sanctify God’s name, but while it is their death that enables us to say this, it is the way they lived that defines their sanctification of the Holy One. Too often, when tragedy strikes we are preoccupied with how a person dies, not how they lived or what they stood for.  Everything I have read about your children — and I have a son who is no more than a year or two younger — tells me they were imbued with respect for Torah and were ohavei ha-briyot, lovers of all God’s creatures. They were decent and caring, yet also typical, wonderful (and maybe even occasionally exasperating) teenage boys. We cannot afford ever to forget this — their laughter, their smiles, the light in their eyes.

I know that your hearts have gone out to the family of Muhammed Hussein Abu Khedir, the 16-year-old Palestinian who was kidnapped and burnt just hours after your own sons were laid to rest. I was deeply moved by reading the words of one of the members of Naphtali’s family who said, “If a young Arab man was murdered for nationalistic reasons then it is a horrifying and disgusting act. There is no distinguishing blood from blood. Murder is murder, whatever the nationality or age may be. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.” If Naphtali, Gilad and Eyal died al-Kiddush Hashem, those who murdered Muhammed committed an act of hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. I wonder if the opportunity to embrace Muhammed’s parents — simply as fellow parents who senselessly lost a child to wanton violence — might not bring catharsis and healing to your families and his. Perhaps if more families could taste the salt of one another’s tears and see their pain reflected in the eyes of those whom they have been taught to call “the enemy,” we might be one step closer to an age of messianic redemption and a lasting peace in which “ וְיָֽשְׁב֗וּ אִ֣ישׁ תַּ֧חַת גַּפְנ֛וֹ וְתַ֥חַת תְּאֵֽנָת֖וֹ וְאֵ֣ין מַֽחֲרִ֑יד כִּי־פִ֛י יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת דִּבֵּֽר — Every person shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with none to cause him fear, for it is the Lord of Hosts who has spoken” (Micah 4:4).

I close with a prayer written by a Masorti colleague of mine, Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum, inspired by a verse found in Psalm 23: “גַּ֤ם כִּֽי־אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֢יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת לֹא־אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע כִּי־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּדִ֑י — Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Distributed to Conservative/Masorti rabbis throughout the world, I imagine it likely someone has already shared it with you. If I am correct, please forgive the redundancy — know that it deeply reflects all that we feel for you in this hour of sorrow:

With You I yearn for three youths
With You I seek their lives, their dreams
With You I gaze in awe at parents whose lips and hands are steadfast
With You I plead that the strength of love and kindness will grow in the land.

And with You I am soul-torn when I hear they are no more
With You I lament over brothers who will not return
With You I weep at the ruins of a human being who took another’s life
With You I tremble at the dark evil within him.

And with You I therefore lift up my soul to distance myself from vengeance and blood
With You I restrain myself so that the holiness within me will not be erased.
With You I hear the cry of children rising up from the earth
From amid the shards of humanity and nations and darkest evil.

And with You I pray
That I will once more regain my spirit
That I will again believe in humanity
That I will again hear every voice and sob,
The voice of a human in every place.

For You,
Who in every generation hears the cries of the blameless
Grant me the strength not to despair that I may proclaim:
Behold, I take upon myself the yoke of life’s kingdom,
a language of compassion and peace and love of humanity.
Grant me the strength that my soul not die, but live,
And perceive the Eternal light as it gradually bursts forth.

My God, I will again build
A home, a life, a world,
And your light will guide my path.
The full grandeur of humanity will again be revealed.
I will not be afraid. I will not fear.
I will not retreat, for You are with me.

And the life and holiness and gentleness which You have planted
In every person, every nation and tongue
In every creation of the universe,
They will comfort me.

Dearest Sisters and Brothers, Rachel and Avraham, Bat-Galim and Ofir, Ori and Iris, I pray that you will share s’mahot in the days ahead as you and your loved ones affirm life.  There will be weddings and births, graduations and b’nai mitzvah.  I pray that you will return to a life in which you and your family can celebrate without the scrutiny of the media, without being under the world’s microscope,  that you will be families once more rather than symbols of a nation and a people.  And when those hours of joy come — though we may never see them on television or read about them on the internet — still, our hearts will be with you then, please God, even as they are with you now in this hour of sorrow.  המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים — May God comfort You among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, all who mourn Eyal, Naphtali, and Gilad.



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ISRAEL ON CAMPUS REDUX: Hate Speech and the Fig Leaf of Academic Freedom

Statement by Vassar College President and Dean of the Faculty Regarding Academic Boycotts

January 2, 2014

Statement by Vassar College President and Dean of the Faculty

Regarding Academic Boycotts

Recently several academic associations, including the American Studies Association, have called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Vassar College is firmly committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We are opposed to boycotts of scholars and academic institutions anywhere in the world, and we strongly reject the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. We endorse the statements opposing the boycott issued by the American Association of University Professors, the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities, and the President of the American Council on Education.

Vassar’s commitment to academic freedom not only leads us to reject the call for a boycott, it helps ensure that our faculty and students may pursue their academic interests wherever they may lead, engage in unconstrained discussions, and express their views freely.

Catharine Hill, President and Professor of Economics
Jonathan Chenette, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Music

Posted Thursday, January 2, 2014


You may send this letter electronically by going to At the top click on to “Directory” and enter Catharine Hill’s name.  You will be directed to the college President’s page.  Click on to the contact/e-mail button, enter your name, e-mail address, and paste the letter into the text box, then send.


Alternatively, you may copy and paste the following letter on to your stationery (or write one of your own) and send by mail to:

Professor Catharine Bond Hill

Vassar College Office of the President

124 Raymond Avenue, Box 0001

Poughkeepsie, New York 12604


Dear President Hill:

I recently heard our congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner, Vassar class of ‘85, deliver a Sabbath sermon in which he described several instances of ugly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity on campus this past semester.  It was disturbing to learn that bigotry and intolerance have reared their ugly heads at one of America’s most prestigious colleges.

I applaud the courage you and the Dean of the Faculty, Professor Jonathan Chenette, demonstrated this past January in condemning the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli institutions, and am heartened by the news that Vassar College is currently reviewing the campus status of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) following its publication of a 1944 Dutch Nazi poster as commentary on Israel.

The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is multi-faceted and complex.  It involves the legitimate needs and hopes of Palestinians, even as it includes a strong historical and religious connection between Jews, Judaism and the land of Israel, one demonstrated by several thousand years of Jewish history and embedded in the classical texts of Judaism.

To acknowledge the latter is not tantamount to a dismissal of the real hardships Palestinian face, or the ethical dilemma Israel must confront should the status quo continue.  For the SJP, however, it would seem that the reverse does not hold true.  Sadly, with the support of some faculty and the silence of many others, the demonization of Israel by the SJP utterly lacks civility, balance, or a willingness to admit the inconvenient truth of any evidence favorable to Israel, or the incontrovertible fact that the idea of Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people is central to the liturgy, religious texts, observance, history and theology of Judaism.  Instead, propaganda hides behind a fig leaf of academic freedom, while a snarling wolf of hate speech masquerades in the sheep clothing of social conscience.  Surely Vassar’s proud 150-year history as a bastion of rigorous scholarship deserves better than this!

It is my hope that the review of SJP’s status on campus will not be quietly dropped once the unpleasant fallout from the national media fades.  I urge you as President, as well as the faculty and the administration of Vassar College, to formally require SJP, as a prerequisite of its continued presence on campus, to pledge the cessation of its campaign of demonization, intimidation and harassment of those with whom it disagrees.  Should the SJP find its calling can only be fulfilled through ad hominem attacks on those who believe in the right of the Jewish State simply to exist, then surely it deserves no place on a college campus that prides itself on its inclusivity and tolerance of diverse viewpoints.


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“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.

“Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.

“But he has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.

-Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837)


In the Emperor’s New Clothes, two swindlers posing as weavers convince a king they possess a wondrous fabric visible only to the worthy and wise; those of lesser intelligence and discernment, however, are quite incapable of seeing anything.  Of course, when the con men complete the “garment,” neither the king nor his counselors are willing to admit their inability to see what in fact is not there . . . lest they become objects of ridicule at their stupidity.  Similarly, when the king “dons” his marvelous new raiment and parades before his subjects, the latter make sure to “ooh and ahh” over their ruler’s new clothing for the same reason.  It is only a child, utterly lacking in concern about what others might think, who reveals the truth that everyone knows, yet dares not utter.

As such, The Emperor’s New Clothes is an example of what academician Jens Ulrik Hansen calls “pluralistic ignorance.” Writes Hansen, “No one believes the emperor has clothing on, but everyone believes that everyone else believes. Or alternatively, everyone is ignorant to whether the emperor has clothes on or not, but believes that everyone else is not ignorant.”

In our time we encounter Andersen’s tale in a need to pay obeisance to political correctness at the expense of fact.  Indeed, there are some more than ready to sacrifice truth for the so-called free exchange of ideas in which all assertions are equal simply because they exist.  Yet whether on the left or the right, those who are honest enough to care — or care enough to be honest — will stand up for what is true,  inconvenient, nuanced and complex though that may be.

In the past several months there has been a brouhaha at Hillels on campuses around the country. As reported in the national and Jewish news media, a number of Hillels have cancelled speakers deemed hostile to Israel.  The Hillel at the University of California at Santa Barbara prevented David Harris-Gershon, a Jewish day school teacher whose wife was injured in a terrorist bombing during the two-year period they lived in Israel, from speaking on campus. Harris-Gershon, author of What Do You Buy The Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, has publicly expressed acceptance of BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanction) initiatives to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In another case, this time at Harvard University, the presenter was not at issue — Avraham Burg, a onetime Speaker of the Knesset and former chairperson of the Jewish Agency — but the co-sponsorship of the event by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, an organization seeking not only the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, but the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state as well. Meanwhile, at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the student leadership has thrown down the gauntlet to Hillel International by declaring themselves an “Open Hillel,” not bound by organizational guidelines regarding acceptable programming about Israel.

A careful reading of Hillel’s organizational guidelines reveals a balanced approach, one sensitive to the fact that there are legitimate differences of opinion in the Jewish community regarding Israel:

Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluuralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensable partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.

Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

  • Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;
  • Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel;
  • Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;
  • Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility

The guidelines are fair:  they ensure a place for individual students to say what they think, no matter how controversial, while insisting that Hillel’s name, its “brand” if you will, not be sullied by relationships with groups and causes inimical to its values as an organization.  Yes, given the autonomy of each campus group, there have been some Hillels that have interpreted these guidelines with excessive stringency by prohibiting any criticism of Israeli policy.  Such decisions have not only violated the pluralistic spirit of the guidelines, they have been unwise and counterproductive.

One can love Israel deeply and still be critical of Israeli policy.  The cry of “Love it or Leave It” is not the clarion call of the patriot, but the intolerant shouting of those who wish to drown out all other voices but their own.  From the writings of Amos Oz, David Grossman and Ari Shavit to the work of Peace Now and the initiatives of J-Street, there are many who believe that the ongoing occupation of the West Bank endangers Israel’s soul and her future as a state that wishes to be both Jewish and democratic.  Should Israel continue to hold on to and build settlements in the West Bank, in just a few years there will be more Arabs than Jews in the country, the former living under Israeli rule  without the rights and benefits of citizenship.  This is not an opinion, but a cold demographic reality that scares many of us who love our ancestral homeland deeply.  Nothing in Hillel’s guidelines regarding Israel campus activities would prohibit searching conversation about this issue or about how U.S. diplomacy might best help Israel remain a Jewish and Democratic state by confronting this dilemma now instead of kicking the can down the road.  As Mark Twain once said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.”  This is the hallmark of any vibrant healthy relationship, whether between spouses, parents and children, or for that matter, members of the Jewish people.  A love that is too brittle and frail to withstand differences of perspective is no love at all.

Yet for those who belong to the “Open Hillel” movement this is insufficient.  They claim a place at the Hillel table not only for those who are critical of Israel because they love her, but also for those who deny her right to exist as a Jewish homeland.  In making this claim, they implicitly understand that freedom of speech is insufficient  justification– after all, these young Jews  know that the free exchange of ideas could easily be used to justify inviting Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers to speak at their Hillels, which, to their credit, they aren’t about to do.

It is precisely at this instant that members of the Open Hillel movement don the Emperor’s new clothes, by insisting that anti-Zionism isn’t the same as anti-Semitism.  As the Open Hillel folks explain:

Open Hillel does not advocate for any particular political view, but we recognize that there are many young Jews who believe that their Jewish values bring them to criticize Israeli policies, or find boycotts to be an effective non-violent tool for achieving social change, or believe that there should be no Jewish state until the messiah comes, or oppose the idea of ethnic nation-states altogether. Although some of these views may be non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, none of them are anti-Semitic, and Jewish students who want to discuss and hold events about these ideas in a Jewish context should be welcome to do so.

For the Jews of “Open Hillel,” then, criticism of specific Israeli policies is no better or worse than a denial of Israel’s right to exist, which is delicately expressed as “those who oppose the idea of ethnic nation-states altogether” (parenthetically, being Jewish is neither an ethnicity nor a race, but that’s for another day).

Yet anyone even superficially familiar with Judaism knows that Israel as a Jewish homeland has always been deeply embedded in Jewish liturgy, ritual, text and practice. From a Grace after Meals composed in antiquity, which asks God to “Rebuild Jerusalem, the Holy City, soon in our days” to the daily Amidah prayer, written 2000 ago, which pleads for “our exiles be gathered into Israel from the four corners of the earth”; from a religion that observes Tisha b’Av, a major fast commemorating the Temple’s destruction, to the chanting of the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Passover seder and at the climax of Yom Kippur; from a Sacred Scripture that mentions “Zion” 154 times and “Jerusalem” 667 times to the Midrash, which teaches: “ The Holy One said to Moses, ‘The Land is precious to Me, and Israel are precious to Me. I shall bring Israel who are precious to Me into the Land that is precious to Me’” (Numbers Rabbah 23:7), it is categorically impossible to speak of Judaism without acknowledging the centripetal force exerted by the Land of Israel for Jews throughout the Diaspora over the course of more than 2,000 years.

Accordingly, many centuries before Zionism became a political movement, normative Jewish belief held that Jews would never forfeit their claim to the Land of Israel, no matter how long their exile.  Admittedly, the Reform movement of the 19th century attempted to redefine Jewish identity as a matter of conscience only rather than as membership in a people with a sense of collective national destiny, but the effort was a failure, eventually repudiated by Reform Judaism itself.  As for the Neturei Karta, the fanatical ultra-Orthodox minority that rejects the modern State of Israel as nothing less than blasphemy, their theology is certainly religiously Zionist.  They differ from the mainstream only in their insistence that no one less than the Messiah can transform Israel into a Jewish kingdom ruled by a descendant of David, and in their total rejection of anything but a theocratic Jewish government in the land.

The assertion that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitic is a mantra employed by Jew-hating circles that seek political cover and respectability.  It is found in the virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric espoused by Iran’s rulers and in the depictions of Zionists in Arab newspapers with hooked noses and dollar signs on their clothing.  It is seen on white supremacist websites and in the literature of skinhead groups that  talk of the worldwide conspiracies of the Zionist Occupation Government, using descriptive terms right out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a favorite work of the anti-Semite.  Tellingly, when Martin Luther King Jr. heard a young Black nationalist spout anti-Zionist rhetoric at civil rights event in Cambridge, Massachusetts more than forty years ago, he sharply replied, “”Don’t talk like that. When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism” (For more on Dr. King’s attitude toward Israel, see Richard Kazarian and Robert G. Weisbord, Israel in the Black American Perspective).  That some Jews may themselves espouse such sentiment doesn’t cleanse it from the virus of bigotry; self-hatred is no less a form of prejudice than any other.

If anti-Zionism of necessity repudiates a core value of Jewish teaching, ritual, belief and history regarding the relationship of Jews to Land of Israel . . . if it’s rhetoric is most frequently cloaked in anti-Semitic imagery by those who truly hate Jews . . . at what point do we acknowledge its malice and mendacity?

Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism . . . except for those who insist on wearing the Emperor’s new clothes.

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בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי, בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִֽירָה
.וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי, ה’ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא

Into Your Hand I entrust my spirit
When I wake and when I sleep;
And should my soul depart my body,
God is with me, I shall not fear.

To Sleep

By John Keats

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

      As a child I was afraid to go to sleep. The feeling of isolation from the conscious world scared me.  Going to sleep was like being transported to a ghost town in the Old West hundreds of miles from the nearest living soul. Even in a room with others, falling asleep was something that, by definition, one had to do by oneself.

     Some kids need a night light as an insurance policy against the bogeyman; my salvation came from sleeping with the radio on. Because I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, at night I listened to WINS, a 24-hour news station at 1010 on the AM dial.  As a result, imprinted somewhere deep in my brain are the words, “1010 WINS, All News, All the Time.  You give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world.” The sound of a live voice, not a recorded one, reassured me that in a sleeping world someone, somewhere was still awake.  In fact, to this day if I wake up in the middle of the night and hear the sound of a distant train whistle blowing in the stillness of the night, I find it a comforting sound, a reminder that even in my state of oblivion the world continues to exist and life goes on.

     I later realized that what really scared me as a child wasn’t falling asleep, but dying.  The nexus between sleep and death is clear.  The Babylonian Talmud teaches that sleep is equal to 1/60 of death (Berakhot 57b). It’s no surprise, then, that the bedtime liturgy of Judaism asks God to “give light to my eyes lest I fall into the sleep of death.”  That the classic formulation of this liturgy includes a kind of confessional recited before sleep and that Jewish tradition contains another form of confession to be recited on one’s deathbed is hardly accidental, either.  On a certain existential — if not biological — level, the difference between sleep and death is only the permanence of the latter.

     But if I am prepared to accept my nightly death, it’s no stretch to say that each morning I experience tehiat hametim, the Hebrew term for resurrection of the dead.  Upon arising I wash my hands — just as I would after leaving a cemetery — and I give thanks to a God “Who returns souls to dead bodies.”  There is a delicious irony in that while I have my doubts about the doctrine of resurrection, I would be the first to admit that I am its daily beneficiary. In fact, by my calculation, I’ve already experienced tehiat hametim well over 200,000 times!

     The chasm between sleep and wakefulness, death and resurrection, the darkness of night and the light of day could not be greater.  Darkness symbolizes isolation and aloneness, while life’s fellowship conducts its business in the daylight.  It is telling that, according to the Talmud, the earliest time one can recite the morning Sh’ma is when a person can recognize an acquaintance at a distance of four cubits  (Berakhot 9b) — for it’s only when we’re able to identify others that we may truly say the darkness of isolation has lifted.

      Yet in reality death and resurrection are inseparable dance partners.  Married to one another, each is vital to the mystery and wonder that make life so precious and finite.  Our liturgy has always understood this because it frames the respective blessings with which we rise and sleep in parallel language.  In the morning we thank God “Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids,” while at night we pray for God “to cast the bonds of sleep upon my eyes and slumber upon my eyelids.”  In the morning, liturgical gratitude to God for wakefulness begins in the singular, but ends in the plural.  So, too, in the evening we begin by speaking of our fears of the night in the singular, yet conclude with the words, “Praised are You . . .  the Holy One who illuminates the world in its entirety with God’s glory.” Lifeless corpses awaken each morning, God’s supernal light pierces the darkness of death each night; aloneness leads to presence in the plural . . . and then back again.

     A few weeks ago I re-read Henry Roth’s  amazing 1934 novel, Call it Sleep.  Written in a stream of consciousness, it’s the story of Davey Schearl, a young immigrant boy whose intense isolation is palpable throughout the book.  In the end, after electrocuting himself on the 3rd rail of a street car on the Lower East Side in an attempt to re-enact Isaiah’s theophany in which an angel touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal, Davey hovers between death and resurrected life, aloneness and connection, sleep and awareness, only to realize at a deep level these qualities are not contradictory, but complementary, that God who causes us to sleep, awakens us from slumber.  And so Roth ends his novel:

He might as well call it sleep.  It was only towards sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images . . . . It was only toward sleep that ears had power to cull again and reassemble . . . the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past . . . and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence.  One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.

     Having turned 50 just a few months ago, I feel like I’ve reached a “second naivete” at this stage of my life.  In other words,  I am simultaneously surprised by very little . . . and by almost everything.  So, when I am resurrected on that final morning of my life and then die for the last time, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the first words I heard in Heaven were “1010 WINS, All News, All the Time.  You give us a lifetime and we’ll give you the world-to-come.”  One might as well call it sleep, indeed.

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The Young Dead Soldiers

The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses.
(Who has not heard them?)
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
And when the clock counts.
They say,
We were young.  We have died.  Remember us.
-Archibald MacLeish

Long Island National Cemetery, Farmingdale, New York

Long Island National Cemetery, Farmingdale, New York

I’m sure the number 32716064 won’t mean much to you; for most of us it would simply be a random 7-digit number, perhaps the winning combination to a Mega-Millions lottery. Actually it was a serial number engraved on a soldier’s dog-tag, one that played its own small role in the life of a particular family. Three days before that soldier was scheduled for a Stateside rotation, he was killed by a stray bullet while crossing a street.  And while 32716064 is a number without especial significance, its presence on the little metal disk worn around the man’s neck did allow the US military, in timely fashion, to inform a mother looking forward to the safe return of her son, that indeed, her child would be coming home . . . but not in the way she had anticipated.

That serial number belonged to a private first-class who died more than 60 years ago, a 25-year-old born in Berlin, Germany, who had fled his native land because of its hatred of Jews, to cross an ocean, wear the uniform of his adopted country, and ultimately tragically lose his life in Japan.  His name was Ismar Moritz Lubliner, the uncle who died eighteen years before my birth; the man who, if he were alive today, would be 93 years old, yet remains a perpetual 25 in the few photographs that preserve his memory. It is this quality of eternal youth that is most difficult to fathom; As I journey ever deeper into middle age, Uncle Ismar never gets any older. He will forever remain the carefree twenty-something hellion, who never settled down, never married, never had kids; a shadow memory whose monuments consist of the stone bearing his name in a military cemetery, and a grandnephew named Itamar, the Hebrew original of the German Ismar.

It’s hard to mourn the loss of a relative who died almost twenty years before one’s own birth. But there are many Americans whose grief and suffering are fresh — like the family of Specialist. Dwayne W. Flores, age 22, of Sinajana, Guam, killed two weeks ago when his unit was attacked in Kabul by a vehicle bearing an I.E.D., an improvised explosive device; or 1st Lt. Brandon J. Landrum, age 26, of Lawton, Oklohoma, whose life, along with 4 other servicemen, abruptly ended in Afghanistan last month. There are the families of the other 22 Americans who died in May alone as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, or the other 2,131 U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan since the conflict began. The families of these mostly young individuals can share their grief with you far more vividly than someone whose uncle perished nearly 70 years ago.

There’s nothing more moving than witnessing the observance of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s day of remembrance for those who gave their lives in defense of the Jewish State. At exactly 11 AM the morning of Yom Hazikaron, a two-minute siren sounds throughout the country: everything comes to a stop; pedestrians on the street freeze in their tracks; traffic comes to a halt. There are few things more powerful than witnessing an entire nation pay respectful homage to its war dead. That Yom Hazikaron and its mournful character flows at nightfall immediately into Yom Ha’azma’ut and the joyous celebration of Israel’s independence only underscores the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands so that the Jewish homeland might exist.

What if Memorial Day in the U.S. were scheduled each year on July 3rd for just this reason?  What if we linked the freedom we so thoroughly celebrate on July 4th to the notion that liberty has come at a price, that entry to freedom’s highway invariably passes through a toll in human life? But that’s hardly likely to happen soon: if anything, it’s more probable one day July 4th will suffer the same fate as Memorial Day did 40 years ago, and be moved to a Monday — regardless of the date — for the convenience of creating a long holiday weekend.

Each Memorial Day there are solemn remembrances around the nation, but let’s face it —  more people go to the beach or barbecues than attend commemorations at VFW posts or national cemeteries. Memorial Day is a time for white sales and great buys at auto dealerships throughout the land. A generic day for recreation and shopping like any number of other American holidays that are also generic days for recreation and shopping.

Which strikes me as rather odd, if only because rumor has it that America is still at war. Certainly, families whose loved ones are in Afghanistan will tell you that we’re at war; those who have lost loved ones, and those who have been permanently disabled because of battle injuries will also tell you that we’re at war.  But since the Korean war (a “police action”), the very definition of “war” has gotten ever murkier.

Members of both major parties and the current administration will sometimes talk about being at war, but their actions tell a different story. If a country were at war, you would expect its leadership speak passionately about the need for sacrifice, urging its citizens to don the uniform of their country or to commit themselves to national service of one sort or another. You might also believe that members of Congress would candidly address why we chose to pay for our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through emergency appropriations and voodoo economics instead of raising our taxes . . . because wars cost lots of money. And if our country were truly at war, would responsible leaders seek to impose timetables of withdrawal based on calendar dates rather than actual strategic and tactical realities on the ground? Can you imagine what would have happened if Congress,  in the wake of military setbacks in early 1942 in the Pacific, had issued an ultimatum to President Roosevelt by threatening a cut-off in funding pending the containment of Axis forces no later than March 15, 1943? If it is unthinkable, it is because sixty years ago America was truly at war, and no one pretended otherwise.

Perhaps we should bring our young men and women home, perhaps no matter what we do, Afghanistan will eventually return to a quagmire of ethnic conflict and violent fanaticism. But, then, we’d have to answer to thousands of American families as to why their sons and daughters died, so instead we will claim victory without defining it what that means, and we will publish schedules of withdrawal without considering that our enemies are as capable as we are of reading American leaders’ public announcements.

We live in a grotesque never-never land — or should I say a no man’s land — in which one half of our leadership informs us that though we’re at war, there’s no need to go beyond business as usual, while the other half our leadership informs us that we have sort of won without telling us what that means. And as far as the terrible vacuum that will be created in Afghanistan, as far as those who hate us, those who flew airplanes into major American landmarks that killed many more people than died at Pearl Harbor, they will somehow disappear — after all, in all Hollywood war films don’t the good guys always win? Isn’t there always a happy ending?. Myopia may abound, but that’s OK so long as it doesn’t affect the American way of life, the “plasma-hi-def -botoxed-i-pod existence, “which we presume to be our God-given constitutional right.

Judaism considers peace God’s greatest blessing, but an honest look at the totality of our tradition will tell you that pacifists we’re not. In specific instances, the Torah actually commands that we go to war. And in such circumstances, the Mishnah goes so far as to state unequivocally, “במלחמת מצוה הכל יוצאין, אפילו חתן מחדרו וכלה מחפתה — In a compulsory war, all go forth to battle, even the bridegroom out of his chamber, even the bride from under her canopy” (Sotah 8:7).

Geographically and culturally, it is a long way from the Mishnah to the sophisticated recruitment ads sponsored by today’s military on television. Yet watch one of these commercials and you will glimpse a mirror of American culture, one in which we would do well to take a hard look at ourselves. The ads typically feature an earnest young man or woman attempting to sell his or her doubtful parents on the virtues of joining the military. The teen speaks of the skills to be learned, the discipline to be gained, the money to be made, the college credits to be earned . . . and eventually the parents are persuaded, impressed by how thoughtful and forward-thinking their child is.

The unspoken assumptions of these commercials? They presume that no caring and responsible parent would ever applaud his child’s desire to join the military without a sell-job of some kind, because the desire to serve one’s country is insufficiently honorable to make the case. Patriotism is OK, put out the Stars-and-Stripes on Flag Day, recite the Pledge-of-Allegiance and the National Anthem at civic occasions, but the most compelling reasons to join the military?  Career opportunities and free education. What is never mentioned, even obliquely, is that the only conceivable reason for putting your life in danger is to serve the country you love. And if no one dares mention that, and if our politicians decide that a few shall make the ultimate and supreme sacrifice in order that millions of Americans need not lift a finger or suffer a single inconvenience, that, my friends, is not the fault of Madison Avenue — its ours, because our leaders know us only too well.

We need to remember to do more than pay lip service to those who have died in the line of duty . . . which is why I write this nearly two weeks after Memorial Day.  Maybe we need to ask ourselves how America will have the military it needs, if it’s always someone else’s kids wearing the uniform of their country; and most basically of all, to remind ourselves that that Americans are still dying in places with names Helmand, Kabul and Kandahar, whose consequences will be felt in places with names like Eldersburg, Maryland, Naples, Florida, and Estherville, Iowa.

On Memorial Day I took my three boys to morning services here at the Center, where we honored Americans who made the supreme sacrifice for their country. I talked to them about my father who fought with the British Army in North Africa and Italy during World War II, and their great uncles Ismar and Felix, who  fought in the Pacific with the U.S. army during the Second World War.  I tried to explain why it is that sometimes even the good must fight, or risk being subsumed by evil. And if they ask one day whether a time may come when they will be called to fight, I will tell them candidly that I pray to God each and every day that such a moment will never arrive; but by the same token, I could never look them in the eye and say that someone’s else child was less deserving than my own of the blessings that come living in a free land.

For six years we have included in our Shabbat services a brief prayer found in the Siddur for Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States, and is prefaced with the line, “In time of war add.” We beseech You, O God, to shield and protect our armed forces, in the air, on sea, and on land. Bless them with victory. May it be Your will that the dominion of tyranny and cruelty speedily be brought to an end and the kingdom of righteousness be established on earth with liberty and freedom for all humankind.”

To which I would add my own petition, “May it be Your will, God and God of our ancestors, that this week will be the last one we need to recite these words. And if not this week, we pray that it will next week. And if not next week, we pray it will be the one after that. But until that time, whenever it may be, we pray that you grant us the strength to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable, to give us the wisdom not to succumb to fool’s promises of instant victories and magical successes. Or as Abraham Lincoln once said it so well, “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . .”

Have our dead died in vain? They can’t answer that question . . . only we can.


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Remembrance of the Holocaust: An Echo of Aaron’s Silence

Imagine the grand opening of a family business. Preceded by a week-long celebration accompanied by music, contests and an atmosphere of festive fun, the big day arrives with its ribbon-cutting ceremony. Yet just minutes after the new facility opens to business, tragedy strikes. Of the four brothers in the family, the two eldest disappear into the stock room to check on some inventory for a customer. Five minutes go by, ten, then fifteen. With considerable impatience at the inexplicable delay, one of the store’s employees goes back to the stock room only to discover two lifeless bodies. Was it foul play? A tragic accident? Had one or both foolishly or recklessly touched a live electrical wire? Was it an act of God?

In Parshat Shemini, the grand opening is not of a retail outlet or fast food restaurant, but the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used in the desert. And while not a family-owned business, given the hereditary character of the priesthood, it was a family-run operation, if you will. There is a moment of spiritual climax: Moses and Aaron enter Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting; upon their exit they bless the assembly and, “the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people.” Fire comes forth from God, consuming the sacrificial offering on the altar.  When the Israelites witness this, “They shouted, and fell upon their faces” (Leviticus 9:23, 24). Yet a short time afterward, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, attempt to bring an offering of their own before God with tragic results: “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).

There are few places in Scripture where a celebratory triumph is so quickly and thoroughly transformed into a shocking horror or tragic spectacle. What went wrong?

The sages offer myriad explanations of the “alien fire” brought by Aaron’s two elder sons that resulted in their demise.  The alien fire is code for drunkenness, i.e., they had consumed too much “firewater” before entering the sanctuary, insists one rabbinic authority. No, it’s a metaphor for their unbridled ambition, speculates another source; Nadav and Avihu were jealous of the fanfare that their elders, Moses and Aaron, commanded. Yet a third text suggests that  Aaron’s sons were faithless — they brought an unconsecrated source of fire to the altar because they didn’t believe God capable of igniting the sacrifice.  “Wait, wait,” chimes in another rabbinic voice, “they died because they had too much faith; they tried to apprehend the inner essence of God’s soul-fire. Like a moth drawn into a flame, that which they most longed for killed them.” So there you have it: they deserved their fate or didn’t . . . they wanted too much from God or had too little faith in the Divine. Choose whichever interpretation you like best.

Yet the proliferation of explanations to the disturbing enigma of their deaths pales in significance when one encounters two simple words following the tragic fate of Nadav and Avihu: “And Aaron was silent.” Aaron who had just witnessed the death of his own children; Aaron who was called upon to serve the God that had executed his sons; Aaron who had just blessed the people at a moment of supreme spiritual meaning in his own life. Never before and never again does the Torah report the silence of an individual. We Jews gesticulate, we argue, we debate with each other, with ourselves, even with God. Abraham argues with God. Moses argues with God. The Berditchever Rebbe, a great Hasidic rabbi of the late 18th century, was known far and wide for his  one-sided debates with God.

But Aaron is silent. Not a word, not a cry, not a sigh escape his lips.

In our world, we are uncomfortable with silence, the absence of words makes us uneasy. We are quiet when we’re not sure how to reach out or respond, and our awkwardness is palpable.  Silence is a void to be filled as quickly as possible.

But Judaism would remind us that sometimes silence is more substantive than words. There are few biblical books more replete with powerful spiritual imagery than the 42 chapters of Job, but surely one of the most profound statements of the work may be found near the story’s beginning. Job, who suffers the loss of his wealth, his children and his health, is visited by three friends:  “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering” (Job 2:13).

As soon as Job’s companions begin to speak — and their words take up much of the next 36 chapters of the book — they promptly stick their foot into their mouth.  Far from bringing their friend comfort, their platitudes and sermonizing cause Job more pain, if that were possible. From this scriptural source we derive the Jewish wisdom of never speaking to a mourner until she first speaks to us. Unless a person in grief is prepared to let us glimpse his pain, how can we possibly know how to respond appropriately? And if we can’t be bothered to wait until a mourner gives us permission to speak, then the condolence we extend isn’t really about the grieving person at all, but about our self-consciousness, our awkward need to break the silence, the need to say something, anything.

But in telling us about Aaron, the Torah reminds us that sometimes silence is itself a response; indeed, the only response possible. Tomorrow evening begins the observance of Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At commemorations around the globe,  the increasingly older and fewer survivors light candles, memorial prayers are chanted,  audiences hear speakers and listen to Holocaust era poetry.  As the years go by, it becomes harder and harder to plan new programs for Yom Ha-Shoah.  The crowds grow sparser. We’ve already had that speaker; we’ve already done that theme.  We offer thousands of words in tribute, sorrow, bewilderment and remembrance, but the words are hopelessly inadequate to the sacred burden they are asked to bear.

Among medieval Kabbalists, Jewish mystics, there was a practice known as Tzom Shtikah, a fast of silence, rather than a fast from eating. Such a fast would be in sharp contrast to Yom Kippur, when we pour out countless thousands of words printed on hundreds of pages of prayer books. In truth, neither traditional Jewish theology nor its accompanying liturgy can offer us guidelines as to how to make Yom Ha-Shoah meaningful. Given the magnitude of the Holocaust’s incomprehensible character, is there anything more significant to be offered than our silence — silence not as an absence of verbiage, but as a replacement for the spoken word. In our silence we might hear the silenced voices of the millions, the silence of a world that turned a deaf ear, even the silence of a God who, whether present or absent, was undeniably silent.

“And Aaron was silent”. Not because he acknowledged the justice of God’s decree against his children, and not because he was too angry for words; not because he didn’t know what to say, and not because it would have been too blasphemous to utter the words he might have otherwise said. And Aaron was silent . . . and in that moment, there were neither questions nor answers, yet nevertheless, the responsive presence of “a still small voice.”

Should you ever visit the north German city of Hamburg, you may wish to take a detour to the city’s outskirts. There you will find Neuengamme, a small and not particularly well-known concentration camp in which some 55,000 men, women and children died. Among these thousands, were twenty youngsters between the ages of 5 and 12, brought from Auschwitz for medical experiments conducted by a SS physican, Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer, who was bent on showing the world that tuberculosis was not an infectious disease, but rather one that only affected those of inferior racial stock. Less than two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany, these tortured children were executed to cover up the inhumanity of their treatment. If you ever make it to Neuengamme, you will see a beautiful rose garden planted in memory of the slain children. On the memorial plaque at the entrance, the following words are written: “When You Stand Here, Be Silent; When You Leave Here, Be Not Silent.”

On this Yom Hashoah, I urge you to find a few moments of silence in community.  The silence of Yom Ha-Shoah is not about the silence that come from solitude. No, on Yom Ha-Shoah we are silent not because we don’t know what to say, but because there is nothing to say. And in that silence may we find the voice to say to ourselves, to our world, to those who continue to weather the  weary indifference of silent humanity, and even to a silent God, “Never again.”

The Children’s Memorial at Neuengamme Concentration Camp near Hamburg, Germany

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