Broken Clocks (on the U.S. Embassy Opening in Jerusalem)

 Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

I was wrong.

I was wrong in December when I wrote ambivalently about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At that time, I wrote that while of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, “sometimes it is better to be smart than to be right.”  It’s hard to admit being wrong, but I was.

And it’s even harder when the messenger is someone like President Donald Trump, who it seems is determined to wrap even the moments when he’s right with so much narcissism, abuse, and seventh-grade-bully smarminess that you just want to say, “what he’s for, I’m against.”

But you know the saying about broken clocks, and it is foolish to conclude that, just because another’s motives are suspect, they are actually wrong.

I was ambivalent about moving the embassy because I thought it was bad for Israel’s security, because I thought it would launch tirades of anti-Israel violence, and because I thought it would isolate American foreign policy as a broker in the Middle East.

I realize now that each of these premises was faulty. American isolation is following apace due to the Administration’s other “America First” policies and obnoxious diplomacy, not because of the embassy. But regarding Israel, in fact, a trickle of countries are tentatively indicating that they will follow the American lead and move their embassies as well (Guatemala, and possibly Honduras and Romania, although the Czechs seem to have changed their minds). This is a very good thing, and I hope we quickly reach a tipping-point of other countries following suit.

Further, the expected waves of violence in Arab countries did not follow. (The Hamas-inspired violence on Gaza’s border is not because of the embassy move. If anything, it is connected to the 70th anniversary of the Independence/Nakba, and the delusions that terrorism will reset the world’s clocks to a time when there was no Israel.) 

And I argued that moving the embassy was symbolic; no one’s life (except for the ambassador's) would be enhanced by moving it, so the risk of disaster outweighed the benefits of symbolism.

But symbols are important. Our religious and civic lives are full of symbolism. For instance, at the Brandeis graduation yesterday, I was struck again by how full of  “ancient” symbolism our academic exercises are (from caps and gowns—make sure your hood is the right color!—to the regalia that the university president wears, to the solemn intonation of an alma mater). Israelis understandably feel delegitimized by the refusal, even of allies, to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the authentic capital of the State—the place where, de facto, everyone knows the political and legal seats of government are.

The move really has nothing to do with Palestinians, and nothing to do with peace processes, or two states, or even preventing a future Palestinian state from having its capital in East Jerusalem.

So the administration was right—I daresay, even courageous in moving the embassy.

And I was wrong.  I just hope and pray that six months from now, I won’t be writing a blog that says, “I was wrong about being wrong.”

Because these people sure know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of approaching Jerusalem with modesty and humility, as when Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounted his horse and entered the City of Cities on foot in 1917, the embassy opened with triumphalism and backslapping. Instead of celebrating Jerusalem, they celebrate themselves.

“Modesty and humility” are incoherent to these people. (“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” said son-in-law Jared Kushner, the sort of sycophantic and self-serving comment we’ve come to expect in lieu of what could have been a moment of oratorical inspiration.) The presence of uber-racist pastors, the voices of the evangelical hard right, is obscene. So, too, was the presence of the pro-Israel but anti-Jewish millenialist reactionaries (hello, Michele Bachmann? Are these people really interested in reviving this lunatic’s career?).

Supporters of the Administration love quoting the Bible. Some of them even compare Donald Trump to a modern day Cyrus of Persia! (As if Zionist history never happened! As if we hadn’t already returned to the Land!)

They might consider other parts of the Bible, such as the words of Jeremiah. Over twenty-six hundred years ago, Jeremiah (7:1-15) warned about the hypocrisy of those who spend too much time mouthing praises of Jerusalem (“The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord are these!!”, v.4) while simultaneously promoting injustice, moral perversion, and arrogance. Jerusalem demands morality, both personal and social. To behave otherwise is to mock its religious premise.

Moving the embassy is a very good thing. It should be accompanied by a set of moral values that represent city’s ancient heritage: a place for God to dwell among human beings, a place of seeking moral repair, and a place of yearning for real peace.

On Israel's 70th Independence Day

My prized possession:

Der Tog.jpg

The front page of the daily American Yiddish newspaper “Der Tog” ("The Day"), May 15, 1948, the day after Israel’s independence. On that day the paper was produced in blue ink. My grandfather saved it for me, giving it to me about five years after his death.

The large headline says, Iddishe Melukha: "Jewish State."

"Recognition from America"

“Ben Gurion proclaims Jewish State: 'Israel'”

Lower left corner: Truman, Herzl, and Ben Gurion


1,978 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

!חג שמח

Reflections on a Winter Nor'easter

As I write, my family is stuck in our home, as the most recent nor’easter has brought down trees and power lines on our street. We spent last night by candlelight, cooking dinner in our fireplace.  Shabbat is arriving imminently, so a cousin will come and pick us up around the corner and bring us to her house, and we’ll get a reprieve from the cold and dark.

Much more important is the elderly couple on our block, who are being evacuated by the fire department and will be taken to stay in a local hotel until the street is cleared and the power returns, which seems to still be a few days away.

And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a hassle, for sure.  But if nothing else, it should be a reminder—a reminder of just how darn easy and comfortable we have it here in these affluent suburbs. Not everyone, of course. We have neighbors in our town who struggle to make ends meet, people who have grave financial worries about their future. My wife and I know people well who have lived without a roof over their heads, who are not able to provide three meals a day for themselves and their families.

But most of us live fairly comfortable lives here—not just the wealthiest nation in the world, but the wealthiest nation that the world has ever known. 

And a little inconvenience from Mother Nature should be a reminder of just how good we have it, and how there are people near and far who know real desperation. If times like this don’t help us grow into people with deeper stores of empathy and compassion, then we are truly hopeless.

If you happen to live in an affluent place, and if you know that your electrical power, automobile, food supply, and security in your housing will regain their equilibrium pretty quickly, you should be profoundly grateful. Because that means you don’t have to count yourself among:

·      The ¼ of all human beings in the world who live without electricity, approximately           1.6 billion people[1]

·      805 million people in the world who do not have enough food to eat.[2]

·      769 million people who live (or not) on less than $1.90 per day.[3]

It means that your children, whom you would do anything to protect, need not be counted among the 1 billion children of other people who are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 die due to their poverty every day.[4]

And if we needed reminders, America is not immune to extreme poverty either. There are 40.6 million Americans living poverty; 12.7% of the population.[5] According to the point-in-time count of America’s homeless community in 2017, there are 553,742 people without housing on a given night.[6] (Noting that there are different kinds of homelessness—chronic, transitional, episodic; plus the many thousands in America who live on the brink of homelessness, just a paycheck or two away.)

If I sound crabby, it’s not because I haven’t showered in two days. It’s simply a profound frustration of our human nature—my own absolutely included—that forgets that what we consider to be inconveniences are so ludicrous in the grand scheme of need that really exists in the world.

It’s a frustration born of living in general proximity to some of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—and knowing that materialism, greed, and complacency co-exist (and often prevail) over empathy, generosity, and living gratefully.

A destructive winter storm like this one really stinks. Some neighbors will experience lots of property damage (and insurance claims), work hours will be lost, appointments will be missed, food in the freezer will probably go bad.

But in a few short weeks, equilibrium for most of us will return. Spring will arrive. At that time, Jewish people will sit down at their seder tables. We’ll raise a piece of matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction… Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

In order for those words not to reek of irony and hypocrisy, we have to recognize that in our inconvenience is the tiniest taste of what real suffering is like; a flavor that a staggering number of human beings around the world know intimately.

If we can emerge from our inconveniences with a deeper sense of empathy, generosity, and an awareness of how unbelievably, undeservedly blessed we really are—then maybe this Passover will bring a bit of real liberation after all.

 

[1] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007.”

[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2014.”

[3] “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem,” Angus Deaton, New York Times, January 24, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/poverty-united-states.html

[4] “UNICEF: Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed,” United Nations Interagency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME), 2014.

[5] https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty.html

[6] National Coalition for the Homeless, http://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/

​​​​​​​Nevertheless, Esther Persisted: Purim in a Nutshell

An insecure ruler, prone to acting on his whims and accustomed to a lifestyle of outrageous luxury and recreation, loves nothing more than dining and celebrating with the wealthy elite who support him.[1] He declares a nationwide holiday, many months devoted to opulence and debauchery.

The king's holiday is a celebration of deregulation.[2]

The king has a closed circle of male sycophantic advisors[3], all of whom are outwardly subservient to the king (but behind the scenes, know that he is easily manipulated by flattery[4]). They call for the queen to perform erotically for them.[5] Vashti rejects the king’s crass locker-room talk.

Vashti, the king’s first wife and a victim of his sexual predation[6], disappears from the story, never to be heard from again. The king is excited to marry a new and younger wife, perhaps an immigrant to Shushan. In essence, the king holds a "Miss Persia" pageant which he owns (and of course has no reservations taking advantage of the young hopeful contestants).

A young Jewish woman named Hadassah—but who goes in polite society by the less ethnic-sounding name Esther[7]—against all odds ends up in the royal household. To ensure populist approval, the king cuts taxes and distributes favors among his supporters.[8]

The king appoints Haman, who has a notorious nationalist[9] and anti-Semitic record,[10] to be his senior advisor.

Mordecai, who like many Jews has achieved great success in Persia[11], uncovers a plot and saves the king’s life. When Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, Haman issues a decree of annihilation against the Jews. He seduces the king with talk about how a third-column of immigrants threatens real Persians.[12] It is time to put Persia First; Haman posits that a sinister cabal of Jews who follow only their own protocols is holding the nation back from being great.[13] Antisemitic incidents rise; it’s worse than it’s been in anyone’s recent memory.

There is no official response from the administration.

Mordecai petitions Esther to take a stand. Esther agrees, but notes that everyone in the king’s inner circle knows that he is very prone to impulsiveness and lashing out, so who knows what will happen?[14]

Nevertheless, Esther persisted.[15] She invites the king and Haman to a most exclusive royal banquet.

Meanwhile, despite the air of general prosperity, Haman is incensed that a foreigner—Mordecai—continues not to know his own place.[16] He plots to have Mordecai killed.

The king, unable to sleep, instructs an aide read to him (rather than actually reading himself).[17] There, he discovers that even though Mordecai had saved his life, he had not remembered to thank him. Haman is forced to lead Mordecai in a royal procession through the capital. Humiliated, Haman mourns for his once-great country.[18]

Haman, the king, and Esther have their private banquet. She reveals Haman’s plot and the king, enraged, declares that his friend and former advisor has clearly lost his mind.[19] Haman is publicly executed.

However, the edict calling for the destruction of the Jews remains in effect. The arcane founding laws of the country have not evolved with current technology, so there is no legal way to prevent a massacre from happening.[20]  An edict calls upon the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies.

The resistance is successful. The Jews find success unlike any they have received in any other kingdom.[21] Esther and Mordecai are ensconced in power. In their opulence, wealth, and feasting—and in becoming accustomed to violence committed in their name, always in self-defense, of course[22]—the Jews of Shushan even start to act just like the Persians did at the beginning of the book. [23]

A holiday is declared to remember these events. Part of the observance is a reminder to give gifts to poor people,[24] who previously have been invisible in this story.

An annual day of irreverence and celebration—called “Purim,” to remind us how so much of our fate relies on chance—is established.

The king raises taxes.[25] Life returns to normal. The book ends with praise of Mordecai, who apparently saved the Jews singlehandedly.[26]


[1] Esther 1:3
[2] 1:8
[3] 1:10, 1:14
[4] 1:19-20
[5] 1:11, Esther Rabbah 3:13
[6] 1:12
[7] 2:7
[8] 2:18
[9] Esther Rabbah 7:4
[10] 3:1
[11] Esther Rabbah 6:2
[12] 3:8
[13] 3:8
[14] 4:11
[15] 4:15
[16] 5:9
[17] 6:1
[18] 6:12
[19] 7:8
[20] 8:8
[21] 8:17, 9:4
[22] 9:5, 9:16
[23] 9:17
[24] 9:22
[25] 10:1
[26] 10:2-3

The Stranger Who Resides with Us

I wrote this in 2016 for ARZA's commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Given the Netanyahu government's efforts to expel African refugees--and the massive demonstrations to protect them--it seems timely. I think it still holds up:

A walk through South Tel Aviv is not generally on the itinerary of a regular trip to Israel. It may as well be another planet from the all-night clubs, fancy restaurants, soaring hotels, and refined art galleries of what was once known as the White City. Most tourists have no idea that the place exists—and they certainly do not know about Holot.

South Tel Aviv in the flesh can break the heart of any thinking Zionist. It houses the largest concentration of Israel’s oft-hidden underclass: Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have fled some of the world’s most vicious regimes. Any Jew who experiences the reality of South Tel Aviv—its appalling living conditions, overcrowded housing, and air of desperation—must ask, is this the best the Jewish state can muster?

Over 45,000 Eritreans and Sudanese currently reside in Israel, but the government’s treatment of them is nowhere near what we might consider the “Torah standard.”

“Refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms; if these labels were applied to Israel’s African residents, a host of legal protections would kick in. Therefore, the government employs different language: a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” is in effect. In other words, desperate people who have fled to Israel find themselves in limbo: they cannot legally work or apply for citizenship; they cannot be deported back to where they came from; they have nowhere else to go. The vast majority want “asylum seeker” status, but Israel has granted that status to fewer than 1% of them; it is the lowest rate of recognition in the western world. Some activists accuse government officials of waging a racist campaign of incitement against the Africans, calling them insidious “infiltrators.”

And then there’s Holot. Located in the remote Negev near the Egyptian border, Holot is a detention facility—it’s hard to differentiate it from a prison—where Africans streaming into the country are held without trial. Over the past few years, the Knesset has tried to detain migrants for years on end; the High Court of Justice called the government’s policy “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom.” As of December 2015, there were 3,300 people in Holot where they may remain up to twelve months. Its capacity is “full” according to the Israeli Immigration Authority.

While Europe dominates headlines with the refugee disaster pouring out of Syria, this subversive crisis to Israel’s soul shamefully has been absent from the American Jewish agenda.

It is difficult to read Parashat Kedoshim and not think of South Tel Aviv or Holot:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ 
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens;
you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I, Adonai, am your God.
(Leviticus 19:33-34)

These verses are directed towards a Jewish community that is a majority culture, self-assured and established in its own land. The Torah warns that the Jews, when they have become that majority, will have a minority community of non-Jews living among them—and they must assiduously protect the rights of that minority.

To understand this passage requires a better grasp of three familiar concepts: the “stranger,” “do not wrong,” and “you shall love.” Each of these ideas is more nuanced than may appear at first glance.

Who is the ger?

In the Tanakh, the meaning of the word ger is very specific: a minority group dwelling among a native majority. The ger is someone who has been transplanted from his native home. In contrast, the word for “native citizen” (“the ger… shall be to you as one of your citizens”) is ezrach. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that the term ezrach is connected to the linguistic root of a tree firmly rooted in its soil: “…well-rooted, like a robust native tree” (Psalm 37:35). He writes, “If this derivation is correct, an ezrach/citizen is one whose lineage has ‘roots’ in the land, one who belongs to the group that possesses the land.” The ger is the outsider, the stranger in the midst.

Thus the Torah frequently reminds Israel that we know the feelings of the ger, because we’ve had that status before. This is precisely the situation the Jewish people knew in Egypt; a displaced minority among an indigenous majority culture.

What does the Torah mean what it says “you shall not wrong” the ger?

In context, the verb lo tonu / “you shall not wrong” comes from the noun ona’ah, which refers specifically to economic deprivation, manipulation, and taking advantage of another who is in a weaker position. For instance, Leviticus 25:14-17 opens and closes with an injunction not to “wrong” one another, and in between it illustrates this “wronging” as a matter of economic injustice:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years:
the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Adonai am your God.

We can conclude that from a p’shat point of view, ona’ah in Leviticus 19 means unfairly leveraging an economic situation where the other person—namely, the ger—is relatively defenseless.

The Mishnah takes this idea one step further: “Just as there is ona’ah in buying and selling, so too is there ona’ah in words.” For the Rabbis, ona’ah—the very acts which are prohibited against the ger and others—is expanded to mean “oppression, wrongdoing, or causing shame.”

Finally, we need to ask: What does it mean “to love the ger as yourself”?

Many have asked how the Torah can command love, the deepest of human emotions. Earlier in Kedoshim we were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself”; elsewhere the Torah command us to love God (who reciprocally loves us) and, here, to love the stranger.

It is a conundrum if the Hebrew word for love, ahava, simply means deep emotion. However, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is much more than sentiment; love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds. This is especially true in Deuteronomy, which speaks of covenantal love. The ger is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing his commandments (Deut. 11:1), and God in turn “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).[1]

Thus, to “love” the ger and to “not wrong him” are inverses of one another. The fulfillment of this Mitzvah means not only not to exploit a person who is politically weaker, but also to support him, to include him in festival celebrations, to allow him to rest on Shabbat, and to provide him with appropriate safety.[2]

It is hard to read these words at the culmination of our Torah portion and, again, not to reflect on our reality. Certainly, “real life” occasionally intrudes on idealism and mitigates our ability to behave according to our highest standards. But still, we have to ask: are we fulfilling what the Torah demands of us?

The words of a modern commentator are jarring:

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) was a major figure in 20th Century Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sorotzkin was born in Belarus, served as the Rabbi of Lutsk in Ukraine, and ultimately fled to Palestine during World War II. There he became the vice chairman of Agudat Yisrael (the main Ashkenazi Orthodox party in Israel at the time); he was certainly not a “liberal” figure by any means. Which makes his comment on this verse particularly compelling:

“In your land” (Leviticus 19:33):  You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.[3]

What would Rabbi Sorotzkin say if he were to observe the plight of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel today?

The Torah commands us to protect the rights and dignity of the stranger no less than 36 times (and some authorities say 46 times)—it is repeated more than any other Mitzvah in the Torah. When you go home, the text implies, you have an enormous responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable. This injunction is, in fact, the moral barometer of any society. This is one of the resounding lessons of Jewish history: we know the heart of the stranger, because we’ve been that stranger many times: in Egypt, but also in Babylonia, Morocco, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Ellis Island, and Poland. Woe to those of us who are so estranged from our past that we can’t look into the eyes of the African refugees and see the reflection of our own living history.

For more information about supporting African migrants in Israel: 
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, http://hotline.org.il/en/main/

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1653.

[2] Milgrom, p.1706.

[3]R. Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah on Leviticus 19:33.

Nuclear Dreams

If you can stomach just a few more words about the State of the Union…

I have no intention here of analyzing Donald Trump’s speech—nor the First Lady’s clothes, the opposition’s behavior, or any of that nonsense. States of the Union are usually non-events, and this one was no different.

But there’s one part of his speech that chilled me to the bone, and in the newspapers and websites that I read, I didn’t see any particular mention of it.

He said:

As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

On the page, those words are grotesque enough. But there was an insidiousness to how he said it—especially that last sentence, which had a sickly, condescending tone. It triggered some old, primal fears.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet anxieties. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who remembers waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about nuclear war. Our schools and popular culture scared the hell out of us with the prospect of the annihilation of the planet.

My memories of ‘80s pop culture echo the helpless fear that our leaders would be “forced” by our enemies to use nuclear weapons—the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Like a lot of ‘80s detritus, much of it today seems campy and silly—but we took it very seriously. 

For instance, my favorite movie around the time of my Bar Mitzvah was WarGames, which imagined that two computer nerds (with their crackling antediluvian modems and monochrome computer screens) could inadvertently set off a chain of events that would lead to war. Today, we giggle at some of the dialogue:

 “Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”
“Later. Let’s play global thermonuclear war.”

But back in 1983, it wasn’t so funny. It scared the hell out of us.

Pop music at the time got on the nuclear fear-stoking bandwagon, too. U2—when they were young, vaguely punky, and cutting-edge—recorded War and The Unforgettable Fire, which seemed to nod toward these themes. Pink Floyd released the vinyl quaalude The Final Cut, which droned on about nuclear apocalypse. Even a disposable act like Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a hit single called “Two Tribes” about the dangers of nuclear proliferation—this is what passed as dance music in those days!

In school, they gave us books like Alas, Babylon (a holdover of the previous generation’s atomic terror) which depicted the aftereffects of a nuclear war. But the worst, by far, was The Day After—a televised movie “event” that was considered so important that it was aired without any commercials! It was about the futility of survival after the nukes go off, because of the environmental cataclysm that comes afterwards, making the planet uninhabitable. By the end of the film, the blast’s survivors have succumbed to radiation poisoning, nuclear winter has started to settle in, and the extinction of the human race seemed assured. Everybody watched it; it was one of the highest-rated TV programs of all time.

This is what we were raised on. One night in June 1989 there was an explosion at the Hercules munitions plant in my hometown, shattering windows miles away. I remember falling out of my bed from the blast, but the worst part was the sheer terror that this was it:  it was so loud, surely that it meant that the Soviets had launched their nukes (and we all knew that Picatinny Arsenal, not far away, would be a primary target when doomsday actually came). I don’t think I’ve ever been so metaphysically terrified at any other time in my life.

Even as teens, we knew the numbers: that our nuclear arsenal was so large it could destroy the planet hundreds of times over. We couldn’t comprehend the logic: if we could only completely destroy the entire Soviet Union 178 times, was it really more of a deterrent to be able to wipe them out 212 times? 

Miraculously, the Soviet Union collapsed without any of these horrors coming to be, and the Doomsday Clock slipped backwards a few clicks from midnight. But I presume I’m not the only one who senses that keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists and lunatics couldn’t be more important. It’s a big part of why I take Israel’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear threat so absolutely seriously: a nuclear weapon in the hands of an apocalyptic regime is the stuff of real nightmares.

So to hear the President speaking of the need to “rebuild” our nuclear arsenal triggers certain long-dormant reflexes in me. Conservatives and progressives alike should be able to find common cause in being able to restrain this insane return of a ghost that should be resting permanently in peace.

Jews, especially, should know that exponential power of nuclear weapons is a moral anathema. A tradition that demands that when you go to war, you must not destroy the fruit trees in enemy territory (Deuteronomy 20:19) should be appalled at the idea of devastating entire ecosystems with weapons of ghastly force.

Moreover, the standard interpretation of an obscure passage in the Talmud (Shevuot 35b) is that a war that would kill a massive number of civilians—a sixth of the population, an atomic proportion—is absolutely prohibited.

Furthermore… my God, do we have to do this? Do we really need religious prooftexts to say that we shouldn’t contemplate wreaking devastation on a planetary scale? Can we just call this one of those things that the Talmud considers סברא הוא, just plain common sense?

As Joshua said back in ’83—and everyone in Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury, NJ could quote it—it is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

A Thought for MLK Day - King & The Jews

Thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy today. How willing would much of the Jewish community be to embrace his message? This day always reminds me of this passage from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (z"l)'s memoir. King asked Hertzberg, at the height of the struggle, why he cared so much. Hertzberg didn't respond with pious passages from the prophets, or the Declaration of Independence, or anything like that.

Instead, he spoke about his father. Herzberg's father was a Hasidic rabbi, a descendent of Elimelech of Lizhensk, and the leader of a shul in Nashville, Tennessee.

Here's what he wrote:

One Friday we came to synagogue for the evening service to find that an imposing black man wearing a very high yarmulke was there. He introduced himself as Rabbi Matthews and added that he was also a cantor. To prove his self-description, the visitor produced documents from a very respected rabbi in Toronto who attested to the fact that he had officiated at the conversion of Rabbi Matthews, in order to remove any doubt of his Jewishness… and that further training as cantor had been imparted to Matthews in Toronto. What all this meant was that the visitor had the right, in well-established Jewish practice, to claim the reading desk so that he might lead in the chanting of the service—and, ultimately, claim a donation for his sustenance.

My father looked at the certificate and said very quietly (when he was quiet, I knew he was at his angriest) that he was the rabbi of this synagogue and it was his duty and prerogative to decide questions of religious practice. The congregants refused. They pretended that they did not believe that the visitor was indeed a Jew, and they barred the way of this Black cantor to the reading desk.

My father put his arm around this man, whom he had met just ten minutes before, and headed for the door. He stopped and said, very quietly, that he would never come through that door again, because they had insulted a human being made in the image of God. We said prayers at home that Shabbat. My father had thrown his job away over a principle, and he did not find another for many months. I expected my mother to berate him, but she did not say one word, that day or later.

(Arthur Hertzberg, A Jew in America, 2002)

I should probably just let it sit on the page, but it triggers some other questions in me. What would happen in an Orthodox shul if the same scenario unfolded today? And as for liberal synagogues - what lines in the sand are left that would make a rabbi say, "I can never step foot in here again"? And why, fifty years on from MLK's death, do we still have to march for such obvious matters of civil rights?  

The Secret of the Seventh Light

Tonight is the seventh light of Chanukah, which is also Rosh Chodesh: the new moon in tonight’s sky heralds the start of the new month of Tevet.

(To be technical about it, this month has a two-day Rosh Chodesh, which happens occasionally; the new moon is on the second night, Monday night. Here’s more.) 

I think this night holds one of the secrets of the Chanukah.

Chanukah, ritually speaking, is very simple. For eight nights, starting on the 25th of Kislev, we light menorahs and place them so they can be seen by passers-by. We begin with one light and we increase incrementally until the final night, when the menorah is fully lit with eight flames.

This is the key symbol of Chanukah. Chanukah always falls during these eight days around the new moon that is most closely situated to the winter solstice—that is, days with the least amount of daylight (in the northern hemisphere) and most darkness: the sun is at its most distant point from earth’s axis and the moon is at its most obscured.

During that darkest time of the year—that’s precisely when we have our festival of lighting lights. And light, of course, is a pregnant symbol. It can mean justice, love, faith, peace, hope, wisdom (“enlightenment”), hidden mystical Truth. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812) taught that while other festivals are celebrated with symbols that are inherently physical (matzah, sukkah, shofar, etc.), only Chanukah is celebrated with a symbol that is inherently spiritual: light.  

And Beit Hillel in the Talmud famously taught that in matters of holiness, our task is to always increase light, and never to decrease it (Shabbat 21b). 

Yet here’s the thing: during the first six nights of Chanukah, we stubbornly light the menorah—even while the world gets darker and darker. We add flames while the light of the moon keeps diminishing.

But tonight there’s a change. Tonight the moon starts to emerge and wax larger. It’s as if to say that our efforts have started to pay off:  The world is starting to follow our persistent lead, inclining towards light rather than darkness. 

Look, the world these days can seem pretty dark—no matter what darkness connotes for you. Things seem hopeless? Nations seem to be careening towards corruption and war instead of integrity and peace? People who said they care about you seem heartless? Feels like greed and materialism are winning out? I know the feeling—I’ve been there.

But the aspiration of Chanukah is that hope wins out in the long term. Keep using a spark to light more lights—and the world slowly, inevitably, will start to incline towards the light.

Of Course Jerusalem is Israel's Capital...

…but sometimes it’s better to be smart than right.

The Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a cynical political maneuver—but there are plenty of good, historical reasons why Jews may feel torn. Here’s my attempt to sort through the issues and to explain why something that should seem obvious on one hand is so profoundly disturbing on the other.

Plenty of people may find themselves saying, “Isn’t Jerusalem already Israel’s capital?”  And of course it is. All of Israel’s government offices are in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city. So, too, are the Knesset and the Supreme Court. So is Hebrew University, the national university of Israel, founded in 1918. The office of the Chief Rabbinate, a reprehensible institution but a significant national one nonetheless, is likewise in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, spiritually speaking, there has never been any doubt in the Jewish mind about Jerusalem's status. Since the days of King David some 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the earthly capital of Jewish worship. Of no other city did the Psalmist cry:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither
Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in mind even at my happiest hour.
(Ps. 137:5-6)

For the Jewish soul, Jerusalem is home.

In a perfect world—of course the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem, the only capital of Israel.

So what’s the controversy?

When the United Nations in November 1947 voted to partition British Mandate Palestine into two states, a Jewish one and an Arab one, Jerusalem was considered too contested; it was to be internationalized. After the 33-13 U.N. vote passed, the Zionists accepted the plan and the Arab nations rejected it. (There were some enraged voices, especially from far-right nationalist corners of the Zionist movement, to reject the U.N. plan on the grounds that there could be no Jewish state without Jerusalem as its capital. David Ben Gurion sagely chose otherwise.)

When Ben Gurion and the Zionist leaders signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, it was an endorsement of the U.N. plan—the Declaration was signed in Tel Aviv, and the understanding was that Jerusalem would, indeed, be internationalized.

But the U.N.’s proposed boundaries never came to fruition. Within hours of Israel’s independence, she was attacked simultaneously by the surrounding Arab nations. When an armistice was reached the following year, Israel’s precipitous borders were somewhat expanded—and a foothold was established in Jerusalem, a lifeline to the thousands of Jews who lived there (and who were isolated, endangered, and on a few occasions, massacred during the War of Independence). Jerusalem was a divided city: the Old City and eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem were under Jordanian rule; the western part of the city was Israeli. Into those western neighborhoods, the apparatus of the government moved.

After Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War in 1967, all of Jerusalem came under Israeli control. While the Muslim holy sites were handed over to the waqf—the Jordanian-controlled Islamic religious authority—both East and West Jerusalem became one Israeli municipality. Everywhere in the Jewish world, souls were stirred. The new anthem of the Jewish people became Naomi Shemer's Yerushalayim shel Zahav / "Jerusalem of Gold." 

But for most of the nations of the world, including the U.S., Jerusalem never gained its status as Israel’s capital, because they continued to cling to the 1947 U.N. Resolution 181 rather than comprehending that the status quo had irrevocably changed. 70 years later, that’s still the case.

The problem is precisely this: everything about Jerusalem causes passions to be inflamed. Even though many Jewish residents of the city have never stepped foot in the Palestinian neighborhoods such as Beit Safafa, Silwan, or Shuafat, there is a strong sense that Jerusalem can “never be divided again.”  And for Palestinians, Jerusalem is the inevitable capital of their state-in-waiting.

So there are threats. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that if the Trump Administration makes this move, it will pull the plug from the barely-on-life-support peace process. Worse, the implied threat is that the Palestinian street will go ballistic, launching, G-d forbid, a Third Intifada and new wave of violence and terror. That violence could easily spread beyond Israel.

On one hand, some supporters of Israel will understandably say—why should we allow the threat of terror to stop us from pursuing a goal that is ultimately right? Why would we cave in to that sort of blackmail?

But on the other hand—often it is better to be smart than to be right. What, really, is to be gained by this move, besides a sense of historic injustice corrected?

The danger of this spiraling out of control is real. No one’s life would be changed or improved by this symbolic U.S. recognition—but a lot of people’s lives could be devastated by the eruption of tensions. That is why one pro-Israel U.S. administration after another—Republican and Democrat alike—has put off making such a move as this. (I suspect that behind the scenes, the Israelis were nodding in assent. You really don’t hear about the Israelis making a big deal that U.S. embassy is not in Jerusalem—and for good reason.)

As scholar Micah Goodman has written in his important book Catch-67, the United States could be using its power to ease tension between Israelis and Palestinians, taking short-term incremental steps to build trust (rather than trying to force final stages of a peace process at this time). His book—a bestseller in Israel—offers concrete examples steps about how to do just that.

We should question the timing of this move:  Does it have anything to do with distracting attention from Donald Trump’s growing panic over the Justice Department investigation of possible collusion with Russia? Or with the increasing momentum in Israel of corruption charges against Prime Minister Netanyahu? And in a time of great tension between Israel and American Jews, over the Western Wall and pluralism issues in general, doesn’t the timing seem just a little self-serving for these politicians?

Whether or not the announcement is self-serving for the embattled politicos, all of us should pause to think about whether we want to be smart or right at this particular juncture.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) maintains that one aspect of King David’s leadership was that he was mavin davar mitoch davar: that he could anticipate how one thing causally leads to another. Thoughtful leaders should know that their actions have consequences, both intended and unintended.

That is what this moment calls for. Sadly, tragically, we are not currently blessed with leaders who have this sense of foresight.

Writing Roundup: A Few Recent Books with Writings of Mine

November was a prolific month. I have articles in three recent books which you may be interested in:

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First, THE FRAGILE DIALOGUE: NEW VOICES OF LIBERAL ZIONISM, edited by Stanley Davids and Larry Englander, is a collection of essays about Reform Zionism in America, Israel, and elsewhere. I contributed a transatlantic dialogue with Rabbi Charley Baginsky comparing the history and nature of Zionism in the liberal Jewish movements of America and the U.K.

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A LIFE OF MEANING, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan, discusses Jewish spiritual practices. I wrote an essay on “Creating a Life of Meaning by Caring for Others,” which includes some reflections on the inspiration of my teacher, the Rabbanit Kapach.

 

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Finally, NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE, edited by Peter Knobel, includes an article of mine about integrating Tzedakah into the practice of daily living.

 

Check ‘em out!