J’accuse! My shock in watching the RNC

I have been stunned by the intensity of vitriol coming from the mouths of many speakers and delegates at the Republican National Convention this week, far more than I expected.

“Guilty!” “Guilty!” “Guilty!” “Murderer!” “Lucifer!” “Lock her up!” Put her “in stripes!” She’s “a piece of garbage!” She deserves “the firing line and [to be] shot for treason.”

No one from the podium challenged any of this disgusting rhetoric. To the contrary, though not all speakers are guilty of uttering the slander, none protested and so, citing Heschel, all are responsible.

I say “J’accuse!”

Thank goodness Shabbat is coming and we Jews have a chance to withdraw from the hatred and rchilut to reflect on matters of soul, ethics, civility, and common decency.

This week’s Torah portion “Balak” inspired the rabbis of old to consider the impact that different leadership proclivities and visions have had in the personages of the prophets Abraham and Balaam.

Balaam was a non-Jewish prophet who blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them after Balak, the King of Moab, paid Balaam to do this on his behalf:

“Mah tovu o-ha-lecha Yaakov mish’ke-no-techa Yisrael –
How good are
 your tents of Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

The Pirkei Avot 5:22 notes:

“Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our ancestor, Abraham, and whoever has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Balaam. Those with a good eye (ayin tovah), a generous soul (ruach n’mu-chah) and a humble spirit (nefesh sh’lalah) are disciples of our ancestor Abraham. Those with  an evil eye (ayin ra-ah), an arrogant spirit (ruach g’vo-hah) and a greedy soul (nefesh r’chavah) are disciples of the wicked Balaam.”

On the surface, it seems that Balaam hasn’t done anything really wrong. Yet, Balaam was blinded by greed and impatient to reap his reward in cursing the Israelites.

The Midrash compares Abraham and Balaam. Though both are prophets, they differ in the way they perceive God. Abraham finds God even when hidden. Balaam can’t see God or God’s angel even when they’re standing in front of him. Abraham turns his perception into a blessing. Balaam turns his perception into a curse. Balaam’s prophetic potential is as great as Abraham’s even though Balaam sought to sell his soul to the highest bidder. Abraham never considered cursing anyone.

At Sodom and Gemorrah on behalf of the people Abraham bargained, cajoled and persuaded God to spare the community if he could find but one righteous person in it saying, “Shall not the Judge of the whole world not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25) For this, the Mishnah describes Abraham as being possessed of a “good eye” (ayin tovah).  Although the Sodomites were filled with evil doing, Abraham looked for a way to ameliorate their fate and save them.

Balaam’s “bad eye” (ayin ra-ah) drew him to his own material enrichment. This prophet was corruptible and tempted by power, wealth and station. Rashi wrote that though Balaam seemed to reject silver and gold, he actually craved it.

Thus, the rabbis contrasted Balaam’s arrogant and grasping nature (ruach g’vohah) with Abraham’s generosity (ruach n’mucha). That generosity took the form of hospitality. Abraham’s tent opened to the world. He welcomed every stranger and embraced all people.

The ideal of prophetic leadership is exemplified by Abraham whose example reminds us of the leaders we need and the kind of people we ourselves ought to strive to be, especially in times such as these when blinding hatred has filled the hearts of so many millions of Americans.

We all ought to strive to be more like Abraham who resisted demonizing and dehumanizing others, whose good eye can glimpse the blessing that peace can bring, whose generous spirit can open the heart to nurture community, whose humility can enable the recognition that every human being is created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image” (Genesis 3:4).

Shabbat shalom.

Anti-anxiety Shabbat – coping during these difficult days

No one should be surprised that so many Americans feel anxious these days. Consider all that’s happened in the last 16 years, the cumulative effect of which has led to the state of our national psyche today:

The contested 2000 Presidential election – the rise of Al Qaeda, international terrorism and 9/11 – the Afghan War and the US invasion of Iraq – the mortgage and banking crisis, the 2008 economic melt-down and the loss of jobs – the changing US multi-cultural demography that helped bring about the election of the first African American President and the corresponding nativist resentment and racism – the rise of the Tea Party and its right-wing Congressional obstructionism – the Arab Spring and the Arab Winter along with intensifying Middle East violence – ISIS –  Syria’s civil war and the massive refugee crisis pouring into neighboring Arab countries and Europe – America’s daily gun violence and terrorism at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Baton Rouge, Milwaukee and Dallas – not to mention attacks in Istanbul, Paris, Brussels, and Nice – and today the military coup (?)  in Turkey – and the demoralizing 2016 Presidential campaign.

As these events occurred, social media and the 24-hour news cycle covered everything in great detail inundating us with its cacophony.

A great deal has changed in our world in recent years to be sure, for better and worse. Even good change is difficult for many of us to absorb, but when the changes are negative and destructive our lives feel more difficult.

Our fellow citizens are divided and polarized from each other at a depth that we haven’t experienced since the 1960s. We’re more distrusting, cynical and fearful of each other, and, according to a study reported on this week in the New York Times, there is a definitive link between racism with political party affiliation. Our politics have become the battleground of so much that ails us – between fear and reason, negativity and hope, nativism and internationalism, multi-culturalism and cosmopolitanism, red and blue, right and left.

Dr. Martin Luther King put it right when he said long ago; “People don’t get along because they fear each other. People fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they haven’t properly communicated with each other.”

Can there be any doubt that we Americans need more contact with one another across racial, ethnic, religious, and political lines so we can come to know and understand one another better as human beings? That was the impetus of an essay by George Sanders that appeared in last week’s New Yorker on who Donald Trump supporters are beyond the stereotype of an angry white uneducated mostly male voter.

This said, our anxieties cloud the mind and make it difficult for reasoned discussion and a meeting of minds and hearts. Most Americans across the political and ethnic landscape wonder how we can best assure our own safety, the safety of our children, our civil society, and our sanity as a nation.

Health care professions identify a number of coping strategies that can help calm the nerves and center us:

1. When we feel anxious, take a time-out and remember to breathe;

2. Eat well-balanced meals and drink plenty of water;

3. Limit consumption of alcohol and caffeine, both of which aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks;

4. Disconnect regularly from the news, the Internet and social media thereby diminishing the fragmentation that results when we encounter disturbing news;

5. Sleep 7 to 8 hours nightly;

6. Exercise daily;

7. Meditate, do Yoga, pray;

8. Read fine literature and poetry; listen to inspiring music; visit museums and art galleries; drink in the life-affirming creativity of others;

9. Get out into nature;

10. Be with family and friends;

11. Celebrate Shabbat;

12. Learn Torah;

13. Correct societal wrongs;

14. Change what we can and accept what we can’t change.

These strategies can help alleviate some of the anxiety we feel. But, it’s important to understand that not all anxiety is necessarily bad. There are, indeed, real threats out there, and the adrenaline rush that comes when we feel threatened can serve us well at times.

We need to be able, however, to distinguish real risks and dangers from imaginary ones, and to be able to stand in the shoes of the “other,” understand who they are as individuals, and why they may think and react as they do when their thinking and responses seem so foreign to us.

These past weeks have been particularly disheartening for Americans as a whole. President Obama reminded us in Dallas last week that, regardless of our differences, we share far more in common than what distinguishes us.

All Americans want to feel safe in their homes and on the streets, to raise their children, enjoy their families, friends and communities, earn a living wage, and make a positive difference in the world.

We Jews, I suggest, need Shabbat more now than ever as an anti-anxiety strategy, for Shabbat is our time to step away from the negative and destructive, to reconnect with community and faith, to emphasize the good and creative, to breathe in Shabbat peace and exhale anxiety, fear, fragmentation, and cynicism, and to celebrate the many blessings that are ours every day.

Shabbat shalom.

“Reform, Conservative Leaders to Netanyahu: Incitement Against Us Could Lead to Bloodshed” – Haaretz headline this week

Eight months ago, following two years of intense negotiations between representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the North American Jewish Federations, Women of the Wall, and the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the Wall, an agreement was reached to create an independent egalitarian prayer space in the Southern Kotel Plaza.

The agreement stipulated that this plaza would be designed by a leading world architect and would be equivalent in size to the traditional Northern Kotel Plaza. The liberal streams and Women of the Wall would control and oversee how prayer services would be conducted without interference from the Ultra-Orthodox or Chief Rabbi of the Wall. A common entrance to the plaza would be shared by all worshipers with equal sight lines to the Northern and Southern Plazas.

Right-wing ultra-Orthodox extremist rabbis and their communities have risen up in protest using incendiary rhetoric and threats.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, though stating that the entirety of the Jewish people must feel “at home” in Israel and at our holy sites, has back-pedaled and sought to reopen negotiations that would effectively kill the original agreement.  Our leadership has told him that a deal is a deal and that any change now is unacceptable.

The Prime Minister is fearful of losing the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government and being forced either to  form a new government or to call new elections. There are times, and this is one of those times, that the best interests of the Jewish people are more important than cow-towing to an extremist minority.

Our movement leadership, frustrated by the Prime Minister’s and government’s inaction, has decided to take this matter to the Israeli High Court.

In the meantime and until the egalitarian plaza can be built, the liberal coalition will conduct prayer services in the large Kotel Plaza. Our leadership this week warned the Prime Minister that we fear violence against us by the ultra-Orthodox. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the liberal coalition stated:

“We expect that the police will protect us as we exercise our legal rights, and we are stating plainly that absent a clear and a strong response, the current wave of incitement and violence might lead to bloodshed, as seen in the streets of Jerusalem during last year’s Pride parade…” At the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem last year, 16-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox Jew.” (“Reform, Conservative Leaders to Netanyahu: Incitement Against Us Could Lead to Bloodshed” – by Judy Maltz, Haaretz, July 11, 2016 – http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.730200):

It is time for Prime Minister Netanyahu to fulfill his pledge to world Jewry and allow the design and construction of the Southern Kotel Plaza to begin.

Note: I serve as National Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Zionist arm of the American Reform movement representing 1.5 million American Jews.

 

Mr. Trump – How can you say you love us if you don’t know or care what hurts us?

Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoeller was arrested by the Gestapo in 1938 and interned in Dachau until 1945. After the war he said:

“In Germany, the Nazis first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came up for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.”

I agree with Deborah Lipstadt in her Forward piece (see below) that Donald Trump is probably not an anti-Semite but that he has internalized anti-Semitic attitudes, which are far worse. At the very least, he is grossly insensitive to our historic and religious experience and what animates Jewish fear. His recent posting of the 6-pointed Star (of David) over a pile of cash in criticizing Hillary Clinton reminds me of the Chassidic story about the Rebbe who asked his disciple one day if he loved him.

“Of course I love you!” The Chassid said.

“Do you know what hurts me?” the Rebbe asked.

“No – I do not.”

The Rebbe explained: “If you do not know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”

One can legitimately argue that Mr. Trump didn’t initially realize that his use of the Star (of David) was hurtful and insulting to Jews. Almost immediately someone in his campaign removed the 6-pointed star and replaced it with a circle. That would have been fine in my book, his campaign borrowing images from a white supremacist website notwithstanding. But Mr. Trump didn’t allow the issue to subside. In Cincinnati before thousands of supporters and a national audience, he criticized his own campaign and his Jewish son-in-law saying that the star-image should never have been taken down in the first place because it isn’t the star of David.

Mr. Trump says he loves Jews. He says he loves women. He says he loves Hispanics. He says he loves Mexicans. He says he bear no animus towards Muslims.

Really!?

Mr. Trump is an equal opportunity offender of just about everyone.

In this last week’s Torah portion, Korach, our sages noted that Korach‘s great sin was that he divided the people against each other. That has marked Trump’s campaign from the beginning and we ought to judge him the way Judaism judges Korach, as a rabble rouser whose egotistical quest for power blinded him to the needs of everyone else. Is this what we need in a President?

There are so many decent Republicans in this country, thank goodness, who have quietly decided they cannot vote for this man for President. That being said, why have so many of them chosen to remain silent? Why has there not arisen a strong and vocal ground swell of protest coming from millions of decent Republicans?

Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke to the thousands assembled on the Washington, D.C. Mall in August 1963 and said:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Dr. King offered essentially the same message:

“We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Yes, I acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is an imperfect candidate for President, but her imperfections fade into the ether when compared to the depth and expanse of the moral failings of Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton has demonstrated over the course of her entire adult life a deep concern for and activism on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our society and world – women, children, the powerless. I see no such moral sensibility in Mr. Trump’s life or career.
See:

Trump’s vigorous defense of anti-Semitic image a ‘turning point’ for many Jews
By Jose A. DelReal and Julie Zauzmer, Washington Post, July 8, 2016

“Donald Trump’s vigorous defense of an image widely regarded as anti-Semitic has alarmed many Jewish Americans, who are growing increasingly fearful that someone who could be the next president is willing to stoke the kinds of stereotypical attacks that have haunted Jews around the world for generations.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-vigorous-defense-of-anti-semitic-image-a-turning-point-for-many-jews/2016/07/08/720858e2-4450-11e6-bc99-7d269f8719b1_story.html

Is Donald Trump’s Inadvertent Anti-Semitism Worse Than the Real Thing?
By Deborah Lipstadt, Forward July 7, 2016

“Trump is like a drug dealer who sells the stuff and urges others to use it, while he never touches it himself. Because he is not an anti-Semite, he fails to grasp that he is engaging in traditional anti-Semitism.”

http://forward.com/opinion/344435/is-donald-trumps-inadvertent-anti-semitism-worse-than-the-real-thing/

Note: The viewpoint expressed in this blog represent my own only, and do not represent any religious institution or organization with which I am affiliated.

“Palestinian terrorism and Muslim hypocrisy: An open letter from a Muslim woman”

Following the murder of 13-year-old Hillel Yaffe Ariel in her Kiryat Arba home on June 30, the following blog was written by an American Muslim interfaith activist and  appeared in the Times of Israel. Nadiya Al-Noor’s words are a must read and, hopefully, can restore a measure of faith and hope shattered by this cruel and incomprehensible act of violence on a child.

Palestinian terrorism and Muslim hypocrisy: An open letter from a Muslim woman – July 1, 2016, 6:40 am – Times of Israel Blog

Blogger Nadiya Al-Noor is a young Muslim interfaith activist with a focus on Jewish and Muslim communities, and she actively supports peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Nadiya is a graduate student at Binghamton University in New York, studying Public Administration.

“I am a Muslim, and I know that when it comes to Palestinian terrorism, too many Muslims are hypocrites. I have seen firsthand the casual, destructive anti-Semitism that plagues the Muslim community. I have heard it from the mouths of our religious leaders, from our politicians, and even from our otherwise peaceful, liberal Muslim activists. I have witnessed in horror the desperate attempts to justify Palestinian terrorism from people who I once respected. Why? Why do we decry all other types of terrorism, but bend over backwards to legitimize violence against Israeli Jews?”

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/palestinian-terrorism-and-muslim-hypocrisy-an-open-letter-from-a-muslim-woman/

Elie Wiesel – Personal memories and a tribute

Elie Wiesel belonged to humanity. Though he was a Jew first, he transcended tribal and national boundaries and spoke on behalf of everyone who knows the despair that comes from cruelty and indifference.

I met Elie Wiesel twice. The first time was in 1972 at the Brandeis Camp Institute (now the Brandeis-Bardin Institute of the American Jewish University) while a senior at UC Berkeley. He and I spoke briefly then, but he wrote me a little hand-written note the following month that I cherish and that has motivated so much of what I do and believe as a rabbi. It reads simply “Remember to be a witness.”

I met him a second time in 1987 when I served as the Associate Rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC. My wife Barbara was serving then on the National Board of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN). Along with her on that board was Mary-Anne White, the wife of the former American Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White (z’l – he died last year from complications of prostate cancer).

Ambassador White was the one who identified the four murdered American nuns. He was serving as well in El Salvador when Archbishop Romero was assassinated in his church.

Ambassador White, appointed by President Carter to stop a revolution in that tortured land, described Roberto D’Aubuisson, the leader of the death squads, as a “pathological killer.” When President Reagan took office, one of his first acts was to fire Ambassador White because of his public accusations against the Salvadoran regime that had tolerated and supported D’Aubuisson’s death squads. Unfortunately, this ended White’s diplomatic career, but he grew in the hearts and minds of the Salvadoran people because he spoke “truth to power” as Elie Wiesel did in the White House publicly to his friend President Reagan because the President was preparing to visit the graves of Nazis at Bitburg, Germany as a favor to the German leadership. He told President Reagan that his place was at the graves of the victims, not the murderers.

Together, Barbara and Mary-Anne White (who was then the President of the Girl Scouts of America) teamed up and brought Elie Wiesel to CARECEN’s cause. He became a significant supporter of their efforts.

As Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Price he said – “No human being is illegal!” That quote became the tag-line of CARECEN in its efforts on behalf of El Salvadoran refugees seeking political asylum in the United States.

In light of the millions of refugees seeking safe shelter in the world today, Elie Wiesel was then, as always, prescient. His words, conscience and compassion as a witness has been lost tragically on millions of Americans spurred on by the hateful, hard-hearted and exclusionary rhetoric of one presidential candidate who would bar these tempest tossed human beings from ever coming into America and finding safe haven here.

May this Fourth of July celebrating American freedom remind us of the blessings of liberty and democracy that we enjoy, and of the conscience of this blessed man that graced and served humankind that is at the core of the American spirit.

Zecher tzadik livracha! May the memory of this righteous human being be a blessing for us all and for the generations to come. Amen!

How Trump can win the presidency

Though rabbis have to be very careful when speaking and writing in support of Hillary Clinton, which I have decided to do in this presidential election for the first time since I was ordained a rabbi in 1979 (note: rabbis cannot speak from the bimah to advocate for a particular candidate, nor can we use our institutional stationary to endorse a candidate, nor our synagogue email address, nor any official venue in our synagogues and religious institutions lest we cross a line and violate our synagogue’s non-profit status as a 501C3 entity), as individuals we can speak out as long as we indicate that we are doing so as individuals.

I have not endorsed candidates for any office before (local, state and national), though I have spoken out on moral and ethical issues as related to public policy matters, and will continue to do so.

I have been tutored by rabbis far wiser than me, however, that in the case when a candidate is clearly a bigot and whose policy positions are contrary to most every position the liberal American Jewish community advocates, that we must speak against such a candidate with every fiber of our beings. The American Reform movement through the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) representing 1.5 million Reform Jews, our social justice commission and the Religious Action Center (RAC) in Washington, D.C. (our movement’s social justice arm in the nation’s capital) has passed and advocated for many years through many resolutions on matters effecting economic justice, the environment, civil society, civil rights, embracing the stranger and immigrant, fair criminal justice reform, sensible gun control, condemnation of racism, misogyny, mocking the disabled, homophobia, and advocating on behalf of diversity, religious pluralism, and Israel’s safety and sustenance as a Jewish and democratic state.

In one recent poll, though Hillary Clinton was ahead by 11 points against Donald Trump in a two-party two-person race, when adding the Libertarian Party and the Green Party to the mix she was ahead by only 1 point – a virtual tie. Those other two parties will be on most ballots, and so we who protest everything that Trump is and stands for ought not assume that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency based on polls that consider only the two large political parties.

I am not one of those ‘Bernie or Bust’ folks who hate Hillary Clinton to a degree that is, frankly, confusing to me.

Recognizing that Hillary could well be our next President, a year ago I decided to read as much as I could about her. I read three critical biographies as well as two of her memoirs, and I have come to the conclusion that she is a principled public leader, driven by her faith from childhood and her high school years in a church youth group, and as smart and experienced a public servant as there is or ever has been in our national life. She is no doubt flawed and she has made some mistakes, but so are we all flawed. We are not electing a Pope. We are electing a President.

It is also clear to me that Hillary learns from her mistakes, even if she is not as publicly forthright as I or others would like to see her be when she does so. I do believe that she is decent to her core.

I know and respect people who have been supporting Bernie Sanders, and I understand why and respect them for their passion as I respect Bernie for his larger vision. I have always found him honest and refreshing. I also know people who don’t like Bernie and hate both Hillary and Trump, and have decided in disgust to sit this election out to avoid feeling corrupted themselves in supporting a candidate they do not like. I do not understand the depth of venom with which these folks despise Hillary. It does not seem normal, warranted or healthy to me.

I would urge those who refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton to think again and consider that their sitting this election out or their voting for one of the other third and fourth party candidates in protest could result in the election of a President Donald Trump.

I am particularly worried about millennial voters (ages 18-36) who have flocked to Bernie Sanders in large numbers. Surveys indicate that young people do not vote at the same rate as older people, which is one of the reasons that the Congress and Senate are now run by right-wing Republicans. Had young people voted in state races in 2000 and 2010 when legislatures redistricted according to the national census and according to which parties were in power (gerrymandering is legal but corrupt) and had they voted in the mid-term congressional races (the last time Democrats earned 2 million more votes than Republicans and lost the House of Representatives anyway), policy coming out of Washington, D.C. would be very different today.

This is an election that cannot go to Trump, and it is up to all of us who see him for who and what he is to do everything we can to elect Hillary Clinton as President.

Important disclaimer and note: I speak only for myself and not for my synagogue, its members or any other organization.

Our nation of immigrants is a good thing!

I love people’s stories. They say not only much about them, of course, but also about the nature today of the liberal American Jewish community in all its diversity.

This past Shabbat was no exception. I officiated at the b’nai mitzvah of two outstanding young people; smart, curious, thoughtful, empathetic, and wise beyond their years. They not only chanted Torah and Haftarah beautifully, but they delivered divrei Torah (reflections on the Torah portion) that were sophisticated and poignant.

The bar mitzvah is a jazz and classical music trumpeter and trombonist, serious and witty, who not only is graced with a high IQ but has a high emotional IQ. His mother’s grandfather was a strong Zionist who was intimately involved in the establishment of the state of Israel. His father comes from Irish stock as well as from Mexican and native American heritage. His parents are comedy writers who met at Second City in Chicago.

The bat mitzvah reads everything she can get her hands on, is a creative, imaginative and thoughtful writer who has read publicly her work at Barnes and Noble and other book venues. Her father is a second generation American Jew who grew up in an orthodox family in Brooklyn, NY, and whose parents are Holocaust survivors from Polish and German background. Her mother is a first generation Armenian.

After the b’nai mitzvah read Torah and delivered their divrei Torah, I spoke openly to them about who they are as individuals and what becoming bar and bat mitzvah means today.

I first noted their family backgrounds saying:

“You represent the modern liberal Jewish community. Where else but here in the United States could your parents have found each other and then brought you into the world. You are together proof positive that immigration to America is good, that we are a nation of immigrants and that all this talk about the threat of the ‘other’ is nonsense. We benefit from the world wanting to live here and you are primary examples of why this is so.”

This was only the third time in my 37 years as a congregational rabbi that the congregation broke out into applause, clearly a reflection of how disturbed we are by the nativist, ethno-nationalist, exclusionary, bigoted, and hateful movement that has given rise to both Brexit and Donald Trump.

I was glad for our community’s response, and I pray that it may sweep over the dark side of the American psyche and bring this nation back to its fundamentally decent core in November.

The most humble man who ever lived – considered in light of the British decision to leave the EU

Introductory note: I was planning to post this d’var Torah before the British vote yesterday on whether to remain or leave the European Union, and decided to post it anyway after the fact because I believe that this decision to leave the EU will stoke an added measure of fear and uncertainty in the hearts of millions throughout the world, as is already reflected in the falling financial markets. This decision, for better or worse, will likely bring out the very worst in some people in Great Britain, Europe and the United States, as if we did not already have enough fear and anxiety as expressed in this presidential election campaign.

I know no completely righteous person in the sense that Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad Lubavitch who authored “The Tanya,” meant it. The Alter Rebbe (as he is known) delineates five moral/spiritual categories of people – the completely righteous (tzaddik gamur), the righteous (tzaddik), the completely evil (rasha gamur), the evil (rasha), and the “in-betweeners” (beinonim).

The vast majority of us are beinonim, and though many of us may strive to behave as a tzaddik (and even seem to be a tzaddik from the outside because of our kindness and good deeds), still the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) as opposed to the yetzer tov (good inclination) distracts and confuses us in our struggle to remain moral, kind, generous, empathetic, and spiritually pure.

The tzaddik gamur, the completely righteous person, is different from the ‘simple’ tzaddik in that still in the latter there is the taint of the evil yetzer. The complete tzaddik has successfully subsumed the evil yetzer in his/her heart and soul completely. Such a person is considered to be among the legendary 36 righteous human beings (i.e. lamed vavniks) whose presence in the world enables the world to survive. Such a person “pursues justice, loves compassion and walks humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8)

In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-a-lotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) it is written that Moses was “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (12:3) The Hebrew word for ‘humble’ is anav and appears only one time in the five books of Moses – here. Given Moses’ extraordinary career as prince, shepherd, prophet, liberator, chieftain, military leader, and judge, it’s legitimate to wonder what “humility” meant as it applies to Moses. After all, Moses was hardly a shrinking violet. He was neither self-effacing nor lacking in confidence, nor was he a pacifist. He killed an Egyptian, challenged Pharaoh, crushed a rebellion, killed through the sword 10,000 of his own people after the incident of the golden calf, spoke face to face with God, broke the divinely inscribed tablets, argued with and challenged God.

This passage from Proverbs offers a sense of the meaning of anivut: “The effect of humility is awe of God, wealth, honor, and life.” (22:4)

According to the Biblical and rabbinic traditions, humility is based in an awareness of one’s self that comes about as a function of our awareness of God, that is, our perception of the creative intelligent unifying power in and beyond the universe that transcends human comprehension and inspires awe and wonder, gratitude, generosity and love.

The Talmud and Midrashic literature categorically condemn arrogance and close-mindedness, the opposite of humility. Rabbi Yochanan said in Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai’s name, “One who is arrogant is as though he worships idols.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 4b). Such a person is called a toevah – an abominator, someone who sees only him or herself and leaves no room for the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.

A story is told of an American professor of religion who wished to meet a particular Buddhist monk. After the westerner’s long and arduous journey, the monk received him on a mountain top where he lived and welcomed him to sit quietly with him on his mat. Tea was brought and placed before the two men. The monk began pouring the tea into a cup – and he kept pouring until the tea overflowed the cup and into the saucer. The monk continued pouring the tea as it spilled onto the mat. At last, the professor could maintain his silence no more and said, “Master – what are you doing? Can’t you see that the cup is full and tea is pouring out everywhere?”

“Aha,” said the wise sage. “So too are you so full of your own ideas that there is no more room for anything new or different.”

Such is the nature of arrogance. It is closed, rigid and intolerant, presumptuous, prejudiced, fearful, and hateful, angry, self-centered, and nasty at its core. It is motivated by the yetzer hara (the evil impulse). The opposite is anivut, humility, which is motivated by the yetzer tov (the good impulse).

Our world and nation are in desperate need of this virtue. May it be nurtured in us all.

Shabbat shalom.

 

Why Bernie Avishai winces at the term “radical Islam”

I take seriously just about everything Bernard Avishai says and writes.

Bernie is an Adjunct Professor of Business at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has taught at Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Dartmouth College, and was director of the Zell Entrepreneurship Program at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. A Guggenheim Fellow, Bernie holds a doctorate in political economy from the University of Toronto. Before turning to management, he covered the Middle East as a journalist. He has written many articles and commentaries for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harvard Business Review, Harper’s Magazine and other publications. He is the author of three books on Israel, including the widely read The Tragedy of Zionism, and the 2008 The Hebrew Republic. He lives in both Jerusalem and the United States.

Bernie doesn’t shoot from the hip. He knows what he is talking about, is honest, articulate, and wise. I am printing in its entirety his most recent article below because it is so important for us American Jews and so many Israelis to appreciate and understand, especially in this political season when fear-mongers and haters extrapolate awful events (i.e. the Orlando massacre) and judge the corrupted character of 1.5 billion Muslims.

Bernie explains why he winces when he hears the term “radical Islam.” Hopefully, the rest of us will wince along with him.

What Republicans Don’t Know About Islam

Posted: 20 Jun 2016 10:50 AM PDT

This is the week to say the things that go without saying. Mainstream Republicans—not just their Gorgeous George nominee, shock-radio echo-chamber, and Bibi cheerleaders—are mocking President Obama for speaking of terror and not “radical Islam.” The inference to be drawn is that Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, are predisposed to intolerance and violence, as if the Muslim religion is a subtle ideological toxin that can be managed in homeopathic doses, but is fatal full force. If we said “radical Islam,” presumably, then we’d be acknowledging the real danger, now suffered for the sake of political correctness.

For Muslims—so the argument goes—non-Muslims are infidels who must be either converted or killed. For Muslims, heaven beckons with sexuality (which is creepy back on earth), and the only law that counts is deadly, or maiming, and God-given. Terrorist acts, killing non-Muslims (or weak Muslims) at random, are, in this view, just Muslims at their most honest. The inference for action: strength, intimidation. We should carpet bomb ISIS, or send in the 101st Airborne, or leave Israeli settlers alone, or ban Muslim immigration “until we know what the hell is going on.” (Our side’s Bill Maher won’t go this far, but seems to suppose that, as long as mankind is ditching religion anyway, we should probably start with Islam.)

Now, the President has answered this claim about as well as it needs to be answered. The sociopaths want us to presume that they are cadres of the true Islam, much like Klan members in the sixties saw themselves as Christian crusaders, and, for that matter, the Red Brigades in the seventies saw themselves as “objectively” proletarian. Every religion has chilling texts, commandments, and supremacist claims that its adherents ordinarily ignore, suppress, or interpret into oblivion. The phrase “radical Islam” should offend us much like “Jewish extremist” applied to likes of, say, Yishai Schlissel, the maniac, a professed ultra-Orthodox, who stabbed six at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem last summer—and might have done much worse had he had access to an AR-15. Not every Jew has a little Schlissel struggling to come out. Omar Mateen was not a Muslim in the extreme.

But let’s assume that speaking of a religious culture is not just silly—you know, that we can extrapolate from the norms and practices of a religion to the expected political culture of a religious community. I have lived for much of my adult life in a city, Jerusalem, that is a one-third Muslim. I have spent months of days (going East to West) in Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco—let’s just say I have known a great many Arab Muslims. And when I hear Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and others, insist on the phrase “radical Islam,” I wince, but also feel slightly bemused, sort of the way you’d feel around someone who speaks knowingly while getting things almost exactly backwards.

The Muslims I’ve have known, day-in, day-out, have a very abstract yet immanent sense of the divine, which leads them, not to any kind of fanaticism, but to an instinctive humility and acceptance of their fate. God is everywhere and nowhere, embedded in family love. Indeed, the family, and extended family, is an unrivaled preoccupation. Sexual mores mirror what Americans mean by “family values” (my oldest Arab friend in Jerusalem sent his daughter to a Mormon university in Utah); and the mosque takes over where fathers (and mothers) leave off. My Jerusalem Arab friends, reporting on some recent frustration, typically end their complaints with alhamdulillāh, praise be to God, and an embrace. A hope, or just the plan for a meeting, is accompanied by in’shallah, God willing.

This is a sense of family loyalty that is not necessarily extended to national claims. (I am reminded of nothing so much as my immigrant Jewish Montreal home, when I would visit my grandmother. There were few adult sentences that weren’t also prayers of a kind. Surrounding me were uncles, aunts and cousins. Every happiness was reported with Gott tzedank, “Thank God,” every plan or prediction with im yirtze ha’shem, “God willing.”) If anything, the practice of prayer in Muslim families, the visits and feasts of yearly festivals—all of these—breed in the bone a sense of obedience, propriety. They make commitment to honor and order, even political quiescence, far more likely than violence. As long as the home is safe, and family property is respected, there isn’t much debate about the specific public policies political leaders pursue. There is more concern for whether or not leaders are corrupt.

“That’s why, ironically, Arab Muslims have been so patient with authoritarian regimes and long periods of colonial rule,” my friend Bruce Lawrence, the veteran Duke University historian of the Arab world told me. “They may be enraged by insecurity to their families, disorder, or anything that undermines their honor, but they are less animated by transformative political ideologies. Inequalities are tolerated, but not humiliations.”

Like Lawrence, I sometimes marvel at the rugged patience and generosity my Arab friends exhibit, not their volatility. They admire Israel’s social safety net, as if a work of charity. On a personal level, generosity is the norm, even from total strangers. Once I was driving in Beit Jalla and saw a weathered old man carrying a basket full of succulent apricots. I stopped my car and pointed at his basket, asking where he got them. He opened my back door and poured half the basket’s contents onto the back seat. In Tripoli, a colleague invited me to his home, and his six-year-old daughter, seeing me for the first time, greeted me with a kiss. A few months ago, I brought my car early to the garage and found it empty, but for an Arab watchman. I turned to him officiously and asked when the mechanics would show up. “Why do you not first say, ‘Good morning?’” he scolded me gently.

I lost a step-sister and cousin to the terror of Abu-Nidal. Please don’t lecture me about the things warped people do; Arabs are members of the human race, which is about the worst thing you can say about them. Last year, there was a knife attack ten-minutes from our home, in the German Colony. A block away is the former Café Hillel, which was bombed in September, 2003. The main street, Emeq Refaim (The Valley of the Ghosts), is another café, Caffit, where two suicide bombers were foiled on two separate occasions. At the summit of the gentle hill overlooking the valley, near Terra Sancta, in the Rehavia quarter, another café, Moment, was bombed in 2002. Walk another ten minutes, into the city center, and you come to a pizzeria that was bombed twice. The nearby Ben-Yehuda Street mall was bombed. When I draw an imaginary circle of a couple of miles around our neighborhood, it encompasses the sites of five bus bombings.

None of these atrocities cancel the thousands of heartfelt encounters I’ve had with Muslim Arab neighbors, friends, and tradesmen. When I hear the phrase “radical Islam,” I remember to say “Good morning.”

This has just been published at Talking Points Memo

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