Friday, November 25, 2022

Jacob and Antisemitism


Govert Flinck, Isaac Blessing Jacob, 1638, Oil on Canvas

Joseph Official, the 13th-century author of the polemical work Sefer HaMekaneh, met a Capuchin friar on the road to Paris. The friar said to him: Jacob your father was a thief, and no greater extractor of usury was there; for one plate of lentils which was worth half a coin, he acquired the birthright which was worth a thousand coins.

One would expect the friar, who is a devout Christian, to be respectful of Jacob, who is a biblical hero. However, the opposite is true. Christian criticism of “Jewish” characters in the Tanakh was not uncommon in the Middle Ages; Rabbi Isaac Arama in Spain reports similar criticisms two hundred years later. And throughout history, antisemites have always found a way to reconcile their reverence for the Bible with their loathing of the Jews. Susannah Heschel, in her book "Aryan Jesus,” writes about the furtive efforts of pro-Nazi theologians to erase the Jewish elements from Christianity. They organized what was called "The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life," with the quixotic task of adapting a Nazified theology to a religion started by Jews. Walter Grundmann actually wanted to remove the "Old Testament" from the Bible, seeing it as anti-Christian. Jesus, he claimed, because he was a Galilean, was not actually a Jew; and because of this, Jesus does battle with the Old Testament Pharisees, whose views are the opposite of his own. Other institute professors theorized that contemporary Jews are imposters, and not the same as the Jews of the "Old Testament." And even today, both the white supremacist Christian Identity movement and the radical Black Hebrew Israelites, (whose message has been popularized by Kyrie Irving), claim that the Jews are not the people of the Bible. This brazen act of identity theft allows them to simultaneously love the Bible and hate the Jews.

Yet the question remains; How is it that Jacob is so unethical? At two critical moments, he acts treacherously toward his brother. When Esau is returning from a day of hunting and is extremely hungry, Jacob takes advantage of the situation; he refuses Esau food until he agrees to exchange his birthright for a bowl of lentils. Later, when Isaac plans on bestowing the familial blessing on Esau, Jacob, at the instigation of his mother, deceives his blind father and steals his brother's blessings.

Esau exclaims after the theft of the blessings: “(my brother) is rightly named Jacob (‘Yaakov’), for he has deceived me (‘vaya’akveni’) these two times: he took away my birthright, and now he has taken away my blessing.” In this bitter jibe, Esau says that Jacob’s very name predicts that he will be a shyster. And it is difficult for the reader to dismiss Esau’s words. How can it be that our hero, our patriarch, acts in such an immoral fashion?

In response to this and other similar questions, two interpretative responses emerge. In rabbinic literature, many passages tend to whitewash the flaws of biblical characters. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes points out that this is part of a general tendency to exaggerate the good traits of the pious and the negative traits of the wicked. When the contrast in the Biblical picture is heightened, the lessons derived are far more black and white; we are left with a simpler picture of good guys and bad guys. In these sorts of interpretations, Jacob's ethical failings are rationalized and defended.

Rashi's comment to the verse where Jacob lies to his father Isaac and says "I am Esau, your firstborn son" is an excellent example of this type of interpretation. Rashi explains that Jacob actually didn't lie; he had a different type of punctuation in mind, and intended it to mean "I am he that brings food to you, and (aside from that,) Esau is your first-born."

Similar explanations defend Jacob's actions at the sale of the birthright. Ibn Ezra explains that Esau is more than willing to give up the right of the firstborn; he's a hunter who is in constant danger and is unsure how long he'll even live. (Ibn Ezra adds that Isaac was not a wealthy man, so there would be little of value left in the estate anyway.) Esau has no interest in a meager inheritance that might arrive in the remote future.

At the same time, another type of interpretation emerges in Rabbinic and Medieval literature. They follow what they see as the straightforward understanding of the text, and don't romanticize the actions of Biblical heroes. For example, Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor emphasizes the heartlessness of Jacob's negotiating stance. In his reading of the text, Esau is truly near death, having spent days in the field hunting. At this moment of vulnerability, Jacob said to Esau: if I don't feed you, you will die, and I'll inherit all the rights of the firstborn; so in order that I don't lose out by saving your life, you must promise to sign over the rights of the firstborn to me.

Similarly, multiple commentaries, from the Midrashim onward, point out how Jacob is punished, measure for measure, by the deceptions of others. He wants to marry Rachel, but his father-in-law Laban switches sisters on him, much like Jacob did with his father. Later, Jacob’s own sons will deceive him, (also, while using a goat,) when they fake Joseph's death. One Midrash, (Bereishit Rabba 67:4,) goes so far as to say that the frightening decree of Haman in Megilat Esther is punishment for the pain that Jacob caused Esau. The Tanakh itself emphasizes Jacob’s culpability.

Today, there remains a debate about which style of interpretation to adopt. All too often, people tend to choose black-and-white interpretations; Jacob is either a hero or a villain. In reality, Jacob's early deceptions arise from a complicated mix of jealousy, idealism, and ambition, mixed together with loyalty to his mother. Esau is not a worthy successor to Abraham's spiritual legacy, and Jacob and his mother Rebecca both know it. That crisis leads to these desperate deceptions.

Jacob ultimately is a wrestler, whose character continues to develop as he struggles with his circumstances and choices. Wherever he turns, his moral failures haunt him. The blessing he steals turn out to be worthless, and he lives a life of exile and difficulty. Ultimately, Jacob reconciles with Esau. And at the end of his life, Jacob blesses all of his children, including them together in one legacy. Jacob isn't a saint in his youth, but his road to reconciliation and transformation is inspirational. It is in his struggles that Jacob becomes the patriarch that we admire.

Contemporary Jewish readers can read Jacob's story carefully and critically, and give their own interpretation of the text. But when Joseph Official responds to the Capuchin friar, he doesn't have that luxury. In this case, Joseph Official, (and the Rashbam), say that Jacob actually paid full price to Esau; the lentils are merely part of a meal served to celebrate the transaction.

This is not a unique explanation; in other passages, the Rashbam often offers unusual apologetic explanations as well. He is well aware of Christian polemics using the Tanakh, and at one point explains that his interpretation “effectively silences the heretics (i.e., Christians)…” Anti-Jewish polemics is almost certainly why the Rashbam makes the remarkable claim that the brothers did not sell Joseph, but rather the Midianites stole him out of the pit while the brothers, unaware, were eating lunch. Clearly, Jews were being denigrated as people who would sell their own brother into slavery, and the Rashbam was looking for a way to respond.

I read these apologetic interpretations with a mixture of amazement and sadness. They are exceptionally brilliant re-readings of the text, worthy of the rabbis who composed them. At the same time, it is heartbreaking to realize that the Rashbam, who is ordinarily meticulous in offering the simple reading of the text, had to deviate from his own standards in Biblical interpretation. He felt it was more important to confront the Christian polemicists who mocked the Jews.

Simply put, the antisemitism of others affected how the Rashbam wrote his commentary. And that is exceptionally sad.

This brings me full circle to today's antisemitism. On social media, celebrities push the ugliest antisemitic conspiracies, bringing them mainstream. And it is more than just words. There is a very short distance from Black Hebrew Israelite rhetoric to the attacks on Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.

Today’s proliferation of antisemitism is profoundly troubling; but what worries me even more is what antisemitism does to Jews. Spiteful attacks on Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish homeland change the way we think; and like the Rashbam, nasty rhetoric rings in our ears. In his time, the Rashbam turned to protect Jacob, and did too good a job; but today's young Jews will, more often than not, run from Jacob and hide their Jewish identity.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue began her Rosh Hashanah sermon this year with the following anecdote:

One of my most engaged students at Central started law school this fall and was happy that campus Hillel invited her to Shabbat dinner her first week. But soon a text chat began circulating among Jewish students:

“I’m not sure I want to go,” one said. “I might get canceled.” Another wrote, “I think I’ll go, but there’s no way I’m putting my name on any sign-in list, or appearing in any photos.”


My student decided to go to the dinner…When it came time for a group picture, however, several left the room.

One student concluded, “I’m never going back to that again.” In his view, it seemed any association with something Jewish was inherently problematic. My student stayed for the picture. But she wondered out loud with me if she would later pay a price for it.


Buchdahl mentions that a 2021 Brandeis Center survey of Jewish students in two fraternities found that 50% of students hide their Jewish identity while on campus. As she puts it: Half our kids are hiding.

This is the greatest tragedy of antisemitism: what it does to the Jewish soul. As young people decide to become crypto-Jews, hiding in plain sight, we must grapple with this thought: now it is our birthright that is being stolen.

We cannot let that happen.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Should We Love God More Than Man?




Arent De Gelder, Abraham Entertaining the Three Angels (Genesis 18:8-9), 1680’s



Should We Love God More Than Man?


By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz



Does Abraham love God more than he loves his fellow human beings? He immediately jumps to follow God’s command to offer his son as a sacrifice; he does not question and does not bargain. God comes first; Abraham faithfully accepts God’s call, despite the great cost to himself and his family. This passage in the Bible, called the Akeidah, (the binding of Isaac), has a deep and abiding influence on Jewish thought.

Abraham's response at the Akeidah is the polar opposite of how he responds to the punishment of Sodom. God tells Abraham he plans on destroying Sodom due to their great sins; Abraham objects, instantly and instinctively. He debates and negotiates, at one point rebuking God by saying: “Will the judge of the entire earth not do justice?” In this passage, Abraham clearly puts man before God.

The disparity between Abraham's response at Sodom and at the Akeidah is puzzling. There are technical ways of resolving this question by noting distinctions, such as differentiating between when God approaches for a dialogue or with a command, or between making a personal sacrifice and pleading for the lives of others. But I find those resolutions unsatisfying. At its core, this contradiction forces us to choose one passage as paradigmatic, as the ultimate lesson of Abraham’s faith; and which one is chosen will depend a great deal on how one understands the lesson of the Akeidah.

Successive generations of commentaries have offered their own interpretations of the Akeidah. Already in the Book of the Maccabees, the Akeidah is seen as the inspiration to martyrdom (and rebellion); and this perspective of the Akeidah becomes very influential. Rabbi Meir in the Sifrei explains that the commandment to love God with one’s entire soul, which is found in the first paragraph of the Shema, means that a Jew is obligated to love God as much as “Isaac, who tied himself down on the altar (as a sacrifice to God).” 

Indeed, martyrdom becomes so much a part of Jewish life, that several texts note how the martyrdom of later generations exceeds the Akeidah. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) tells the story of Hannah, a women whose seven sons were martyred by the Romans; before her seventh son is executed for his faith, Hannah tells him “go and say to your father Abraham, you bound up one [son to the] altar, but my mother has bound seven sons to altars.” In a 13th century poem, Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn writes:

Recall to our credit the many Akeidahs,

The saints, men and women, slain for Thy sake.

In medieval Europe, many Jews saw the Akeidah as a reflection of their own unwavering faith. It was a heroic act, one that inspired the spiritual heroism of Abraham’s descendants.

Some authors are deeply attracted to this perspective as well, seeing it as more authentic than the sensible, dull, and tepid religiosity of contemporary times. Isaiah Leibowitz argues that Judaism is uninterested in the ethical, and only recognizes mitzvot, divine commands. This he sees as a uniquely Jewish perspective, of the singular desire to fulfill the will of God. He notes that “Christianity's highest symbol is the crucifixion and the sacrifice which God brings for man, whereas the highest symbol of faith in Judaism is the Akeidah, where all man’s values are canceled and cast aside for the love and reverence for God….” The lesson of the Akeidah, he argues, is about putting God before man.

For this point of view, the Akeidah stands as a corrective to the earlier passage about Sodom; in the Akeidah, Abraham changes direction, and instead of questioning God, learns to obediently follow His command.

Most modern commentaries offer a very different perspective. They are troubled by the Akeidah, and wonder how God could have issued an unethical command. Samuel David Luzzatto explains that the Akeidah is essentially a publicity stunt, a way of demonstrating the fullness of Abraham’s religious fervor. Unlike the surrounding pagan religions, Abraham’s ethical commitments prevent him from performing child sacrifice. An observer might mistake Abraham’s ethical refinement for a lack of faith; for this reason God stages the Akeidah, to publicly demonstrate Abraham’s faith, and to demonstrate that an ethical religion can still have profound religious passion. The purpose of the Akeidah is to undermine child sacrifice, and show that one can be passionately attached to God and meticulously ethical at the same time.

This approach can be taken a step further, in a manner suggested by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and others. God commands Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” because the very point of the Akeidah is to show that faith should never supersede ethics. The Akeidah is actually an example of what should not be done, the Torah's way of making clear that God rejects the unethical. 

Seen this way, the Akeidah confirms Abraham’s actions at Sodom; in the end, the ethical takes religious priority at the Akeidah as well.

Abraham in Sodom vs. Abraham at the Akeidah is not just the central riddle of the Parsha, it is also the central theological issue in Judaism. Does God come before man, or does man come before God?

At first glance, the perspective that puts God before man seems more credible. After all, religion is about God; compared to Him, man seems inconsequential. John Henry Newman, an influential 19th century Catholic theologian wrote: "The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse." This may sound extreme; but if God is all that matters, then everything must be done to fulfill His will. Our interest in man is unimportant.

The challenge is to find religious arguments for putting man before God. Does humanism, which Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein defines concisely as “a worldview which values humans highly,” have any place in Judaism?

The answer is yes, for the very reason that God created man. From a mystical perspective, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains, the purpose of creation was for God to extend his love and kindness towards man. If so, God cares deeply about man; we should as well. Man, who is created in the image of God, deserves our love and esteem.

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik offers another idea that is critical to religious humanism. He explains that a foundation of Jewish ethics is that man is obligated to imitate God; and just as God is a creator, we too are meant to be creators. God left the world imperfect and incomplete, to allow man to complete creation, and be His partner in improving the world. Putting man before God is actually God’s desire; to care for humanity is to continue God’s work.

This idea is best illustrated by a passage at the beginning of the Torah reading. Abraham is speaking with God, but then abruptly turns away to welcome guests. The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) explains that this teaches us that “welcoming guests is more important than receiving the Divine Presence.”

Yet this idea is strange; even if there are guests arriving, why would Abraham disrespect God? Why can’t the guests wait a minute? The answer lies in recognizing the purpose of man’s partnership with God. Abraham is fulfilling God’s will by turning his attention to the guests; much like two partners, God is happy to be left aside, so that Abraham can take care of their newest “customers.” Man can come before God, because God Himself placed man at the center of His creation.

Many contemporary authors advocate religious humanism as a counterweight to religious fanaticism; they hope to end religious violence by reminding us of how ethics and kindness are the foundations of religion. But actually, religious humanism is critical for spiritual passion; at a time when it is difficult to perceive the divine presence, religious humanism becomes all the more important. Even in a profoundly secular world, we can truly experience the transcendent at special moments of human connection. 

There is a Chassidic story, which was made famous by Y.L. Peretz, about a sainted Chassidic Rebbe. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks retells the story this way:

Every Friday morning before dawn, the Rebbe of Nemirov would disappear. He could be found in none of the town’s synagogues or houses of study….

Once a Lithuanian scholar came to Nemirov. Puzzled by the Rebbe’s disappearance he asked his followers, ‘Where is he?’ ‘Where is the Rebbe?’ they replied. ‘Where else but in heaven? The people of the town need peace, sustenance, health. The Rebbe is a holy man and therefore he is surely in heaven, pleading our cause.’

The Lithuanian, amused by their credulity, determined to find out for himself. One Thursday night he hid himself in the Rebbe’s house. The next morning before dawn he heard the Rebbe weep and sigh. Then he saw him go to the cupboard, take out a parcel of clothes and begin to put them on. They were the clothes, not of a holy man, but of a peasant. The Rebbe then reached into a drawer, pulled out an ax, and went out into the still dark night. Stealthily, the Lithuanian followed him as he walked through the town and beyond, into the forest. There he began chopping down a tree, hewing it into logs, and splitting it into firewood. These he gathered into a bundle and walked back into the town.

 In one of the back streets, he stopped outside a run-down cottage and knocked on the door. An old woman, poor and ill, opened the door. ‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘I am Vassily,' the Rebbe replied. ‘I have wood to sell, very cheap, next to nothing.’ ‘I have no money’, replied the woman. ‘I will give it to you on credit,' he said. ‘How will I be able to pay you?’ she said. ‘I trust you – and do you not trust God? He will find a way of seeing that I am repaid.’ ‘But who will light the fire? I am too ill.’ ‘I will light the fire’, the Rebbe replied, and he did so, reciting under his breath the morning prayers. Then he returned home.

 The Lithuanian scholar, seeing this, stayed on in the town and became one of the Rebbe’s disciples. After that day, when he heard the people of the town tell visitors that the Rebbe ascended to heaven, he no longer laughed, but instead added: ‘And maybe even higher.’

 We must be inspired by Abraham's profound faith at the Akeidah; it reaches directly into heaven. However, even more inspiring is Abraham’s love for his fellow man. His enduring example teaches us how to ascend spiritually, and go even higher.




Thursday, November 03, 2022

Abraham the Zionist

Israel has become a taboo topic in some synagogues. Before Rosh Hashanah, Daniel Gordis wrote an article entitled “If I Had a Sermon,” about the struggles many rabbis had including Israel in their High Holiday sermons:


If you were a rabbi of a congregation in the US, you’d be stressing now. Because there is a ton to do, and because if your sermons are not written, you know that you need to get cracking..…To add to the complexity, you’d have, among other decisions to make, a difficult decision about Israel. Should I speak about Israel? Can it be done without creating divisiveness? Many rabbis think not. In fact, Israel’s a topic that many rabbis say they avoid speaking about from the pulpit.


Rabbis are afraid to talk about Israel from the pulpit! While this is not true of Orthodox congregations like my own, it is a worrying trend for anyone who cares about the American Jewish community.


Gordis outlines a model sermon, one which he argues would allow a rabbi to talk about Israel without triggering an angry debate. Love is complicated, he explains; and loving a country is no less so. One can love, and love passionately, something of which they are critical. Israel does not have to be perfect to be beloved; profound disagreements with her political leadership don’t have to occasion a total divorce. The Bible simultaneously honors and criticizes its own heroes. We should be willing to do the same with Israel.


This is an important lesson; it is impossible to see clearly if one paints reality in stark black and white polarities. If all of our Israel education is mythical, young Jews will be unprepared for the messy, complex reality that the modern State of Israel is; learning that Israel is flawed will provoke a crisis of faith. At the same time, detractors often mistake the forest for the trees, fixated on endless, bitter criticisms that lack objectivity. How is it that the same young American Jews who attend rallies against Israel have next to nothing to say about the conduct of the American military in Afghanistan? The self-righteous sloganeering surrounding Israel is often the product of oedipal obsessions.


An endemic lack of nuance certainly leads to angry debates; but that isn't the primary reason why Israel is such a contentious issue for American Jews. Instead, we have missed a major change in our community.


Today's arguments over Israel begin with commitments held and withheld. American Jews, specifically young Jews, are substantially less attached to Israel than their elders. The 2020 Pew Research Center survey of Jewish identity in the United States found that... among Jews ages 50 and older, … just 10% say that caring about Israel is not important to them. By contrast, among Jewish adults under 30, …one-quarter (27%) say it’s not important to what being Jewish means to them. This is where Jewish criticism of Israel begins; people who don’t care about Israel will be far more likely to criticize her.

This change in attitude is part of a larger apathy. For example, the survey found that “Three-in-ten Jewish adults under the age of 30 (31%) say it would be “not at all” important for their future grandchildren to be Jewish, which is significantly higher than the share who say this in any other age group.” The drop in young Jews’ identification with Israel goes hand in hand with a decline in commitment to Judaism in general.

At the same time, there is another element involved in this loss of identification. A small group of younger, progressive Jews, assert that although they are Jewish, they are no longer “Zionists,” or even, are “anti-Zionists.” Some of these contemporary anti-Zionists take inspiration from anti-religious anti-Zionists of the past, such as Communists and Bundists. But others claim to make a religious case for anti-Zionism.


In the late 19th century, as Zionism was becoming a mass movement, two religious groups stood in opposition to it: Reform and Haredi Jews.


In actuality, Haredi Jews are not true anti-Zionists; they too desire a return to Zion, but want to wait for the arrival of the Messiah. They see Zionism as a lack of faith, a heretical desire to replace the Messianic redemption with a man-made enterprise. This concern was exacerbated by the fact many of the early Zionist leadership were secular, whose religious lifestyles the Haredim held in disdain.


Despite this, most Haredim today are not anti-Zionists; representatives of Agudath Israel were signatories to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And even Haredi anti-Zionists worry about the safety of the people of Israel; only a small fringe group, the Neturei Karta, march in pro-Palestinian rallies.


For 19th century Reform Jews, Zionism was a painful challenge. Jews in Western countries were engaged in a struggle for equal rights; and they had to battle against the antisemitic canard that Jews couldn’t be trusted to be loyal citizens because they longed for a state of their own. In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform Movement declared: We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine… nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” Zionism was considered a betrayal of patriotism; Jews, petitioning for rights that were long denied to them, did not want to appear as anything but loyal citizens. (A few decades later the Reform movement did adopt Zionism, and some of the most influential Zionists, such Abba Hillel Silver, were Reform rabbis.)


Today’s anti-Zionists take inspiration in an ideology shaped by long forgotten challenges, and offer an alternative Judaism devoid of any national identity. But this is bound to fail; a Judaism without Zionism is impossible.


Abraham becomes a Jew and a Zionist at the same time. The first command he receives is “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Abraham's religious journey begins with a pilgrimage to Israel! Israel is an ever-present theme in the text; when Abraham and Sarah abandon Israel in search of food, it is seen by some, such as the Ramban, as a “major sin.” Their entire lives focus on the dream of building a nation in the land. When Sarah dies, the Bible depicts the intense effort Abraham makes to bury her in Israel; as Ibn Ezra notes, the purchase of a burial plot for her marks the beginning of the future Jewish State.


Genesis makes it clear that Zionism is central to Abraham's new religious mission.


Generations of Jews would follow in Abraham's footsteps. Instead of hairsplitting arguments about "the spiritual essence of Judaism," they turned their hearts towards Zion. Israel was a part of their prayers, part of their Tanakh, part of their studies and stories. At the Seder, they sang l’shanah habaah b’yerushalayim”, “next year in Jerusalem," with all of their hearts.


They simply couldn't imagine a Judaism without Zionism.


Jews who knew little else still heard the call of lech lecha, and from the furthest reaches of exile would find their way home, just as Abraham and Sarah did so many generations before.


And they never let go of the dream of Israel, even in the worst of times.


Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, in his autobiography, tells the remarkable story of how he survived the Holocaust as small child; for much of the time, his older brother Naftali Lau Lavie heroically protected him. Rabbi Lau relates an episode that occurred at the end of the war in Buchenwald. Naftali was being taken away from Buchenwald, and he didn’t expect to survive. He ran over to his younger brother Yisrael Meir, who was then just seven, and had received virtually no Jewish education because of the war. Rabbi Lau describes their conversation:


(My brother) came to me and said, 'They're taking me away. I see no way out of this Gehinnom (hell). This is the end of the world.' …'You're going to be left alone now,' .. 'But you still have friends. Maybe a miracle will happen and you'll survive. I just wanted to tell you: There's a place called Eretz Yisrael. Repeat after me: Eretz Yisrael.'


I repeated the words, which meant nothing to me. Naftali said: 'Eretz Yisrael is the home of the Jews,' …. 'You're not going anyplace else. Only to Eretz Yisrael. We have an uncle there. Say that you're Rabbi Lau's son, and tell them to find your uncle. Goodbye (my brother). Remember: Eretz Yisrael.'


Remember Eretz Yisrael. Remember Eretz Yisrael.


For two thousand years, that is exactly what Jews did. We were determined to get back home.


Just like Abraham the Zionist.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Noah, Jonah, and Life After Catastrophe


The stories of Jonah and Noah are deeply intertwined. The very name “Jonah” itself suggests a link; Jonah in Hebrew is “Yonah,” or dove, which is the type of bird that Noah sent out of the ark to see whether the flood was over. Thematically, there are contrasts and parallels. Noah is commanded by God to take refuge in a boat, as protection from God’s wrath; Jonah defies God’s command by fleeing in a boat from God’s mercy. There are multiple other similarities, including how characters offer sacrifices after being saved, the counting of forty days to destruction, and how gardening takes center stage at the end of the story. It is clear that the Book of Jonah is meant to be read with the story of Noah in mind.


What is the meaning of these literary connections? At first glance, Jonah is the anti-NoahNoah is devout, while Jonah flees God’s calling; Jonah is even willing to sacrifice his life to defy God. Noah saves a remnant of a world from destruction; and although Jonah does save Nineveh in the end, he makes it clear that he would prefer Nineveh to be destroyed. Noah saves a menagerie of living beings by bringing them on his ark, while Jonah endangers an entire boat full of sailors with his presence; the boat is only safe after Jonah is cast into the sea.


Jonah could be dismissed as a rogue prophet who has turned his back on God and man; and the Book of Jonah is merely a repetition of the story of Noah, a reminder that the way of destruction is not the way of God.


This interpretation misunderstands Jonah’s motives. Jonah is actually a prophet of justice who finds inspiration in the story of the flood, when a world of wickedness was washed away. Jonah is principled in his desire to punish the evil-doers and to segregate the righteous from the unworthy. The flood, he believes, is the best blueprint for a human future.


But Jonah is not a reactionary who conveniently forgets the end of the flood story; he knows that after the flood God promises that “never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood,” and designates the rainbow as the symbol that “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” However, Jonah understands this divine promise as a concession to reality, a pragmatic necessity, to prevent the world from being destroyed on a regular basis. As Don Isaac Abravanel puts it, without God’s forbearance, “it would be necessary to have a flood every year, even perhaps every month,” due to humanity’s sins. God’s covenant of the rainbow does not undermine the importance of justice.


Jonah offers a clear answer to one of the most difficult questions in the Noah narrative: What was the purpose of the flood? God sent the flood because “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) Yet, after the flood, the Torah explains that the reason why there will never be another flood is because “every inclination of the human heart is evil” (Genesis 8:24). The identical rationale is given for why God brought the flood, and why He promises never to repeat the flood! If humanity is equally evil both before and after the flood, what exactly did the flood accomplish?


Jonah would answer that the flood is a constant reminder to humanity that we are fundamentally unworthy. Even if God can’t destroy the world again, we need to recognize that this is merely a loophole, letting humanity off the hook from a punishment they actually deserve.


Similarly, the rainbow can be seen as a reminder of man’s utter inadequacy. The Talmud (Ketubot 77b) explains that there were no rainbows during the lifetimes of exceptionally righteous rabbis. Rainbows are evidence of humanity’s abiding guilt; they would disappear when the merit of a great rabbi tipped the scales in favor of humanity. In other words, we are all just a rainbow away from oblivion.


This is why Jonah finds God’s command to save Nineveh both unbelievable and unpalatable. Why save the wicked from destruction? If it weren’t for technical problems, destruction would and should be the norm. It is worth noting that Nineveh is built by Nimrod, the grandson of Ham, who is cursed and rejected by NoahJonah may be following in Noah’s footsteps by rejecting the wicked descendants of Ham, while at the same time, fleeing to Tarshish, the city built by the descendant of Noah’s blessed son Jephet. Jonah can very well claim that he is carrying on Noah’s legacy, cursing the wicked while blessing the good.


Despites Jonah’s own views on the subject, it is love that stands at the center of the eponymous Book of Jonah. It explains that God cares about every living being, and doesn’t want another flood. When Jonah continues to protest God’s mercy even after the people of Nineveh repent, God responds by saying: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). It is with these words that the book ends.


Two perspectives arise regarding the flood. One is that the destruction of the world is a reminder that man is always skating on thin ice, one rainbow away from catastrophe; the flood is a symbol of human failure. The second is that the flood is a cataclysm that leaves God crying out “never again,” pained at the destruction of His beloved creatures; the aftermath of the flood is a testament to God’s love for all living beings. The Book of Jonah gives voice to both alternatives, because both have a place in the Jewish tradition. And echoes of this theological tug of war are ever present in Jewish texts, but this debate became far more significant a generation ago.


After the Holocaust, the Jewish world grappled with how to make theological sense of an overwhelming catastrophe. The Holocaust raises painful questions: How can we reconcile our belief in God with the brutal murder of even one innocent child, let alone a million and a half? How do we remain loyal to our covenant with God after such a horrible destruction? And above all, where was God?


There is much to write about this, but allow me to focus just a bit on the final question. Some see the Holocaust as very much a part of divine Providence, a catastrophe intended as a divine admonition to change course; in other words, the Holocaust was part of God's plan. Others make the argument that God was in hiding, to allow history to proceed, perhaps to allow for absolute free will. But the answer that interests me most is this: God was there with the Jews, crying alongside them.


Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, lived his final years in the Warsaw Ghetto. He left behind a series of sermons that were hidden in milk bottles right before he was deported, and found in the ruins of the Ghetto after the war; they were later published under the title Aish Kodesh. In 1942, as the persecutions were becoming even more horrible, he offered several sermons on the same theme: God is crying alongside us. In February, he said this in a sermon: "Now the Jew, who is tormented by his afflictions, thinks that he alone suffers, as if all his personal afflictions and those of all Israel do not affect God above…scripture states however, that ‘in all their troubles He was troubled’ (Isaiah 63:9) … Our sacred literature tells us that when a Jew is afflicted, God, blessed be He, suffers, so to speak, much more than the person does." In another sermon from July, the Rebbe said: "How can we lift ourselves up at least a little bit in the face of the terrifying reports, both old and new, which tear us to bits and crush our hearts? With the knowledge that we are not alone in our sufferings, but that He, blessed be He, endures it with us, as the Book of Psalms states, 'I am with him in his trouble.’" The Piaseczner Rebbe looks for God in the Warsaw Ghetto, and finds Him crying with His beloved children.


This view raises more theological questions than it may answer. Does God have emotions? Is God powerless in the face of evil? Yet despite these obvious issues, the Piaseczner Rebbe’s interpretation retains an intense attractiveness, the distinctiveness of words that carry a profound truth. He is reminding us about God's call at the end of the Book of Jonah, and that out of catastrophe, there is a thin, small voice calling out, telling us that we should be looking for love, and only love.


Even before the war, this idea was a foundation of the Piaseczner Rebbe’s teachings. One of the best known stories about the Piaseczner Rebbe was told by Shlomo Carlebach. He had met a streetcleaner in Tel Aviv, who as a child, had been a student in the Rebbe’s cheder in Piaseczno. The man had lost all of his family in the Holocaust, and was a hunchback due to the beatings he had received in Aushwitz. Carlebach asked him what he remembered about the Piaseczner Rebbe. The man, after some prodding, related that the Rebbe would eat the Shabbat meals with the children, and at each meal would repeat: “Children, precious children, just remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” The man related that so many times he had given up on life, and then he would hear his teacher’s voice call out, “Remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” And so in Auschwitz, he would do favors; in Tel Aviv, he would do favors. This teaching kept him alive.


And this is the ultimate lesson of the Book of Jonah and the story of Noah: Remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. It is this love that keeps the world going.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Creation of Failure


How do we tell the story of failure?

In 1923, Franz Kafka and his companion, Dora Diamant, went for a walk in Berlin. While out, they met a little girl in a park who was crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told the girl not to worry, because the doll had actually gone away on a trip; in fact, the doll had written her a letter. When the girl asked for the letter, Kafka explained that he didn't have it with him, but that if she would return the next day, he would bring it to her.

And so it began. For three weeks, Kafka would compose letters from the doll to the girl, to keep her informed about the doll’s “travels.” Dora Diamant explained that Kafka gave these letters the same attention he gave to his other literary works. But then came the question: How would Kafka end this story, and bring the letter writing to a close? Dora told the French essayist Marthe Robert that Kafka “married off” the doll: He (Kafka) searched about for a long time and finally decided to have the doll marry. He first described the young man, the engagement. . . , the preparations for the wedding, then in great detail, the newlyweds' house. Having moved away with her husband, the doll could no longer write or visit the little girl. And finally, after the letters concluded, Kafka made sure that the little girl received a present of a new doll.

This fascinating story contrasts sharply with the bleak, pessimistic character of much of Kafka’s writing. But it offers a powerful example of the mindset needed to find a way forward when everything seems to have come to an end. And at some point in life, all of us are searching for our missing doll.


Mindsets stand at the center of a critical debate regarding this week’s Torah reading. The Tanakh begins with a debacle. Adam and Eve, in their first hours, violate the one and only commandment they are given, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Because of this transgression, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden and condemned to lives filled with death, disease, and difficulty.

This story of sin and expulsion appears to be an absolute tragedy. Humanity is cast out of a utopia into an unmapped reality, left only with dreams of a paradise lost.

Some took up the quest to return to paradise. Brendan of Clonfert, a 6th century Irish monk, gathered 16 fellow monks on a boating expedition to search for the Garden of Eden. (They may have discovered Newfoundland instead.) Who wouldn’t want to escape this vale of tears?

Others took an exceptionally pessimistic reading of this text. The Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo sees this “original sin” as something that taints all of humanity. The sin of Adam and Eve is hereditary, and every person is cursed from birth. Augustine asserts that “no one is free from sin in (God’s) sight, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is but a single day.” Since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, human nature is so badly corrupted that every baby is a born sinner.  

It is important to emphasize that Augustine sees free will itself as suspicious, something that can lead to disobedience. He writes that even before the sin, man should not have exercised his free will. Obedience to God, not autonomy, could have been Adam's true glory: "...since man has been naturally so created that it is advantageous for him to be submissive, but disastrous for him to follow his own will...

Augustine lobbied hard for his view to be adopted by the church; there is a rich history of the political intrigues he undertook to promote his view of original sin. Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine’s who championed free will, was condemned and banished by the church; and to this day, Augustine’s view has remained dominant within most Christian denominations, and has had a profound influence on Western thought.

In Jewish theology, free will is a foundation of faith; the 613 commandments are meaningless unless a person can choose whether or not to do them. And because of this, many Jewish thinkers take great exception to the idea of “original sin.” In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that “The dogma of original sin is a most regrettable error of an alien faith…to say that because of “original sin” sinfulness is innate in man, that man has lost the ability to be good and is now compelled to sin – these are notions against which Judaism raises its most vigorous protest.…To this day, every newborn infant emerges from God’s hand in purity, as did Adam in his time; every child comes into the world as pure as an angel, to live and become a man. This is one of the cardinal points in the Torah of Israel and in Jewish life….Man as an individual and mankind as a whole can, at any time, return to God and to Paradise on earth.” The sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden are tragic failures, but they don’t define humanity.

All of the above describes a fairly straightforward debate: Can humanity overcome this initial sin? One side maintains that the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge fatally corrupted humanity forever; the other says that each human being is born innocent, and has complete free will. Failure can always be overcome.

But what if failure is part of the plan? There is a fascinating third view, that says the sin of the Tree of Knowledge was actually what God wanted to happen. 

The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeshev 4) says so explicitly, and reports that Adam complained to God that sin was merely a ruse to throw him out of the Garden of Eden. Eden was always a way-station, and Adam and Eve were never meant to live there.

Bezalel Safran has argued persuasively that the Ramban saw the sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden as preordained, and notes that the Ramban makes several baffling comments about this passage that can only be understood in this manner.

The Ramban says Adam and Eve were created to be perfect, and had no free will; they would have done what was good automatically. This explanation is baffling for two reasons; one, it denies free will, which as already mentioned, is a fundamental belief of Judaism. Second, if Adam and Eve had no free will and could only do what was good, how did they sin by eating from the Tree of Knowledge?

The only possible answer is that God programmed the initial sin of Adam and Eve, so they could acquire free will by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The Ramban drops several other hints to this effect. One significant hint has to do with the aftermath of the sin. It says that “Adam and Eve heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden.” The Ramban quotes the Midrash, which explains that the divine presence was leaving, in response to the sin. Remarkably, the Ramban offers the opposite explanation; God was arriving to speak to Adam and Eve because of the sin! But why would two sinners be deserving of experiencing a special revelation?

These unusual comments, when pieced together, offer a very different interpretation of this passage. Adam and Eve were created perfect, and could have remained so. But only imperfect people can transform and grow; only with failure could Adam and Eve actually experience life.

And that is why God had to create failure. In order to enter the drama of history, with all of its imperfections, Adam and Eve would have to leave paradise.

The Ramban’s view is the polar opposite of Augustine’s theory of “original sin.” Augustine sees the fall of man as final and fatal, a curse from which humanity can never recover. The Ramban says that, on the contrary, it was God who forced humanity to fail, to leave behind perfection; it was God who engineered this sin, and opened the door for free will and personal growth. Our exit from paradise, as painful as it may be, was part of God’s plan, and allows us to live an authentic life. 

What I find most compelling about this debate is that it represents two fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. The mindset of Augustine’s view, which sees humanity as fundamentally broken, is so different from the Ramban, who sees this sin as the foundation of spiritual growth.

Mindsets determine how we react when we are broken and imagine ourselves to be beyond repair, when paradise has suddenly disappeared. To see the world as fundamentally corrupt leads to a pessimistic mindset and a passive acceptance that little can be done.

But the Ramban offers us a different mindset. Failure is woven into the very fabric of our reality; but that is very much a part of the plan. It is left to us to find a way to overcome failure. Even after the doll is gone, we must find a way to write a new story, and search for new beginnings.