Friday, December 27, 2019

Where the Battle Against anti-Semitism Begins

The distance from my synagogue on the Upper East side to the Jewish community of Jersey City is both 10 miles long and a culture gap wide. We both practice Orthodox Judaism, but our experiences of modernity are very different. In Jersey City, the Hasidic community teaches their children in Yiddish and they retain a centuries old style of traditional dress; while on the Upper East side, the children are prepared for Ivy League schools and dress in contemporary fashions. While there are certainly personal relationships between members of the two communities, they are somewhat uncommon, and usually based on business associations and family relationships. And if there is a chasm between our Orthodox community and that of the Hasidic Jews in Jersey City, the social and personal distance between the Hasidic community and those in non-Orthodox denominations is even larger.

Last week, after an anti-Semitic attack murdered four people in Jersey City, the distance became smaller. Violence against Hasidic Jews has been occurring for several years now; in New York City alone, there were over 30 violent attacks on Hasidim in the last year. But this has gone unnoticed, even by much of the leadership in the Jewish community. Part of this has to do with the uncomfortable fact that many of the perpetrators are African American, and these leaders worry that calling out extremists in the African American community will cause a rift between the Jewish and Black communities. But a large part of it has to do with the fact that Hasidic Jews are often ignored, even by their Jewish brethren. 

After the tragedy in Jersey City, it is impossible to ignore violence against Hasidim.  This attack killed a 24 year old Hassidic man, whose body was riddled with hundreds of bullets, a 32 year old mother who left three children orphaned, along with police officer who was a father of five, and a heroic Ecuadorian immigrant who in his last minutes saved another man's life before losing his own. Now, all segments of the Jewish community have begun to pay attention to attacks against Hasidic Jews.

Jewish solidarity has both its critics and admirers in the non-Jewish world. There are those who see it as a form of unnecessary clannishness, and this critique is often magnified into the conspiracy theories of anti-Semites. On the other hand there are those who admire a scattered, persecuted people who with great determination have always found a way to pull together.  However, for Jews solidarity is a foundation of our identity. Its roots are found in the Bible, where the Jewish people are referred to as the "Children of Israel", a metaphor that implies a familial relationship between all Jews. This sense of being a family writ large is described by the 12th century Rabbi, Moses Maimonides, as "The entire Jewish people, and all those who attach themselves to them, are as brothers...". Solidarity is part of Jewish identity.

This solidarity has varied at times. During the Holocaust, it was scandalous how little American Jews did to support the Jews of Europe. Decades later, the opposite occurred: American Jews stepped up forcefully to take the lead of the Soviet Jewry movement.  In recent years the pendulum has swung back again, and there seems to be more disagreement than unity in the Jewish community, particularly when anti-semitism involves partisan politics.

But a crisis makes solidarity easy. As George Elliot, at the end of The Mill on the Floss, notes: “What quarrel, what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity…?” The shared challenges of Jewish History have forged within Jews a profound sense of mutual responsibility; and after three murderous attacks on American Jewish institutions in 13 months, the Jewish community is once again recognizing the importance of solidarity. 

It is clear that this resurgence of anti-Semitism is with us for the long term, and it will demand us to fight it each step of the way. It is not a simple fight, because contemporary anti-Semitism arises in many different ideologies, from extremists inspired by white nationalism, anti-Zionism, Islamic fundamentalism and Black nationalism. But before mobilizing against anti-Semitism, the Jewish community must first mobilize itself for unity.

Up until now, many of the Jewish responses to anti-Semitism have been colored by politics. The partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats has dramatically affected the way the Jewish community talks about anti-Semitism. After the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, some of the earliest op-eds in Jewish newspapers were devoted to spinning the tragedy in a partisan fashion. Instead of worrying about the threat of anti-Semitism, too many Jewish Republicans and Democrats worried first  about their own political affiliations.

Now that seems to be changing. Slowly, the Jewish community has turned to support the Hasidic Jews in Jersey City. Jews, whatever their political affiliation, have recognized that they need to put the fight against all types of anti-Semitism first. And this is critical; before going to battle against anti-Semitism, the Jewish community must unify itself, and not allow sectarian divisions to undermine their efforts. 

A few days after this attack, a group of adults and students from my congregation, and from the Ramaz School on the Upper East Side went to visit their counterparts in Jersey City and brought them Hanukkah gifts. These two sets of Jewish students would never have met had it not been for this tragedy. Now they were coming together as brothers, recognizing a truth the Jewish people always have known: we cannot survive if we do not unite. 

This vision needs to be adopted by the entire Jewish community. Before we can fight against anti-Semitism, we need to recognize that the battle begins at home, in bringing our community together first.

The Universalism of Jewish Particularism

The Universalism of Jewish Particularism

There is a Jewish tradition dating back to the Book of Jeremiah[1] to pray on behalf of the local government. Today, most contemporary Siddurim contain a text known as Hanoten Teshuah, which is a prayer on behalf of the government.

One of the earliest records of this prayer[2], in translation, is found in a 1655 pamphlet written by Mannaseh Ban Israel entitled To His Highnesse the Lord Protector of the Common-wealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland the humble addresses of Menasseh ben Israel, a divine, and doctor of physick, in behalfe of the Jewish nation. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and Menasseh Ben Israel wrote this pamphlet, addressed to Oliver Cromwell, to advocate for their return.  Concerned that the Expulsion from Spain 160 years earlier might imply that Jews had been disloyal to the Spanish crown, Menasseh ben Israel offers proof of Jewish patriotism by quoting the Hanoten Teshuah prayer in English translation. He added that every Jewish community prays for the local government, even before praying for their own community.

Manasseh is engaging in what is called apologetics, in this case a defense of the Jews against accusations hurled at them. Apologetics is one of the recurring themes in Jewish History; and in the modern era, a fair amount of Jewish apologetics have been about loyalty and patriotism.

One powerful example of apologetics is a pamphlet printed by the  Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten, The Reich Federation of Jewish Front-Line Soldiers, in 1920, detailing the Jewish sacrifices for Germany.

“To the German mothers! 12,000 Jewish soldiers fell on the field of honor for the fatherland. Christian and Jewish heroes fought side by side and rest side by side in foreign land. 12,000 Jews were killed in action! Furious party hatred does not stop at the graves of the dead. German women, do not tolerate that a Jewish mother is scorned in her grief.”[3]

Jews in Germany felt the pressure to prove themselves as patriots, and volunteered for front line duty in World War I in a far higher percentage than other Germans[4]. Despite their sacrifices for Germany, anti-Semites accused them of disloyalty, and Jews had to write articles and books to prove their patriotism once again. This is not unique to Germany; for hundreds of years, Jews in the Western world have had to prove their patriotism in the public arena, and then respond to bigotry and ignorance with apologetics and advocacy.

However, the centuries of apologetics have inverted the Jewish self image. They have left behind a legacy in which Jews spend an inordinate time thinking about what other people want from us, rather than thinking about what we want for ourselves.

This inverted self-image can be seen in the over-emphasis of tikkun olam in the Jewish community. On college campuses and in other enclaves where universalism is valued more than patriotism, Jews now have to defend themselves against charges that they are too narrow and tribal. A tikkun olam theology offers the perfect apologetic argument against this accusation. Instead of being tribal, Jews are emissaries of kindness, out to serve and save the world. For a Jewish community that has marinated in 300 years of apologetics, this is just another pivot in making ourselves understood by the people around us. The problem is that the demands of a tikkun olam ideology can clash with Jewish identity itself.

An excellent example of this is a public debate between Rabbis Danny Gordis and Sharon Brous during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. On the surface, it was a highly nuanced disagreement; both agreed on the importance of supporting Israel, and both agreed that the humanity of the Palestinians must be respected. Yet they had a very emotional disagreement, because those nuances speak volumes.

Rabbi Brous, The spiritual leader Ikar in Los Angeles, wrote a congregational letter that said: I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives…. supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.

Rabbi Danny Gordis of the Shalom center in Jerusalem blogged a furious response to Rabbi Brous’ letter, in which he wrote:

Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others. Noble Jews have moved beyond difference…..What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?

It is no secret that on this question my sympathies are with Gordis. Indeed, if your children got into a car crash with a drunk driver, would you run between the two hospital rooms to see how everyone in both cars were doing? There is a hierarchy of responsibilities, and there are times when you must focus on your family, and only on your family.

But this does not mean that we should lightly dismiss Brous’ concerns. The message of universalism is deeply embedded in the Torah. Even at the Passover Seder, we pour drops of wine during the list of the plagues, to show sadness over the deaths of our enemies.

This universalism begins in the first chapter of the Torah, when the world was created without Jews. God created Adam and Eve, and from there, the world is meant to evolve into a universal society. (The prophetic visions of the Messianic era are also universalistic.)  And even after rejecting humanity during the flood, the world is once again restarted as a single society, with the family of Noah.

But then comes God's third attempt to recreate humanity; and this time he leaves the rest of humanity in place, but chooses Abraham alone.

Abraham is tasked by God with creating a new nation, and this new nation will demand intense patriotism and solidarity. This choice is puzzling. Doesn’t God love all of humanity? And if Abraham's descendants create a singular and segregated national identity, how are they going to change the rest of the world?

For contemporary readers, God’s choice to fix the world with a chosen nation sounds counterintuitive. Tribalism is seen not just as spiritually inferior, but actually as a cause of conflict. The assumption is that every group that organizes into a strongly connected “us”, will always stand in opposition to others who are “them”[5]. Tribal solidarity is now viewed with suspicion, and too many Jews contort themselves to fit a universal narrative.

I would argue that Jewish solidarity is actually one of the better ways to improve the world. To turn Cynthia Ozick's phrase on its head, the Jewish approach is "the universalism of particularism".

The Bible tells us that Abraham's name represents the fact that he is an “Av Hamon Goyim”, the “father of a multitude of nations”. But who are the multitude of nations? The 13th century Spanish commentary of the Ramban[6] says it is a reference to the Jewish people themselves. The Jewish people is not one unitary tribe; even in biblical times there were the 12 tribes of Israel. And those tribes didn't always get along with each other.

This reality remains throughout Jewish History. There are always multiple tribes, Jews from different countries with different ideologies. In our own neighborhood there are Jews from Syria, Poland, Hungary, Morocco, Ethiopia and Germany; and there are Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and unaffiliated Jews, each with a different ideology and culture.

What is remarkable is how Jews can still feel a sense of solidarity with each other, no matter how different they are. Throughout history the multiple Jewish tribes have banded together, despite the dramatic differences between themselves[7].

This international coalition of Jewish tribes is a reminder that you don’t have to be alike to be a family. The mission of Abraham’s children is to create one nation out of many tribes, and build a model of what the world could be. This is superior to a universalism which seeks to embrace exotic foreigners, but finds it difficult to connect with unenlightened kinfolk in the same country. Truly universal love does not neglect those who are closest to you, no matter how much you disagree with them.

This is why particularism is the Jewish way to universalism.  First of all, because you are allowed to love your family more. But more importantly, learning how to embrace the various tribes of Israel is a perfect way to overcome tribalism.

The State of Israel represents not just the ingathering of Jews, but the ingathering of tribes from all over the world. While there is plenty of friction in Israel, what is remarkable is how these tribes have preserved this powerful sense of solidarity.

One story that I heard from Rabbi Sharon Shalom, (an Ethiopian Rabbi and author) illustrate this quite well. In the late 1970’s, Sharon fled with thousands of other members of the Beta Israel community to the Sudan. There, he was rescued as part of the Mossad’s “Operation Brothers”. The Mossad operated a beach resort called “Arus” as a front, and every few months would smuggle a group of Beta Israel children in middle of the night to the beach. There, they were taken by Israeli commandos to a waiting boat that transported them to the Sinai. Sharon remembers being hugged by a big Israeli commando, who carried him to the boat; and he remembers how the commando had tears in his eyes. Sharon was a young boy, and couldn't understand why the soldier would be crying. Now he understands.

But the story continues. A few years ago, he got a call from a member of the Mossad, who had been the commander of operation that took Sharon to Israel. The Mossad agent said that his daughter was getting married, and he wanted Sharon to be the rabbi at the wedding.

At the chuppah, everyone had a good cry; the Rabbi, the Mossad commander, and the bride and groom. These were the tears of a big family reunion, a reunion that brought together Jews from around the world.
These tears are transformative. They reflect a Jewish commitment to connect with other Jews, no matter how different and distant; and they are a model of how the entire world can transcend their own differences.

[1] Jeremiah 29:7
[2] See “Hanoten Teshua' The Origin of the Traditional Jewish Prayer for the Government”, by Barry Schwartz, Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 57 (1986), pp. 113-120
[4] Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews In Germany 1743 – 1933, page 338
[5] See Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua D. Greene, Penguin Publishing Group, 2013
[6] Genesis 17:15
[7] Yes, there has been more than enough division as well. But that actually proves the point; only a people deeply concerned about unity would constantly worry about divisions and infighting.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Developmental Disabilities: We’ve Come a Long Way on a Longer Road

Each year, our congregation hosts a Shabbaton for Yachad,The National Jewish Council for Disabilities[1]. Over 60 students with developmental disabilities come to KJ, and one of the students gives a short sermon from the pulpit on Shabbat morning. It is a highlight of the KJ year.

This yearly sermon represents a revolution. Fifty years ago, a developmentally disabled man would not have spoken from the pulpit, and no congregation would have welcomed a Yachad Shabbaton. The developmentally disabled were invisible, hidden away in attics and institutions. For the most part attitudes have changed in recent years. But one lingering question remains: why was there such discomfort with developmental disabilities in the first place? Why would people discriminate against the children of their friends and family? Thinking seriously about this question will force us to confront our own instinctive biases.

In 2014, a controversy erupted over a comment on Twitter by the famed biologist Richard Dawkins. When asked by a follower about the ethical dilemma of aborting a Down’s syndrome pregnancy, Dawkins wrote: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Undoubtedly, such a pregnancy presents a serious ethical dilemma, and even in the Jewish tradition,  halachic opinions on this subject are not monolithic. But Dawkins’ blithe response shocked many. How could he coldly pronounce “abort it”, as if the life of a disabled person is worthless?

But Dawkins’ point of view is not new or unique. It is tempting to compare his cold attitude towards developmental disabilities with the Nazi T-4 program, which murdered over 70,000 Germans with disabilities and psychiatric disorders. However, this analogy is deceptive; the exceptional evil of the Nazi regime would leave the impression that any policy they adopted is an outlier, the handiwork of immoral barbarians. But in actuality, the idea of murdering the disabled is quite old, and not at all uncommon. In Sparta, babies deemed “deformed” were tossed into a place called “the apothetae”, a chasm near Mount Taygetus[2]. In ancient Rome, it was not uncommon to abandon disabled children.  Martin Luther believed children with severe disabilities were actually “changelings”, demonic beings that took on the form of a human child, and that they should be killed. He is quoted as saying: “I said to the Princes of Anhalt: "If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water--into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!”[3]

This cold view of disabilities has always found followers because it is not unreasonable. In fact, it can be seen as the practical way of dealing with a difficult situation.  When Dawkins’ defended himself, he wrote that “if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.”

This view may seem cold, but it is logical. Tragically, this vision is not at all foreign to us. All too often, in the most observant segments of the Orthodox world, a Down’s Syndrome child is hidden away, because people are concerned that the developmentally disabled child will affect the shidduch possibilities of the siblings.

These attitudes are sometimes stated in a heartless and vulgar fashion. Rav Shlomo Aviner, a leader of the Dati Leumi community in Israel ruled that you make the blessing of Baruch Dayan Haemet, (a blessing generally said when informed of tragic news like the death of a relative) on the birth of a Down’s Syndrome child[4].

Like Dawkins, Aviner sees the developmentally disabled as a liability, people who undermine the happiness of those around them. They recognize that capabilities matter;  intellectual, physical, financial. In every sphere of life, there is constant competition for greatness and achievement; and these disabled children will achieve less and require much more from their families and their community. Dawkins and Aviner approach disabilities from a utilitarian perspective, and see disabled children as a tragedy.

In the language of Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith, utilitarians believe that the majestic nature of humans is all that matters. Soloveitchik writes that humanity instinctively strives to achieve majesty by controlling and subduing the world around him. And it is through this triumph that man achieves dignity and honor.

When majesty is the only parameter by which life is judged, anyone with diminished capabilities is less worthy, and the utilitarian ethic of Aviner and Dawkins seems justifiable. Instead of wondering why the developmentally disabled were once marginalized in the past, it is critical to recognize that this discrimination is not the foolishness of an earlier, benighted age, but the cold calculations of the pragmatic mind. And because it is a reasonable perspective, this utilitarian view of life can always find advocates throughout history, can always find a followers in our community, and many times, can find a place in our hearts.

But what is wrong with this perspective is that it misses the most critical dimension of life.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that humanity has a dual nature. Beyond the majestic, humanity strives for the covenantal; we create community simply because that is what the soul thirsts for. To Soloveitchik, man instinctively pursues accomplishment and greatness, but also embarks on a more important quest, for inspiration and insight. On this spiritual journey, we gain an appreciation for the miracle of life, and a different moral vision emerges:

Life is sacred.

Community is inclusive.

Love is redemptive.

Jews believe that man is created in the image of God, we believe that Kol Yisrael Ereivim zeh lazeh, that we are all responsible for and intertwined with each other, and maintain that the most important rule in the Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself.

Through the ages it is this moral vision that has challenged the utilitarian view. It refuses to reduce human existence into metrics and numbers, and sees life as a gift and privilege. And it follows that the developmentally disabled, like everyone else, have lives of infinite value.

But the utilitarian thesis fails in another way. Joy is not just measured in achievements and pleasures, and happiness is not directly related to pleasure and convenience. Indeed, the greatest joys often come from the devotion and difficulty.

In my previous synagogue, there was a young woman named Pamela who had Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Pamela’s parents are both accomplished professionals, who worked diligently to help in her development. As a child, Pamela learned how to write most of the letters in the alphabet, but the letter “e” eluded her. For years Pamela tried; and finally one day she brought home her schoolwork, with her name spelled in full, including the letter “e”. That evening, the entire family danced around the house overjoyed over Pamela’s letter “e”. Of course, her two highly educated parents were not celebrating the writing of the letter “e”; they were celebrating a triumph of love and nurturing.

The utilitarian argument assumes that happiness follows ease and comfort, while in actuality the opposite is often true. Take love for example. We all want to be loved. Yet the experience of love is not at all a passive one, of being a lucky recipient. Rav Eliyahu Dessler[5] points out that with love, the more you give, the more love you experience. It is through the act of sacrifice that one feels love most profoundly[6]. This insight challenges the utilitarian calculation that one is happier without the difficulty and burden of a developmentally delayed child. And this has been confirmed by studies, cited by Jamie Edgin in the New York Times, that siblings growing up with a Down’s Syndrome sibling felt it made them into better people, and that the parents experienced few regrets[7]. Rather than being an empty burden, selfless devotion can bring one a great deal of happiness.

Of course, however rewarding the experience, there are enormous struggles. Pamela’s mother Marcy once wrote me a short note about her experience. She was critiquing a sermon I had given about Moshe’s last moments, on a mountain overlooking Israel. Marcy felt I was mistaken to portray Moshe as disappointed over the fact he could not get into the Holy Land, and sent me the following e-mail about Pamela’s graduation from her school for the developmentally diasbled:

“This past June, our family was incredibly privileged to attend a very special graduation from Summit School. To be entirely honest with you, I thought that I was going to sit through it in anger.  I thought that all I would be able to think of was: "Why could it not be Herzliah, Marianopolis or McGill?"  In a sense, I guess I thought that I would be like your Moshe on the mountain. I thought that all I would be able to focus on what was the unfilled: my unfulfilled hopes and dreams and all of the doors that Lawrence and I have so quietly closed over the years.  Instead, the most amazing thing happened.  Pamela walked in in her cap and gown with a smile on her face that could have lit the room and I immediately started to cry. I cried through the entire ceremony.  I can tell you that not one of those tears was about what was not, but instead what was and how far Pamela has come in the 17 years since her diagnosis. Lawrence and I have been very fortunate, we rarely think of what could have been.  We never compare Pamela to others, we are content to move with her on her road and to watch her grow and change. Her smile is a sign to us from God that we are indeed on the right track and fulfilling our all important mission of nurturing our very special neshama.”

This letter reminds us that there are joys that have nothing to do with conventional achievements. Happiness is not always about having a child graduate Harvard, and sometimes, even writing the letter “e” is a moment of intense joy.

The world has changed in the last 50 years. It was considered dramatic when Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke about his granddaughter having Down’s syndrome in the 1960’s, and many look back at that as a turning point in American attitudes towards the developmentally disabled. Since then, there has been greater sensitivity and greater inclusion, and at KJ  we can be proud of 30 years of Yachad shabbatonim. But we still have a long way to go. Someone once remarked to me: “Yachad Shabbat cannot be just one day a year”, and she is absolutely right. Parents cry when their children have no one to play with on Shabbat, week after week, and they cry when there is no good Jewish education for their children. Inclusion needs to be a daily exercise, and there is a long way to go. We must do more in our community, in our synagogues, and in our schools.

But even so, we must remember Marcy’s point. We may not be where would like to be, but like Moshe on the mountain, we can take satisfaction in how far have come, and know that the progress will continue in the future.

[1] The Shabbaton has been sponsored since its initiation by Karin and Joel Katz
[2] Aristotle accepts this idea as well in Politics 7:17 “Deformed offspring should not be reared.”
[3] Martin Luther, "Historia von einem Wechselkinde zu Dessau," Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 60 (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag von Heyder & Zimmer, 1854), pp. 39-40. Translation at

[5] Michtav M’Eliyahu, Kuntres HaChesed
[6] Rav Dessler argues this is why the love of a parent for a child is the most profound type of love.
[7] “The Truth About Down Syndrome” By Jamie Edgin and Fabian Fernandez, Aug. 28, 2014

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Children, Dear Children

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau tells about a speech he heard as a 10 year old child, in a displaced children’s center in Ecoius, France. A group of local politicians came to visit the center, filled with the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. The children did not want to listen to the politicians, and sat stone silent, ignoring the speakers. But then the final speaker got up. As Rabbi Lau describes him, the man “was a Jew who had survived Auschwitz, where he had lost his wife and children.  Since the liberation, he had dedicated all his time, energy, and resources to war orphans.” 

Rabbi Lau describes what happened next:

“At that moment, without any advance planning, five hundred pairs of eyes lifted in a look of solidarity toward the Jew standing on the stage.  He was one of us.  We looked at him, and he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him in a powerful gesture of empathy.  Tears choked his throat.  He gripped the microphone, and for several long seconds, the microphone broadcast only the sounds of his hands shaking.  He tried to control himself, but managed to say only three words in Yiddish:  “Kinder, taiyereh kinder” (“Children, dear children”). Then he burst into tears.…...We all considered it unmanly to cry, since, after all, we had survived the concentration camps.  Yet each boy sitting on the grassy plaza stealthily wiped his eyes with his sleeve….then the dam broke.  All at once, the lawn of [the orphanage] was transformed into a literal vale of tears.” 

This Holocaust survivor, alone in the world, has devoted himself to the remaining Jewish children in Europe. In three tear choked words, he can summarize his mission: “Kinder, taiyereh kinder”.

This mission is the theme of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah Reading and Haftorah of  Rosh Hashanah are unlike that of any other holiday; they are not about the rituals and sacrifices of the day, nor are they about the essence of the day, such at creation or judgement. Instead, these two readings are about two infertile women, Sarah and Hannah, struggling to conceive. The lesson is simple; on the one day when we focus on our dreams for the future, we need to remember that the way we get there is by the love we give our children, our dear children.

This lesson may seem simple, but it is not.

The first part of this lesson begins in the text; building a child centered community only magnifies the pain of those who struggle with infertility. Sarah and Hannah are role models, and lead successful lives. Yet nothing quite stings like their inability to conceive, and the insensitive attempts by others to offer them “perspective” makes their pain worse. I hesitated more than once before writing this for the bulletin, worried that it might be misunderstood and cause pain to some of the people reading it. The Torah and Haftorah readings have a clear message: we cannot talk about our dreams for family without praying for, and embracing, those who struggle to build families of their own; and I hope this sermon is understood in a similar fashion.

The second lesson is that our children are a sacred trust. The text makes it clear that the babies born to Sarah and Hannah are a divine gift; and so is every baby.  Therefore, we must cherish them, protect them and love them unconditionally. They are our “tayereh kinder”, our  dear, dear children.

This love might seem universal, but it is not; children were not loved in every culture and era. At times, entire societies showed marked indifference to children. Phillipe Aries[1]  has argued that deep bonds of love between parent and child were uncommon in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. While his point of view has many detractors, Aries has some significant evidence. In one example, a woman in the 17th century gives comfort to her neighbor who had just had her fifth child by saying: “before they are old enough to bother you, you will have lost half of them, or perhaps all of them”[2].   Aries’ insight is that parental instinct alone isn’t enough to ensure that parents love their children; the culture of the community plays a significant role as well.

Jewish culture was very different. Ephraim Kanarfogel[3] points to multiple sources, both Jewish and Christian, that portray a different picture of the Jewish home.  One is a comment of Rabbeinu Asher[4], (1259 – 1327) the 13th century German Rabbi, who comments on the common phrase “the pain of raising children” (tzaar giddul banim) by saying that “children do not bring one pain, only joy”. Even when children are a challenge for us, we must see them as a joy.

The next lesson of holding children dear is we need to cherish them for who they are. This too might seem obvious, but it is not.

Kanarfogel notes that one of the greatest contrasts between medieval Jews and Christians is in the area of education. In the early 12th century, a student of Peter Abelard writes[5] that unlike Christians, “a Jew, however poor, would put even ten sons to letters, not for gain, as Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s Law, and not only his sons but also his daughters.” (Even Jewish daughters are being taught in the 1100’s in France, and that is notable.)

This intense emphasis on education is rooted in the commandment to study Torah. From it, a powerful culture of educational excellence grew. Yet at the same time, a strong awareness arose that not every child is the same, and that excellence in education means educating each child differently. The 12th century Sefer Chasidim[6] offers the following educational directives. First, you can’t have students of different abilities in the same class. And if a student is not adept at Talmud, have him study Bible, or basic laws instead. Every student deserves an education on their own level.

But this is not easy to do, because we want naches.

There is a Jewish joke about a birth announcement in the newspaper that reads: "Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Rosenberg are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jonathan Rosenberg." Unfortunately, too often the education of children is more about the parent than the child. What the child learns becomes part of “achievement by proxy syndrome”, where the parent lives in the child’s reflected glory. And too often, naches becomes oversized expectations. To this point, the comedian David Bader wrote a haiku entitled the “Jewish Mother’s Lament”:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?
But what about the children who won't win Nobel Prizes, and do not fit the standard definition of naches? And what about the boy who doesn’t belong in an elite educational program? Samson Raphael Hirsch[7] raises this point in an essay about Esau and Jacob. He faults their parents, Isaac and Rebecca, for assuming that they both could be educated in the same intellectual Yeshiva style. He argues that Esau lost his way because his parents didn’t appreciate that he was not the same as his brother:

“Had Isaac and Rebecca studied Esau's nature and character early enough, and asked themselves, how can even an Esau, how can all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child be won over to be used in the service of God … then Jacob and Esau, with their totally different natures could still have remained twin­ brothers in spirit and life; quite early in life Esau's "sword" and Jacob's "spirit" could have worked hand in hand...”

Not every child is meant to be a Talmud prodigy, and there isn’t just one path for them. And whatever career they choose, they still are our dear, dear children.

One final lesson must be mentioned.  We might think that a desire for children is obvious. But it is not. Many people don’t want to have more children.

These words are not intended to preach. Every parent thinks twice before deciding to have another child, and spouses often argue about family size. But it is often the best and brightest who decide against having more children, and those who opt to have more children are seen as strange. Mark Oppenheimer[8], writes about having a fifth child that “among people we know, this makes us a bit odd.” When friends would ask him why he was having another child, and his pithy answer was “we think five will be better than four.” He elaborated on his answer with a beautiful essay about the joy of parenting. One point in his essay caught my eye, a reminder that for Jews having a child is much more than just having a child:

“Because I want there to be more Jews in the world. My people suffered a huge demographic catastrophe within my parents’ lifetime, and I like the idea of doing my small part to repair that damage.”

With these words, Oppenheimer is echoing what the tear choked Holocaust survivor said 70 years before: they are our “kinder, tayereh kinder”. Nothing is more dear than another link in the chain of tradition, nothing is more dear than a gift from God.

Yes, they are our dear children. They are our future. Please cherish them.

 (Delivered - Rosh Hashanah 2018)

[1] Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, Penguin, 1962
[2] Aries, page 37.
[3] Ephraim Kanarfogel, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages, Wayne University Press, pages 34-40
[4] Tosafot HaRosh Sanhedrin 19b, s.v.”shepadau”
[5] Kanarfogel, page 16
[6] Parma edition, 823-825
[7] Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Volume 7, Feldheim, 1997 pages 319–32
[8] “Yes, We Really Do Want to Have a Fifth Child” by Mark Oppenheimer, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 24, 2018

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Loving Israel Isn't Dual Loyalty

An op-ed on the dual loyalty libel and Zionism, in today's Daily News.

".....I also celebrate Israel as a proud American, because the values of the United States are the values of Israel. It is an outpost of democracy in the Middle East, where Jews, Muslims and Christians are elected to Parliament in free and fair elections. It is the only country in the region with a Supreme Court that enforces the rule of law, and where the rights of women, minorities and the LGBTQ community are respected. Israel is a loyal ally to the United States; intelligence sharing between the United States and Israel has helped strengthen our country, and Israeli military innovation has saved the lives of American soldiers. To love Israel is to embrace an ally that shares our values..."

Monday, April 29, 2019

How to Say Never Again, Again

"......It is agonizing to have say never again, again and again. Whenever an anti-Semitic attack occurs around the world, Jewish communal institutions scramble to put out statements.  Unfortunately, with no shortage of attacks, statements have become a ritual, each with their own vocabulary and style. The organization starts out by declaring that it is “devastated,” “horrified,” and “shocked” by the attack........" for more, click here