Friday, February 26, 2021

All Zoomed Out? A Jewish Take on Virtual Connections

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Purim and Pacifism, God and Goodness


At the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946, Julius Streicher was sentenced to death for Crimes against Humanity. The editor of the Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer, Streicher’s constant incitement against the Jews helped whip Germany into a genocidal frenzy. A Nazi until his last breath, Streicher entered the death chamber in a fury, loudly shouting “Heil Hitler.” According to the Associated Press report, in his final moments “Streicher was swung around to face the witnesses. With burning hatred in his eyes, he looked down at them and shouted: “Purimfest 1946.”

It might seem odd that a Nazi war criminal would mention Purim in his last words, but this was not an isolated outburst. The Nazis were obsessed with Purim. In a speech right after Kristallnacht, Streicher spoke to the crowd about how “in one night, the Jews butchered 75,000 Persians,” and that if the Jews “defeat” Germany, they “will institute a new Purim festival.” On other occasions, Streicher claimed that the Damascus Blood Libel was a “Purimmorde,” in which Jews murdered non-Jews to use their blood on Purim. Hitler, in a 1944 speech, said that if Germany loses the war, the Jews of Europe would make a “second triumphant Purim” to “celebrate the destruction of Europe.” Jewish power looms large in the paranoid mindset of anti-Semitism, and the Purim story of the Jews killing their enemies alarms the enemies of the Jews.

One would expect anti-Semites to hate Purim. The Book of Esther tells how the Jews defended themselves, and refused to oblige anti-Semites by disappearing. But there are idealists who are deeply uncomfortable with Purim as well, and see it as a holiday that romanticizes the killing of 75,000 people. Elliott Horowitz, in his book Reckless Rites, cites multiple scholars and authors in the 19th and early 20th century that found fault with the violence displayed in Megillat Esther. The influential Bible scholar Samuel Rolles Driver wrote that "much fault has been found with the temper displayed in the Book of Esther... (which can be) said to breathe a spirit of vengeance and hatred without any redeeming feature." The noted rabbinic scholar Claude Goldsmid Montefiore wrote that Purim “lacks an inward and essential religious justification… (and it) is surely a doubtful propriety to give public thanks to God for a triumph... that is yet not lifted up out of the religion of crude vengeance...” The well-known American literary figure Mary Ellen Chase expressed her distaste for “the atmosphere of hatred and lust for blood which runs throughout” the Book of Esther. These authors would prefer a different holiday with different heroes, focused on love instead of war, inspiration instead of intrigue. Even the Talmud says that some of the Sanhedrin criticized Mordechai for his political aspirations. These critics see the realpolitik of the Book of Esther as too vulgar for religious tastes; violence has no place in the house of the Lord.

Pacifism makes good religious sense. Isaiah tells us that the ultimate dream is of a time when all people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” To the pacifist, holiness and war are polar opposites, never to reconcile. And there were significant rabbinic figures who argued for pacifism. Aharon Shemu’el Tamares, a well- known early 20th century Polish rabbi, wrote a sermon for Passover about the importance of non-violence. Tamares explains that “a person who focuses solely on protecting himself, and is constantly preparing to protect himself from the attacks of others, undermines his righteousness, and (actually) awakens in himself the attributes of wickedness; because he imagines only frightening thoughts, that other people want to swallow him up, and therefore he can depend only on his own power... and this means that he denies the sovereignty of truth and justice, and instead elevates to the throne the power of his own fist.” Tamares further expounds that for this reason the Jews were told to remain indoors during the plague of the firstborn; God may be punishing the Egyptians, but the Jews had to stay away from any act of revenge and war. To Tamares, pacifism is obvious, an answer that comes innocently from the heart, without the twisted logic of politics and politicians. The proper path in life is for one to avoid bloodshed at all costs.

Pacifism is morally seductive, but it is wrong; human goodness is not identical with angelic innocence. The Torah doesn’t expect us to transcend life; instead, it demands that we grapple directly with evil. Rav Chaim of Volozhin explains that the central commandment of Judaism, Torah study, is not about an otherworldly experience of the divine; it is rather an attempt to bring God into the mundane world to help refine human life. Rav Chaim offers as an example the Talmudic passages about how a judge can assess the credibility of litigant; he focuses on what a liar might claim, and how one might perpetuate a fraud. Clearly, meditating on the mindset of mendaciousness is not a spiritually transcendent experience. But by teaching judges how to lie, the Talmud also teaches them how to do justice; studying these passages brings goodness into this world. The same is true with war. To avoid violence simply allows the forces of evil to triumph. Pacifism is impractical idealism at its worst; it insures that the evil shall inherit the earth.

Perhaps this is why God's name is not mentioned in the Book of Esther: to emphasize how one can do God's work in the ugliest, most ungodly of situations. The lesson of the Book of Esther is that the conniving maneuvers in the palace and the horrific bloodshed in battle served the cause of goodness; without them, a genocide would have occurred, and the Jewish people would have vanished. In the human realm, what is spiritually repulsive can sometimes be morally necessary. In the Book of Esther, in a setting that is truly profane, deceit and killing are necessary to prevent a true moral outrage; God may not be visible, but goodness is. 

Discussions of Jewish self-defense were theoretical for much of the last two millennia. But since 1948, they are practical questions. Even when discussing self-defense, it is critical never to lose sight of idealism. For a student of the Torah, that goes without saying. Yet at the same time, it is important to recognize that protecting the Jewish people is an act of idealism, as well. Those who live on earth should not imagine that they inhabit the heavens.

Daniel Gordis shared an anecdote about an army presentation he attended. It was for parents of army age daughters in the religious Zionist community. Until recently, young women in this community did not serve in the army; many still don’t. The feeling is that the army requires religious compromise, and that it is best that the young women pursue national service instead. He explained that as the evening started, some of the parents were downright hostile, clearly opposed to the prospect of their daughters joining the IDF. At one point, an obviously angry father stood up, turned to the base commander and asked (or more accurately hissed), “Do you make the girls work on Shabbat?” The room was perfectly silent, for everyone knew the answer. No one moved. Even the base rabbi said nothing. He stood at the podium, leaned into the mic and, lost in thought, played with his beard.

Suddenly, one of the three soldiers who’d been brought to address the parents, a young woman with her uniform shirt buttoned up to her chin, her sleeves extending to her wrists and her army-issued skirt down to her ankles, looked the father right in the eye, and without being called on, said to him, “Of course we work on Shabbat.” And then, after a second’s pause, she added, “Gam ha’oyev oved beshabbat” – the enemy also works on Shabbat.

It was a game changer. “What?” she essentially asked. “You think we do this for fun? There are people out there trying to destroy us. Either we’re as serious about this conflict as they are, or they’re going to win.”

Shabbat is meant to be a taste of the world to come, a divine realm detached from the crass concerns of day-to-day life. And yet there are times when one must work on Shabbat, one must fight on Shabbat; without it the enemy might win, and without it goodness might disappear.

That is the lesson of the Book of Esther.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

When Sleeping in Synagogue Makes Sense

It is a letter that redefined the Orthodox Jewish community. While the exact details are unclear, it appears it was written somewhere between 1705 and 1712. The author lived in a city where there was a congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. The scholarly consensus is that this is a reference to London, in a community that was rapidly growing a half a century after the resettlement of the Jews in England. 

The letter contained a halakhic question for Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, the author of the Chacham Tzvi. The author of the letter relates that the members of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue were bound by a vow of excommunication not to pray at any other minyan within five parasangs (roughly 12 miles) of their synagogue. However, the community had not objected to the building of an Ashkenazi synagogue, and from time to time individual members of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue would join the Ashkenazi synagogue.

The writer of the letter complained that members of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue who were lax in their religious observance were allowed to lead the services and read the Torah. This upset the letter writer and many of the more observant members, and an entire group was planning to join the Ashkenazi synagogue. The question they posed to Rabbi Ashkenazi was: What about the vow of excommunication? Are they halakhically permitted to leave the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue?

Rabbi Ashkenazi gave a sharp reply, which appears in his Chacham Tzvi, responsa 38. He argued that allowing the non-observant to lead services at the synagogue was a Chilul Hashem, and therefore the letter writer and his group should leave the synagogue and ignore the vow of excommunication.

This ruling would prove to be both influential and controversial. Multiple rabbinic responsa would debate the merits of the Chacham Tzvi’s claim regarding non-observant synagogue leaders. But beyond the specific halakhic issue, this 300-year-old question forces us to consider what the purpose of a synagogue is.

Our Torah reading discusses the construction of the Mishkan, the first Jewish Sanctuary. This Sanctuary becomes the blueprint for the Temple and eventually all synagogues. Why did the Jews need a Sanctuary? Nachmanides explains that the Sanctuary was a home for the Divine Presence, a continuation of the experience on Mount Sinai. But Maimonides talks about the Temple being a place of human worship, and he adds a second element: The Temple is a place where people would gather on the pilgrimage festivals. This second purpose highlights another aspect of the Temple and Jerusalem (which Maimonides sees as an extension of the Temple); they are also the national center, places that bond the Jewish people together.

Maimonides notes that Jerusalem was not in the territory of any tribe, and it was meant to belong to the nation as a whole. The pilgrimage holidays, when the far-flung population gathered together, was meant to “lead to love of individuals and groups one for the other.” Aside from the holidays there are other commandments, netah revai, maaser beheimah, and maaser sheni, which end up requiring people to visit Jerusalem and make elaborate meals, meals at which they will certainly invite guests and celebrate together. The Temple and Jerusalem play a critical role in bonding the Jewish people.

With the transition from the Temple to the synagogue, the social element became more pronounced. Prayer was to be done in a community of no less than ten, and the new institution was called by all a Beit Knesset, “a house of gathering,” where communities meet together. The synagogue is both a house of God and a home for Jews.

In the 19th century, these two missions started to pull apart. In many countries, the synagogue became an ideological battleground, where different philosophies fought for dominance. Communities divided during the battle over reform, and then divided again when Orthodox communities debated how open they should be. Adam Ferziger, in his Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity, explains that the Chacham Tzvi’s responsa became a model for a more exclusionary definition of Orthodoxy. Since the 19th century, Orthodox synagogues have had to confront a choice between supporting the aspirations of the devoted and embracing the wayward and unaffiliated.

Along the way, many synagogues, especially in smaller communities, emphasized the social role of the synagogue. They embraced anyone who would come through the door; and this allowed them to engage with people who otherwise would never come. The writer and publisher, Harry Golden, asked his atheist father why he attended synagogue religiously if he didn’t believe in God. His father responded: “Everyone goes to synagogue for a different reason. Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.”

These small-town synagogues were open to anyone, whether they came to speak to God or to Garfinkle. What is interesting is that even those who came to “speak to Garfinkle” were transformed, because the social connection can inspire a spiritual awakening as well. Chabad has been a leader in recognizing this reality, and through friendship and devotion, they have inspired many people to reconnect with their spiritual heritage.

In January 1998, a devastating ice storm hit Montreal; most homes were without heat and electricity. My previous synagogue, which had an emergency generator, was turned into a shelter overnight. The staff and members of our synagogue oversaw this operation, which housed 180 people in the building, and served a thousand hot meals a day. When I was asked about this remarkable transformation in interviews, I quoted an old Rabbinic joke: “There was a rabbi whose synagogue was being converted into a shelter after floods devastated his community. The local shelter coordinator, trying to assess how many people to send to the synagogue/shelter, asked the rabbi: ‘How many people can sleep in your synagogue?’ The rabbi responded, ‘Well, during my sermon on Yom Kippur, our synagogue sleeps 1,000.’"

I particularly like this joke, not just because it pokes fun at sermons, but because it highlights a powerful truth. A synagogue must be a place that offers shelter to any Jew who needs it, because a thousand sermons cannot equal the inspiration of one helping hand. This is holiness in action - and we should never forget that when providing someone a communal home, we inspire them as well.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Slavery, Civil Rights and Judaism

On December 14, 1860, the outgoing President of the United States, James Buchanan, called for a national day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, to be observed on January 4, 1861. South Carolina had already seceded from the Union, and with Abraham Lincoln about to ascend to the presidency, it seemed clear that the fragile unity of the United States was nearing collapse. This day of fasting was intended to pray for God's help in staving off the impending calamity.

In observance of this day of fasting, sermons were offered by leading rabbis across the United States. One, which caught the attention of much of the country, was delivered by Rabbi Morris Raphall, the Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun of New York. In the sermon, Raphall expressed his personal distaste for slavery, but said that it is impossible to deny that the Bible supports slavery. He proclaimed: "I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of God, the Bible view of slavery. With a due sense of my responsibility, I must state to you the truth and nothing but the truth, however unpalatable or unpopular that truth may be."

This view was echoed by his rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Bernard Illowy. Illowy was a student of the famed Chatam Sofer, and was the preeminent rabbinic scholar in the United States at the time. Illowy also mentioned his own dislike of slavery, but said that it would be “holier than thou” for anyone to oppose it. He wrote:

"Why did not Moses...command the judges in Israel to interfere with the institutions of those nations who lived under their jurisdiction, and make their slaves free, or to take forcibly away a slave from a master as soon as he treads the free soil of their country? …Where was ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free the slaves which the king of Egypt made him a present of?" 

These sermons circulated widely throughout the United States, with Raphall's sermon making the front page of several major newspapers. But this view of slavery was sharply disputed. Rabbi David Einhorn, of Baltimore, offered a biting and erudite response to Raphall. In Europe, Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch condemned American slavery and wrote about this in their commentaries to the Torah (Malbim, Deuteronomy 24:7, Hirsch, Exodus 12:44). 

Yet the question remains: How can we account for the Torah's approval of an institution that is ethically offensive?

There have been several responses to this question in the last century. Perhaps the best one is offered by Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, a brilliant scholar and author who was the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, in his book "L'Nevukhei HaTekufah.”.  These responses rest on three points:

The institution of slavery, as outlined in the Bible, was ethically far superior to the type of slavery practiced by other nations at the time.

Slavery was only accepted by the Bible as a concession to social reality, because the Torah was given at a time when slavery was universally accepted.

The true teaching of the Torah is to abolish slavery, and humanity is meant to progress in that direction.

The rights given to slaves in this week's Torah reading were certainly exceptional in their own time, and far exceeded those granted to slaves in the American South. The Torah imposed the death penalty for murdering a slave. Even if the death was the outcome of a disciplinary beating, the master would still get the death penalty if the slave died within 24 hours. A slave goes free if while being beaten by their master, they lose a tooth or any limb. And a slave is given the Sabbath as a day of rest, and their master may not send them out to work. (Rabbi Elchanan Samet has an excellent essay discussing the purpose of the Biblical law of slavery on the Virtual Beit Midrash website.) With its intense regulation of slavery, the Torah shows deep discomfort with that institution.

Rabbi Amiel highlights how the Torah emphasizes the equality of man. The initial creation is of one man alone; the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that this occurred so that no human being can say, "My father is greater than your father." Man is created in the image of God, which means that any disrespect to man is a disrespect to God. Judaism is meant to inculcate the virtues of kindness and generosity, and the cruelty practiced by slave masters is anathema. (Maimonides admonishes the slave master to exceed the legal requirements of the Torah and treat one's slaves with decency and dignity.) And most important is that the foundational story of Judaism is a battle against slavery! Undoubtedly, the value system of the Torah stands in opposition to slavery.  

So why allow slavery at all, if it is antithetical to Judaism? Here, it is a question of political expediency. Had the Torah chosen to outlaw slavery, its rules might have been ignored. Instead, it offered a concession to social norms by recognizing what was a universal institution at the time, while also carefully regulating it and diminishing its moral harm. 

This idea of an "imperfect law" is not radical. The Talmud makes a similar comment, when it says the law regulating Jewish soldiers who marry a captive woman was a case of "the Torah conceding to man's evil nature." Intense idealism can end up as a social and political failure; it is better to try to accomplish what is doable. Maimonides takes this idea a step further, saying that some laws of the Torah were merely intended as temporary stepping stones, and meant to be supplanted.

This idea is found in other areas of contemporary practice. Polygamy is allowed in the Bible, and yet it has been universally banned in the Jewish community. The Chizkuni notes that the narrative of Adam and Eve indicates that monogamy is the ideal, with the first couple being created as two parts of one whole. Polygamy was a concession to the practices of the time, but that was not meant to last. Monogamy became standard Jewish practice over a thousand years ago.

And so it is with slavery. Rashi (Avodah Zarah 17b, s.v. "avdach") makes a comment that indicates he considered it to be Jewish practice to avoid slavery. This idea should not be controversial; it is a shame that in 1861 there were too many Rabbis who missed this lesson. 

A century later, there was a different spirit among American Jews. When it came time to stand up for the civil rights of African Americans, Rabbis Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel played leading roles. In the Orthodox community, the National Council of Young Israel came out in support of the Civil Rights Movement in 1962, followed by the Orthodox Union and the RCA in 1964.

Rabbi Saul Berman has spoken at KJ about his own experiences when he marched in Selma in 1965. On Friday afternoon, he was arrested with a large group of civil rights activists, and held in a police station. On Shabbat morning, they were set to be released. Buses arrived to bring the activists back to the other side of Selma. Rabbi Berman was not going to take the bus; it was Shabbat. One of the marchers heard about this, and spoke to the leaders of the group. In a moving show of solidarity, all of the activists decided to walk with Rabbi Berman, so he would not walk alone. 

The Shabbat is a reminder of the Exodus, and the powerful message of human dignity and human freedom it carries. And on that Shabbat in 1965, 250 people walked through the streets of Selma declaring that every human being deserves their own dignity, and that slavery must be banished, now and forever.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Why Are There Unethical Rabbis?

“Prohibition certainly was not the finest hour for America's Orthodox rabbis.” With this understatement, Hannah Sprecher sums up a disturbing chapter in American history. The Volstead Act, which implemented the 18th Amendment, took effect on February 1, 1920. It prohibited the production, transport, and sale of intoxicating beverages, but made an exception for the manufacture, possession, and sale of wine for religious purposes when supervised by a “Rabbi, Minister or a Priest.”

This opened the door to a great deal of corruption, because any synagogue could provide its members with up to ten gallons of wine a year. Suddenly, many synagogues started to sell enormous amounts of wine. By 1925, in New York alone, the amount of wine distributed for sacramental purposes reached 1.8 million gallons, three times the amount sold just three years earlier. There were highly publicized raids, like one on the Menorah Wine Company on Manhattan's Lower East Side in March 1921, in which $250,000 worth of wine was seized.  Newspaper headlines included “Jewish Rabbis Reap Fabulous Sums by Flouting Dry Law,” and “Big Illicit Pools Selling Sacramental Wine.” Anti- Semites went on the attack, with Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claiming that “Bootlegging is a 95 per cent controlled Jewish industry in which a certain class of rabbis have been active.” The misdeeds of clergy and congregations shocked many Jews. Louis Marshall, the President of the American Jewish Committee, is said to have admitted privately that “the percentage of Jews engaged in illegitimate bootlegging, including quite a number of rabbis, was shamefully large, and reflected discredit on the Jews.”

How can Rabbis act unethically? How do we explain otherwise religiously pious people who are dishonest and deceitful? Many argue that ethics itself is grounded in religion. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that without faith, humanity is like an “orchestra without a conductor, (that will)....lose the habits that shape and drive the moral order.” We expect that the righteous will do what is right, and that religion will be a blessing to society.

This expectation is far from obvious. It is quite possible for a single-minded focus on God to lead the man of faith to ignore humanity. Faith makes exceptional demands, and compared to them, man seems inconsequential.  John Henry Newman, the 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." If God is all that matters, then our interest in man is an afterthought.

Judaism takes a different point of view. The Talmud tells the story about a potential convert who approaches Hillel, and asks to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel said the entire Torah can be found within the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself”; everything else is the commentary on that verse. Hillel is not offering a pithy response. He is articulating a vision that sees ethics at the foundation of our relationship with God. And I believe that this is the most profound message of the Ten Commandments: authentic faith must lead one to ethical behavior.

The Ten Commandments have a clear structure; first come the commandments between God and man, followed by the commandments between man and man. It also goes from violations that are more significant to those that are less significant; “You shall not murder” comes before “You shall not covet.”  Taken together, these two structural elements unlock the message of the Ten Commandments: Your faith must be so deep that you encounter God everywhere in creation, especially in your interactions with other people, because  man is created in the image of God. This faith must lead you to treat other people ethically, respect their property rights, and go so far that you will not even covet another person’s goods.

The Ten Commandments are a ladder of faith, with each commandment allowing us to further realize our faith within this world. By respecting humanity all the way to the point of not coveting, one completes the mission implicit in the commandment of “I am the Lord your God.” Ethics is not only the obvious outcome of faith, but actually the ultimate expression of a belief that sees God within the creation of man. 

Not everyone understands this. Many fail to make the jump from believing in God to honoring those created in God’s image. The Talmud talks about the “chasid shoteh,” “the pious fool,” who can't be bothered to save a drowning child because he doesn’t want to ruin his tefillin in the water. How can there be unethical rabbis? Because there are always those who think that their service of God ends by wearing a pair of tefillin and can’t hear the cries of their fellow man. Tragically, their cruel foolishness makes a mockery of the Torah.

But I would be remiss if I left the subject here. The religious, yet unethical, garner headlines, but there are so many who quietly make a Kiddush Hashem on a regular basis, motivated by their faith. One such anecdote which particularly inspired me is about Yishai, who was at the time a 17-year-old volunteer for Magen David Adom. On Saturday night, March 9, 2002, Yishai was in Jerusalem. At 10:30 p.m., a suicide bomber blew himself up, and Yishai ran to the scene. Barbara Sofer, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, describes what happened next:

He leaned over one young person, but there was no breath. Another young woman was lying nearby. He saw her flinch. Blood gushed from her leg. Like many emergency crew volunteers, he usually carried a tourniquet. Not that Shabbat. But he did have something he could use. Yishai was wearing tzitzit, a small tallit with fringes. He stripped off his white shirt and removed the garment. Together with a man named Yaron, he turned the tzitzit into a tourniquet. Wrapped tight around the young woman's leg, the cotton turned red. Minutes later, the ambulances arrived....

Across town, orthopedic surgeon Moshe Lifschitz rushed the young woman into the operating theater. Her bones were shattered and her femoral artery was torn in two places. He found the tzitzit, tied like a tourniquet around her leg. Whoever did this was thinking fast, he realized…. Jerusalem really is a small town... (and) I tracked down the surgeon.

"So, Yishai saved her leg?" I ask him.

"No," he answers. "I saved her leg. Yishai saved her life."

There can be no better use for a pair of tzitzit, because true faith always leads us to a love of man. And that is the entire Torah while standing on one foot.