Friday, June 18, 2021

Moshe's Leadership, the Rebbe, and the Dilemma of the Modern Jew


This week’s Torah reading contains an exceptionally puzzling passage. We are told about the complaints of the Jews, who are thirsty and worried. Moshe and Aharon are told by God to

“...take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.” Moshe hit the rock twice, and it gave forth a copious amount of water.

Immediately after this miracle, God says to Moshe:” Because you have not believed in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”

What did Moshe do wrong? This passage challenges every interpreter. Don Isaac Abravanel mentions eleven interpretations of this passage. And there are yet more. One opinion he cites says perhaps Moshe didn’t sin at all, and the Torah is blaming Moshe for the sins of the people. A clear explanation remains elusive.

Rashi offers one of the stranger explanations. He says Moshe’s sin was hitting the rock after he had been specifically commanded to speak to the rock. Rashi says: “For had you spoken to the rock and it had given forth [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation. They would have said, ‘If this rock, which neither speaks nor hears, and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, how much more should we!’”

Rashi’s explanation seems more puzzling than the passage itself! The Ramban points out that God had asked Moshe to carry his stick to the rock; wouldn’t that imply he was supposed to hit the rock? In addition, considering that the rock is an inanimate object, what difference does it make if he speaks to the rock or hits it?

When you consider the wider context, Rashi’s explanation is even more perplexing. In a prior section of the Torah (Exodus 17:5-6), Moshe is commanded to produce water for the congregation by hitting a rock! Why would this time be different?

Perhaps the best way to read Rashi is to see this as an allegory on leadership. Moshe’s audience is not the rock; it is the people. Whether he hits the rock or speaks to it tells us everything about how he will lead the people.

Leaders use different tools to influence their followers, and those methods run on a continuum from coercion to persuasion. Warm words are used to persuade, while a swinging stick is used to coerce. A leader must adjust his methods according to the audience: for certain audiences one needs to carry a big stick, and for others, it is critical to speak softly.

In Moshe’s early career, he had to be a leader who carried a big stick. When Moshe initially refuses to lead, he says it is because he is “not a man of words.” The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 3:14) explains that God responds to Moshe that he doesn’t need to speak. In dealing with a dictator like Pharaoh, a man accustomed to the master-slave view of politics, all Moshe needs is a big stick. Pharaoh is not open to persuasion and will only respond to brute force.

Even Moshe’s leadership of the Jews after leaving Egypt is based on brute force. As former slaves, they respond best to strength and coercion. Similarly, at Mount Sinai, the Talmud says the Jews accept the Torah under duress (Shabbat 88a).

In this context, we can understand why in the Book of Exodus, during the first year in the desert, Moshe is commanded to hit the rock. Moshe must lead a reluctant assembly of former slaves, a people who only know how to respond to coercion; leadership for them requires a powerful show of force.

But the event at Mei Merivah takes place in the 40th year. This is a new generation, born free in the desert. They too must follow; but this is not the time for coercion. Here, a new generation must be convinced to be self-reliant and strong, and that can only be accomplished with persuasion and education.

Rashi incisively leads us to the core of the Mei Merivah issue. In the 40th year in the desert, big stick leadership will diminish the second generation’s ability to hear God’s voice.

Moshe’s sin is nearly imperceptible from the text, because it is unique to his situation. As a leader overseeing generational change, he was expected to understand that some generations require the big stick, while others require soft words.  And because Moshe cannot pivot to the leadership of speaking softly, another leader must bring the second generation into Eretz Yisrael.

For the last 200 years, Orthodox Jewry has been trying its best to adapt to a new reality. In the medieval era, certain judicial rights were granted to the leadership of the community, and Jewish leadership within the ghetto could certainly pressure and coerce their members into observance. But after the Emancipation gave political rights to the Jews in Western Europe, the ghetto walls came tumbling down, and the position of Orthodoxy diminished. 

Many recognized that political rights would change the religious landscape. As Napoleon was marching towards Russia, the rabbis of Russia debated whether they should pray for him to defeat the hated czar, Alexander I. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad, said that he was praying for the czar to be victorious. He explained that he had seen a vision of the future on Rosh Hashanah, and “was shown that if Bonaparte is victorious, the wealth of the Jewish people will be increased and the dignity of Israel will be restored. The hearts of Israel, however, will become more distant from their father in heaven…” It would be difficult to lead the Jews into a new world and persuade them to follow in the ways of their ancestors.

Generations later, all Jews would be liberated, and grow more distant from heaven. But the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away 27 years ago this week, was one who understood better than anyone how to adapt the message of Torah to the modern world; and he did so brilliantly, using down-to-earth lessons from baseball and profound insights from physics. He understood that a new vocabulary needed to be used, and that every Jew needed to learn how to reach out to others. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his biography of the Rebbe, begins with a chapter entitled “A Rebbe for the New World,” a description that recognizes how difficult it is to teach ancient wisdom to a very different generation of Jews. And the Rebbe recognized his mission encompassed all of humanity. In one of the more powerful stories in the book, Telushkin tells of advice the Rebbe gave to Shirley Chisolm, the newly elected congresswoman from his district. As Telushkin explains, Chisholm was “the first black woman elected to Congress…. (she) lacked the power to stop senior and influential southern democratic congressmen, many of whom in those days were racists, from assigning her to the agriculture committee, an intentionally absurd appointment for a representative from Brooklyn…. Chisholm, who wanted to work on education and labor issues, was both frustrated and furious. She soon received a phone call from the office of one of her constituents, “The Lubavitcher Rebbe would like to meet with you.” ... Chisholm came to 770. The Rebbe said: “I know you're very upset.” Chisholm acknowledged being upset and insulted. “What should I do?” The Rebbe said: “What a blessing God has given you. This country has so much surplus food, and there are so many hungry people and you can use this gift that God's given you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.” And so she did. Together with farming state sponsors, Chisholm would introduce the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which would feed millions of people.

This is just one example of how the Rebbe’s persuasive leadership would be transformative for Jews and non-Jews alike. Remarkably, a new generation in the new world could still follow a Rebbe, because they were ready for a different kind of leadership.


Friday, June 11, 2021

A Jewish Assassination, and the End of Exile


Rabbi Abraham Kohn, 1834, anonymous painting

After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, many Jews felt a profound sense of shock and sorrow. Michael Stanislawski, a professor of Jewish History at Columbia, put it this way: A Jew  had killed the prime minister of Israel! How could this have happened? How could the religious and political divides within Israel have descended to this low? Stanislawski tried to get a better understanding of the Rabin assassination by studying previous instances of violence within the Jewish community; but there were very few cases to consider. For the first 1,750 years of exile, there were no instances of ideological violence. However, that changed in 1848 with the murder of Rabbi Abraham Kohn.

Stanislawski researched this now forgotten event, and published A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History. It tells about Rabbi Abraham Kohn, who was appointed as a Rabbi in Lemberg (now Lviv) in 1843. Although he had been ordained by the staunchly Orthodox Rabbi Samuel Landau of Prague, Kohn was a moderate reformer. He ultimately instituted reforms that would not raise any eyebrows today, such as a German language sermon and prayer for the government, abolishing the selling of aliyot, and having a professional Cantor for the services. In 1846, a new progressive Temple was dedicated, which would then serve as the seat of his rabbinate. Kohn's sermon that day, which praised Emperor Ferdinand I of the Austor-Hungarian Empire, caught the attention of the authorities, and he was elevated to become the official chief rabbi of Lemberg.

Kohn’s new prominence stirred the anger of Orthodox extremists, who saw him as a religious threat. Pamphlets were circulated slandering Kohn as someone who eats non-kosher food and violates the Shabbat. Aside from religious conflicts, several of Kohn’s opponents had ulterior motives for opposing him. Rabbi Kohn was lobbying for an end to taxes on Kosher meat and candles that the government had levied on the Jewish community. Although these taxes were discriminatory, many powerful Jewish leaders profited from these taxes; they were tax farmers, who paid the government a flat fee for the right to levy these taxes on others. Kohn was a financial threat to them as well.

During Pesach in 1848, a mob descended upon the Jewish communal offices demanding that Rabbi Kohn be relieved of his post; there was so much mayhem, that the leader of the mob was arrested. At that point, Rabbi Kohn's wife Magdalena begged him to consider moving away from Lemberg. Kohn’s response was: “I am after all among Jews; what will they do to me in the end?”. His naivete is understandable; at that time, Jewish ideological violence was unthinkable.

But the threats to Kohn continued to escalate. At the beginning of September, placards were placed in synagogues declaring Kohn to be a poshea Yisrael, a willful sinner, who needed to be removed from his position. Kohn responded to this intensifying campaign with a call to end violence. His final sermon was preached on the topic of thou shalt not kill.

On September 6th 1848 Kohn was murdered. A thirty year old goldsmith by the name of Abraham Ber Pilpel visited the Kohn’s apartment, snuck into the kitchen under the guise of lighting his cigar, and poured arsenic into the soup. When the soup was served to the family, Magdalena noticed something was wrong; but the Rabbi dismissed the strange taste as too much pepper in the soup, and proceeded to finish his bowl. The entire family became ill right away; Magdalena, suspecting that they might have been poisoned, immediately called for a doctor. However, it was too late, and Kohn and his baby daughter Teresa died. A subsequent investigation fingered Pilpel as the murderer, but indicated he had colluded with two prominent Orthodox leaders, Jakob Herz Bernstein and Hirsch Orenstein, who were arrested as well.  Bernstein and Orenstein had been leaders in the campaign against Kohn, and were also wealthy tax farmers. Sadly the investigation went nowhere, and no one was convicted of the crime. (Even more heartbreaking is that Hirsch Orenstein would become the Chief Rabbi of Lemberg in 1878). Stanislawski's review of the files and newly found evidence leads him to the conclusion Pilpel almost certainly committed the murder, and probably at the instigation of the others. For the first time in 1,800 years, a Jew had murdered another Jew for ideological reasons.  

The rebellion of Korach in our Torah reading is a political battle, with Korach attempting to replace Moshe and Aharon as the leaders of the Jewish people. But the Talmud sees this story as relevant to everyday events, and the rebellion of Korach as simply an unhealthy dispute. The Talmud says that anyone who perpetuates a dispute violates a prohibition, as it is stated: “And you should not be like Korah and his assembly. This, according to the 14th century Italian Rabbi Isaiah ben Elijah di Trani, requires us to be forbearing and understanding in personal disputes. Without a bit of forgiveness, every dispute will end up being as toxic as Korach’s.

Even more fascinating is a passage in the Mishnah which says:

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

This Mishnah is puzzling: what does it mean when it says that the dispute will endure or not endure? Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin notes that we certainly remember Korach’s dispute every year when we read this Parsha; it has endured in the memory of the Jewish people. And as far as Shammai and Hillel, no one continues to argue for Shammai’s views! So what is the Mishnah saying?

Rabbi Henkin explains that the word “endures” refers to whether the two sides will continue to talk to each other and debate the issues. When Moshe reaches out to Korach’s associates Datan and Aviram to come and speak with him, they emphatically respond “We will not come!”. When Shammai and Hillel debated, they continued to talk, and debate, and then debate again with each other; some of the debates took two and half years. All the while, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai married and socialized with each other. If you are debating for the sake of heaven, you can still love the person you disagree with. This is what the Mishnah means by saying “the dispute will endure”; both parties will still talk, instead of unfriending each other because of the disagreement. They might argue, but they will continue to care for each other.

This is a profound insight; and in the growing academic discipline of Conflict Resolution, empathy for the other side is critical to creating a lasting end to conflict. And in marriage therapy, empathy is the anchor that can carry a couple through the most difficult marital conflicts. What gets lost in heated debates is our God given ability to have compassion for each other.

The relative lack of political violence in the Jewish community during the years of exile is an anomaly.  There had been many violent power struggles during the First and Second Temple periods. But it was in exile that violence became taboo because every Jew felt the sting and hurt of discrimination; that made it easy to empathize with other Jews, no matter how different they were, and Ideological violence seemed impossible. But in 1848, this taboo was breached; and with the Rabin assassination, it was breached again.

It is painful to read the Parsha of Korach on a week when the dark clouds of violence are on the horizon once again, and several politicians in Israel now need round the clock security due to death threats. Exile has taught us that unity is the only choice for the community; and the Talmud has taught that empathy is the only choice for the future. We must remember these lessons before it’s too late.


Thursday, June 03, 2021

What Roots Can Do

One of the delegates to the Sixth Zionist Congress walked from Bulgaria, a trip of 42 days on foot, just to get there. While the story of one man dragging himself across Europe in the summer heat may seem like an amusing anecdote, it does explain a great deal about what ultimately transpired. 

The Sixth Zionist Congress opened on August 23rd, 1903, in Basel, Switzerland. At the opening session, Theodor Herzl rose to read a letter from Sir Clement Hill, the director of the Protectorate Department in the British Foreign Office. The letter stated that the British Foreign Office “will be prepared to entertain favorably proposals for the establishment of a Jewish colony or settlement” in the area of the Uganda Protectorate in East Africa. (The area suggested is in what is now Kenya.) The delegates sat in stunned silence. It was impressive that a great world power had taken an interest in the cause of Zionism, but there was profound shock that the father of modern Zionism was abandoning the dream of returning to Zion.

Debates began, and eventually chaos then broke out in the hall. One Jewish newspaper described the scene this way: “...people were shouting, some were singing Russian songs, others climbing on chairs, throwing leaflets from the galleries into the hall, banging the chairs on the floor. There was a tremendous noise...the tumultuous scenes continued into the small hours of the morning; the casino where the Congress took place was besieged by masses of excited people…” Ultimately, out of respect for Herzl, the Congress would vote to approve a fact finding mission to consider the Uganda proposal, but the overall reaction was extremely negative. Some delegates went on a hunger strike; even the delegates from Kishinev were vehement in their rejection, saying they would rather live in hell than give up on the dream of returning to Israel. And a year of fury would follow, with multiple attacks on Herzl and the supporters of the Uganda proposal. (Parenthetically, the British colonials in East Africa had no interest in opening the door for Jews either. They wrote bitter letters to British newspapers attacking the plan, and mockingly nicknamed the plan “Jewganda.”) In December, at a Hanukkah ball in Paris, a Russian student by the name of Chaim Zelig Luban took two shots at Max Nordau, Herzl’s closest associate, while shouting “death to Nordau the African.” Luban was luckily a terrible shot, and afterwards Nordau ran to Luban’s side to protect him from the furious crowd. The bitter opposition to the Uganda Plan took a great toll on Herzl, and his already weak health began to deteriorate; he died on July 3rd, 1904.

Critics of Zionism see the Uganda Plan as proof of Zionism’s lack of authenticity; but that is a complete distortion of history. Herzl desperately wanted a return to Israel and Israel only. What motivated Herzl to adjust his plans was a shocking spike in European antisemitism. In April 1903, a horrible pogrom took place in the city of Kishinev, where 49 Jews were murdered, and countless others assaulted, raped, and injured. Herzl was prescient about the impending explosion of European antisemitism, and after the Kishinev pogrom, he became more desperate to find Jews a safe haven. Indeed, contemporary critics of the Uganda Plan should first consider the counterfactual of what might have happened had there been a Jewish protectorate in Kenya during the years of the Holocaust. (It is also important to point out that when offered a chance to be actual colonialists, the Zionist movement emphatically said no.) And while the Uganda Plan was both a mistake and a failure, it arguably pushed forward the Zionist cause, by engaging a world power and bringing greater attention to Jewish nationalism. In one of the ironies of history, the charter for a Jewish Protectorate in Uganda was drafted by Lloyd George, who a few years later, as prime minister, would be the head of British government that issued the Balfour declaration. 

Uganda was never meant to be a final stop. In a letter to Nordau, Herzl writes that “it is the task of leadership to point the way to the goal, even by a detour, if necessary. Moses himself went through the same experience.” Herzl is correct in noting that the Jews did not travel directly from Egypt to Israel; they detoured, to avoid immediate battle. Ultimately, they wait for forty years, due to the sin of the spies. Herzl failed to recognize that the Zionists of 1903 were nothing like the generation of the desert; they had remarkable passion for Israel, a passion strong enough for one man to walk for 42 days to the Congress.

There are several factors in the failure of the ill-fated mission of the spies, including a lack of faith in God's promises and a lack of self-confidence. But often overlooked is that the generation of the desert had little connection and few roots in the land of Israel; while their distant ancestors had lived in the Holy Land as wandering strangers, prior to that time there had never been a significant Jewish presence in Israel. They cannot be blamed for lacking a passion for something to which they had no connection.

This reality is reflected in the text. The Parsha places enormous emphasis on the fruit that the spies would bring back. They visit a valley, where the spies take a cutting that includes a cluster of grapes. Because of this, the valley is given a new name, Nahal Eshkol, the Valley of the Cluster. In other sections of the Torah, the mission of the spies is always tied to Nahal Eshkol. When reading the Parsha, one has to wonder: Why is there such an emphasis on this valley, the fruit, and the cluster in particular? And why did the spies take a cutting with them?

The answer begins with the cutting; the most common way of growing a new vine is with a cutting from an old one. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, it is the righteous spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, who carry the cutting home. This cutting is no mere sample; it is a symbol that conveys the message that in Israel the former slaves can establish roots and build a homeland.

There is another section of the Torah which mentions an offering made of fruits: the parshat habikurim, which discusses the first fruits that farmers would offer in the Temple. Herzog College lecturer, Rabbi Elchanan Samet, notes that there are multiple narrative parallels between the story of the spies and the parshat habikurim - and the great mystic, the Arizal, explains that the bringing of the first fruits was a response and remedy to the sin of the spies.

This parallel further emphasizes the importance of roots. When bringing the first fruits, the farmer would declare that our ancestors wandered, enslaved and abused, until we arrived in Israel. The farmer would talk about a history of being unrooted and uprooted, and how the past inspires him, and us, to cherish our roots.

Yehoshua and Kalev are extending an invitation to the Jews in the desert to put down roots. Later generations would do exactly that. Even after being exiled, they would dream, pray, and talk about Israel every day, and at the end of the Seder would declare “Next year in Jerusalem.”  And this is why in 1903, a solitary man from Bulgaria walked through Europe in the hope of realizing a 1,900-year-old dream; he was looking to reconnect to his roots.