Friday, January 28, 2022

A State Without a Soul


In 1882, Patrick McQuade and Hyman Sarner were assembling a series of lots along Lexington Avenue for a planned apartment building. Everything was going well until they approached Joseph Richardson for a tiny lot on Lexington which was 102 feet long and just 5 feet wide. Because Richardson’s lot was virtually useless without the adjoining lots, McQuade and Sarner considered it to be worthless, and offered $1,000. Richardson played hardball, and demanded $5,000. McQuade and Sarner initially decided to go ahead with construction without the adjoining lot. But when they were ready to break ground, they went back to Richardson and offered to pay $5,000; but Richardson refused, angry about the first negotiations. A month later Richardson broke ground himself on a building of equal height; it would close off all the east-facing windows on McQuade and Sarner’s building. Richardson even moved into one of the apartments himself. This bizarre building, only five feet wide in most points, required specialty built furniture to fit into the rooms, and only one person could walk on the staircase at a time. New York’s newspapers quickly dubbed it “the spite house,” a fitting name for a building whose true foundation was nastiness and resentment. Eventually, the development of the subway would destabilize the foundation of this narrow building, and it had to be demolished.
Spite is not illegal. Richardson's behavior was abominable, but absolutely lawful. There is no remedy in the civil code for poor character and boorish behavior.
At first glance, this week's Torah reading has nothing to do with religion. Most of it is devoted to a legal code, with a list of penalties and punishments. These laws focus on the rights of slaves, death penalty crimes, personal injury, property damage, and breaches of trust. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza points out the jarring contrast between this legal code and the previous section, with the revelation of the Ten Commandments. He describes it with the Talmudic phrase “jumping from a high roof to a deep pit”; at Sinai, the people experience divine revelation, and receive the Ten Commandments, the foundation of an ideal society. But then the Torah jumps to a legal code that focuses on the imperfect deeds of imperfect men. What uplifting lessons can be found in a parsha about crimes and lawsuits?
Law seems empty of inspiration. It is concerned with boundaries and rules, and contains all the romance of protractor. But that is precisely why the Torah places these laws here, immediately after Mount Sinai. The Sefat Emet explains that the legal code in this parsha is meant to be more than a rational law book based on equity; It is infused with the divine spirit. These laws are meant to be applied in a matter that is inspired and inspirational. It is fascinating that the Sefat Emet’s insight is shared by the Italian scholar Umberto Cassuto. He compares this parshah's legal code code with Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrian codes of law; and as one would expect, there are similarities of style and language. But there is a fundamental difference: the Torah specifically relates these laws to God’s will rather than a king’s decree. Cassuto explains: “The Torah’s ethical intent creates further disparity. The entire concern of the aforementioned codes is to determine what is due to a person according to the letter of the law, ... whereas the Torah seeks many an occasion to go beyond the strictly legal requirements and to grant a man what is due to him from the ethical viewpoint, and from the aspect of the love of a man should bear his fellow, who is his brother, since both have one heavenly father.” Cassuto points out that interspersed within this parsha’s legal code are rules about returning collateral to an impoverished borrower, returning lost items, and not taking advantage of the stranger. The laws in this parsha demands that the legal system go beyond the protection of personal rights and ensure that a compassionate society is fostered.
Rabbinic literature continues the tradition of incorporating ethics into the legal realm, and actually includes laws against spite. The Talmud says that a court can compel one to do what is right and good. One of the more prominent examples of this is a rule called dina debar metzra, “the law regarding the owner of a neighboring field”. When a person offers a field for sale, once they receive an acceptable bid, they must turn to their neighbor and offer them the opportunity to buy the field, provided that the neighbor is willing to pay the same price, and do so immediately. This law gives the neighbor the opportunity to enlarge their own field and introduce economies of scale; it is cheaper to work one large field than two smaller fields of an equal size. Who the buyer is makes no difference to the seller; and he cannot refuse to sell to his neighbor purely out of spite.
Dina debar metzra offers a glimpse of what an inspired legal code might look like. Even so, there are limits to how often these rules are applied; like all legal codes, the Torah is committed first to preserving the rights of individuals. The Talmud notes in certain instances, such as when one damages another person’s property in an indirect fashion, one is exempt from the laws of man but obligated by the laws of heaven; you cannot sue to recover these damages, because even an inspired legal code cannot make every moral obligation actionable. But the Talmud still notes the moral obligation, and that is the second lesson of our parsha: Our moral obligations also go beyond what can be claimed in a courtroom. It reminds us that we need to stop to help someone whose donkey collapses in the street, and have compassion on the widow and orphan. The Talmud talks about the importance of lifnim meshurat hadin, “going beyond the letter of the law.” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein points out that paradoxically, going beyond the letter of the law is part of law; halakhah demands more of us than what is actionable in court.
In Pirkei Avot, the Mishna offers two perspectives on someone who says, “What is mine is mine, and yours is yours.” One opinion says that this is the average way, for the ordinary person who is neither generous nor dishonest. The second perspective says that this is actually the way of Sodom. Both perspectives are correct; the foundation of a society is individual rights, ensuring that what is mine is mine and yours is yours. Good fences do make good neighbors, and without boundaries there will be anarchy. But what is legal cannot be the ultimate ideal. The Talmud says that Jerusalem was destroyed because the judges stuck to the letter of the law, and did not search for justice. A community that never goes beyond “what is mine is mine and yours is yours” will end up divided and uncaring.  
The lesson of this week's Torah reading is that law alone is lacking, and this lesson is particularly relevant today. We are fortunate to live in a country whose foundations are democracy, the rule of law, and the free enterprise system. Yet on their own, these institutions are insufficient; a state without a soul will ultimately crumble. Without communal unity, democracies will descend into the tyranny of the majority or break into warring factions. Divorced from values, law can be weaponized and turned into a method of combat. Without sympathy and charity, capitalism can descend into self-centered materialism. A society that idealizes "what is mine is mine and yours is yours" as its ultimate goal will lose it soul. The lesson of our Torah reading is that if a society lacks moral direction, all the legal codes in the world will be useless.
Without an obligation to go beyond the letter of the law, we will all end up living in spite houses of our own.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Where Were the Rescuers? A Message for International Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is the wrong day for commemorating the Holocaust. The United Nations first adopted an International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD) on January 27th in 2005; Dan Gillerman, then Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N., championed this much overdue initiative.  The date of January 27th was chosen to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, in order to honor the Allied efforts on behalf of the Jews. And that is precisely what’s wrong with this date; before the liberation, all the Allies had shown was apathy, insensitivity and abject failure. 

The Allies had multiple opportunities to do something - anything - to save the Jews of Europe, both before and during the war. The Evian Conference of 1938, the Karski Report of 1942, and the Bermuda Conference of 1943 all came and went, and the Allies continued to do nothing. The plight of the Jews of Europe was ignored.

Larry Weinberg, a past President of AIPAC, tells of his experience as an American GI during World War II. Larry was asked to meet with a Jewish member of the resistance who had been hiding in the forest. Larry proudly explained to the man that he was a Jewish soldier, and had come to liberate him. The man spit in Larry’s face and shouted: ‘You came too late!.  The Allies did too little, too late, to help Jews in Nazi-controlled territories. A more fitting date to mark the international response to the Holocaust, would commemorate one of the conferences of inaction, when the international community refused to act while Germany murdered Jew after Jew.

The genocide of six million required the complicity of the entire world. Even the Allies, who were fighting for the cause of freedom, did next to nothing to save the Jews. And this raises one of the most painful questions about the Holocaust: where was man?

During the Holocaust, humanity failed, 6 million times over. My mother didn't speak much about her experiences in  the Holocaust; but she would tell us about one episode that happened right after she arrived in Auschwitz, because it shocked her so deeply. A mother and daughter were talking to each other, and a Nazi, observing their obvious affection for each other, shot the daughter in front of her mother’s face. What shocked my mother was the complete lack of emotion the Nazi showed, as if he was taking target practice.

Eliezer Berkovits explains that before we wonder where God was during the Holocaust, we need to ask where was man. Why God allows bad things to happen to good people is a disturbing theological problem, but at the same time, we understand that our knowledge of God is limited. It is far more difficult to comprehend how our fellow man can be so cruel and bloodthirsty.  How could the Nazis perpetrate these indescribable crimes? How could the rest of the world look on? Neither a sophisticated culture, nor Christian values, nor the utopian ideals of the 20th century prevented Germany and her helpers from perpetrating the greatest genocide in history.

The Holocaust reminds us that our faith in man is misplaced; and this lesson is thousands of years old. The Torah tells about the surprise attack by Amalek on the weak and wandering Jews in the dessert. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Amalek despised the needy and held the spiritual in contempt; to Amalek, it is power alone that matters. 

Our job is to struggle against the Amalek ideology, generation after generation. There is a tendency to underplay pronouncements of hatred as “mere rhetoric”; that is a mistake. As the Jewish people have learned, time and again, those who promise violence should be taken at their word.  

Right after the attack of Amalek, the Torah tells us about the visit of Jethro. He travels from Midian, and offers support to his son-in-law Moses and the freed slaves. Abraham ibn Ezra explains that Jethro’s story is told immediately after Amalek in order to show another side of humanity: there are those who are unconditionally helpful and good. Man is capable of inhumanity, but also capable of heroism. And we must remember the Jethros who stand up for what is right.

Yad Vashem has been recognizing the Righteous Among the Nations since 1963. There are 27,712 such people who are recognized, even though there were certainly more people who helped save the lives of Jews. These rescuers include people like Oscar Schindler and Irina Sandler who saved thousands of lives. Personally, I am drawn to the less famous rescuers, uneducated rural peasants who saved lives without thinking twice.

Years ago, a friend of mine was visiting Yad Vashem while there was a ceremony inducting a rural Polish couple into the Righteous Among the Nations. The couple were being interviewed about what they had done, and they were asked why they risked their lives to rescue Jews. The answer was so moving in its simplicity:

They (the Jews) were running, and they needed a place to stay. So we took them in.

That is the lesson for today. All of the well educated men in the U.S. Department of State had less heart and heroism than this simple couple. We need to learn from this couple that if people need help, we need to be there for them. In times of moral crisis, we need to think less, talk less, and do more.

And we need to get there on time.

Friday, January 21, 2022

For What Were Jews Chosen?


It was unprecedented. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, was being accused of heresy. Rabbi Sacks had written the book The Dignity of Difference, right after 9/11, in search of a solution for religious violence. But some ultra-Orthodox critics saw the book as "irreconcilable" with Jewish dogma. Two leading British Charedi rabbis placed an ad in the Jewish Chronicle, and stated that the book was “a grave deviation from the pathways of traditional and authentic Judaism.” They issued a public demand that Sacks “repudiate the thesis of the book and withdraw the book from circulation.” 
Abraham Sees Sodom in Flames, circa 1896–1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot
What had caused this controversy? Sacks’s words insinuated that there are multiple equally valid religions. To fend off the growing controversy, Sacks made several changes to the book, which was then reprinted. He removed references to evolution, and a reference to God sometimes appearing as female; but most critical were changes to his view of God’s relationship to other religions. Sacks’s original book had contained the passage, “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.” To his critics, this sounded like Sacks was saying that Judaism is not “absolute truth,” and God had revealed himself through other religions. Sacks changed it in the paperback edition to: “God communicates in human language, but there are dimensions of the divine that must forever elude us. As Jews we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures, and faiths finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws.” A corresponding correction dealt directly with the notion of the Jews being the chosen people. In the original it said: “God no more wants all faiths and cultures to be the same than a loving parent wants his or her children to be the same”; this clashes with the belief in chosenness, one that sees the Jews uniquely beloved by God. In the revised edition, Sacks changed this to: “Just as a loving parent is pained by sibling rivalry, so God asks us, his children, not to fight or seek to dominate one another.” With these revisions, the controversy died down.
Our Torah reading contains the first mention of chosenness in Tanakh: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples …” (In Devarim 7:6, the notion of being treasured is explicitly defined as being chosen.) In both this verse and many other contexts, chosenness is connected to the covenant; this is found as well in the daily blessing over the Torah, “Blessed are You God ... Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah …” The Jews were chosen by God to accept the Torah and create a unique covenant with Him.
But why are Jews the chosen people? To some, like the Zohar and Yehuda HaLevi, chosenness is an expression of superiority; God chose the Jews and gave them the gift of prophecy, because Jews have unique souls and spiritual capacities.
This depiction of chosenness is easy to criticize. Mordecai Kaplan removed any references to chosenness in the first Reconstructionist Prayerbook. He wrote that the concept of chosenness was an anachronism, and for Jews to continue to accept it today would be unethical. To believe that Jews are the chosen people in the 20th century is “self-infatuation.” However, Kaplan does grant that perhaps chosenness made sense in the past, as "a psychological defense" to counteract the humiliation of anti-Semitism. Less charitable were the comments of  George Bernard Shaw; the famous playwright, who was an admirer of fascism, would assert that the Nazi policies were merely a copy of the Jewish belief in a chosen people. To assert a tangible difference between Jews and non-Jews opens one to accusations of racism. Even a more benign view of chosenness, that God simply has a unique love of the Jews, looks like chauvinism, a subtle assertion of superiority.
Sacks is certainly concerned with the question of chauvinism, but he is worried about a far larger problem. Chosenness is a type of exclusivism, the belief that only one religion or group matters. But that leads to the question: If God is the master of the universe, why doesn’t he have a relationship with all of humanity? And if only Judaism contains “absolute truth,” why was that denied to most of the world? Julian the Apostate, the fourth century Roman emperor who rejected Christianity, wrote a polemic against Christianity called “Against the Galileans.” In it, he critiques the beliefs of Christianity and Judaism, and attacks the notion of chosenness. Julian wonders why God only cares about Jews, and not Romans like himself: “For if he is the God of all of us alike, and the creator of all, why did he neglect us?” The great issue with exclusivism is that it actually diminishes God. Instead of being God of the universe, God ends up becoming the exclusive province of a small group of people.
Sacks places this theological issue front and center. First and foremost, he emphasizes the seven laws of Noah, a covenant that God made with all of humanity after the Flood. This makes it clear that God is the God of all humanity and that God has never neglected any of his children. But he also emphasizes God’s transcendence, which he notes is greater than religion. Belief in a transcendent God automatically leads one to recognize the importance of all humanity.
After the controversy, Sacks issued a 117-page sourcebook in response to his critics. The opening quote is from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who talks about the reaction of those who are inspired by the love of God. Rav Kook writes: “When these love-possessed people see the world … they feel and know that the nearness of G-d, for which they yearn, can only lead them to joining themselves with all and for the sake of all. When they confront the human scene, and find divisions among nations, religions, parties, with goals in conflict, they endeavor with all their might to bring all together, to mend and to unite.” Belief in God is greater than one religion; it should bring everyone to search for unity, and bring humanity together.
Sacks’s writing is carefully nuanced, which leaves room for the imagination. His critics believed he was advocating religious pluralism, the belief that all religions have a small piece of the truth, and all are equally valid. This was clearly not Sacks’s intent. And pluralism is in many ways theological suicide: Why follow the beliefs of one religion, if it's just one of multiple truth choices? As Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes in a letter, Judaism recognizes that all of humanity can find salvation in their own way. But then he writes, "However, this tolerant philosophy of transcendental universalism does not exclude the specific awareness of the Jews of the supremacy of their faith over all others. As a matter of fact, the act of praising the worth of one's particular religious experience ... constitutes the very essence of the transcendental performance ... The homo religiosus is convinced that his unique relationship with God is the noblest and finest, and is ready to bring the supreme sacrifice for the preservation of his religious identity... This is exactly the standpoint of the halakha which maintains that, while it is forbidden to impose our faith upon others by force, it is our sacred duty to defend our convictions against any onslaught, even at the expense of our very lives.” Pluralism would make a mockery of the sacrifices of medieval Jewish martyrs.
Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Sacks recognize that Judaism embraces universalism and particularism all at once; God is the God of all humanity, and God is the God of the Jewish people Who gave us the Torah. This desire to grab onto both beliefs at the same time should not be surprising. God is both our King and our Father. He is the transcendent creator of the universe, and the loving companion with whom we commune in prayer. But these two perspectives remain at tension with each other; and this makes the concept of chosenness particularly complicated.
How does one reconcile Judaism’s embrace of universalism and particularism? One response is the doctrine of mission, that Jews are chosen to be an or l'amim, a "light unto the nations," to bring ethical monotheism into the world. God cares about all humanity, which is why He chose the Jews for a special mission of education. Our Torah reading reminds us that God chose the Jews to be a “nation of priests”; and in their commentaries to this verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman emphasize that the Jews were chosen to bring God's word to all of humanity.
This view has been criticized from both sides of the chosenness debate; on one side, Kaplan calls the idea of a Jewish mission “spiritual imperialism.” From the other side, some wonder how to square a universal mission with a God-given national homeland tucked away in a small corner of the earth; before modern travel and communication, how would Jews embark on their mission? Despite these criticisms, I have always embraced this view, because it has offered me profound inspiration.
This past week, our community collected supplies for the victims of the Bronx fire. I was privileged to join a group of Ramaz students, led by Deeni Hass, the Upper School's Coordinator of Chesed and Outreach, to deliver the supplies to the Islamic Community Center of the Bronx, the mosque attended by virtually all the families. We were met there by Meyer Appel, the founder of the interfaith coalition The Bridge, who brought with him representatives of the Chasidic, Haitian, and Pakistani communities. As we brought the boxes into the mosque, we spoke to members of the mosque and saw the impact our very presence made, and we walked away feeling like we had received far more than what we have given. Carrying the supplies, I felt like I was emulating the actions of Avraham and Sarah 3,800 years ago, to offer help, care and love to all humanity. To believe in God is to believe in goodness.
Standing on 166th Street in the Bronx, we were doing what God chose us to do.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Amalek and the Problem of Human Cruelty

Luca Giordano, The Battle of Israel and Amalek
Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars, notes that there were “realists” who disagreed. Some realists saw life as a constant battle of the strong against the weak, with violence being part of man's natural state. Others argue that “war is hell,” and must be fought by the most effective means possible, even if that requires the targeting of civilians. But despite these dissenters, just war theory is now part of international law and contemporary ethics.

So how can one explain the commandment to destroy Amalek? It appears immoral for two reasons. First, it requires the eradication of the entire nation of Amalek, including women and children. Second, it is a designation that continues from generation to generation, years after those involved in the attack against the Israelites in the desert have passed on. George P. Fletcher of Columbia Law School argues that this law is no different than the blood curse ascribed to the Jews for the death of Jesus, and that “holding the Jews liable as a corporate body is no different from the way Jews hold Amalek guilty across the generations.” The commandment to destroy Amalek is extremely disturbing.

For this reason, Amalek is a Rorschach test, inspiring extremists on both ends of the spectrum. Radical Jews who conduct acts of terror against Palestinian civilians, do so because they believe in collective punishment. They rationalize their behavior with one word: Amalek. On the other end of the spectrum, those who want to slander Jewish character and denigrate the Bible, refer often to the commandment to destroy Amalek. Radical opponents of Israel claim that it is a genocidal country, inspired by the commandment to destroy Amalek.

For mainstream interpreters, Amalek is seen as an anomaly, and a commandment that requires reinterpretation. Maimonides explains that descendants of Amalek who live a moral lifestyle would not be included in this commandment. His son, Abraham, in his commentary to the Torah, says that Amalek no longer exists and the commandment is no longer operative. In terms of collective punishment, Rav Kook argues in a letter that one must see the biblical era through a different lens, because “when all of Israel's neighbors were wolves of the night, it would be impossible for Israel alone not to go to war, because then the neighbors would gather together and, God forbid, destroy the remnant of Israel. On the contrary, it was extremely necessary to instill fear into their lawless neighbors, even by cruel methods…” Rav Kook explains that the cruelty of these commandments was a necessity of that period of time; but these commandments would have been applied very differently by the Sanhedrins of later generations.

Many modern interpreters offer similar interpretations of the commandment to destroy Amalek. Some focus on Amalek’s actions, and see it as a metaphor, a lesson about opposing human cruelty. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch interprets the phrase “the memory of Amalek,” as referring to a specific type of remembrance; when a society honors infamous strongmen who build their reputation through acts of violence, they are perpetuating the “memory of Amalek.” The world must stop glorifying savagery as heroic; and when that happens Amalek will disappear.

In a sermon written during the years of World War I, Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel offers an ethical reinterpretation. He focuses on the verse: “Inscribe this in a book as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” Rav Amiel explains that a “book,” a product of intellect and thought, represents rationality and morality. There are two contrasting ways of life; living by the book and living by the sword. The only way to uproot militarism, he explains, is through learning and teaching the ways of goodness. One cannot fight violence with violence; one must uproot it by transforming the general culture. By “inscribing in a book,” one moves society in the direction of non-violence. In this reading, Amalek is now purely theoretical; and Rav Amiel’s interpretation, and others of this kind, allow contemporary readers to harmonize the Biblical text with their moral intuitions regarding just war.

These reinterpretations might seem improbable, the apologetics of the embarrassed. But there is a substantive amount of biblical evidence pointing to the importance of treating enemies with respect. The Torah commands Israel to offer a peace treaty before pursuing a war. A besieging army may not destroy the neighboring trees, and must allow refugees to escape the city. King David is admonished for shedding too much blood in combat. When Ben-Hadad, the King of Damascus, is hiding from the King of Israel, his ministers say to him that he should not worry about surrendering, because “we have heard that the kings of the House of Israel are kind kings.” Contemporary rereadings of Amalek have roots that go back to the Tanakh; this commandment must be seen in context. One passage in the Jewish tradition must not serve as the rationalization of cruelty.

Even with these new interpretations, the law about destroying Amalek is jarring; and perhaps that's the point. Its purpose is to serve as a reminder not to be naive. The foundation of any good society is reciprocity; the assumption is that if I'm good to others, others will be good in return. There are those who believe that treating totalitarian states with generosity can help transform them. But this is a lack of imagination, one to which good people in particular are prone. When Neville Chamberlain negotiated the Munich agreement with Hitler, he assumed negotiations would work; a realistic assumption in almost any other instance, because negotiations are how reasonable people arrive at a compromise. But this commandment is a reminder that one cannot negotiate with an Amalek. The appeasement policy of Chamberlain came about due to desperation to avoid another war; but it is also because many in Chamberlain’s circle were charmed by Nazis. When Chamberlain's foreign minister, Lord Halifax, went to visit Germany in 1937, he was particularly taken with Herman Goering, who he wrote seemed “altogether a very picturesque and arresting figure, completed by green hat and large chamois tuft!”; And “like a great schoolboy, full of life and pride in all he was doing, showing off his forest and animals…" Lord Halifax could not imagine that Goering could truly be evil. Even after the war, Lord Halifax wrote an affidavit for the Nuremberg trials, stating that Goering would have kept Germany out of war had he been able to do so.

Kristallnacht occurred just forty days after the Munich agreement.

But some people understood that a government built on hatred would be dangerous for the entire world. Winston Churchill sharply opposed the Munich agreement, and had been an implacable foe of the Nazis from the beginning. Why was he so certain that Hitler could not be trusted?

In his recent biography of Churchill, entitled Walking With Destiny, Andrew Roberts wrote regarding Churchill:

"His respect for the Jewish people... helped Churchill in the 1930s, giving him the ability — denied to many antisemites across the political spectrum — to spot very clearly and early what kind of man Adolf Hitler was.” Churchill saw Hitler’s antisemitism for what it was: a perverted belief that murdering Jews would redeem the world. No appeasement can quiet that type of hatred.

Human cruelty presents a particular problem to those who live lives of goodness; they cannot imagine the mindset of absolute hatred. But the love of goodness should not lead to the inability to recognize evil; the pursuit of peace should not lead to gullible mistakes. One must always remember to be moral without being naive.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

It's Not About the Money


The Brother Haggadah was produced in 1350 - 1374 CE in a style attributable to Catalonia, Spain, and in the collection of The British Library. The Bottom frame on this page is a
depiction of borrowing of silver and gold.
On January 7th, the date of the Knesset vote, Begin organized a rally in Jerusalem attended by tens of thousands. In an angry, impassioned speech, Begin challenged Ben-Gurion directly and said: “That is why I say to Mr. Ben-Gurion: There will be no negotiations with Germany; and for that we are all ready to sacrifice our lives… Mr. Ben-Gurion has sent policemen, and in their hands - according to information we have just received - they have tear gas grenades made in Germany, the same gas that suffocated our ancestors… And so I declare: Evil now stands against justice - and will shatter like glass against a rock. So too this ugly attempt will shatter in the face of popular opposition.” The crowd followed Begin up the street to the Knesset, and threw stones through the Knesset windows. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, and the odors of the gas wafted onto the Knesset floor.
In the end, the Knesset voted 61 to 50 to negotiate an agreement. In September 1952, Israel and Germany signed the Luxembourg Agreement. Germany agreed to pay reparations to the State of Israel, and to establish a Claims Conference to distribute reparations to Holocaust survivors.
Ben-Gurion argued that the Germany of 1952 was now part of the family of nations and needed to be treated differently. Furthermore, not to take the money offered would allow the Germans to benefit financially from their crimes. Justice demanded that the Jewish people receive payment for Jewish property seized during the Holocaust; practicality demanded that the new Jewish State pursue all avenues of economic development.
Begin saw reparations as a betrayal of the 6 million. To allow Germany to pay its way out of guilt was nearly as horrible as the Holocaust itself. He mocked the argument that this was a new Germany, led by “good Germans.” (Parenthetically, Begin was correct. Only 5% of Germans at the time felt any sense of guilt for the Holocaust.) Begin declared that reparations were blood money that violated the memory of the six million. In his opinion, Israel needed to be a proud and independent state, and Ben-Gurion was selling Jewish self-respect for “money, money, money.”
Prominent rabbis debated the reparations agreement as well. At the time, Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik publicly opposed the reparations agreement. This was "ransom money," a violation of the Biblical commandment not to accept a payment from a murderer to escape guilt. How could one take money from Amalek? Most of the rabbinic establishment agreed with Rav Soloveitchik. However, Rav Yoseph Eliyahu Henkin was very critical of Begin’s stance, and supportive of the reparations agreement.
Germany’s offer of reparations forced the State of Israel to make a choice between Ben-Gurion’s realpolitik and Begin’s idealism. But the debate about reparations is ages old, and goes back to the Torah. God informs Moshe that the Exodus is imminent, and immediately instructs him: “Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor and every woman from her neighbor, articles of silver and articles of gold.”
When the Jews leave, they take the Egyptian gold and silver with them, and the borrowed items are never returned. Since ancient times, antisemitic polemicists have used this text to question the morality of the Jewish people. The Talmud imparts that the Egyptian leadership brought a claim against the Jews before Alexander the Great, and demanded that the Jews return all of the borrowed silver and gold. This passage has clear historical roots. As Peter Schafer points out in Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World, ancient Egyptian antisemites often focused their attention on the Exodus narrative. Josephus cites the claims of an Egyptian priest, Manetho, who lived in the 3rd century BCE. Manetho concocts a revisionist version of the Exodus, in which the Jews are marauders and lepers who were expelled from Egypt; the story in the Talmud probably has a similar context. Over 2,000 years ago, the borrowing of valuables during the Exodus caught the attention of antisemites.
This trend continues into the Middle Ages. The Rashbam, writing in the 12th century, notes that Christian polemicists used this passage to portray Jews as cheats who swindle their neighbors.
However, a serious ethical question stands at the center of this slander: How could the Jews abscond with the borrowed silver and gold when they left the country? In response, many medieval and modern commentaries focus on the meaning of the Hebrew word sha’al, which is usually interpreted as “borrow.” Many commentaries offer a new definition of sha’al. The root of the word actually means to request; and these interpreters explain that in this instance, the request was for a permanent gift, not a temporary loan. Therefore, the Jews never cheated their neighbors; they had actually asked for the items to be gifted to them.
There are multiple theories to explain why the Egyptians would offer the Jews gifts. Josephus says the Egyptians offered the gifts on the night of the Exodus, “some in order to get them to depart quickly; and others on account of neighborly friendship they had with the Jews.” Saadiah Gaon says the gift was a partial repayment for unpaid wages.  Chizkuni says it was offered as compensation for property the Jews were leaving behind in Egypt. (See here for a comprehensive review of the commentaries on this). All of these commentaries are concerned about preserving the ethical reputation of the Jewish people.
But not everyone worries about the morality of this text. Some commentaries embrace deception and theft as a form of vigilante justice; after 400 years of slavery, the Jews had every right to claim what was rightfully theirs. Ibn Ezra believes that this deception was ultimately meant to lead the Egyptians to their deaths. When it became clear that the Jews were fleeing with the borrowed gold and silver, the Egyptians gave chase; and that chase ended at the bottom of the Red Sea. The former slaves were standing up for themselves and righting 400 years of wrongs; they shouldn’t have had any ethical concerns about lying to their tormentors.
In reading these commentaries, you can once again hear the push and pull between pragmatism and idealism; what is more important, ethical perfection or self-determination? Do we prioritize political and economic challenges, or communal virtue? Reparations from a despised enemy forces one to consider serious moral dilemmas, whether they are seized or offered willingly.
All of the discussions about ethics of reparations still leave one question unanswered: Why were these reparations so important? The Torah makes it clear they are not a mere afterthought; when God informs Avraham that his descendants would be in a 400-year exile, He immediately adds: “and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” Reparations were part of the original plan of exile. One has to wonder how this seemingly small detail stands at the foundation of the entire Exodus.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook offers a fascinating answer to this question in his commentary to the Talmud. He explains the Jews were anxious to leave Egypt immediately, and had no interest in obtaining wealth; a slave only wants freedom, and nothing more. But this is a barren freedom, unable to nurture any dreams. Requesting gold and silver would transform the perspective of the former slaves, training them to pursue their aspirations and hopes. The reparations in Egypt weren’t about money, they were about ambition.
Ambition can be beaten out of a man. Last Shabbat, a congregant mentioned to me in conversation Bontshe Shvayg, the Y.L. Peretz character. Bontshe is a man who lives a life filled with abuse, uncared for and unnoticed. When he arrives in the heavenly court, he is received as a holy man, lauded for his faith and forbearance in the face of suffering. When Bontshe is asked to name his own eternal reward, he meekly answers: “What I'd like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning.” Brutal life experiences had beaten the ambition out of Bontshe, and now he couldn’t even appreciate the heavenly award that awaited him. Bontshe teaches us why leaving Egypt with material wealth was so important; these slaves had been beaten for 400 years and had lost all ambition. Now, they needed to learn how to dream again; a warm roll with fresh butter would not suffice.
All of the opinions regarding reparations, ancient and modern, share a common motivation: greatness. Despite sharp differences, these rabbis and politicians advocated for important goals: economic development, Jewish pride, ethical refinement, and self-determination. These debates are evidence of spiritual vitality, and that’s precisely the point. Reparations are not about the money; they are about ambitions. A mediocre freedom is not enough. One must always aspire to something greater, even if it's just a silver platter.