Two Kings Cannot Wear the Same Crown

 

Many people, including myself, have often wondered about the Russian strategy in Syria, now that the war is for the most part over.

We all know that Assad is no boy scout; we also know that the ISIS fighters, who swelled the ranks of the rebels—are genocidal maniacs driven by an evil vision of Jihad. Such people do not merely kill, they kill with chemical weapons, they burn people alive, crucify non-Muslim children, feed their kids to their captured parents—the list of atrocities almost makes Assad look like a human being.

It reminds me of the old story—perhaps you heard of it.

Once an outlaw lost his brother who died after trying to rob a bank in a gunfight. The outlaw’s surviving brother tells a minister, “You had better say some nice things about my brother, or else I’ll kill ya!” The minister asked, “What should I say about him?” The outlaw said, “Make him sound like a saint!” At the funeral, the minister said, “Clive was a bank-robber, a cattle-rustler, a rapist, a thief, a murderer—he was someone who would even steal candy from a baby. But, compared to his brother, Clive was a saint!”

While Assad has plenty of blood on his hands, his relationship with Israel has for the most part been relatively good. Israel prefers Assad to the leaders of ISIS or other Muslim fanatics. There are many Red-Army veterans living in Israel (see the picture)–in fact many Russians citizens.

The moral of the story is simply this: the devil you know is better than the one who is worse.  The fact that the Russians are in Syria is not necessarily a bad thing. Putin can bring considerable stability in Syria—maybe in time even put in someone who is better than Assad.

But what about the Iranians? Assad had no problem using Hezbollah and the Iranian military to help defeat the rebels. But Hezbollah’s motivation had little to do with their love of Assad or the Russians. Their ambitions are much more regional-minded. Sure, they hope to use Syria as a platform to attack Israel, but they also wish to surround the Saudis in their effort to take over Muslim holy sites—especially the city of Mecca, the Crown-Jewels of the Muslim world.

Iran’s bellicose ambitions are hardly subtle. Their tolerance for the Russians—a temporary inconvenience.

Israel, as you know, will not let Iran realize their ambitions. Already, the Israelis have destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian weaponry. Have you notice that the Russians, for the most part, have been relatively silent. Netanyahu has, from what it appears, a reasonably good relationship with Putin.

Of course, appearances are deceptive—, especially in the Middle East.

However, Putin does not want to see an Iranian-Israeli war in Syria. It simply is not in Russia’s interest. And the reason for this is because of a political principle that the Midrash has long taught: “Two kings cannot share the same crown.”

It’s sort of like, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

And that is the situation brewing in Syria today between the Iranians and the Russians. Just last night, Putin made the statement, “Foreign troops—including Iran and Hezbollah should depart Syria when the civil war ends.”

Of course, he might have included the Turkish troops, for as Erdogan is really the “third king” of our Midrash, whose ambition is to reestablish the Ottoman Empire.

Put in different terms, “Three kings cannot share the same crown.”

And how did the Iranians take Putin’s remark? The Islamic Republic responds, “no one can force Iran to do anything. Those who should leave Syria are the ones who entered it without consent. We will remain and keep supporting Syria so long as it needs our help,” he added, according to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV.

And with this revelation—something that I have personally observed for months—it ought to be clear that the Putin is prepared to give Netanyahu free reign to get rid of the Iranians as an occupying power.

Eventually, though, the political entropy between the Russians and the Iranians will manifest itself—sort of like spurned lovers.

As far as Assad goes, the Russians had better guard him closely, for eventually, the Iranians will try to replace him with a person of their own choosing.

I am betting the Russians and the Israelis will send the Iranians packing–especially as President keeps the pressure on the Iranians, who are rapidly becoming the pariah everyone hates.

 

 

Three Cheers for President Trump!

Image result for new jerusalem embassy pictures

 

Erich Fromm wondered: How can we account for humankind’s capacity for cruelty and violence? Fromm, like the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, believed that violence is something we share with the animal world—especially when it comes to directing our anger against members of our own species. On the other hand, the behaviorist B. F. Skinner believed that there are no innate human traits toward violence; rather it is all a part of human conditioning. Fromm believed that malignant aggression, or destructiveness, in which man kills without biological or social purpose, is peculiarly human and not instinctive. He also argued that there is exist within the psyche of man two polar forces: biophilia, which teaches one to show reverence and love for life. Its opposite is necrophilia—, which does not mean having sex with corpses, but it means an unhealthy love for death.

This distinction is exactly what differentiates most Palestinians from the Israelis. While Israel is always trying to improve the world with its medical advances and technology, using its agricultural technology to improve life for peoples all over the world, the Palestinian mentality—particularly in  Gaza—is hellishly determined to destroy life—especially Jewish life.

We have seen this obsession for death and the glorification violence before with the Nazis, who took great pride in eliminating Jews wherever and whenever possible. Make no mistake about it: today’s successor of Nazism is the Jihadi philosophy of Islam—political Islam. When a Palestinian murders a Jewish family, his family receives a million dollars for each person he kills. This practice has gone on since the Oslo Peace Accords first started. Mahmud Abbas, in particular, has given millions of dollars—blood money to the destroyers of human life.

AS Israel celebrates the U.S. recognition that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the mad Mullahs of Iran have offered $100,000 for anyone who blows up the new American Embassy.

As Fromm taught, such behavior reveals a love for death. Only a sick and disturbed religion teaches its people to behave this way. That is why peaceful Muslims need to initiate an Islamic Revolution; one that will save Islam from destroying itself and the civilized world.

At the fence separating Gaza from Israel, Palestinian terrorists would love nothing more to go on a killing rampage in Israel. For the State of Israel, such wanton violence must not be tolerated. Gold Meir once offered profound wisdom that I wish the Gazans would seriously take to heart:

  • “When peace comes we will, perhaps in time, be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

Every country has the right to define its own capital. Israel must not be inferior to any other country in this regard. Jewish history is etched on every stone of Jerusalem—whether Muslim fanatics accept this reality or not. For over 3000 years, Jerusalem has been the spiritual capital of our people. The vision of Jerusalem rebuilt and restored has remained embedded in virtually every page of our daily Siddur.

At the end of the Passover Seder, or at the end of the Yom Kippur services, what have Jews loudly proclaimed? “Next year in Jerusalem!”

In 1948, the Jordanians captured the Jewish section of Jerusalem, banning Jews from worshiping at the Western Wall. They used Jewish tombstones as urinals as they literally defecated Jewish memory. Since 1968, Israel has proven to be a peaceful custodian of her ancestral city. It has, for the most part, remained a city of peace.

So why has it been so obvious for the world to accept the obvious? One reason—anti-Semitism. The European countries in particular long for the days when the Jew will be under their bootstrap and depend upon their benevolence to live.

While liberal Jews cannot stand Trump, some because of his boorish manners; others because he is brash and politically incorrect, most of us today as Jews ought to appreciate what President Trump has done for the Jewish people. It took political courage and conviction for him to do what he did. I can remember Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Obama promise to recognize Jerusalem as its capital—but they all lied.

Even Obama??

Yes, even Obama.

Obama went on record saying at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on June 4, 2008, in his first foreign policy speech after capturing the Democratic nomination the day before:

“Let me be clear… Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided. I have no illusions that this will be easy.”[1]

Bill Clinton also made a similar promise in 1993, where he said after he took office that he supported “the principle’ of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.” In 2000 he said once again, “I have always wanted to move our embassy to West Jerusalem. We have a designated site there. I have not done so because I didn’t want to do anything to undermine our ability to help to broker a secure and fair and lasting peace for Israel.”

Yes, Trump’s brashness makes him different from the politicians who offered us nothing but hoya hoya and lots of ungawa.

Yashar Koach, President Trump!

 

[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-07/what-have-past-presidents-said-about-israel-and-jerusalem/9234736

Abbas’ Removes His Persona

FILE PHOTO - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads a Palestinian cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah July 28, 2013. REUTERS/Issam Rimawi/Pool/File Photo

The world is full of surprises. I was stunned to read about a New York Times condemnation of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. The name of the Article was, “Let Abbas’s Vile Words Be His Last as Palestinian Leader.”[1]

Abbas went on record saying that the Nazi genocide of European Jews in the Holocaust was “the result of the victims’ financial activities, not their religious identity and anti-Semitism.” We should not be surprised that Abbas made such an outlandish claim. After all, did he not write his Ph.D.  thesis on this topic back in the 1980s? Abbas has been a Holocaust denier for several decades and it is interesting to see him at age 82, admit, that there was a Holocaust—but that the Jews brought it all upon themselves! Yet, in 2003, Abbas admitted, “The Holocaust was a terrible, unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation, a crime against humanity that cannot be accepted by humankind.”

The New York Times seemed to be genuinely surprised by Abbas’ offhand remark.

But for most of us who have studied Abbas’ modus operandi, this was not a great revelation. It has been staring at us in the face for decades–even the NY Times, but they chose to ignore it.

Abbas merely took off his persona.

In Jungian psychology, the word “persona” was originally a mask worn by actors in the ancient Greek plays that indicated the specific role they played. But Jung added that the persona can sometimes function as a protective covering when dealing with other people. As with any mask, however, once the mask comes off—only then can you see the real person.[2] In the case of Abbas, he has always known—as have many of us—that projecting a “civilized” persona is the only way to get what one wants in terms of money, power, influence, and prestige.

The duplicitous Abbas exposed himself to the world. Unmasked, we can now recognize him for the Jew hater he has always been.

I suspect that Abbas’ casual way of deceiving others has a deep psychological component that has been a part of his religious upbringing and personal history.

When I think of Abbas and Arafat reminds me of an old story I once heard from a Catholic friend of mine while I was working on my doctoral degree at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Once a famous missionary spent decades spreading God’s Word to a tribe of cannibals. After he retired, they made a large banquet in his honor. Someone asked him, “Did the cannibals under your influence really give up eating human beings?” The old missionary said, “Well before I arrived the savages used to eat with their hands; after I worked with them, they would wear suits and ties, and eat with forks and knives instead!”

The only difference between Abbas and Arafat is that Abbas has mastered the niceties of appearing “civilized,” whereas Arafat could care less what people thought about his demeanor. Both of these men deserve to be remembered as savages.

In the final analysis, Abbas has still failed to grasp that the Holocaust did not occur ex nihilo; it was the result of a poisonous pedagogy that began with the inception of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in Late Antiquity. This is why attempts to rewrite or sanitize the villains responsible for producing the Holocaust, or any kind of downplaying, or flat-out denying it are dangerous. Civilized leaders in our 21st century and beyond have a moral duty to confront anti-Semitism everywhere and always, not perpetuate conspiracy theories that wish to deny it.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/opinion/abbas-palestine-israel.html

[2] Carl G. Jung, CW, “The Persona as a Segment of the Collective Psyche,” op. cit., ibid., pars. 245f.

 

Natalie Portman’s Thoughts on the Holocaust

 

Natalie Portman attends the “Sicario” Premiere during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2015 in Cannes, France. /VILLARD_2007034/Credit:VILLARD/NIVIERE/SIPA/1505192039 (Sipa via AP Images)

Natalie Portman lately has developed a penchant for creating headlines about the Jews. This past week, she went on record saying, “The Shoah is no more tragic than other genocides, and that she questioned its prominence in Jewish education.”

When I first read her comment, I had to dig deeper into the story. In a country where over a third of the people no longer know about the Holocaust, I think it is important that Jews especially never forget what happened to our people.

She recalls that in her education in Israel, she was shocked to learn about the Rwandan Genocide.

  • “I was shocked that that [genocide] was going on while I was in school. We were learning only about the Holocaust and it was never mentioned and it was happening while I was in school. That is exactly the type of problem with the way it’s taught. I think it needs to be taught, and I can’t speak for everyone because this was my personal education,” she told The Independent.

In a way, I cannot blame Ms. Portman for expressing herself the way she did. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, and being from a large family of Holocaust we often heard growing up hearing about international tragedies, “What’s in it for the Jews?” Or, “What does it mean for the Jews?” As Jews, we tend to see the outside world only as it relates to the Jewish people. Some of my Orthodox and Hassidic friends acted at times that they could care less if something bad happens to someone else—only if it doesn’t happen to the Jews.

But is this behavior really unique to Jews? Do we see Armenians complaining about the Holocaust of the Jews? Or American Indians complain about the deaths of black African slaves? Do we hear any protest from certain Democratic black leaders about the black slave practice that is taking place in over 22 Arab and African countries today?

Nada. Zip. Not a whimper.

Perhaps it is natural for ethnic groups who have experienced great suffering to stay focused on their own experiences, rather than speak out about other people’s experiences. This, of course, does not make it right, but perhaps the Jews are no different from the other peoples of our world.

Or are we really the same? Not all wars of genocide are necessarily the same.

WHY IS THE HOLOCAUST DIFFERENT?

Actually, in many ways, the Holocaust of the Jews was different because Germany was not some backward third-world country we see in the world today. Germany was one of the leading technologically advanced nations in the world—yet their technology yielded to an animus that was savage—even atavistic. Germany was also the leader in culture, the arts, the sciences, philosophy—even in biblical studies! Rudolph Kittel’s brilliant NT Greek lexicon of the New Testament remains one of my favorite reference texts, but Kittel was an avowed supporter of Hitler. Even Carl Jung, one of the most brilliant psychologists who had numerous Jewish disciples endorsed the Hitlerian view that the Jew is a parasite that subsists upon European culture to survive.

The systematic and bureaucratic management of the Holocaust, employing the newly minted IBM computer technology to quickly but efficiently identify and round up Jews and other minorities, used them as slave laborers and ultimately exterminating them.[1] Therefore, Ms. Portman, the Holocaust is different from that perspective.

Nazi Germany proves that technological evolution and moral evolution are not conjoined, as we would wish it to be. This is a valuable lesson—especially today.

ISRAEL IS NOT PERFECT

Now, as far as Israel goes, Israel has always tried to live by this ethical principle; it has gone out of its way to help any people who have suffered catastrophic loses, whether through natural disasters or disasters that are man-made. We could expect no less from a people who suffered from the Holocaust.

Is Israel perfect? Of course not. No country is.

But I suspect Natalie Portman believes that as Jews, we ought to act better. Moreover, on this point, I think she is correct. Israeli education has not always lived up to its potential—and it ought to teach its citizens about the history of genocide in high school history classes.

THE MATTER OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE

Natalie Portman might have made a much stronger point, was she more familiar with 21st-century history. In fact, most of Israel would have applauded her had she made the following point.

For decades, the State of Israel has refused to recognize the Armenian genocide in 1915-1917—at least officially. Although over 85 % of Israelis recognize this historical reality as having taken place, Israel—because of its tepid relationship with Turkey—rejected a bill sponsored by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid to have Israel recognize the Armenian Genocide, in a preliminary vote on February 14th, 2018. Lapid said, “There is no reason that the Knesset, which represents a nation that went through the Holocaust, shouldn’t recognize the Armenian Genocide and have a remembrance day for it.”[2] For the record, neither did US President Barack Obama ever use the word “genocide” in connection with what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.[3]

My father Leo Israel Samuel, who lost five brothers, sisters, and parents, worked in several concentration camps as a tailor. Some of you may recall the movie about Oscar Schindler, where he said, “Where can I find a good tailor?” Well, my father’s tailoring skills saved his life. For a short time toward the end of the war, my father worked for Amon Leopold Göth was an Austrian SS commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Płaszów, (better known to you as the villain of Schindler’s List) located in German-occupied Poland. Göth was once boasting, “We Germans showed the Turks how to kill the Armenians.” My father sheepishly asked, “Who were the Armenians?” He snarled, “they were a type of Jew.”

All genocides are interrelated. Had Hitler seen a true war crime tribunal carry out justice, perhaps he might have reconsidered his plans to destroy the Jews. Then again, maybe not.

Regarding the Armenian genocide, the world refused to do anything to the Ottoman Turks responsible for committing the genocide; nor did they stand trial. Political pressure stymied all Allied forces to establish an international tribunal in Malta from 1919-1920, where Ottoman war criminals held in detention. No justice was ever given to the poor Armenian people.[4] I am convinced Israel will eventually do the right thing and acknowledge this terrible genocide; but to do so, it must risk deteriorating its relationship with Turkey.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

On a personal note, I have often co-written Yom HaShoah programs with my rabbinic and non-Jewish ministers at Yom Hashoah events in Iowa and Illinois, which sometimes drew about 700 people! We dedicated an entire week to exploring the different historical, ethical, and theological aspects of the Shoah. Every year, we crafted a mission statement for the program that addressed the various genocides taking place along with the traditional enemies of the Jewish people who still dream of destroying our people in a second Holocaust.

In all the years I attended the Yom HaShoah events here in San Diego, I do not recall ever hearing local Jews address the kind of moral issues Natalie Portman brought up. That needs to change.

The real question we must ask ourselves is, are we willing to act as our “brothers’ and sisters’” keepers? Perhaps the most profound Christian interpretation of this question comes from the early 19th-century Baptist preacher, C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), where he writes about Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

  • I put it to the consciences of many silent Christians, who have never yet made known to others what God has made known to them—How can you be clear from guilt in this matter? Do not say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” for I shall have to give you a horrible answer if you do. I shall have to say, “No, Cain, you are not your brother’s keeper, but you are your brother’s killer.” If, by your effort, you have not sought his good, by your neglect you have destroyed him.”[5]

I would just like to give Natalie Portman one reason why Jews today should never forget the Holocaust. As recently as April 21, 2018, some Gazans sent large swastika kite bombs over Israel, some of which caused considerable damage, in honor of Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Practically on the day of Yom HaShoah itself, the Iranian general Seyyed Abdolrahim Mousavi, who is currently acting as the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army, issued a threatening statement against Israel. He said, “We will destroy the Zionist entity at lightning speed, and thus shorten the 25 years it still has left . . .”

Hitler’s ghost lives on—whether American Jews want to admit it or not.

Once again, I want to extend kudos to Natalie Portman for bringing up a topic that Jews ought to discuss. Because each of us is our brother’s and sister’s keeper, we must remember the wise aphorism of George Santayana who taught, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

[1]https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/01/03/18/reviews/010318.18schoent.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Edwin%2520Black%2520IBM%2520and%2520the%2520Holocaust&st=cse

[2] https://anca.org/israeli-knesset-committee-recognizes-armenian-genocide/

[3] Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3052102/Harrowing-photo-collection-shows-world-true-horror-Armenian-genocide.html#ixzz5ETMKtAju

[4] Turkey’s EU Minister, Judge Giovanni Bonello And the Armenian Genocide – ‘Claim about Malta Trials is nonsense’. The Malta Independent. 19 April 2012. Retrieved 10 August 2013

[5] C.H. Spurgeon and T. Carter, 2,200 Quotations: From the writings of Charles H. Spurgeon: Arranged topically or textually and indexed by subject, Scripture, and people (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 228. Vol. 33. 672.

Natalie Portman & the Genesis Awards

Natalie Portman attends the “Sicario” Premiere during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2015 in Cannes, France.  (Sipa via AP Images)

CHULA VISTA, California — Lately, it seems as though Natalie Portman has transformed herself into a human lightning rod. She created a storm of controversy and gave the Palestinians in Gaza far more respectability than they deserved by canceling plans to receive a prestigious Genesis Award in Jerusalem. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this award, the Genesis Prize was originally established in 2012 as a US $1 million award given annually to Jewish people who have attained recognition and excellence in their fields. Initially, she said she did not feel comfortable about participating in public events in Israel. Soon she added that it was because of her disdain of the Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu.

The Genesis Prize Foundation does a tremendous amount of good in the world; this organization promotes women’s rights and other worthy charitable causes. In December, a Jewish philanthropist named Morris Khan donated another million dollars so that Portman could distribute the money as she saw fit. If Portman hedged about whether she wanted to be a recipient or not, she should have responded much earlier when they originally contacted her—and not at the last minute just prior to the award ceremony.

As Jews, we often like to talk about “Tikkun Olam” improving the world. Do we not say every day in our daily prayers, “litakane olam b’malchut Shaddai,” loosely translated as “when the world will be fixed (or “perfected”) under Your rule.” These lofty words call for a thoughtful implementation and engagement with society.

I think Portman had an opportunity to make a substantive difference in the world envisioned by this particular prayer. But by choosing to accentuate her political thoughts, she not only diminished Israel in the eyes of the world—and especially its enemies — she failed to perform an act of goodness for many worthy people.

More seriously, she disrespected the country that raised her. She forgets a valuable Jewish value: “All Jews are guarantors for one another.” Portman disrespected the people, which only wanted an opportunity to take pride in Portman’s many fine cinematic accomplishments.

Jews, who sit in the comfort of this country, do not have to face the daily threats of terror that common Israeli citizens experience whenever they go on a bus or drive a car, or simply walk down the streets. The average American Jew does not have to worry about terrorists firing bombs or missiles at large population centers. Because of this displacement, many of us lack a genuine empathy for the courage that everyday Israelis demonstrate in their daily lives.

Israeli technology has proven that security fences around a country provides important security that literally saves lives. I remember the days when Israel didn’t have the security fences in the West Bank; suicide shadim (“martyrs”) blowing themselves up in buses or pizza shops seemed like a monthly occurrence.  Whether you agree with the political leaders of Israel or not, a fence around the rabid State of Gaza is necessary. Instead of bettering their people’s lives, the Palestinian leaders in Gaza pilfer billions, while keeping their people wallowing in poverty. Western countries are largely responsible for enabling and abetting this criminal phenomenon. With proper stewardship, Gaza has the potential of becoming a Middle Eastern Singapore—a country that is roughly the same size as Gaza. If any place in the world was ready for a modern French-styled Revolution Redux, it would be Gaza. Can you imagine the possibilities?

Had Portman donated the monies to Israeli hospitals trying to find cures for cancers and other diseases, she would have truly made a difference—and she would have certainly won our respect, despite her personal disdain of the Israeli PM.

But in a way, I cannot blame Portman per se; she has succumbed to the neurosis that is a permanent part of the Hollywood political and psychological landscape. Actors in Hollywood often think that because they are “celebrities” they have the right to “enlighten” our fellow citizens about the righteousness of their political views. For those who live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, preaching about the political issues such as the refugee crisis sounds hypocritical while they drink wine and have festive parties behind their gated homes that have ample police protection 24/7. Save the preaching to the ministers and rabbis, and just continue doing what you do best–acting.

The Best Question of the Passover Seder

           

 

 

                                                           

Children have an unusual ability when it comes to confronting our spiritual hypocrisy as parents and as adults; very often they get to the essence of the problem as they perceive things. Frequently, as parents we often fail to hear the questions our young people ask of us; often we overreact whenever we feel that our beliefs and values are being questioned or attacked.

Rather than listening with an inner ear, as parents, we often react with harshness and anger. Sometimes we wish our children were more respectful and compliant, or at least, “mind their place” at the Seder table and not misbehave or draw undue attention to themselves. As any Woody Allen fan certainly knows, passionate family discussions have always been a part of Jewish life since ancient times. Unanimity has never been the goal of any kind of discussion wherever you have two or more Jews together engaged in dialogue. Passover is no exception to this rule.

During Passover, this thought finds expression in the question of the “Rasha ” (better known to most of us as the “Wicked Child”). Without his presence and participation, the entire Seder would be a dull experience. Here is a literal translation of the controversial passage we read in the Passover Hagadah:

The wicked child, what does that he say? “What is this service to you?” Note what the Torah says, “To you,” but not to him. Because he has excluded himself from the community, he has denied a basic teaching of the faith. Therefore you shall smack his teeth and tell him, It is because of this that God wrought for me in my going out of Egypt (Exod. 13:8) “For me,” but not him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The above translation poses two obvious problems:

(1) As a parent, I have often wondered how anyone could call their child “Wicked”? The glaring meaning of “Rasha” is arguably offensive. Obviously, some modern translations prefer to sugarcoat their translation by giving the “Rasha” a less offensive epithet, e.g., “deviant,” or “troublesome.” I am unsure whether the “Deviant Son” is much of an improvement over the “Wicked Son” for both translations are clearly judgmental and pejorative. If we are to choose a less offensive title, let us describe him or her as a “Wayward Child,” or perhaps more accurately a “Rebellious Child.” At any rate, our Rasha is a person who is a young person who stands perilously close to the edge of his/her Judaism; without a proper pedagogical response, the “Rasha” may grow up to disaffiliate as a Jew.

(2) Now, to add injury to the insult of being labeled a “Rasha,” the rabbinic framers of the Hagadah recommend that the father ought to give his child a “patch in panim” a smack in the mouth for asking such impudent questions. Unfortunately, not all the rabbis of the Talmudic era were skilled educators.

So we wonder: Why does the Rasha strike such a visceral note? The anger of the father deserves special attention. Why does he get so upset? How could a simple question push a parent to act so violently at the family Seder?

In psychological terms, violent responses often occur as part of a animal or person’s defense mechanism. When somebody threatens us, we sometimes react harshly—depending upon the degree of the offense. Clearly, the Rasha has touched a raw nerve in his father. The anger that the father experiences may derive from personal insecurities and faith issues he may have about the Seder and its meaning. He may not know very much about the meaning of the rituals he and his family are performing! It may be quite possible that the father does not perceive the metaphor, the mythic and symbolic content of the Seder. To the father, the story ought to be told exactly as it is written; in his mind, the Hagadah text does not demand from its readers anything more.

If my conjecture is correct, the Rasha’s question now begins to make more sense, for s/he may be a child who is dissatisfied with superficial answers. The father may love tradition, but he lacks the ability to articulate to his rebellious adolescent child what it means to be a Jew especially in a modern age. Of all the children who are present at the Seder table, the “Rasha” is asking the best question of them all!

If we were to ask the Rasha, how would he describe his father? Perhaps he might say something like this, “My father is distraught because he’s lost in a world of religious nostalgia and tradition. He only knows what his parents have done before him; he himself never ventures beyond the narrow periphery of religious tradition. He never shows any desire to question his faith like I do. For this reason, I feel I must confront him with a simple question: “What does this service mean to YOU? If the Seder has no deeper meaning for YOU, why should it have any special meaning for ME? How can I make this Seder a self-authenticating experience if the Seder is nothing more than a mechanical exercise? Until I find out the answer, I will not be subject to you or any tradition until I know for sure what it really means, assuming that it means anything at all.”

In diagnostic terms, we could say that the “Rasha” sees himself as apart from the mainstream Jewish community. True, by asking such a non-inclusionary question, he has denies a basic tenant of our faith the notion of community. Yet, the isolation the Rasha feels makes it hard, if not impossible, for him to identify with the community.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, children have a way of discerning a parent’s Achilles heel. A child knows when parents are just breezing through the motions of religious life. Maybe the rebellious child has a good reason to rebel, for s/he instinctively knows when a parent is real or unreal. The Rasha may well see something hollow about his “religious” father. Unlike his wiser older brother, he won’t be satisfied with superficial answers. Nor will he include himself in the community of faith until he finds a compelling enough reason.

Instead of befriending the Rasha’s question, the father tells him that if he would have been in Egypt, he would not have been among those who were rescued. This kind of answer only compounds the spiritual isolation the Rasha feels.

Will the Rasha look back at his childhood with a sense of nostalgia? Will s/he participate in Seder when upon reaching adulthood? The child of today will eventually become the parent of tomorrow. The memory of his father’s smack on his face will linger on for years, and the Seder will be a permanent symbol of the hurtfulness and shame he experienced long ago at his father’s Seder.

Perhaps this is why the father gives the same identical answer to both the rebellious and silent child. Maybe the silent child feels the same sense of alienation that his Rasha brother did, but instead of verbalizing it, he keeps his cynicism and questions to himself. Once again, the pious father quotes the same verse he gave to his older brother, the Rasha. This is what God did for me when I left Egypt …  as if to say, “Follow the tradition or else you will end up like your brother …”

What the father fails to notice is that the quest for wisdom is often associated with rebellion. The rebel feels like an outsider whose very being and presence does not belong among ordinary people. Collin Wilson, in his seminal work, “The Outsider” describes the Outsider as a person who is living at the edge. He challenges cultural and religious values and most importantly, he stands for what he perceives is Truth. Unlike his compliant brother, our Passover “Outsider” is not willing to just drift through life or go through the motions of tradition the Rasha may be a person who is seeking a firsthand religious experience. According to Wilson, the Outsider feels a certain “dis-ease” at being an outsider.

Simply put, the Outsider wants to cease to be an Outsider.

He wants to be integrated as a human being, achieving a fusion between heart and soul

He wants to understand the soul and its workings.

He wants to get beyond the trivial.

He wants to express himself so he can better understand himself.

He sees a way out via intensity, extremes of experience.

I think that Wilson’s description of the Outsider certainly comes very close to our Hagadah’s profile of the Rasha. Like the Outsider, the Rasha wants to be included like everybody else and the proof is he is trying to participate at the family Seder. Unlike his older but “wiser” brother, the Rasha wants an answer about the Seder that will tantalize his heart and soul and not just appeal to his intellect or make him feel good about “tradition.”

In a community where there is great spiritual disconnection, the rebellious child is seen as a threat; the wise child is seen as compliant, and the simple child is seen as defective or as a fool and lastly, the silent child is seen as empty. The healthiness of the community is measured by the way it treats its children. For this reason, the Sages created the Seder as a diagnostic and prescriptive way of measuring the spiritual healthiness of the community.

Bad Girls of the Bible and Beyond

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Anyone who really knows the Bible, probably knows that it is a book that is full of sexual themes—from one end of Tanakh to the other. Lot sleeps with his daughters; Reuben’s affair with his stepmother Bilhah, and the biblical version of Romeo and Juliet are evident in the Shechem and Dinah story. Rabbi Burt Visotzky candidly called the Bible “one ugly soap-opera” and while I do not agree with his sweeping characterization, I will admit that human sexuality plays a dramatic role in many of the biblical stories.  We certainly know about the exploits of Madame Potiphar and Joseph—a story that tantalized the imagination of many young teenage yeshiva students. Then there are the sexual exploits of King David, who like Bill Clinton, found it hard to resist the temptations of feminine beauty and strength. He never met a beautiful woman he didn’t desire or want. Rabbinic literature feasts upon stories involving Adam’s first wife, Lilith, a marriage that ended horribly, resulting in the world’s first divorce.

Temptation, seduction, and yielding to the flame of sexuality is basic to the biblical psyche.

You might be surprised to know that prostitutes in the Bible are actually sympathetic personalities; some of them have been known to be quiet brave and heroic at times. This revelation might come across as peculiar and strange to many people in the Jewish and Christian communities.

  1. TAMAR

In the Book of Genesis, we read about Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar, who waited for her father-in-law to provide her with a brother to perform the levirate marriage. After losing two of his other sons, Judah felt reluctant to give Tamar his third son, Shelah. After Shelah grew older, it became clear to Tamar that she would have to take matters into her own hands, and she laid a trap for her single father-in-law Judah, one which he fell hook, line, and sinker. She dresses up as a prostitute and makes an offer that Judah could not refuse; for the price of a goat (goats are very popular in the Genesis stories), she would be his for the night. After consummating the deal, she mysteriously disappears. Soon she discovers she is pregnant, and so do the people of Judah’s family. Tamar anticipated her father-in-law’s moral duplicity, and she announces she has evidence that will completely exonerate her innocence. Confronted by the truth, Judah had no choice but to admit he was at fault.

Tamar emerged as the ancestress of the House of David.

  1. RAHAB

One of the most famous cases involved espionage. Two Israelite spies are looking to find out how to conquer the Canaanite people. A prostitute named Rahab, aids and abets both these strangers, whose mere presence set the local Canaanite peoples ill-at-ease. Although she risked her life saving them, it was not without strings attached—“red strings,” you might say. She exacts a promise that the invading Israelite armies will not harm her or her family in any manner. Although the people of Jericho would meet a violent death, her family would be spared.

Before the spies left, they instructed her to leave a red cord hanging down from the window through which they had escaped. The “dangling red cord” would be a visible cord for the Israelite soldiers to keep their distance.

According to the Talmud, Joshua married Rahab (BT Ta’anit 20a) thus becoming an ideal proselyte and was also considered one of the four most beautiful women (with Sarah, Abigail, and Esther) and one of the four most seductive (with Ruth, Jael, and Michal). In one of the more bizarre passages in the Talmud,

Rabbi Isaac said, “Whosoever repeats the name “Rahab, Rahab” experiences an orgasm.  Then  R. Nahman replied, “I have repeated it and was not in any way affected.” R. Isaac replied: I speak only of one who knew her intimately and recalls a woman in her likeness.” I suspect Sigmund Freud would have had a field day psychoanalyzing both of these rabbis.  Freud spent much of his career analyzing men who struggle with sexuality and often view women either as debased whores or as saintly individuals.

The famous Madonna-Whore archetype captures the contradictory waves of male uncertainty, who desires a woman who is as virtuous as a Madonna, but as sinful as a whore in the bedroom. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he distrust despises and devalues the latter group. The Talmudic rabbis like men in general probably felt uneasy about both these tensions, and therefore transformed sexually free women like Rehab, Tamar into virtuous women.

  1. Gomer

The third story involving prostitute involved a prophet and God. God tells the prophet Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife. The woman he marries is Gomer. There is scarcely a rabbinic commentary that accepts this reading at face value. Rashi, for example, sounds more like Maimonides and says that the story occurred only in a prophetic vision. The scandalous implications of a pious prophet marrying a “fallen” woman probably not only entertained the listeners and readers of this story, Gomer became a metaphor for the Jewish people—who went astray by worshiping other gods. Thus, idolatry and adultery—two similar sounding words, though different seemed to have a common thematic ethical message. Gomer became a symbol of penitence.

  1. Mary Magdalene

In Christian tradition, one of Jesus’ most favorite disciples was the mysterious Mary Magdalene, whom many scholars believe might have been the wife of Jesus. Curiously, three gospel narratives mention her as the only witness of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Four gospel narratives say she was present at Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Whether she or some other woman might have been a prostitute who might have had a similar first name remains unclear. But in the popular imagination—especially as fueled by the Jesus Christ Super Star production, many Christians like depicting Mary Magdalene has a fallen woman who repented.

As you can see, prostitutes have fared remarkably well in the biblical canon—both for Jews and for Jews.

Why am I mentioning all of this?

Partly because the archetypes of “Bad Girls” of the Bible are psychologically alive in modern society—especially in the way men perceive feminine sexuality.

Against this backdrop, when the country watched the Stormy Daniels interview on the Sixty Minutes program, the once well-known lady of porn probably made some Christian people think of other women like her from the Bible. Her alleged relationship with Candidate Donald Trump over ten years ago shows that our society’s fascination with prostitutes still remains a permanent part of the Americana political landscape.

We all know that Donald Trump is a challenged person in many ways, but what he did ten years ago really doesn’t concern me. I am only interested in how he is doing his job now as President. 

Time will tell whether Stormy’s allegations will have any meaningful impact on President Trump, but based on the sexual exploits of President Clinton and Kennedy, it is doubtful. Unfortunately, powerful men often succumb to desire.

Just ask King David.

The Talmud itself says, the greater a person, the greater their temptation for the forbidden is. This theme runs like a current of electricity in the pages of the Bible itself. Human behavior being what it does not change—unless one is willing to learn wisdom from temptation and desire.

The biblical stories teach us a valuable lesson, namely, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

An Ancient Ethical Controversy: Preserving Human Life and Its Moral Implications

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 Another one of the most interesting questions found in the Talmud dealing with the matter of human survival in a hostile environment where the possibilities of survival remain limited. [1]

Two are walking on the road. In the hand of one of them is a canteen of water. If they both drink-both will die. If only one drinks—he will reach his destination alive. Ben Petura contends that it is better for both to drink and die, rather than for one to see the death of his fellow. This was the accepted teaching until Rabbi Akiba came and interpreted the verse from “That thy brother may live with thee,” (Leviticus 25:36), i.e., “your life precedes the life of your fellow.” [2]

There is an interesting parallel to the Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba debate that may be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, who cites the Stoic philosopher Hecataeus, regarding two equally wise men who survived a shipwreck and were holding to the same wooden spar that was capable of supporting one of them. The question posed was this: Should one relinquish his hold and save the other, and if so, which one? The Stoic thinkers reasoned that the decision had to be made based on the individual’s utility to society. The person whose objective value is less to the republic has the duty to sacrifice himself for the more “valuable” citizen. [3]

Lest we think this discussion has no relevance for our modern age, think again. When the famous Titanic sunk in 1912, 1,514 people drowned out of a total 2,224 people on board – impacted mostly the lower class passengers it’s now revealed by experts who point to the very rich as being saved first over women and children–according to Don Lynch, the historian of the Titanic Historical Society.

Yes, first class has its benefits.

This Stoic position disagrees with both Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba, for at no point in their deliberations does the utilitarian value of the individual ever come into play in the Talmudic discussion regarding the canteen of water.

Beyond that, it is important to note that Ben Petura does not say that say that the owner of the canteen is obligated to relinquish his portion of the water to save the life of his fellow—only that they must share it.  One could surmise that according to Ben Petura the fact that we have two human beings in need of water for their survival, respecting the image of God demands that one must do his best to preserve the life of his fellow while not endangering his own life in the process for perhaps both individuals will forage their way to civilization in the nick of time.  Rabbi Akiba, on the other hand, seems to think that the individual has the responsibility to preserve one’s own life, for who is to say that the life of his neighbor is more important than his own?

Inevitably, the Ben Petura/Rabbi Akiba controversy invites comparison to yet another perspective championed by Jesus in the first century, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man gives up his life for his friends”  (John 15:13). Every act of heroism and self-sacrifice epitomizes the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching. Ben Petura beckons us to rise above self-interest. I for one do not believe Jesus recommended that someone must morally sacrifice himself to save another’s life; rather, in real life, we see people like soldiers falling on hand-grenades to save their platoon; firemen running into blazing buildings to rescue human–and sometimes even animal life! Heroism can never be commanded, but those who unilaterally give themselves to save others–they are truly deserving of our praise because they remind us why the heroes of our society are very special.

Ultimately, nobody in an ethical dilemma is going to say, “Time out! I need to look this up in the Code of Jewish Law!” Rather the problems we examined call for a response from our conscience.

Like philosopher Emmanuel Levinas observes, “the human face commands us to respond ethically toward our neighbor.”  In short, it is my opinion that Ben Petura’s view offers a more enlightened ethical view and in practice, the halacha has almost invariably followed Ben Petura rather than Rabbi Akiba.


Notes:

[1]   BT  Baba Metzia 62a, Sifra, ed. Weiss, Behar VI, p. 109 c.

[2] Ben Petura’s view does definitely not represent the typical  Jewish outlook on life and love that is later expressed in rabbinic literature; in fact, Ben Petura’s opinion reminds us of the Christian interpretation of love which claims to be universal. It, therefore, does not come as a complete surprise that some scholars have expressed the opinion that Ben Petura is, in fact, a corruption of the name Ben Pandora or Ben Pantera. Pandora or Pantera is the name of Joseph, the father of Jesus. (See Targum 11 on the scroll of Esther ) If so, it is quite possible that Ben Petura is none other than Jesus himself (See also Tosefta Chullin 2:22,24)! In that case, the Talmud states both opinions so as to counteract early Christian interpretations of the Torah.

[3] Cited from Ephraim E. Urbach,  The Halakhah: The Sources and Development  (Jerusalem: Masada Lmtd. Yad LaTamid 1986), p. 204.

You Shall not Covet: Getting Caught Within the Web of Desire Part 2

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(Picture: Nathan the Prophet confronts King David’s theft of Bathsheba)

The covetous road often entangles numerous other prohibition in its web. Below is a famous medieval parable about the dangers of coveting, and how the covetous person may ultimately get much more than he originally bargained.

On Shabbat eve, he went and broke down a thin wall between them, thus transgressing “Remember and observe the Sabbath.” As if that weren’t enough, he then rapes the woman whom he lusted after, and in the process, he violated the proscriptions of “Do not covet,’ and “Do not commit adultery.”

Alas, his appetite for the forbidden knew no bounds. After having his way with his neighbor’s wife, he helps himself to the family jewels.  The woman cried out, “Is there no end to your base character?” To silence her, the sinful man murders her, thus violating the law, “You shall not murder.”

After breaking a medley of biblical precepts found in the Ten Commandments, the man’s parents castigated him. And in defiance, the sinful son struck his parents, thus violating the precept commanding him to “Honor your father and mother.”

When he was arrested, he was taken to court and he cleverly testifies falsely with the help of his friends, that he had taken only his own property (i.e., also known as “The O.J. Simpson Defense”). He claimed that everything he took, was really his. Until now, he could not reclaim his property. However, once the robbers had broken the wall and killed his wife,  the opportunity was ripe for him to collect his property. Such a person has also transgressed, “Do not testify falsely.”

And kept on denying the accusations, one after the other. In doing so, he also transgressed “Do not swear falsely.” But in the end, his evil was revealed and his offense publicized. His shame was so great that he gave himself up to corruption and denied the Living God, thus transgressing “I am the LORD your God.” Finally, he became addicted to idol worship and bowed down to and served idols, thus transgressing “Do not have any other Gods beside me” and “Do not bow down to them and do not serve them.” And all this was caused by coveting. We see, then, that he who is covetous is close to transgressing the entire Torah. [1]

And now you know the rest of the story . . .

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Notes:

[1] Orchot HaTsadikim, Chapter 14: The Gate of Jealousy.

You Shall not Covet: Is it Possible to Legislate a Feeling? Part 1.

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From Maimonides’ description, it is clear that the man who covets is someone who has an unhealthy soul and may not realize it. By being unconscious of this problem, his behavior embarks on a path of self-destruction and moral ruin. Based on this reading of Maimonides, it becomes clear the role of Nathan the Prophet played in confronting King David for his illicit affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). From a purely Maimonidean perspective, Nathan acted as a physician of the soul for David by prescribing him a regimen for David’s complete moral and spiritual rehabilitation. It is always intriguing to see how Maimonides’ exposition of coveting compares with other famous Judaic thinkers of history. Some of these scholars also examined the psychological component in the negative imperative “You shall not covet.” Yet, it is strange Maimonides did not illustrate his point by mentioning this famous biblical story!

Abraham Ibn Ezra: Now I shall present a parable: Know that a peasant who is of sound mind, and who sees a princess who is beautiful, will not covet her in his heart, to lie with her, for he knows that it is impossible. Do not consider this peasant to be like a lunatic, who would desire wings to fly to heaven, even though it is impossible. Likewise, a person does not desire to lie with his mother, although she may be beautiful, for he has been accustomed since his youth to know that she is forbidden to him.

In the same way, an intelligent person must know that he will not find a beautiful woman or wealth because of his wisdom or knowledge, but only if God allows it to him… and therefore an intelligent person does not desire it or covet it. When he knows that God has forbidden his neighbor’s wife to him, then she is more elevated in his eyes than the princess in the eyes of the peasant. Therefore, he is satisfied with his portion and does not allow his heart to covet and desire something that is not his, for he knows that God does not wish to give it to him; he cannot take it by force or by his thoughts or schemes. He has faith in his Creator, that He will provide for him and do what is good in His eyes.”[1]

Philo of Alexandria: While Philo‘s explanation is similar to Maimonides, but he expands much further on the proscription’s psychological aspects:

This commandment aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this proscription. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[2]

The law here aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this restriction. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[3]



[1] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:17.

[2] The Decalogue 173-174.

[3] The Decalogue 173-174.