The Scandalous Chief Rabbinate of Israel

 

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein vowing to rebuild after a fire at Kehilath Jeshurun caused major damage to his New York synagogue, July 11, 2011. Lookstein, who has guided the Modern Orthodox shul since his father's death in 1979, will be stepping down at the end of this year. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images/via JTA)

One of my favorite concepts in logic is the reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”) argument, which is a logical method of argument that proves the falsity of a premise  by following its implications to a logical but absurd conclusion.

The latest news regarding the nullification of one the United States’ most prestigious and venerable rabbis of the United States, Haskel Lookstein, is the rabbi who converted Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and officiated at Ms. Trump’s  wedding to Jared Kushner in 2009.

What triggered this conundrum?

Back in April, a small rabbinical court the city of Petach Tikvah  (near Tel Aviv) rejected Rabbi Lookstein’s the conversion of a woman named Nicole, who underwent conversion under his auspices.  When she applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé, Lookstein’s name did not on the pre-approved list of rabbis’, whose conversions are acceptable by the Chief Rabbinate.

One thing led to another and the rabbinate decided to invalidate all of R. Lookstein’s conversions, which include Ivanka Trump, the daughter of business magnate and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The Israel Times report details what happened in the first hearing that took place last week when the Supreme Rabbinical Court reinforced the opinion of the Petach Tikvah lower court. To make a long story short, they denied this woman and others their conversion—despite the fact that Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau approved of all Lookstein’s conversions. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein also said that the Chief Rabbinate recognizes Lookstein’s conversions.

Negating conversions are nothing new in modern Orthodoxy today. A few years ago, the Haredi rabbis and their political allies threatened to overturn over 15,000 conversions of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who served as the acting  director of the National Conversion Authority in Israel.

For over two thousand years rabbis have respected the right for rabbis in other localities to make decisions for their own communities with complete autonomy. Rabbis who differed with their colleagues on halachic issues generally treated one another with respect and dignity. Unanimity and conformity to a single Halachic standard went against the belief that every community had the right to follow its own traditions and rabbis—even if some of these rabbis followed a minority opinion at times.

But today, we are living in a very different world indeed.

Let me briefly explain why revoking a conversion is wrongheaded and scandalous.

The concept of revoking a conversion is a recent innovation in rabbinic law. As we have posted in other places, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) does not sanction revocation of conversions at all. Should a convert return to his former gentile roots, the halacha still considers him as a “sinful Israelite.” [1]

Simply stated, revoking conversions is risky business and can cause unspeakable harm to countless innocents who are indirectly or directly  triangulated in the rabbinic web the Haredi rabbis have woven.

Reductio ad absurdum in Action

Here is a hypothetical story to consider.

Once upon a time, a woman converts from Catholicism and became a pious Haredi Jewess at the tender age of 20. She raises a family of twenty children. The next generation has the same number of children, as does the third and fourth generation of Haredi Jews. All of them are pious and God fearing Haredim.

By the time this woman reached her 120th birthday, she produced approximately 20x20x20x20 = 160,000 people–not bad for this one prolific Jewish mother!

But something unpredictable happened.

At this matriarch’s 120th birthday, the original convert decides to return to her original Catholic faith on her 120th birthday…

See the problem?

That decision, according to Haredi logic, would jeopardize the Jewish status possibly of up to four generations of Haredi Jews, equaling more than 160,000 Jews!  That would mean all of her offspring numbering 160,000 people would all be technically Haredi Gentiles!  Our little reductio ad absurdum argument explains why our rabbinic ancestors had the common sense not to revoke conversions. Rather, they considered the wayward convert as a “cho’te Yisrael” ( a “Jewish sinner”) and left it at that.

Ethically and halachically, children especially must not be penalized for the sins of the parent, our tradition teaches us. Creating artificial halachic barriers will not solve the problem, it will only compound it–even lead to an exponentiation that will create a scandal for everyone.

I believe the Haredi community has every right to define whom they wish to recognize as a bona fide member of their specific community. However, these Haredi rabbinic leaders do not have the right to legislate for communities outside of its jurisdiction. Every community has the right to decide for itself. That has always been the case in the history of Jewish law. Every community is autonomously responsible for its members.

The fact that all of this is happening near the time of the Three Weeks when Jews are supposed to get along with one another is upsetting and contrary to the spirit of our tradition demands we make the effort to co-exist peacefully and respectfully together.

Let us hope that the Modern Orthodox rabbinate in the United States and elsewhere in the Diaspora  will join the ranks of the Conservative and the Reform in implementing a separation of Synagogue and State, lest we become a mini-me version of the Islamic fanatics who rule oppressively by the force of theocratic law.

We have enough enemies to deal with, we should not be fighting among ourselves.

We Need an Islamic Reformation–NOW!

Credit: Catholic Charities/Jeffrey Bruno (CC BY 2.0).

Reformations are good for the soul. They keep the religious leaders and faiths in check. In the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, people began to read the Bible critically for the first time without having the local priest spoon-feed it to  them while they sat on their Church pews. Of course, the spread of literacy made a huge difference—thanks to the Gutenberg’s printing press. It impacts these technological innovations can probably be compared to the impact that computers and digitalization of literature are having on our society today. The Reformation underwent numerous schisms. Lutherans, Calvinists sprouted up everywhere, and the Baptists were not far behind. Pietist movements, Reformers created enormous conflict—even wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, as recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, written by John Foxe in 1563; he narrated the tortures Catholics and Protestants did to one another in lurid detail.

Yet, Europe managed to survive its birth pangs of a new and more tolerant Christianity. The Catholic Church no longer dominated people’s lives. People wanted not just the freedom of religion, but also yearned for the freedom from religion.
While Orthodox Jews lament the birth of the Reform Movement in Judaism, the Jewish Reformation led to many significant changes that even the Orthodox movement benefits from having. For example, the Bat Mitzvah is one example of a change (introduced by R. Mordechai Kaplan of the Reconstructionist Movement) that is widely observed even in some of the most Orthodox Jewish communities—all over the nation. Often, young women will read to a mixed audience from the Megillah on Purim, or from Megillat Ruth on Shavuoth. These are dynamic changes we have witnessed in our time. The emergence of woman scholars in Halacha threatens to expand the discussions concerning traditional Jewish texts such as the Talmud. A woman’s voice is not only heard at the traditional Orthodox Shabbat tables or at the young women’s yeshivot, women are adding their voice to the formation of modern Halacha.

So what about Islam? Is Islam ready for a Reformation within its own ranks? As outsiders, do we have the right to encourage and even demand that Muslims consider this option and take the steps to implement it?

President Sisi of Egypt is a remarkable man in the Arab world.  He says it best last December when he urged reform of Islamic discourse and called on Islamic scholars to send Christmas greetings to Christians. In the televised speech to Islamic scholars, President Sisi stated, “We talk a lot about the importance of religious discourse… In our schools, institutes and universities, do we teach and practice respect for the others?” He continued, “We neither teach or practice it.”
Egyptian Streets quoted President Sisi during the speech, stating, “God did not create the world for the ‘ummah’ [Arabic for ‘nation’ or ‘community’] to be alone. [He didn’t create it] for one community, but for communities. [He didn’t create it] for one religion, but for religions.” President Sisi continued, “Can I impose upon someone pressure, physically or morally, to change their religion? Would God accept this?… What are we afraid of? Are we custodians of people’s minds or choices? No, we are not. In religion specifically, no. Each of us will be judged independently… and [people] will have to answer [for their choices and what they choose to believe].” [2]
To admit that Islam needs a Reformation might sound like heresy, but without it, not only will Islam as a religion completely implode, it may implode the rest of the civilized world along with it.
While there have been relatively peaceful relations between Islam and the West, there have been atavistic forces within Islam that wish to relive the good old days of the 7th century.
In Europe, we are witnessing retrogressive religion at its worse attempting to bring back the burqa, rape squads, sexual slavery advertised on the Internet and Twitter of thirteen year-old girls. The violence of atavistic Muslim young men who enslave and gang rape young girls continues to be ignored by the press. If you turn on your television, chances are you will not see progressive women march down the streets of Berlin or Paris, Stockholm or London protesting in mass against the seventh-century male mentality that defines considerable part of today’s Muslim world, who wish to make Sharia the law of the West.
Many Muslim countries are very concerned about the radical Islamicists that promote Sharia and ISIS, and a host of other arcane early 7th century Muslim practices—such as child weddings, female circumcision, stoning married women who cannot produce four witnesses that she was raped.
The apathy  or moral indifference of these crimes against humanity stem from their craven fear of being labeled “Islamophobic.”
There is nothing “racist” in criticizing the origins of religious intolerance in Islam, for Islam—like Judaism and Christianity—are predicated upon a belief system and is not based upon color.

The bully pulpit of the Presidency is remarkably silent whenever it comes to criticizing Islamic abuse of women and religious minorities faced with genocide. Yet, the progressive voices who could make a difference are deliberately silenced.

Sister Diana Morneka is probably a name you have never heard of before. She is a Catholic nun from Iraq who wanted to come to the United States to speak about the persecution of women and religious minorities of her country. One would think that the United States of all countries would allow this courageous champion of human rights to come and speak to our Congress, yet, inexplicably, our State Department will not give her a visa.
“Sister Diana represents tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, forced to convert or die or flee their homes. She’ll tell us the truth about what’s happening,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) told the Catholic News Agency (CNA) May 7.  “Like thousands of other Christians in the region, Sister Diana is a victim of ISIS,” Collins said in a May 5 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. “She has devoted her life to helping other victims and advocating for them.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has won numerous human rights awards for speaking up for women’s rights in Muslim countries. In 2004, she collaborated with the artist  Theo van Gogh (before some radical Muslims killed him) who produced a film called, Islam, which documents the oppression of women living under Islam. She is one of many moderates calling for a Reformation in Islam. Ali has also won numerous awards in various European countries. Yet, she has yet to be invited by the Congress or by the President.
If we want Islam to embrace a 21st religious sensibility, then it behooves us to add our voices demanding that such a change take place. Denying the voices of progressives who have lived or grown up in Muslim countries only serves to keep Islam locked up in the shackles of the 7th century.
Isn’t it about time that our President start inviting progressive voices like Zahudi Yasser, President Sisi, Ayann Hirsi Ali, or Sister Diana to the White House to help present an image of Islam that is introspective and self-critical? These are the kind of voices our country needs to hear, instead of gangster rappers, or people like GloZell, who eats cereal out of a bathtub.
As moral people concerned about the human condition, we need even at the risk of being called “politically incorrect,” to address the issue of modern day Islamo-fascists threatening Christians, Yazidi, and Jewish lives in the Middle East today. Just the other day, an Iranian general boasted how Iran has over 100,000 missiles aimed at Israel.
Why in the world would we ignore their threats to complete the job started by Hitler?
Yes, we need an Islamic Reformation—and we need it now!

*

Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com. Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)

Shaking the Foundations of Orthodoxy with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

My history with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin goes all the way back to 1977. He visited a Hillel Academy in Binghamton, New York, where I  taught Talmud many decades ago. At the time, I knew he was already a well-respected rabbi who had brought many Jews back to Judaism when he served as the founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

Rabbi Riskin has often  taken considerable heat from the Orthodox establishment, which always criticizes the maverick Modern Orthodox rabbi’s controversial positions. Even as we speak, the Israeli Rabbinate is mulling over the question whether to expel Rabbi Riskin from the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate. Rabbi Riskin approves the ordination of women and allows them to participate in public prayer. He also advocates the use of prenuptial agreements and other halachic leniencies to deal with recalcitrant husbands. He has also gone on record supporting the legalization of civil marriage in Israel. He has a positive view of Jesus and even favors dialogue with Christian groups.

Sound like heresy to you? You betcha!

In a recent column, he is encouraging the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel to welcome the Reform and Conservative movements of Israel in the spirit of goodwill and reconciliation.

Riskin argues that today’s Orthodoxy ought to respect the Reform and Conservative movement because they are trying their best to promote Judaism and Jewish practices, “They’re not tearing Jews away but bringing them closer… That may have been true at the beginning of the Reform Movement, but it’s very different now – they’re trying to bring Jews closer. Not to the wholeness, the fullness of Orthodox Judaism that I love and that I know, but nevertheless, they’re trying to bring Jews closer.”

I believe Riskin is correct. The warfare thesis that has characterized the Orthodox movement since the 19th century needs to end. As Riskin observed, “they are not our enemies, they’re our partners!” I believe Riskin is making a valuable point. More specifically, Riskin sees nothing wrong with Reform or Conservative Jews use the mikveh (a ritual pool) as a way of enhancing their observance of Jewish values in their lives.

Unfortunately, others see this matter differently.

R. Avraham Gordimer, who serves as the OU Rabbinic Coordinator/Dairy Specialist at the OU, Chairman of the OU Dairy Committee, wrote a stinging critique concerning Riskin’s inclusive view of welcoming non-Orthodox as our partners in faith. Gordimer is a well-known writer and exponent of Modern Orthodoxy who leans to the right of Riskin.

Gordimer thinks that Modern Orthodox Judaism is threatened by many of the innovations Riskin proposes to do—especially in the area of women rabbis, all of which, “flies in the face of normative Torah understanding.” Furthermore, Gordimer contends, “Theologically, the Reform and Conservative (as well as the Reconstructionist) movements reject the Singular Divine Authorship of the Torah and the other Cardinal Principles of Faith, and they have disavowed the binding nature of halakha.”

Orthodox rabbis like Gordimer love characterizing Jewish theology as though it were a monolithic structure—uniform, seamless, and without wrinkles. Nothing can be further from the truth. Many of the greatest medieval rabbis grappled whether God possessed a humanoid form (Moshe Taku) , or whether the Torah speaks in the language of metaphor (Philo, Maimonides, HaLevy). Some of the medieval scholars grappled whether we must believe in a physical resurrection or merely a spiritual resurrection where the soul is reborn into the world of Eternity, or is reincarnated into another human body—as the Kabbalists believed.

And yes, many of the Sages believed that Moses did not write the entire Torah—especially the last several verses that narrate his death (Menachot 30a). Do these discrepancies in Judaic belief make us “heretics” (“kofrim”)? Judaism has always stressed that our faith is predicated upon deeds rather than creeds. Christian theology, in contrast, considers itself a religion of creeds rather than deeds. Belief is essential for Christian salvation, as Pascal articulated in his famous wager.

Perhaps what is most disturbing here is the attitude that the “conservative” wing of Modern Orthodoxy is threatening to bifurcate its own ranks because of its zero-sum theology. The Talmud often said, “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halakhah follows the school of Hillel” (BT Eruvim 13b).

Today’s Orthodox movement has trouble even mentioning a famous early 20th century thinker like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, because he believed that the theory of evolution is compatible with Judaic thought. His name no longer appears on the OU website. Orthodoxy is becoming increasingly narrower in how it views the world. If Orthodoxy cannot find peace within its own ranks, it will never find peace outside its ranks. Progressive thinkers such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin are an anathema to men like R. Avraham Gordimer.

This morning on Facebook, I discussed this topic with a number of scholars. I reminded them what the Talmud teaches us in tractate Shabbat about a famous story regarding Hillel.

  • At another time,  it happened a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’

Similar stories occur with other potential proselytes—neither of whom would ever be accepted in today’s world of Orthodoxy. Yet, Hillel’s optimism triumphs, Sometime later, the three proselytes met in one place; said they, Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shekhinah.

The Talmud concludes elsewhere with another remarkable anecdote about why Jewish law follows Hillel and not Shammai:

  • R. Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years, the Academies of Hillel and Shammai engaged in debate over the Halacha [matters pertaining to Jewish Law]. Each academy claimed the law should be determined in accordance their school’s interpretation. Finally, a Heavenly Voice ruled, “Both views are the words of the living God, but the halacha is in agreement with the rulings of the Academy of Hillel.” Why were Hillel’s Academy more preferable over Shammai’s? Hillel’s Academy acted with kindness and compassion. They would first take into consideration Shammai’s halachic deliberations before arriving at their own conclusions . . . From this we may deduce the following lesson in ethics: He who humbles himself, the Holy Blessed One raises up the humbled. However, the one who seeks greatness will soon discover how elusive greatness is, for greatness flees from those who seek it . . . (BT Eruvin 13b)

As we approach the period of the Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the Temple, it behooves us to remember that it is not what we argue about that matters—it is how and why we argue that is of great importance. Orthodoxy needs to make peace first within itself, before it can make peace with the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is a hero and he deserves our respect for his moral courage.

The Paradox of Bee Honey

Bumblebee (Photo: Wikipedia)

Updated March 6, 2017

We all love bee honey. No Rosh Hashanah meal would be complete without it. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, we find ourselves with a conundrum that has puzzled many rabbinic minds since the days of Late Antiquity. I am referring to the verse in Leviticus, “But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you” (Lev. 11:23). Maimonides explains, “Honey made from bees and hornets[1] is permitted. The reason is that the bees do not actually make the honey from their bodies. Rather, the bees bring the nectar into their bodies, and then it is collected into their mouths from herbs, which they regurgitate into their hive. The purpose of this enables them to provide themselves with food during the rainy season.”[2]

A klatz kashe in Yiddish is an obvious question that any fool can ask, “But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you” You  might counter: Bees have six feet and not four! Actually, bees use its two front arms for gathering pollen, and its four back legs for walking.

The Talmud in BT Bechorot 7a-b discusses an intriguing question: Can something pure come from an impure source? Or, do we say that whatever comes from an impure source, remains ceremonially impure? On the subject of bee-honey, Rashi offers a different exposition from Maimonides; according to him, “The bees bring into their bodies—they eat from the flowers of the tree, and from this they make honey in their intestines.” Scientifically speaking—Rashi’s exposition comes a bit closer to a modern scientific explanation. Perhaps Maimonides might consider Rashi’s exposition as an example of a permitted substance coming out of an unclean source, which the Sages ruled remains “unclean.” However, the science does not really support Maimonides’ explanation. However, according to Livescience.com:

  • Nectar is a sugary liquid that derives from flowers using a bee’s long, tube-shaped tongue and stored in its “crop.” While sloshing around in the crop, the nectar mixes with enzymes that transform its chemical composition and pH, making it more suitable for long-term storage. Once in the comb, nectar is still a viscous liquid — nothing like the thick honey you use at the breakfast table. To get all that extra water out of their honey, bees set to work fanning the honeycomb with their wings in an effort to speed up the process of evaporation. When most of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, the bee seals the comb with a secretion of liquid from its abdomen, which eventually hardens into beeswax. Away from air and water, honey can be stored indefinitely, providing bees with the perfect food source for cold winter months. [3]

Ultimately,  R. Sheishet in the Talmud differs from the view and follows R. Yaakov’s opinion that theoretically, were it not for explicit biblical passages permitting honey, bee honey too would have been prohibited as being the product from an unclean source. The passage he is alluding to is from the story of Samson (Judg. 14:6-9; and his famous riddle regarding bee honey to the Philistines.[4] R. Sheishet evidently felt ambivalent about his colleagues’ explanation as to how honey is produced and felt that given their lack of knowledge on this matter, he could find stronger footing in citing a biblical verse to prove his point.

There is an intriguing interpretation found in Philo of Alexandria, who explains on Leviticus 2:11: “Moreover, it also ordains that every sacrifice shall be offered up without any leaven or honey, not thinking it fit that either of these things should be brought to the altar. The honey, perhaps, because the bee which collects it is not a clean animal, inasmuch as it derives its birth, as the story goes, from the putrefaction and corruption of dead oxen, just as wasps spring from the bodies of horses.”  Was Philo thinking of the story regarding Samson, which describes what he discovered after he ripped the lion in half, “… he turned aside to look at the remains of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the lion’s carcass, and honey” (Judg. 14:8)?  Still Philo’s interpretation offers  a theoretical novelty—that is if one assumes the verse is speaking about bee honey. Although its food is edible for human consumption as seen in the Tanakh,  it is considered unworthy for the altar because of its unclean status. This position has no parallel in rabbinical literature. [5]

Among modern scholars, there is a fairly wide consensus that much of the honey referred to in the Bible was not bee honey at all, but is really a sweet syrup that is produced from the fruit of figs, grapes, carobs, and dates. Both kinds are still made in the East and are called dibis (honey) by the Arabs. Hence, the famous expression, “a land flowing with milk and honey” may not be referring to bee honey, but rather to a land blessed with ample fruit.

However, among modern scholars, there is a fairly wide consensus that much of the honey referred to in the Bible was not bee honey at all, but is really a sweet syrup that is produced from the fruit of figs, grapes, carobs, and dates. Both kinds are still made in the East and are called dibis (honey) by the Arabs. Hence, the famous expression, “a land flowing with milk and honey” may not be referring to bee honey, but rather to a land blessed with ample fruit.

 


[1] Maggid Mishnah points out that Maimonides derives his view from a Talmudic discussion where he follows the opinion of the Baraitha namely, that hornet honey wasps are “clean: and permitted for consumption. However, R. Shashet and R. Yaakob differ and regard both of these products as forbidden. Among medieval rabbinic scholars, Ramban and the Rosh take a stringent position on this matter. R. Moshe Isserseles rejects their opinion given the scarcity of hornet honey, thus making it a moot point) See  S.A. Y.D. 81:9.

[2] MT Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot 3:3.

[3] http://www.livescience.com/37611-what-is-honey-honeybees.html

[4] For other references to bee honey in the Tanakh, see Ps. 19:11; Prov. 16:24.

[5] Spec. Laws 1:291-293.

Book Review: God and Politics in Esther-

 

Yoram Hazony:  Title:  God and Politics in Esther 2nd Edition. Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition (2015)

ISBN-10: 1107583454; Price $18.27 on Amazon.  Rating ***** out of 5 Stars.

Reviewer: Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Yoram Hazony’s exposition of the Book of Esther is priceless.  In my Judaism 101 class, everyone read a little bit from God and Politics in Esther and the discussions that ensued made the time move so quickly . . . All my students quickly ordered their copies; they are all having an exciting time discussing it with their friends.

The Book of Esther has always been one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible. The absence of God’s Name in this charming book gives it a unique distinction among all the other biblical books. As Hazony points out in his introduction:

  • When the rabbis spoke of the giving of Torah to the Jewish people, they argued that it had been accepted not once, but twice: Once at Sinai at the beginning of the Bible, and then again at the end, in the time of Esther.  (p.2).

The nexus of Sinai and Esther provides a remarkable contrast. The theophany (revelation) at Sinai is replete with what moderns describe as “special effects,” the background and sensory images overpowered the people. But the acceptance of the Torah in Esther’s time marks an absence of the Divine Presence. God is hidden, and Esther’s name intimates a very different kind of reality, Hazony argues, one where the voices of the prophets are no longer discernable:

  • Esther describes a world in which the Jews are distant from their land, their tradition, and their God . . .(p.2)

Like a master artist, Hazony describes Jewish vulnerability at this point in history, where the Jews are no longer master of their own destinies; they exist at the whim of a Persian King who with the power of a word, could decree life and death—as Queen Vashti quickly discovered. He notes:

  • In exile, the Jews must live in dispersion, their institutions weak, their concerns wandering far from Jewish things, and their politics alienated from every obvious source of cohesiveness, direction and strength.  It is clear at the outset that under such conditions, there is no possibility of freely seeking and implementing any Jewish ideal …  (p.2).

Esther reveals the fragility of the Jewish people who are a minority living in a powerful empire that can scarcely notice its Jewish subjects. The Jewish people themselves are not sure where and how they fit; their ambivalence can be seen even in how Mordechai and Esther regard their Jewish heritage by assimilating to their new home. Mordechai’s message to Esther, when she is taken to the harem, “ Just fit in!”

Most Orthodox friends I know might not agree with Hazony’s view that Mordechai and Esther were assimilated Jews (p. 1). However, a similar argument certainly could be made about Joseph, who takes on a completely new identity once he becomes the viceroy of Egypt (Gen. 41:41-45).

Reminiscent of Malbim’s commentary on the Book of Esther, Hazony points out that King Achashverosh never regarded his wife Vashti as a life partner and mate. He viewed her as  yet another, “accoutrement in his demonstration of total power: The empire is to admire her object beauty and to be impressed that the king has—as the Talmudic scholar Rav depicts Achashverosh as saying—such a “vessel” for his “use” (p. 11).

Although there is an almost surreal quality to the Book of Esther, modern readers often fail to take its message seriously. The old Jewish joke about the common theme of most Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us but failed; let’s eat!”  But Hazony’s Esther reveals the serious issues pertaining to our people’s minority status in a superpower that would have been scarcely aware of our existence, had Haman not scapegoated us.

Haman is a descendant of the warlike Bedouin people of Amalek, and the hatred of the Jew for him comes quite naturally. In his treatment of Amalek, Hazony shows that this once ancient marauding people of the Sinai had one simple objective, namely, terrify the Israelites and strike fear into the hearts of their foes so they will not approach their land (Exod. 17:18)

  • Damaged enough in early rounds of applied terror, even the most physically powerful opponent may be made to feel that control is lost and that further engagements will bring worse—even that capitulation “and peace” are preferable to further confrontation. The most basic method of terror even today is just this: the use of applied cruelty against innocents, the more efficiently to forestall the need for military engagement.   (p. 65).

Excellent points!

Hazony goes on to develop a relevant distinction between Amalek and Israel. Amalek has no “fear of God” which manifests itself in his contempt for life; in contrast, God beckons Israel to always show a “fear of God” through reverence. By treating the widow, the poor, the resident alien along with the more vulnerable members of society—with respect, justice and with dignity, we individually and collectively demonstrate a respect for God, Who is always triangulated in every human relationship we encounter.  The absence of this reverence for God makes every conceivable evil deed possible (see pp. 67-68).

(Buber has already written much on this subject as well.)

At any event, Haman is out to get Mordechai because he fears that the King will wake up to Haman’s real goal and political objectives. Mordechai is constantly campaigning daily against Haman and manages to influence the King “to reevaluate the wisdom of relying upon Haman” (p. 186).

In the end, Esther and Mordechai succeed in raising serious doubts to the King about his loyal vizier’s hidden agenda.

Hazony makes his most dramatic point toward the end of the book:

  • Esther is written so as to ensure that the following teaching cannot be missed: God’s salvation is not a thing that exists in the world without reference to the actions of men and women. God’s salvation is emergent upon the salvation that Esther and Mordechai bring about through their own efforts in the policies of Susa. If one looks for it anywhere other than in political endeavors—for example, if one’s eye is fixed on fasting and the sackcloth—then one will still have witnessed a wonder and a miracle, for one will still see that the Jews have been spared, when the warrant for their destruction had already been sealed and delivered. But one will not have understood what this miracle was, or what is that God did for the Jews. (p. 206).

His observation is certainly true. Throughout the pages of the Bible, redemption and salvation never occurs in a vacuum. There must be human actors in every biblical story of redemption. For there to be an Exodus, there must be a Moses, an Aaron, a Miriam, a Shifra and Puah. And this pattern is visible in every story of how our people managed to survive. A thought from the Zohar captures much of Haznony’s theology succinctly and clearly, “Blessings from above descend only where there is some substance and not mere emptiness” (Zohar 1:88a). And from this perspective, Esther serves to remind us that we must do everything that is politically possible within our own means to survive and hope that God will do the rest.

Had some of our European Hassidic leaders realized this important lesson about political activism during the Holocaust, many more people might have been rescued.

Book Review: Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism by Samuel Katz

 

Ghost Riders: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism by Samuel Katz  —  Publisher: Berkley  (2016) ISBN: 1592409016–Price (Amazon) $18.00–Rated: 5*

Reviewed by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

There is hardly a day when we don’t read another story about a terrorist attack. For the most part, Radical Islam has demonstrated an almost uncanny ability to raise itself from the ashes of death. Whenever I read about the latest terrorist attack, I cannot help but think about Hercules’ battle with the Hydra. According to Greek myth, the Hydra was a nine-headed serpent. The middle head was immortal. As the creature ravaged the country of Argos, Hercules went out to destroy the creature. But no sooner did he cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two more grew in its place. With the help of his nephew Iolaus, they managed to burn off the stumps of the other heads—all except for the middle head, which Hercules buried under a huge rock.

The Israeli battle against the forces of Radical Islam  are no less daunting than the battles of Hercules, for unlike Hercules–who lived in the realm of myth–Israel fights the Hydra in real time.

Samuel Katz’s books on Radical Islam always make an exciting read. His latest book, The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism, from the first page onward reads like a modern day spy thriller.  Katz reminds us that the seventh of the eight Israeli wars was fought between October 1, 2000, and April 30, 2008. It was the longest protracted conflict in Israel’s brief and bloodstained history, and it was waged inside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as inside most of Israel’s town and cities. The battlefields weren’t barren stretches of no-man’s-lands where two armies clashed. They were cafes and city buses, shopping malls, even children’s bed rooms . . .”

Katz reminds us that there was no master plan at work here. The sole purpose of the Intifada was to make Israel bleed  . . .and it worked. However, what distinguishes Israel from all other Western countries of the “civilized” world (I use  the term “civilized” much like Gandhi did when he defied Britain), is her ability to reinvent her strategies in dealing with this religious culture of death that threatens the world today.

This asymmetrical war demanded a new response. What did Israel do? Katz reveals that Israel assembled a Special Forces unit that functioned underground incognito called, Ya’mas– special undercover operations unit of the Israeli Border Police.  This group is the Israeli equivalent to CTU—this organization would make Jack Bauer proud. Ya’mas draws from a variety of ethnicities. Most applicants that apply for this unit typically end up getting rejected. They function so effectively in getting rid of terrorists, bomb makers, suicide bombers—their effectiveness is legendary. They are affectionately called “Duvdevan” (Hebrew: דובדבן ; lit. cherry) because of their elite  status.

During their operations, Duvdevan soldiers typically drive modified civilian vehicles and wear Arab civilian clothes as a disguise. Katz points out that some of the Israeli units would dress up like a beautiful woman—with clothes worthy of a Broadway play. Together, these soldiers go into the belly of the beast, giving the Palestinian leadership anxiety-attacks because they never knew who was going to attack them next! (Cf. pp. 16-19.) The unit can perform high-risk arrests, raids, targeted assassination, kidnappings and a range of other urban warfare operations.

The Ya’mas is a unit that never takes a day off; they operate in many places simultaneously, and they function autonomously independent of the normal Israeli army units.

I loved reading this book and if you want to see how a real counter terrorist unit functions, Samuel Katz’s Ghost Warriors is a must read! I rate it 5 stars.

*

Daniel Klein’s New Translation of Shadal Commentary on Exodus

Author: Daniel Klein(editor and trans.)  and Samuel David Luzzato: Shadal on Exodus: Samuel David Luzzatto’s Interpretation of the Book of Shemot . Kodesh Press, 2015ISBN-13: 978-0692522066. Price: $29.95. Rating ***** — Reviewer: Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — One of the most remarkable modern day exegetes of the 19th century was the Italian biblical commentator, Samuel David Luzzato, better known by many as Shadal (1800-1865). His approach to the contextual meaning of a passage is what Jewish exegetes call, “the peshat.” While most medieval exegetes make it a habit to cite other medieval exegetes, Shadal makes it a point to examine and critique many of the well-known Christian scholars’ expositions of his era, as well as other leading Jewish scholars of his day, e.g., Moses’ Mendelsohn’s Biur Commentary, which he criticizes over forty times!

Many Orthodox scholars—past and present—might look askance at the various sources Shadal brings into his commentary. Shadal’s list of non-Jewish scholars included, Nicholas de Lyre (1270-1339), Samuel Bochart (1599-1667), Heinrich Gesenius (1786-1842), who wrote one of the most important Hebrew-Chaldean lexicons of all times, and a list of many scholars. Some learned rabbinical scholars might think that bringing the words of the German anti-Semitic scholar Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) into a discussion on the Torah could certainly seem inappropriate and even disrespectful. Still, Shadal treated him and others with a modicum of intellectual respect even though some of the German attitudes were truly contemptuous when it came to granting Jews their civil rights. For today’s critical age, Shadal teaches us to be open-minded when considering the truth of an interpretation.

A reader cannot help but be impressed with Shadal’s mastery of the classical literature and cites Roman Diodorus of Sicily, Aristotle, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria as effortlessly as he does the Talmud.

One of the more endearing qualities Shadal demonstrates is way he cites the views of his students in clarifying an interpretation of a biblical text. Lesser men would take credit for other’s interpretive insights, but Shadal takes great pride in inspiring a new generation of Torah scholars (cf. pp.63-64, p. 87). One of his favorite students, Rabbi Abraham Hai Mainster, is cited sixteen times in his Exodus commentary! Yet Shadal could also be caustic and dismissive of other Jewish scholars’ interpretations, as he was with Moses Mendelsohn’s commentary (p. 37 on Exodus 1:9 (p. 88).

Commenting on Exodus 4:9, Shadal cites a well-known popular view that Moses was a chronic stutterer (Ibn Ezra), but Rashbam thinks this is a baseless and that, “This idea is not contained in the words of the Tannaim, and one need not mind the irreligious books.” Actually, this view is found in the Peshitta and some of the early midrashim.[1] Shadal added further, “Moses was not fluent in the Egyptian language, but this, too, is truly unlikely since Moses had been raised in Egypt and in the king’s house.” (p. 73). Ibn Ezra notes that “God would help him annunciate words that he had difficulty articulating.” Shadal scoffs at Ibn Ezra’s remark:

If so, let Ibn Ezra show us which letters are not found in the passages that Moses spoke to the entire people—apart from the fact that it is blasphemous to say that God would choose as His messenger, who would give the Torah to his people, a man who would have to choose the words that he could pronounce (p. 74). [2]

Shadal offers a different explanation, namely, he lacked eloquence and was unskilled in public speaking. While this is a plausible reading, Shadal did not consider the possibility that the problem was not that he was not fluent in the Egyptian tongue (which is very unlikely considering he was raised there since he was an infant). Rather, the problem was his lack of fluency in the Hebrew language! He spoke with a very heavy accent, which might have been difficult for native-born Israelites to understand!

Concerning the identity of the Hebrew midwives (Exod. 1:15), Shadal mentions a debate among ancient and modern commentators as to the identities of the midwives; some think they were Egyptian or alternatively, Hebrew. The former think that it is unlikely that the Hebrew midwives would contribute toward the genocide of their own people by deliberately murdering their male offspring. Shadal suggests a third view, namely, the midwives were not Egyptian, but were another Semitic people who lived in Goshen who assisted Pharaoh. Among modern biblical scholars, W.H.C Propp concurs with Shadal.[3] (This reviewer finds the contrarian interpretation more contextually convincing.)

I was curious to see how Shadal would answer the famous question as to how many Israelites left Egypt. Here is a brief quotation how he handles that conundrum:

The Sages said the Israelite women bore six at a time (Exodus Rabbah 1:7) , and ancient writers attest that the Nile waters increased fertility and that the Egyptian women usually bore twins or even more than two at a time. Aristotle wrote, “Frequently and in many lands, women bear twins as for instance in Egypt especially (History of Animals, Book 7:4).

Shadal attempts to show other examples from Pliny and others to prove there were approximately 2 million people or more who left Egypt. It was here I referred back to Shadal’s own commentary on Genesis 36:43, where he makes the point of stating that word אֶלֶף (ʾelep) can also mean “clan,” family, or “military unit” (cf. 1 Sam. 10:19). This could suggest that the number that left Egypt was not 600,000 men of military age, but 600 military units—a far smaller number! Alternatively, the number may be more symbolic (Cassuto) or pertain to a later time when a census was taken from the entire nation once it had settled; in such a scenario, future generations may have felt that they—literally—had emblematically participated in the Exodus from Egypt.

When considering the naturalistic attitude Shadal has concerning miracles, imagining an army of 600,000 people dissipates once we render elep as clan—especially when the Egyptian army that took on the Hittites in the battle of Kadesh was only 20,000 soldiers! Nobody at that time in history had a standing army of 600,000 except for possibly the ancient Chinese. This interpretation seems more plausible than Shadal’s. It makes biblical text more understandable without wondering how the Sinai Peninsula could possibly hold 2.5 million people without becoming a bio-hazard from the human waste products alone! In addition, 2.5 million people could never have crossed the Sea of Reeds in merely one night.

In any event, despite Shadal’s criticism of Maimonides, the two thinkers share a similar world-view regarding natural religion and the divine unfoldment of the miraculous. In his examination of the plague of blood (Exod. 7:19), Shadal reluctantly approves of Eichorn’s opinion noting that all of the ten plagues were:

. . .natural phenomena that commonly occurred in Egypt ever year, but that Moses’ intention was to make Pharaoh understand that it is the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, Who activated these phenomena, and that He was the Ruler of all the earth” (p. 103).

But Shadal adds that the effects of the river’s bloody appearance was more onerous:

. . . novel in its ill-effects, to the extent that all the fish within it died. . .This is proof that water’s foul odor and quality were more intense than in other years and departed from the course of nature, as if the water had actually turned to blood” (p. 104).

Modern biblical scholars subscribing to religious naturalism take a somewhat different approach, pointing out that it is the intensity and the synchronicity of the plague that the Torah teaches is miraculous. Regarding the Nile River turning into blood, it is important to differentiate between Upper Egypt (the southern portion that is mountainous) and Lower Egypt (the northern portion that is flat). A heavy inundation from the Ethiopian plateau’s earth produced the reddish color in the Nile, whose soil was full of reddish-colored microorganisms called flagellates, turned the Nile blood red, undrinkable and foul smelling.

The smiting of the firstborn in Egypt is of special interest. Shadal dismisses the view of Eichorn who conjectured that a pestilence affecting young men was responsible for killing the Egyptian males. Shadal agrees with the converted Ernst Rosenmuller’s view that such a pestilence would not single out the Egyptian firstborn in particular (p. 146). Shadal’s citations of other commentators—Jewish and Christian—sometimes suggest a more interesting alternative to the view Shadal proposes. Some modern biblical scholars think the firstborn of Egypt might have died from contaminated produce reserved for the firstborn.

Shadal did not consider the possibility that bekhor can sometimes also mean “excellent” (par. to ʿelyon, “highest,” Ps. 89:28[27]), and denoting the superlative (elative), hence with respect to Exodus 12:29, it could denote the “flower of Egypt.”

It is a shame Shadal did not consider a more daring but naturalistic interpretation. Citing Rashi, the Russian iconoclastic thinker V. Velikovsky makes the canny observation, “Thus at midnight, the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 12:29) must be read “all the select of Egypt,” as one would say, ‘all the flower of Egypt’ or “all the strength of Egypt.’ “Israel is my chosen: I shall let fall all the chosen of Egypt.” Natural death would usually choose the weak, the sick, the old. The earthquake is different; the walls fall upon the strong and the weak alike. Actually the Midrashim say that “as many as nine tenths of the inhabitants have perished.”[4]

Proof for the scriptural basis in my opinion for Velikovsky’s novel reading can be found in Psalm 114, which could be read as an intrabiblical interpretation of the events leading to the Exodus—one which involved considerable seismic activity:

When Israel came forth from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from an alien people,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel, God’s domain.
The sea saw and fled;
the Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams;
the hills, like lambs.

Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Jordan, that you turned back?
Mountains, that you skipped like rams?
You hills, like lambs?

Tremble, earth, before the Lord,
before the God of Jacob,
Who turned the rock into pools of water,
flint into a flowing spring.

(Ps 114:1–8)

In short, I would highly recommend to any reader Daniel Klein’s wonderful new translation of Shadal. This scholar was a very original exegete, but what makes him so compelling and fascinating is the fact that he encouraged all of his students to think for themselves and not merely accept something because of tradition. This approach certainly applies to anyone reading Shadal’s works as well. Creating exciting dialectical discussion with the commentaries is really what Torah study ought to be all about. Shadal’s commentary is full of many original interpretations that will stimulate the mind and heart. Students of Torah everywhere will enjoy Shadal’s Torah commentary, as we look forward to the publication of future volumes. Klein’s introduction is quite informative, but for the purpose of this review, we have only examined a few of the noteworthy comments regarding the Exodus.

[1] L. Ginzberg cites Midrash Yashar Shemot 131b–132b, and, in abridged form, Dibre ha-Yamim 3–4. In ShR 1.26 it is Jethro who advised the test with the burning coal (Legends of the Jews, pp. 482-483)

[2] Shadal’s exposition begs a more subtle question, namely, why does he handle Ibn Ezra so sarcastically? The answer is because that is how Ibn Ezra sometimes spoke of rabbis who came up with interpretations he viewed as nonsensical. For example, in the Book of Genesis 29:17, we read that Leah’s eyes were “tendered eyed” רַכּוֹת (rakkot) and he cites the view of Rabbanu Ephraim who thought that the word רַכּוֹת is written defectively, and the adjective should have been written, אֲרוּכוֹת (arûkot = “long”). Ibn Ezra mockingly replied, that the name “Efraim minus the letter א in his name spells, “parim” (= bull), i.e., only someone who is bullheaded fool would come up with a ridiculous interpretation like that! For this reason, Shadal decided to give Ibn Ezra a taste of his own medicine!

[3] Propp, W. H. C., Exodus 1–18: a new translation with introduction and commentary (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), Vol. 2., p.137

[4] V. Velikovsky, Ages in Chaos (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1952), pp. 33-34.

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, California.  He may be contacted viamichael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com.  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

 

The Closing of the Muslim Mind

The Golden Age of Islam extended from the 8th century to the 13th century, when much of the historically Islamic world embraced a flowering of scientific, economic and cultural prosperity until the time of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 CE , when the Islamic Golden Age officially ended. Before that time, Islam was vastly ahead of their counterparts in Europe, and excelled in just about every ancient secular and scientific endeavor. As I was perusing some of the books from one of my book vendors’ emails, the Islamic name of Ghazali appeared. Being familiar with a number of Muslim medieval scholars like Ibn Sina, Rumi, Averroes, al-Farabi, Ibn Arabi, I decided to look up the Islamic thinker, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1055-1111), a Sufi-thinker who  is well known in Muslim circles for his wisdom:

Some of his wise aphorisms include:

  • People count with self-satisfaction the number of times they have recited the name of God on their prayer beads, but they keep no beads for reckoning the number of idle words they speak.

How true, God’s Name is always being bantered about by “religious” fanatics who use God’s Name as an excuse to commit any kind of atrocity against the non-believing Other. It is also used by politicians who will use God to obtain their fiendish desires.

  • Half of disbelief in Allah in the world is caused by people who make religion look ugly due to their bad conduct and ignorance.

This particular aphorism certainly applies to much of what we see with respect to the Global Jihad taking place in continents all over the world. Yes, bad and evil conduct certainly produces disillusion with faith—and atheism is certainly on the rise today as less and less young people frequent the traditional places of worship.

  • Declare your jihad on thirteen enemies you cannot see – Egoism, Arrogance, Conceit, Selfishness, Greed, Lust, Intolerance, Anger, Lying, Cheating, Gossiping and Slandering. If you can master and destroy them, then will be ready to fight the enemy you can see.

It is significant that both Sufi and Kabbalistic texts found a way to sublimate the violent impulses of holy war, by internalizing it in purely spiritual terms. Sufism for most of its history has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for open-mindedness and tolerance.

However, this broadness of mind never applied to Ghazali’s worldview. Although one might presume Ghazali stresses the importance of fighting the inner enemy—but he evidently had no compunctions about fighting the “external enemy,” and this is where his idealism seems to have collapsed along with his wisdom.

Sectarian differences often make people forget about their idealism and higher values; religion often is more pre-occupied with “being right” than “being righteous.” Ghazali’s disdain for one of Islam’s most brilliant thinkers, Avicenna is a classic illustration of what righteous indignation with a tinge of fanaticism is capable of doing. In his book on “The Incoherence of Philosophy,” Ghazali issued a decree (fatwa) concerning anyone who teaches Avicenna’s philosophy is a “kafir” –an apostate of Islam. Once labeled a kafir, it is permitted for the pious Muslim to kill the apostate.[1]

What were the three heretical views Avicenna espoused?  [For the sake of contrast, I will briefly compare Avicenna and Ghazali with some of Maimonides’ theological positions.]

  1. The theory of a pre-eternal world. Ghazali asserted God created the world in time and just like everything in this world time will cease to exist as well but God will continue on existing. (Maimonides concurred, but also hedged to some degree)
  2. God only knows the universal characteristics of particulars – namely Platonic forms (a view Maimonides seems to have endorsed).
  3. Bodily resurrection will not take place in the hereafter only human souls are resurrected (another view that Maimonides might have supported).

Semites have always been a contentious people when it comes to matters of faith. To this day, the Shiites and the Sunnis still argue over, “Who is an Apostate?” much like Jews still fight among themselves, “Who is a Jew?” Fanaticism has always been a driving force among zealots. Jewish history bears witness to these unfortunate phenomena too over 2000 years ago. This much has not changed over history—even now, as our society is rapidly retrogressing to the darker periods of human history when men like Ghazali, Torquemada, and others determined who would live or die based on their personal belief system.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that Ghazali possessed a gift of wisdom and insight; yet because of his disdain for other scholars’ theological beliefs, he and similar thinkers led the Muslims along a narrow corridor of the mind that has cut itself from the human progress and positive societal development.



[1] Great minds sometimes suffer from moments of moral blindness. I would add that as a side note, Maimonides might have been influenced by Ghazali. According to Maimonides, (theoretically,) a heretic deserved to be executed too. He writes:

The term “Apikorsim” (Epicureans) pertains to any Jewish person who denies the divinity of the Torah and the belief in prophecy. Ideally, they deserved to be executed in public by the sword (beheading). However, if this is not possible, a subterfuge ought to be developed to facilitate their death. For example:  If one sees such a person descend to a cistern, and a ladder is available; he should  find an excuse to take the ladder, saying: “I must hurry to take my son down from the roof. I shall return the ladder to you soon.” Similarly, one should devise other analogous plans to cause the death of such people” (MT Hilchot Rotzach 4:10).

 

In the Absence of Compassion

Since the days of antiquity, shepherds often served as the leaders of a nation. When the prophet Nathan confronted King David for his illicit affair with Bathsheba, he gently reminded him that the role of a leader is to act pastorally toward the flock that God has entrusted him with watching. The life of David should have taught him that a leader must act faithfully toward his subjects at all times. Neglecting the flock is perhaps one of the most serious offenses a king commits ( 2 Samuel 12:1-7). These ancient stories are important because their message about responsible and concerned leadership is true for all times.

The President has a job to comfort and offer solace to those who have been victimized in a national tragedy… Toward the beginning of his tenure, President Obama seemed to grasp this truth.

On November 10, 2009,  at the funeral of the Fort Hood massacre victims, the President took the podium and said, “that the memory of those slain in a rampage here last week would “endure through the life of our nation.” And, one by one, he listed the names of those killed and described their hopes and dreams and the families they left behind. He further added,  “But this much we do know: No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts. No just and loving God looks upon them with favor. For what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice, in this world and the next.”[1]

The President acted and spoke appropriately at that time.

Offering comfort to those who have lost lives due to terrorism is something we ought to expect from our President.  Yet, his record has been less consistent in the course of his presidency. For the record, President Obama has sometimes acted appropriately, and other times he has been “missing in action.” And it is for this reason I find the President’s behavior perplexing.

I was shocked to find out that President Barack Obama is not scheduled to attend any of the funerals for the victims of the San Bernardino terror attack nine days ago. According to Breitbart News, the President has yet to visit the town in the wake of the deadliest terror attack against our nation since 9/11. As of this evening, the White House did not return a request for comment about the president’s schedule. This passive reaction seems strange in light of other past events where the President did take a more active role in events that have shaken our nation. For example: President Obama on occasion has offered sent dignitaries from Washington to express comfort toward those who have lost, as we saw  in Ferguson, MI, after Michael Brown was killed.

  • On Jan 12, 2015, President Obama’s absence from Sunday’s peace march in Paris, said Monday that his team erred in failing to dispatch a high-ranking American official to join the show of solidarity against terrorism. Naturally, the French politely did not make a big issue of his absence—despite the plethora of prominent world leaders who stood in solidarity against terrorism. Even Josh Earnest sheepishly admitted that somebody dropped the ball.[2]
  • Chris Kyle was fatally shot at a Texas gun range on Feb. 2, 2013. Yet, President Obama did not personally attend; nor did he send representatives at the funeral of this important American hero. Nor did he acknowledge the courage Chris Kyle showed that resulted in saving countless American lives.[3]
  • Neither did the President send representatives to the funeral of the journalist James Foley (who was an Israeli Jew), who was beheaded by ISIS over a year and a half ago.[4]  Yet, he did send representatives to the funeral of Freddie Gray, who had died a week after sustaining injuries during an encounter with the Baltimore police.
  • However, Obama delivered the eulogy at the memorial service earlier this year after white supremacist murdered many people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Obama used his remarks to push for gun control: “For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation,” he preached.

Perhaps the President is afraid the Muslim community might be tarred and feathered. Most  fair minded people would think this way, but a few might. However,  speaking out against Radical Islam does not make us  guilty of “Islamophobia.” Yet, if we do not show a modicum of humanity by personally offering respects to the victims of terror, then our President has not only insulted the victims of those slain along with their families, he has diminished the respect of the office that he holds. When a nation grieves, it is inappropriate to worry about political correctness. If we have a scintilla of morality and self-respect, we must raise our voice in protest. We must demand a higher standard from our President’s behavior. While the President may be proud of his war against “global warming,” he has a more immediate task he needs to take seriously—and that is comforting the victims’ families and our nation who have suffered deeply from the evils of Radical Islamic terror.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/us/11hood.html [2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/13/us/politics/obama-is-faulted-for-not-attending-rally-in-paris.html?_r=0 [3] http://conservativetribune.com/obama-responded-kyles-death/ [4] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/aug/26/obama-sent-three-representatives-michael-brown-fun/

God is NOT Fixing this ….

 

It isn’t every day I come across a theologically provocative new story headline like the  New York Daily did this morning in the terrible aftermath of the mass shooting that took place in San Bernardino, California—which claimed the lives of fourteen people, while injuring over twenty.

The headline said, “God isn’t fixing this,” which referred to the many lawmakers who offered up their prayers for the victims, but failed to act when it came to enacting stricter gun control laws. The article listed a number of tweets from the various GOP presidential candidates, where each of them “offer their prayers for the victims.” The article neglected to mention how President Obama himself, offered his prayers for the victims and their families.

Gun violence is a complicated issue.

I have always felt that some of the gun laws need tightening. More psychological background screening is a good thing, provided it can prevent unhealthy people from obtaining firearms—especially weaponry such as the Kalashnikov AK-47, which is more of a military weapon used in the battlefields. The idea of a homeowner utilizing such a weapon in the home has always seemed rather odd to me. For someone like Rambo, well that’s different. To the President’s credit, he ceded that these changes will not prevent every act of gun violence, but it may prevent some incidents from occurring. Ethnic profiling here in this case might have also prevented Syed Rizwan Farook  from obtaining the weaponry he used. It certainly works for Israel, and it can work for our country too.

Sadly, political correctness may have contributed to this terrible tragedy.

What was the gun merchant really thinking when he sold Syed Rizwan Farook the weaponry he used? The careless gun merchant contributed to the unlawful and criminal violence that occurred. The Torah emphatically stresses, “You shall not insult the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you shall fear your God. I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:14). As Martin Buber notes, “The fear of God” is not the fear of punishment. Whenever the “fear of God” is used in Scriptures, it always denotes the reverence for life. Every gun merchant should have this biblical passage enshrined on the walls of his shop.

While I strongly believe the President has every right to use the bully pulpit to promote new laws concerning gun control, it is important that even more important that  the President walk his talk for justice demands consistency and fairness. Operation “Fast and Furious” scandal is a grim reminder that providing guns to Mexican drug cartel leaders proved to be a dubious and dangerous operation, which ultimately led to the deaths of Mexican civilians as well as the death of the United States Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed December 2010 with these weapons. This affair was so scandalous that the Justice Department demanded documents related to the scandal from Attorney General Eric Holder, who refused to cooperate, resulting in Holder becoming the first sitting member of the Cabinet of the United States to be held in contempt of Congress on June 28, 2012. The President himself, embarrassingly, invoked executive privilege for the first time in his presidency[1]  over the same documents.[2]

Of course, banning such weaponry does not necessarily prevent a person from getting one. As we have seen in the past, where there is a will, there is also a way. Although I find myself differing with the President on most of our country’s national and international issues, I think there is room for a creative compromise for everyone to compromise.

From the theological perspective, Paul Tillich teaches us a valuable lesson worth considering. Too many times, we imagine that God is a “Cosmic Bellboy,” or “Santa Claus (in keeping with Christmas spirit of the season), who bestows all of our wishes and desires. According to Tillich, nothing can be farther from the truth.

Jewish prayer concurs with Tillich’s point.

Jewish mystics teach us that, “Blessings from above descend never descend into a vacuous space” (Zohar I, Genesis 88a). In other words, everything we ask for from God demands that we make a corresponding vessel to receive that blessing.

If we wish to prevent gun violence, we must find ways to tame the human spirit. Passing laws for, or against gun control will mean very little, unless we also make an effort to distant ourselves from violent thoughts, violent words, and violent deeds. While the Hollywood community tends to be outspoken about the importance of gun control, it is counter-productive for these same actors and actresses to promote violent films that enshrine violent attitudes with images that show no reverence for human life.

Prayer in Jewish tradition is not merely a rote recitation of words; it is contains a recipe and a prescription on how we must manifest God’s mercy and justice in the world. Kabbalists have often said that the shapes of the four letters of  God’s Name “YHWH” resembles that of a human being. The image of God that our Creator has endowed each of us with is a reminder of how each of us participates and partakes of God’s divine nature and Being.

Ergo, “God isn’t fixing this” may be a more appropriate name for a headline than the writer might have imagined. However, the word for “prayer” “Tefilah” actually derives from the word to be “self-reflective.”

None of us is so high and mighty to take these issues to heart and in the spirit of shalom, find compromises to a vexing problem that everyone can live with. Maybe then, we will prove worthy enough for God to answer our prayers.



[1] Jackson, David (June 20, 2012). “Obama claims executive privilege; Holder held in contempt”. USA Today. Retrieved June 22, 2012.

[2] John Parkinson,. (June 20, 2012). “Committee Votes Attorney General Eric Holder in Contempt of Congress After Obama Asserts Executive Privilege”. ABC News. Retrieved June 22, 2012.