Zombies as Metaphor

Every year around Halloween, many Americans watch various monster movies about creatures who are often “undead.” Let’s be honest; nothing is appealing about zombies. They lack the sexiness of vampires; they lack the glamor and good manners. At least vampires know how to blend in society.

But the monsters I wish to comment upon are not the vampires or Frankenstein—but the disgusting creatures are better known to us as “zombies.” These creatures project an image of ourselves that make us feel uncomfortable—a rotting corpse, reminding us about the power of death. Zombies have no redeeming qualities. Unlike vampires, you cannot have a conversation with them at the dinner table.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ZOMBIES

The history of zombies goes back to antiquity.

Archaeologists have unearthed many Greek graves, where skeletons were pinned down by rocks and other heavy debris to keep the dead in the grave. And while moderns generally view the idea of zombies with total disbelief, one might wonder what led to people believing in the idea that the dead are really, but mysteriously still “alive”?

Most myths about the human condition have a basis in fact.

When I was a child, I remember watching a film back in 1962 that scarred me like no other film I have ever seen. The name of the film entitled, “The Premature Burial” was based on a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Its main character expresses concern about being buried alive. But were people buried alive?

Most certainly.

Physicians for the greater part of history often could not discern when somebody had actually “died.” Someone in a deep coma was often believed to be “dead.” Perhaps this experience gave rise to the zombie and vampire movies and literature. Short of waiting for the body to decompose, the medical community had few means of certifying death, and the burgeoning press was quick to sensationalize any hasty pronouncements.

In my old community of Glens Falls, New York, you could see bells attached to graves dating back to the 18th century during the Revolutionary War period.

My interest in zombies has changed considerably over the decades. As an anthropology and religion student, I wondered: If zombies are a metaphor, what do they represent in the human psyche? In one sense, these beings stand only at the periphery of human consciousness. In some ways, they are akin to people who are sleepwalking through life. The sleepwalker is hardly aware of who he is and how s/he fits in the grand picture of life, nor does s/he know his/her purpose. Sleepwalkers and zombies merely react to life instead of creating an experience that is driven by purpose, creativity, and curiosity for higher truth and moral fulfillment.

From a Marxist perspective, zombies could be an apt metaphor for those who feel consumerism’s emptiness. Perhaps more than other monster, zombies characterize our most unthinking and relentlessly hungry selves. And the tragedy is no matter how much they consume, their desire for food can never be filled (they sort of remind me of being a hungry teenager).

In the literary mindscape of George Romero’s later film Dawn of the Dead, he purposely set the movie in a shopping mall! He depicts his zombies, pushing shopping carts around the mall, acting as though they are still alive. They live only for shopping. Is this not a disturbing image of our dystopian world that portrays modern society as a world that is driven by consumerism? It is astounding how consumerism promises even make use of spiritual themes, such as the Golden Arches of McDonald’s, creating an axis-mundi where human beings can enjoy the transcendental bliss of “becoming one” with what they eat.

In Romero’s films, his zombie walkers just want to have fun. 

And in a society where healthy spiritual values are no longer promoted in our schools and workplaces, we are witnessing a generation that is spiritually “lost in space.” The monotony of daily routines has often driven young people to the edge of despair and insanity—as we see in the plethora of school-shootings around the nation. For young people whose lives feels constrained by unemployment and debt, or those whose jobs are both unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has real power.

George Romero’s later film Dawn of the Dead is set primarily in a shopping mall. 

Many zombies continue to push shopping carts around the mall and act as if they are still alive. Their prime remaining instinct is to shop. Though made in 1978, its vision portrays modern society as a world that is driven by consumerism; and its basic human instinct of “shop till you drop” – even if you’re undead – was prescient and troublingly accurate about rapacious consumerism.

ZOMBIES AS A SOCIAL METAPHOR

I sense that part of the reason for the current fad for zombie walks, lies in unconscious recognition of how post-industrial, consumerist culture wishes to reduce us to narrow modes of identity. Yes, Romero’s zombie walkers want to have fun, but they also want to expose how society damages our sense of self. In an age where many lives, especially those of the young, are constrained by long-term unemployment, and many who have a job find it unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.

So, when you see the zombie walking in a shopping mall near you, ask yourself: Should zombies be considered “persons”? Perhaps more importantly, what is the meaning of personhood in modern society today? It is a question that pro-lifers have certainly raised with the status of the unborn. This is also a legitimate question considering how technology has revealed personality traits present in twins’ fetuses, who can be seen touching each other sensitively in ultra-sound pictures. Can the concept of personhood be applied to our pets too? Perhaps it is the denial of personhood in ourselves and others that the zombie metaphor reveals a phantasm of what it means to be fulfilling and self-actualizing.

ZOMBIES REVEAL OUR EXISTENTIAL FEAR OF DEATH

One could argue that the plethora of zombie depictions developed at a time when young people have witnessed some of the greatest horrors of modern life—such as the attack of 9/11. Also, the baby-boomer generation is getting (unfortunately) increasingly older. Simply put, we are afraid of dying. Yet the Stoics have long taught us that people who tend to be fearful of dying are almost invariably afraid of authentic living.

To overcome our uneasiness about our mortality, we need to accept the fact that our mortality is a reality that we are already experiencing. In this sense, life is a series of continuous rebirths. The infant and child I once was has died long ago. Yet, each day that passes, I remind myself by saying the Modeh Ani prayer that I am a new person today. When I look at the mirror, I remind myself that I am more than just the sum of my physical body parts. There is a profoundly spiritual dimension that must transcend our need and desire to live for consumerism.

A MAIMONIDEAN APPROACH TO OUR EXISTENTIAL ANGST

Although Maimonides had no clue of zombies, he developed an alternative approach that we ought to consider in our contemporary era. The central problem Maimonides grappled with is: How do we tell when we are asleep or if we are awake? Are we condemned to live our lives as if we were asleep?

For him, the best way to awaken us from the absence of purpose and spirituality in our lives is to pay attention to the sound of the shofar—as an instrument of raising consciousness. For him, the shofar works like an alarm. You could say that the sound of the shofar is like an ancient form of shock therapy. Maimonides points out that the shofar was meant to stir people up from their sleep.

In short, recognizing our mortality’s reality need not paralyze ourselves with a morbid fear of the future. On the contrary, being aware that our time in this world is limited can offer us the opportunity to really make a difference in the world. We do not need to succumb to the contemporary dystopian view of man as a mere consumer or someone whose bio-footprint epitomizes the essence of our earthly journey in this world.

The Importance & Significance of Handwashing–Especially Now

close up hand washing

With the coronavirus threatening people’s health in the first major pandemic we have seen in over a hundred years, Jewish tradition has much to say about the importance of handwashing. As a “priestly people,” (Exodus 19:6), priests in the Torah were always instructed to wash their hands whenever they enter into the Tent of Meeting or upon entering the Temple.

Just how serious is this precept?

The scriptural verse teaches, “They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die: it shall be a perpetual ordinance for them, for him and for his descendants throughout their generations.  (Exodus 30:21).  The failure to wash one’s hands is serious enough to completely invalidate the priest’s services he conducted. As Maimonides noted:

  • This scriptural verse teaches us that any service conducted by a priest whose hands and feet are unwashed is invalid. The חָק־עוֹלָם   “perpetual ordinance” also reappears in the laws regarding the priestly garments, ‎ וְהָיוּ עַל־אַהֲרֹן וְעַל־בָּנָיו בְּבֹאָם אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אוֹ בְגִשְׁתָּם אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְשָׁרֵת בַּקֹּדֶשׁ וְלֹא־יִשְׂאוּ עָוֹן וָמֵתוּ חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו “Aaron and his sons shall wear them whenever they go into the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar to minister in the Sanctuary, lest they incur guilt and die. This shall be a perpetual ordinance for him and for his descendants” (Exodus 28:43). From the similarity of expressions, the wording conveys a mutual point. Just as a priest who lacks the priestly garments invalidates the priestly service, so too the priest who has neglected to sanctify himself through the ritual washing of hands and feet as noted earlier.[1]

Handwashing is a daily ritual that begins from the moment we wake up in the morning and thank God for returning our souls to our bodies.  Jews have long been accustomed to washing their hands whenever food is served, or whenever leaving a cemetery—the act of handwashing serves to remind us that we must always conduct our affairs with complete integrity and holiness. Before eating bread or a meal, it has long been considered a mitzvah to wash our hands. Before we pray, we wash our hands. After leaving the bathroom, we always wash our hands. Whenever we touch hidden parts of our body, we wash our hands. Rabbinical tradition even considered this act to be one of the most important rituals in the daily life of a Jew. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once explained that our the physical act of eating has the potential to diminish our sense of holiness. But to counteract this influence, we wash our hands before and after a meal.

One of my favorite verses from the Psalms reads:

Who may go up the mountain of the LORD?
Who can stand in his holy place?
The clean of hand and pure of heart,
who has not given his soul to useless things, what is vain.
He will receive blessings from the LORD,
and justice from his saving God.[2]

The act of handwashing is not just a health requirement, it is an act that reminds us that we must sanctify our lives to God in all of our relationships and actions.

Historically, even when Jews lived in the filthy ghettos, Jews continued to wash their hands as prescribed by our tradition. During the period of history when the world suffered from the Bubonic Plague, which has occurred several times over the last 2000 years or more.

  • The first documented case of the Bubonic Plague occurred in 542 C.E., where it was known as the Plague of Justinian. This pandemic killed almost 10,000 people in Constantinople.
  • In the 700s, almost half the European population perished; estimates of almost 100 million deaths were recorded by the time the pandemic subsided.
  • In the 14th century, China lost over 25 million people.
  • Between 1346 and 1353, over 75 million people perished from the plague.
  • The “Black Death” of London killed 70,000 people. [3]

In such dangerous times, the Jew has often been accused of being the agent that caused these plagues in Europe. Fortunately, Jews were often able to avoid the effects of the plague—by a ratio of 50% less than their Christian neighbors. When the Christian anti-Semites noticed this, citizens often banded to kill the Jew. In Strasbourg, Austria, in 1349, nearly 2000 Jews were killed. The Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated at this time. Interestingly, Jews stopped observing the Tashlich ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, lest they be accused of poisoning the water.

A personal note: My father Leo Israel Samuel was a Holocaust survivor who had served as a tailor in several concentration camps. He told me that one of the hardest problems he faced was keeping himself clean in the camps; disease was everywhere. He was determined to do his best to keep his body clean and healthy. What did he do? He would bathe naked in the winter snows. The Nazis found it amusing, but he persevered. As a child, sometimes anti-Semitic kids would call us “you dirty Jew!” but Father would have us say, “No, I am not a dirty Jew. I bathe twice a day!” His tongue-and-cheek humor always proved endearing—but in retrospect, I think he was speaking from his actual experience at the Auschwitz camp!

The famous biblical commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote that if someone was suffering from gonorrhea, he recommended that he had to be scrupulous in thoroughly washing his hands.  Once he does so, if his hands touch the food of another, the food will not become ritually impure (Commentary on Leviticus 15:2).

Ibn Ezra’s insight is valuable in terms of the history of medical science history. Most people seldom realize the importance of handwashing is from the perspective of medical hygiene. Here is a brief article I shall quote which tells the remarkable and tragic story about a Hungarian obstetrician-gynecologist, Ignaz Phillips Semmelweis (1818–1865), a Jewish immigrant whose serendipitous medical discovery in a Vienna hospital changed the practice of medicine forever.

The medical world was a radically different place from what it is today. Back in 1846, Dr.  Ignaz Phillips Semmelweis joined one of the most prestigious medical staffs in the European world.  When he arrived, he discovered at the time that hospital virulent infections which ensued after surgeries led to an astounding 45% mortality rate. New mothers were faced with a 25% death rate. Bear in mind, this was before Louis Pasteur would eventually discover the Streptococcus bacteria responsible for childbed fever back in 1878. Nor would penicillin be discovered until 1928.

Within a month of his arrival at the famous Viennese hospital, to Dr. Semmelweis’s chagrin, he discovered that 36 out of 208 women died following the delivery of a baby, a mortality rate of 17 percent. One maternity ward in particular, suffered from 451 infectious-related deaths, while a second maternity ward lost only 90 women. He wondered about why was there such a discrepancy.

One day, he came across an expectant mother, who was crying because the Hospital administration assigned her to the medical students’ ward, instead of the midwives’ ward. Everyone knew that the students’ ward had a much higher mortality rate, and to be assigned was tantamount to a death sentence. The woman later died.

But one day in 1847, a friend of Dr. Semmelweis’s friend accidentally cut himself with a scalpel while performing an autopsy of a woman who had died from the disease physicians back then called “childbed fever.” Semmelweis’s friend soon died himself. After personally attending his friend’s autopsy, to Semmelweis’s surprise, he observed that the lesions on his friend’s body were exactly the same as the lesions seen on the women dying from childbed fever.

The pieces of the puzzle finally came together, as Semmelweis realized that the same poisonous substance which had come from the diseased cadaver, must have entered his friend’s cut finger resulting in death. This same substance was apparently being introduced into women after childbirth by the hospital physicians and students who came to examine them with unwashed hands immediately after performing autopsies on the victims of childbed fever. Before then, many causes of the malady were sought, including mother’s milk, foreign doctors, fear, and medical student incompetence. The notion clicked that maybe the reason the death rate was so high on the students’ ward was that they were participating in autopsies, not because they were incompetent. The midwives were not studying medicine, so they did not attend the autopsies. Semmelweis excitedly ordered all the students and doctors to wash their hands thoroughly with a calcium chloride solution and clean sand after each autopsy. The death rate fell from one out of six to one out of 100 within a year.

Shortly thereafter, an outbreak of sepsis occurred on the ward, killing 11 out of 12 women. This outbreak began after a pregnant woman with infected cervical cancer was assigned to the first bed in the row. Realizing that the infective material must have spread from this woman, Semmelweis insisted that all the physicians and students not only wash their hands after autopsies, but between patients on the ward. Later he also isolated the badly infected cases. By 1848 the mortality rate was so low on these wards that during one month no death from childbed fever was reported.

Throughout all these events, Semmelweis made a number of enemies. People found his personality to be difficult; he was also moody, unstable, and arrogant. Furthermore, other physicians complained he often ordered them to perform novel, burdensome sanitary techniques, and he often met great opposition. He bluntly called his opponents to these hand-washing techniques “murderers.” His conflicts with supervisors and peers ultimately led to his dismissal in 1850.

And when handwashing ceased at the Vienna hospital, and the death rate again soared. He wrote his classic book concerning his findings in 1861, unfortunately while in a manic state. The words rambled and were difficult to comprehend. The book was a failure, and his mental health deteriorated. In 1865, at 47 years of age, he entered a mental institution. On admission he had a wounded finger on his right hand, probably inflicted during his most recent obstetrical operation. A few days later he died, ironically, of childbed fever.[4]

The moral of this anecdote is to highlight, that one of the most brilliant intuitions of the Torah, is the laws governing bodily hygiene.

Let us now return to our original subject: the current pandemic. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, remember:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub
  • or wash them with soap and water.

Let us do our part in minimizing the effects of this dangerous pandemic.

When the Israelites were being chased by the Egyptians, our ancestors found themselves surrounded by the Red Sea, the wilderness and an army of Egyptians closing in on them. Remarkably, God told Moses to go through the sea, and so they did. Sometimes we find ourselves in a similar situation where the only thing we can do is wade through the danger together and find strength from each other until we make it to the other side of the shore.

NOTES:

[1] MT Hilkhot Bi’at HaMikdash 5:2.

[2] Psalm 24:3-5.

[3] Scott, Susan, and C. J. Duncan, Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

[4] Sherwin Nuland, The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, 2004).

*
Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

A Country Boy will Survive!

Image result for picture of Democratic debate Feb 19 2020

Watching last night’s Democratic debate was like watching a free-for-all cage match at WrestleMania, or gladiators fighting to the death in the Roman Coliseum. I almost felt sorry for Mayor Bloomberg. He had no idea he was going to be attacked like a piñata at a Latino birthday party! I thought of an interesting cartoon to illustrate the mugging Bloomberg received last night.

Van Jones has a great sense of humor, a day ago he said, “- Bloomberg went in as the Titanic, billion-dollar machine Titanic. Titanic meet iceberg” Actually, there were several icebergs he encountered.[1]  

Yet, not one of Bloomberg’s adversaries bothered to criticize the mayor about a comment he was quoted saying dating back to November 17th, 2016, which is the real subject of this article’s focus.  

  • If you think about it, the agrarian society lasted 3,000 years, and we can teach processes. I can teach anybody – even people in this room, so no offense intended – to be a farmer. It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, you add water, up comes corn. You can learn that. Then you had 300 years of the industrial society. You put the piece of metal on the lathe, you turn the crank in direction of arrow and you can have a job. And we created a lot of jobs. At one point, 98% of the world worked in agriculture. Today it’s 2% of the United States.
  • Now comes the information economy and the information economy is fundamentally different because it’s built around replacing people with technology, and the skill sets that you have to learn are how to think and analyze. And that is a whole degree level different. You have to have a different skill set. You have to have a lot more gray- matter. It’s not clear the teachers can teach or the students can learn. And so the challenge of society is to find jobs for these people. …

Now in defense of Bloomberg’s remarks, the video dramatizes a real problem that pertains to today’s political climate. It’s called selective editing. Anybody can take what another person says and twist it out of context. This inevitably happens when famous people will say something, only to have the listener or somebody who has an axe to grind to twist the remark into something that original speaker never intended to say.

Unfortunately, nowadays, in our “holier than thou” society, the self-righteous zeitgeist is preventing people from really listening to one another. I could give you many examples, but you probably already know this to be true—to some degree.

In Bloomberg’s case, the video shrewdly left out the first sentence of his comment, where he was referring to life in an agrarian society that lasted 3,000 years, but not to farmers today. The Sanders campaign, like many Republicans (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) I know, used the same misleading tactic to tar and feather Bloomberg. Perhaps the Bloomberg campaign made a valid point about the way the viral video has been edited.

But after reading this defense, does Bloomberg really think that historically, farming is a skill that requires less raw intelligence? I wondered further: Would many college professors agree that being a farmer is a job fit for people of less intellectual acumen?

Think like a contrarian.

Ask yourself a simple question.

What if academic hubris is one of the reasons so many young people owe so much money for attending colleges? What if we trained more of our young people to develop a practical skill that can get them in a union, so they can utilize a trade-skill?

  • Numerous studies show that recent college graduates end up in jobs that didn’t require a college degree are five times as likely to still be in such a position five years later, compared with those who put their diploma to use right away. Fast forward to ten years later: “three-quarters of graduates who took jobs early on that didn’t demand a degree will be in the same spot. And these graduates earn around $10,000 a year less than their counterparts who started early in jobs that required a college degree.”[2]
  • Student debt are easily among the saddest stories you will hear. In 2019, those who owe some of the $1.41 trillion in student loan debt happen to be college dropouts. They took out loans to go to school, hoping for a better life. But without college degrees, many don’t find good jobs to help pay back these loans. It not only ruins their lives, it’s terrible for the nation’s budget. [3]

Loans financed by the federal government, ultimately leaving taxpayers on the hook. I personally knew a woman who took out a student loan of about $100,000 to become a chiropractor, only to discover after the first year she changed her mind. She still got stuck paying the unpaid debt.

And who is responsible? One can point to the banks and the high interest rates they charge. Should the colleges and universities also be responsible for tantalizing the concept of a college education?

What if colleges are not meant for everybody—except the most gifted students? What a concept.

As a rabbi, I tend to read the news with an interest for presenting a Judaic theological perspective.  I heard a song on the radio that speaks about this problem. Hank William’s song Country Boy will Survive struck me as being especially poignant—especially when you think about the number of college graduates who cannot find jobs, who end up owing

The preacher man says it’s the end of time
And the Mississippi River, she’s a-goin’ dry
The interest is up and the stock market’s down
And you only get mugged if you go downtown

I live back in the woods you see
My woman and the kids and the dogs and me
I got a shotgun a rifle and a four-wheel drive
And a country boy can survive

Country folks can survive

I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn (Yeah)
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke too
Ain’t too many things these old boys can’t do

We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine
And a country boy can survive

Country folks can survive

Farmers remind us that honest work is something that is praiseworthy. Rabbinic tradition teaches us: “A father is obligated to teach his son a craft. Some say, he must also teach him how to swim. R. Judah said, “Anyone who fails to teach his son a skill is as though he has taught him to steal.”[4]

The Mishnah’s remark is very insightful and ought to be emblazoned on the walls of every university. Our children would be all the wiser for it.


[1] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/02/19/van_jones_michael_bloomberg_the_billion-dollar_titanic_that_met_iceberg_elizabeth_warren.html

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/25/why-your-first-job-out-of-college-really-really-matters.html

[3] https://www.investopedia.com/student-loan-debt-2019-statistics-and-outlook-4772007

[4] Kiddushin Mishnah 1:7.

Cuba 1962 — to Iran 2020

Trump Acted As Great As JFK in Missile Crisis
Iraqi anti-government protesters flash the V-sign of victory outside their protest tents in Baghdad's Tahrir Square following news of the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards top commander Qasem Soleimani in a US strike on his convoy at Baghdad international airport on January 3, 2020 (AFP)
Dancing in the Streets of Iran

 History has a way of repeating itself. In 1962, I was a young boy of nine when the Soviet Union decided to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. It was a s

cary time at school; I could remember the old “duck and cover” as we rehearsed hiding under our desks and covering our heads just in case of a nuclear attack. The “Duck-and-Cover-Drill” was a plan originally initiated by President Harry S. Truman in the 1950s. Nobody really believed the duck-and-cover exercise would help, but it did offer a modicum of psychological comfort, which was better than no comfort.

Just six years earlier, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev while addressing Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956,  threatened, “We will bury you!” I can still remember film clips of Khrushchev slamming his shoe on the table at the United Nations in 1960.

Kennedy was a new president, and he was tested. Kennedy gave Khrushchev some wiggle room, and he placed a naval blockade 800 miles off the coast of Cuba; he later reduced it to about 500 miles. Through diplomacy, the US removed its nuclear missiles  from Turkey, as a gesture of peace. The Russians accepted this arrangement and backed down.

Now, I know many of our readers truly dislike President Trump. But give the President his due—regardless how you may personally feel. The President put Iran on notice after it attacked two military bases in Iraq. Fortunately, the soldiers were prepared for such an eventuality. There is also evidence Iran was not interested in exacerbating the tensions—especially since the US sent a nuclear submarine and had a squadron of Stealth jets ready to attack Iran.

Fortunately, as with the Russians in 1962, the Iranians blinked.

Perhaps the most important development that occurred was the statement that President Trump gave to the Iranians. He was measured in his tone; he did not come across as being full of bluster. Trump gave the Iranian government a respite to consider what kind of future did they want for themselves. Single-handedly, the President showed the kind of leadership in uniting the NATO members that we have not seen in over 60 years. He further promised the world that the United States would never allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb under his watch. The President also stated that an attack against any NATO country is an attack against all its members. Although Israel is not a part of NATO, it is clear the President has Israel’s back.

Within 48 hours, everyone breathed a sigh of relief—especially in the Israel, and in the United States.

After watching the news commentators on television, many politicians blamed this near catastrophe on President Trump and his reckless decision to take out Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Major General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who remained in power from 1998 until his death in 2020.

How important was Soleimani in the grand scheme of things? To use an analogy from Star Wars, think of Ali Hosseini Khamenei as akin to the Evil Emperor, the Soleimani, akin to Darth Vader. Under his watch, there are scores of thousands whom he had killed from Afghanistan to the Jewish community center in Buenos Aries, Argentina, back in 1993.[1] Hundreds of Israelis died from the wars they had with the Hezbollah, for which he played a central role as a mastermind. Soleimani was responsible for the death of thousands of people in Iraq, Syria, and in his own country, which executed over 1600 of his fellow Iranian citizens who marched peacefully against the mullahcracy of Iran.

Unlike anti-Semites who talk a good game against Israel and the Jews, Soleimani backed his rhetoric with decisive action. In a German interview back in 2016, Soleimani threatened, “If the leaders of the Zionist regime make a mistake then the Islamic Republic will turn Tel Aviv and Haifa to dust.” Soleimani was not a man of peace, but a man who dedicated himself to the expansion of the Iranian Revolution throughout all of the Middle East.

If you had the ability to prevent Hitler’s genocidal war against the Jews and civilization, what would you decide to do?

Sometimes, I think the liberal wing of our country never seems to learn from history.

Thank God, the President chose to get rid of this genocidal terrorist.

Tens of thousands of American soldiers were maimed by this evil genius during the Iraqi War.

Instead of allowing Soleimani and his minions to destroy the American Embassy in Iraq—the President acted immediately—unlike President Obama and Hillary Clinton who chose to do nothing for the Benghazi Embassy in Libya.

As Larry Provost, a U.S. war veteran put it, “Still, war with Iran may come but if it does, it will be Iran’s awful choice.  If that day does happen, and the prayers of most Americans are that it does not, we can be confident that President Trump would spare no effort into ensuring the greatest chance for victory by the United States. ” [2]

President Trump showed a steely determination to take Iran head on—if need be. The policy of appeasement that has been in place throughout the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama administrations only managed to succeed in accomplishing one goal: kick the can of Iran down the road.

Sometimes a show of strength is the best cure for preventing a war. I hope the President and Europe keep the economic pressure on Iran until the regime of evil collapses.

In the meantime, the Arab world throughout the Middle East is celebrating; as are the dissidents in Iran whose colleagues died at the hand of  Soleimani.[3]


[1]https://ejpress.org/60976-2/ https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/iran-is-still-a-threat-1.8353494 https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Dont-mourn-Soleimani-613224

[2] https://townhall.com/columnists/larryprovost/2020/01/09/trump-acted-as-great-as-jfk-in-missile-crisis-n2559201

[3] https://www.arabnews.com/node/1607776/middle-east

Stop College Anti-Semitism!

In Yiddish, there is an old saying. “Schwer zu sein ein Yid”—“It’s hard to be a Jew” But today, we could probably say, “It’s dangerous to be a Jew” to our lexicon of Yiddish aphorisms.

This week’s awful shooting at a Jewish market in Jersey City, where six people were killed, and several others injured, only proves that we are living in dangerous times. Synagogues fear for the lives of their worshipers, Jews are attacked in almost every major North American city, Jewish gravestones are desecrated almost everywhere in our country.

Yes, my friends. We have a serious problem.

Now I realize not everyone may like President Trump.

I get that.

But regardless how you might feel about him, you have to give him credit for signing an Executive Order today providing new and stronger protections for Jewish students on college campuses against anti-Semitic attacks and harassment. 

The President’s decision offers support to proposed bipartisan legislation that would mandate protections for Jewish students by amending Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin by schools that receive federal funds.[1] Although the original Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not specifically mention anti-Semitism, Trump’s the Executive Order will now mandate the enforcement of Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism; it will fight vigorously as anti-Semitism as it does against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.

As Jews, we should be cheering that at last, college campuses’ tolerance of anti-Semitism will now be dealt properly. It is a pity it took so long for it to happen. College administrators will have to do more to combat this evil presence at their universities.

In fairness for people who may differ with me, some fear it will stifle free speech and criticism of Israel’s polices. Others don’t like the idea of thinking about Jews as a national group; others but the truth is, Jews have been arguing over “Who is a Jew?” for decades. Are we a nation, a culture, a race, a religion? Probably a little bit of all the above.

Anti-Semitic movements claim they are “merely protesting against the racist and apartheid policies of Israel,” but their hatred against Israel has more often translated into bullying Jewish students. Now, the universities could lose their federal funding if they don’t take action against discrimination targeting Jewish students. Anti-Zionist rhetoric often reveals its true animus: a hatred of all things Jewish.

Every synagogue ought to be happy the President did not allow the bipartisan resolution to this problem to be kicked down the road; such a listless reaction only compounds the problem of anti-Semitism on the campus—it does not solve it.  As the OU proclaimed in its statement, “Those who seek to use our academic institutions as places to stoke anti-Jewish sentiment are now on notice: There will be consequences for their racism.”[2]

Anti-Semitism on college campuses has been growing exponentially since 2015, when the ADL documented over 47 incidents involving anti-Semitic symbols and depictions written against Jews in spray paint. That year, at UC Davis, during the 70th Anniversary of Auschwitz, recorded numerous acts of vandalism on the Jewish fraternity’s walls.

But today, the Anti-Defamation League said it had recorded 201 anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses last year, which was down from 204 in 2017. The distinction between a religion and a nationality or ethnicity is an important one in U.S. law, as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars educational institutions that receive federal money from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin, but does not cover religious discrimination.

Some people in my community claim today’s anti-Semitism derives primarily from white supremacists. They ignore the fact much of today’s anti-Semitism derives from some of the most prestigious universities of our nation—especially those that have strong liberal arts programs. The institutions intended to expand young peoples’ minds is being subverted by radical forces who wish to distort and disfigure the soul of our nation.

 Jewish college students in many of the country’s most respected schools experience an animus not just for being pro-Zionist, but for having the temerity to admit they are proud Jews. One of the most egregious examples can be seen at UC Berkeley, where in March, 2015, Jewish students discovered anti-Semitic flyers, drawings with swastikas, and graffiti urging that “All Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber.”

Most Jewish students I know are afraid to where a Star of David.

In 2018, at UC Berkeley, a Jewish professor receives a death threat; in the message, the writer  “mentioned Hitler and called for killing the professor, using an extremely racist epithet for ‘Jew,’” said Benjamin Brinner, faculty director at the Center for Jewish studies. [3]   

Having grown up in Berkeley, I have seen the radicalism of the UC campus. When UC Berkeley introduced Palestinian Hatem Bazian, as a guest lecturer, in a Tweet, he depicted an Orthodox Jewish male as an “Ashke-Nazi,” with a caption underneath the depiction, “I am chosen! I can now kill, rape, smuggle organs & steal the land of Palestinians *yay*.”[4]  

On Dec 1, 2019 – Jewish students at Toronto’s York University were accosted by a mostly … and Antifa bigots to show up screaming hatred and attacking Jewish … “Go back to the ovens, go back to Europe!” That is exactly what Shar Leyb and two Jewish community members heard in Vari Hall. This ugly comment, marred an event that should have promoted dialogue and understanding between Israelis and Canadians. [5] Instead, the leftist students used it as another occasion to bully Jewish students and progressive people into silence.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is not limited to the college campuses. Like a cancer it spreads its venom throughout the body politic.

Anti-Semitism is rapidly impacting other parts of our society. Less than a week or so ago, Linda Sarsour had the temerity to say, “How can you be against white supremacy in the United States of America … you support a state like Israel that is built on supremacy,” Sarsour said at the 12th Annual Conference for Palestine in Chicago. [6]

For people who hate Jews, Sarsour’s comments is a call for war.

Irresponsible statements like Sarsour’s hateful remark only serve to heighten anti-Jewish bigotry, for Sarsour knows most American Jews have a fondness in their hearts for the State of Israel. Sarsour uses her celebrity status to divide the Jewish community.

Personally, I am astounded and offended by rabbis who support her.

Anti-Semitism behaves like a virus. What develops in one area of society, spreads to another. Hatred of the Jew is an ancient problem, one that is well-documented in the Graeco-Roman literature of Late Antiquity.

The bullying of Jewish students has got to stop. The bullying of Jews in our country has also got to stop. Universities need to champion respectful debate and not use intimidation to keep critics silent.

I personally applaud the President for making this move.

In the final analysis, Hillel’s remark, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” applies to us as Jews living here today.

History will remember how we respond.

===== NOTES:


[1] Legislation to enact this policy has been supported by the Orthodox Union and other major Jewish organizations for years and sponsored by a broad set of bipartisan leaders including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.); and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and many others. Yet, it has failed to pass Congress.

[2] https://advocacy.ou.org/orthodox-union-applauds-president-trump-for-executive-order-to-provide-stronger-protections-for-jewish-college-students-against-anti-semitism-on-campus-order-implements-a-policy-long-sought-by-bipart/

[3] https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/02/23/uc-berkeley-investigating-antisemitic-death-threat-targeting-jewish-professor/

[4] https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/02/23/uc-berkeley-investigating-antisemitic-death-threat-targeting-jewish-professor/

[5] https://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/bds-and-antifa-bigots-shout-back-to-the-ovens-at-torontos-york-u/2019/12/01/

[6] https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/americas/1575389255-firebrand-activist-linda-sarsour-claims-israel-built-on-idea-of-jewish-supremacy

The Pole who purposely got sent to Auschwitz

The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather, Custom House, 2019, ISBN 00625-61413; 528 pages, $21.95.

By Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel

 Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — When San Diego Jewish World editor Don Harrison asked me to review Jack Fairweather’s book, The Volunteer,  about a Polish resistance fighter during the Holocaust, I decided I would read it. After all, not all the Poles hated the Jews, and one young Polish man took a bullet to save my father’s life.

We often think the Jews during the Holocaust were too timid and afraid to fight back. This however is a myth. The most dramatic story of resistance occurred with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Additionally, in some concentration camps, Jewish prisoners did attempt to rebel. The uprising at Sobibor inspired a 1987 film which aired on ITV and CBS. Other efforts to resist also took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.

Now, biographer Jack Fairweathernarrates a remarkable story about a Polish resistance fighter’s infiltration of Auschwitz to sabotage the camp from within, and his daring escape to warn the Allies about the Nazis’ true plans for a “Final Solution.”

The book highlights the power of a single individual who tried to make a difference.

In an attempt to uncover the fate of the thousands being interred at a mysterious Nazi camp on the border of the Reich, a young Polish resistance fighter named Witold Pilecki volunteered for an audacious mission: intentionally get captured and transported to the new camp to report back on what was going on there. But gathering information was not his only task: he was to execute an attack from inside—where the Germans would least expect it.

The place of his assignment: Auschwitz.

Over the next two and half years, Pilecki assembled an underground army within Auschwitz that sabotaged facilities, assassinated Nazi informants and officers, and smuggled out evidence revealing the terrifying abuse and mass murder of the Jews. But as the annihilation of innocents accelerated, Pilecki realized he would have to attempt another perilous mission: escape Auschwitz and somehow—with more than 900 miles of Nazi-occupied territory in the way—deliver his alert to London before all was lost.  Pilecki hoped that his reports, once sneaked out of the camp, would rouse the Allies to bomb Auschwitz.

This never happened.

My father used to tell me that they could see the American planes flying over Auschwitz, but no command was ever given to blow up the tracks leading to the concentration camp—even though it most certainly would have shortened the war, because the same trains used to transport the Jews were also used to transport military equipment for the Nazi armies. There was a sardonic joke that everyone in Auschwitz knew. When transporting military equipment in the trains, there was a sign on the top of the trains that read, “This train contains Jews!”

One would have expected Pilecki would have been declared a national hero. But this was the age of Stalin, who used the opportunity to expand his own sphere of Communist influence in Eastern Europe; and so he created the Iron Curtain—whose 64th anniversary of liberation we are celebrating this week.

Tyrannies fear heroes who fight for human dignity and freedom. The Communists feared Witold Pilecki because he was a Polish nationalist who fought for the Polish resistance movement.

After the war, the Polish Communist government hid the entire record of what Pilecki tried to do. Perhaps fearing what Pilecki’s following might try to do against the ruthless leaders of the Polish Communist government, the authorities arrested over 80,000 members of Pilecki’s underground. “The regime determined “Witold’s family to be enemies of the state, and [Witold’s wife] Maria retreated into obscurity as a cleaner in a church orphanage,” Fairweather wrote. “The regime sealed Witold’s papers in the state archives, and Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz fashioned an official history of Auschwitz that presented its Communist inmates like himself as heroes in a global struggle against fascism and imperialism. The Holocaust was barely mentioned in this telling, and he characterized Witold’s group as ‘proto-fascist.'”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and their vassal states, Witold’s son Andrzej managed to get the records of his father’s report from 1943-1944. The papers included a memoir of his early life, additional notes, interrogation files, and the crucial key to his coded references. It was the first time that the family had had a chance to read about Witold’s mission in his own words.

The citizens of Poland have the world’s highest count of individuals who have been recognized by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, as the Righteous Among the Nations, for saving Jews from extermination during the Holocaust in World War II.[1]

Fairweather deserves a tremendous amount of credit for writing this book. The author spent five years reviewing over 2000 primary sources in Polish and German. Some of these sources became available only in the 1970’s and others were released with the fall of Communism in Poland and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989. The sources revealed that the Allies were well aware of the atrocities of Auschwitz, but did not consider the camp strategic for the purpose of defeating the Germans.

Menachem Begin is purported to have once said, “The Holocaust occurred so that Hitler would not conquer the world, for instead of defeating his enemies in battle, he wasted his resources and time murdering the Jews instead.”

Witold’s legacy needs to be celebrated in Poland—even now as we witness the rise of Polish anti-Semitism occurring today.

*
Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

New Review on Rabbi Samuel’s many insights into Maimonides Hidden Torah Commentary

November 3, 2019 / L

Book Review:Maimonides Hidden Torah Commentaries: Genesis: 22-50by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel.

By Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin

Rabbi Israel Drazin

BOCA RATON, Florida — This is the wonderful second volume on Genesis by the very wise scholar Rabbi Michael Samuel. It is part of his series of easy-to-read books that he is writing on Maimonides. This is a second volume on Genesis because Rabbi Samuel has much to reveal to us about the first of the Five Books of Moses. This volume and the others is divided by parasha, the traditional division of 54 weekly portions that are read during synagogue services and which rabbis in the Talmud encouraged Jews to read and study weekly.

Rabbi Samuel notes that the teachings of Maimonides are embedded and scattered throughout his philosophical, legal, and even medical and other writings. He collected and distilled the teachings from the various sources and offers them in a clear organized fashion.

His work is comprehensive, full of information, and eye-opening. The writings on each parasha is divided by chapters; each of which is subdivided by subjects that Rabbi Samuel addresses in clear detail. For example, in Genesis chapter 1, he examines 22 subjects, such as the meaning of Elohim, the purpose of creation, the reason for marriages, God does not decree moral behavior, the nature of biblical metaphors, exempting women from some biblical commands, and more.

Similarly, chapter 22, which contains the well-known story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, contains 11 subdivisions. Among them are the nature of divine trials, Isaac’s age at the time of the near sacrifice, the objective of God’s commandments, Maimonides vs. Gersonides on divine knowledge of human activities before they occur, and did the Akedah actually happen or was it a vision.

In chapter 4, to site another example, among much else, he offers views on the origin of idol worship by such people as Thomas Aquinas, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, David Hartman, and others. In chapter 9, he includes a discussion on the Seven Noahide Commandments. In chapter 15, there is Maimonides’ position on divine determinism. In chapter 19, what is an angel. In chapter 23, Maimonides’ view on visiting graves. In chapter 32, the issue, among much more, is can a human wrestle with an angel?

In other chapters, he discusses Maimonides’ teachings on subjects such as the origin of the annual Torah reading cycle, the difference between “believing in God” and “knowing God” and how can one know God, the thirteen principles that Maimonides wrote, why one can violate the sabbath to save a life, and much more.
If these many discussions were all that Rabbi Samuel offered his readers, this would have been a valuable book, but there is much more.

Rabbi Samuel begins this wide-ranging and far reaching book with a prequel which contains significant facts about the great sage’s life and his books – philosophy, legal, medical, responses, letters – and the criticism by Ra’avad, ibn Daud, and others. He tells, for example, the fact that Maimonides was almost executed by Muslims for acting as a Muslim to save his life while he and his family lived in Morocco but returned to being openly Jewish when he arrived in safety in Egypt.

The book compares Maimonides to Saadiah Gaon, to Ramban (Nachmanides), Abraham ibn Ezra, and many others. It gives Maimonides’ views on many other subjects, including aggadic language and midrash generally. It tells about the treatment of the biblical text by the Greek translation called the Septuagint. It is filled with the keen views of Maimonides’s son Abraham. It discusses subjects such as omens, visions vs. dreams, and whether Abraham ibn Ezra is correct when he maintains that some parts of the Five Books of Moses were added after his death.

The book also has many excurses. There are those on Targum Onkelos, the Shekhinah, the differences between Maimonides and famous Bible commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, Saadiah Gaon, Nachmanides, Hasdai Crescas, and many others, Jews and non-Jews.

There is no doubt but that readers of Rabbi Samuel’s book will enjoy what they read and learn much.

*
Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and the author of more than 50 books.

Chutzpah and Balagan–an Israeli Synthesis

November 4, 2019 

Chutzpah: Why Israel is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship by Iban Arieli, Harper Business, 2019; ISBN 00628-83038; $18.99.

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The State of Israel is an amazing place. Ever wonder about the secrets behind how Israel, a tiny country with the highest concentration of start-ups per capita worldwide, is raising generations of entrepreneurs who are disrupting markets around the globe and bringing change to the world?

What factors have led to these remarkable achievements, and what secrets do Israeli tech entrepreneurs know that others can learn?

Chutzpah: Why Israel is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship by Inbal Arieli is a book for anyone interested in understanding the unique personality of Israel’s creative world.

Israel is often called, the “Silicon Wadi,” and ranks third in the World Economic Forum Innovation Rating. This is an amazing ranking considering the size of Israel. Arieli noted that Israel attracts more venture capital per capita than any other country on the planet. Arieli also pointed out that Israel’s economic accomplishments are no fluke. Jewish tradition has long taught Jews how to question and think “outside the box.”

What is it about that tiny, resourceful and creative country that explains its astounding success in technology, medicine, and the military? According to Arieli it unpredictably starts in pre-school playing with junk.

For example, in the West when children are given a new shiny toy such as a spaceship, xylophone, or what-have-you, it is not long before they turn them into junk. In Israel pre-school children are given discarded household items – junk – with which they are given free rein to transform that junk into whatever things they conjure up in their imagination. A couple of instances of that are when a discarded microwave might be converted into the control panel of an imaginary spacecraft or the broken keys of a keyboard, disassembled and turned into whatever strikes a chord, in the child’s mind.

Creating from chaos. In Modern Hebrew, chaos is referred to as a balagan. Ironically, Israelis have learned that from chaos comes order, from unusableness comes use, whose application is restricted only by the limits of one’s creativity and imagination. Granted, playing with junk in a chaotic environment is a recipe for potentially hazardous outcomes. Not only do Israeli children engage in, what we in the West call, ‘playing with fire’, they celebrate it.

While chutzpah has given generations of Israelis the courage to break away from conventional thinking, the Israeli concept of balagan really tells the story of how Israelis are taught to interact with the world. Instead of following strict rules, balagan fosters ambiguity, encouraging the development of the skills necessary for dealing with the unpredictability of life and business. Living with balagan offers Israelis the opportunity to constantly practice the soft skills defined by the World Economic Forum as the Skills for the Future, as balagan promotes creativity, problem-solving, and independence—key characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.

By revealing the unique ways in which Israelis parent, educate and acculturate, Chutzpah offers invaluable insights and proven strategies for success to aspiring entrepreneurs, parents, executives, innovators, and policymakers.

In one story, Arieli tells the story about a seventeen-year-old named Gilad from Ashdod. He describes his enrichment program:

We are given basic coding skills and then they throw at us into a deep end. We are challenged with complex assignments such as building a chess game, without instructions, in an autodidactic way. This year my group is working on a car-robot that drives according to certain calculations and knows how to scan and map the area to which it wants to go, manually and automatically.

Israel is so amazing, Asian countries send delegations to observe how and why Israelis are so driven to be successful.

One of the reasons why this book is so important for readers today is because of the BDS movement that is trying cripple the Israeli economy. “BDS” is an acronym for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets what the campaign describes as Israel’s obligations under international law. Surprisingly, there are a number of Jews, like Bernie Sanders, and others who are doing their best to force Israel to do their bidding. Most Americans owe a debt of gratitude for how ordinary Israelis are making our lives easier and better today.

Think about it.

Israel is always coming up with new discoveries to combat and limit the destructive effects of cancer. Israel developed the PillCam – the first pill that can be swallowed to record images of the digestive tract. The capsule contains a miniature camera that is the size and the same shape as a pill, This invention is used very widely and was an extremely significant development in the field of medicine. Israel is very close to eliminating many strands of cancer—anyone wishing to boycott Israel ought to think how this might be dangerous to one’s health.

In terms of agriculture, Israel’s drip irrigation systems – The huge worldwide industry of modern drip irrigation is used in California and other places around the world. Newer technologies are now creating water out of the air, and this technology is being made available throughout the driest regions of the planet. Israel has developed new agricultural technology that can keep fruit and vegetables fresher for an extra two weeks!

Arieli manages to explain the inexplicable: how Israel’s difficult security situation has actually become a fertile ground for technological and economic development.

In Israel, necessity is the mother of invention.

In the final analysis, the world is a better place because of Israeli creativity. I think anyone who reads this book will learn much about the characteristics that makes Israel a culture of creativity and life.

This book gave me a new appreciation for the methodology and history of Israeli innovation. Aside from the flash drive or the cherry tomatoes that were developed in Israel, just go the Wikipedia section on Israeli innovation—you will be amazed.

*
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

Zombies as an Existential Metaphor

Every year around Halloween time, many Americans watch a variety of monster movies pertaining to creatures who are often “undead.” Let’s be honest, there is nothing appealing about zombies. They lack the sexiness of vampires; they lack the glamor and good manners. At least vampires know how to blend in society.

But the monsters I wish to comment upon are not the vampires or Frankenstein—but the disgusting creatures better known to us as “zombies.” These creatures project an image of ourselves that make us feel uncomfortable—a rotting corpse, reminding us about the power of death. Zombies have no redeeming qualities. Unlike vampires, you cannot have conversation with them at the dinner table.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ZOMBIES

The history of zombies goes back to antiquity.

Archaeologists have unearthed many Greek graves, where skeletons were pinned down by rocks and other heavy debris intended to keep the dead in the grave. And while moderns generally view the idea of zombies with total disbelief, one might wonder what led to people believing in the idea that the dead are really, but mysteriously still “alive”?

Most myths about the human condition have a basis in fact.

When I was a child, I remember watching a film back in 1962 that scarred me like no other film I have ever seen, the film entitled, “The Premature Burial” was based on a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Its main character expresses concern about being buried alive. But were people buried alive?

Most certainly.

Physicians for the greater part of history oftentimes could not discern when somebody had actually, “died.” Someone in a deep coma was often believed to be “dead.” Perhaps this experience gave rise to the zombie and vampire movies and literature. Short of waiting for the body to decompose, the medical community had few means of certifying death, and the burgeoning press was quick to sensationalize any hasty pronouncements.

In my old community of Glens Falls, New York, you could see bells attached to graves dating back to the 18th century during the Revolutionary War period.

My interest in zombies has changed considerably over the decades. As a student of anthropology and religion, I wondered: If zombies are a metaphor, what do they represent in the human psyche? In one sense, these beings stand only at the periphery of human consciousness. In some ways, they are akin to people who are sleepwalking through life. The sleepwalker is hardly aware who he is and how s/he fits in the grand picture of life; nor does s/he know what his/her purpose is. Sleepwalkers and zombies merely react to life, instead of creating a life that is driven by purpose, creativity, and curiosity for higher truth and moral fulfillment.

From a Marxist perspective, zombies could be an apt metaphor for those who feel the emptiness of consumerism. Perhaps more than other monster, zombies characterize our most unthinking and relentlessly hungry selves. And the tragedy is no matter how much they consume, their desire for food can never be filled (they sort of remind me of being a hungry teenager).

In the literary mindscape of George Romero’s later film Dawn of the Dead, he purposely set the film in a shopping mall! He depicts his zombies pushing shopping carts around the mall, acting as though they are still alive.  They live for only shopping. Is this not a disturbing image of our dystopian world that portrays modern society as a world that is driven by consumerism? It is astounding how the promises of consumerism even makes use of spiritual themes, such as the Golden Arches of McDonalds, creating an axis-mundi where human beings can enjoy the transcendental bliss of “becoming one” with what they eat.

In Romero’s films, his zombie walkers just want to have fun. And in a society where healthy spiritual values are no longer promoted in our schools and workplaces, we are a witnessing a generation that is spiritually “lost in space”  and the monotony of daily routines has often driven young people to edge of despair and insanity—as we see in the plethora of school-shootings around the nation. For young people whose lives feels constrained by unemployment and debt, or those whose jobs are both unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.

George Romero’s later film Dawn of the Dead is set primarily in a shopping mall. Many of the zombies continue to push shopping carts around the mall and act as if they are still alive. Their prime remaining instinct is to shop. Though made in 1978, its vision portrays modern society as a world that is driven by consumerism; and its basic human instinct of “shop till you drop” – even if you’re undead – was prescient, and troublingly accurate about rapacious consumerism.

ZOMBIES AS A SOCIAL METAPHOR

I sense that part of the reason for the current fad for zombie walks, lies in an unconscious recognition of the way in which post-industrial, consumerist culture wishes to reduce us to narrow modes of identity. Yes, Romero’s zombie walkers want to have fun, but they also want to expose the ways in which society damages our sense of self. In an age where many lives, especially those of the young, are constrained by long-term unemployment, and many who have a job find it unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.

So, when you see the zombie walking in a shopping-mall near you, ask yourself: Should zombies be considered “persons”? Perhaps more importantly, what is the meaning of personhood in a modern society today? It is a question that pro-lifers have certainly raised with the status of the unborn, and it is a legitimate question considering how technology has revealed personality traits present in the fetus of twins, who carefully can be seen touching each other sensitively in ultra-sound pictures. Can the concept of personhood be applied to our pets too? Perhaps it is the denial of personhood in ourselves and others that the zombie metaphor reveals a phantasm of what it means to be fulfilling and self-actualizing.

ZOMBIES REVEAL OUR EXISTENTIAL FEAR OF DEATH

One could argue that the plethora of zombie depictions developed at a time when young people have witnessed some of the greatest horrors of modern life—such as the attack of 9/11. In addition, the baby-boomer generation is getting (unfortunately) increasingly older. Simply put, we are afraid of dying. Yet the Stoics have long taught us that people who tend to be afraid of dying are almost invariably afraid of authentic living.

To overcome our uneasiness about our mortality, we need to accept the fact that our mortality is a fact that we are already experiencing. In this sense, life is a series of continuous rebirths. The infant and child I once was has died long ago. Yet, each day that passes, I remind myself by saying the Modeh Ani prayer that today I am a new person. When I look at the mirror, I try to remind myself that I am more than just the sum of my physical body-parts. There is a profoundly spiritual dimension that must transcend our need and desire to live for consumerism.

A MAIMONIDEAN APPROACH TO OUR EXISTENTIAL ANSGST

Although Maimonides had no inkling of the idea of zombies, he did manage to develop an alternative approach that we ought to consider in our contemporary era.  The central problem Maimonides grappled with is: How do we tell when we are asleep or if we are awake? Are we condemned to live our lives as if we were asleep?

For him, the best way to awaken us from the absence of purpose and spirituality in our lives is to pay attention to the sound of the shofar—as an instrument of raising consciousness. For him, the shofar works as an alarm. You could say that the sound of the Shofar is like an ancient form of shock therapy. Maimonides points out that the shofar was meant to stir people up from their sleep.

In short, recognizing the reality of our mortality need not paralyze ourselves with a morbid fear of the future. On the contrary, being aware that our time in this world is limited can offer ourselves the opportunity to really make a difference in the world without succumbing to the contemporary dystopian view of man as a mere consumer, or someone whose bio-footprint epitomizes the essence of our earthly journey in this world.

I believe the near-death experience has shown many countless people an alternative view of our ultimate destiny, but that is a topic for a future discussion and article.

Have a Happy Halloween with your children and friends!

The Ethical Problem of the Kapparot Ritual

What is Kapparot?

Yom Kippur has its own unique customs and traditions, and one of the most historically controversial customs involves taking a chicken and swinging it around one’s head. When I was a Hasidic youth, I recall getting up early in the morning before dawn to reenact the tradition better known as “Shlugging Kaparos,” or “Kapparot.”

According to the Artscroll Machzor for Yom Kippur, scriptural verses from   Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24 are recited. Then a rooster (for a man) or a hen (for a woman) is held above the person’s head and the participant swings the bird  in a circle three times, while the following is spoken: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.” The chicken is then slaughtered and may or may not be given to the poor for food.

If the woman is pregnant, then she takes two hens and a rooster instead (one for her and the other for her unborn child, depending upon the gender—thus equaling three altogether).[1] I always found this aspect of the ritual puzzling, especially since who could be more innocent than a fetus? After all, Jews aren’t supposed to believe in Original Sin! In terms of the color, it became customary to use a white chicken, to recall the verse ‎ אִם־יִהְיוּ חֲטָאֵיכֶם כַּשָּׁנִים כַּשֶּׁלֶג יַלְבִּינוּ אִם־יַאְדִּימוּ כַתּוֹלָע כַּצֶּמֶר יִהְיוּ“Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool” (Isa. 1:18). Curiously, one should not use a black chicken, as black is the color that represents divine severity and discipline. Nor should one use a blemished chicken.

The Talmud did not mention such a ritual; it was discussed only in the 9th century. One reason why the early sages did not mention it is because the rabbis were very cautious to avoid enacting ritual sacrifices for atonement—especially since the Temple had long been destroyed.

A scriptural allusion to Kapparot derived from the word גֶּבֶר “gever,” which may mean either “man” or “cock,”[2] and the medievalists supposed that a rooster or hen could serve as an instrument of atonement.

History of Kapparot

Ever since biblical times, the Torah used animal sacrifices as a surrogate for the sinful individual wishing to seek atonement.

Most of our readers might be surprised to know that some of the most significant medieval rabbinical scholars regarded the Kapparot as a heathen superstition.[3] Rashbam objected to the ritual in Barcelona, which included killing one chicken for each child in the house and then hanging the chicken heads on the doorpost along with garlic (it keeps away vampires I am told.)

Many years ago, a former witch in my community returned to her Jewish roots and commented how the Kapparot rituals resembled customs practiced by witches. She was correct!  The Santeria, an Afro-American religion of Yoruba origin that developed in Cuba among West African descendants. Often chickens are sacrificed to ward off illnesses believed to be caused by evil spirits, or for divination.[4]

The waving of the chickens in a circle three times also constituted a “magic circle” (a.k.a. a mandala in the Eastern religious traditions) where spiritual forces are evoked to protect a person from evil. This idea is commonplace in almost all religious communities around the world. Spiritual forces can thus be evoked without danger.

Modern Objections to Kapparot

One of my favorite criticisms against Kapparot derives from R. Shlomo Goren, who was arguably one of the greatest Chief Rabbis of Israel in recent memory. Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren notes that “Kapparot is not consistent with Jewish teachings and law. Repentance and charity can be better accomplished by using money instead of a slaughtered chicken”

Humanitarian considerations is another important reason to discontinue Kapparot. “Anyone who walks through the markets can see that the manner in which the chickens are held before the Kapparot is insufferable. There is no veterinary supervision and no concern for the feelings of these poor creatures.” -Rabbi Gilad Kariv.[5]

Rabbinical tradition basing itself on the ethos of the Torah stressed we must do everything in our power to prevent tsar’ ba’ale hayyim—cruelty toward animals. Between 2005 and 2006, the SPCA in New York City confiscated hundreds of starving chickens who were abandoned in crates after the ritual was finished; these creatures were crammed in cages while sitting in their own excrement. It is hard to imagine how any pious Jew could act so indifferently toward these forlorn creatures of God.

But in 2006 in Los Angelos, the birds had their vocal cords removed so none of the participants would feel repulsed by their screams of pain.  

Although it is frequently claimed these slaughtered chickens are given to charity, the reality is that there is never refrigeration equipment at a Kapparot event. This meat is probably not edible, or shouldn’t be eaten and would never meet the rigorous requirements of the federal Poultry Products Inspection Acts for human consumption. But this much we know for sure. Helpers for the ritual slaughterers could be seen tossing the birds, covered in blood and often dusted with feces from their time in stacked crates, into trash bags and cans after their throats were slit.

It is important to note that the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Pasadena heard an argument on behalf of United Poultry Concerns in a case against Chabad of Irvine for unfair business practices in charging a fee to illegally kill and dispose of chickens for Kapparot. Unfortunately, “the district court ruled it was not a business practice.  However, the decision is being appealed.  The district court expressed no opinion on the underlying legality/illegality of the manner in which the chickens are killed and disposed.”[6]

The winds of change do occur—howbeit slowly—among the Orthodox.

As R. Shlomo Brody suggested that there is a new sensibility is becoming the new standard for our ethical behavior concerning animals:

  • “On the eve of this holy day,” said the late Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi, “why should we display unnecessary cruelty to these animals and mercilessly kill them before requesting from God mercy upon us?” The mass killing of animals, he added, contradicts a different medieval custom, almost entirely forgotten today, of refraining from all slaughter before the New Year as an act of increased mercy on God’s creatures. In this spirit, and given increased accusations of mishandling of the chickens, prominent figures like Rabbis Shlomo Aviner and David Stav have urged Jews to err on the side of treating animals kindly and use money instead. Traditionalism should, of course, have its place, but on the eve of Yom Kippur, we shouldn’t turn a request for mercy into an act of cruelty.[7]

I will conclude with a brief anecdote from the Hassidic community—an appropriate reference for todays’ Hasidic Jews to remember and ever be mindful of observing.  I came across an article written by a colleague, Rabbi Everett Gendler, who wrote:

  • Rabbi Zusya used to travel around the countryside collecting money to ransom prisoners. One night he came to an inn in which there was a large cage with all kinds of birds in it. Zusya saw that the creatures wanted to fly free through the spaces of the world. He burned with pity for them and said to himself, “Here you are, Zusya, walking your feet off to ransom prisoners, but what greater ransoming of prisoners can there be than to free these birds from their prison?” Then he opened the cage and the birds flew out to freedom.[8]

Although the Chabad website claims the practice of Kapparot also serves a humanitarian purpose, “In fact, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that we take the innards and liver of the Kapparot chickens and place them in an area where birds can feed off them. “It is proper to show mercy to the creatures on this day, so that in Heaven they should have mercy upon us [too].”[9] In actuality, as mentioned earlier, in Brooklyn as well as in Los Angelos, and other places, the slaughtered birds are discarded as garbage. There is nothing even remotely kind about this kind of cynical behavior.[10]

If you’re going to slaughter a chicken, biblical law requires that one at least eat the chicken. To do otherwise is violation of the negative commandment of bal tashchit—do not destroy or waste—has long been considered central to a Jewish environmental ethic (Deut. 20:19–20)

The Chabad movement and other Hasidic communities ought to atone for its callous disregard for these birds.


[1] OH 605:4.

[2] Cf. BT Shabbat 67b. This usage is much rarer and does not occur in Biblical Hebrew.

[3] Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488 – 1575) in his Shulchan Aruch, OH 605:1. Other notable detractors include Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 1194–1270; Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (Rashba, 1235–1310) in Teshuvot HaRashba 1:395. ). Comp. in OH, Hilkhot Erev Yom Kippur 1.

[4]Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, Mysteries and Secrets of Voodoo, Santeria, and Obeah (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008), p. 203.

[5] Quoted in ynetnews.com 09/28/2006

[6] https://edboks.com/2018/11/kapparot-9th-circuit-argument-tuesday/

[7] https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/185741/a-brief-history-of-a-fowl-custom

[8] Rabbi Everett Gendler, The Life of His Beast.

[9] Tur Shulchan Aruch & Shulchan Aruch OH Rama 605. Tashbatz. Bayit Chadash. Turei Zahav 104. OH 605:6.

[10] https://gothamist.com/news/are-thousands-of-ritually-slaughtered-chickens-being-turned-into-biodiesel