Thoughts on Putin and Trump’s meeting in Helsinki– A Contrarian Point of View

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and suit

Some people may view this topic too incendiary to write about—I get it. Yet, it is an important issue—especially when we consider the high stakes that are at risk. My point of view is contrarian. Consider me a contrarian life-long Democrat who values truth and integrity above politics.

Admittedly, President Trump can be a lightning rod when it comes to some of the things that he says off the cuff. Yet, he has been surprisingly effective in the international arena. By “arena,” the images of the Roman Coliseum comes to mind. I thought President Obama or Bush had his detractors, but President Donald Trump is in a league of his own.

With this thought in mind, I would like to share some thoughts on the President’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, who in his own way, is every bit as complicated as our President.

Before Trump met with Putin, I could hear the naysayers say that having a summit with Putin was a bad idea. What could Trump gain from such a meeting? If he publicly confronts Putin about the Russians interfering in the American elections, then it is quite possible the critics of Trump would construe such a remark as an admission that he did not legitimately “win the election.” Conversely, if Trump did not publicly address the problem, then his critics would view him as weak—or worse argue that Trump is a puppet of Putin.

It reminds me of an old story—one, in fact, that is relevant to the holiday of Tisha’ b’Av

  • In Roman times, a Jew once walked in front of Emperor Hadrian and greeted him. The King asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am a Jew.” Hadrian exclaimed, “How dare a Jew to pass in front of Hadrian and greet him?” and he ordered his officers, “Off with his head!” Another Jew passed and, seeing what happened to the first man, did not greet him. Hadrian asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “A Jew.”
  • He exclaimed, “How dare a Jew pass in front of Hadrian without giving a greeting?” and again ordered his officers, “Off with his head!” His senators said, “We cannot understand your actions. He who greeted you was put to death, and he who did not greet you was put to death!”
  • Hadrian replied, “How dare you advise me on how I should execute those I hate?” And the Holy Spirit kept crying out, “You have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord; judge my cause. You have seen all their malice, all their plots against me.” (Lam. 3:59-60).[1]

If you substitute “Democratic Party” (or even certain members of the Republican Party), and change “Jew” to “Trump,” you have an almost perfect parallel to the midrashic story mentioned above.

Arguably, Trump’s greatest criticisms come from two major groups: (1)  Those who hate Trump and who will criticize the President for anything he does. (2). Those few in the military and intelligence communities who are wholly bought and owned by the war industries, for it is in their financial interests to have the US and Russia armed to the teeth and at each other’s throats. Eisenhower warned us about the excesses of the American military complex.

One of the more objective Republican critics of President Trump is Rand Paul, whose fierce independence as a thinker and as a leader has challenged the President on numerous occasions in the past. He is sometimes known as the “the Republican who saved ObamaCare.” In an article he wrote for the Washington Post, his remarks on the Trump-Putin meeting impressed me as clear-headed and thought-provoking. Paul was supportive of both these men meeting. Paul further pointed out to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Trump’s legion of critics are motivated by a mutual animus they have for him. Comically, he even referred to the enemies of Trump as suffering from “a bit of Trump derangement syndrome.”

Now that was truly funny!

When Paul was asked by Blitzer “Who do you trust [on election meddling], the American intelligence community . . . or Putin?” Paul gave an interesting diplomatic answer, ““What I would say is that all power needs to have checks and balances, and I think our intelligence community has way too much power.”[2] . (This interview happened before Trump claimed Tuesday that he misspoke when he gave Putin the benefit of the doubt).” It is a pity Trump did not have Rand Paul coaching him. If I were him, I’d bring him along next time he meets with Putin.

Paul agrees with Trump that engaging pariah global powers is more productive than punishing them. This writer agrees with this objective. Shaming a world leader is a very dangerous thing to do—especially when it is guaranteed to escalate tensions and make a potential adversary. more hostile.

The world has become a very dangerous place over the last thirty years or more. The Iranian presence in Syria is so serious; a war between Israel and Iran is almost inevitable. The two most powerful leaders of the world have within their ability to take control of this dangerous situation.

The proliferation of nuclear technology is another serious problem that can engulf Western Civilization with destruction. Once again, the two leaders of the most powerful nuclear nations must establish a dialogue and address these issues. Remarkably, Trump’s diplomacy with China and North Korea has the potential of yielding positive fruit. Whether you hate Trump or not, at least give him credit for being innovative and bold—whereas leaders in the past, beginning with Clinton, Bush, and Obama and their underlings only appeased the North Korean dictators.

Give Trump credit for decimating the ranks of ISIS, who proved they are a presence that must be utterly defeated for world peace.

One of the most memorable lines Trump expressed—one that really ought to command our respect, “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace, than risk peace in pursuit of politics.” Once again, this statement comes from a man whose vision may help pave the way for a safer world for all of us to co-inhabit.

As my good Internet Indian friend, Imitz Mohummad, wrote to me, “These jerks want Trump to punch Putin in the nose and start a nuclear war with the other major nuclear force on Earth. I’m a patriot and a believer in a powerful America. I have also witnessed the body bags filled with the fruit of American youth when fat old saber rattlers play soldier. Trump was masterful in Helsinki. The Swamp Donkeys may scream but tonight the world is better off that these two men shook hands!”

Amen!

Postscript:

One of the most interesting remarks regarding the Russian meddling came from Putin who floated an offer for members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team to “come and work” with Russian investigators and interrogate those individuals, whom Mueller recently indicted.  During the Monday press conference, Putin said Russia would allow the special counsel to “send an official request” to the Kremlin to question the 12 Russian intelligence officers who had been charged by Mueller with crimes related to election meddling just three days earlier. Moreover, there is an extradition policy that both the US and Russia have agreed to.

Trump’s reaction was cute, Putin “offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.”

Indeed it is.

But this is assuming that Mueller or his team take Putin up on his offer. I doubt it, much like the Roman senators could not persuade Hadrian to let go of his animus toward the Jews.

Lastly, and Putin also made an interesting counter-argument that should not be ignored. Putin accused U.S. officials of committing crimes against Russia and said his government would want to question them in return. Specifically, he mentioned an investor named Bill Browder, a  former high-level investor in Russia who has become one of Putin’s most oft-cited enemies for his role in lobbying for the U.S. sanctions bill known as the Magnitsky Act.

Putin countered that Browder’s associates sent $400 million in campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 election.[3]

As always, follow the money trail. Corruption in American politics is a problem no honest American can ignore. Perhaps the inescapable moral comes from the famous proverb, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Do not criticize others if you have similar weaknesses yourself. None of us can afford the sin of self-righteousness.

[1] Lamentations Rabba 3:60,

[2] I would only like to add that the subject of election meddling by the Russians is a topic I would love to address at another time. Simply stated, strong nations do this when it affects a country’s political interest to do so. The Obama administration interfered in the Ukraine elections, which led to Russia’s predictable takeover of the area which holds Russia’s major naval base and sea outlet. The Obama administration interfered in the election of Israel. Lastly, The alleged Russian interference that occurred during the Obama administration did not elicit any criticism from our Commander in Chief, President Obama. The United States, like Russia, has a long history of interfering with elections elsewhere around the globe. See Ishaan Tharoor’s informative article on this subject in the Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/10/13/the-long-history-of-the-u-s-interfering-with-elections-elsewhere/?utm_term=.00572c6d89da.

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

 

[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/16/putin-asked-special-counsel-to-come-and-work-with-russia-trump-says.html

Nature Reflects God’s Justice in the Animal Kingdom

Image result for lion pride

The story is a familiar one. Once a man went out for a walk through the forest. To his sudden surprise, he sees a grizzly bear chasing him. After the bear traps him, he prepares himself for his last rites, he says the Shema Prayer, and to his surprise he sees the bear praying with his eyes closed! But to his surprise, the bear is not reciting the Shema—he is instead saying the blessing, “HaMotzi lechem min ha’aretz!”

By now, most of you heard about how a pride of lions killed suspected poachers at a game reserve in Africa. A field guide found human remains the next day. “Clearly, the poachers had walked into a pride of six lions and some, if not all had been killed,” according to a Facebook post by Fox.

“They were armed with, amongst other things, a high powered rifle with a silencer, an ax, wire cutters and had food supplies for a number of days – all the hallmarks of a gang intent on killing a rhino and removing their horns,” said Fox.

I am reminded of an old medieval aphorism, “Man proposes, but God disposes”

Pious Jews recite Psalm 145:14-17 every day

The eyes of all look hopefully to you;
You give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
You, LORD, are just in all your ways,
faithful in all your works.

After the reading the news story from Africa, this passage took on new meaning for me. Yes, the ways of God are truly just. God not only provides His creatures with an appetizer, but also with main-course and dessert!

Jewish tradition has much to say about hunting.

  • Abbahu said: A man should always strive to identify with the persecuted than of the persecutors as there is none among the birds more persecuted than doves and pigeons, and yet Scripture made them [alone] eligible for the altar (Lev. 1:14).[1]

As Jews, we, in particular, have much to comiserate about whenever we see God’s endangered species being threatened. Anti-Semites, too, have often hunted Jews, throughout history. The Nazis paid a premium for capturing Jews—whether dead or alive.

In the Tanakh, God beckoned Noah to preserve the animal species. The Book of Leviticus tells us “You shall not slaughter an ox or a sheep on one and the same day with its young” (Lev. 22:28). Both Philo of Alexandria and Ramban believe the purpose of this prohibition aims to prevent the destruction of a species. In one famous midrashic text we read:

  • When the Holy Blessed One created the first man, He took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, “Look at my handiwork, see how beautiful and excellent they are! Everything I have created, I created for you! Be careful that you do not corrupt and destroy My world, for if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you.[2]

One of the principle reasons why the Torah limited animals for human consumption that had two kosher characteristics (animals that have split hooves and chew their cud) is to preserve the animal species as a whole. Thus, the Torah imposed limitations upon the human appetite.

Rabbinic law reflects this disdain toward hunting.

  • “How can a man from Israel actively kill an animal for no need other than to fulfill his desire to spend his time hunting? We do not find that people in the Torah are hunters except with Nimrod and Esau. This is not the way of descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…”[3]

One 17th century noted,  “…It is certain that those who shoot arrows after birds and beasts for no purpose at all other than to learn archery, and kill animals for no reason, are destined to stand in judgment for it; for it is not the way of Israel, the holy congregation, to commit evil to any creature for no reason. . .  Killing an animal in order for the joy of pure sport is sheer cruelty “[4]

Anyone who goes to the San Diego Zoo might be surprised at a large number of endangered species that the zoo and other similar habitats are trying to preserve. Unfortunately, there are some people who will do anything to kill these species, for rhino horns are often used in Chinese medicine and their price is considered more valuable than gold.

In my conversation with some Orthodox rabbis, I was surprised to see a number of them argue that there is a place for “big game” centers provided the monies go to promote animal growth in African communities. While this may be true in theory, the corruption and lust for profit may prove to be counterproductive; aside from this, poachers will always try to find a way to circumvent existing laws.

Furthermore, popularizing these big-game trophies only serves to motivate other would be hunters who live for the thrill of the moment.

As Jews who love animals, we cannot stand idly by as malignant people attempt to depopulate the world of these magnificent creatures. Instead of justifying the barbarism of these hunters with contrived Halakhic arguments, we need to remember that God expects human beings and animals to live in a world peaceably with these rare creatures.

One of the great 20th century Jewish mystics, R. Abraham Isaac Kook expressed an ethical thought that people need to hear and consider today:

  • It goes against the clear emotions of the heart that a talmid hakham (Torah scholar), a spiritual man, should be permanently engaged in the taking of animals’ lives. Though shechitah (ritual slaughter)—and in general the consumption of animals—remains a necessity in this world, nevertheless, it would be fitting that this work performed by men who have not yet evolved to the level of refinement of feeling. However, those endowed with ethical sensitivity ought to serve as supervisors (pekidim) in order that the killing of the animals must not become a  barbaric act. Let there be a light that will enter into the heart of meat-eaters–a light that will someday illuminate the world. For those who truly understand the significance of kosher slaughtering, this light is truly contained in the laws of shehitah and tereifot (unfit animals), as is well known to us.[5]

[1] BT Bava Kama 93a

 

[2] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:20.

[3] Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Shailos U’Teshuvot Noda B’Yehudah, Mehadurah Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 10.

[4]  Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover, Kav HaYashar 83.

[5] Igrot Rayah, vol. I, p. 230.

Three Cheers for President Trump!

Image result for new jerusalem embassy pictures

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Obama??

Yes, even Obama.

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

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

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

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

Yashar Koach, President Trump!

 

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

Bad Girls of the Bible and Beyond

Image result for rahab bible imagesImage result for Tamar Judah imagesblackandwhite, lilith, and snake imageImage result for Gomer Hosea images

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

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

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

  1. TAMAR

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

Tamar emerged as the ancestress of the House of David.

  1. RAHAB

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Gomer

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

  1. Mary Magdalene

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

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

Why am I mentioning all of this?

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

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

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

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

Just ask King David.

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

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

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

Image result for shipwreck holding on to a plank pictures images

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

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

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

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

Yes, first class has its benefits.

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

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

=============Image result for David kills Uriah pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

=========

Notes:

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

Pronouncing God’s Name

 

Image result for Kabbalah God's Name images

 

Question: The Name Y H V H having discussions with a Hebrew scholar in Jerusalem and he says that the academy have just discovered that The Letters are YeHoVaH, is this correct?

Answer: No, it still is incorrect. To begin with, God’s Name does not have V in it, but the ancient pronunciation was a W. Christians often use the hideous “Jehovah,” which was a medieval corruption of YHWH. Modern scholars prefer writing, “Yahweh” but I believe leaving out the vowels is a better way to show reverence to the actual name. Part of the problem occurred when the English consonant J took the place of Y and with the German pronunciation of the Hebrew W, which was produced the V sound because the Germans and Englishmen never bothered to ask the Jews about its correct transliteration!

Although Orthodox Jews have maintained that nobody knows how to pronounce the Tetragrammaton, the Karaite Jews—the same Karaite Jews who are responsible for the Masoretic Text, pronounce Yahweh’s Name as “Yi-Hi-Wa.” Over the centuries Jews became increasingly worried about the integrity of God’s Name, partly because of Gnostic reasons, or because the Jews did not want magicians to evoke God’s Name in their magical rituals.

As to its meaning,

In terms of the grammar, the name אֶהְיֶה is written in the Qal imperfect, first person common singular of the verb הָיָה (haya, “to be”), implying incomplete and continuous ongoing action. It is important to remember that the notion of tenses is a European construct. In Hebrew (as well as Greek), verbs either connote completed action (comparable to the past tense), or incomplete action (the infinitive). Hence, אֶהְיֶה suggests as the Septuagint rendered it, I Am the ONE Who IS” (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν = egō eimi ho ōn).  One modern exegete, John Durham offers a clear and most succinct exposition capturing this thought:  

“I AM that I AM,” replies God. The verbs are first person common qal imperfects of the verb היה “to be,” connoting continuing, unfinished action: “I am being that I am being,” or “I am the Is-ing One,” that is, “the One Who Always Is.” Not conceptual being, being in the abstract, but active being, is the intent of this reply. It is a reply that suggests that it is inappropriate to refer to God as “was” or as “will be,” for the reality of this active existence can be suggested only by the present: “is” or “is— ing,” “Always Is,” or “Am.”[1]

The 19th century Jewish exegete M. Kalisch observed that the name, “אהיה is the name by which God calls Himself, and He knows His own nature and attributes; but YHWH is the Name by which men call God, and they cannot comprehend His essence and nature.”[2]There seems to also be a consensus among pre-modern scholars and modern scholars that the name YHWH is associated with the root הָיָה “become, be at hand, exist (phenomenally).” It has a twofold meaning: the active, Self— Existent One (since the word is connected with the verb meaning “to be,” Exod. 3:14); and Israel’s Redeemer (Exod. 6:6). However, God’s actual Name—YHWH—derives from the verb הֹוֶה  that means “is present.”

Keil and Delitzsch explain:

The question (v. 13) … presupposed that the name expressed the nature and operations of God and that God would manifest in deeds the nature expressed in the name … (He) designated Himself by this name as the absolute God… acting with unfettered ability and self— dependence.” Commenting on the name YHWH in Gen 2:4, the same scholars say: “He is the personal God in His historical manifestation in which the fullness of the Divine Being unfolds itself to the world … the God of the history of salvation. This is not shown in the etymology of the name but in the historical expansion.” God, then, revealed himself to Moses not as the Creator— the God of power—Elohim, but as the personal God of Salvation, and all that “I am.”



[1] John I. Durham, Exodus (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), Vol. 3, p. 39.

[2]M. M. Kalisch, A Historical and Critical Commentary on the Old Testament: Exodus (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855), pp. 55-56.

Book Review on Rabbi Drazin’s Commentary on Jonah

Image result for jonah whale picture

Was the whale created by Jonah’s subconscious mind?

Posted on 08 June 2017.

Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos, by Rabbi Israel Drazin; Gefen Publishing House, 2016; ISBN-10: 9652298859; ISBN-13: 978-9652298850By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Depiction of Jonah and the “great fish” on the south doorway of the Gothic-era Dom St. Peter, in Worms, Germany (Wikipedia)

CHULA VISTA, California — I would like to begin this book review with a conversation I had with the publisher of San Diego Jewish World, Don Harrison. He asked me whether there was any truth to the story that a whale swallowed Jonah? Let me share with you a story that might surprise you. James Bartley (1870–1909) is the central figure in a late nineteenth-century story according to which he was swallowed whole by a sperm whale. He was found days later in the stomach of the whale, which was dead from constipation. … The news spread beyond the ocean in articles as “Man in a Whale’s Stomach.”

Did Jonah’s whale get constipated and vomit Jonah?
Sometimes fact can seem stranger than fiction, or as Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Yet as colorful as the Book of Jonah is as sacred literature, it is a book that contains profound theological and psychological insight. Its inclusion in the Yom Kippur services is not fortuitous.
You could say that it is one whale of a tale! (Oy, did I really say that?)
And it is perhaps because of the sensational imagery of this book, many people on Yom Kippur often have only a facile grasp of the story. One of the newest commentaries I have encountered recently was written by Brigadier General, Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, entitled, Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos.” Due to my limitation of time, I will focus on Jonah for now and later write about his treatment of Amos in another article in the near future.
Rabbi Drazin’s book certainly lives up to its title! In his introduction to Jonah, the author immediate confronts the reader with a series of compelling questions that require thoughtful reflection and answers.
  • Did Jonah “convert” the people of Nineveh when he told them that unless they repent the city and all in it will be destroyed? How did Jonah communicate his message to the inhabitants of Nineveh? Did he speak their language? How did the king hear about his prediction? Is it reasonable to suppose that the Bible is correct that “every” inhabitant of Nineveh repented? Why did the people put on sackcloth and ashes? Why did they clothe the animals in sackcloth? Should we be reminded that the animals were also killed during the flood in the days of Noah? What did the people of Nineveh do that required being punished? Did every citizen of Nineveh do this wrong? Why in Jonah’s message to the Ninevites did he not mention that if the people repented they would be saved?
Perhaps the most important question he raises is “Did the author give the prophet this name to indicate that the book contains a profound truth? What is the message of the book?”
From the outset the author points out that it is no fluke that Jonah means “dove” for the dove has come to personify peace and its role in the Noah story symbolizes how God’s war with the antediluvian world had come to an end. I would only add doves are known for their devotion to their mates, and Jonah’s devotion to Israel is so powerful, Jonah is willing to defy God to show his faithfulness to Israel. As a patriot of the Hebrew people, he would much rather see the Assyrian capital of Nineveh crumble into dust for their belligerence against Israel (based on the medieval commentaries Rashi and Kimchi, p. 3).
He also cites approvingly the 19th century German biblical scholar Arnold Bogumil Ehrlich who states that this book is a parable “because it states that Jonah tried to hide from God and everybody knows that this is impossible. He understands that Jonah felt it was improper to prophesy to non-Israelites. Ehrlich adds that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy of Israel, and the author of this tale wanted to stress that God cares for everyone[1] (p. 3).
In the first chapter, R. Drazin mentions some very interesting interpretations predicated largely on Maimonides’ psychological view of prophecy, and one of his latter defenders, R. Joseph Caspi. Caspi reinterprets the Book of Jonah in light of Maimonides’ view of prophecy, which he regarded as a visionary experience or a dream-state vision. Maimonides himself says that whenever God speaks to a prophet, the prophet is never in a wakeful state of mind, but is in what moderns call “an altered state of consciousness.” R. Drazin utilizes Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams and explains that whenever you see something unnatural in a dream, odds are that object symbolizes something you have thought about during the daytime.
Caspi’s idea of the whale as a parable or a dream, along with his Freudian insight made me start to think.  R. Drazin’s insight reminded me a little bit of the insights of a little known German anthropologist named Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), as well as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), and Carl G. Jung (1875-1961). Each of their insights bear a striking similarity, despite the fact that Frobenius intuited these ideas first. In any event, as Campbell commented about Jonah in the belly of the whale’s symbolism, “The belly is the dark place where digestion takes place and new energy is created. The story of Jonah in the whale is an example of a mythic theme that is practically universal, of the hero going into a fish’s belly and ultimately coming out again, transformed.”[2] Jung also viewed this symbol is a kind of Journey into Hell comparable with the journeys described by Virgil and Dante, and also a sort of journey to the Land of Spirits, or, in other words, a plunge into the unconscious.
Like Jung, Frobenius also thought that Jonah’s ordeal represents on a psychic level a rebirth of the individual.[3] In psychological terms, Jung expanded this thought to incorporate the sudden changes that engulf a person’s life, leaving him completely disoriented and confused, as though he were swallowed by a whale, who has spat him out into a new world and reality. As the protagonist learns to redefine himself, he comes to a new understanding of self and eventually develops a whole new personal identity.[4]
So while the story about Jonah and the large fish or whale is mythic as R. Drazin noted, bear in mind that myths are symbolic stories that go beyond the surface meaning of its narrative. As Jung noted, “When we take a myth literally, we do injustice to the myth.  Indeed, such an argument is decidedly ridiculous because it takes the myth literally, and today this seems a little bit too naïve.”[5]
In another important section, R. Drazin examines the meaning of Jonah’s attempt to flee God, where he sees Jonah as attempting to flee his prophetic obligation to preach to the people of Nineveh. Throughout the commentary, he combines a peshat (or contextual interpretation of the verse), valuable Hebrew word studies, along with some very keen moral insights associated with derash (a homiletical approach to the Scriptures). Throughout the book, he brings in modern scholars—Jewish and non-Jewish—and his running commentary is keeping with the finest commentaries written by bible scholars today.
The theme of Jonah’s rebirth is certainly symbolic of the kind of rebirth we all need to undergo on Yom Kippur.
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) felt so inspired by the story of Jonah that he developed a theory called, “The Jonah Complex.” Maslow argued that like Jonah, many people have a fear of being successful and choose poorly with respect to life choices. All of this ultimately prevents a person’s self-actualization, or the realization of one’s potential. It is the fear of one’s own greatness, the evasion of one’s destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one’s talents.[6] Jonah, from Maslow’s perspective, is his own worst enemy, much like many of us, I suppose.
I give this book  5* rating and it will  enliven any serious discussion on this very important text.

[1] Arnold B. Ehrlich. Mikra ki-Pheschuto, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, first published 1901.
[2] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), p. 180.
[3] Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), pp. 228-229.
[4] Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), p 229.
[5] Carl G. Jung, The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950),  p. 592.
[6]  Abraham H. Maslow, Maslow on Management (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 1990), p. 149.

Book Review on Yoram Hazony’s God and Politics in Esther

God and Politics in Esther

— 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 His part in ensuring our survival.

Had some of our European Hassidic leaders realized this important lesson about political activism during the Holocaust, many more people might have been rescued.
*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista and an author of several works on biblical topics.  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 his/her city and state of residence.

Wisdom from the Septuagint: Do Not Blaspheme Gods

Translations of the Bible often reveal more about a translator’s world view than they do about the actual text. Once we decipher the context, a translation reveals something that is hidden to the reader.

This is especially the case with respect to one of the more straightforward passages pertaining to the laws of blasphemy found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim. The verse that is relevant to this passage reads, “You shall not revile God… (Exod. 22:28).

Blasphemy, you say? Blasphemy laws have been out of vogue for centuries. The U.S. Constitution as defined by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .”

Just imagine what our country would be like if critics of religion like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Cristopher Hitchens had not offered their sharply worded barbs against religious and iconic people and the institutions they represent.

Arguably, blasphemers may actually provide a necessary public service in helping us correct the excesses of religion. If nothing else, the critics of religion keep us honest and accountable. Lampooning religious beliefs whether in the press or at gatherings is considered fair game. Anyone attempting to limit free speech is guilty of censorship. Moreover, this applies to all faiths. The government has no right to get involved in cases involving real or imagined attacks upon any given religious doctrine.

Yet, as straightforward as this position might be, Jewish history has sometimes taken a different perspective. Toward the beginning of the Common Era, Jews found themselves living in a world that was full of graven images; their neighbors believed in a pantheon of deities. The scholars who translated the Septuagint deliberately subverted the biblical law.

Their textual reading reflected a very different understanding about the nature of blasphemy—one predicated upon a philosophy of expedience and Jewish survival “You shall not revile gods…”

Not only is blaspheming God a sign of extreme disrespect, so is blaspheming the gods of other peoples. Anyone reading this might wonder: Wait a minute, the Bible is famous for its polemics against paganism and idolatry. How can the translators of the Greek Bible ignore this fact?

Philo offers an important explanation, “Since the entire inhabited world is full of statues and images, and similar constructions, it is most prudent for us to refrain from speaking insultingly of these national deities, lest any of Moses’ disciples fall into the habit of treating lightly the name “god” in general, for it is a title worthy of the highest respect and love. Philo was not the only one who felt this way. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus echoes Philo’s words, “Let no one blaspheme gods whom other cities believe in, nor rob foreign temples, nor take a treasure that has been consecrated to some god.”

Why did these thinkers take a view that almost inverts the meaning of the biblical verse? We know from the story of Purim how dangerous anti-Semites can be to a Jewish community struggling to survive in the Diaspora.

Any Jew disrespecting a pagan belief not only endangered himself, he also endangered other members of the Jewish community. In Alexandria, during the first century, over 50,000 Jews were murdered by anti-Semites. Jewish life in one of the most dynamic and ethnically rich ancient cities proved dangerous at times.

Jewish history bears witness to this sad historical reality—even as we see it today unfold in our communities.

When we think about the recent vandalism that we have witnessed in Jewish cemeteries, threats to blow up JCC’s in our country, Jews in the United States have been complacent for a very long time. We have enemies on the far right, as well as enemies who are on the far left. Hating Jews has become fashionable in some circles.

Whether from the right, or from the left, Jews still have plenty of enemies who seem to be coming out of their hiding places. Hating Jews, Zionists, and Israelis seem fashionable in certain places—especially on the university campuses.
As the vanguard of Western democracies, Jews often meet stiff resistance from those on the political right. In hard times, everyone loves a scapegoat—enter the Jew.

A week ago, the Forward featured an article about the comedian Sarah Silverman who on more than one occasion said, “I hope the Jews did kill Christ…I’d F_cking do it again in a second.” Granted Silverman is a comic, and a mediocre one at best (in my opinion), but her thoughtless comments can infuriate certain Christians who may have a latent hatred toward the Jew.

As a minority people, we have had more than our fair share of enemies threatening to kill us and complete the job started by Hitler in the early 20th century.

As Jews, we have often been our own worst enemies. Pogo famously said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

Anti-Semitism is a lot like a virus; it may remain dormant, but sooner or later it will awaken and explode. The words of the ancient Jewish thinkers of the first century offer us some practical advice. Don’t exacerbate hatred by making thoughtless insults about another person’s religion. In addition, the laws against blasphemy remind religious people not to behave in a manner that inspires hate, ridicule, and revulsion.

Judaic wisdom from the Hellenistic era offers a sober prescription for the modern world.

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