Natalie Portman’s Thoughts on the Holocaust

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nada. Zip. Not a whimper.

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

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

WHY IS THE HOLOCAUST DIFFERENT?

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

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

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

ISRAEL IS NOT PERFECT

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

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

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

THE MATTER OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, first class has its benefits.

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[1] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:17.

[2] The Decalogue 173-174.

[3] The Decalogue 173-174.

From Medieval Book Burning to Modern Internet Censorship

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 Information is the currency of democracy. —Thomas Jefferson

When I was a young sixteen-year-old, I remember becoming involved in the Chabad movement in Los Angelos, CA. I remember purchasing a translation of Judah Halevi’s classic theological work, “The Kuzari” that was translated by the early 20th-centuryOriental scholar Hartwig Hirschfeld. When an Orthodox rabbi looked over the book, he declared it, “heresy”, and ordered me to burn my newly purchased book. At the time, I protested and asked, “Could I merely pull out the Introduction and burn that section, but keep the book?” He said that would be fine.

For many years, I felt ashamed of my behavior. Several decades later I decided to use this personal anecdote as a teachable lesson. Often, I have long since pointed out to my students, burning ideas is a cowardly approach to dealing with personal insecurities about faith, as Freud observed long ago in his book, The Future of an Illusion. The only way to defeat ideas you don’t like is to come up with better and more convincing ideas and solutions.

The historian Norman Bentwich (1883-1971) wrote, “Philosophers tend to be viewed with suspicion by a large part of the community. Philosophers, by the very excellence of their thought, have in all races towered above the comprehension of the people, and have often aroused the suspicion of the religious teachers.” [1]

Bentwich makes a valid point. In the history of Judaism over the last 1900 years, Talmudists often viewed Jewish philosophers with a measure of mistrust, accusing them of harboring beliefs that were too dangerous for the masses. Throughout much of the yeshiva world, from the 18th century to the 21st century, no rabbinic student dared pick up the Guide to study—at least during the daytime, but you could see students huddled in their rooms, or sometimes even under a table reading the Guide clandestinely.

Maimonides’ philosophical ideas met considerable resistance in his day, and in the year 1233, not long after his death, Jewish leaders solicited the Dominican inquisitors and claimed Maimonides’ “heretical” teachings threatened to undermine all faiths. As one might expect, they burnt Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed at Montpellier, in southern France.

But a change of heart even amongst Maimonides’ greatest critics occurred once they realized they inadvertently made themselves vulnerable to future Dominican incursions. Within almost a decade, Pope Gregory IX led a campaign to burn other books held sacred by Jews, such as the Talmud. In the year 1242, the Catholic clergy collected twenty-four wagons of the Talmud, which they burnt in Rome. Thus, a dangerous precedent became established.

This condemnation was all the more ironic, considering how the Dominican theologians Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) each appropriated many ideas from Maimonides.[2] In the Summa, Aquinas quotes R. Moses twenty-four times, always reverently referring to him as, “Rabbi Moses.”  Aquinas, in particular, was an Italian Dominican priest and Doctor of the Church.

After Aquinas’ death, William of Ockham (1285-1321) and John Duns Scotus attempted to ban Thomas’ works as dangerous to the Church. Yet, the quest for a pure and acceptable theology did not end with William of Ockham’s condemnation of Aquinas, for in 1324, the Catholic Church later condemned some of Ockham’s works as containing heretical ideas,[3] thus proving that Bentwich’s point was correct, as mentioned above.

Back to the Present

You may ask: Is this relevant? It definitely is! The above historical discussion about censorship proved to be one of many indictments for the medieval Church and rabbis who engaged in that kind of intellectual internecine warfare against their faith’s freethinkers and other intrepid intellectual explorers. But nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, it is all the atrocious for Facebook and Twitter to engage in blocking political content of ideas its leaders and engineers find “offensive.”

Today, James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released a surprise but damning report on Thursday that shows Twitter employees admitting they censor people’s’ right-leaning accounts, including banning them from the network because they do not agree with their political views! Had this happened in Russia, Iran, or China, none of us would be surprised—but in the 21st century United States? This is truly an affront to our society!

One Twitter employee named Pranay Singh, admitted that the majority of their algorithms are geared in such a manner that they target people with certain political views. Their method is insidious, they “shadow ban” right-leaning accounts, which essentially bans them from the platform without letting them know that they have been banned while allowing left-leaning accounts to slip through without the same scrutiny.” And they unabashedly admit:

  • “Yeah you look for Trump, or America, and you have like five thousand keywords to describe a redneck,” Singh explained. “Then you look and parse all the messages, all the pictures, and then you look for stuff that matches that stuff.” “I would say majority of it are for Republicans,” he confirmed. [4]

Many friends of mine on Facebook often get in the Facebook jail for asserting political views that the Facebook leadership does not like or approve. Let us hope that a class action suit is initiated. This is a battle that anyone along the political spectrum ought to agree upon. The Left would not like it if the political right behaved this way. Ideas deserve to be heard and debated in the public forum.



[1] Norman Bentwich, Philo of Alexandria (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1910), p. 7.

[2] See Jeremiah M. Hackett (ed.), A Companion to Meister Eckhart: Brill’s Companions to the  Christian Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2013).

[3] Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 350.

[4] https://www.projectveritas.com/video/hidden-camera-twitter-engineers-to-ban-a-way-of-talking-through-shadow-banning/

 

 

Trump and Jerusalem

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Don’t worry about Trump’s motives. His actions count

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The theme of brotherhood is central to the entire Book of Genesis. On Shabbat we chant the words, “Hinei ma tov uma na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.” (“Look how good and pleasurable it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

Yet Genesis did not begin that way. The Cain and Abel story embodies the story of Western Civilization in a nutshell. “Am I supposed to be my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s defiant question does not merit a response from God because the answer is all too obvious.

Ironically, it is the worship of God that leads to the first fratricide. What was true then is no less true today as fanatics threaten Israel today—especially since Trump’s announcement to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Once a dying king said to his two sons: “Get on your horses and travel to Jerusalem. The one whose horse arrives last will inherit my kingdom.” So off they went. Due to their love for one another, the brothers stopped at the outskirts of Jerusalem; neither one wanted to win at the expense of the other. So what did they do? They rode together on one horse! This story ought to serve as an inspiration for today.

Unfortunately, the wisdom of the past fails to inspire us as it should.

Some of my congregants wondered whether Trump was “playing the Jewish and Evangelical card” for the 2020 election. When King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, did he act out of the sincerity of his heart? Or did he act out of political considerations? In any event, God called Cyrus, “My shepherd” for God utilized a weak human being to serve a divine resolve. In fact, biblical theology always shows how God utilizes weak mortals to serve His purpose—perhaps even someone like President Trump!

Who cares about motives?  It’s the actions that count!

The Catholic Church along with the Protestants have long taught their followers to say to the Jew, the Latin insult “Hep! Hep!” an acronym for the words, “Hierosolyma est perdita,” ‘”Jerusalem is lost.” Historically, the Vatican moved to improve relations with Jews in 1965; and, eventually, the Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. By 1998, the Vatican issued an apology for the Catholic failure to do more for the Jewish people during the Holocaust. But Jerusalem is another matter—since the days of the Early Church Fathers, the Catholic Church believed that the Jew is condemned to wander the world; bereft of their ancestral home, bereft of their ancient Temple, bereft of their city of Jerusalem. I think David Ben-Gurion said it best: “The Catholic Church has a 2,000 years old reckoning with the Jews. The Vatican doesn’t want Israel to rule. There is a dogma (replacement theology, ed.) which has existed for 1,800 years and we gave it the coup de grace by establishing the State of Israel.”

Islamic armies have often tried to change the narrative of peoples they have conquered. The history of Jerusalem as the spiritual epicenter of Jewish life; Israel has always honored all faiths to worship in the spirit of brotherhood in Jerusalem. The Muslim intolerance toward the Coptic Christians, the Zoroastrians, the Armenians, the native African faiths, Yazidis, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians tells an altogether opposite story.

In the spirit of fellowship, there is no reason why the Arab quarter of East Jerusalem may not serve as a future capital for a peaceful Palestinian state—for peace is only possible if there is mutual respect for the Other.

Let us not forget that over a year ago, one of President Obama’s most unfortunate legacies was his decision to change American policy by supporting the United Nations Security Council resolution declaring Judaism’s holiest places in Jerusalem to be occupied territory and a “flagrant violation under international law.” He did so because of his personal animus of the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

This strident decision ignored the fact, as Allan Dershowitz observed, “Before June 4, 1967, Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. They were forbidden to attend classes at the Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus, which had been opened in 1925 and was supported by Albert Einstein. Jews could not seek medical care at the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, which had treated Jews and Arabs alike since 1918. Jews could not live in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, where their forbearers had built homes and synagogues for thousands of years.”

Thank God, President Trump has corrected the record.

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

Novel ideas needed for Simchat Torah

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Simchat Torah is a relatively new holiday. Nowhere is it mentioned in the Talmud; nor is it mentioned in Maimonides or the Tur Shulchan Aruch. But it is explicitly mentioned in the Zohar,[1] a work that dates back to about 1270—although it is a holiday that probably began many centuries earlier when the Babylonian and Palestinian communities finished reading their Torah cycles. Undoubtedly, just as the conclusion of Talmudic tractate always served as a festive occasion—it is a certainty Jews rejoiced in deed whenever their communities finished reading the Torah.[2]

And now for my story . . .

One of my Modern Orthodox colleagues, who works as a day-school teacher  in New York, surprised many of us with a candid remark about his experience of Simchat Torah. He confessed that he struggled with the holiday more so than any of the other High Holidays of the year. He felt that its celebration felt “mailed in and tired.”

Interestingly enough, several other Orthodox friends chimed in and expressed similar thoughts. Some complained about the length of the service. Some people felt they preferred making their own “personal” Simchat Torah concluding a Talmudic tractate or section of the Mishnah. Others thought the synagogues lengthen the Hakafot beyond the realm of sensibility.

As I thought about this discussion, I realized that many people may feel simply overwhelmed with the plethora of holidays we celebrate this time of the year. In other words, people’s ambivalence may in fact reflect tiredness.

Here at Chula Vista’s Temple Beth Shalom, most of our growing congregation is made up of Spanish members who have re-embraced Judaism over the last several years. I often like to tell them about how marvelous their spiritual journey has been for them. Despite several centuries of efforts to forcibly convert the Spanish Jews to Christianity, the Church failed. The fact they are here among us is proof positive that the Jewish spark of their ancestral identities could not ever be destroyed. So it remained dormant—but on one unexpected day, something awoke from within them.

Reclaiming the “lost children” of Latin American countries can help revitalize any Jewish community that is willing to welcome them back. One of my favorite newly minted Spanish Jews went with his friend to a Chabad store on Fairfax Ave. The rabbi had no problem asking the Jewish woman to say a blessing over the lulav, but when her Spanish friend asked to say the blessing, the rabbi looked at this dark-skinned Spanish looking Jew in total disbelief. “Are YOU Jewish?” he asked. “Yes I am,” and he took the lulav and etrog and said the appropriate blessing—while the Rabbi looked astonished.

It is high time we welcome back our Spanish Jews. We are the “Jewish people” and not “The Jewish Club.” It is time to welcome back all the lost Jewish tribes. That is debt we owe to our ancestors. We can do no less.

At our shul on Simchat Torah night, you could see all the Spanish Jewish men and women lost in a state of ecstasy, as they danced with the Torah. Since we have trouble getting a Minyan on the second day of Yom Tov, I instituted that we finish the Torah on Simchat Torah night; everyone celebrated with clapping and dancing, as we danced throughout the synagogues with our Torah scrolls, and on the sidewalk facing the shul for the whole world to see.

This modern custom actually dates back to the time when Russian Jews lived under the yoke of Soviet tyranny. The Russian government allowed Jews to affirm their Jewish identity by letting them dance in the streets. Elie Wiesel once commented that he was deeply amazed by the joy these Jews exhibited whenever he visited Moscow when he joined them in their celebration of Simchat Torah.[3]

For obvious reasons, this was something all the Spanish Jews of TBS could easily relate to; and so too, they all danced.

Even on Shabbat, at the end of the Torah reading, we took out all the Torah scrolls so that everyone who could not make it to the Shul on Simchat Torah could dance on Shabbat Bereishit—the first new parsha of the year. I explained that Shabbat absorbs the holiness of all the other days of the week, and that the lesson of Simchat Torah reminds us that everyone needs to celebrate the study of the Torah not only once a year—but throughout the year as well.

As rabbis, we need to think more imaginatively of how we can make the holidays more meaningful; sometimes, thinking outside the box can go a long way in improving the spirit of this most remarkable holiday.

*

[1]Zohar 1:33; Raya Mehemna  Vol. 3; Parshat Pinchas 256b; Tikunei Zohar 56a.

[2] Other rabbinic sources record the observance  of Simchat Torah in a number of communities.   The Machzor Vitri 185 (an important 11th Halakhic work) describes the observance in clear detail and it corresponds exactly to how we nowadays observe Simchat Torah. In one passage he describes how the Second Day of Shimini Atsereth was observed in the French communities. The name “Simchat Torah” came only later.

[3]Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence, ch. 5.

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

The Power of “The Between” — A Lesson for Rosh Hashanah

Image result for pictures of the I and Thou
Once a judge was interviewing a woman regarding her pending divorce, and asked, “What are the grounds for your divorce?” She replied, “About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property with a stream running by.” “No,” he said, “I mean what is the foundation of this case?” “It is made of concrete, brick and mortar,” she responded.

“I mean,” he continued, “What are your relations like?” “I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, and so do my husband’s parents.”
He said, “Do you have a real grudge?” “No,” she replied, “We have a two-car carport and have never really needed one.”

“Please,” he tried again, “is there any infidelity in your marriage?” “Yes, both my son and daughter have hi-fidelity stereo sets. We don’t necessarily like the music, but the answer to your questions is yes.”

“Ma’am, does your husband ever beat you up?” “Yes,” she responded, “about twice a week he gets up earlier than I do.” Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, “Lady, why do you want a divorce?” “Oh, I don’t want a divorce,” she replied. “I’ve never wanted a divorce. My husband does. He said he can’t communicate with me!”

One of the greatest gifts we give to one another is the gift of listening. Nothing hurts us more than the sense that the people we care about aren’t really listening to us when we wish to say something. We never outgrow the need to have our feelings known. This truth may help us understand why a sympathetic ear is such a powerful force in human relationships—and why the failure to be understood is so painful. Indeed, many relationships end because each partner fails to be emotionally present to the Other.

When a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Sufi Master said, “You must learn to listen to your wife.” The man took this advice to heart and returned after a month to say he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying. The Master with a smile, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”
·
LISTENING TO WHAT IS NOT BEING SAID
Listening seems to be such an important part of the Rosh Hashanah holiday. In our prayers, we try to listen to God and “the still small voice” in the solitude of our souls. I think the problems of much of our world could be partially solved if we took one step back to listen to what people who think or feel differently have to say.

A few days ago illustrates this point better than any university classroom, where diversity of opinion is often squashed.

AN UNEXPECTED EPIPHANY

Last Saturday, Washington D.C. featured a Trump rally, pegged by many as the “Mother of All Rallies. The Black Lives Matter supporters decided to counter with a rally against bigotry and police violence against young blacks. While each side was doing their best to ignore the Other, a black Trump supporter named Henry Davis had a sudden inspiration.

Spontaneously, he decided to invite the BLM activists to join him, but he quickly changed his mind. He made the following challenge:  “So you guys know that the ‘Mother of All Rallies’ was to end the political violence,” he told the BLM group. “It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about celebration.

“So what we’re going to do is something you’re not used to, and we’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out. Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message. “It’s your right to say what you believe,” Davis told the group. “And it’s their right [referring to the pro-Trump crowd] to let you know what they think about what you’re saying.”

Then he handed the microphone to Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. Newsome told the crowd, “I am an American,” eliciting cheers and applause.  “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.

“So you ask why there’s a Black Lives Matter,” Newsome continued. “Because you can watch a black man die and be choked to death on television and nothing happens. We need to address that.” To be sure, the crowd wasn’t willing to accept all of Newsome’s speech. At times they booed him and yelled out “BS” and “All lives matter!”

But there were moments when the crowd accepted the black rights activist’s message. When Newsome said he was a Christian and was taught to “Love thy neighbor,” the crowd cheered. And the crowd responded with a mix of cheers and groans when Newsome proclaimed he was not “anti-cop.” “We are anti-bad cop,” he said. “We say if a cop is bad, he needs to get fired like a bad plumber, a bad lawyer, like a bad f…g politician!”

When Newsome said “All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice,” some people called him a liar. Newsome’s speech did end with a message of unity: “If we really want America great, then we do it together.”

At that moment, everyone cheered.

In that special exchange, conservative Trumspters and BLM found common ground. After the speech, journalists wanted to know what the BLM leader had to say. Newsome said the moment the Trumpsters “restored my faith in some of those people,” by allowing let him speak. “I feel like we made progress. Two sides that never listen to each other actually made progress today,” he said. “If not on a grander level, but just person to person, I think we really made some substantial steps without either side yielding anything.”

All this takes us back to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Relationships often get frayed and unraveled because in relationships we fail to listen to each other.

The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber developed an entire ethical philosophy of Judaism known as the “I and Thou.” According to Buber the magic of interpersonal transformation occurs in the moment of what he calls “The Between” where each party turns toward the other and enters into an undivided relationship.

This is where true communication and community emerges from a relationship. Often in my years of doing marital counseling, one of the first rules of engagement is to have a struggling couple to really listen to one another.

True listening is a listening of soul. It involves making eye contact. If involves respecting the other person’s space; it involves a willingness to listen. Authentic listening requires that we not judge, or pre-judge. It is in those moments of actual authentic meeting, healing can often occur because nobody wants to feel as if they are a non-entity and unimportant. These are but a few of the challenges Rosh Hashanah encourages us to travel along the road less traveled, and boldly go where we have never gone before.

If our communities can learn to teach the respect of “The Between” as Buber advocated, then not only will our own personal lives, relationships, and friendships improve—but so will our communities and maybe our country.

This is every bit a spiritual challenge—one which will allow us to consciously feel as though God is speaking to us and through us as we focus on healing ourselves and our world.
The Chinese say, “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with the first step,” and today on Rosh Hashanah, you have already taken that first step. But we need to continue the next steps as we make our spiritual journey

Eclipses in Jewish Tradition

This past week, some of my congregants asked me: What does Jewish tradition have to say about solar eclipses?

Like many ancient peoples, the Jews did not develop a scientific understanding of eclipses until much later in its history. Before we examine what exactly Jewish tradition says about this topic, I would like to preface my remarks with some general observations drawn from human history. The human evolution regarding how eclipses occur forms the cultural backdrop that will help us better understand and appreciate the views that emerged in Jewish folklore and history.

Mythical Perspectives on Eclipses

When our prehistoric ancestors first began observing the sun, moon, stars and planets, they realized that all life on this world depends upon the orderly movement of these celestial bodies. Should one of these bodies get displaced, the ancients feared that the world might come to a sudden end. Without the aid of science to explain how and why eclipses occur, the ancients resorted to myth to explain the nature of these anomalies of nature. Some of these myths portray the Sun fighting with its lover, the Moon. Other myths depict the sun and moon making love under a cloak of darkness. One myth that has enduring value is that the belief that the concord and well-being of the Earth depends upon the Sun and the Moon. Although we live in a scientific world, still, nothing conveys the visceral power of this realization such as the power of myth. It is in the realm of myth all these celestial bodies become larger than life.

According to ancient Egyptian myth, the evil deity Set disguised himself as a black pig and leaped into the eye of his brother Horus, the sun deity and blinded his eye. But eventually, Horus regains his vision through the work of  Thout, the moon goddess, who regulates such disturbances as eclipses and is also the healer of eyes. In one of the ancient depictions, the emblem of the winged Sun resembles modern day pictures of the sun’s elongated corona. It is important to remember that myth and science have one thing in common: each approach attempts to understand the order and mysteries of the universe. Sometimes mythic expositions can be very imaginative and profound.

In Tahiti it was believed that eclipses occurred when the sun and moon were mating. Indian tribes such as the Tlingit Indians of the Pacific coast in northern Canada, and other North American Indian tribes had similar beliefs. A Germanic myth sees the love relationship going sour as the principle reason why eclipses occur, as one scholar explained:

  • The male Moon married the female Sun. But the cold Moon could not satisfy the passion of his fiery bride. He wanted to go to sleep instead. The Sun and Moon made a bet: whoever awoke first would rule the day. The Moon promptly fell asleep, but the Sun, still irritated, awoke at 2 a.m. and lit up the world. The day was hers; the Moon received the night. The Sun swore she would never spend the night with the Moon again, but she was soon sorry. And the Moon was irresistibly drawn to his bride. When the two come together, there is a solar eclipse, but only briefly. The Sun and Moon begin to reproach one another and fall to quarreling. Soon they go their separate ways, the Sun blood-red with anger.[1]

Eclipses in the Tanakh?

Although eclipses are not specifically mentioned in the Tanakh, but there are some passages that speak about celestial anomalies that include the darkening of the skies—either by clouds or eclipses, or some inexplicable phenomenon.[2] For example, the prophet Isaiah says, “I clothe the heavens in mourning, and make sackcloth their vesture” and this verse could be alluding to a solar or lunar eclipse.[3] The medieval exegete Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) thought that the verse, “I go about in sunless gloom, I rise in the assembly and cry for help” (Job 30:28) might also refer to solar eclipse since the verb  קָדַר (ḏǎr) means to grow dark, or the darkening of the sun and moon.[4]

Perhaps the most important passage that bears wisdom on our discussion is from Jeremiah 10:2.

Thus says the LORD:

Learn not the customs of the nations,

and have no fear of the signs of the heavens,

though the nations fear them.

Throughout the ancient Mesopotamian world, people worshiped the celestial gods (sun god, moon god and Venus particularly; in Babylonia, Shamash, Sin and Ishtar respectively) were primary in most ancient religions. Their followers looked for astrological signs and omens how to live their lives. Human beings were believed to be at the mercy of these cosmic deities, and that is why Jeremiah warns the Israelites to abandon these foolish beliefs. Jeremiah’s warning is no less relevant today. In the next section, we will give some examples of how some rabbinic teachers rejected Jeremiah’s wise teaching.

Early Rabbinic Discussions

Similar to other ancient traditions in the world, Talmudic texts assert that an eclipse of the sun is an evil omen for the peoples of the world. However, a lunar eclipse is a particular fatality for Israel, the reason being is since Jews reckon their calendar by the phases of the moon.[5] Rabbi Meir in the Talmud offers an analogy, “A parable: This can be compared to a human monarch who prepared a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, “Take away their lantern away, and let them sit in darkness!”[6]

And the Talmud goes on to elaborate about the root causes of eclipses.

  • If, during an eclipse, the visage of the sun is red like blood, it is an omen that sword, i.e., war, is coming to the world. If the sun is black like sackcloth  made of dark goat hair, it is an omen that arrows of hunger are coming to the world, because hunger darkens people’s faces. When it is similar both to this, to blood, and to that, to sackcloth, it is a sign that both sword and arrows of hunger are coming to the world. If it was eclipsed upon its entry, soon after rising, it is an omen that calamity is tarrying to come. If the sun is eclipsed upon its departure at the end of the day, it is an omen that calamity is hastening to come. And some say the matters are reversed: An eclipse in the early morning is an omen that calamity is hastening, while an eclipse in the late afternoon is an omen that calamity is tarrying.[7]

I can sense what some of you are probably thinking—modern Jews don’t think or believe this way! Let us borrow a page from Maimonides’ play book. We are not obligated to justify every remark found in the Talmud if it violates common sense, science, and reason. This is not meant as a blasphemous criticism of the rabbis, it is merely a statement of fact. All of us today living benefit from the evolution of our society. We are no longer living as Carl Sagan once described, “a demon-haunted world.” Socrates once said, “We are all midgets standing upon the shoulders of giants” and as a result, we are able to see further than our forbearers did.

The Talmudic discussion about eclipses continue:

  • The Sages taught that on account of four matters the sun is eclipsed: On account of a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized appropriately, and the eclipse is a type of eulogy by Heaven; on account of a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and there was no one to rescue her; on account of homosexuality; and on account of two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. And on account of four matters the heavenly lights are eclipsed: On account of forgers of a fraudulent document [pelaster] that is intended to discredit others; on account of testifiers of false testimony; on account of raisers of small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel in a settled area; and on account of choppers of good, fruit-producing trees.

To Rashi’s credit, he admitted, לא שמעתי טעם בדבר —“I do not have an explanation for this …,” and I would venture to say Maimonides and the other rationalist medieval thinkers of his age probably felt the same. But the same cannot be said about the Kabbalists, for their mystical writings often gives credence to superstition. This was one of the principle reasons Maimonides warred with the Kabbalists regarding their use of magic and other superstitious practices. Hassidic homes still feature amulets designed to chase away the evil eye.

While most ancient rabbis were unfamiliar with Greek science and astronomy, there were some notable exceptions. The Talmud records, “Rabban Gamaliel had a tube through which he could see at a distance of two thousand cubits across the land and a corresponding distance across the sea” Steinsaltz explains that Rabban Gamaliel utilized a device known as the astrolabe, which was first invented by the Greek astronomer Apollonius of Perga between 220 and 150 B.C.E. This device made it possible to make astronomical measurements regarding the altitudes and movements of the stars; it was especially used in navigation for calculating latitude before the sextant was developed. We must not think all rabbis were primitive, but they were, after all, men of their age.

Concluding Thoughts

Personally speaking, I think the mythic accounts depicting the eclipse as a dangerous phenomenon of nature were more correct than moderns might be willing to admit. That being said, the Talmud and other mythic accounts overlook the most obvious reason why the ancients feared solar eclipses: blindness! As we read in the news the other day, hundreds of thousands of people across the world might go blind or have their vision permanently impaired as a result of gazing at the solar eclipse. There can be no doubt this was certainly no less true in primal times and this simple fact is probably why the ancients viewed the solar eclipses with trepidation and fear.

Among Halakhic scholars, there is no reference for anyone having to say a blessing be recited over the eclipse, especially when considering the potential danger it poses to our vision. This, in my opinion, seems sensible and logical. However, as one modern Halakhic scholar observed, “R. Lau noted that his own religious response to witnessing the eclipse had been to say Psalm 19, “The Heavens tell of God’s glory,” and Psalm 104, “My soul will bless God.”

[1] Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak, and Ken Willcox, Totality: Eclipses of the Sun (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 43-44.

[2] Isa 5:30; 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7–8; Joel 2:15; 2:30-32; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Zeph. 1:15

[3] Ibn Ezra thought it might be referring to angels.

[4] Cf. Job 6:16; 30:28; Jer. 4:28; Joel 2:10; 4:15; Mic 3:6.

[5] Mekhilta Bo, 1.; BT Sukkah 29a.

[6] BT Sukkah 29a.

[7] BT Sukkah with Steinsaltz’s Commentary Sukkah 29a.

[8] See Jeremy Brown’s fine article, The Great American Eclipse of 2017: Halachic and Philosophical Aspects, in http://www.hakirah.org/vol23brown.pdf.  See also Rabbi Tendler in Moreshet Moshe v. 2 p. 51 quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein as explaining that “there’s no bracha for seeing a solar or lunar eclipse and in fact it is a negative sign” And the Responsa Aseh Lecha Rav 150 agrees that a beracha should not be recited because no such beracha is mentioned in the Gemara.

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.