When Hatred Strikes a Community

 

Today at Bonita High School, the Chula Vista community leaders came out to address the problem of anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT graffiti that was written across the High School building over the Halloween holiday this past week.

Although Councilmember Steven Padilla pointed out that graffiti, in general, is not an unusual incident when it comes to Halloween, this year, the Chula Vista community must stand together in complete solidarity and condemn this kind of hateful activity. Our community must declare that hatred and intolerance cannot be tolerated.

Many other representatives and community leaders were present. The names included: San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas;  Sweetwater Union High School Board President Nicholas Segura; Mayor Salas, Padilla Sweetwater Union High School Board Trustee Dr. Adrian Arancibia; Rabbi Michael Samuel of Temple; Rabbi Devorah Marcus, President of the San Diego Board of Rabbis; Fernando Lopez (they/them), Executive Director of San Diego Pride; Andrea Beth Damsky, Co-Chair of the DevOUT LGBTQ+ Interfaith Coalition.

Many of the speakers reminded us that White Supremacy has a history in the San Diego area, as it does in many other parts of the country. The speeches were passionate and moving.

As one of the speakers, I represented my little synagogue here in Chula Vista. What surprised most of us, if not all of us, was the huge number of people who came together and spoke in one strong voice. In my speech, I mentioned that education could no longer be value-free. The time has come for us to start teaching ethics, beginning with pre-school and continuing through grade school, high school, and college.  Encouraging local religious leaders and Holocaust survivors to come and relate their stories is a powerful way of addressing the problems and challenges that we face in our name. Steve Padilla proposed creating symposiums to bring many of our community leaders together to address the community.

Every crisis ought to be seen as an opportunity for growth and enlightenment. Some of the speakers even tried reaching out to the hate crime perpetrators, hoping that they might change if they realized how much they hurt our community and its reputation.

And while we will not most likely eliminate hatred of the Other, we can take meaningful steps to minimize the threats hate-group pose to our young people. In the question and answer period that followed, Sandy Scheller mentioned the Project Ruth exhibit being held at the Chula Vista Library Heritage Museum located at 366 F. St., in Chula Vista. Sandy encouraged all the local schools—including Bonita High School- to visit the museum, which has drawn large crowds from throughout San Diego county.

I mentioned that my father, Leo Samuel, a Holocaust survivor, used to visit high schools and colleges. My Aunt Miriam, who recently died two years ago, used to lecture students back in the 1950s before Holocaust awareness and education existed.

An Interesting Christmas Memory

An Interesting Christmas Memory

Posted on December 25, 2020 by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Haredim Purin Mea  Shearim Santa Claus

In the pre-COVID 19 era,  one could sometimes spot a Chabad rabbi putting Tefillon on a Jewish Santa Claus. It reminded me of a story from Eli Plaut’s  book, Kosher Christmas.It mentions how an old Ukrainian Jewish immigrant dressed up as Santa Claus and spoke Yiddish. When speaking to Alan King, he quipped, “Men Mahk a leben,” which means, “A man has to make a living!” (p. 135).

Chabad and Christmas seem like an odd combination. Actually, Chabad’s attitude toward Christmas as a holiday has never been especially positive. Chabad Hassidic literature proves this point.

Here is an anecdote.

Some time ago, a Chabad friend of mine sent me the following email and solicited my opinion. It comes from the Lubavitch Headquarters regarding how the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hasidim must conduct themselves on Christmas Eve. Many Jews and Christians may find this custom interesting but very strange–and for good reason!!

  • “December 25th is universally celebrated by non-Jews, as the birthday of the person upon whom a dominant non-Jewish religion was founded and who had the Halachic status as a Jew who lures other Jews to idol-worship. A spirit of impurity therefore prevails on that day. (Additionally, there was a period when members of that religion used to celebrate this eve by attacking Jews, which led to an enactment against keeping the Yeshivas open during the eve of Dec 25th).”

Note that Chabad never refers to Jesus by his proper name. Simply put, Chabad considers Jesus to be “that man . . . ”

Names characterize our personal identity. To have a name means each of us is a real person. Is it any wonder why we sometimes feel slighted when somebody forgets our names? “What are we?” we wonder, “a non-entity”? Yet, by not referring to Jesus by name, Christians cannot help but feel slighted. 

I feel slighted for them.

The past rebbes of Chabad minced no words about this show of disrespect—especially on Christmas Eve. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe adds,

  • “It is our custom to refrain from studying Torah on Nittel Nacht until midnight. The reason, as the Previous Rebbe heard from his father, the Rebbe RaShaB (Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneerson, a.k.a., the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe), is so that one will not add spiritual vitality to that person [Jesus], and those who presently follow his views

[i.e., Christians everywhere]

. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (i.e., Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the 6th Rebbe) quotes his father in the popular Hayom Yom(Teves 17), ‘I am not fond of those students who begrudge these eight hours and cannot tear themselves away from Torah study!’” [1]

Incidentally, most ultra-Orthodox Jews, like the Lithuanian and Sephardic communities, disregard this custom; for them—the study of Torah is of primary importance.

HOW ARE WE TO UNDERSTAND THE ORIGIN OF THIS CUSTOM?

To understand a Jewish custom, it pays to have the curiosity and determination of a Sherlock Holmes. Most of you reading this Hassidic instruction might be wondering: “What in the world are they talking about? Why should we finish Torah study before Christmas Eve?”

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. The answer is more complex than most of us realize.

The origin of Nittel Nacht in modern rabbinic literature is one of the more fascinating chapters of Jewish history and folklore. “Nittel ” actually comes from the Latin, “Natalis,” or, “Nativity Night.” It is truly ironic that 99% of all the Hassidic Jews follow this observance, haven’t the foggiest idea that Nittel Nacht means “Nativity Night.” It is also possible that Nittel Nacht may be a corruption of the Latin dies natalis, “birthday,” i.e., the “birthday” of Jesus.[2]

While Christmas is a joyful holiday for billions of people, historically, during the medieval era and the centuries that followed, Jews were forbidden to appear on streets and public places on the high Christian holidays under penalty of severe punishment; hence the schools and synagogues were closed on those days. [3] Young and old, who were compelled to remain at home, enjoyed themselves with a variety of games. Consequently, the meaning of the word Nittel received the folk etymological explanation as being an abbreviation for “Nit Iden-Tore-Lernen” (“Jews must not study Torah”).

Of course, the time of Nittel Nacht will vary depending whether one is a Greek Orthodox Christian or not, for they celebrate the holiday on January 6th. Some Hassidic Jews, Ilan mentions, will not study Torah on New Year’s Eve either for the same reason.

At least the Hasidim are consistent if nothing else!

Perhaps the most important question we should ask is: Is there a place for Nittel Nacht today? Emphatically, “NO!!!” Not unless one wishes to insult our Christian neighbors. While there are a number of customs that originated during the most depraved times of medieval history, it behooves us to let go of our medieval attitudes.

As modern Jews, it behooves us to cultivate a relationship with our Christian neighbors and friends based on the principle of mutual respect. Jewish leaders often insist that Christianity purge itself of its anti-Semitic attitudes and this is indeed necessary.

Therefore, the custom of not studying Torah on Christmas Eve ought to be discontinued by any person who wishes to cultivate a respectful relationship with their Christian neighbors. This cannot be done so long as we hold on to the old ideas that should have been discarded long ago in the dustbin of history. Fortunately, most Jews have long historically embraced this change in attitude–except for a handful of Hassidic Jews in Brooklyn and in Israel who are still desperately clinging on to the ghosts of Christmas past.

Today, even Orthodox Jews are beginning to explore interfaith dialogue for the first time in recent memory. We are no longer living in an age of religious polemics and religious intolerance. American society is definitely far more tolerant than the world our ancestors left long ago.

No religion is immune to the dangers of promoting religious prejudice; or as they say, “A pig with lipstick is still a pig.” Prejudice and intolerance should not be quietly accepted as if it is normal–because it is not! Unfortunately, the ghetto is more than just a historical space–it is an unhealthy state of mind that we must leave behind.

The medieval and hateful mentality of the past must be banished by all 21st century people of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. In a world where the Abrahamic religions are at times still in conflict with one another, the only solution to the conflict is to let go of the symbols and metaphors of religious hatred and intolerance that still unconsciously clings to our own faith communities.

Some religious Jews are not the only ones who suffer from this kind of historical intolerance. When Katie Goodman sings, “I’ll be Jewish for Christmas,” her song captures the ambivalence many Jews feel in living in a predominantly Christian society. It is true that many Jews tend to be hypersensitive to their status as the “Other” during the Christmas season.

Yet, this need not be the case. We need to live in the present and embrace a love for people of all faiths.

Recently, I came across a family picture when my siblings were under ten years old. We were standing next to Santa Claus. My father, a Holocaust survivor, had a wry sense of humor. He said to Santa, “We are Jews and we really do not believe in you, but we think you are really good for the Christians who do. Have a Merry Christmas.”

Father always had an unusual sense of humor, but we never forgot the story. On an ironic level, one year during Purim, a Hassidic family in Me’ah She’arim had his ten children dressed up in little Santa Claus outfits.

It was so cute!!

I want to wish all of my Christian brothers and sisters a very Merry Christmas to you all!

=====

Notes:

[1] Anonymous, HaMaaseh Hu HaIkar (Brooklyn, NY: 2006), 10-11. I would also add that the Rabbis of Lubavitch have never referred to Jesus by name, but always through the pejorative designation of, “that man.” In biblical and rabbinic literature, to be without a name is to be condemned to virtual non-existence.

[2] Curiously, but erroneously, Rabbi M. M. Schneersohn attempts to provide a Hebraic basis for the word’s etymology, “The word  nitel’ implies ‘lack,’ or possibly ‘suspended.’ In Latin, natal means  “born,” i.e.,  ‘the time of birth’”” (Letter dated 9th Kislev 5735, printed in Likutei Sichos Vol.15,  554)

[3] The earliest Halachic reference of this custom dates back to R. Yair Chaim Bachrach (1638-1702) in his Mekor Chaim of the Chavat Yair OH:155Posted in biblical theologyEdit

Zombies as Metaphor

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

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

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ZOMBIES

The history of zombies goes back to antiquity.

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

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

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

Most certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZOMBIES AS A SOCIAL METAPHOR

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

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

ZOMBIES REVEAL OUR EXISTENTIAL FEAR OF DEATH

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

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

A MAIMONIDEAN APPROACH TO OUR EXISTENTIAL ANGST

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

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

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

The Importance & Significance of Handwashing–Especially Now

close up hand washing

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

Just how serious is this precept?

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

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

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

One of my favorite verses from the Psalms reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

[1] MT Hilkhot Bi’at HaMikdash 5:2.

[2] Psalm 24:3-5.

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

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

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

Cuba 1962 — to Iran 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Zombies as an Existential Metaphor

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

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

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ZOMBIES

The history of zombies goes back to antiquity.

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

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

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

Most certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZOMBIES AS A SOCIAL METAPHOR

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

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

ZOMBIES REVEAL OUR EXISTENTIAL FEAR OF DEATH

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

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

A MAIMONIDEAN APPROACH TO OUR EXISTENTIAL ANSGST

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

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

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

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

Have a Happy Halloween with your children and friends!

The Ramban vs. Maimonides in theological debate

August 23, 2019 / Leave a Comment

Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker by Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, Geffen Publishing House (c) 2018, ISBN 9789652-298874.

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — One of the most interesting books I have read in years is Rabbi Israel Drazin’s excellent primer on the Ramban, entitled, Nachmanides An Unusual Thinker about a brilliant rabbinic scholar of the 13th century. He was born in Gerona in Northern Spain in 1194 and he was a man who had many remarkable experiences. And while he is best known for his biblical commentaries on the Pentateuch and other biblical books, Ramban is no less famous for his debate with the apostate Jew Pablo Christiani, which took place in 1263 in Barcelona before King James 1.

As Rabbi Drazin pointed out, Christiani attempted to prove to the community that the Sages “foreshadowed the birth and mission of Jesus.” And surprisingly, Nachmanides downplayed the significance of the midrashic texts, pointing out that these writings were only legends and should not be taken seriously. In rabbinical school, we studied this debate.

 Rabbi Drazin noted:

Maimonides was a rationalist and his philosophy was expressed systematically and explicitly, open to thinkers in every generation, whereas the majority of Ramban’s basic ideas are rooted in the metalogical realm of the Kabbalah. Their manner of expression is the allusion, which only a select few were able to fathom throughout the generations.

What I liked about his book is how the author delineated many of the key conceptual differences that best characterize Ramban’s approach and how it contrasted with Maimonides. Think of it as the mystic vs. the rationalist. Being that Ramban was a mystic, his viewpoint tends toward a greater belief in supernatural events that are recorded in the Tanakh.

The author noted:

As a mystic, Nachmanides was the first person to introduce the idea that the Torah contains mystical notions, and the first to offer a mystical interpretation of the Bible. He was also the first to state that the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, Targum Onkelos, contains imaginative aggadic material and mysticism. It was as if he were arguing that if the Torah is true, and mysticism is true, and Targum Onkelos is true, then it follows that the Torah and Targum Onkelos must contain mysticism.

It is ironic that both Nachmanides and Maimonides share a common attribute in their exegetical styles: each one reads their personal Judaic philosophy into the biblical text. Unlike Maimonides, whose ideas fused elements of Greek and Muslim philosophy into his theological worldview, Ramban drew much of his inspiration from the area of Jewish tradition known as the Kabbalah—and this sphere of Jewish learning was one that Maimonides examined with the utmost of his intellectual criticism. According to Ramban, the midrashic hermeneutic constitutes the simple and literal sense of Scriptures, the entire Tanakh makes up the Name of God. Supernaturalism is the peshat of the Torah according to him. Nachmanides promotes the Torah as a mystical text— and this view has left a lasting impression on all subsequent Judaic mystics down to the present era.

As one of Maimonides’ foremost critics, Nachmanides challenged many of Maimonides’ philosophical expositions of how he interpreted familiar biblical narratives and laws. Being that Ramban was a mystic, he interpreted supernatural events as they were recorded in the Tanakh. He had no interest in Maimonidean rationalism.

Let us consider the following examples:

Unlike Maimonides’s parabolic approach to the Book of Genesis, Ramban takes the opposite position in keeping with his understanding of the peshat. For him, when the Torah speaks about an actual Garden of Eden and that Adam’s disobedience was a historical event that occurs in real time; Eden occupies an actual place in the ancient Near East. According to Maimonides—the story possesses a distinctively allegorical meaning. But for Ramban, the Edenic serpent was more than just a mythical character or a psychological symbol—it walks, and it talks too!

As R. Drazin observed:

“Nachmanides used the commentaries of Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, and less frequently Maimonides as a springboard with which to contrast his own original mystical biblical interpretation. He disagrees with these sages, often with strong disparaging words. He also cites the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, Targum Onkelos, but always with admiration, deference, and respect. Yet, although he mentions Onkelos 230 times in his commentary to the Pentateuch, generally to support” his point of view.

 There are many interesting selections the author mentions. For example, he raises the questions:

·         Do Animals Sin? Similarly, Genesis 6:12 states, “all flesh corrupted their ways.” Rashi argues that “all flesh” means that animals and birds also sinned. Nachmanides recognizes that animals do not sin and states that “all flesh” denotes “all people.”

·         Why State Both “Created” and “Made”? Genesis 2:3 seems to have a duplication, “which God created, had made.” Ibn Ezra states that “had made” means that God gave the items the power to reproduce. Rashi opines that it suggests that God did double work on the sixth day. Nachmanides understands “had made” as suggesting, “that which He had made out of nothing.”

Similarly, later on in the Pentateuch, when Balaam’s donkey speaks, the story means exactly what it says. Once again, for Maimonides, he argued that in psychological terms, Balaam’s donkey can only be understood as a prophetic event; the Torah narrated a biblical character’s visionary experience. The theme of prophecy continues to be a bone of contention with Ramban, who differed with Maimonides’ view that the story about the three strangers who visit Abraham also occurred in a vision. Ramban, argues to the contrary, citing the detail given in the narrative occurs in real time. Abraham entertains real guests, not figments of his imagination. Beyond that, Ramban regarded all the midrashic stories mentioned in rabbinic tradition as having occurred.

Ramban also did not believe in the existence of “natural law” and that God is literally micromanaging all of His Creation, tweaking it from time to time. “God is constantly and directly involved in every human act and thought and frequently interferes and even controls them. He calls these divine manipulations ‘hidden miracles.’” This concept is fascinating, but Maimonides differed, arguing that God’s Providence over nature does not extend to a leaf falling from a tree, or whether every minor event operates with a special imperative from God.

 Along the same line of thought, Ramban believed demons are the product of sorcery, and possess bodies composed of air and fire,[1] which enable them to take flight.[2] are familiar with future events because they communicate with the angels in charge of the stars.[3] More seriously, Ramban takes indirect aim at Maimonides by asserting anyone who does not believe in demonic beings suffers from a heretical attitude toward the world. According to Ramban, if you believe in miracles, then you ought to believe demonic beings exist as well. Elsewhere, Ramban writes:

It is from this standpoint that you can come to realize the ruthlessness and stubbornness of the principal Greek Philosopher Aristotle—may his name be erased from memory—who denies the truth of many things which we have seen and has been publicized throughout the world. In Mosaic times, these truths were known to all for the wisdom of that generation pertained to spiritual matters, e.g., entities involving the demonic and sorcery. However, when the Greeks arose, Aristotle believed only in what the physical sciences could confirm. In his effort to establish the scientific disciplines, he denied the realm of the spiritual. Aristotle denied the existence of demons and all magical acts. For him, the world operated solely by natural law. But it is well-known and shown that this is not the case at all. [4]

Maimonides considered such a perspective to be superstitious nonsense, and never does he endorse such a belief in demonology throughout all his writings, which are considerable.

The reader will find the material presented in this book fascinating. Nachmanides may not be necessarily correct in all of his claims, but as an expounder of the peshat (plain meaning of the text), readers will feel challenged to debate his position with other great ideas expressed by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and other famous Judaic luminaries.

I really enjoyed reading Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker, and I know you will too.

 This book merits a 5 star rating from this reviewer.


NOTES:

[1] Ramban’s Commentary to Leviticus 17:7. Ramban’s description of demons is almost identical with the Muslim belief in Jinn (الجن‎, al-jinn) who are shape-shifting spirits composed of fire and air.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ramban’s Commentary to Leviticus 17:7.

[4] Charles B. Chavel, Kitvei Ramban, “Derashat Torat Hashem Temimah,” vol. I, pp. 147, 149)

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.comPosted in: Books & PoetryJewish ReligionRabbi Israel DrazinRabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Massive tree planting program may save planet

August 25, 2019 / Leave a Comment

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — It might surprise most people to know that ecological themes form an important part of the Torah and Tanakh.

For example:

Genesis begins with an important ecological truth: “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2:15).

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, ‘Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My world. For if you spoil her, there will be nobody to repair her after you. -Eccles. Rabbah 7:20

This Midrashic interpretation highlights the importance of stewardship, not only for the Garden of Eden, but for our taking care of the earth, God’s garden. By taking care of the primordial garden, Adam learns to recognize that all of life is God’s unique design, endowed with spirit, consciousness, and intelligence. Adam’s respect for Creation makes him realize that the human species is a part of the great web of life, which he must nurture for the world to be self-sustaining and productive. Indeed, the degradation of the environment damages the original balance that Adam and his progeny must maintain. Through toil, Adam would realize how all of Creation depends on the Divine as the source of life for its sustenance and continued existence.

Understanding the implications of Adam’s stewardship is vital for our contemporary society.  The science of ecology has shown how ecosystems of the world are delicately balanced; should human beings ruin them through abusive acts (ecocide), future generations will have to endure the consequences. Through work and stewardship, humankind comes to emulate God’s own work and creativity as Imitatio Dei (imitation of God). It was the divine intent from the beginning for humankind to elevate and ennoble itself by work, and elevate Creation to the realm of the spirit, leading all Creation in song and joyous exaltation of the Divine. Note that God intended to make Adam not a “master” over the Garden of Eden, but its caretaker and steward. Once Adam forgets that he is only a steward of the garden, the boundaries established by the Creator became unclear and ultimately violated.

The midrashic writers expressed a profound intuition—one that still resonates with wisdom—even today. Chief Seattle, in a meeting that took place in 1854 with the “The Great White Chief” in Washington, is purported to have replied:

  • “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap, which courses through the trees, carries the memory and experience of my people.
  • The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful Earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the Earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle—these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and the man, all belong to the same family.
  • The rivers are our brothers for they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. … The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath ‑ the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. Teach your children what we have taught our children that the Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know—the Earth does not belong to man—man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are interconnected like the blood, which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth—befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life—he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Back to the present:

We have all seen or heard about the news in Brazil, as the Amazon Rain Forest has gone up in flames. The Amazon Rain Forest is purported to provide 20% of the world’s oxygen—a necessary ingredient for our planetary survival.

The Brazilian government has tried to exploit the Amazon forest for decades, but recently industrialists have promoted a policy of deforesting their country. On Friday, the governments of the international community exerted pressure on the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who decided to mobilize his military to contain the blazes.

As a chorus of condemnation intensified, Brazil braced for the prospect of punitive measures that could severely damage an economy that is already sputtering after a brutal recession. The country’s populist besieged president faces a withering reckoning–especially at the polls, come next election.

Regardless what position people have concerning global warming, I for one believe that we ought to err on the side of caution. But I do not believe that we ought to spend trillions of dollars to prevent it by a degree or two.

Consider the Land of Israel.

What can we do about global warming? Mark Twain once wrote after touring the Holy Land in the 19th century that he was amazed at how desolate the land of Israel was. In a moment of inspiration, Twain said that the people who care for the land will someday make it bloom once more.

Israel to this day has planted over 200 million trees in forests and woodlands covering some 300,000 acres.  Tese trees provide Israelis with a wide range of opportunities for outdoor recreation and appreciation of nature.

The Israeli people have made the desert bloom.  In addition, Israel has developed the most effective water-management systems and a sustained prosperous economy even under relatively harsh climatic conditions.  It has prevented the overexploitation of natural resources, which otherwise would have driven the land toward desolation, producing severe land degradation, erosion, and salination.

Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has embraced issues of sustainable land management and has adopted public policies designed to restore, develop, and manage its natural resources. Outside of Israel, about 240 million trees have been planted, particularly in the Mediterranean and semi-arid regions. Regulations have been introduced to control grazing and ensure effective water management. Due to these activities, Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has more trees now than it had a century ago.

Now why is Israel’s example so important? Replanting the planet with billions of trees all over the globe will not only beautify our world, it will contribute dramatically toward the absorption of carbon emissions. According to some studies, we need not knock down cities or takie over farms or natural grasslands. Reforested pieces could add up to new tree cover totaling just about the area of the United States, researchers report in the July 5 Science.

Can we do better? Of course. Israel’s example has demonstrated just how effective such an approach can be.  This approach can contain greenhouse gases. It is a method that will not destroy our society. Combined with other common-sense measures, we can ensure the world will be a beautiful place for future generations.

  • One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi asked him: “Old man! Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found already grown carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children” (BT Ta’anit 23b).

We owe the future a beautiful earth.

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

Remembering Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July

Image result for picture of frederick douglass

This past week, the American flag became a focal point as we celebrated the Fourth of July. The Wall Street Journal reported how NIKE was forced to recall a show that featured the “Betsy Ross” flag on the back of the shoe. Collin Kaepernick who signed a multi-million-dollar sponsorship with NIKE was upset that NIKE featured the flag, which he regarded as “offensive” because of its connection to an era of slavery. The flag could be construed as a symbol of approval for slavery, white nationalism, and white supremacy.[1]

Embarrassed, NIKE withdrew the shoe.

What a pity, I was looking forward to purchasing the shoe!

The Democratic candidates Julian Castro and Beto Rourke defended Kaepernick’s position.

It is a pity NIKE did not sort this potential problem out in the designing stage. They probably will lose many customers over this late decision.

On the morning of the Fourth of July, Kaepernick tweeted a quotation from one of the greatest black leaders of the Civil Rights era, Frederick Douglass. Douglass was in many respects like the Martin Luther King of his time. He was a brilliant orator; he was a moral voice of our great nation’s conscience., Kaepernick’s message read, “‘What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloodier than are the people of these United States at this very hour.’”

The speech is riveting, and in it, Douglass spoke about the growing pains of the nation; he expressed optimism that our country would grow from its bitter experiences with slavery. He mentioned how the institution of slavery challenged the sacred Bill of Rights and the moral teachings of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, Kaepernick cherry-picked the parts of the speech that reflected his personal animus toward our country’s history.

 I later wrote about this in my blog and I was surprised to see that Sen. Ted Cruz mentioned some of the same points I raised. Cruz noted:

  • You quote a mighty and historic speech by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but, without context, many modern readers will misunderstand. Two critical points: This speech was given in 1852, before the Civil War, when the abomination of slavery still existed. Thanks to Douglass and so many other heroes, we ended that grotesque evil and have made enormous strides to protecting the civil rights of everybody.
  • Douglass was not anti-American; he was, rightly and passionately, anti-slavery. Indeed, he concluded the speech as follows: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably, work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

The Civil War took place between 1861-1865. Over 600,000 soldiers died so that slavery would disappear from our country forever. It is a pity Kaepernick never acknowledged this fact. Douglass knew that in time our country would learn valuable lessons about the evils of this institution.

But there was also something important that Cruz left out that could have made his point stronger. The citation comes from Douglass’s writings that reflects mightily about his magnanimous personality. I mentioned this letter in a Yom Kippur sermon I gave in 2017.

In a letter from Frederick Douglass to his former master, he wrote on September 3rd, 1849:

  • I shall no longer regard you as an enemy to freedom, nor to myself — but shall hail you as a friend to both. — Before doing so, however, I have one reasonable request to make of you, with which you will, I hope, comply. It is thus: That you make your conversion to anti-slavery known to the world, by precept as well as example.
  • It would be truly an interesting and a glorious spectacle to see master and slave, hand in hand, laboring together for the overthrow of American slavery. I am sure that such an example would tell with thrilling effect upon the public mind of this section. We have already had the example of slaves and slaveholders side by side battling for freedom; but we yet lack a master working by the side of his former slave on the anti-slavery platform.
  • You have it in your power to supply this deficiency; and if you can bring yourself to do so, you will attain a larger degree of happiness for yourself, and will confer a greater blessing on the cause of freedom, than you have already done by the generous act of emancipating your own slaves.
  • With the example before me, I shall not despair of yet having the pleasure of giving you the right hand of fellowship on the anti-slavery platform.[2]

In his age, Frederick Douglass was the closest thing to a modern biblical prophet who chastised a nation that had forgotten about its ethical obligations to promote, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of its citizens.

Our country has come a long way in eradicating many—if not most—of the indecencies that led to slavery.

I will just conclude with an excerpt from a speech Douglass gave at the end of the war. His words remain today just as prophetic as they always have been.

  • Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also.
  • All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot- box, let him alone, don’t disturb him! [Applause.] If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,—your interference is doing him a positive injury. Gen. Banks’ “preparation” is of a piece with this attempt to prop up the Negro. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone! If the Negro cannot live by the line of eternal justice, so beautifully pictured to you in the illustration used by Mr. Phillips, the fault will not be yours, it will be his who made the Negro, and established that line for his government.
  •  [Applause.] Let him live or die by that. If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live. He will work as readily for himself as the white man. A great many delusions have been swept away by this war. One was, that the Negro would not work; he has proved his ability to work. Another was, that the Negro would not fight; that he possessed only the most sheepish attributes of humanity; was a perfect lamb, or an “Uncle Tom;” disposed to take off his coat whenever required, fold his hands, and be whipped by anybody who wanted to whip him. But the war has proved that there is a great deal of human nature in the Negro, and that “he will fight,” as Mr. Quincy, our President, said, in earlier days than these, “when there is reasonable probability of his whipping anybody.” [Laughter and applause.][3]

To Collin Kaepernick, I would say that you of all people have benefited from the sacrifices many great people of our society have made during the Civil War and after the Civil War. Instead of invoking the sins of the past as though our whole country is mired in the Original Sin of slavery, remember what Douglass said that every person must stand or fall on his own merits or failings.

Invoking hatred toward our country only serves to keep the wounds of the past forever fresh.

The men who died in the Civil War deserve to be remembered why they died and why their ultimate sacrifice created a new era of possibility for everyone in our great nation.


[1] https://www.dailywire.com/news/49067/nike-pulls-american-flag-sneaker-after-complaint-emily-zanotti

[2] The Frederick Douglass Papers: 1842-1852, pp. 391-392.

[3] http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/africam/afspfdat.html

Corry Booker’s Jewish Problem

Why Jews should distrust Cory Booker

Posted on 30 June 2019.

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Cory Booker

CHULA VISTA, California — One of the Democratic candidates running for President is Cory Booker, the former Newark mayor who later was elected to the U.S. Senate. Booker has had a long relationship with the Jewish community. He once headed  Jewish student societies while a student at the University at Oxford and at Yale. He has close ties with pro-Israel groups.

This is a man who has given a sermon on the weekly parsha.

Once Jeffrey Goldberg retold a conversation between Booker and his daughter, who was then preparing for her bat mitzvah. He asked her, “What’s your parasha?” The young girl replied that it was “Parshat Vayera” from Genesis. Without missing a beat, Booker gave a drasha on the lessons we can learn from Abraham trying to save the two sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

When I first heard this story, I began paying attention to Booker.

I wanted to know more about him.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was once a good friend of his. How did he describe Booker? He said that the man is “Possessed of an insatiable spiritual curiosity utterly unexpected from a star who has risen through the rough-and-tumble of Jersey politics, Cory is a man permanently in search of inspiration, to both discover and dispense it.”

Booker appealed to many Jews, then something bad happened. In his quest to be a popular politician, he made the mistake of trying to be all things to all people. In fact, he reminds me of Paul the Apostle, who in a rare moment of honesty, admitted his aim in winning souls for Christ:

Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the Law. To those outside the Law I became like one outside the Law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the Law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.[1]

Paul and Al Davis both believed in winning—regardless of what it took; the former owner of the Oakland Raiders became famous when he said, “Just win Baby.” I suspect that Cory Booker probably has a similar philosophy.

And in politics, the rule of political expediency is the only enduring life philosophy that matters

This means a good politician must sometimes make a deal with the devil himself.

But a man of principle and moral courage must never succumb to that temptation. Booker forgot that even Satan tempted Jesus, but he failed. That’s how a moral person deals with evil people. Just say, “NO!”

Boteach’s incisive words are worth quoting:

But then came the Iran nuclear agreement and Cory’s support of it and the beginning of a downward spiral in his support for Israel that undermined much of our friendship and the Jewish community’s admiration for him. Nearly every time I attend a public event, people walk over to me and ask, “Why did Cory oppose the Taylor Force Act – which stops the funding of Palestinian terrorists – in Senate committee?” “Why did Cory condemn the moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem?” And, “Why did Cory take a picture with BDS leaders who demand the removal of Israel’s wall that prevents suicide bombings?”[2]

Booker’s loyalty to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party does not consider Israel an important ally; the power elite of the DNC expects Booker to tow the party line—even if it means going against the Jewish community; even if means going against the State of Israel.

Booker supported the Obama deal with Iran, despite Iran’s promise to wipe Israel off the map. And while I want to condemn Booker for a lack of courage, the Jewish Democrats who supported Obama’s dangerous gambit are even more guilty than Booker.

And as if these political compromises were not bad enough, Booker announced he was willing to meet with the infamous anti-Semite, Louis Farrakhan—the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Perhaps Booker has forgotten about Farrakhan’s admiration of Hitler.

Perhaps Booker has forgotten about Farrakhan’s Jewish “Termite Problem.”

Farrakhan has called Jews “satanic” on several occasions; he praised Hitler as a “great man.” He believes that the Jews are out to “control” the world. He believes the Jews are responsible for the transatlantic slave trade.

Farrakhan is a fountain of anti-Semitism.

William J. H. Boetcker once wrote, “A man is judged by the company he keeps, and a company is judged by the men it keeps, and the people of Democratic nations are judged by the type and caliber of officers they elect.”

Cory Booker, I wish to offer these personal words of admonition: Your behavior has proven that you are a politically expedient man—a real politician.

Meeting with the enemies of the Jewish people, and state-sponsored terrorist governments against Israel has shown why you should never be elected to any office, much less the Presidency.

*

[1] 1 Corinthians 9:19–24.

[2] https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/No-Holds-Barred-Cory-Booker-refuses-to-condemn-Farrakhan-or-Iran-at-ADL-summit-574097

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